Fitness Story

Two months into the blog, time for a pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention.  What’s an important area of wellness I haven’t touched upon yet?  I’m sure there are several good answers, but the one I’m looking for is personal fitness.  I’ll trust you to grade your own quiz after answering a second question still to come. 

Kind of ironic I haven’t touched on fitness yet because it has become foundational for me, not simply in turns of physical well being, or as a narcissistic end in itself, but as a means to being a better person.

Where to begin?  I guess by reiterating the last, all-important point, fitness has become foundational as a means to being a better person.

I’m a regular at a YMCA (fitness center) in Olympia, WA.  Every January, “Y” friends and I brace ourselves for the sudden uptick in traffic.  The “Resolutions” are fairly easy to pick out.  They’re hammering on the cardio machines, in the pool, and on the spin bikes for all of five to ten minutes.  Once again, by mid-February at the latest, it’s easy to find a primo parking spot and have a swim lane and locker room bench all to yourself.

Instead of poking fun at the Resolutions for the predictability of their routine, I feel for them and the majority of North Americans who are out-of-shape and not as healthy as they might be. I know they aren’t enjoying the quality of life they might.

Why is an active lifestyle so elusive? 

Instead of sharing a “Men’s Health” or “Shape” magazine-style “Eight Steps to Improved Fitness in the New Year” I want to share my fitness story, not because I’m so together (I’ve been putting off today’s run for hours), but because it might inspire alternative ways of thinking about fitness and might help a few people adopt more active lifestyles. 

My story might make more sense if I first describe two ways I think about change and growth more generally.  “Critical incident” inspired change and growth is where someone experiences something specific and dramatic and is suddenly changed from that point forward.  For example, a National Public Radio story I heard a few years ago summarized the life story of music mastermind Quincy Jones, who grew up in Seattle.  Late one night, when he was 11, he broke into a YMCA with a couple of his friends.  Once inside, his friends ran around looking for trouble.  Meanwhile, he peeled off and stumbled into a half-dark music room and sat down at a piano for the first time in his life.  In the quiet, he began to play, and was so mesmerized his entire life course was altered. 

A lot of older triathletes attribute their start in the sport to a particularly compelling Hawaii Triathlon television broadcast where a female leader self destructed in the last 100 meters of the race.  She fell, got up, fell, got up, and eventually crawled to the finish.  A fair number of viewers were so transfixed by her example they simultaneously committed to training for the race at that exact moment (Hey, I want to self destruct too!). 

Sometimes the death of a significant other is a critical incident that induces fundamental change and growth; sometimes a travel experience in another part of the world; sometimes a religious text; sometimes a particularly moving film, or concert; or the inspiring example of another person transforming their life. 

I like the unpredictable and emotional aspects of critical incidents, but I find even more value in “slow, steady, and evolutionary” change and growth.  Of course the two types can be complimentary.  The sedentary television viewer fired up by the infamous Hawaii Triathlon finish has to swim, cycle, and run on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis through tough conditions, injury, and flagging motivation. 

People who try to induce critical incidents (January 1st is more of an arbitrary line in the sand than a critical incident) for continuing inspiration are recognizable by their starts and stops and repeated change in activities (and overflowing garages) that characterize their lives.  In contrast, people who commit to slow, steady, and evolutionary change and growth tend to think in the medium and long-term, are able to delay gratification, and are relatively self-disciplined.

My “physical activity” story in about 600 words.  I grew up playing sports nearly every day after school and spent summers playing outside.  In high school I played two sports, golf and water polo.  Quiz question two: Which was better exercise?  I also cycled in Southern California for four or five years in my mid-20s; however, by age 28-29, I was pretty sedentary.  If five friends wanted to play 3-on-3 basketball I was game, but I never worked out with any regularity and I was 20 pounds heavier than today.

The second chapter of my “physical life” began in mid-1990.  I can’t really point to a sudden or dramatic catalyst, instead it was a subtle, gradual six to nine month process that began while I was teaching at an international school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Addis has idyllic weather and my wife and some teaching friends and I played tennis a few days a week after school on way cool clay courts (hit and slide, slide and volley).  Also, two nights a week I played intense pick-up basketball games with a few colleagues, a few US marines stationed at the embassy, and a few Baptist missionaries holed up in Addis due to civil war.  After those games I’d lay comatose in a hot bathtub until I was a complete prune.  As a result of those weekly activities, I was in semi-decent shape, but still wasn’t nearly motivated enough to workout alone. 

