Monday, August 22, 2011

Exercise has saved my life, twice.

If you remember, last year I was still very guarded about my past. Only handful of people knew anything about my past. I kept it to myself. I was not ready to put myself out in the public eye.  After much soul searching I posted about it (5 years …).  Your compassion, empathy and kindness were overwhelming.  Thank you so much.

Today, it has been six years since I lost my wife and daughter. They will always be a part of me. I think of them both daily. Since that series of posts last year, I have grown. I have allowed myself to talk about my experiences and I have gained new perspectives.

In fact, just this past weekend I gave a presentation to the group fitness instructors and the personal trainers at the Payne Center. I talked about my experiences. I talked about how exercise has helped me conquer challenges. I talked about how exercise has made me a better person. I talked about how exercise helped save me.

Keep in mind that this was a presentation – there might be some typos, etc.  And it is a rather long post.  I had considered breaking it up but decided to just post it in it’s entirety.


Exercise has saved me, twice. I don’t mean that lightly. It really has saved me. Let me tell you some of my story. I grew up as a heavy child. I was an active child, just not active enough. I was part of the first generation of kids playing video games. I still spent a lot of time outside and ran the streets but more and more time was spent in front of the TV playing games.

On top of that, my mother was a good cook and an even better baker. She loved to make desserts. She also believed that everything and I do mean everything was better with a stick of butter. I remember her heating up honey buns in the microwave with a whole stick of butter melted over them. Ooey gooey goodness – but now my opinion has changed on that matter. These desserts were so rich that a normal person just couldn’t eat more than a small piece. We trained ourselves to be better than normal. We learned to excel.

On top of the super-rich treats, food was a comfort item. Regardless if you were celebrating or commiserating, you got a treat. You went to the doctor and got your shots. You stopped for an ice cream on the way home. Good grades on your report card – chocolate chip cookies were baking in the oven. Fell down and skinned your knee – maybe a couple of candy bars.

I was so out of shape and overweight that I was going to a diet doctor in the 8th grade. They would take your measurements and encourage you to eat healthier and to exercise more. I weighed 186 pounds in 8th grade – that is almost 30 pounds more than I weigh today.

Still, we ate ice cream and cakes and cookies all throughout the week. The diet did not change.

Then I started smoking in high school. Yeah, I thought I was cool. My mother and father had smoked for their entire lives. They, of course, did not want me to smoke but what could they do? Here I was overweight with no fitness to speak of and I started smoking. That was a brilliant move.

After high school, I moved away for college. I met my future wife who also had some weight issues. However, her weight problems were a thing of the past. She had improved her fitness by starting a running program and actually eating healthier. Wow, imagine that – it worked.

While in my sophomore year of college, we were expecting. We were young, dumb, and scared. I remember the horrible food choices during the pregnancy. Often we would stop and get a 20-piece chicken nugget box and just inhale them. We both gained a lot of weight during this time. Financially we had nothing. But we did have each other and food was a way to splurge. A way to feel like you had it made. We were not willing to endure hardship in another aspect of our lives. On January 20th of my sophomore year of college my daughter was born. Going to school full time, working a part time job and caring for a family certainly had its challenges. But our daughter meant everything to us. No one thought we would make it – not my family, not her family. We defied the odds.

My wife and I entered a maintaining phase. We were now both overweight but not getting any bigger. But remember, we were still in our early 20’s and despite what you think, your metabolism is so high you can do a lot of foolish things and not get too far off track. You have to work at it.

Fast forward a couple of years. We decided to move to Indiana where my wife had grown up to be closer to her family. I got a job working a night shift. Working from 10PM until 6AM in a customer call center can be brutal on a diet. I remember that the last call for the pizza place was 2AM. You had to get your order in and to make it as cheap as possible you doubled up with a buddy or two and got the two large everything specials. There was always too much food but somehow we managed. The weight was holding steady but the fitness was failing fast.

I remember going to the local parks and being too out of shape to enjoy them with my daughter. She was spritely and I would be worn out just watching her. I was embarrassed by my lack of fitness. The only thing that I was embarrassed of more was my smoking. I was headed towards an early grave.

james_and_lainie

My daughter and I at Indiana Dunes State Park

While at work one evening, I got a call from my wife. She told me to come home right then. I argued with her and told her that I needed to stay at work. She insisted. When I got home, she held me and told me that my mother had died. I was weak and my wife stood strong for me. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. I leaned heavily on my wife and we got through it.

Shortly after my mother’s death, I was doing a lot of soul searching. My mother was only 52 years old. Sure, she smoke but she was actually in much better shape than I was. This brought thoughts of my own mortality to the forefront. I had to quit smoking. I often joked about quitting. I had attempted to quit dozens of times – always ending in failure. But this time would be different.

