Annual review 2023 - 5) Health

This post is part of my annual review process for 2023. This year, I’ve committing to writing a more comprehensive review, but to do so I’ve structured myself into particular areas that I think are important to cover.

To read more,

  1. Intro
  2. Best of and memories
  3. Career
  4. Relationships
  5. Health
  6. Personal growth

Health

Weight and running

2023 will ultimately be marked down as another year, just like 2022, where I failed to loose the weight I wanted to. I started the year at the 100 kg mark, after a catastrophic December.

In 2022, I had tried pretty hard to get under 90 kg for the sake of my knees whilst doing the half-marathon(s). I figured that every kilo that I lost was another kilo that I didn’t have to drag around with me for twenty-something kilometres. Or to put it a different way, how many ways are there in the world to see an instant 10% performance increase other than losing 10 kg?

I had hovered around 92 kg for some time, but after returning to work and then stress at work (and the holidays) saw me flying back up the charts again.

In a smart (or stupid) move, I signed up for the 2023 half-marathon in Montreal very early - so I had a date targeted on the calendar. Come the end of September, my stubbornness would ensure that I’d be standing on the start line. The only question was how much I was going to hurt by the end of it.

Despite good intentions to stay on the treadmill once or twice a week over the winter it didn’t happen. Which meant that I went for my first run of the year under after the snow had safely retreated from the sidewalks. I attempted my first 5k at the end of year at the end of April.

It. Was. Horrific.

5k, with my heart rate red-lining, and I managed a pace that was 1 min/km slower than my race pace.

All I needed to do was quadruple the distance and speed up 20%. Easy!

I figured I would target the same weight too. I know that via BMI, I should have a weight around 85 kg to be considered “normal” and not “obese”, but I’ve only been there once (the crash dieting of Covid lockdowns) since I was 14 - instead I would target getting to 90 kg for race day.

Weights, clubs and bells

In June, an old friend had convinced me to go back to the UK for a weekend in the grassy grounds of a stately home, sword-fighting.

Well not just sword-fighting, but also archery, whip cracking, staff training, axe throwing, feasting and drinking.

Either way, I figured that if I was going to embark on a long weekend of swordplay, I should probably focus all of my regular training on shoulder strength and core work to make sure I could keep going all day long. Therefore I pivoted almost all of my training towards mace and 2-handed club work, and largely ignored the running for 6 to 8 weeks.

Just recently, as the winter has closed in, I’ve decided to come full circle, and double down on kettlebell work. I decided that enough was enough and that it was about time I looked the part. A little more chesty. Add a little bulk to the arms and shoulders. It just seemed a little strange that I’d had this adjustable kettlebell for nearly 3 years now, and I’d never completed getting all of my basic movements up to 32 kg. I had with the standard swing and basic goblet squat, but I’d never pressed it or got my Turkish Getup close.

Around the same time, I thought that three years into the journey, I probably had enough reps to start experimenting with some of the more fun kettlebells movements.

I stripped the adjustable kettlebell all the way back to 12 kg, watched a dozen snatch videos on YouTube and started working on “removing the middle” from my clean and press.

I pretty quickly was able to get some weight back on, but at the cost of destroying my hands and having a pretty nasty blister on the palm of my hand for more than 2 weeks.

It was around this time that I went back to Bells of Steel and bought myself a second adjustable kettlebell, so I could start playing with double kettlebell movements. Maybe not as good for my cross body stabilization and working the support muscles around my spine, but it’s a new coordination problem (because slamming twenty kilos of steel into your knee is generally a bad idea), and it’s a way to absolutely fry your legs.

A twenty kilo kettlebell in each hand, wouldn’t be that much of an ask for me normally for a clean and press - but it forces very strict form, as you can’t cheat my moving your body when there’s another kettlebell in the way. That and, combining the clean and press with a squat, suddenly pushes my squatting up to 40 kilos - which whilst still less than half body weight, is a notable step up from the 32 kg I had been doing previously.

The half-marathon

The Montreal half in September was my second year of running the distance, my third race, and fourth time at the distance (I accidentally did the distance in a training run a month before race day).

