Automysophobia. The fear of getting dirty. For most of my adult life I have suffered from this irrational phobia and though I cannot pinpoint the exact reason, I am quite sure that it stemmed from my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder that strangled me during my college years.
But then I became a runner.
Running has taught me so much. It has taught me how to set goals, then work hard to achieve them. It has taught me to be mindful, to be present and in the moment. It has taught me to be compassionate, to be receptive, to be the best version of me I can possibly be.
And it has also taught me to just go with it sometimes.
So when my second leg of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme Relay in Hell, Michigan had me face a nasty series of mud bogs the consistency of blackstrap molasses, I tightened the string on my shorts and just jumped right in.
Waist high muck intent on sucking the shoes right off my feet was no match for my running induced love affair with nature. Getting dirty has never been so fun! In fact, the whole time I was wading through the mud, I couldn’t help but think about how alive I felt, about how much I enjoy being out in nature, truly experiencing everything she has to offer.
Surely, the smile on my face while trudging through swamp was disconcerting to those fellow runners around me who looked… um… uncomfortable. And awkward. And pissy.
Such feelings are not for me. As long as I’m able to run, I’m going to embrace it. And though my adventures might sometimes lead me down dirty, difficult, uncomfortable paths, I will always take the feeling of being alive over being reserved and unaware of my ultimate potential.
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If you’re looking for a fantastic way to spend a whole day with your running buddies on awesome trails, consider participating in one of the Dances with Dirt 100K Extreme relays. It’s such a fun day. The teams really go all out with their costumes and totems and team names. And the organizers do a great job of making it a fun-first event.
When I first saw the above picture, taken at the Peapod Half Madness Half Marathon a few weeks ago, I had to do a double-take. Who the hell is that guy?!?! Is that really me? Holy shit! When did I become… that?!?
I posted the picture on my Facebook, and before I knew it I was receiving an abundance of messages, comments and texts, all asking the same thing:
HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
It’s a great question. And the answer is layered, with several components. But it’s an important one to address because by examining exactly how I did transform from a tired, overweight, boozing nicotine addict into the uber-fit, lean ultrarunner I am today, I think others will discover that it really is possible — that if one is determined enough, he or she can have the type of body people dream about.
The problem with acquiring that perfect dream body is the simple fact that it is definitely not easy. In fact, it’s really damn hard. The only way it can be achieved is through determination, practice and discipline. That’s good news if you’re a runner, because running requires all of the above. In fact, that’s how it all started for me. Once I became a runner and began setting and accomplishing my goals, then I realized that I could accomplish any reasonable goal I put out there, as long as I made use of the same principles.
Determination, practice, discipline.
Tired of always thinking what if, I decided I was just going to do it. No matter what. I was going to get a six-pack. Whatever it took. Once I became determined and really prepared myself mentally for the kind of struggle that would be necessary, I went on to the practice phase.
Knowing it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I started at zero and worked my way up. I learned some basic physiology tenets and found exercises that would get me where I wanted to go. I did the work. Lots and lots of work. And while this may not be what most people want to hear, it is the truth that it took about two years of hard work to get my body to look like it does today. Two years. Anything that takes that long requires…
To quote Scott Jurek, “Sometimes you just do things.” I’m tired today. So what. There’s work to do. I’m really craving that Ben & Jerry’s. Too bad. There’s work to do. Can’t I just skip this workout? Sure, but you can kiss that six-pack goodbye.
With those principles in mind, let’s next look at the three major components of my total body transformation — the actual practices that made it possible:
1) INTENSE CARDIO
This may be obvious, considering this is a running blog and I am a runner, but that doesn’t diminish its importance. I lost all the “fat” I had by running a bunch. And it’s not like I have been running crazy mileage forever either. In 2010 I averaged 25 miles a week. In 2011 it went up to about 40 miles a week. This year I’m averaging 70 miles a week, but such mileage is not necessary to lose the fat.
What is necessary is getting that heart rate up. One can do this by swimming, biking, boxing, jazzercising… it doesn’t matter. Just devote some time (20 minutes a day would be a good start) to an activity that requires a sustained, elevated heart rate.
The effects of my intense cardio sessions (running mostly) were that, after about 12 months, I eventually reached my ideal base weight — a number backed up by simple body mass index formulas.
This is probably the hardest aspect of body sculpting, but I assure you it is the most important. And it is possible. Again, it just takes determination, practice and discipline. The truth is: what you put into your body is paramount to how it will look and operate. For me, adhering to a good diet required a complete overhaul of my understanding of food — where it comes from, how it is prepared, how it affects my body. Realizing I knew very little about general nutrition and the science around it, I bought some books and read up on it. What I discovered was as exciting as it was alarming.
