What Gaining 15 Pounds Taught Me About Running

I stepped on the scale at my doctor’s office knowing the number would be high; I always weigh more on those scales than anywhere else. When the number registered 171, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Part of me was tempted to ask the nurse if the scale was calibrated incorrectly, but secretly, I knew better.

The next day, I went to my gym. I knew I should wait for my trainer to return from vacation for a proper measurement, but there’s a digital scale in their locker room. Before my workout, I jumped on, expecting the number to be at least a few pounds less. I had been weighing around the low 160s.

170.5. The heaviest I have ever seen on any scale, apart from the day before. I looked at myself in the mirror. Yes, I have a tummy; I’ve almost always had one, except once when I was sick for a month with a bug, and on Day 29 of the thoroughly unsustainable Whole30. But now, it seemed, I was getting big everywhere. I turned sideways in the mirror and looked. The tummy was big, bigger than I remembered. I felt fear and dread.

170 was the highest weight I had ever seen in my whole life.

In college, I was an unhappy, lonely emotional eater who never worked out. Back then I barely had any muscle mass, and I remember the scale topping off at 165.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a (sometimes bad) habit of coaching myself. When I saw that number, I said silently, I could be remembering incorrectly. And I certainly have more muscle mass now. I paused.

But what the fuck.

Then I went to work out. I wasn’t going to leave the gym just because of a number on the scale. As I walked over to the punching bag to warm up (thanks universe), I thought, That’s just how much you weigh. A scale doesn’t measure body fat composition. We need to wait until next week, when my trainer is back in order to really understand what this means. But then my inner voice chimed in: Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck. What the fuck more do I have to do?

Logically, I know what “more” I have to do. The science of weight loss is murky, but the fundamentals are pretty clear. I know where my “extras” are. I should drink less alcohol, even though I’ve cut back a lot. I need to be more active throughout my day, not just during my workouts. Because my goal is focused on body composition (the ratio of fat to muscle) I need to not only execute my workouts but also be strategic about what I’m eating, how much I’m eating, and when.

Yet I thought I had been doing that, at least over the past few weeks. So I felt all the feels. I was pissed. I felt sorry for myself. I wondered how fat I looked. I worried about whether I’d ever run a 9:00 minute mile again. I questioned the past year I had spent not dieting or worrying about what I ate.

I started a thought spiral that most of us are all too familiar with:

It’s all my fault.

No one else has to deal with this.

I should just give up.

I debated whether to email my husband. We’ve both struggled with our weight, so I knew he would understand this was CRISIS LEVEL information. Then I thought, is this really a crisis?

I decided it wasn’t. 170 was scary, and the exact opposite of what I wanted. Yet earlier that week, I had covered a mile in 9:45 and had surprised myself by how easy that pace felt. I was surpassing all of the weight-lifting goals my trainer had set for this training cycle. And I was measuring on January 3 after a boozy holiday with my in-laws, who live in Tennessee, where a lot of our meals involve biscuits and dips.

So I texted my trainer instead.

Screen Shot 2019-01-15 at 4.14.35 PM.png

His reply made me feel better.

I suspect nearly everyone worries about their weight. But runners are a special breed because our pounds directly affect our performance. Our speed and endurance can be (but isn’t always) directly related to the scale. Not to mention that there’s an idea, as pro runner Allie Kieffer explains in this terrific editorial for Self magazine, that in order to be a “good” fast runner women need to be rail-thin.

And there was an extra concern for me.

Knowing that I had weighed in nine pounds lighter two months ago, I was concerned something was really wrong with my body. In November, I had a large polyp removed from my uterus, which made my hormones completely wackadoodle. Though the procedure went fine and the OB/GYN was confident that I’d return to normal, I’m still not convinced. I was hoping that I would magically lose some weight when the polyp was gone, yet it seems like the exact opposite is happening.

Regardless of the cause, seeing 170 on the scale was a wake-up call for me. I had listened to a podcast earlier in the week about body image and eating (Ali Shapiro’s great Insatiable). Ali mentioned marking your progress by something other than the scale. For me, not giving up on my workout was progress. Not obsessing about the number (except for the purposes of this post) was huge. Thinking about my weight in a logical, no-emotions-involved way is a step forward.

In the past, I would have blamed myself for DAYS. I would have tied my weight to who I am as a person. I would have been “bad” for not dieting. I would have defined myself as a “failure.” All of the time I spent in the gym, the delicious (but admittedly, not the healthiest) meals I made and enjoyed eating, the marathon I ran, the wine I enjoyed with friends and family--all of that would have paled in comparison to the shame I felt when I saw 170 on the scale.

