Amidst all this struggle, struggle, struggle between the forces pulling away at me, winter settles onto Melbourne. My Writing Big Year stipulates that I don’t exercise in the morning but I decide to fudge a bit and do my post-hamstring-injury recovery runs in the wee hours. And, once more, I’m reminded how beneficial it is to exercise in the dark. Jog in the coldest part of your twenty-four hours and suddenly winter no longer threatens old bones. Confronting the chill reminds you that weather is just weather and we humans thrive in all climes.
If we let the climate best us, it surely will. But we don’t.
X was 13 days. After 13 days of sobriety, yesterday evening I had a few glasses, cursed myself, woke early and jogged. Bridge Road was a deserted, floodlit boulevard, my hamstring felt clear, any winter chill was a mere inconvenience, and I’m launched into another fine day.
I wrote a while back about Bronson Botha and his “500 days of sobriety.” I’d interviewed him. His resoluteness has lingered with me, and after posting recently about my love of wine “in moderation” and my qualms, I decided to banish wine for a while. This would be my own, more modest, stretch of abstinence. I called it my “X days of sobriety.”
Why not put a number to X, say 5 or 50 or 500? Why not just do Dry July and its 31 alcohol-free days? The answer is simple: I’m conflicted, don’t know what I should do, and have little faith in my willpower on this issue.
I haven’t even been prepared to put a name to this period until now. I haven’t drunk wine since Saturday the 3rd, so X is already 10. 10 days: what will it grow to?
The usual spiel about wine is that drunk in moderation, it’s actually good for you. What does that mean? I checked out Amitava Dasgupta’s The Science of Drinking: How Alcohol Affects Your Body and Mind. Not a sparkling read by any means, it has the virtue of a full survey of the scientific literature (a few years outdated). Listen:
Alcohol has beneficial effects when consumed in moderation. The lowest all-cause mortality occurs at an intake of one to two drinks per day. The lowest coronary heart disease mortality also occurs at an intake of one to two drinks per day. . . . Drinking more than recommended can invite problems, because the health benefits of drinking in moderation quickly disappear. Theoretically, drinking more than three drinks a day by men and more than two drinks a day by women can be considered heavy drinking. . . . The definition of moderation is not based on an average of alcohol consumption over several days but rather as the amount consumed every day.
Let me put it more simply. A standard drink of wine is a small glass. If I drink one or two glasses every day, I’ll live longer and be healthier. But exceeding two glasses flips everything arse about: I’ll die sooner and am more likely to become ill. Some averaging seems to be permissible, but abstaining Monday to Friday, and then consuming a week’s ration of 14 glasses over the weekend, repeats the bad message of earlier death, etc.
I know someone who has one glass of white wine, exactly one, no greater and no fewer, every damned day. I know people who readily have a glass or two and then stop. But I also know someone, namely me, who never gets drunk or impaired, but who regularly has three or four or even five glasses. Dasgupta’s book tells me: stop!
Am I an almost almost alcoholic? I took a look at Almost Alcholic, by doctors Joseph Nowinski and Robert Doyle, which kicks off like this:
Here’s what we’ve discovered: the men and women who have been diagnosed as alcohol dependent – or, more simply, alcoholic – represent but the tip of the iceberg of a much larger segment of the population whose lives are negatively impacted by alcohol use. . . . Though not technically alcoholics, these men and women – young, middle-aged, and older adults – nevertheless are experiencing problems related to their drinking. . . . the “almost alcoholic” does not drink normally but also wouldn’t be labeled an “alcoholic.”
Here’s the interesting thing: the real-life examples in the book are people I’d actually describe as drunkards or “people with drinking problems.” Me, I’m definitely not an almost alcoholic. But upon reflection, perhaps I’m an “almost almost alcoholic,” someone who is a long way from addiction but experiences a pull towards alcohol. Put simply, I love my wine and it’s not the taste (though I often pretend to myself it is) that beckons but the narcotic.
Is this an issue? I’m guessing many will say it shouldn’t be, that drinking “in moderation,” which is very much what I do, is no problem and may even be a healthy move. But I sense that this year I’ve erred by “indulging,” to use one of the many drinking cliches, a tad too much.
Having decided that, what’s the next step?
It has slowly dawned on me that 2016’s Jogging Big Year was one monster beneficial virtuous circle. At the time, I grizzled but shouldn’t I have celebrated instead? Plentiful exercise, sensible weight, a grooved routine . . . why wasn’t I satisfied?
A key element was Michael Mosley’s 5:2 diet, which I stuck to for half the year or longer. Two days each week on a quarter of normal calories, five days of eating freedom . . . Mosley’s notion suits my personality and worked well for me.
Yesterday was my first fasting day in 2017, part imposition, part return to normality.
Imagine the shock. Over 80 kilograms for the first time since 2015! During last year, the Jogging Big Year, I averaged 76 to 77 kilograms and I had four months under 76. Remote hiking helped – returning from five days eating dehydrated food always led to weight loss.
The funny thing was, for the first two months of this year, the scales showed only slight increases, as if the body was still used to the 2016 regimen. I was just under 78 in March and April, and heading towards 79 in May. Suddenly I was trapped in an inglorious cycle.
Every extra kilogram feels like five on the track. Time for action . . .
Don’t read me wrong. I love my newfound cycling and still have huge, if gradual, aims for it, and I do recognize that people keep cycling to later ages than they keep running.
Yet there is something about jogging, something reflecting its difficulty and pain, that might be even more precious. For sure running is tops for cardio and I’m told it’s also the best for bone density. But beyond such bland “what’s good for you” arguments, arguments that never really motivate, I reckon something existential lies at the heart of why runners run. Perhaps all runners know this. Using every part of the body, interacting with the world by pounding on it, striving against inbuilt laziness . . . isn’t that grand?
So as I recover from minor injury, I’m thinking anew about combining cycling acclimatization with retaining a “proper” running regime (which I associate with last year’s four 10 km runs a week). I know that means spending more time exercising, and I know this year’s writing pressures sent me back the other way, resisting longer hours and shying from exercising twice a day, but where I am now – suddenly less fit than I have been for years – is not the answer.
This Big Year seemed simple. Attend to exercising daily. Take up cycling, aiming for quite a few kilometers over the year, but maintain some jogging and do a little gym work. I wondered, early in the year, whether adding cycling to my regimen would aid overall fitness.
Here’s what happened. For equivalent “exercise value,” I knew I’d need to cycle more hours than I typically jogged. After an initial terrible jogging period, all went well for a while but then writing work pressures told on me, and I dialled down my cycles to just one hour. So yes, I did maintain the daily commitment to exercise but now the effort, over an entire week, was less than last year. My weight stacked up. I skipped a few days (work whinging). The left hamstring went on what was just a short jog. I kept up light gym work and minimal cycling but a spiral of doom had begun, I could see.
Yesterday I flaunted my Writing Big Year rules and headed to the river just after dawn. The body felt unfamiliar. I was not me anymore. How had this happened? A mist shrouded the track, joggers and cyclists aplenty.
A few days earlier, I’d only managed 2 kms on the tender hamstring, so now I aimed for 4 kms. I’ve lost winter conditioning and had rugged up with too many clothes, so two kilometers down the path, I was drenched in sweat, but you know what? It felt great and I kept going, turning around after 3 kms and lurching homeward. The final uphill felt sweet. 6 kms at a deadly slow 6:45 mins/km . . . heaven!