Saturday, February 12, 2011

How I Do It.

First I go to the locker room. It only takes a few minutes to shed the sweat pants I wear over my work out shorts. When the temperature outside rises above forty I will stop taking this extra step. I'll wear only shorts to the gym.

I only really have one leg that risks getting cold anyway. The other is mostly covered with prosthetics, protected from the bitter wind and cold of winter by silicone and plastics. But when the thermometer says 12, I wear the extra layer, for the sake of my one exposed leg.

I slip off my sweatpants and hang them on the hook under my heavy coat. I pull the ipod out of my coat pocket, grab my small towel and water bottle, and head out the locker room door. I'm very aware, even after seven years of being an amputee, that I walk into the locker room with a secret. Long pants cover the fact I don't have two real feet. Once I take them off, I know there will be looks.

But I don't really care. In fact, it makes me walk taller and stronger. I have valid reasons for being there. I know every person in that gym is there on purpose. Every person has a reason they make the effort to show up. Some want to lose weight. Many young men spend their time pushing and pulling weights to build their masculine physiques. The retired folks are trying to stay fit and active. Then there's me.

I want to be able to walk right. I want to have better balance. I want to do what comes easily to most people, walk fluidly. I want to have a healthy heart, and not die at age fifty, like my own mother did. And of course, I'd like to once again get down to my ideal body weight. But mostly I want to be strong and able. I want the decision to have my leg cut off to be worth it. And to make that happen, I need to spend a lot of time at the gym.

Some days I briskly walk over to the weight machines. I'm slowly working more strength training into my fitness plan. I know it helps my metabolism. It makes me feel better. It builds the muscles I need to have better gait. I don't mind lifting weights. But my true joy is that bike.

There are five stationary bikes at my gym. I love them all because they are heavy and stable, with wide seats to support my wide seat. I am lucky that they're not the most popular machines at the gym. The treadmills are where the cool kids go. And the ellipticals. The bikes are mostly ignored, which is good for me.

I pick whichever one has straps on the pedals. Usually it's the one nearest the wall. I have to have foot straps or my metal foot wants to wander. I've come close to falling off a stationary bike before, when I got caught up in the momentum and my foot slipped off. There's no need to repeat that experience.

Most people wipe down the equipment after they're finished. I do that. But I also wipe it down before I start, just in case the person before me forgot. Then I set the seat height to 12, throw my leg up and over, then bounce a few times to get used to the seat. A click on 'quick start', a push of the up arrow to level three, and I start pumping. Ear plugs are inserted, a playlist selected. Then it's time to go.

Slow at first, to warm up my muscles. When my legs start to feel loose, after just a few minutes, the resistance gets clicked up to four. Five more minutes of warm up, then it's time to get serious. I wait for the clock to come up to an even minute mark, then quickly push the resistance up to 9.

For a full minute I ride hard. Leaning forward, I stare at the control board in front of me and zone out. Pump, pump, pump. My quads start burning. Sometimes I count to ten, over and over. I learned this trick in childbirth. It's the one part of all those Lamaze classes that really worked. Focus on something else. Even if it's just numbers. One. Two. Three. Four. Five...

Soon the minute is up. It's not that hard to push hard, when I know it will be over in a minute. Once the :59 clicks back to :00, I allow myself to push the down arrow, back to five. Then I get three full minutes of a more reasonable pace. I chant the number I'm waiting for, the number I'll see when it's time to crank that resistance up for another minute. If I ended my hard minute at eight minutes, I start to chant, in my head, eleven...eleven...eleven. And when 10:59 clicks over to 11:00, I crank it up again. I do these circuits over and over.

It feels good. It makes me feel strong. It makes me feel like a real athlete. Like a person who can run. I've never been able to run, and it fascinates me. When I'm on that bike, pushing and counting and clicking the resistance levels up and down, I stare out the window. I focus on the cars in the parking lot and forget where I am (another trick I learned at Lamaze). I think about the people I know who run. I think about two in particular.

