Update: Going old school led to old habits

A few months ago, I decided to put down my phone and pick up some paper and a pen to track my to-do lists and, more importantly, my nutrition and fitness. While the old-school approach did help me focus more on important work, I also gained 10 pounds since May. I knew I had to correct my course, so I renewed my commitment this week and am starting fresh.

What happened?

On one hand, tracking my food on paper made me focus on different aspects of my health. I noticed how often I waited more than 8 hours to eat, how I took fits of wanting nothing to do with anything that grew in the ground, that sort of thing. That was great, and it has helped me address some deficiencies in my diet. (Example: I now eat more spinach in a week than Popeye did. And mine isn’t canned.)

On the other hand, tracking my food intake on paper had zero influence on my decisions unless I analyzed what I’d written and figured out what changes I needed to make. When it comes to tracking my nutrition, technology has a distinct advantage over paper — it thinks for me. It does math for me. It tells me exactly how much sodium I consumed, the ratio of protein and carbs I’m ingesting. In short, it does all the work I’m too lazy busy to do.

My exercise regimen also suffered from May until now. When I was tracking exercise in an app that converts exercise to calories, I would go for a 20-minute jog just to earn enough wiggle room for a larger steak or a cookie. That motivation, as misguided as it sounds, kept me active. That didn’t translate to the written exercise log at all.

In fact, writing down my exercise reminded me exactly how much I loathe writing down exercise, particularly weightlifting progress. I learned that tracking reps and weights and supersets makes me loathe the process so much that I’d rather check the “Oops, missed it!” box and move on with my day. I fell into the habits I had before I lost 60 pounds — inconsistent workouts, permissive indulgence (read Sure, you can have the extra steak, why not?).

Without the immediate feedback an app provides, I was creeping back to a lifestyle I thought I’d left behind. The moment I realized that, I slammed the tracking notebook shut.

What now?

I know I am way more likely to reach my goals if I track what I’m doing. That’s true regardless of the project. In this case, I am the project, and I need to hold myself accountable.

So, I’m going back to my LoseIt! app for now. It isn’t ideal, because there is way more to life than calorie consumption, but the app is easy and does a lot of high-level tracking for me. I’ve updated my settings to track sodium intake as well as macronutrients, and I’m also tracking things I didn’t before — water intake, coffee intake, that sort of thing.

As for the rest of my life, I have had great success knolling tasks using a personal kanban board. (Well, it’s not so much a board as a blank wall in my dining room.) I use color-coordinated sticky notes to help me see when my expectations are out of balance, and I get passive reminders to stay focused on my priorities today every time I walk past the wall to or from the kitchen. (That’s why I used a wall in the dining room instead of my office.)

That’s not to say that I’ve abandoned my tech love at work. I use AgileZen to collaborate on my freelance projects, for example, and I’m using OneNote to track everything from my bills to notes about my clients’ progress. The big difference? I’m not bouncing between apps all day. I use my touchscreen laptop/tablet more and my phone less to manage my day, and that has made a huge difference in my productivity.

Grocery lists and the like are still tricky for me. Right now, I jot notes to myself on a whiteboard, so I don’t have to touch my devices with messy fingers. I take a picture of the whiteboard with my cell phone before I go to the store, and that works fairly well. Still, if you have a recommendation for simplifying my process, I’d love to hear it!



Leftovers are a huge commitment

Right now, I’m cooking some gluten-free oatmeal. It’s 6:25 p.m. P.T.

No, I didn’t skip grocery day. As a matter of fact, I had planned to make coconut curry chicken over rice. So why am I stirring blueberries and walnuts into mushy oats right now?

Because I have commitment issues.

For the last three years or so, the vast majority of the food I’ve cooked has been for myself. Sure, I made dinner for friends, family, the occasional boy-type-friend. But mostly, the cooking has been for me.

At first, I used cooking for myself as an exercise in self-love. I was suffering the first pains of separation, and I saw cumin-crusted lamb chops and sautéed spinach as one way to prove to myself that I matter to me as much as my marriage did. At the time, I needed that reminder that taking care of myself was (and is) my top priority.

