Once upon a time, I was someone who avoided all forms of exercise and social activity. I was the epitome of the desk working couch potato. I had a waistline of about 46″, a weight somewhere around 19st 7lb, and a BMI in the region of 37. Yep, I was in a shocking state.
All advice you get in that condition, from professional people to online research, says that someone in that condition is in danger of heart issues, diabetes, and all manner of other ailments. I didn’t consider those things. I was still young, and believed that I was the way I was always “meant to be”.
One day, I was asked to fix a friend’s Freeview box to their TV. They only lived a mile away, and that’s not so far to walk is it? So I walked.
I pretty much didn’t make it. Half-way there, I had such shocking lower back pain that I had to sit on someone’s garden wall until I could recover and complete the journey.
I was in my early 40s and realised that, if there was an emergency and I had to do something that is taken for granted – such as walking to the railway station – I wouldn’t make it under my own steam. Sure, there are taxis and buses, but I shouldn’t have been in that condition at that age.
That was when I made a choice. I decided I could carry on the way I’d always been, and worry about it later, or I could do something about it now. I realised that if I waited, I could end up in my 50s in the same condition, and then it would be so much more difficult to do anything about it.
So I got my head screwed on and decided it was time to get myself sorted out. The first thing I did was to get serious about my food intake. I’ve never been good with vegetables and fruit, so that wasn’t a road I could go down, so I instead chose a different path. The two rules were (i) no more “crap food” (chocolate, cake, ice cream, etc), and (ii) smaller portion sizes. No more would I have four sausages and a plate of chips. I’d have two, and half the portion of chips.
DIARY ENTRY: Monday, 17th January 2011
“Strange how you go for what you think is a long walk, only for Google to say it’s only 2.5 miles.”
Then I addressed the issue of exercise. For someone who couldn’t walk a half-mile without needing a rest, this was the toughest challenge. I just went out, walked down the road, back down an alley, and back home again. That was all it was back then.
I started using “Google Maps” to work out little routes around my house. Realising that long walks were not really long at all was an eye-opener. I worked out loops, starting at 1km, then 2km, then 3km, then combining them to create 4km and 5km loops.
DIARY ENTRY: Wednesday, 23rd March 2011
“Weigh-in – 18st 6lb. BMI: 34.”
We invested in a “Wii Fit” – a computer games system that came with various “fit” games. The most common one I would use was running on the spot facing the TV whilst the Wii showed an avatar running around an island. This worked by virtue of allowing me to (i) choose a duration, from a couple of minutes to a half-hour, and (ii) I could collapse into my armchair afterwards. This was also my first foray into starting to understand the importance of “calories”. The “Wii” would tell me how many calories the activity had burned, and I’d equate that to something familiar.
“It took all that to burn a bag of Quavers?”
As that first year progressed, I moved up to longer walks. I found places not so far from my house – such as a nice 7km loop that took in part of the Thames Path. I discovered that a park I’d been driven to many years ago, really wasn’t out of reach at all.
I got up to doing several 30-minute Wii-Fit “on the spot runs” on the same day. We invested in a home treadmill, which was a real pig to transition to.
In precisely one year (March 2011 – March 2012), I’d lost 5 stone. I’d come down to 14st 7lb on the last day of the first year. Incredible!
The problem I began to get was one of logistics. My walks transitioned as far as 20+ miles, taking a good number of hours to complete. I knew I couldn’t keep taking 4-6 hours off just to go for a walk. I knew I’d have to move up to running.
DIARY ENTRY: 30th March 2013
“It’s a bit scary when you’ve done your hour on the treadmill, haven’t yet put on your specs, and you’re accosted by some skinny stranger in a t-shirt and shorts. Then you realise it’s your own reflection in the mirror. I wonder where the fat lummox went?”
Running comes with a whole new set of problems. The first is that you don’t want to look like an idiot wearing running shorts when you’re a middle-aged fat guy. You’re convinced that everyone will laugh at you. Getting out the front door is an impossible task.
So I didn’t do that. Instead, I got myself some tracksters (a bit like the bottom half of a tracksuit) and a cheap pair of trainers. I could leave the house, walking, as though wearing casual clothes. No one would laugh at that, at least no more than they might have laughed at the fat guy who’d been walking the streets for the past year or more.
DIARY ENTRY: 30th April, 2013
“You know your weight-loss regime is working when you’ve never felt so fit in your entire life, yet someone you haven’t seen for a few months says you’re looking ill..!”