The most important step I took was eliminating virtually all processed foods from my diet. I got rid of anything full of high fructose corn syrup and eschewed all other engineered food products. I stopped drinking calories. No more soda. No more concentrated “juices”. No more crap. I stopped boozing.
I quit eating fast food (the WORST!!!). When eating out, I opted for the healthier options whenever possible. And most importantly, I began to focus my diet on a variety of whole foods, paying special attention to those categorized as “super foods” (whole grains, leafy greens, berries, quinoa, legumes, eggs, Greek yogurt, sweet potatoes, broccoli, almonds, salmon, etc.).
Dessert became a four-letter word. That is not to say I wouldn’t, on occasion, partake in a small bit of ice cream or a cookie now and then, but those occasions became extremely rare. Even now, I have little room for junk food (pizza, sweets, chips, etc) in my diet. Every great once in a while I will indulge, but I often don’t feel too well afterward — my body’s way of reminding me that that shit is not good for me — so such happenings are rare.
In fact, I would assume very few people get the beach body by eating like shit. It’s just not conducive to how our bodies work, naturally. Our bodies respond to good, wholesome, nutrient rich foods, not engineered foodstuffs full of ingredients that no one can pronounce.
3) SUPPLEMENTAL BODY & CORE SPECIFIC TRAINING
If you have the intense cardio down and you’re eating right, you should already be looking pretty damn good! What is left is only a matter of specificity. Decide what it is you want, then do the work it takes to get it. I wanted a six-pack. So I started doing workouts that focus on the core. Outside of running, I like to box, so I trained with some boxers in my neighborhood and picked their brains for advice. I bought books on core training. I started to see results (albeit slowly, remember, these things take time) within six months or so and I just kept at it until the definition finally arrived. And when my training needed a bit of variety — a boost to get into that pop-out territory, I eventually hired a trainer to teach me more advanced workouts. I learned them well and I teach them now .
I should also add that, in my supplemental body and core specific training, I do not lift a lot of traditional weights. I do from time to time, but I’m a runner. I need to be as lean as possible, while still maintaining a high level of strength and support. Instead of lifting weights, I utilize full body weight training. Resistance training. I do some band work and a few kettle bell workouts, but otherwise, all of the exercises I do require little else than my own body (think push-ups, pull-ups, dips, planks, etc).
The key to this sort of training, in my opinion, is to vary the exercises. Just like with food, the more varied, the better. If I am doing my workouts correctly, I should experience soreness in the day or two after. Of course, like any other exercise, intensity should be based on whatever the body has that day, but in general, I like to push myself to get just one more sit-up… just one more push-up… just… one… MORE!!!
BUT WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY DO, JEFF???
When I put it all together, it goes something like this:
I run. Six days a week. The distance varies, and I run at different intensities, but the heart rate is always elevated.
I do two or three 40-60 minute supplemental body and core specific workouts, depending on how my body feels that week.
Here is an example workout. Keep in mind that I prefer the active recovery model, so I’m never fully resting. I generally do two sets of each exercise, and in between sets I jump rope as “rest”:
Up-down push ups into high bar pull-ups
One legged squats
Hanging leg raises
Dips into knee raises
I eat well. I eat a variety of whole foods, focusing on the “super” foods.
I also sleep 7-9 hours every night.
I don’t drink much alcohol. And when I do drink, I only have a few.
I take one day off a week — from everything — and I force myself to kick my feet up and enjoy a good game or movie or book.
But, MORE than anything:
I believe in myself and I believe in what I am able to do, physically and mentally. I feel like every day is an opportunity to get better, to do the work it takes to be who I want to be. It’s something we are all capable of, every single one of us.
So what are you waiting for?
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PS. I am not a doctor. The above is not intended to be medical advice. Always consult with your doctor if there are doubts. If you are interested in getting started yourself and want a learned trainer to get you there, please let me know.
My running resume got a big boost of BOOYAH this weekend as I had the pleasure of pacing Anastasia Andrychowski “Supergirl” Rolek to her EPIC overall female VICTORY at Run Woodstock’s Hallucination 100 Mile Race in Hell, Michigan. Already known as 100 pounds of pure inspiration, Supergirl not only completed the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, but she did it with a new personal best of 21:46 while taking home the female victory, finishing sixth overall!