After around a thousand days of taking care of myself since then, though, I am over it.

When I make dishes like coconut curry chicken, I have vats of food left over. The same is true for spaghetti, BBQ, carnitas — things that were once staples in my weekly menu. So, cooking delicious meals for myself now means that I will be eating the same meal for DAYS. Lunch and dinner. Sure, I could make meals for one, such as lamb or steak. But eating like that gets expensive pretty quickly.

So here I am, eating oatmeal for dinner. Oatmeal is easy, it’s tasty, and it doesn’t ask me to live with it for a week at a time. It’s the Friends with Benefits of food — I don’t have to commit.


I’m giving up my cell phone (at least at the gym)

For the past year-plus, I’ve used Lose It!, an app on my phone, to track my calories in and calories out. I’ve also tried using weight-room apps to keep track of reps, weight, etc.

While that combination worked out for me for awhile, in the past few months I’ve noticed two things:

  1. No matter how religiously I adhere to logging my food and exercise in my apps, the scale (and my jeans size) have not budged in more than 6 months.
  2. It is becoming increasingly difficult to convince myself to adhere to the calorie guidelines in the app. Sticking to the guidelines or blowing them completely has made no measurable difference in my progress, especially in the gym.

What’s a geek to do?

I’m a tech geek. I love how portable technology, in particular, has enriched my life. I love my calendar, task list, music, entertainment, distractions and everything else contained in that tiny little machine in my pocket.

But in recent months, I feel fragmented — my task list and notes in Evernote (with no easy way to check off tasks — ahem, user experience); my gym schedule on a clunky website; my conversations spread out across Hangouts, texts, Facebook, email; my food plans spread out across Lose It!, Pinterest, my calendar (for nights out), whatever. I can’t stand how I feel like I’m spending my days bouncing between little buttons on a little screen. I do a lot, but I don’t feel like I accomplish a lot.

So, starting this week, I’m going old school. I know I can’t go TOTALLY old school — email, texting and the like aren’t going anywhere — but when it comes to accountability and being organized, I’m returning to the basics. Here’s my plan:

For health tracking, I’m using a Fitbook. Yes, paper and pen. I started using it yesterday, and I’ve noticed already what I was missing on those apps — a daily snapshot of what I ate (including handy trackers for stuff like water, veggies, etc.), strength training, flexibility, cardio, timing of my meals, mood and sleep. Seriously, each two-day spread is eye-opening.

I am aware Fitbook has an app. But that app tracks calories, and I know how negative that sort of tracking has been for me on the Lose It! app. (I did an hour of yoga, for example, and the app said with that hour I got a whole 124 calories extra to eat? Makes no sense.) Never mind the evidence that calorie counting doesn’t work long-term, especially for people like me who are shooting for a magic number of pushups rather than a magic number on the scale. Don’t get me wrong, dropping on the scale would be nice, too, but calorie counting is soul sucking and impossible to maintain for a lifetime.

For my obligations, I’m taking a unified approach and putting all my tasks — professional and personal — on one piece of paper. I am using a white board to sketch out my week, and the final tasks go onto a handwritten checklist with expected durations next to them. Why? Because in my fragmented state I’ve been scheduling 32 hours of stuff into an 18-hour window (I need 8 hours of sleep!), then getting pissed off at myself for not meeting my own expectations. Right now, I’m balancing freelance work, personal stuff and exercise. I am losing sight of balance, and it’s time to fix that.

Still, I can’t get away from technology completely. To supplement the paper planning, I’m still using my Google calendar to schedule appointments. I appreciate that buzz in my pocket that tells me it’s time to, say, get dressed and head to the gym. But instead of bouncing from there to my grocery list to my task list to my calories app to my… whew!… I’ll just scoop up my paper and go.

Who wants to bet how long this paper thing will last?

I’m keeping my head above water. And that’s the problem.