I took myself off to my 7km loop, to the bit that got me onto the Thames Path (where no one could see me), and I ran. Except that I didn’t run. Let me tell you, being able to walk for 20 miles is no guarantee that you can run even the tiniest fraction of that. You’re asking something completely new of your walking legs, and they don’t want to do it. I was lucky if I could run a hundred yards without collapsing of near exhaustion. But, it was okay, no one could see how rubbish I was.
I did this for a while until I could run a short distance (maybe for a minute or so) before collapsing. It wasn’t really running. I coined the phrase “wobble-jogging” because that’s what it felt like.
I eventually found the courage to run nearby streets, so I wouldn’t have to walk so far in order to run, which I started doing early in the morning when there were few people around. I created a routine called “lampposts”. I’d run between two lampposts, then walk between three, and do it again. Or I’d run up and down the same short bit of street – run in one direction, walk the other.
In the end I felt brave enough to take “running” a little more seriously. I looked around on the internet for local running clubs, or free runs. I didn’t really want to join a club because, to me, “payment” meant “professional” and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in a group of elite runners.
That’s when I stumbled across something called parkrun – a free weekly 5km running event that takes place across the UK (and the world) on Saturday mornings. I still didn’t want to do something like that because it felt very organised, and so would only be for “serious runners”. Fortunately, the many photos on the various parkrun websites showed lots of people who “looked just like me”. I could easily get lost in that group of people, right?
DIARY ENTRY: 15th May, 2013
“Do I have the guts to embarrass myself and come last in this: Bexley parkrun..?”
So, I found my local parkrun – it’s about 3 miles away – and I went there on the Wednesday (I walked, of course) so I could get a feel of the course. The course, according to the website, was to go around the lake twice. Twice? Twice? I barely made it around once – at walking pace! Could I really do this?
I had my doubts, so I came to an agreement with myself. I’d put on those tracksters and my running jacket (both black, so very inconspicuous – I wouldn’t have wanted to “look” like a runner!), and go there on the Saturday morning. If I wanted to run, I would run. If I chickened out, that would be fine too. I’d just pretend I was there to feed the ducks or something.
As it turned out, I met one of the “setting up” volunteers who explained a little about what parkrun was. This helped me swallow my pride and, on 18th May 2013 – a little over two years since I’d begun my weight-loss journey, I ran my first 5km parkrun. When I say “ran” I, of course, mean “walked and ran/jogged”. Running 5km was just not on the cards but, as it turned out, that was fine. Lots of people at parkrun walk some of it. Some walk all of it. I learned later that it’s not important how you get around a parkrun, it’s important that you try to get around a parkrun. We all start in the same condition.
My first 5km logged in at 35mins 36sec, and I was beaten by everyone from women pushing buggies to guys in their 70s. But, who cared? I’d just done 5km! Two years earlier, walking a half-mile had crippled me. I’d just done 5km! And, to top it all, I wasn’t last! I’d expected to take about 45 minutes or more and be last. But I was under 36 minutes, and I beat 13 other people. I couldn’t believe it.
That was when my running journey really began.
Slowly, I bought more running gear, although I still wasn’t confident enough to put on some shorts. Middle-aged guys just don’t do that. Except that they do, I was just self-conscious.
DIARY ENTRY: 2nd June, 2013
“Funny that you think you’re doing reasonably well only to check the results back home and see that you were overtaken by two snails and a tortoise.”
After a couple of weeks, seeing my parkrun PB (Personal Best) “plummet” through 33 minutes and looking dangerously like I could do 30 minutes some day, I bought the terrifying shorts. Why was I worried that people would laugh at me? I put on the running gear and took a look at myself. I took a moment to laugh at myself, with my logic being that, if I could laugh at myself, there wasn’t much that someone else laughing at me could do that I hadn’t already done.
That set me in good stead, because some people – mostly teenagers, and youngsters – did laugh when I ran passed them. But it was okay, I’d already laughed. Their laughter was such a small thing compared to my own, so I just pushed on.
DIARY ENTRY: 10th July, 2013
“I now have t-shirts and running shorts. I’m either mad, getting obsessed with running, or I have no shame… Or all three. Next time I go out for a run, the sun will take one look at my shorts and swap places with a thundercloud.”
I went to parkrun every Saturday. I ran as much as I could during the week (the short “lamppost” runs on nearby streets), chasing the elusive “30 minute” barrier at parkrun. At the time it seemed too difficult to achieve but, I see from my results, I actually hit it for the first time within seven Saturdays (29:55 on 29th June 2013). It would be some time before I hit it again, and some time beyond that when it’d become a regular thing.