My part in getting her to the finish line started on Friday night at 10:23 p.m. and lasted for 7 hours 26 minutes and 32 miles, ending at 5:49 a.m. on Saturday. Those 32 miles were some of the toughest 32 miles I’ve ever faced, and unlike most of my race reports, I’m finding it very difficult to describe the specific action, thoughts and struggles that took place in that particular block of time.
The main obstacle? RAIN. Like, a LOT of rain. A constant, unforgiving downpour of cold, pounding rain. From the time I picked her up for her third 16.4 mile loop on Friday night, all the way until I let her go Saturday morning: RAIN RAIN RAIN. This continuous onslaught from mother nature not only made the trail a dangerous slip-n-slide-shoe-sucking-mudfest, but it also had the potential to drain all positive energy that lay in its path.
But not Supergirl. Hell no. Supergirl was upbeat, fast and full of life! All I had to do was put my head down and keep up.
We fought right through the muck. We put the hammer down on the paved straightaways. And while the majority of runners moved slowly through the night, shoulders slouched and spirits broken from the relentless water torture thrown down from above, Supergirl and I found a high, sustainable gear that suited her indomitable will and unbreakable spirit.
SMACK! BAM! ZOOM!
I wish that I could provide a detailed, minute-by-minute race description of this experience; but honestly, because of the treacherous footing and the dark blanket of night, I never even saw the actual course. All I could see was the ground directly in front of me and an aid station every four miles that clued me in to where I might be at any given time.
It was such a running anomaly for me that I lost all sense of place, of movement. It was like running on a muddy, slippery treadmill in the dark while someone sprayed me with a never ending stream from a fire hose. I lost all track of time. Because of the slow numbing from the chilly rain, I couldn’t even tell if I was really tired or not. I just… was. In fact, that was the crux of this running experience: I felt so awake, so alive.
You know that feeling you get when you jump into a cold swimming pool? You know that bit of hesitation you feel right before barreling in? Then there’s that moment where you just do it and suddenly your body is saying “WOOOOOOAHHHH!” You’re extremely uncomfortable, but if you take the time to get passed the discomfort, you eventually find yourself really living life. You feel every single hair raise, feel every breath with an unprecedented alertness and purpose.
That’s what pacing Supergirl at Hallucination was like. I felt alive and well and motivated and present.
My entire world boiled down to one, single task: RUUUUUUUUUUUUN!!!
And I know that I was the “pacer”, that I was there to keep Supergirl on track. But let me tell you something: Supergirl doesn’t need anyone to keep her moving. She has all the determination in the world right there inside of her jubilant little self. If she wants something, she works hard to get it, and this weekend was no exception. She got it done. With style. And speed.
She could have moped through that awful, stormy mess. She could have taken her time at the aid stations, to warm up, to be comfortable. She could have complained about the conditions and decided today wasn’t the day for a personal best, that this race wasn’t the race to win. She could have done all of that and NO ONE would have had a bad word to say about it.
But no. She isn’t about that. She is about overcoming the odds. She is about ignoring the elements and pushing through the hard times knowing that something better waits on the other side.
Supergirl is simply super.
And now she is a CHAMPION as well.
*Also of note is the fact that my friend pictured above, Siamak Mostoufi, who has appeared on this blog several times already, ALSO kicked some major trail butt at Run Woodstock as he set a new personal best, won his age group and took home 4th place overall in the 50 mile race. What a great performance! Can someone say SUPERFRIENDS!?!?
When I close my eyes and venture back to the happy place of my youth, I am always outside. I’m exploring. I’m looking under rocks and following creeks and rallying my sisters to follow my lead.
Back then I knew, just as I know now, that there is something inherently special about doing something I’ve never done before. There’s something intoxicating about going someplace I’ve never been, about stepping out on that ledge to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
Running fits that natural call for adventure like no other activity, and the ultra distances set the stage for bigger, better and bolder treks. I’ve run miles and miles through enchanted forests. I’ve explored old farm roads, scaled mountainous switchbacks, cruised barren beaches and plucked through quiescent cityscapes. I’m a runner. I know no other purer form of joy.
And I like to cover distances on foot.
So on Friday, August 31st, at 1o p.m., I left my home on the south side of Chicago and ran. I ran with no other purpose but to explore, to have fun, to revel in the level of fitness I have that allows me to keep going and going and going. I ran north on Halsted, then east on Roosevelt. I shot up Michigan Avenue, taking in the lights, the sounds, the plumes of cigarette smoke from jetlagged tourists.
I turned left on Chicago Avenue, then right on Clark. I zoomed by Old Town, passed through Lincoln Park. I ran further north through Wrigleyville, marveling at the level of insecurity of the drunken hooligans giving me a hard time for my choice of activity for a Friday night. “It’s Friday night, dude, running is not necessary.”… “Run Forest Run!”… “What are you doing, dude? You’re crazy!”…
I just kept… running.
