Putting the pedal to the metal.

A few months ago I was looking through the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine and noticed a short story about a man from New York who had recently made serious upgrades in his personal fitness. At age 60, he had lost some 40 pounds by training for, and then competing in, Spartan races. Based on the picture, he looked like he was in pretty good shape.

I showed the article to Sue and suggested we look into this Spartan race thing, and she agreed. Within an hour we had signed up for a race in Phoenix in November.

As of this writing, we’re now less than four months away from the race, which will be a 5k with 20 obstacles. More than once since we signed up, I wondered if we might just be off our rockers. But more often, I think this: “Good. We need to get after it.”

And that, we have done.

Ready or not, here we come.

Challenging ourselves at 65

In recent years, Sue and I have sought out adventure travel, planning at least one trip a year that will put us through the paces. In 2017 we went to South America and climbed through the Andes in Peru on the Salkantay Trail, some 50 miles in five days at altitudes ranging from 12,000 feet up to 15,210 at the pass. That trip culminated with an exploration of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. A year later we went to Spain and joined a Trek bicycle tour of Andalusia, riding over 200 miles in a week. And in 2019 we took a day in our Belize vacation to explore an ancient Mayan cave and rappel down a mountainside.

The pandemic of 2020-21 put a temporary halt to our adventure travel plans, although we were able to get to Alaska in August of ’21 and do some kayaking and rappelling. I had originally planned to celebrate my 65th birthday on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, over 19,000 feet up, but now that’s on tap for ’23. Okay, what’s two more years?

We made it to Peru’s Salkantay Pass at 15210ft, but the way down was even tougher.
Near the top of El Torcal, a very challenging climb on our last day on the bike trek in Spain.
Sue rappels down a Belizean mountain, just a few hours after we explored a Mayan cave that was anything but an easy spelunking tour.

After returning from a Rhine cruise in December 2021, our only plans for a foreign trip in ’22 were a cruise of the Baltic Sea in May, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused the cruise line to eliminate the Russian stop in its itinerary, so we canceled our reservations. We certainly would’ve enjoyed going to the other countries on the trip–Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Sweden and Norway–but the two days in Russia, including a trip to the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, were to be the highlight for us. (The cruise line also eliminated a stop in Finland, for some reason.) In a couple months we’ll be going out to Utah in the western U.S., boarding a Rocky Mountaineer train and riding it for two days through the mountains to Denver, but that hardly qualifies as a strenuous adventure. So, the trip to Arizona in November to run the race fits right in.

But like our previous strenuous adventures, for this one we’ll have to be ready.

Choosing to live the strenuous life.

I don’t often read USA Today, but recently a front-page article about obesity caught my eye, so I picked up a copy. Surprisingly–the paper is not known as a bastion of objective reporting–the article appears to be well-balanced, in the sense that it acknowledges obesity is often brought on by poor lifestyle choices, while at the same time it discusses a broad spectrum of possible solutions to the problem, while stressing that simply blaming the obese person for their choices hasn’t done the job and never will.

And it’s a problem, to be sure. Three-quarters of Americans are overweight, and four in ten are clinically obese. But like everything else, those numbers aren’t strict indicators of the problem. The most common measurement of where a person’s weight puts them–underweight, about right, overweight, obese–is the Body Mass Index (BMI). It’s recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a pretty good indicator, using a person’s height and weight to make that calculation. If your BMI is less than 18.5, you are underweight; 18.5-24.9, about right; 25.0-25.9, overweight; and 30.0 and above is considered obese.

But that scale doesn’t always work in the real world. By BMI measurement, I would have to get down to 205 or less to be considered “about right.” My weight hasn’t been that low since college more than 40 years ago, and there’s no way I will ever get down there without starving myself, which I’m not inclined to do. I’m 6’5″ tall and weigh about 230, with a goal of getting down to 225 by the date of the Spartan race. That will be my best weight since, well, a while ago, and it’s the weight I instinctively feel will be best for me and my build. But even then, I’ll still have a BMI of about 27.5 and be considered “overweight.” Sue is 5’7″ tall and according to the table would still be considered “healthy” at 153 pounds, which is well above where she’s at; I can guarantee you she would not consider herself healthy at that weight. And most NFL players would be considered obese, including former Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who at his peak carried 255 pounds on his 6’3″ frame:

This man is obese, according to the NIH.

