It’s not a sprint…

I ran the Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon today. I say ‘ran’ it, but it was actually barely a jog and it took me about an hour. That said, I’m pretty happy with myself. Having missed quite a few practice runs during the last few months, I thought I might just have to walk some or all of it. In the end though, I managed to keep it at a light jog for the full 4 miles.

When I thought I wouldn’t be able to jog the whole thing, I had forgotten two things. First, I forgot that, when it comes to exercise, I can almost always do more than I think I can. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at a bar, thought, “Jeez, I don’t know if I’ll be able to lift this”, and then pulled eight reps no bother. Convincing myself to let me try is half the battle.

The other thing I had forgotten is the good old second wind. I forgot that, with endurance exercise, it can feel harder and harder for a while, but then, just when you think you’re about to die, there comes a magical moment when it gets easier and you feel like you could keep going forever. In my limited training runs, I’d been doing shorter intervals of jogging, with walk breaks in between. Eight minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes. Some of those intervals felt pretty tough, so much so that I wondered how I had ever been able to jog for an hour straight and very much doubted I’d ever be able to do so again. But then, about a week before the race, I thought, “F**k it, let’s just try.” I threw on the runners, did a few stretches and just headed off at a slow — VERY slow — jog, to see how far I could go.

At the half mile mark, I was thinking of packing it in. My legs felt like iron and I couldn’t find a rhythm. Around the mile mark, I had warmed up a bit, and it started to feel just about manageable. I settled in and counted my breaths: in-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. Any time I felt a bit tired, I just slowed down even more. Slow and steady, slow and steady, I told myself. Just keep going. I tried to run mindfully, paying attention to my body, watching for the first signs of discomfort twisting into pain. I don’t mind pushing myself especially when it comes to cardio and endurance, which are weak points for me. But I want to listen to my body, so I don’t push beyond my limits and end up sick or injured.

I was okay, though. I was pushing myself a bit, but not too much. I was at a comfortable level of discomfort, so to speak. A little out of breath, but still just about able to hum a song. Legs working, but not hurting. At the outer edge of my comfort zone, but just about still in it. After a while, I realised I’d passed mile 3 somewhere back the road without even really noticing. I headed back towards home, finishing what turned out to be about a 3.5 mile loop. Sure, my legs were a bit knackered, but I had no more doubts that I could jog four miles. Sometimes things get easier if you just keep going, but you won’t know that until you try.

This reminds me of the way I eat, and the way other people sometimes respond to the way I eat. I don’t diet. I gave that up years ago, along with other forms of food-based self harm. But, as a compulsive eater, I have learned that there are certain foods I cannot eat just one of. Chocolate bars, for example. If I have one, I want another, and another, and another … I lose all control and perspective. So I just don’t eat them any more. Not one bite. Ever. Not at Christmas, not on my birthday — really, truly, never. When I say this, people often respond by saying, “I could never do that.” But just two weeks ago, I would have told you — in fact, I DID tell people — that I couldn’t possibly jog 4 miles non-stop. I’d forgotten that, like a lot of things, jogging gets easier after a while. There can be challenging moments, but then you get a second wind, you get into a rhythm, and after a while it almost feels easier to keep going than to stop. For me, eating healthily is a lot like this. Just keep on keeping on no matter what.

You  may not either want or need to give up chocolate or any other food. After all, I am recovering from an eating disorder; by definition, I’m kind of an extreme case! But just don’t tell yourself you couldn’t. You’d be surprised what you can do in any facet of self-care and personal development — especially when you keep trying for long enough to start feeling the benefits. Whether it’s exercise, healthy eating, meditation or anything else, if it’s honestly not for you, that’s fine. But if you’re not sure, keep an open mind about what you can do. Don’t assume you can’t do something just because you never have. Most of us are vastly stronger, tougher and braver than we think. Most of us would probably be blown away by what we can be and do if we are only willing to try.

What the Fitbit can’t track

Me in blue HH lifejacket, nervously contemplating the Lee.

