Lifestyle Makeover, Part 2: What Goes In

While my wife is at home for several weeks recovering from abdominal surgery, we’re making some overdue upgrades to our house and our lifestyles. In this series of posts I’m sharing these changes with my readers.

Two weeks after her surgery, my wife surprised me by uttering a phrase I never thought I’d hear from her:

“It’s so nice to be able to eat salad again.”

For about the first twenty years of our marriage, our eating habits followed what is these days dubbed the Standard American Diet. Yes, it’s “SAD” for good reasons. It tends to be heavy on processed foods, highly refined flour, sugar, and saturated fat. (Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Frosty, anyone?)

To think I used to love these things. So did my cats.

We had our excuses. As young upcoming professionals (does anyone remember the term “Yuppies”?) we didn’t have time to cook for ourselves. Nor the inclination. As software engineers we spent our mental energy slinging code, not hash. And when we got home all we wanted to do was stuff something in our faces and go to bed. (Or stay up and watch Doctor Who, but I digress.)

Our upbringing didn’t help with this attitude. Both of us grew up in a standard suburban setting, with meals home-cooked by our moms. Unfortunately, it was an era of well-done everything, especially vegetables, which were often cooked to mush. For years I thought spinach only came in bricks doused with vinegar.

It comes in leaves? Awesome!

Salad? That was iceberg lettuce with carrots, radishes (yuck), and other raw stuff which needed to be bathed with thick, fat-filled dressing to be even palatable. Pass the steak and tater tots, please.

I’m not complaining; it’s the way it was, and we didn’t expect any different. But as adults free to eat as we pleased, we did exactly that.

Then things began to change. Having kids was one motivator. Finding ways to get them to eat their veggies required creativity, like incorporating them into pasta sauces and making stir-fries. We switched to whole-wheat bread and reduced-fat milk. We began watching cooking shows and picking up ideas. Still, we relied on convenience (i.e. tasty but not very nutritious) much of the time.

We also gradually became aware of the damage the SAD could do to our bodies. My wife struggled with her weight. I was physically active even back then, but I too was starting to notice some thickness around the waist. So we responded the way a couple of highly intelligent, problem-solving engineers would:

FAD DIET!!!!!!

We tried South Beach for starters, then another variant of low-carb. I remember one week in particular where I decided to give up bread and sugar, substituting lettuce wraps and unsweetened cocoa in milk. After three days all I could think about was when I was going to eat next. As a long-term solution, the fads were hopeless.

Our diet direction was positive, however, Through gradual adaptation and some trial and error, we exchanged our poor eating habits for better ones. More fresh vegetables and fruit. Whole grains. Reduced fat in baked goods. And we began to choose organic food over conventional.

And salads? Who knew they could taste good?

A salad I threw together at Whole Foods. A little of everything – just the way I like it!

By this year, our sordid food past was well behind us. My wife began consulting with a nutritionist to analyze her eating habits and make suggestions on further improvements. I signed up too, figuring that improving my nutrition could help make me a better runner.

And then, routine medical screenings discovered two types of cancer in her. Surgery was required. The good news was her improved eating habits and physical training prepared her well for the ordeal, and have contributed to a so far smooth recovery.

The “bad” part? Guess what her diet had to be for the first few weeks afterward? Yes. Easy to digest stuff. That meant white bread and white rice, vegetables and fruit cooked to death, and other refined products. Except for no fried food, it was the SAD! I felt guilty just shopping for it.

There’s a significant difference between now and back then, however. Neither of us longs for the bad old days any more. We’ve lost our taste for the SAD, and my wife couldn’t wait to start her “new normal” eating again. And thus her quote when she was once again able to eat a salad.

Tonight’s dinner: beef and bell pepper stir-fry with arborio race. Thanks, Joyce!

Coming up: What did the consultation with the nutritionist reveal? I’ll share the data with you all.

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Lifestyle Makeover, Part 1: Pillow Talk

Note to readers: My wife is at home for several weeks following major abdominal surgery. The good news is she’s expected to make a full recovery. And we’re using this time to make some overdue upgrades to our house and our lifestyles. In this and upcoming posts I’ll share these changes with you.

One thing my wife and I have had in common the last couple of years: several times a week we get into bed together and moan.

