The Road to Recovery
How long does it take to put on weight? Is 8 days enough time to put on considerable weight, or is there a significant delay between eating the fatty foods and putting on the body fat? These are the questions bouncing around my head as I stand on the scales this Thursday morning to see that I have lost 2 kgs since yesterday morning. Apparently, the 5 flapjacks, 3 slices of banana bread, full-fat milk and peanut butter protein shake, abundant cheese on toast lunch and peanut noodle dinner just didn’t cut it. I thought I’d had a good day of putting on weight yesterday. The scales disagreed.
My weight started at 75.45kg as I checked it on Wednesday morning. It was time to start bulking before the big operation, just as the dietician had ordered. The challenge was clear – eat as much as you can, as often as you can. If you look at the packet and see a red colour in the ‘saturated fat’ box, eat twice as much of it. Fruit is fine, just dip it in butter first. Strawberries and cream? Throw those strawberries in the bin and double the cream. Double the double cream. Do they do quadruple cream? Who cares, make your own by combining two tubs of double cream! Put down that banana and eat more chocolate. Why are you crying? Most people would kill to be in this position.
I have major surgery on July 8th. At my pre-surgery appointment with the dietician, she advised me to indulge in all the foods I’d usually limit in preparation for the surgery. I will be losing a lot of body weight afterwards, so the additional weight will help me over the next few weeks. She also advised me to start strength training in addition to my running as it would help me recover faster. The resulting equation makes me think of those videos that you see of athletes’ diets, where they need to take on 8,000 calories a day to maintain their training schedule. The most infamous one I can think of is the US swimmer Michael Phelps diet where he was trying to take on 8,000 to 10,000 a day during training. I’m not comparing myself to him of course, I could never eat that many calories in one day (apparently); I could easily match his world-record swimming times, though.
This morning, as I prepared myself to step onto those scales again, I had a satisfying feeling running through my body. “I ate so many buttery things yesterday,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to weigh so much today.” As I took my place on my pedestal, ready to accept my ‘greatest gainer’ award, I watched the numbers bounce around. Eventually they settled on a number that I wasn’t expecting. 73.3kg. I’d lost 2kgs.. Well, damn it. I’m sure your weight does vary a lot based on how much water you have drank, how much food you are processing at the time etc, but this still felt disappointing. I’ve never felt so disappointed at losing weight; I’ve rarely felt anything about weight. I’ve never weighed myself consistently enough to care.
The truth is, I’ve never paid much attention to my weight. I’ve always exercised enough that it hasn’t been a problem. My family also seem to benefit from good metabolisms, as far as I can tell. We’re all quite skinny, but everyone does also exercise a good amount. We were brought up seeing my parents being active. It’s always been the way with us – you need to keep fit enough that you can eat an obscene amount of cake and feel absolved in doing so. I watch my dad do it every day, although he has slowed down on the exercise now he is in his mid 60s; the cake eating is going as well as ever.
When I was 16, exercise was all about weight training. The only cardiovascular exercise I did was when playing squash. This continued until I was about 22. I then started to commit myself more to running, cycling and other, more cardiovascular-focused activities. The dopamine hit was getting addictive and I didn’t care so much about having a muscular physique. My main objective was to look good when I was weight training, but I was realising that feeling good was a much more attractive prospect. Cardio made me feel much better than weight training. I clung on to the weight training for another few years, not wanting to lose too much of my muscle mass after so many years of hard work, before throwing in the towel completely when I entered my first marathon. Run run run – that was my new life. Harnessing my inner Forrest Gump, I decided that the running life was for me.
It was a few years later, in 2019, that I started to weight train again. I was living in Philadelphia in an apartment paid for by the company. There was a gym in the building. It wasn’t amazing, but it was right on my doorstep. Closer, actually. It was in my basement, just an elevator ride away. I felt like my running was stagnating and I couldn’t figure out why. The training was brutal – 6 days a week, 45 miles or more total distance – but I always did it. After doing some research online, I’d read that strength training is an essential part in improving your running. That convinced me to figure out a new strength routine and make room for it in my busy workout schedule. I’d get up at 6am to go to the gym, or I’d finish my run in the basement. It was nice to be back to the weight training with a different purpose beyond getting ‘buff’. I was using lower weights and doing more body-balance type exercises.
When covid struck and I was brought back from the US, I didn’t bother joining a gym. They weren’t open for a few months because of the lockdowns anyway. Running was still a staple in my schedule, as I was now training for the 100-mile GB ultra, which I was due to do with my brother, Greg. I randomly ran a marathon one Saturday as part of my training. I felt like I was fitter than ever. All that running took its toll, though, and I sustained a knee injury. After seeing a physio, I discovered that it was caused by an imbalance in hip strength. The strength training was back in the fold and I had a plan drawn up by the physio of home-friendly workouts. One of the exercises required me to fill a backpack with books and do one-legged squats… only in the pandemic would you find me filling a bag with books and using the lounge furniture as an exercise bench. What a novel time that was!