For my birthday in June 2017, I got a Fitbit Charge 2. I particularly wanted a fitness tracker that could monitor my heart rate, because I’m trying to build up my cardio fitness. But my reasons for wanting a fitness tracker go deeper than that. It’s about objective verification of how virtuous and hardworking I am, what a good girl I am, how disciplined I am. I try to work hard and do the right things, but no matter how much I do, it never quite seems to be enough. All too often, ‘enough’ feels out of my reach, some days by a hair’s breadth, other days by miles. Especially on those bad days, when my thoughts are tormented and my emotions are in turmoil, when I feel overwhelmed by the distance between what I am and what I think I should be, seeing my fitness tracker data gives me a bit of peace. When I sync the tracker with the app on my phone and see all the steps I’ve taken that day, all the minutes I’ve been active, the spikes and lulls in my heart rate, the smartphone screen gives me the approval I find it so hard to give myself. The Fitbit app tells me it’s okay to rest now, that I’ve done enough, that I am enough, even if I don’t feel enough. That’ll do, pig; that’ll do.

I get that there is a dark side to this. I know it’s kind of insane to look to some app on my phone for permission to sleep. I also understand the Black Mirror concerns, the fear that digital technology and social media are taking over our lives and causing us to value image over reality. I see all this, but the Fitbit still fills a certain need in me, at least for now, because it seems to offer me clarity and objectivity about myself. I don’t trust my self-perception and I certainly don’t trust my self-evaluation. For good or ill, it helps me to have the data to back up my feeling that I’ve worked hard. But, at least for me, the Fitbit is about more than physiological data. I don’t just want to track my fitness; I want to be the kind of person who tracks her fitness. I want to be disciplined, dedicated and determined, and I want others to see me that way too. It’s easy to dismiss this as hopelessly egotistical and self-seeking. But seeing the objective, unvarnished facts about oneself is important to personal development, physical or otherwise. Similarly, mistrust of our own perceptions is wise if it means we recognise our limitations. The problem is when we start to think the picture is the reality or when we start to think that the data is the whole story. Sometimes it makes sense to demand the data but the trick is knowing that the truth can’t always be reduced to the facts.

The second or third day of wearing the Fitbit, I went rowing with Naomhóga Chorcaí (an activity I heartily recommend, by the way). It was my first time rowing in an actual boat rather than on a machine, and I was eager to see what my heart rate would be like. And, of course, I wanted to add to that all-important ‘active minutes’ total for the big sync reveal at the end of the day. So you can imagine my disappointment when it occurred to me that wearing a fairly large and fairly expensive watch might not be a great idea when learning to row in a cross-hand style. Reluctantly, I took it off.

It took me ages to get the hang of rowing the naomhóg. We were nearly back to the rowing club before I got the rhythm of it. The woman behind me, Diana, had to take the oars and row with/for me over numerous stints before I started being able to copy what she was doing. Once I got the hang of it though, I really didn’t want to stop. The few moments in which I actually managed to keep in time with the others were blissful. The joy of physical exertion, working together, being out on the river Lee in my beloved Cork on a mild summer’s evening – it was truly a beautiful experience. And even though I didn’t exactly take to it like a duck to water, the truth is that even getting into that boat was a huge accomplishment for me. For most of my 20s into my early 30s, I was so fat they might not have had a lifejacket big enough for me, and I would not have been fit enough to pull my weight. I probably would have been too inflexible to clamber into the boat even had I summoned up the courage to try.

The lady right up front in the blue shirt is Diana, who did most of the actual rowing for me. I’m right behind her, a vision in blue cotton and exhilaration.

Even after huge weight loss and fitness gain, it took me three years to try it out. The first year we took students to row with Naomhóga Chorcaí, physically I could have gone out with them, but I was too scared. I was afraid that I’d look stupid, that I’d ruin it for everyone else by doing it wrong, that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. The second year, I was just a couple of weeks out from an operation to remove my gallbladder, and I was under medical orders not to do stuff like rowing. Finally, the third year, when the students went out with Naomhóga Chorcaí, I had both the health and the courage to go too. That was one of the rare nights when I didn’t need the Fitbit app to tell me that I had done enough. No technology could ever have tracked what really mattered to me about that rowing trip, what it told me about myself. Yes, I am a person with an average sized body and a normal level of fitness who can do most things that average, able-bodied people can do. But much more importantly, I am a person who tries new things even if I might be terrible at them and look stupid. I keep trying even when it takes time for me to learn. I’m glad there are pictures of that evening, but it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t. I don’t mind that I didn’t have the Fitbit on. I know what I did. That’ll do me.