How many times do you suppose this question gets asked every single day? For me, it wasn't only an issue of vanity, that is, whether or not I appeared ironically out of shape in my technical gear, or just looked older because of a protruding belly and rounder face.
For years, doctors and nutritionists had urged me to lose twenty pounds for all the well-documented health reasons. So, because it sounded like a good idea, without any genuine enthusiasm I would follow their suggested meal plans for a while. Then I'd stop because I felt fine, my clothes fit me well enough, and my extra fat kept me warm in the winter. Like most people who perceive no immediate danger, I regularly opted for second helpings and dessert instead of responding concretely to the abstract, eventual threat to my well-being.
But a couple months into my marathon training, I realized there's another way to look fat, namely, to visibly struggle with speed and stamina. This was no abstraction. I felt heavy, which meant I was too fat to succeed at the marathon! Suddenly, for the first time ever, I felt compelled to lose some weight.
The thing is, I hate dieting! Don't you?
Instead, I devised a simple strategy, namely, to follow the training protocol, which would progressively increase my mileage and burn more calories, while I focused on eating like an Italian. I don't mean loading up on pizza and pasta, but rather, consuming foods that exploded with flavor. This caused me to slow down, pay attention, savor longer, and automatically end up feeling satisfied with smaller portions.
Summertime was a bonus. What could compete with the likes of fresh peaches, plums, pluots, nectarines, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, or domestic grapes? (OK, besides ice cream. Luckily, I've rarely yearned for it.) Salads made with garden-fresh veggies somehow seemed more filling, and one or two slices of excellent bread from the farmer's market was always enough. As for chocolate, one of life's essential pleasures, I merely upgraded. A few squares of high-quality dark chocolate actually satisfied, in sharp contrast to "fun-size" M&Ms, Snickers, Twix, etc., which no matter how many I ate, never seemed like quite enough "fun" and urged my palate to crave ever more.
My strategy worked. Between June and August, I dropped about twelve pounds. The body composition monitor told me I was indeed losing fat, but water rarely registered as more than 50% of my body weight.
By mid-August, people were beginning to remark that I looked athletic. The belly was gone. I tested myself in the inaugural Hotlanta Half Marathon. The finishing photo said it all: I was still fat. My profile looked great, but anyone could see I was exhausted at the finish line – the result of lugging my remaining excess up many Atlanta hills in the summer heat.
In September, a strange thing happened. My weight started increasing again. I was cross training a lot more at the gym. My fat percentage continued to drop slightly, but my hydration level rose to almost 53% (approximately nine pounds of water.) Yet, I wasn't bloated, my physique had continued to improve, and I felt great. I was physically stronger, and my endurance had significantly increased. It turns out that muscle tissue contains 79% water.
According to both my waist size and the body composition monitor, I'm still officially overweight. I clearly still have some fat to lose, but the whole idea has once again become an abstraction. I know it shouldn't be. My love handles are gone, and I get cold more easily. My pants are loose, and I have to cinch the belt, but they're not yet loose enough for me to shop for the next size down. That means I've lost subcutaneous fat. What's left has to be visceral fat, which is the dangerous kind.
But I've never felt better. I'm able to racewalk twenty miles on hilly terrain, at a good pace, without collapsing. And I'll look athletic enough in my race day photos.
Hopefully, after the marathon, my continuing to train and eat delicious food will keep the visceral fat on the run. If not, well... we'll see.