Hiking around Charleston

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The girls enjoy some sisterly goofing around on the beach at Sullivan’s Island. From left, Cassie, Rowan and Colleen. (Unfortunately Bob had to work and Ben had his spring break two weeks ago, so it is just us girls on this trip.)

Much as I wish our oldest daughter Rowan lived closer so we could see her more often, I’m really loving the chance to explore Charleston on our periodic short visits here.

I was bushed Friday night after our 13-hour drive, but we went for a short late night walk along Folly Beach after dinner and some pretty cool live music at Rita’s Seaside Grille. This is clearly the “happening” beach scene for anyone who doesn’t feel like driving two hours north to Hilton Head or the same distance south to Myrtle Beach. It was fun to check it out, but we all prefer the more laid back beach on Sullivan’s Island, and that’s where we wound up on Saturday.

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Amid all the local history, we were also intrigued by this futuristic looking dome house we found at the end of our walk along the beach. 

It was too chilly for swimming, but there is so much to explore on this tiny sliver of land along the north edge of Charleston Harbor: Blackbeard and Edgar Allan Poe have walked this shoreline, and key battles were fought here in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. We didn’t visit any specific sites in 3 miles of ramblings along the beach Saturday, other than a stop at Poe’s Tavern, but it was fun to think about.

“Did you know what Blackbeard wanted in exchange for his hostages?” said Colleen, who’d been reading up on local history. “A chest full of medicines.” Apparently Yellow Fever was a big problem around here back in those days.

On Sunday we trekked 5 miles through downtown Charleston, starting in Battery Park and winding up in the French Quarter.

“You know the British Navy suffered its first defeat here in more than a century?” asked Colleen.

I did not. Looking out from the cannon-equipped barrier wall  you can see Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, along with Fort Moultrie across the Harbor and Pinkney’s Castle, kind of a junior varsity fort, in the middle. The USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier, provided part of the background scenery as we watched dolphins play and a helicopter water rescue drill.

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A water rescue drill in Charleston Harbor on Sunday. 

All of the houses along the Battery are beautiful, but even more so when you realize all the history that’s transpired there. The Edmonston-Alston House, for instance, was where the Confederate General who gave the order that launched the Civil War watched the cannons fire on Fort Sumter. General Robert E. Lee also once spent the night there.

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General P.T. Beauregard stood on this front porch to watch the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. 

General P. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander who gave the order to fire cannons on Fort Sumter that started the American Civil War, watched the bombardment from the house porch on April 12, 1861.

From there we walked through the French Quarter, theoretically searching for “the pink house,” which was built around 1700 and is the oldest house in the city. But really we were just gawking at all the cool architecture before vanishing inside the City Market, a three-block artisan’s market.

DSCN2115We wound up at Jestine’s, a classic southern eatery named after a local legend who lived another three years after the Atlanta Braves wrote to congratulate her on her 109th birthday in 1994. Jestine Matthews’ mother was a Native American and her father was the sharecropping son of a freed slave. She came to Charleston from the low country around the turn of the century and eventually wound up cooking for a prominent local couple. Their granddaughter named the restaurant after the woman who provided tasty homestyle cooking and a warm, welcoming atmosphere “for generations of friends and family.”

Rowan and I both ordered the pecan-crusted whiting, which literally hung off my plate. I got the Southern-style green beans and the broccoli casserole. Colleen ordered what she thought was a grilled cheese but turned out to be a sandwich spread with about an inch of pimento cheese, which is a big deal around here. Cassie and Rowan’s friend Jessica got the fried chicken, which was apparently ever bit as good as advertised.

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I usually eat my fish unencumbered by culinary crusts, but I was curious to try genuine Southern cooking.

But what we were looking forward to sampling was a slice of real Southern pecan pie, along with Jestine’s famous Coca-Cola cake. The waitress talked us into trying the coconut cream pie as well, and the girls wanted something fruity, so we got an apple-blackberry cobbler.

By that point, we almost had as many desserts as diners. But I wanted to preserve the conceit that we were merely “tasting,” and each one was so incredible nobody wanted to commit to just one. We passed the dishes around the table until they were gone.

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Jestine’s renowned Coca-Cola cake: the hype is real. 