With the aid of the nicotine gum, I was able to slowly cut down and eventually quit. However, for the course of 3 months I rewarded myself with a fast food lunch. I was spending the money from the cigarettes on horrible food. Although I had kicked the smoking habit, I had gained a quick 30 pounds. I had been hovering around 205 and now I jumped to 235. Now, I am only 5’8” – I was ball. I was obese.

I have never really cared that much about food. I just consumed it. And I consumed a lot of it. It was wreaking havoc with my health and my body. I remember the constant heartburn and often being sick. I would eat in such excess that I would throw up. This was not bulimia - it was gluttony. Once at work I comment that food didn’t matter much to me. A co-worker called me out and said, “If you don’t care about food then why do you eat so much?” Good question.

A couple months after quitting smoking and feeling proud of myself, we were driving to a BBQ at the in-laws. I was devastated that I had to pull over and run into a Wal-Mart to buy a new, larger pair of shorts. I had outgrown the 38 waist of my shorts and had to upgrade to a 40 inch pair of shorts. I vowed at that moment that I would make a change. This was the start of my recovery.

I took responsibility for my actions. I would no longer be dismissive about my heath. But why did it work this time? Why did it work after years and years of failures?

In retrospect, it was simple. I changed the way that I thought about food. I did not know it at the time but I had done the same thing with quitting smoking and the same thing with finances. I changed the way that I looked at each of these by no longer feeling deprived or victimized by doing without. When I was younger, I always wanted some kind of toy or electronic device. I would yearn for these things. Most of them did not make me happy but I could not stand the feeling of doing without them. Being disappointed after the purchase gradually taught me to appreciate the money in the bank more than the trinket. Now I could feel satisfaction by not purchasing something. It would be a pat on the back every time I chose not to spend money. As I watched my bank account grow and the financial stability that it granted it was easier and easier to not make trivial purchases.

Completely unrelated in my mind but I did the same thing when I decided to quit smoking. I had to change my mindset. I was making my body healthier by not smoking. If I smoke the cigarette it would cost me some of my health. I was no longer depriving myself from smoking. I was once again rewarding myself by not smoking.

So, after that fateful day at the Wal-Mart with the 40-inch waist I flipped the switch. That is what I have come to call it. The actions are the same but once I thought of the reward and did not dwell on the sacrifice, it was no longer as much of a struggle.

I made a game of the weight loss. I worked at a facility that had an attached warehouse. There was a large scale. You would maneuver a pallet on the scale and it would print out a barcode with the weight of the item. The scale was for shipping purposes and was accurate. Every day I would walk to the back of the warehouse and stand on the scale and printout my weight. I stuck them on a wall next to the scale. It was a visual daily reminder of my progress. This constant feedback was paramount to my success.

As the pounds started to come off, I got more active. When my mother had died, I inherited her dog, a Welsh corgi named Taz. She would become our family dog but she would have to learn to live with a house full of cats. You see, my daughter loved cats and we had acquired three – pixie, rose and sugar plum fairy. This would be a house full of animals. Well, there was nothing to fear because everyone got along wonderfully.

I started taking Taz to the local park for long walks. The dog needed the exercise.  She could lose a few pounds herself. The park was a half mile from my home and it was eight tenths of a mile in circumference. I gradually started to run around the park. First, I would run the short lengths. After a couple of months, I would run the long lengths. Then half way around the park. It took many months before I could run around that park without stopping. This is still one of my greatest athletic achievements. It is funny but running around that park lifted my confidence in myself more than you can image. I was walking on a cloud for a week because I knew that this task had been impossible just a few months before. I knew that this was just the starting point. I knew that this is where the diets, failure, and unhealthiness stopped. This is where a new lifestyle started. A new lifestyle that prioritize health and fitness. A new lifestyle that would allow me to be more engaged and active with my wife and daughter.

People could see it in me. It became contagious. Change was in the air. My wife started to eat just as healthy and also started exercising. Now the whole family was going to the park and running. This became our time together.

I had worked my way up the ladder through several promotions. Finally, I started to work a day job. This allowed for my wife and me to go running in the mornings before my daughter woke up for school. We would often clock 5 miles around town. This was our time together. We chatted the whole time about the successes of the prior day or the challenges ahead. This was valuable time.

It is amazing how small a town becomes once you start running. Where downtown had seemed such a great distance, we now realized that it was just a few miles away. I think it is funny how we forget how mobile we can be without a car. Everyone used to walk.

So here I was having success every day. I was celebrating victories every time I saw someone smoking because I wasn’t. I was celebrating victories every time I walked past a candy bowl at work. And I was celebrating victories every time I got off the couch and ran around that park. I was unstoppable.