Staying true to my goals for 2014, I finally started learning to swim. I dodged having to swim at the Gravel Pit Spartan Race, but I doubt I’ll get away with that again at Vail Lake for the Spartan Sprint in September. Turns out, I’m not that far away from being a swimmer.

Trouble is, I haven’t mastered the breathing techniques necessary to efficiently swim freestyle. In my first trip to the pool, I mastered not turning my head from side to side when my face is out of the water — that’s huge progress for me. But when I put my face in the water? Instant choking.

Intellectually, I know I’m perfectly safe in the pool. I can touch bottom at all times, and I float without trying (which is why I cannot for the life of me swim underwater for more than a few strokes — buoyancy is my superpower). I’m naturally rhythmic, so picking up the choreography of swimming should be easy for me. Somehow, though, I struggle to trust all these things about myself and breathe in air without water.

I’m going to keep working at it, and I’m going to let my head drop beneath the surface as much as I can. Most of all, I’m going to fight my urge to give up on something at which I’m not immediately perfect, so I can find good enough.

To me, this is scarier than trying something new. I can be a beginner. But being mediocre? Feels an awful lot like drowning.

Who am I? I am SPARTAN!

Last week, I drove to Las Vegas to run a Spartan Super. It’s taken me a week to wrap my head around everything I accomplished in those 9 miles of gravel and mud.

I signed up to celebrate my dad’s birthday by living out loud as only someone running a race with no map, no warning, no preparation can do. In the weeks leading up to the race, I went from paralyzing fear of failure (wall climbs are HARD!) to crippling loneliness (my Spartan who signed up for the race didn’t know whether he could make it — turns out he didn’t — and my dad would’ve been the person I’d talked to about running this thing alone) to a surreal resignation.

By the time I climbed into my super-tall Jeep and took off across the Mojave, I realized a few things:

  1. I can run the longest distance a “normal” Spartan racer has to conquer, and this race wouldn’t be that long.
  2. I can do burpees all day. Especially when I get a break in between.
  3. There was no way I’d dishonor my father’s memory by NOT doing what I signed up to do, so eff it.

With those points squared in my mind, I arrived in Vegas to meet my bffff for a visit. She flew out for the weekend, simply to cheer me on, and somehow that made everything a little easier. Then, at the last minute, I learned that my Santa Barbara girlfriend was coming to meet me and run with me! So, on top of celebrating my dad’s birthday, we were celebrating hers, too. (It was the day before the race.)

Vegas, baby! And then, a race

Fast forward to Saturday morning. I was scheduled for the 11 a.m. start, SB for the 10 a.m. start. So we agreed to try to meet early enough to start at her time. Well, that didn’t work out. She and her boyfriend showed up right behind my bfff Sherpa and me, and after we walked what seemed to be miles to the entrance, we realized we’d never make it to her start gate in time. And I got another surprise — her boyfriend was running with us, too! He hadn’t trained at all, but he wanted to be there to help us. Loneliness and fear morphed into companionship and support. Before we even reached the starting line, I was choked up.

We ignored the fact that SB and BF weren’t scheduled for my start time and approached the starting gate. Here was the first obstacle — climbing a wall to get to the starting line. (Well, there were also Spartan dudes with pugil sticks, but a winning smile goes a long way toward not getting beaten too badly.) Up and over went BF. SB took a hop, fell off and tried again, clearing the wall. I panicked for a second — SB is a personal trainer, and her not making it the first time didn’t bode well for me.

Then, I stopped looking at the wall and looked around. I saw the braces holding the wall and decided how this day was going to go for me — I climbed the braces, slung my legs over the wall and hopped down with a smile. I got a round of cheers from the women who’d crossed the wall already, many of them saying “Yes! Work smarter!”

We went through the chanting, the claiming of our purpose — “I am SPARTAN” — the AROOs. Then, it was off for the race that would test me like no run ever has.