So, it’s best to be flexible when it comes to weight. My playing weight in high school was 175 as a senior, and more than once I’ve thought about what an extra 20-25 pounds would’ve meant to me on the basketball floor. A modern-day NBA player at that height weighs around 195-215, and these players have had the benefit of nutritional science and weight-training that wasn’t available to me and my teammates in little Potosi, Wis., in the mid-1970s. If we’d had access to the same resources that current Potosi Chieftains have, we would’ve been a much more formidable team, of that I’m sure.

The key, as the article said, is practicing good habits: healthy eating, plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep. A lot of people make excuses about not being able to do even one of the three: they’re too busy, too poor, too this, too that. And while the article did a good job of pointing out the physiological and psychological reasons that obesity is so hard to overcome, it also comes down to the dreaded “R” word. Early in the piece, the writer said the experts consulted “agree people need to take responsibility for eating as well as they can, for staying fit, for sleeping enough.” They didn’t say that a person’s bank account has to be a certain size, or that the person must have a support network of a certain size, or that he or she must have a certain amount of anything…except, perhaps, willpower.

The rest of us can help, because almost all of us are on the same path: seeking a lifetime of good health. I don’t know of anybody who’s overweight and content to stay that way. Almost all of us–myself included–have an ideal weight in mind, a number that we’re somewhere to the north of. We can support each other instead of stigmatizing those of us who don’t seem to be successful in the never-ending battle against obesity. After all, unless we’ve known that person for awhile, we don’t really know how much weight they might have lost already. Maybe it’s a lot, maybe they’ve just started, and maybe one kind, supportive word from a stranger can be the trigger that pushes them out onto that path.

Sue and I have chosen to lead the strenuous life, and while we’re certainly not perfect adherents to it, we’re in pretty good shape, both physically and emotionally, as we enter our Medicare years. I think of my own parents at 65 and they wouldn’t have been able to consider a Spartan race. My grandparents? Not even close. I loved them all dearly, and next week I’ll be able to see my mother again as we say goodbye to Dad down in Arizona, but they all might’ve lived longer, perhaps a lot longer, and healthier, had they lived the strenuous life, too.

We need to get after it. All of us.

One thing that’s seriously lacking in our society is an emphasis on physical fitness among our kids. Even back in my day, we treated P.E. class as more of a joke than anything else. If you just showed up and went through the motions, it was an easy A. Those of us who were athletes hardly had to work at all in these classes, since our fitness level was already well ahead of our non-athletic peers. I’m not sure what they do in school these days–hopefully they demand more of the kids–but I’m sure our schools can step it up. The Art of Manliness website, one of my favorites, recently ran a great article about what a school P.E. program could achieve, if the educators and the community were willing to do it: https://www.artofmanliness.com/health-fitness/program-review/the-insanely-difficult-standards-of-historys-hardest-p-e-program/

If we were all healthier, we could get more accomplished. We could do more work, be more innovative, be happier. There’s a definite connection between physical fitness and emotional happiness. We can do this, but it would certainly help to have someone leading the way. Unfortunately, our political class seems to be completely uninterested in the subject. That wasn’t always the case; Theodore Roosevelt was famously vigorous as President of the United States, and many of the men who followed him were, as well, up to John F. Kennedy, a competitive swimmer in college who started the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. JFK built on an initiative started by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who’d played football at West Point and quit smoking cold turkey after being a chain-smoker for many years. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, began the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

But we’ve lost something in the last half-century, that will to excel that Kennedy tapped into, not just to promote physical fitness among his citizenry, but to inspire them to achieve things like putting a man on the moon. Yes, we have these things called smart phones these days, making it easy to let ourselves get sucked into the internet no matter where we are, but there have always been distractions, always been things making it easier, rather than harder, to do something. We need a lot of these things, for sure; nobody is asking farmers to ditch their tractors in order to wrestle with a horse-drawn plow. Nobody is saying we should park our cars and walk everywhere. But what we do need is a willingness to do the basics: eat healthy, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.

Imagine what we could accomplish if we all lived the strenuous life!

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