My wife worked in a charity organization and later in promotions for a radio station. She was an on air personality and was larger than life. She was the party. During one of the promotions for a local charity, she signed us both up for a 5K race. I was terrified. I can be rather competitive and running in a race is intimidating. I wanted to do well.

This race was for a big cat rescue organization. Part of the course ran beside the big cat exhibits. There was a light rain in the air and I remember running along a muddy gravel path. There was a mighty old tiger just a few feet to my left. Sure, there was a barrier but you could hear him. I was running as fast as I possibly could. The tiger’s head was as high as my chest. He was walking, not even a stroll, just a walk and he was faster than I was. It was an amazing experience. I finished the race to the cheers of my daughter. She gave me a big hug. We talked about the animals while we waited for my wife to finish. There were no awards for us. We did not need them. The race was reward enough.

I raced another 5K in Indiana. This was one of those wacky races. It started at 10PM and you raced around a park in the dark. I had signed up for the race the week after the first one. I had a lot of momentum. It was a Friday night. My daughter went with me but my wife was tired. She stayed at home. I remember being very nervous for this race and I must have thought I was faster than I was. All of the local high school kids had showed up at the race. Not knowing much about strategy or pacing I took off with these kids. I remember blowing up within a half mile. I still had 2.5 miles left and my legs and lungs were on fire. I had all of these negative emotions in my head. I was looking for shadows so that I could walk. There were no shadows. This was a two-lap course. When I completed the first lap, I saw my daughter and my wife cheering for me. My wife had decided to show up and lend her support. Seeing my girls yelling and screaming for my success meant the world to me. It did not make me any faster on that race but it made it easier to push the pain away. I wanted to make them proud. I finished the race spent. We celebrated. I grabbed my daughter a piece of pizza and we headed home and talked about the race. Once again, I did not place and wasn’t very fast but it was one of my best races. I’ll never forget it!

A healthier lifestyle and increased fitness lent itself to other endeavors. We had always embraced the outdoors and believe it or not, Indiana has a wonderful parks system. We went camping most weekends in the summer. I remember one day vividly – this was the best day.

It was a Sunday morning and my wife and I were up early. School had started the prior week. We did not have plans but we quickly decided to pack a picnic and head to one of the parks. With the truck loaded up with the crew, plus the food, plus the dog, we made our way to Cataract Falls, the largest waterfalls in Indiana. While not huge waterfalls by any means, it is a beautiful state park. We hiked and ran and played all day. We swam in the river and showered in the waterfalls. We all had a wonderful time, even the dog. On the drive home, my daughter was starting to get hungry. We were passing a fast food joint. Now normally we would never stop – we did not eat that kind of stuff. We had better dinner at home. But this time I pulled in and let my daughter order. This was a treat and she was very excited. My wife and I would eat when we got home.

I could discuss this day for hours but I will keep it short. It was the best day ever. They died in a car accident the next day.

If you remember, I told you that exercise has saved my life twice. I got home from the hospital around six in the morning. The night before I had been grabbing at straws and I was trying to understand the events. I had asked one of my in-laws for a cigarette and he gave me a lighter and the rest of the pack. I smoked them all and bought a fresh pack.

I was sitting on my front porch and was bewildered. I could not understand how things were continuing. I saw cars driving down the street. People were on their way to work. Didn’t they know that the world had stopped?

I also knew that I was at a crossroads. This was one of those pinnacle moments that I would later look back upon. You usually don’t know that you are at a crossroads until much later, years later, when it is too late to change anything. I knew that I could go either way. I could spiral down, crawl into a bottle or worse. Or I could meet this challenge head on. I knew that I did not want to become a shell of the man I was. I did not want to disrespect the relationships that I had with my family.

Having worked in management for a number of years, I knew that my company offered free counseling. I called the hotline number and had an appointment for 9AM. I would have to do this on my own this time. I would not have someone to lean on.

I fell down a lot. That’s what I called it when I would be overtaken with despair. Most of the time I just felt empty. I just went through the paces of life. But despair is the rough stuff. Back then empty was a good day.

While my own storm was raging, Hurricane Katrina was devastating gulf coast. It took me years before I was able to understand about Katrina. You see, I was oblivious to the world. My stress levels were so high I was barely functioning. It is obvious now that I was physically damaged. I was not laying down fresh memories and I was constantly fatigued.

I struggled a lot but I came to a point where I knew that I was truly fortunate. Having the memories was worth the pain. I was blessed for having known them.