My brother in law, Kurt, is an amazing runner. He wasn't the fastest kid on the high school track team. But he was dedicated. He ran casually through his twenties but at some point in his thirties he got serious again. He started training every day. He now runs 5Ks just about every weekend. He runs half marathons and full marathons. He's a running beast. He has about 2% body fat. But I'm not nearly as jealous of that as I am the fact he has a beautiful running gait.

We've gone to races to cheer him on. He is amazing to watch. One foot in front of the other, stride after stride. Pat, pat, pat, his feet hit the ground so rhythmically. Mile after mile after mile. He makes it look so easy. So fluid.

Sometimes when I'm on the bike I think of Kurt. I imagine what that feels like, to run so smoothly. With each pedal stroke I can imagine a running stride. Up, down, up, down. I imagine I'm him, at the 18 mile mark of a marathon. Wanting to stop but knowing I still have something left. I have a few miles left in me. Pushing on, imagining people lining the street next to me, cheering and clapping. I pedal on, in my mental marathon.

And sometimes I think of Kurt's wife. She's become my sister through the years, as the 'in-law' part fell away with shared respect and affection. She's also a runner. She runs those 5Ks with her gifted husband. She runs the half marathons and has done her own full marathons. But she doesn't get the benefit of fluidity like Kurt does. She has asthma and other health issues. She fights for her miles.

She plugs away and gets the job done. Mile after mile she doesn't give up. When it's hard to breathe, she slows to a walk to get control, then she picks it back up again. She's always smiling. Even when it's hard. Even when it hurts. Sometimes I think about Terry when I run.

I feel the air filling my lungs easily. I take deep breaths, in and out, and am consciously thankful that they come so painlessly. I imagine being Terry, and pushing ahead even when it would be so much easier to call it a day and go home. I think about all the days she spends on the country roads by their house, running and running and running. I look down at the mile marker on my bike and set a goal. If it says I've ridden for 12.3 miles I decide to ride at least until I hit 13. It's the kind of thing Terry would do. Hit a wall and keep going.

After about twenty minutes on the bike my body is in a full sweat. A cleansing sweat. If my legs are going too fast it means the resistance level is too easy. I need to crank it up. I need to feel just a bit of burn. If doesn't take some mental effort, it's not worth it. It's not making me strong. I think about the rhythm of the song in my ears. I match the up and down of my legs with the beat of the music.

I concentrate on pushing a bit more with my left leg, the one with the plastic foot at the bottom. With each stroke I push a bit harder on that side. I wait for that thigh to burn a bit extra. Then I switch my focus to the other side. Pushing down harder with each rotation to the right. Then back to an even stroke, left, right, left, right.

After almost an hour on the bike it's time to slow things down. I look at my numbers and decide which goal is my ending goal. I can either end at a specific mile mark or a time mark. Or I can wait until the song on my ipod finishes. When it's finally time to stop, it's like stepping out of one body and into another. Everything slows down.

I exhale deeply and release my feet from the pedal straps. I let them hang loose, wiggling them back and forth, trying to shake the burn out of them. Then I crawl off. I take a few steps away from the bike and shake out my legs again. It feels good to have asked so much of them and gotten a response. Once I'm acclimated back to being on the ground I do my duty and wipe the bike off. I collect my towel, water bottle and ipod and slowly make my way back to the locker room.

My leg socket is full of sweat. I don't feel it as much when I'm on the bike, but as I try to walk away it's hard to ignore. Squish, squish, squish. Every step is like walking in a shoe full of water. I limp back to the other side of the gym, very aware that many might imagine I'm in pain, by watching my gait. But nine times out of ten, I'm not. It doesn't hurt to have sweat fill my leg. It's just annoying.

In fact, I'm usually just the opposite. I'm high. I'm exhausted and spent. My body is damp and smells bad. But I'm feeling good. Really, really good. Because I'm strong. My muscles have worked hard and done their job. My body has done what it was created to do, and done it in a very efficient way. I'm happy and grateful to be healthy. I'm thrilled to be smelly and tired.