OMG, I thought parents didn’t do that stuff.

No, it has nothing to do with that. This mutual moaning is generally followed by the question, “What did Skip do to you today?”

For we well know what resulted in our conditions, namely our visits to this place:

Photo from Body Specs Facebook page, Halloween workout 2017

This is Body Specs (a.k.a. Tower of London, Ann Arbor wing) where we surrender ourselves to head trainer Skip Bunton and his able crew of assistant tormentors. While the workouts differ in focus and intensity, they get those muscles working, dammit. And so, when in the evening one or both of us takes a little longer to stand up, or just crashes on the bed with a groan, we get it.

At this point you’d be forgiven for asking why we do this sort of thing not only voluntarily, but pay for it as well.

Professional amateur runner. Closed session. Do not attempt.

You see, around age 50 the body begins deciding that if you’re not actively using a muscle, you don’t really need it. As for some bizarre reason I enjoy running and cycling long distances, I need my muscles, thank you very much. But running alone doesn’t do the job; my lower body needs some amount of training under load, and my upper body and core need to stay strong and toned. In other posts I’ve shared photos of some particularly moan-inducing maneuvers. Here’s one of my favorites.

Extension pushups, anyone?

My wife doesn’t share my obsession with running (yet), but she works at a desk all day and has a long commute. She’d been wanting to get into better shape, but wasn’t sure that she could handle the kinds of workouts I’m subjected to.

Finally I persuaded her to talk with Skip, who assured her she’d receive training appropriate to her fitness level and personal goals. While she now shares the post-workout experience with me, she’s glad she signed up. Regularly scheduled workouts with a trainer are her guarantee that she will exercise.

And her training has had an additional unanticipated benefit; when we found out she needed surgery, she worked hard to be in the best possible shape for it. She’s convinced that it’s contributed to her steady, uncomplicated recovery.

Her surgery has put her training on hold for several weeks, but she’s walking every day as recommended to improve blood flow and speed recovery. And she’s looking forward to resuming regular sessions. For we’re making plans to do more activities together, and those will require both of us to be in good shape.

Up next: Changing what fuels us.

(Wasted) Food for Thought

This weekend I cleaned out my refrigerator.

It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Not quite this bad, but there have been times…

I’ll spare you the details (and the images) but let’s just say a lot of stuff went directly into the compost bin. So while it was no longer fit for consumption (or possibly so) at least it isn’t going into the landfill.

Yet it was food we purchased and didn’t use. So at the very least, it was a waste of money. And our experience is, as I found out, pretty typical. According to this article on the Sustainable Brands website, up to 40 percent of America’s food is lost on the way from farm to table and from there to trash.

That’s 400 pounds of food per person per year. More than the body weight of my wife and me combined. In effect, we throw ourselves away each and every year.

And it’s not just the food that’s wasted. It’s the water that went into growing the food, and the fertilizer, and the shipping cost, and the time and energy the farmer put into producing it. The effect is felt across the entire life cycle.

Taken from the Sustainable Brands website article.

What’s going on? Is it an ironic curse that we have so much food we don’t appreciate it? My grandmother raised a family during the Great Depression and into her nineties she saved ham bones to make soup. She understood the value of food and that you didn’t waste it.

(Please note: I’m aware there are many people in this country who are undernourished and go hungry. For this post I’m focusing on the average American who has instant access to as much food as he/she wants.)

And I’m not talking just about what we buy for ourselves at home. Every running event I’ve been involved with has had some amount of food that was either only partly eaten, or (worse) taken by someone and then thrown away uneaten. I’m talking about entire cookies, bagels, bananas, oranges, and even entire sandwiches.

Why? Just. . .why?

This sort of careless, indifferent waste of food baffles me. If after your race you grab a banana out of habit and then decide you don’t really want it, okay. Take it home and eat it later, or give it to one of your kids.

And if that doesn’t bother you, perhaps this will. When you throw food away, in effect you paid more for it. You don’t buy organic because it’s more expensive than the conventional kind? I’ll bet if you bought the organic in smaller quantities and used it all, you’d save money in the long run.