Fast forward, a year later and I am in Mississippi working at the university and in a relationship with someone I care deeply about. I had lived in Indiana for more than a decade but I had to leave. There were too many reminders. I lost most of my friends. I cut myself off from my wife’s family. This was completely on my part. You see, most of our friends had been friends through our children. When I lost those bonds, the friendships become painful. I had to leave the area.

I made a vow to quit smoking when I crossed the Mississippi state line. I was not able to completely hold myself to that decision but I am happy to say that it was been years since I smoked. I also quickly joined the local running club and became a member of the Payne Center. I started building new relationships. Most of these relationships were based on physical activity.

I challenged myself again and circled a date on the calendar for my 35th birthday. I wanted to do a triathlon. Forget the fact that I couldn’t swim more than a lap in the pool. But I worked at it. I started swimming as often as possible while increasing my mileage on the bike and the run. I participated in my first triathlon in 2007.

The next year I did a couple of running races and a few more triathlons. I got more involved with the pine belt pacers, the running club. Through that club, I met even more people and started to run with them. I met someone that was training for an ironman. He had attempt an ironman in 2008 and had to drop out do to extreme dehydration. Instead of being deterred, he signed up again for the same race the very next day. I decided to do it as well.

Having a buddy to train with for a year was a great experience. We spent countless hours training. We rode all over the countryside on and off the trace. We built our bodies to endure the 140.6 miles of ironman. I had a great race and finished in a respectable time. I joked with him that my perfect day would be finishing strong and having a beer, a meal and a shower. Then coming back to the finish line to watch him finish! It was a joke, but it worked out that way.

Following the ironman, I decided to tackle the marathon distance. I know that most people would normally do a marathon before an ironman but I really didn’t know any better. Truth be known, to race a marathon is much harder than to finish an ironman. My first marathon was the New Orleans Rock N’ Roll marathon in 2010. I qualified for Boston, the championship race amongst age group athletes. I raced Boston this past year.

Taking this active lifestyle to the next level, I have started a coaching business. I have several clients. Some are just off the couch while others are 10 time marathoners on their way to Boston qualifying. And I am getting just as much out of the relationships as they are. Today, there are more dates circled on my calendar than I can count. Some are my races; some are my client’s races.

I honestly don’t think I would be where I am today without exercise. First, it helped me get my life on track. Second, it supplied the foundation to start my life anew. I would not be here without it.

11 comments:

Heather-O said...

That is such an amazing story in so many ways. Your strength and courage are incredible. I cannot even imagine what you have gone through and had to deal with. Thanks for sharing such a personal story.

Richard said...

Hopefully I will have the privilege to meet you. I have been reading for a while and we both live in the southeast. Keep going strong!

misszippy said...

You continue to blow me away with your courage and strength. You really are an example to the rest of us.

Matty O said...

Amazing that I grew up the same way you did. I think since my college was a bit different than yours I was able to curb my ballooning and maintain my weight explosion.

You are a strong man, I know you may not feel that way at times, but you have a great sensible mind on your shoulders and your thought process for things is very structured.

Thank you for sharing this with me. Definitely a good reminder to keep with the healthy lifestyle. It's the rewards I have "earned" that I have to get rid of again.

Hope all is well man.

Jim ... 50after40 said...

Amazing ... I probably haven't been paying attention - but your story is incredible! Very inspiring my friend!

Mike said...

Thanks for sharing such a powerful story of what strong people can overcome. Truly impressive. Really cool you were able to share your story with a group too.

lindsay said...

It takes guts to share such intimate details like this and last year's post. I applaud your bravery and willingness to share your story! You are touching many lives--most that you don't even know about I'm sure. It's so cool to see how fast you are now vs. where you started!

Did you have any other health issues from the stress? Just curious... I think some of mine stem from stress, though I need to just chill out about the stuff as it's not nearly as influential as what you went though.


Big hug on another tough "anniversary".

Donna said...

I had read the second part of your story before...now knowing the first part I'm even more impressed. Thank you for sharing!

TheIronYou said...

What an amazing story, such an inspiration!

Thank you for sharing this

Mike @TheIronYou

Nelly said...

James,

Thanks a lot for sharing your story, that takes a lot of courage to share something like that. You have an amazing persona to go through all those obstacles. The people in the audience for that original speech must have been transfixed the entire time.

You have accomplished a lot athletically, to do an ironman and qualify for Boston on your first ever marathon is amazing. It is clear that you not only have the natural gifts from the athletic gods, but an awesome work ethic.

Southern Girl and family said...

Amazing Grace! That is what comes to my mind when I think of you and all you've been through. You have a great testimony and I can't thank you enough for sharing it. My heart breaks for you but it also overflows for you and everything you've overcome. We all need to live life as kids and enjoy the little moments because that is what defines our lives. A day where we forget all the to-do's and just live. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.