An Unexpected Journey

(With apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.)

It's been a few months since I last posted, and those few months have brought about the most unexpected changes. I hope to use them as a catalyst to bring about more change. Three things sparked this transformation: tidying, an orange shirt, and speed.

(This, and all posts, are primarily written for my own benefit. My technical memory is good, but my social memory is horrid. I will forget most of these details in a few years; this post is here to remind me. You take away from this what you choose. As Bruce Lee said, "adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.").

Tidying

I was perusing through my Facebook feed one day, when I came across a post on a friend's wall. It showed a picture of a drawer with clothes standing up; every single piece of clothing was immediately visible. I was intrigued. The technique was based on the KonMari method, defined in a book, the life-changing magic of cleaning up, by Mario Kondo. I had heard of the book before, but had dismissed it for unknown reasons.

This time, I read the free portion of the book on Amazon, decided I liked it, and bought it. It took a little getting in to, but by the time she got to actually describing her techniques, things started to click. I have not finished reading the book, yet, but I've been applying the techniques to my life. The most visible change is that I am starting to discard those things that no longer bring me joy.

I started with clothes, as she suggested, and continued from there. It even spilled over into other aspects of my life. Well over a decade ago, I started to seriously read up on Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. Buddhism inspired me to become a vegetarian, to avoid causing suffering, but I had a hard time actually making it work. I tried several times to convert to a vegetarian diet, and met with failure every time. It's obvious what the problem was, in hindsight, but it wasn't at the time.

Actually, there were two problems. The first is obvious: I lacked commitment. The majority of my friends are omnivores, with no desire to give up meat. Without a strong commitment, it was easy to fail. I was miserable because I had failed, and I was miserable because I thought that I had to eat meat to survive. This was the simple truth that came from applying Marie Kondo's techniques to my life. So, I tossed out eating meat, because it did not bring me joy.

Almost.

The second reason why I failed was less obvious.

An Orange Shirt

I ran the Stryder's 5K trail series at Camp Saratoga this year, and had a blast. Seriously. The races destroyed me, way more than the Cole's Woods 5Ks. I came out so much stronger.

(That's eleven races this year: two on the snow, four at Cole's Woods, and five at Camp Saratoga. Eleven! A few years ago I couldn't fathom running a single race.)

I was on my way to one of the Stryder 5Ks, number 2 out of 5, I believe, and I had just reduced my clothing from a dresser, a full rack of clothes, 6 extra shelves in the closet, and a full bin of hiking stuff in the storage room, down to a dresser and a full rack of clothes. Only the stuff that brought joy had been kept, including most of my running and hiking clothes.

As I said, I was on my way to the race, wearing the exact same clothes I had worn at the last four or five 5Ks of the year. I had just seriously reduced my clothing, and I was thinking hard about what actually brought me joy and what didn't. I loved the shirt, because of what it represented, but I realized that it had stopped actually bringing me joy.

What it represented was freedom: years ago I did all of my hiking in cotton. 100% cotton. Polyester irritated my skin to no end, and I hadn't yet realized that nylon was a different material, or that there are so many different types of polyester that it was impossible to draw a generalization about their effects on my skin. At a friend's suggestion, I checked out wool, and found that my skin could tolerate it, especially merino wool. It's expensive, but it gave me a ton of freedom: I could hike longer in the colder months without fear of freezing, and I could hike longer in the warmer months without being drenched. When I started running, wool also gave me freedom there. It performs amazingly in all seasons, under all conditions.

As I mentioned, it's also expensive, and to make matters worse, my spouse is also highly allergic to it. I did my best to keep my wool clothes away from her, but it was becoming annoying to both of us: every accidental contact ended up with her knocked out from diphenhydramine. This was weighing on my mind, as well as the fact that I was wearing the same clothes I had worn to every race this year, when I decided to go try to find something, anything else at a sporting goods store on my way to the race. I found that Under Armour's polyester didn't bother me, hastily purchased a shirt, and went on my way.

That was the beginning of the end of my obsession with wool. I failed to read the label, so I accidentally bought a compression shirt, and while it was way too tight, it worked. Within a few weeks I had bought several other polyester items, found that my skin was tolerating them all fine, and it snowballed from there. When I went to give my wife a hug before heading out for a run, and reassured her that I had no wool on, her sigh of relief was the nail in the wool coffin. I still kept it around for a few more weeks, but I put all of it into a bag and challenged myself to deal without it.

(It turns out that I would have gotten there anyway, but I felt it important to capture that the way that this decision happened, in light of what happened next.)