This is why I had that foot cut off. This. Very. Reason. So I could squish back to a locker room and feel good about my fitness progress. So I could sit on that bench and wipe out that sweat, and emerge a few minutes later, able to walk tall and strong, back to my car. So I can be just like everyone else at that gym, and be the best that I can be.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Weight Matters

Well, I made it. I walked away from the piles of laundry and dust bunnies that were calling to me, urging to me to stay home and interact with them. I put on the work out clothes and headed to the gym.

It's been about five days since I've been there. Not a good way to stick to a fitness plan. But every day is a chance to start again, right?

It was bitterly cold. The thermometer says 12, and I would guess the wind chill would be much lower. There was a biting wind as I skated across the parking lot. Finding a spot to park was tricky. There are huge snow banks everywhere, from our endless snow storms, and they take up half the parking lot spaces. The spots that are left are used inefficiently, as most people seem to be unable to park in a straight row unless there are little painted lines to show them where to go.

I found a spot a long way from the door and stepped out onto a sheet of ice. Ice is one of the few things that truly scares me. I am not a well balanced person. I'm not nimble. I have sketchy balancing skills when the parking lot is perfectly dry. Add a sheet of unpredictable ice and my heart rate literally increases.

Because my metal foot is set for the exact height of my tennis shoe, wearing snow boots is not a good option for me. I would have traction if I changed into boots, but then be fighting my leg with every step. I'd rather be in control of my leg and deal with the lack of traction.

So I literally baby stepped, teeny tiny steps, cautiously and carefully, for the entire 50 yards of parking lot I had to cross. By the time I got to the door I felt like I'd already done my work out for the day.

But the blessing of working so hard to get to the gym...fighting the urge to stay home and get caught up, bracing against a bitter wind when you walk out the door, skating across a sea of that, once you're there, you feel like you'd better make it worth the effort.

So today I got brave and started doing the weights before I rode the bike.

I've been meaning to put the weights in my routine. I do some minor lifting at home, with some free weights, but I really need to start doing the full circuit at the gym. My sister, Terry, keeps reminding me that having more muscle mass revs up metabolism. I'm all over that idea. I know it will also make me walk better, to have stronger leg muscles. There are more than enough reasons to start lifting weights again.

I knew I'd have to do them before I rode the bike, for two reasons. One, I'm exhausted after the bike and totally out of energy. And two, my leg is full of sweat when I'm done with the bike and it's a pain to go into the locker room to dump the sweat out.

But here's my issue with starting the weights...I've lifted weights in several gyms. But every gym is different and I don't like that feeling of not knowing how to work a machine. And of course I'm too chicken to go ask for help. I feel like since I know how to use most of them, I'd be embarrassed to have the staff explain them all to me. I know, I know. It's stupid. And I have every intention of getting past my irrationality and asking for help the next time I'm there.

I had my first experience with weight lifting when I took a unit for college P.E. When you've got a bum foot that you're pretty successful at hiding, there are a very limited number of P.E. classes you can sign up for. Weight lifting seemed like an easy way to keep my deformed foot hidden. And I found that I loved it. I liked feeling strong. I didn't become Schwarzenegger that semester, but I did walk around a lot more fit. (side note: who knew that Schwarzenegger was in spell check??)

Then, through the years, we were members of the YMCA a few times. When three of my kids were in elementary school I put baby Sam in the Y child care room and rode a bike almost every week day. In Utah, right after my surgery, I joined a gym and spent long hours there, lifting weights and riding, until I finally claimed my new mobility. And since we've lived in New York, I've spent some hours at our local YMCA, riding and lifting, and sometimes even rowing.

But then the Y raised their family rates, and I was not able to justify the cost, when Meredith and I were really the only ones using the facility. So we canceled our membership and she and I joined the new gym around the corner, for a tiny fraction of what we had been paying. But with a new gym came new equipment.

It's all very similar, but I had finally learned all the ones at the Y and now I have new stuff to figure out. It's why I've not started lifting weights sooner. I've been at this gym for almost a year and I'm just now forcing myself to figure it out.

