I love the Olympics in general and the Summer Olympics especially. I could watch track and field for days and days and not get tired of it, and in fact, I do. In part, this is because I used to do this with my father when I was a child (and I was even lucky enough to watch the Olympic torch relay pass by a stone’s throw from our house in 1984), but it has even more to do with the fact that I used to be on my high school’s varsity track and field team. And I was good.
I played softball for all of one season in junior high school. I have never had much upper body strength, so my hitting and fielding skills were not that great, but my coach soon figured out that all I needed to do was bunt or get a walk, because once I was on base, I was almost sure to score a run. I was FAST. I stole at least one base every time I got on base – in fact, I hardly ever needed to slide in to get there. I was also known to steal home fairly often, much to the consternation of infielders who never dreamt of me trying that. After the first couple games, I had earned myself the nickname Grease Lightning, and when I was at bat, the rest of the team suddenly turned into a musical chorus. When our coach wanted the team to practice base-running skills, he would have me race against the team – and give the team a 1-base head start. So in other words, I more than made up for my mediocre baseball skills with sheer leg power.
This speed had begun sometime in grade school, and has never really left me. Until puberty set in, I was faster than all the girls and all the boys at my grade level. Around 13, I was no longer faster than the fastest boys, but I was as fast as them. So when I started high school at 14, it was the most logical thing in the world for me to join the track and field team and excel immediately.
The thing was, I LOVED to run, it felt thrilling, and that feeling was only compounded by the incomparable feeling of pulling past my rivals and eventually leaving them in the dust. Being part of a team, of course, was a little different. I had to train. I had to do drills. I was a 100m and 200m athlete, ran the 3rd leg of our 4 x 100m relay, and also became pretty good a long jump. Sometimes I ran hurdles instead of long jump. It was all fun. But then, to improve my 200m times (this was my most promising distance), my coach had me running 400m sprints against actual 400m runners. Not only was this distance a whole different animal for which I was not suited, but it made me feel helpless running against those girls who could just power through that distance at a speed only slightly slower than my 200m speed. I never had a chance, and even though, in retrospect, it seems completely absurd, it chipped away at my self-esteem to “lose” those training runs over and over and over again.
At the regional championships that year, I did really well, so I figured there must be room for improvement in the next year. I asked my coach what I should do to stay in shape over the summer, and I talked to various knowledgable adult athletes about proper nutrition for competitive athletes. What was their advice? Endurance training. Interval sprints. Lowish fat. Carb-loading. In a nutshell. The more training the better, 5-6 days a week. And that’s what I did, expecting to get in progressively better shape, achieve better body composition, and come back to school in the fall with better sprint times.
Well, you’ve probably guessed that I wouldn’t be writing this if this plan had worked and everything had turned out great.
So, is that what happened? In fact, the exact opposite.
At first, my fitness level improved. I was running six-minute miles and bouncing off the walls with energy. Until I wasn’t. It started to feel like my runs were getting more and more difficult to complete. My legs felt like they were made of lead, and I began to dread getting those shoes on.
I attributed this to two things. First, Sacramento’s blazingly hot summers, which I otherwise loved, but which make running a very taxing activity. Second, will power. Obviously, I was lazy and didn’t have the discipline to stick with the program. I added push-ups and a whole slew of abdominal exercises to my regimen, eventually giving up the push-ups because I thought I didn’t need it for the kind of fitness I was trying to attain.
Then I began to notice that I was gaining weight. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I had started off as a pretty darn skinny kid, but I didn’t seem to be putting on muscle – I was getting a flabby belly. Hence, more crunches and more running. Even less fat and more carbs. Do you see where this is going yet?
Soccer season rolled around, so I was getting plenty of exercise and training, but I continued to do extra runs and crunches on the off days, to no discernable effect other than that I was always tired, always hungry, and lay in bed awake for hours each night, desperately willing sleep to just come on already. I became an incredibly nervous, wound-up person. I would sweat a lot, even when I felt cold. I started getting migraines on top of the tension headaches I had been getting since childhood. I dreaded soccer practice because the workouts killed, and I usually ended up feeling like I was going to faint or throw up or both. By the time the next track and field season rolled around, I had put on a little over 15 pounds – not a lot, but I have a very slight frame and it seemed as though every ounce of it was fat clinging to my waist and chubbing up my cheeks. My legs were lithe and strong, my arms were skinny, but my stomach? I tried not to look at it. Worst of all, my times were terrible. Decidedly worse than the year before.
