I’ve been trying for months to write this post…so here it is.
Lots of people have expressed amazement at what seems to them an immediate and sudden transformational change. And I suppose that I can understand why it may seem that way from the outside. But the comments and questions about “How?” I am doing this are legion and I have struggled to articulate it well to many and haven’t fully done so in this format yet either. So, after a dozen false starts, here’s the deal.
I am an English teacher by training, and as such, I believe in the power of storytelling. I have a dozen stories I could tell about what led to this change. I’m going to tell three. I think you’ll get the point.
On December 13th, 1996, at the all too young age of 46, Micheal “Spike” Swader died of squamous cell cancer. Spike was my father-in-law, the wife of a wonderfully quirky woman, and the father to two equally odd daughters. God help me, but I love every last one of them. (And since I am married to at least one of those three women, I guess that is a good thing. 🙂 )
I am not saying that a death that happened 16 years ago is a direct motivation for my change in lifestyle, but it is having an indirect impact. Spike’s early death haunts us still. Loving Michelle, I know that she has never fully healed from his loss in her life. On the three or four days a year where she feels his loss particularly acutely, I am reminded ever so poignantly about the impermanence of life and the pain untimely death can cause our loved ones and I cannot help but reflect on what my untimely death would do to Michelle and to my parents, sisters, cousins, and friends. For the last 16 years, the specter of early death has ridden my shoulder as I ballooned to 404# and when I saw that bloated face in the mirror and thought about where Michelle was going to find 10 pall-bearers, I also thought about Spike and the pain his too-soon passing caused those who loved him.
The other indirect impact of Spike’s death is that it is responsible, I think, for the amazing resource I have at my disposal. Michelle was hyper-motivated by her father’s early death to embrace a healthy life-style. His death prompted her to take up running, which led to biking, which led to triathlons, which led to healthy eating, healthy cooking, the study of nutrition, and eventually a career as a dietitian. That transition took over 12 years for Michelle, but I was there for every day, watching the changes in thinking and physicality and I saw the impact in how she felt about the world and her place in it as she took more control over the variables that added up to her health and started to try to impact others to make healthy choices. I don’t think she would have ended up where she is if her father hadn’t died so young; and in at least that measure, the world has been bettered. And, she has been instrumental in helping me past the inevitable obstacles that arise in an endeavor like this.
On August 8th, 2012, David Landgraf, my high school track coach, died of injuries he sustained when hit by a car while bike riding. Coach Landgraf was one of only three people to ski every American Birkebeiner (a 50k+ cross-country ski race) since its founding in 1973. (Yes, he was a founder.) Dave was certainly in the top 1% of 62 year-old athletes in the world, and without question, his sudden death, while exercising, ranks among the most surprising deaths I have ever personally experienced. Everyone who know Dave likely thought he would out-live them. And as an elite, endurance athlete, Dave was exceptionally fit. When standing next to each other at a track-meet here in the school where I now work (my hometown track team regularly competes here), you could not identify two more diametrically contrasting bodies.
Dave was always kind to me, always eager to talk about what was going on in my life, and he never commented on how I was letting myself go. But Dave was one of the people who is partly responsible for getting my own father involved in cross-country skiing 30 years ago when Dad, too, was making a change to his lifestyle. I had run a 5K, partially organized by Dave when I was 12. He knew the me I used to be, when I was a 225# athlete and earlier versions too, and every time I saw Dave, he would look me up and down with a wry smile and a slight, nearly imperceptible shake to his head, and I would imagine him thinking, “God, I hope this kid figures it out, before it is too late.”
In the year between his death, and the start of “40 by 40,” I believe I reflected on the tragic nature of his untimely end well over 100 times. I began to feel some shame. Shame that wasn’t just sub-conscious, but that was right out in the open. A man who had dedicated his entire adult life (he was also a Physical Education teacher) to the living of a healthy life and encouraging others to live one too, had been struck down while engaging in the pursuit of that health. It was too much to fathom at times.
And Dave and my own father, because of their similar age and interests, if not ability :), are linked in my head. I had an impossible time thinking about Dave’s death without also thinking about my father’s death. And in thinking about all the time I didn’t want to lose with my father, as Dave’s children had so cruelly lost with him, I began to think about the fact that he (and Michelle, and my mom, and my sisters and everyone else), probably didn’t want to lose whatever time they could have with me either. And I thought about how much different my funeral would be from Dave’s. At his they celebrated a life lived pursuing excellence in athletics and health. At mine they would celebrate…what? Cheeseburgers? Bacon? Heart Disease? No, at my eventual funeral, after I had died from complications due to obesity, all my loved ones would be talking about was how much they wished I had taken better care of myself and that my death, while tragic, was predictable, in a way that Dave’s absolutely wasn’t.
On Wednesday, July 25th, 2012, Diane Ishmael, my cousin’s wife and my good friend, died after a long battle with cancer. On Monday, July 30th, I fulfilled Diane’s final request of me and served as the celebrant at her memorial service. As I sat on the stage in my finest suit in near 100° heat in a school gymnasium in Northeastern Iowa, while sweating profusely through my immense bulk, I listened to person after person share their stories of Diane’s never give up attitude in her battle with cancer. Diane had fought cancer since her teenage diagnosis of leukemia. She had fought cancer since she found out she had breast cancer mere months after I stood by on a beach in San Diego as she and Pat said their vows on 1/1/11. Diane had fought cancer since Christmas of 2011, when she learned that after nearly a year of treatment, the cancer had shown up in her lungs. Diane fought cancer so hard, that when a doctor mentioned April would be a better time than August for her to plan a trip to Ireland, she assumed that advice was based on April having nicer weather.
Diane was 41 the day she died, she would have been 42 the next day, and she fought for every last day she had. As I sat on the stage that day, at well over 380#, it occurred to me that I was cavalierly throwing away days and that Diane, and Dave, and Spike would have fought tooth and nail for until the very end. And I resolved that something had to change.
So I changed. And so far, the change has been easy, because every time I think about quitting, I remember the models Spike, Dave, and Diane, and unfortunately dozens of others, have provided for me. Fight for Every Day. Take Nothing for Granted. Don’t Ever Quit. With that playing in my mind, it’s hard not to exercise. It’s hard to eat a cheeseburger. Doing what I think they would do, is, actually, surprisingly easy. It’s just a question of proper motivation.
What’s your motivation?