It’s amazing to me that the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted is merely an afterthought at Jestine’s, which is better known for its Coca-Cola cake and coconut cream pie. But I can see why that is. Pecan pie is served everywhere down here, while this cake is something special – an old fashioned chocolate cake that the girls said reminded them of Grandma Linda’s sheet cake, only thicker, gooier and richer.  The coconut cream pie was awesome as well, but I don’t have a lot to compare it to.

It would’ve been cool to meet Jestine, who died the year after the restaurant opened in 1996. But I’m glad her food lives on, as just one small piece of what makes Charleston unique.

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‘Undoing’ fitness as usual

Books have invited me into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs; they have offered me a place at the most unusual gatherings.

Hisham Matar

 

If the library hadn’t had such a long wait list for The Undoing Project, it never would’ve occurred to me to reserve the large-print version – which means I might never have discovered the joy of reading while cycling.

Turns out, now that I’ve had some practice, it isn’t all that hard to read regular-sized print when you’re in perpetual motion, either. But large print + a fitness bike = extremely satisfying multitasking, especially with a few “tabata” sprint intervals to ramp up the sweat factor.  

This may be the era of surgically-attached earbuds, but I don’t synthesize what I hear nearly as well as what I see, which is why I pretty much only listen to music or page turners. It’s hard for me to get in as much real reading as I’d like. Toting a great book to the YMCA, and then tuning out all the garbage on the TV screens, makes going there that much more satisfying.

undoingprojectI’d agree with some reviewers that Michael Lewis occasionally gets too bogged down in the intricacies of Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s research on the peculiar ways the human mind can delude itself during decision making. But there’s some mind-blowing material in there, wrapped inside an almost-Shakespearian human drama. Has there ever been a friendship that provided so much mutual benefit – not to mention the benefit to humanity itself – while simultaneously testing its boundaries? Throw in a childhood spent living in a chicken coop to evade Nazis and the fact that even the most heralded Israeli academics wind up on the front lines of war from time to time just ramps up the story. Besides, one of the benefits of reading the old-fashioned way is that you can skip over paragraphs that don’t interest you. And that happens in even the best books, fiction or nonfiction.

In past years, getting enough cycling miles in to complete the YMCA eight-week triathlon has been a challenge. This year, thanks to plantar fasciitis and a stack of good books, biking is my go-to workout. I read during the warmup, cool down and recovery periods, setting my book down only for the sprints (three sets of 10 x 20 seconds, with 10 seconds off in between). The only danger is that if I get too engrossed, my recovery periods can go over. But I always make sure I get in enough tabatas, so it all works out. Certainly it beats sitting on my butt reading.

On Saturday I wanted to go read and cycle, but ultimately decided it was simpler to stay home and do a run/walk treadmill workout as I try to work my way back.I’ve never had any luck reading on the treadmill. But I bungee-corded my large-print book in place and managed to read during the walking segments.

In the end I was glad I’d stayed home because the final scene brought tears to my eyes. Funny thing was, I knew what was going to happen. But the way it went down felt unlike anything I’d ever read before.

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A better weigh to monitor fat loss

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Fred Miller, chairman of the kinesiology department at Huntington University, shows off the school’s Bod Pod which provides state-of-the-art body assessments. Miller, a 2:41 marathoner, uses the device as he works to shed 2 percent body fat before his next race.  

When football stars train for the NFL Combine, they hop in a state-of-the-art device called the Bod Pod for a complete body composition analysis that tells them their ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat, along with their resting metabolic rate and estimated daily energy expenditure.

Turns out mere civilians can get the same type of analysis at Huntington University  – for roughly the cost of a hair cut.

While your bathroom scale can tell you whether you’re at a healthy weight, the number that flashes on the screen doesn’t tell you whether those two extra pounds are water weight, fat or muscle.

You might not like the much more specific data the Bod Pod can provide. But if you use it as a training tool, it’s a great way to get a better understanding of the changes taking place in your body as you lose weight, shed fat and gain muscle.

When I interviewed Annie Giddens about her 200-pound weight loss last month, she said getting a body assessment done every six months or so has been much more motivating than merely stepping on the scale. And no wonder: Over the past year or so she’s seen her body fat percentage drop from 40 percent to less than 28 percent.