So, did I take the results of this “experiment” as evidence that my plan wasn’t working? Did I stop over-training, carb-loading, crunching my guts out and over-thinking every little thing?
Of course not. As far as I was concerned, this was not an experiment. I was doing what you were supposed to do as a training athlete. I was training to run, not lift weights, so why should I do any strength training apart from legs and abs (which is all our coaches had us do)? Why would I want to eat fat if I wanted to stay lean? Why should I eat fewer carbs if I wanted to retain the energy needed to run at peak performance? And a new element had come into the mix: why would I take it easy or eat more fat if I wanted to lose weight? The sad truth, as fellow previously misguided souls will have guessed by now, is that I upped the ante. I ran more. Ate even less fat. Tried to eat less all-around. Tried to fast. Did more crunches. Punished myself more. Hated myself more.
And my times continued to get worse.
I had a perpetual cold, my migraines became worse than ever. One of them lasted 3 weeks. I was 16 and somehow managed to go to school, get straight A’s, go to practice, do homework, go to piano lessons and compete at track meets all while trying to fight the literally blinding pain of migraines with EFFING IBUPROFEN. Could we possibly introduce any more self-punishment here?
I developed shin splints, which became chronic. Did I stop running? I taped. I ran in the rain. I ran when I had a cold. I ran when I had a migraine. I continued to try and limit calories. None of it made a difference, but at this point, it at least didn’t get any worse. Amazingly, I made it to the regional championships again. The pressure of competition still brought out the best in me, and my times were always better than my training times. But the only thing I felt about “my best” was an ever-growing sense of shame and humiliation.
“I guess I’m not as good as I thought I was.”
“I guess now that I’m not a little girl anymore, I won’t be able to keep up with the boys or the more ‘masculine’ girls.”
“I don’t have it in me.”
“I don’t have the discipline.”
“My body doesn’t respond to training the way it’s supposed to.”
“I guess running isn’t for me anymore.”
The next year, I didn’t continue with track and field, or even any other competitive sport. I played recreational soccer, but I just couldn’t face anything more demanding or competitive because I couldn’t handle the truth about my own athletic deterioration. I gave up dieting. Gave up running. Tried to forget that I had ever been an athlete.
Know what happened when I stopped running and dieting?
I lost weight.
I just shook my head in disbelief in my “backwards” body.
Fast forward to today. To the Olympic summer. I have spent the last 9 months learning about the Paleo diet, Primal Living, ancestral health, evolutionary medicine – all the branches of science and nutrition devoted to figuring out how our bodies work and what they were designed for. And it turns out my body was never backwards. It turns out that when I started track and field as a high school freshman, I was in pretty decent shape. And when I began my intense training and conscious “nutrition,” I began undoing my own fitness, one step and one bite at a time. I overtrained and didn’t give my body the recovery time it needed to actually regenerate and create more muscle. I did hard-core, cardio endurance training, when I should have been doing intervals, a little weight training now and then, and getting a LOT of rest. I ate shit tons of pasta, bread, bagels and rice, thinking all that fatty meat was going to make me fat. I ate salads with fat-free dressing and wondered why I had no energy. Wondered why I had all those migraines, wondered why I was wound-up all the time and yet felt dead on my feet as soon as I put my running shoes on.
When people ask me why I quit track and field, I usually say something like, “once I got boobs and hips, I just wasn’t that fast anymore,” or “I had chronic shin splints and it just didn’t seem worth it,” or “the obligation of running and training took the fun out of it.” But actually, none of that is true. I quit because I felt like a failure, and I couldn’t handle that feeling. I thought it was my fault, that a basic lack of willpower separated me from the better athletes.
Can you imagine how badly I want to go back in time and give my 16-year-old self a hug?
I don’t think I ever would have been good enough for the Olympics, but I wish I had known even a fraction then of what I know now about the human body, nutrition and fitness. It makes me mad that none of the coaches and adult athletes in my life back then were able to help me. For all they knew, I was doing things by the book. That’s the power of conventional wisdom – it has this unbelievable inertia that prevents us from challenging things we think we know are true, but are in fact completely false. Other than this vague notion of conventional wisdom, I don’t have anyone to blame in this, not even myself, and that’s the beautiful part. I have been blaming the story I just related on myself for the past 15 years, and now, as I watch the greatest athletes on Earth do what they love, I finally understand what happened back then, why it happened, and that it’s not my fault. Which means I can forgive myself and hopefully move on.