Up to that point I despised running, but for some inexplicable reason I followed the lead of some of my Ethiopian colleagues and began jogging around the soccer pitch a few days a week near the end of the school year.  I continued to dabble with running upon returning to the States.  I might have totaled 10 miles a week.

In the fall of 1990, I enrolled in a PhD program in Curriculum Leadership at the University of Denver.  Again, I made a decision that doesn’t seem dramatic enough to be “critical incident” worthy, but in hindsight, may have been.  I knew that less than one half of doctoral students finish their degree, about 80% finish the coursework without trouble, but only about half of those ever finish their dissertation.  [Extra credit: Which percent then, do successfully finish?]  Intuition told me doggedness and self-discipline would be more important than natural brilliance, good thing too. 

I wondered would I be able to make slow, steady, evolutionary progress on my dissertation when no one cared whether I worked on it, let alone completed it?  I wasn’t sure, but decided that if I couldn’t muster the self-discipline to workout at least 20 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week, I didn’t stand a chance of completing my dissertation and defying the grad school odds.

Then a funny thing happened.  As one day turned to one week and one week to one month, the 20 minutes got a little easier.  I altered running and swimming and didn’t count pick-up basketball as a part of the 20 minutes.  As running 2-2.5 miles or swimming 1,000 meters got easier, I started to almost enjoy the activities.  That fall, as I headed out for modest run after modest run in the leaf-filled streets of our Denver neighborhood or biked to the university’s pool, little did I know I wasn’t just passing my self-discipline litmus test, I was laying the foundation for a lifetime of fitness.

Overtime, I extended the runs and swims and sent a shiver through the pro peloton by returning to cycling.  Over the last five years, I’ve averaged about 1,500 miles of running, 130 miles of swimming, and 3,500 miles of cycling per year.  I spend about 7 hours a week running and swimming in the winter and about 10 hours a week running, swimming, and cycling in the spring, summer, and fall.

There are as many ways to develop an active lifestyle as there are people, but as I reflect on my experience, a couple of things stand out.  I’ll share those observations next week since this has already become fairly lengthy.  Also, one epic cross-country skiing day aside, February was a lousy month workout wise, and I need to start March out right with a run.  It’s a cloudy, cool (3C) Saturday afternoon in Hamar, Norway and 90% of the ice has melted.  As soon as I let my guard down that 10% will probably bite me.

Before heading out (procrastination idea #147, writing), one last physical activity-related note from Norway.  Recently I laid temporary claim to a mountain bike from PLU’s study abroad stable (the students are only here in the fall) and have been commuting daily, in the cold, and over the ice.  It’s not much of a workout because the distance is so short, but it’s great not having to time the busses.  Despite my best efforts, I don’t know if I’ll ever pass for a Norwegian bike commuter.  I refer to their riding style as “ballsy.”  “Ballsy” riding consists of three parts, only two of which I’ve got down: 1) no helmet; 2) in the street as much as possible, switching to the parallel bike trail only as a last resort; and 3) no wussy, cold weather, ear protection.  I’ve nailed one and two, but I keep my sensitive Pacific Northwest ears covered at all times.  And don’t tell my two wheeled homies that I have long underwear on under my pants and liners under my gloves or I won’t have any street cred.

And what value is a visiting lecturer without street cred?

2 thoughts on “Fitness Story

  1. Great blog. The ’20s are really bad, I was really out of shape back then too. I think a key is to make it “fit” into a routine. I think 30 minutes daily of intense work can be immensely manageable and beneficial. I have resumed biking to work. A 6 mile commute takes 7 minutes longer than the car. For some reason it really gives me creed with the high school kids. Also gives a mental space between work and home. Rain or shine.

  2. Ron, your blogs continue to amaze me. (Another thing that amazes me: the fact that you were ever not skinny. How is that possible?!) I love reading them on Mondays, because they’re so well-written and well thought-out. I also like to hear myself talk, so here’s my story, quickly.
    Critical incident: parent’s divorce.
    Sport: Cross-country & track.
    Miles per week: 50.
    End date: death.

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