Leave it to me to find the most ridiculous way to run a Spartan Race

The Las Vegas course was unlike any I’d seen in person, in pictures, in video. It was rocky, dusty and full of gravel. In the first mile, we hit the first of what would be a series of rocky and sandy hills — almost straight up and straight down, with no simple way down. Up was easy — I had trained on the bluffs in Bakersfield, so this was familiar territory. But the first rocky hill down scared me half to death.

I asked the women around me if it was safe to use my hands and half-slide down. The woman next to me said “Sure, but don’t put your butt down!” As if on cue, my feet slipped just enough to plop my butt down — right on a sharp rock. It snagged on my shorts, and I felt the rock dig into my behind as my favorite compression shorts ripped away. Thankfully, the shorts didn’t rip completely — just a ridiculous hole that bared my entire right butt cheek to the world.

I am not exaggerating. As it happened, the guys behind me cheered encouragement like, “Spartans did this stuff naked — you’re more of a Spartan than we are!” The women, on the other hand, stopped to minimize damage and solve the problem. One lady had an extra set of safety pins. When those wouldn’t close the hole, another asked how attached I was to my shirt. Once I took it off, she and SB helped me patch the hole with it. I kept going, laughing at my situation and determined to finish the race naked if need be.

And so I kept going. I climbed over walls, with lots of help from SB and BF, who both claimed to be copping feels, not boosting me over. I fell off the monkey bars and did burpees. I rolled a rock boulder up my arms, drawing blood, and lugged it around. I carried a sandbag with such balance I didn’t need my hands. I fell over trying to throw a spear — more burpees!

Just call me Motivation

My favorite obstacle, though, was a mud pit. I crawled/rolled/slid under 300 yards of barbed wire through the rockiest mud I’ve ever seen with that ludicrous hole gaping as the safety pins gave way to the weight of the mud in my shirt. One of the guys behind me told me he felt like he owed me $5 for the show — I told him I was proud to deserve more than singles, and that got a rousing round of cheers from my comrades — and another group dubbed me “Motivation” because I kept them crawling toward something other than burpees.

I’m sure some women would be offended by all this, but I found it hilarious and oddly comforting. I learned my quick wit and lack of shame from my dad. I was there to honor him, and I did in ways I’d never have predicted.

A stroll in the desert

SB, BF and I walked most of the course. Sure, we could’ve run it, but BF summed it up perfectly about 2.5 hours into the race. He said, “I feel so free! We could be pushing ourselves for time and miserable, but not chasing a time makes this so much more gratifying.”

And he was right. I was having so much fun just ambling — running, walking, even skipping between obstacles. I realized I hadn’t completed a race without caring about the time in at least 5 years. And here I was, in the toughest race of my life so far, having FUN because I didn’t care how long it took.

Ending with a mud bath and a bang (of my knees on a wall)

This race was decidedly dry by Spartan standards. But at the end, we hit exactly what I’d anticipated: A muddy hill lined with barbed wire. I cleared that ok, waiting patiently for the guy in front of me and ignoring the cries of “hurry up” behind me. After all, those people didn’t have the threat of snagging their bare asses on barbed wire in front of all those spectators.

Once I cleared the barbed wire, I saw what was next — a muddy downhill slide into a huge mud puddle as deep as SB’s chest. Even though the weather was mild — the temps were only in the 70s — I was thrilled to run headlong into the water and cool off. I caught up to SB and BF, who were surveying the wooden wall towering in front of us.

See, the bottom of the wall was under the surface of the water. I looked around and saw several Spartans frozen at the edge of the puddle. Some were downright panicking. I couldn’t figure out why. This seemed simple compared to what I’d been through! Just dunk under the water, crawl under the wall and pop up! There were course officials screaming from the sidelines that anyone who chickened out had to do 50 burpees. Seriously?!

I shrugged, took a deep breath, held my nose and dropped to my knees. With my free hand on the bottom of the wall, I slid under, pushed up and gasped. Ok, that was COLD! But it was easy. Way easier than what stood between me and the finish line.