I ran by Wrigley Field, touched the Ernie Banks statue for good luck. I ran by my old house in Buena Park. The lights were off. Nobody home.
I passed the old Jewel I used to frequent, the liquor store where I used to buy my booze — both distant reminders that I didn’t always have super powers.
Heading west on Montrose I ran by the Brown Line station and the Starbucks and the Mexican restaurant where I tasted the best chorizo burrito I’ve ever had.
When I got to Lincoln I went back south. I looked at my watch. I picked up the pace.
At 1 a.m. I was to meet my friend, Siamak, just outside The Second City at North and Wells, so I sped up so I wouldn’t miss him. As I navigated my way through the pockets of drunken crowds along the way I noticed the stillness in the air, that it hadn’t rained as previously forecasted, that the blue moon hanging high above was blanketed by a beautifully savage cloud system.
“Jeff!” yelled Siamak.
We were both right on time. Early, actually.
Giddy as only adults who aren’t afraid to unleash their inner exploratory children can be, we caught each other up. We explained to one another how we got where we were, what sights we’d seen, what cat-calls we’d received. And then we kept running.
With CVS, Starbucks and multiple Walgreens as our “aid stations”, we were never without fuel. We ran south down LaSalle, through the Gold Coast and by the Viagra Triangle. We stopped and salivated at the Rolls Royce dealership, imagining what we’d look like tooling around town in a chrome colored $400k power machine. I got a tour of Siamak’s personal architectural projects further dotting the downtown area and soon we found ourselves running through the Loop — a Chitown staple — at its quietest and spookiest of hours.
By the time the bars were letting out we were all the way back south, heading west on Roosevelt, then south on Halsted. We ran through UIC, glided through Pilsen, then took a left on Archer, following the Chicago Marathon course all the way into Chinatown. Even with all the lights off and no patrons to speak of, Chinatown’s smells (the good, the bad and the rancid) still permeated the summer air.
Making our way through old Chinatown, we followed Wentworth all the way to 35th, tagging our second baseball stadium of the journey. “Do you realize how much of the city we’ve covered tonight?” I asked Siamak, still unable to fully conceive the relative distance compiled in my now very tired, achy feet.
“Yeah, this is really the existential run,” he replied. “I love it. The run is whatever we want it to be.”
When we hit Halsted from 35th, we headed back north, passing my house. And even though it was right there, calling my name with a warm shower and soft bed, we kept going.
And going, and going, and going.
We crossed the Chicago River (for the fifth time) and soon found ourselves at Randolph, where we turned west to explore the stillness of endless restaurant supply chains. At Ogden, having just run by a brewery whose massive casks seemed to beg me to drink from them, Siamak showed me another architectural project of his and then somehow I was ranting about Michael Jordan.
At Grand we headed back east, moving slowly with short walk breaks interspersed to mix up the otherwise steady 10-minute-miling. By 4:30 a.m., we reached Grand and Wells, where we would separate for the last hour and a half — giving us each time to decompress, to go back and find ourselves through the grandness of our night. With 34 miles in the bank, we fist-bumped and went our separate ways.
I headed further east until I got to State Street, then went south. I played with my speed. Slowing down. Speeding up. Quicker turnover. Elongated strides.
I knew that if I could get to Roosevelt by 5 a.m., then I could hit the Lakefront Path at Museum Campus and end my night with a familiar 5-mile stretch that I could probably do in my sleep. I almost did do it in my sleep!
At 5 a.m. on the dot I was standing outside the Shedd Aquarium, trying not to yawn. I took some caffeinated GU and stopped to stretch. I said “hello” and “good morning” to the handful of runners and bikers out early to train, then I put my head down and trucked.
Of course, I made sure to stop outside Soldier Field, to pay homage to DA BEARS and revel in the reality that in one evening alone I visited Wrigley Field, Sox Park AND Soldier Field! Not only that, but as I continued south on the Lakefront Path, a hint of sun peeking up over the black horizon, I realized that in this one run alone I pieced together most of my favorite landmarks Chicago has to offer.
In one epic, adventurous evening, I experienced my city like I’ve never experienced it before.
I hit the homestretch of 31st street — head down, speeding west.
When I got a block from my house the clocked turned to 6 a.m. The Chinese ladies were in McGuane Park waving their flags in rhythm. The sky was a gentle blue.
42 miles were in my feet.
I did it. I lived the adventure.
And it was simply awesome.