Speed

A few days after committing to vegetarianism, I ran another 5K. I was doing OK until the hills on the last mile. I felt myself dragging horribly, feeling weak, walking for fear of falling over. A word ran through my head: herring. I chuckled.

Years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining (rationalizing) why I had given up my latest attempt at eating a vegetarian diet. I was feeling lethargic after a few months, and angry. So very angry. I did some research about what our bodies specifically get from meat, and aside from the obvious (vitamin B-12, vitamin D3, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and heme iron), I read something somewhere that stated that half of the creatine stored in our bodies comes from food sources. I have no idea how true that is, but it stuck with me. Herring is one of the best sources of creatine, and kippers (kippered herring) are (is) one of my favorite fish products, so I decided to give it a try.

The results were swift, and the resulting speed boost was measurable.

The problem is I don't think the results were true.

The main reason why I gave up being a vegetarian that time around had nothing to do with speed. Speed was a rationalization. The real problem was anger. I had given up meat out of compassion, and it had made me less compassionate. What good is it to spare animal lives when I'm harming the lives around me?

The reason why I was angry, the reason why being a vegetarian failed, was because I was successful at losing weight years ago. I went from 290 lbs to 170 lbs over the course of a few years. Along the way, I trained myself to eat smaller meals. This was ostensibly based on calories, but more likely based on volume. Even when I resumed eating normally, I was still half-conscious of what a meal's size should be. When I cut out meat, I did not boost my caloric intake to match what I had been eating previously. I have no proof of this, but it stands to reason that it is true. Meat is far more calorie dense than most vegetables, but my plates were about the same size after cutting out meat.

In short, I was hungry, and grumpy because of it. "Hangry".

No wonder I failed.

Here, in the present, I tried adding seafood back in, but it didn't feel right. I've read the arguments for veg*ns eating oysters, but they don't sit well with me. That's a topic for another post, though. I generally agree with the assertions on the second page: some people take themselves far, far too seriously, and it's better to bend than to break.

Ethical issues aside, my spouse hates the smell of seafood, and is also allergic to shellfish, so removing one major allergen only, wool, to add another, shellfish, just didn't make any sense.

More Speed

I gave myself the month of August to figure it out. No calorie restrictions, no calorie counting, just eat vegetarian. Well, vegetarian, and avoid eggs and dairy.

A little over two weeks after my decision to commit to vegetarianism, I decided to cut out eggs and diary, too. I had been searching for a shirt that I had seen a few months earlier, stating that the wearer was vegetarian for 9 different reasons. It took forever to track down via Google Image Search, and along the way I saw several other shirts that didn't make any sense. I started to look up what they meant, and was horrified. The assumptions I had formed in my head over the years, about how we as a nation treat our livestock, were tossed out in a few moments. I'll spare you the links. Suffice it to say: I do not consider modern, mass-produced eggs and dairy to be vegetarian. I'm certain there are outliers, but how do you find them, and how do you verify the veracity of their statements?

So, no meat, no eggs, no cheese. August was simple. I treated myself. A packet of Liz Lovelies was my lunch on more than one occasion. My instructions to myself were: "if you're feeling mad, you're hangry, so go shove more food in your face hole*".

It worked.

I got mad, I told myself to eat, I ate, I felt better. Eventually my portion size adjusted, the anger went away, and it didn't come back.

Two weeks after that bonkish 5K I ran the next one, and felt slightly better, albeit much slower. By the final 5K, I felt like I was running normally again. I felt like I had finally figured out what I was doing wrong, and that I could confidently call myself a vegetarian without fear of having to explain, yet again, that I was back to eating meat.

One Final Tweak

I began to seriously consider just committing to a vegan lifestyle. I had run a hard race, at a pace I could live with, without meat, seafood, eggs or dairy. I was racing and running without wool.

A little over a month earlier, on July 12th, Scott Jurek set a speed record on the AT. He ran for approximately** 2200 miles over the course of 46.3 days, running entirely on plant-based fuel.

He won Western States SEVEN years in a row, as a vegan.

What was my excuse, again?

So, I committed myself to being an ethical vegan as of August 24th, and thus far, I haven't run into any more major issues. I'm continuing to learn, continuing to grow, and continuing to remind myself that it's better to bend than to break.

Well, that's enough rambling for one day. Somehow five hours just flew by.


* OK, so I didn't actually say "face hole" until later in the month, when a friend used it while describing the carb-related atrocities she would commit should she go on the "21-day Fix" diet. It stuck.

** Thanks to Bill Bryson's dedicated fact finding, I'll never believe the reported length of the AT, ever again.