So today I bravely walked over to the equipment. I did the four machines I knew how to do. One of them I figured out because a guy had gone before me and once he sat down on it, I remembered how to use it. Then I made my way over to my familiar bike and jumped on. I'm 100% at home on the bike. Set my pedal straps, adjust the seat height, and I'm ready to ride.

I tried a new thing on the bike today too. I'd read that interval training helps with fat burning. So I did as the Runner's World article suggested (yes, I read Runners World, even though I don't know how to run, it motivates me to see people in such great shape!) With my hard core work-out songs going in the ipod, I rode hard for one full minute, then rode a normal pace for three minutes. I kept that pattern up for a half an hour, then rode at regular pace for 20 more minutes.

I liked it. I didn't mind pushing myself hard when I knew it was just for one minute. Then I felt like I was 'resting', when I got to ride at a regular pace for three whole minutes. I really felt the difference when I got off the bike, and it made the time go much faster. I think I'll try that again.

So now I'm ready to be committed again. No more putting it off. The work out today felt great. Even as I skated across the parking lot, back to the car, I knew it was worth it. The next time I go I'll be ready to ask for some instruction, so I can use all the weight machines that will help me reach my fitness goals. I'll give myself the pep talk that my health is worth pushing my comfort level a bit. No one cares that I have to ask how to use a machine. No one. Time to grow up and stop living in junior high.

Now I'm home again. The laundry is still there. It waited patiently for my return. The dust bunnies are still tucked in the corners of our wooden stairs, twitching their noses at me. And whaddaya know, my two teenage sons just barreled in the back door. Time to get back to real life.

My new, fit life.

Digging Deep (Again)

What I'm realizing, as I start this process of 'getting healthier' once again, is something I've come to understand about myself as I've gotten older. I'm your classic 'all or nothing' girl. I either do something all the time, every day, or I drop it out of my life completely. It's almost like I have to have a force greater than myself, something pushing me, to make me change my comfortable life pattern.

Two years ago I started writing a weekly parenting column for the local paper. It was thrilling to get the gig, and the first few weeks I coasted on stuff I'd written in the past. Then suddenly I ran out of 'old stuff' and every week I was forced to come up with something new and fresh. I had signed up for this thing, I had to make it work. It wasn't always easy. Sometimes I had to dig deep.

But no matter what, no matter how many sick kids I might have draped over the couch, no matter how many days I'd been away for a holiday weekend with the in-laws in New Hampshire, I had to sit down at that computer on Monday and come up with a column.

The benefit of the whole thing is, it makes me more in tune with what's going on in my life. I know I'll need a topic to write about when Monday rolls around. I've written about little things that happen to our family, pondering their implications and long term effects. These are musings I would have never captured, had it not been for that Monday deadline. I look forward to having this archive of our family, in the years to come.

So as I head into my second week of not doing so great at being committed to my fitness plan, I think about this personality trait and how it's holding me back, and how I can tweak it to make it push me forward.

I've lost twenty five pounds once in my life. Two years after my second child was born we started talking about having a third. I had gained a bit of weight, having had two pregnancies back to back, and really didn't want to head into a third pregnancy until I was back to my 'fighting weight'. My mom had five babies in a row, put on over ten pounds with each pregnancy, and then carried that extra sixty pounds around through all of my childhood. I didn't want to repeat her history.

It didn't hurt my weight loss goals that my ten year high school reunion was six months away. It was a goal on the calendar, to be back to 'myself' by June.

I was committed. I rode the rag tag exercise bike we got at the goodwill every single day. I watched what I ate and drank a ton of water. I did sit ups every day. Every day. Even with a couple of toddlers crawling all over me, I did daily sit ups.

And slowly the weight came off. I felt strong and capable. I fit into my 'skinny jean shorts', which for a person of my height, is a size 10-12. I cherish pictures of that time in my life because I remember how pleased I was with myself, for setting a goal and making it happen.