Sure, my wife and I refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck,” but we buy many meals from that store and others like it. Not that we hate to cook – in fact, we enjoy cooking – but we work long hours and the prepared food bars are very convenient. It’s all fresh and nutritious, and tastes good. And it doesn’t disappear in the back of the fridge, to be rediscovered one weekend when it’s no longer recognizable as what we once put in the cart thinking, “Yeah, that looks good.”

So it wasn’t surprising that after emptying the fridge and putting back only the items I know we’re going to eat, it looked pretty empty. Not only that, I found I hadn’t put all the shelves back. And I like it that way!

Why does this feel so personal? Like I’m opening my bathrobe?

The more open look makes the food in there much more visible, and given that we’re empty nesters, we shouldn’t be stuffing the fridge full anyway. We’ll see if this makes a difference in how much food we throw away from now on. I sure don’t want to repeat the experience!

The Magic of Estes Park

One hundred yards into the run, and I was already fatigued.

It wasn’t a huge climb, and I was walking it. I was fully warmed up. And yet I felt like I’d already run 20 miles. When we got to the top of the rise and began running down into the canyon, I caught my breath and fell into a groove. Until we began climbing again.

Are we done yet?

I knew what was wrong, of course. And despite the struggle, I was having the time of my life.

I just returned from five awesome days in Estes Park, Colorado attending the U.S. Trail Running Conference, an event I’d looked forward to since February.  I attended presentations and panel discussions, networked with race directors, and tried out some pretty cool products, all of which I’ll talk about in upcoming posts.

And, of course, got in some running. I went up and down (and up) the gorgeous Black Canyon Trail, climbed 1,500 feet over two miles to Gem Lake, and ran loops around Lake Estes. All of this in sunny, cool weather which calls to trail runners like chocolate calls to – well, everyone.

I came back convinced that every trail runner or hiker should travel at least once to Estes Park. Here’s why.

Mountains.

For some of you, such as my daughter living in Denver, ‘nuff said. (“Mountains” is her TL;DR why she moved there from Michigan.) I don’t share her deep and permanent love for them, but I was continually struck by them during my visit. They’re a continuous reminder of just how small and insignificant we are.

The trails included some incredible overlooks at the larger, snow-capped mountains farther away, and valleys and plains below. During group runs, many of us stopped at them just to take in the scene for a few minutes. (That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Gaining a new appreciation for breathing.

I’m not out of breath. I’m just taking in the scenery. Yeah.

After several years of training and racing, it usually takes a pretty good effort to get me breathing hard. Not so above 7,500 feet. Experiences vary: one runner described it as, “trying to breathe through a straw.” I had no trouble breathing fully, but fatigue hit me on any climb whatever, even at the start of a run. My first day 5-mile run felt more like 10, and even walking uphill was a slog.

I gradually acclimated, and running got easier. At Lake Estes on my final day there, I felt nearly normal and was able to enjoy an eight mile run on a mostly flat path. Not ready for those 14ers yet, though.

Getting away from everything.

One of the overlooks on the Gem Lake trail.

What they saw.

Estes Park makes you want to throw away the cell phone and submerge yourself in nature. Although I spent most of each day at the conference, I made sure to get outside. Each morning there was a fun run on the trails, and the sessions started late enough to not feel rushed. A long walk during the day was also a must, either after lunch, after the final session of the day, or whenever the hell I felt like it.

Or how about a nice climb?

I spent the morning of my departure packing up, staring out at another beautiful day. I just couldn’t leave without one last run. So after checkout I headed down to Lake Estes and ran the paved path around the lake. I had just enough time to sneak in two loops, about eight miles, before driving to Denver for the flight home.

Just enjoying running.

Training is part of my weekly routine, and there’s a temptation to just push through it as necessary preparation for my upcoming race or races. But racing isn’t why I run. I started running longer and harder because I wanted to. Because I came to enjoy it.

And while I try to appreciate each run while it’s happening, it’s much easier to do so away from the routines of home. Last week I could just go out and run for the sake of it, and enjoy the company of those who share the passion for the trails. No one cared how slow or fast you were, how far you went, how hard you worked. We were running trails, and that was all that mattered.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, outdoor, nature and water

The payoff: reaching Gem Lake (elevation 9,000 ft.)

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(BTW, next year’s conference is in San Luis Obispo, CA, home of the Race SLO series. Just in case you’re interested.)