DIARY ENTRY: 22nd July, 2013
“When you’re not running a parkrun, you have two choices. (1) Be sensible, turn off your alarm clock, catch up on some much needed sleep, have a long lie-in, and start the weekend in a casual and relaxed manner. Or (2) Be silly. Set your alarm even earlier, and volunteer to stand in a field cheering on all the other runners that you’re totally envious of because they are running. Guess which choice I picked?”
When you’re trying to beat your own PB, you learn an important lesson about running. It never gets any easier. You might think it will one day, but it won’t. The trouble is that the more you achieve, the more you want to achieve. You’re always going to be “giving it 100%”, only 100% tomorrow will get you further, or faster, or both, than it does today.
2015, the year of the first Half-Marathon
By 2015, I was on-target to hit the other mythical PB barrier – 25 minutes. I was feeling pretty pleased with my accomplishment and allowed myself to slack off a bit. I was maintaining my weight, and my increased running allowed me to eat more – including some of those things I’d previously denied myself. And all was well.
I’d been entering some running events (5 mile runs, or 10km races, etc). I even put myself in for the Poppy Half Marathon, to take place on 7th November 2015. It was around that time that the encouragement from other parkrunners had reached a point that I decided I seriously needed to look at joining a running club. There was a local one and, as luck would have it, they were putting on transport to the Poppy Half Marathon for a token payment. I had a choice – to pay oodles for public transport to the Half, or to use the money I would have spent on public transport to join the running club. I did the latter.
DIARY ENTRY: 7th November, 2015
“The Poppy Half Marathon – ‘Lest we forget’. Well I’m not going to flipping well forget that one in a hurry.”
That Half Marathon turned out to have the worst weather of any run in the history of running (okay, maybe not that bad, but it felt like it). From around 15-16km to the end, we had rain, hail, wind, everything thrown at us. I couldn’t see out of my glasses. But I completed the distance in 2h 7m 35s and came in 469th out of 774 runners. A guy who couldn’t walk a half-mile before was running Half Marathons in blizzard-like conditions!
2016, watching the weight
I put in for other 10K runs, and other Half-Marathons. I was 495th out of 913 runners in a time of 1h 57m 59s at the Dartford Half on 13th March 2016. There was seemingly no stopping me.
On 22nd May 2016, I did the inaugural Chislehurst Half marathon. This one was partly off-road, so I knew I’d struggle. I’d developed into a road runner, not a trail runner (I jokingly banned myself from running “off-road” for fear of potential injury), but it was a “first” Half Marathon for this event, so I decided to give it a go. I struggled more than I’d expected. The time was respectable enough, given the course, at 2h 4m 30s, but I’d found it really difficult – even stopping at water stations. I hadn’t stopped to walk in a run for a long time.
When the photos of the event came through, I suddenly realised why I’d struggled so much. It was less about the course, and more about the weight. I could see in the photos that I was carrying more than I thought I was. I stepped on the scales (something I hadn’t done for a while) and, yes, I was over 15 stone. Not a panic after thinking I was still 14st 7lb by any means but, if I wanted to take my running seriously, I had to do some thinking. I’d presumed that running 200km or more a month was enough to off-set what I’d been eating. I was wrong.
DIARY ENTRY: 26th May, 2016
“Crikey, has it been four years since I had this bizarre notion that I might be able to run? Four years later and I still haven’t figured out how to do it properly. Lol.”
My next “serious” event would be the Poppy Half Marathon again, in November, so I decided on a course of action. For three months, I would concentrate less on improving my running and more on weight-loss. I downloaded an app on my phone that would scan the barcode of whatever I ate, and would let me see immediately what calories I was consuming. It gave me a daily total, based on what weight I wanted to lose, to use as a guide.
DIARY ENTRY: 11th June, 2016
“14 days to lose half a stone. That’s a good start.”
I, again, cut out all “unhealthy” foods. I worked out a regular daily meal plan – nothing healthy (I still can’t abide fruit & veg!) – so that I’d know what I was eating from one day to the next. My “regular dinner” changed from just “small portions” of what I’d always eaten my entire life, to a handy and cheap meal of “tinned chicken in white sauce” – the best is currently Morrisons or Tesco own-brand – and Uncle Bens microwaveable rice, plus a slice of buttered bread. Half a tin, half a bag, 5 minutes in the microwave, dinner done and ready. Cost was cheap, calories were low, and preparation was quick. With the exception of weekends, it’s a meal plan I stick to even now.
