A tale of the food writer who became a power lifter
A year ago I sat and ate. When I thought of exercise, which I did only when the scale crept past a certain number, it was as an equation. How long of a walk – because that was about the extent of my physical activity — would it take to burn off a heaping bowl of three cheese macaroni? (Not the blue box mind you – I’m a food writer, so we’re talking gruyere, fontina and blue cheese, a homemade béchamel sauce and a toasted panko topping.) Athletes were another breed, an alien race I had nothing in common with.
The only time I got motivated to exercise (again, read: walk) was before embarking on a trip to some far-flung destination. In Paris or Prague or Rome or Istanbul I’d walk for hours, and at least had the sense to gear up to some degree before going from 100% sedentary to traipsing around a city for hours on end. But that was only a few weeks a year.
Food was pleasure, exercise a task. A slightly built person thanks to genetics, I coasted along thinking as long as I wore a size 2 all must be ok with the world. But sitting and eating catches up eventually and I was not happy that the highlight of my day was peeling off my too-tight jeans so I could breathe. Pure vanity drove me into a CrossFit gym, where I thought I could work off all the calories I was consuming at restaurant dinners and extravagant home meals.
Then I experienced my first workout. And hated the way my body felt. Just doing some simple mobility work and air squats felt like I was made up of stretched out, dried rubber bands. This just would not do. This is the only body I’ve got and it made me sad that I’d let myself disintegrate like this. I threw myself into my workouts, my competitive nature and intense need to excel driving me to push myself far past the limits I thought I had. Add to that a coach who wouldn’t let me stop or slow down, even when I thought my body couldn’t bear another moment of motion, and I was soon hooked on exercise.
I faced the prowler, attempted chin-ups, began to squat with the bar, then with weights. I ran with sandbags, swung kettlebells, progressed to burpees. As weeks went by I shed fat and began to see muscles emerge from newly lean arms and legs. And as much as I liked the new way I looked, I liked even more the way I felt.
My favorite day was workout day and I quickly set some goals. I wanted in the fiercest way to complete a chin-up without bands, and a bodyweight squat, and couldn’t wait to get to the gym to work on those goals. I cried tears of bitter disappointment when I left the gym the day I first tried and failed a chin-up. But oh, when I at last heaved myself above that bar, white-knuckled and trembling, I landed on the floor a different person. I had learned that a seemingly impossible physical task was attainable. Not long after I went under the bar loaded with my body weight, squatted, and fought my way back up under what felt like the weight of the world. This feeling, this sure knowledge that I could face a challenge and win, left me elated and hungry for more. And it began my transition to life as an athlete.
I began to wonder what else I could do. Two chin-ups? Three? Five? Squat 120? 150? More? Lifting became my drug. And to squat more, bench press more and deadlift more, I needed to treat my body with some more respect. It wasn’t just there to shovel (tasty) food into. It could accomplish amazing things, if I would take care of it. Wanting never to feel like that weak, dried-out rubber band again, I worked on mobility and flexibility nearly every day. I started to look at what I was eating. Would it make me stronger? Would it give me energy for my workout? Though my diet already consisted of only real food, no processed or fake foods, it still contained large quantities of white flour, cheese, and as a new omnivore (I’d come off a nine-year vegetarian diet only a few months before), lots and lots of bacon.
I began to eat more meat, more vegetables, more fruit. My pantry and fridge eventually became nearly unrecognizable compared to what they looked like when I started this journey. My Panini maker was relegated to the closet, the breadmaker to the basement.
Though I loved training days more than anything, I listened to my coach and took rest days – gave my body time to recover and grow stronger. I’ve never needed any encouragement to sleep – I love my comfy bed – but rather than feeling like a sloth for getting my 8-9 hours, I looked at it as rejuvenation. If something hurt or was sore when I crawled under the covers, I pictured it healing overnight while I rested, and more often than not found that was just what happened.
Despite all the energy I expended in the gym, my energy levels replenished like magic. The more I put out, the more I had. I work a full-time job in an office, edit a magazine and write a newspaper column in addition to multiple other freelance gigs. That much work has the potential to feel overwhelming, but the heavier the weights I lifted the more I felt like Superman, able to work all day, train, come home and edit, interview and write, and leap tall buildings in a single bound. One good lift, or especially a new personal record, sent my mood soaring for the day, putting up an impenetrable barrier around me that annoyances slid right off.
Almost a year now into this lifestyle change, I can’t imagine going back to my earlier ways. While part of it, I can’t deny, is that I like the way lifting weights makes me look, I never want to feel weak or helpless again. I never want to ask a stranger on an airplane to get my suitcase out of the compartment – instead, I want to help other people lift theirs! I don’t want to come home and plop onto the couch for hours and let my body just degenerate. I don’t want to ever think “I can’t” – about anything.
Becoming an athlete is of course about what the body can do. But truly, it’s also been about what my mind can convince my body to do. If someone had told me a year ago I’d put 205 pounds on my back and box squat three sets of five, I’d first have asked what the hell a box squat was. But then I’d have thought what a mean thing that was to say to someone like me, someone who wasn’t capable of doing so much as a real pushup or carrying in the 40-pound bag of dog food. A year ago I had no idea how powerful I could be. Becoming an athlete has taught me not just that my body is limitless, but that I am. And I can’t wait to see what else I can do.