It was sort of the perfect conditions for it. Cool and overcast. No risk of sunburn. No worrying about the amount of electrolytes I’m losing to sweat.

I should have learnt my lesson better than now, whilst I’m very glad of a jacket when I leave the house at 6 AM for the start line. As soon as I get to the metro, I’m already too hot, and the bag check this year was an absolute disaster. As I already have a run pack for my water, electrolytes and snacks, I should just suck it up and be cold for 5 minutes when I leave.

This year, was a little different to previous. First it was widely known at work that I was taking part, so there was an extra layer of accountability - and a few surprise co-runners quietly idled up to me to say that they were taking part too. But this year, I was actually running with somebody. He and I had done a weekly Sunday morning training run together for most of the summer, but his fitness wasn’t quite up to my level, so I used those runs mostly as longer endurance runs rather than fitness building.

When he and I made our way to the start line, he asked if we could just run the race like any of our other training runs. Slow and steady, with a focus on just getting across the line in one piece rather than any specific time.

Given our last couple of training runs, I was expecting a finishing time around the 2h30 mark, pretty leisurely compared with my time the year prior. But I didn’t care too much. I knew I didn’t have the training in me that I did the year before without the parental leave, and a slower pace seemed like just the ticket.

And then the starting gun went off…

He went off like a man possessed. We were running a full minute per km faster than any of our training runs. Clearly the thrill of the crowd, the cheering, the pounding music and being surrounded by thousands of other runners got inside his head.

The way we covered the first 5k, we were on track for a sub 2h time. I was watching my heart rate monitor on my watch spiking into dangerous territory where I knew it would be tough for me to hold out for the whole race.

But the miles tickets by…

Then at 17k, with 4k left to go, I could see that he was clearly hitting a wall. That race pace was turning out to be a bit unsustainable, and now seriously uncomfortable. I pretended not to notice and just kept going at the same pace, making sure to keep him on my shoulder.

In the end, we got around in 2h06. Making it my second fastest finish ever. Pretty impressive really.

What did I learn? I learnt that even with no where near enough training, I could get within 2 minutes of last year’s time, simply because I was too stubborn to get dropped in the first 5k. And I think that’s why I keep running. I think I have transcended the point where I vehemently hate every second of running. I’ve even got past the feeling where the first 10 to 15 minutes of every run I feel like I’m dying.

No, I like running, because it’s transcendent. It’s the closest thing I know to meaningful meditation. Something where I can just turn my brain off and exist in the rhythm of feet touching the ground. Lifting weights makes my body feel better, but running makes my brain feel better.

I like having a big scary race lined up at the end of the summer. Something scary enough, that I can’t just show up. Something that requires preparation and training.

I don’t know if running alone will sustain my interest forever. It certainly does for now with my limited number of hours in the week. But I do feel a certain intellectual curiosity growing.

I like the idea of getting a full marathon done before I’m 40. Although 42 km at 42 years has a nice ring - I’m aware that that goal is a bit too far away to be meaningful in my planning.

A friend from work, competed in a biathlon this summer with a run-bike-run, which feels like an obvious way for me to expand. Of course, that feels like a gateway to a sprint triathlon with a swim (750m) - bike (20 km) - run (5 km).

I like the idea of the Hyrox events, but they seem to be very specialized, and my closest would require a flight to New York. So maybe a Spartan race would make more sense first, as they seem to have a bit more of a local presence.

Either way, I would prefer to get the kids out of diapers before I start putting more hours into training every week.

Final thoughts

As I’ve got a bit older, and I’m not worrying about what I’m going to eat at the end of the month - like I used to in grad school - life has become quite comfortable.

And in this comfort, belies weakness. Softness. Complacency.

These days, I value going out and doing hard things. Scary things. Things I don’t really know if I can even finish.

I find it valuable to go out and push myself. To remind my caveman brain that the world can be hard and brutal, and that the only thing that matters in those moments is the mental resiliency to just not give up and keep going. Even when it hurts. Even when I’m tired.

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