DIARY ENTRY: 24th July, 2016
“Funny things, legs. Start the run and they’re struggling with 6min/km. 9km later and they’re happily doing 4min/km (downhill). Bostall Hill is still a pig, though.”
My calorie intake would be 500 calories less than my EDA (Estimated Daily Allowance), on the principle that 3,500 calories is approximately equal to 1lb of fat, so I should lose 1lb of weight per week, which I felt was acceptable. To speed up the weight-loss program, I elected not to eat back any calories I’d burn on a run (or walk). This was fine because, as I wasn’t focussing on running at this time, I wouldn’t be pushing for a fast pace or long distance, so any runs would be “normal runs” intended to just keep my legs moving.
DIARY ENTRY: 27th August, 2016
“In other good news, it looks like I hit my weight loss goal today – almost two weeks early – exactly three months to shed two and a half stone.”
This weight-loss plan worked better than expected. Despite not worrying about running, my running improved in proportion to the weight that fell off. Some days I would do long runs. Some days my “net calorie intake” was even in the minus (I’d burned off more calories in a run than I ate on that day).
It was all working better than expected. At the end of the three months, I’d lost over 2st 7lb, and my running had improved better than I’d hoped. I wanted to stop focussing on the weight-loss at this point, and start preparing for the Poppy Half. Life doesn’t always work like that. Without realising it, I’d set myself up for a “lifestyle change”. The counting of calories and fixed meal plans had worked so well for me that all I did was to carry on, without having quite so many “negative calorie” days. I started to eat back the calories burned (which allowed me to eat some of the unhealthy stuff again).
My weight continued to drop, albeit at a vastly reduced rate, and I allowed myself to have “excess calorie” days. So, if my net calories + calories burned came to something over 3,000 calories, I would allow myself to eat them.
In October 2016, I got the news that I had a place in the London Marathon. Within myself, I knew that it was about a year earlier than I’d like to be doing a marathon but, on the other side of the coin, I felt healthier and faster than I’d ever been in my entire life. Who knew if the same would be true a year later, if I deferred my place? That week, I went out and ran 20 miles, just to see where I was at with my running. That cemented in my head that I could do this.
DIARY ENTRY: 11th October. 2016
“Permission to scream ‘ohhhhhhh shiiiiiiiiit!’.”
It was around this time that I stopped going to the local running club. We would typically run on Tuesday and Thursday evenings between 7-8pm, doing various different road runs (fartleks, hills, steady runs, etc), which was great but I invariably found that running those evenings meant that I didn’t want to run the following day. So running Tuesday and Thursday evenings, meant that I wasn’t running long runs on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. With parkrun, Saturday was out, too. That wasn’t the kind of runner that I was developing into.
All I wanted to do was to run, and I ran best in the daytime, without a time limit. Not doing the evening runs gave me the freedom to run during the day, or early morning, or whatever. I grew into the habit of running five days a week, all because of not running in the evenings.
DIARY ENTRY: 12th November, 2016
“Last year, my Poppy Half Marathon time was 2hrs 7mins 38sec. One year later, today my Poppy Half Marathon time on the same course was 1hr 40mins 36sec.
A full 27 minutes faster in one year. That’s what I call a PB.”
When the Poppy Half came around for the second time, in better weather than the previous year, I blitzed the time in 1h 40m 36s – a staggering improvement over 2015. I was doing 10km runs in under 45 minutes, and my parkrun time had shrunk to 21 minutes on several occasions. Half-marathon distance was now commonplace to me. I didn’t need to train for them any more.
DIARY ENTRY: 7th December, 2016
“Love the freedom of having cake when I get back from my run. Guilt-free.”
2017, my first full Marathon
In January 2017, I incorporated the Greenwich Park RunThrough – a 10km race around Greenwich park – into a 26 mile marathon run (by running there and back as well). This was solely to get the concept of 26 miles in my head. It was a very difficult endurance test, not least because of the horrible weather, but I did it, and that gave me the confidence to continue towards the full marathon in April.
DIARY ENTRY: 15th January, 2017
“Can the boy run a marathon? You bet your life he can!
Ran 12km to Greenwich park, a couple of km around the park to keep warm before the Greenwich RunThrough 10K, then the 10K RunThrough to get my bling, then 12km back home, only to think “you’ve done over 38km, it’d be a shame not to do the full marathon distance” so I shot off down Carlton Road, a bit of the Thames Path, and back home for a total of 42km / 26+ miles.“
I didn’t run so much in February because I broke my “no trail running” rule for the sake of a social run. I ended up twisting my foot, and feared that I’d ruined my chances for the marathon. Just walking was difficult, but I gave myself sufficient time to recover in the hope that my base-level of fitness would see me through.