The last major obstacle was a painted, wooden wall at a 45 degree angle. It had ropes attached, and those ropes had knots in them. BF basically ran up the wall, no problem. SB and I went up next. She slid a little on the soaked, muddy wall. I slid a LOT, but I made it up behind her. Out of nowhere, a course volunteer popped up, hand outstretched. I reached for his hand. And slipped. And fell to my knees. I was holding with every ounce of strength in my body to his arm and the rope. I was determined NOT to do that climb again. I pulled, he pulled. I got one elbow up, and I knew I had it. (Thanks to SB’s 4-year-old son, I learned I could climb out of anything as long as I remembered “Elbow, Elbow, Belly, Knee.” Seriously, it works!)

I had no idea what to next. So I asked/yelled the question. The volunteer coached me though swinging my leg over (nearly kicking a dude in the head, my Sherpa told me later), planting my shaking hands and feet on rungs and climbing down to my friends. We grabbed each other’s hands, ran toward the fire pit and jumped. I felt the fire beneath me, and I almost cried. I’ve rarely felt so alive.

Knowing myself has a whole new meaning

That dusty, muddy day in Vegas taught me so much about myself. I know now just how capable I am. I faced a fear of heights, of being alone, of failure. It taught me how safe I am in my own body and how my mind can be my best friend or worst enemy. I finally made friends with my mind.

More than that, it taught me about my relationship with my dad, about what living beyond my dad’s passing means. Until then, I had been coping. I had decent days. I had heart-wrenching cries.

But that day, I connected to the pieces of my dad that live on within me. Not just the courage, bravery, toughness and lack of shame my dad instilled in me. Those things all served me well, but there was something more. The gentle honesty in my eyes when some women around me wanted to give up and I told them I believed in them. The dogged determination to climb hills and walls and all manner of rickety, high-up things that made me shake and want to cry.

Most of all, the piece of my dad that awakened is the love in my heart. Love for the families around me — my Santa Barbara family, my other-mister sister and my Spartan family — and a love for living that filled my heart with unrepentant joy. My daddy taught me to love, and becoming a Spartan led me to love my journey and my life without holding back.


Why running 19.3 miles was the easiest part of my Disney World trip

A few weeks ago, I ran the Glass Slipper Challenge in Walt Disney World. The runs themselves were a challenge, alright. But compared to the rest of my 7-day trip, pounding pavement for almost 20 miles was a breeze. Why? Here are 5 of the top reasons:

1. Disney World magnifies whoever you really are.

Disney World is only slightly cheaper than therapy, but it will help you find out who you are a lot faster. That’s because, contrary to the marketing campaign, Disney World is not a resort. It is a microcosm of your world, in full Technicolor and with no easy escape. If you usually go through life fairly chipper but find yourself being super cynical when cast members mutter “Have a magical day,” chances are you’re a closet cynic. If you are usually happy-go-lucky but at WDW you get really angry for no reason, chances are you are, at heart, coping with some anger issues.

If that were the end of it, I wouldn’t have been frustrated. But dealing with thousands of people — many under the age of 10 — who are being uber versions of themselves, is exhausting. Which is why…

2. I should not travel with or around children.

I met my brother, his wife and son, her mom and their neighborhood friend in Florida. (They came from North Carolina. I came from California.) I love all those people. But after watching my 6-year-old nephew morph from a well-behaved, polite young man into a manipulative, whiny wuss, I was ready to melt down. Ok, I did melt down at least twice. And my nephew is a GOOD KID. The other 500,000 brats on the property made me consider taking up drinking again.

In case you haven’t guessed, I don’t have kids. After a week surrounded by tailholes begging for every piece of merchandise around them, and worse their tailhole parents either letting the little jerks act like that or snatching them by their arms and tossing them bodily into strollers, I think my ovaries shriveled beyond repair.

I paid entirely too much money for a weeklong vacation in hell. I don’t think Disney is hell. In fact, Disneyland is one of my favorite experiences ever. So why did this trip suck? Because…

3. Disney World is way too big for its britches.

Disney World is made up of 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, 26 hotels, an outdoor shopping center, pavilions, a complete sports complex. It has its own commuter bus system, waterway boat system, monorail. It is larger than the city of Orlando.

