What a difference a year makes.
These are the results from a recent workout. Concept 2 Rower – 250 meter sprints, eight rounds, with two to three minutes of rest between rounds. Times in the mid to low 40’s. Nothing to write home about, just another solid interval workout on the rower, right?
Yes and no. There’s certainly nothing phenomenal on display here. But It can be funny where your mind goes during the rest periods of hard intervals like these. Physically I was feeling particularly good for this workout, and I couldn’t help but think of where I was at this point last year.
A year ago, a single 250m sprint would have left me feeling like I was dying. A year ago, I was overweight, out of shape, and depressed. Yeah, I was strong, but I couldn’t walk across the room without getting out of breath. A year ago I was armed with all the internal lies and excuses I needed to neglect my health, to put my training on the back burner, to eat like an asshole, and to drink nearly every day.
“You’re busy at work, working long days, stressed… it’s fine to have a few beers or a couple whiskeys tonight.” And repeat that same internal dialogue tomorrow. And the next day. And then every day.
“I’ll get back to a regular training schedule and better nutrition after this big project is wrapped up and things slow down. The comeback starts in two weeks!” And then it’s next month. And then six months have passed. And then a year.
“Why am I so out of breath from push-mowing the lawn? Why does my chest hurt? Am I having a heart attack? No way, not me! I’m sure it’s just that I’m out of shape. I’ll be fine. I’ve always been able to flip the switch and get back in shape when I need to.”
I’ve come to realize that I’ve always been a sucker for my own excuses. In the past that has caused my health and fitness to go through some ups and downs. I’ve always been able to manage the roller coaster, and I’d turn things around before they got too far out of hand. This time was different though. I finally learned what buying-in to my own bullshit would cost me.
A few days before Christmas last year I went to an urgent care clinic with pain and swelling in my right leg. I'd been dealing with swelling in my legs for over a year, but the pain was new. It started one night with what felt like a muscle cramp, and got progressively more intense and widespread over about a week. An ultrasound revealed a large blood clot from my calf up to my mid-thigh. I was immediately started on a large dose of blood thinners, painful injections in my stomach twice a day, to keep the clot from traveling to my heart and lungs and turning into a life-threatening issue. Follow-up bloodwork also revealed that I was extremely anemic, which was the likely cause of the clotting. My iron numbers were so low that my hematologist was concerned that I might be suffering from a massive internal bleed, or worse, a large tumor or some type of cancer. My liver enzymes also showed signs of significant dysfunction, and imaging of the liver indicated some enlargement. To top things off, my blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood glucose levels were all concerningly high. I was messed up, and honestly, it was scary. I feared that I had finally dug a hole that I wasn’t going to be able to climb out of.
My physical low point came a few days after Christmas, at a globo gym in Ohio near my in-laws. A few deadlift reps at 405 left me so breathless that I had to lay down on a bench to avoid passing out. Squats were out of the question. Instead I did some light pressing and lat-pulldowns that also had me short of breath. I was spent after doing lat-pulldowns, folks. After that, I hung my head in shame and walked on the treadmill before going home.
2020 started off with a flurry of testing to get to the bottom of what was going on. Test after test came back negative, which was both a relief and a source of frustration and fear due to not knowing exactly what was going on, or if things were going to get better. What I did know was that I could control my diet and my training. I had immediately stopped drinking alcohol after the initial diagnosis in December. By the end of January I had also stopped drinking soda, and adopted a mostly meat and vegetables diet. Training continued to be very tough with the anemia, but I slowly got back into a regular routine and was feeling like my lungs were coming back a little bit each week.
By late spring I had lost 35-40 pounds and my bloodwork was showing improvements. Late July marked another 20 pounds off, I was off the blood thinners, my liver enzymes were back in the normal range, and iron levels were improving, but still on the low side. My last round of bloodwork this fall showed everything back within normal ranges. A dietary iron supplement is the only thing I’m taking at this point, and I’ll continue to monitor the iron levels going forward. I’ve lost 70 pounds from my heaviest point last year.
None of the scans and scopes and various other tests ever did reveal a smoking gun. As far as I can tell, I healed whatever was wrong by pulling my head out of my ass and re-adopting some proper diet and exercise.
Conversely, my doctor is baffled, and keeps telling me I’m a miracle case. As if completely changing my eating habits, giving up alcohol, dropping 70 pounds and getting back to a regular training schedule has little impact on the general function and well-being of the system. In defense of my doctor, our health care system isn’t exactly inundated with patients that are willing to make a serious effort to turn their health around. My appointments were at her office inside of a cancer treatment center. Each time I went in for a follow-up visit I would pass other patients standing outside the front door, smoking. The Self-Bullshit is a powerful drug, folks.
Look, I’m not saying that exercising and eating well all the time should be simple and easy. It’s obviously not, and I know that as well as anyone. Training consistently is hard. Practicing good nutrition is really hard. And don’t even get me started on tobacco and alcohol. The point I want to make: If you’re adding to the difficulty of managing these issues by accepting your own excuses for why it’s ok to not be disciplined and make good choices, you’re setting yourself up for a big fall.
I keep coming back to a discussion with the first doctor I saw in the urgent care clinic. She was reviewing my vitals and looking at my leg and asking me some general questions about my recent health. At that point I was already pretty sure that I had a blood clot, and potentially something even worse. I was scared, and the weight of the situation hit me like a truth serum.
She noted that my blood pressure was high, and asked if that was a new issue. Hell, she even offered me an excuse by throwing out the idea of white coat syndrome. I could have bought into that, and easily added half a dozen excuses of my own as to what caused me to end up as a 300-plus pound, hypertensive, pre-diabetic, critically anemic man with a painful blood clot in his right leg. But I didn’t. Instead, I dropped the bullshit and laid it all out. I told her about how my crappy eating habits and lack of training had caused a significant amount of weight gain over the last two years, and doubly so over the last six to eight months. I told her how much I drank. I told her that I knew my blood pressure and blood glucose were both high. I told her about the chest pains and the shortness of breath. She gave a little laugh and looked up from her notes, “Wow, you’re pretty honest, huh?”
I replied, “I haven’t been up to this point, but now I’m getting there.”
Here's hoping that my story helps others get there as well.