I didn't let anything stand in my way. Not even the fact that, with an archeologist husband who often traveled for a week at a time, digging in far off fields, I was a single mom, 24/7, to two needy little people. Not even the fact that I was living with a pretty crummy foot, that hurt a lot and kept me from being as active as I wanted to be. A simple trip to the grocery store would make it ache the rest of the day. But I didn't let that stop me.

So now I need to go back and find that drive so I can channel it once again. In my mind I see Easter as a good goal. We always head to the in laws for Easter, and take lots of family pictures. I'd love to love my reflection in those pictures.

When I see pictures of myself right now, I see a full face. It's much rounder than it is when I'm at my ideal weight. When I'm at my strongest, I have a definite jaw line. I want my jaw line back. And it's mine to get back. That's the crazy part of this equation.

In six months I can look totally different in pictures. It's all within my power. I have the ability to make the choices that will make my goals happen.

I have no intention of modeling bikinis. I just want to put on a pair of shorts this June, that are a size 12, and have them fit me comfortably. So I can go out and take a hike with my kids and feel strong and fit again.

And look good, look like myself, in pictures again. (insert smiley face here...)

There's a whole post brewing about how I look in pictures. I'll write that another day. Today is about making a promise to myself to do what I CAN do, what I'm capable of doing, to reach my goals. I've found that inner push before. I know it's in there. I last saw it fifteen years ago, when my house and my children were much smaller. But I am going to make friends with it again. Today.

I'm off to the gym right now. I would love to stay home, on this, one of my rare days of no work, and putter. There is thick dust on my bookcases that I could truly justify staying home to wipe down. There is a file cabinet next to me, full of writing ideas I want to tackle. But my priority has to be setting up new patterns of living. Making fitness a priority.

Off I go....

Friday, February 4, 2011


Wow. Who knew I could so easily be derailed? All it took was a crazy Monday, then a series of snowstorms, and suddenly I've tumbled back into old patterns.

I know this about myself. I like my old patterns. It's why I chug along so comfortably in them. It's easy to 'not find time' to go to the gym. Monday was my oldest son's 18th birthday. It was also the day my youngest son got to be principal for the day at his school. And it was the day before a blizzard was due to hit. I had a cake to make, groceries to stock up on, pictures to take at an elementary school, and normal Monday stuff to do (writing deadlines fall on Monday).

So there was no time for the gym. It shouldn't have been enough to throw the train completely off the track. But it did.

Tuesday I had work in the morning. I barely got there, through that previously mentioned blizzard. When I got home I knew there was no way I was going back out, to the gym.

But I could have ridden my health rider. I could have lifted the free weights I have here at home. I could have done a kazillion sit ups. But I didn't. The most I can claim is that I threw the weighted ball back and forth with Sam during a TV show. Oh, and helped the kids shovel the driveway a few times. Whoopee...

So when I don't exercise, suddenly I'm not accountable to the food side of things. I didn't do terribly. I just didn't pay attention. I pretended like it didn't matter what I ate. I had three sodas one day this week. Three. Yikes.

I'm not proud of it. It's probably why I didn't come back to this blog for the whole week. I didn't have great things to report.

But that's really the purpose of this blog - to report the journey. The good, bad and the naughty. I was pretty naughty this week.

I'm pretty lucky that I didn't gain this week. I weigh in at work every Thursday. We're having a "Biggest Loser" competition and I like the accountability of the weigh in. I had hoped to lose at least one pound a week. But this week I was lucky that I stayed the same, considering how little effort I gave.

So I am now back on track. I've signed up for a Spark People account, which has a place where I can type in everything I eat and every time I exercise. It tallies up my goals and tells me if I'm staying on track. More accountability. I need accountability.

Just doing what I want is much easier. Just eating whatever feels good is so much more fun. Not going to the gym gives me lots more time to get other things done. But it's not moving me forward, the the place I want to be. It's not making me healthy. I need to change my patterns long term.

So the next time a snow storm hits, or a birthday rolls around, or life just gets a bit extra crazy, I don't completely turn into that old person I used to be. I'm ready to be the new person I dream of being. But first I need to start acting like it.