March 2017 saw the Dartford Half come along, the ideal marathon warm-up. My foot was mostly healed by then, and I raced through to a time of 1h 40m 12s, beating my previous Half-Marathon PB (set at last year’s Poppy Half) but on a much “less flat” course. I was happy with my consistency.
DIARY ENTRY: 23rd April, 2017
“Was nice to come home and be immediately smothered in Summer’s doggie kisses and lots of waggy tail. Suspect it might have more to do with salt from sweat more than doggie-love, but I may be wrong.”
A couple of weeks before the London Marathon, on doing some gardening work, I somehow damaged my left leg. I still don’t know how I managed that. It caused my left foot to “slap” the ground on every step – both running and walking. I, again, feared for my chances at the marathon. I was within the ballpark of “taper time”, so I took the opportunity to rest up and hoped for some divine “healing” to save me. It didn’t really.
Against everyone’s advice, I did a 14km “test run” on the Tuesday before the London Marathon. I had a choice – either to see if my foot would work, or not run the marathon – that wasn’t really much of a choice. Fortunately, the rest time had allowed my foot/leg some little bit of healing. It was far from being back to full strength, but the 14km went reasonably well with my good leg adequately compensating for the bad one.
DIARY ENTRY: 23rd April, 2017
“Wondering how the lady runner that I gave a SiS Gel to got on. I was at the baggage lorry and she’d already handed her bag in, forgetting to get her gels first. Fortunately, I had more than I needed (I always over-think nutrition) and was able to give one up. Hope she did well.”
I was pretty confident that I could do about twice that distance. Wasn’t sure about three times the distance, in fact I was extremely doubtful, and was rather hoping that the experience of the day would see me through the last 14km. It did, just about, and I completed the London Marathon in a fraction over 4h 31m. It wasn’t the time I’d hoped for, but it was the time I expected given the leg/foot issue.
Around that time, I made a conscious effort to not lose any more weight. My weight had trickled down to 10st 7lb and a nicely healthy BMI. My running had improved beyond my expectations, and I really didn’t need or want to lose any more. In the last three months, I’ve probably lost a whole 4lb – but it fluctuates between 10st 2lb – 10st 6lb depending on what I’ve run that day, and eaten. My weight is nicely consistent. My parkrun PB time has hit an all-time PB of 20m 00s (yes, exactly 20 mins), and it’s commonplace now for me to be well in the top 10 runners at the local parkrun with times under 21 minutes (first in my age/gender group some weeks, too).
So, in terms of weight and health, I feel that I’m in a happy place.
Yet, by the same token, it sometimes feels like I’ve stood still. Whereas the 19st 7lb couch potato had questions over his health that needed to be addressed, I’m now well within my BMI and out-running Superman but I now get people questioning “is he alright?” and “have you been ill?” or “you need to eat more”.
DIARY ENTRY: 18th May, 2017
“14km in just over 63 mins – and that includes time lost walking the bridge bit on Thames Path. That’s got to be a PB. Don’t think I’ve been under 65 mins before. Nice to know there’s still a bit of speed left in the old legs yet.”
It’s quite humorous to be at the other end of the weight scale and getting similar concerns from well-meaning friends, colleagues, and associates. The thing is that no one who warned me about being too heavy before could have made me lose weight, and no one who worries about me being “too thin” now is going to make me gain any.
You see, now that I’m this weight, and my weight is consistent, and my running is this good, I actually eat more than I ever ate before. My calorie EDA (for someone who doesn’t want to lose any more weight) is in the region of 2,200 calories a day. On the days I run, I can be eating 3,000-3,500 calories a day. I still count calories – not to lose weight, but because it lets me know how many more I can eat before I put any weight on. As a result, I eat far more than I ever have. And that, like my consistent weight and my improved running, is a good place to be.
DIARY ENTRY: 2nd July, 2017
“One year ago, celebrating a 23:29 parkrun PB. One year later, and a PB of 19:59.8 (okay, officially 20:00). Three and a half minutes off in a year. Not bad at all.”
My weight-loss journey has ended. I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been, and I can (pretty much) eat what I like to boot. So, no, I’m not ill (even if you think I look it). And, yes, I am alright. I do eat enough. I don’t need a “good meal” (but, if you do have any spare cakes going, bring them over!).
Thanks for worrying.
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