I was too chicken to take a seat in the Bod Pod when I went to check it out recently for a newspaper article, given that I’ve hardly run since Christmas thanks to plantar fasciitis. But now I’m kicking myself for not getting a baseline assessment. Aiming to shed fat and not just weight would be a great motivator once I start training again.

To make an appointment for the Bod Pod, folks in northeast Indiana can call 260-359-4148 or email fmiller@huntington.edu. The cost is only $20 if you have a membership at the YMCA or any gym or health club (the normal rate is $40). For more information, check out today’s Adventures in Food and Fitness column in The News-Sentinel.

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The real food pushers are in your head

One of the things I heard recently while visiting an African-American church to learn more about its healthy cooking class has really stuck with me. 

Bishop Crystal Bush, senior pastor at New Zion Tabernacle, had asked members to find the health lesson in a Bible verse, Proverbs 13:20: “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but a companion of fools will be a fool.”

The answer the group came up with that day – “Sometimes we eat the wrong things just because of the people we’re with” – struck me yet again over the weekend, when I found myself in a Cracker Barrel, surrounded by obese Hoosiers  shoveling heaping mounds of home-style food into their mouths.

It was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and I’d wrapped up my eating for the day hours earlier. But my parents had made the trip to Fort Wayne to see Colleen’s jazz band performance, and they had planned to eat afterward, so we joined them.

Just because I was sitting in a restaurant full of furiously masticating humans didn’t mean I had to cave, though. If anything, locking in on an enormous couple a few tables away who spoke not a word to each other, gazing at their phones as they shoveled it in, I felt my resolve grow stronger.

“Nothing for me, thanks,” I told our server, having previously ordered coffee and water.

Once I made the decision, it just wasn’t that big of a deal. People had other things on their mind. Nobody was obsessed with, or even all that interested in, what I was or wasn’t eating.

Yes, there might be a bit of peer pressure to indulge if “everybody else is doing it.” Food pushers are real. Just living in the American Midwest can sometimes feel like being stuck inside a never-ending food orgy.

But the other night at Cracker Barrel, I realized that none of those voices have ever been nearly as loud or insistent as the ones inside my head.

I’m still working on learning to quiet that interior noise. But my days of blaming the people I’m with or the situation I’m in are over.

 

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It has been really cool to hear Colleen play with the high school jazz band and pep band (shown here) this year. Unfortunately we still have to endure the 8th-grade band concerts as well, but might as well savor these last few months of middle school, since I can hardly believe that phase of her life is almost over.

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3 amazing people who lost 200 pounds each

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Brittany Horton lost 208 pounds from 2012 to 2015.  Last week the Fort Wayne native got to tell her story to singer turned talk show host Harry Connick Jr. on national TV.

I used to think a 100-pound weight loss was really something. But in the past three months, without necessarily setting out to do so, I’ve interviewed three people who’ve each lost at least 200 pounds.

All three either live in the Fort Wayne area or – in the case of Brittany Horton, the subject of today’s “Adventures in Food and Fitness” column – grew up here. So unless this is some kind of anomaly, weight loss in the 200+ pound range is becoming more common.

Maybe that isn’t surprising, given current obesity levels. Has there ever been a point in history when we’ve pushed the envelop on how much weight the human body can possibly carry? Looking at Brittany’s “before” photo, I never would’ve guessed she weighed in at 386 pounds. (Neither did she; she had no idea how much she weighed back in 2012 when she was denied health insurance due to her size.) As a 5-foot-11-inch woman who always worked hard to dress nicely, she carried her weight pretty well. 

While not everyone accumulates that much excess weight, the fact is most Americans take in more calories than they burn. Few succeed in fixing the problem. Given the long road that lies ahead for someone who’s 200 pounds overweight, there’s something truly noble about embarking on and then staying dedicated to such a quest. Phil Brenneman shed his 200 pounds in 15 months or so, but it took Brittany three years and Annie Giddens seven.

None of them used a liquid diet or any kind of fad program. All three continued to tweak their approach as it became easier for them to exercise and as they learned more about nutrition and their own food issues.

Interviewing Phil, Annie and Brittany provided me with tons of inspiration but also specific takeaways.