But, over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to separate my identity from my weight. At 170 pounds, I still swear like a sailor, volunteer every week, laugh with my husband, and run. I’m still just as capable of being a good coach and personal trainer as I would be at 140 pounds. Hell, perhaps I’ll even be better, because I’ll understand how others feel when they fall short of their goals or hit an unexpected problem.

For me, 170 pounds is just that: a problem. It’s not a personal failure, or a sign that something is inherently wrong with me. Packing on a few--okay more than a few, fifteen give or take--pounds is a problem I can solve. Whether it’s just holiday bloat and my period combined, an issue the doctors didn’t catch or tell me about, or simply my starting place for my goals in 2019, I can work with this. My weight has nothing to do with who I am, and it certainly doesn’t affect how “good” or “bad” I am at running. But I’d like to lose weight in order to be a healthier and more efficient runner. (And yes, there’s a difference between efficiency and proficiency, and I’ll write about that in another blog.) And I’d like to do it so I can learn how to help others accomplish their weight loss goals, too.

I began this blog post not knowing what I wanted the message to be. I started writing on Friday afternoon, and went to yoga that evening. I really enjoy this class because the flow is easy and the teacher, Jaretta, has a theme each month. The class was hard because I was sore from working out all week and frankly, I felt fat.

My mind was going back and forth between a theme of “you’ll never be good enough” and self-coaching talk like “this is just a lesson for you to learn from.” I was annoyed with myself for most of the class, until Jaretta asked us to do eagle pose. We started standing up, just using our arms, which I always like.

I started to focus on my breath. When she asked us to lie down on our yoga mat and try to do eagle with our legs I was skeptical, but decided to try. With concentration, I was able to do the pose on one side, and when we switched my legs came together into the pose quickly and naturally. I was impressed with myself, and felt a little bit better.

When it came time for savasana, I was just relieved that we were done. I focused on the beat of the music as a wave of calm washed over me. When Jaretta walked over and put a towel over my eyes, a second passed and then I thought, I love my body so much. I started weeping, thinking about how much time I had wasted hating myself.

There’s an idea in self-help circles that what you resist, persists. (I first heard this from Ali Shapiro, whom I mentioned earlier.) I had been resisting going after my goals wholeheartedly. As a run coach and someone who is studying to be a personal trainer, I know the physiology behind getting faster and losing weight. But I wasn’t really putting the effort into either. I think somewhere deep down, I didn’t believe that if I put in the work, I would succeed.

That’s a sad thing to realize with a dish towel over your face, but I was glad. In my line of work, I hold a lot of people accountable. But now, in 2019, it’s time to do that for myself. Any new year is an opportunity to refocus. Seeing 170 on the scale is a blessing. It’s a signal that the time I spent not dieting is over. Though I’m not going to “diet” in the way I used to or everyone thinks about it, I’m going to see my diet as part of a bigger goal to see what I can do as an athlete. This extra weight is a chance to start over, to throw out all the assumptions I have about myself.

I’ve been stuck at a plateau for the past few years of not being able to return to my once-easy 10:30/mile pace. The morning after my yoga class, I decided to see what I could do. I didn’t follow the run/walk interval I had been doing (3 minutes run to 1 minute walk), and instead decided to walk a minute every mile. My first mile was in 10:39. Even with the walk breaks, I was under 11 minute miles on average. I was really proud of myself. I threw out the assumption that I couldn’t run that way anymore.

I’ve had a goal in mind for my next race, the New York Half. I’d like to beat my previous half marathon PR for races in New York City, which is 2:14:19. My time at Napa to Sonoma, a half I ran last year that has a similar course, was 2:23:42. Setting my New York PR will be a challenge because I’ll have to run each mile in roughly 10 minutes. Although I set that goal, I haven’t really been that focused on it. If I’m being completely honest, I likely wasn’t all in because I didn’t believe I could achieve that goal.

However, seeing 170 on the scale has shown me that I need to be all in. I need to use all of my resources in order to make that PR happen for myself. I know what to do out on the roads. And I know what to do in the kitchen, too.

Weight loss is not so different from training for a half or full marathon, really. You have to commit for a few months, know what your overall approach is going to be, get focused, and execute whatever plan you’ve signed up for. The challenge, I think, for most of us in both training for a big race and losing weight is consistency.

In order to reach my goal of 16% body fat composition and my goal of setting a New York City PR, I will have to prioritize my health and my training. I’ll have to make choices aligned with my goals, not just today but for weeks and months moving forward, in preparation for other goals I have. (World Marathon Majors, I’m coming for you.) I know that I will need to sacrifice happy hours and late nights, cook foods that fuel me rather than just ordering what sounds good, and turn down what sounds like fun opportunities in order to achieve my goal.

But I can do it, because I love myself.

And I love to see what I can do.

Struggling with your weight?

Want to make a change to get faster and stronger?

I’m here for you.

Meghan StevensonComment