And everyone on property is trying to cram in as much fun as possible to account for the obscene amount of money they’ve paid to visit this “magical” city. So Disney World combines the worst of suburban life — commuting everywhere you want to go, eating out all the time, coping with people you don’t want to see — with the worst part of vacationing — trying to fit an impossible set of activities into a tiny timeframe.

There is nothing spontaneous about a Disney World visit. You can’t get a wild hair and decide to eat at the 5-star restaurant — it’s been booked for a year. You don’t happen upon characters very often (unless you’re my brother, in which case Alice walks up to you and engages you in a detailed discussion about tiaras, which is awesome). If you don’t have an expert traveling with you, you are pretty much guaranteed to be disappointed. But for me, nothing was more disappointing than how I was treated at almost every restaurant on property.

4. Disney World treats its gluten-free guests like pariahs.

Look, I get it. Gluten-free people have a reputation for being a pain in the butt to serve at restaurants. There is no one reason for being gluten-free — some, like me, are intolerant but don’t have to worry about dying if we eat food cooked on the same grill as a hamburger bun. Others do have that worry. It isn’t easy to cope with. And I appreciate that Disney at least cares enough to have gluten-free food on hand. Granted, it’s frozen in the back and microwaved (usually inadequately) to make it palatable. That’s still better than nothing.

But darnit, do NOT make me talk to a chef every time I eat.

Seriously, I could not order a meal without talking to a chef. Quick service, buffet, table service, whatever. This sounds like good customer service on the surface, but it isn’t. It’s draconian in its execution and makes the gluten-free person feel singled out and too complicated for a server to be able to help. The entire party has to suffer through this at every meal.

My last two dinners were the only exception. One, at Via Napoli, was the highlight of my trip. See, their head chef is a guy named Joe. He’s from Staten Island and has been with the restaurant since it opened. You know how I know this? Because Joe comes out and talks to the whole table like we’re humans. I had eaten at the same place the year before, so when I saw Joe I hollered his name (instead of waiting for our server to remember to track down the chef). He came right over, struck up a great conversation, went over the menu with me. And when my sister-in-law’s order came out incorrectly, Joe spotted the discomfort on her face from across the room. He investigated, then remade the dish himself. Joe is the saving grace of Disney food in my book.

The other great experience I had was at Tony’s Town Square. Like Joe, that chef engaged the whole table and actually knew the difference between gluten intolerance and allergy. He asked my specific issue and explained the flour content of each of the meals I had considered. He trusted me to make an informed decision.

In contrast, a server at the All Stars Sports “quick service” counter got into a full-scale argument with me after I told her I’d already talked to a chef the day before, and I just wanted her to make what he told me to eat. When the chef FINALLY came out 15 minutes later (and everyone else in my party’s food had gone super cold), she told the woman to just do what I asked. The woman’s response? This was all MY fault because I “didn’t know how to order right.”

I’m sorry, what?! I told her I never have this problem in Disneyland, where gluten-free food is listed on the quick-service menu. She said, “Well, they’re smaller and can handle this sort of thing.” I looked at her like the moron she is, told her I didn’t have time to argue economies of scale with someone who can’t figure out how to make a taco salad on top of nachos and walked away. I realized…

5. That customer service Disney is famous for? Yeah, it no longer exists at Disney World.

From the time I entered the work force, Disney’s customer service mantras have been held up as the gold standard. Sadly, at Disney World at least, that service is the exception, not the norm.

Yes, you can create your own experience by engaging the cast members around you. That’s what my family does, especially on bus rides and waiting in line. And yes, some cast members really do love their jobs and want to make your experience special. But, for the most part, the people who work at Disney World are less excited about life than their animatronic counterparts on the rides.

I know this isn’t the case at other Disney venues. My sister-in-law is a perfect example of a cast member (at a retail store) who embodies everything truly magical about Disney. I’m sad the people who are lucky enough to work at the flagship of the empire don’t deliver the same.