It was around this time that I discovered yoga. Once my injury was better, I relied on yoga to keep my muscles in good shape. The strength training was gone, but the yoga improved flexibility and ensured that blood was flowing to those tight places. I was always finding excuses to get rid of the strength training again – it felt like old ground to me and I had done nothing but that for years when I was younger. Yoga and running were now my staples and remained so until I fell ill, ceasing all physical activity until a few cycles into chemotherapy, when I realised that I could still run. It’s been tough but I’ve managed to achieve some consistency these days. Towards the end of chemotherapy, it got very difficult, but I do around 3 or 4 days running a week now, even if it is mostly 5Ks.
On Wednesday, I signed up for the gym across from my parent’s house. It is a small gym, located above a few shops and accessible by a door around the side of them. You make your way up a staircase to access the gym. It is actually the first gym I ever went to when I was about 14. It has changed hands now, has been refurbished and is open 24 hours a day, accessible with a fob. As I walked around it on Wednesday after being inducted, it felt strange. I’d spent so much time in there when I was younger. I remember watching a particular developed guy that was in my year at school doing the max weight on the chest press machine when I was younger, and wondering how on earth he could do such a thing. It was amazing to me. There were about 8 people standing around him watching him do it. It was impressive for a 14-year-old. My dad used to participate in a competition on the rowing machines – who could row 2500m the fastest. He was top of the leaderboard, despite some of the other competitors being nearly half his age. It made him proud. I’d done it a few times with him, but it wasn’t for me.
After going to the gym on Wednesday, I then went running with my friend, Finch. I only did 5K. My legs felt like jelly for the initial 10 minutes after doing squats for the first time in 2 years. Perhaps that is why my weight was so low this morning – your muscles have to break down before they build back stronger, right?
Maybe I should be lowering the amount of exercise I am doing. It feels so unnatural to me to just cram calories and not balance it out with more work, though. I’ve never been a fan of eating for the sake of eating. I know that this is different as I have a good reason to do so, but I can’t figure out what the right balance is. The thought of eating so much high-calorie food and not countering it with some sort of exercise just doesn’t seem natural to me. Usually, I’d do a long run which would allow me to eat anything and everything in sight. Burning calories is the mechanism which permits me to take more on. I’m doing that to an extent, but I’m not used to watching my weight so closely in the process. Perhaps I’m overthinking it all. I know that I have stepped up the amount I’m eating the past few days. Surely that will result in me gaining weight eventully. Tuesday night I made a mushroom and miso risotto. Piling my plate up higher than ever, I thought I was excited to eat it. By the end, I had to go to bed early because it made me feel so sick. I’d overdone it. That day I had been out for lunch too – I even got a dessert in the middle of the day. What luxury!
So, at around 11am today, I made my way over to the gym again, feeling more determined than ever after my disagreement with the scales that morning. As I left, I saw a bee struggling on the floor. It was on its side and only occasionally moving its legs. I remember seeing on the news that if you see a bee in this state, they probably need some energy. My mind considered just leaving it be – the nature documentary approach – what happens in nature, happens, and who am I to play God with it. I couldn’t do it; God is in my name afterall. I ran back into the house, stirred some sugar into water in a small glass, then went outside and trickled it next to the bee. Satisfied that I had tried to do something (which was better than nothing), I proceeded to the gym. There was a woman outside smoking. I made my way up the stairs and into the weights room, deciding to start with a few back exercises before moving on to working on my chest. Then I’d do legs, before finishing on arms. Easy.
Halfway through my routine, I walked into the cardio room to get some more water. The woman who had been outside smoking was sitting on the exercise bike, leisurely turning the pedals and watching videos on her phone. “She’d be better than me at putting on weight,” I thought to myself. Has there ever been a stranger brand of jealousy? Stop it, Dan. Bitterness won’t increase your weight. Your judging someone on silly things anyway – all of the professional footballers used to smoke 50 years ago and they were healthy. Not as healthy as the ones who didn’t smoke, but you know what I mean. The doctors were probably still recommending smoking at that time, stating it helps you to lose weight; maybe it does help you lose weight… Good job I don’t smoke. I’d be eating my cigarettes now if I did.
I was in the gym for about 50 minutes. As I walked up the drive when I got home, I remembered about the bee I had attempted to revive. The bee was standing upright now and there were ants everywhere, including one standing on its back. An unconsidered and unwanted result of pouring sugary water on the floor was that the ants were now having a field day. They seemed to be mostly leaving the bee alone, at least. The bee was using its legs to wipe its face. It seemed to have more energy than earlier but it still wasn’t flying off. I tried to poke it a bit, but that didn’t seem especially helpful. My David Attenborough moment was here. Although I want the bee to live, it was beyond my control. I stood up and wished it well, before making my way inside. It was time to eat again; I didn’t feel excited.