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Phil Brenneman, 200 pounds lighter

*In Phil’s case, it was how he deals with being tired when his alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. He said he knows his body will respond even if his mind is tired, so he doesn’t really dwell on fatigue. He expects to be tired and groggy. But he knows his body will feel better at some point during the workout, and ultimately he will have a better day because of it.

*With Annie, I was struck by how she’s gotten focused on her body fat percentage and not just her weight. She still weighs herself everyday, but what really motivates her in her CrossFit workouts is getting her body fat percentage where she wants it to be.

*With Brittany, the first thing you notice is how toned her arms and shoulders are for somebody who’s lost 208 pounds. Like Annie, she’s a big fan of strength training. But the key tip she always passes on to those who ask her for advice is to “not be too hard on yourself if you mess up.” Lose the guilt, and just get right back at it is her motto – ideally by the next meal, but no later than the next day. No exceptions.

All three of these guys are fantastic role models, whether you’re looking to lose a little bit of weight or A LOT.

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Annie Giddens has gotten into CrossFit competitions during her weight-loss journey.

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A tale of two pizzas

There’s something about the $5 price tag on a Little Caesar’s pizza that, to a certain personality, inevitably introduces the idea of plotting to get yourself alone with one.

It erases the cost factor from the guilt equation, leaving only the gluttony. And if you have a history of succumbing to gluttony, it’s not hard to go down that path again.

The first time I tried to have my way with an entire large pepperoni Little Caesar’s pizza I succeeded in my conquest but found the process less magical than expected. Yes, it was initially fun to gobble euphorically: This pizza was mine, all mine! But with no built-in off switch, I kept going just because I could. I wound up feeling miserable. And, of course, guilty.

Weirdly, this isn’t a tale from my fat life, but from after I lost weight – when I felt the freedom to experiment with my inner pig in a way I hadn’t before. Because it was so much less fun than I’d imagined – fairly unpleasant, actually – I wasn’t tempted to do it again.

Until recently, that is.

On a day when I was planning to try an experimental 4-hour feeding window, I thought, why not just go for a single meal? It could be a pretty nice meal, with an entire day’s worth of calories available.

Removing two slices from a large Little Caesar’s pepperoni pizza would leave 1,520 calories in the box. That’s pretty much my daily calorie limit, assuming I’ve got some exercise built in. I decided to go for it, curious to see how my Inner Pig responded this time around.

This was a food experiment, not a binge, so guilt shouldn’t have been a factor. I hadn’t eaten all day and had 1,500 calories up for grabs. But I still felt the need to do this in private – in the car, in the process of running a couple of errands. (Which raises the question, how much does pigging out in the privacy of one’s car contribute to the obesity epidemic? But I digress.)

This time, with a plan in mind, it was easy enough to allow my Inner Scientist to bag up two slices before I let loose my Inner Pig. And I gotta say, it wasn’t even phased by the missing pizza. Six steaming slices is still a pretty big temptation.  

An interesting thing happened this time around, though: On slice No. 5, I realized that I was not only getting unpleasantly full but that … the pizza no longer tasted very good. Suddenly I was hyper aware of all the grease and salt.

I stared at the last remaining slice for a good long while. It was mine, if I wanted it. But I didn’t. Not then. I put that slice in the trunk with the others, wiped my mouth, and went on to the next event on my itinerary.

Later, after I finished my last stop, naturally I was reminded of the leftover pizza. Once upon a time, that’s all it would’ve taken: Reminder of undefended leftover treat meant it was as good as gone.

Not this time. I’d gotten in the habit of not eating within three hours of bedtime, and at this point I had an hour at most before I hit the sack. What a sweet discovery that this habit is now well formed enough that I wasn’t tempted to break my rule just because of some stray pizza.

Technically, this experiment was a smashing success. Being willing to consolidate all my day’s calorie intake into this one pizza, taking the precaution of removing two slices ahead of time, and then being cognizant of the new sensation of recognizing the feeling of becoming unpleasantly full, I came out of that day with just 1,240 calories.

That makes this a viable option – a “cheat day” experience that could double as a successful diet day.

The only thing is, what I remember most is not the gooey yumminess of those first few bites, but the greasy saltiness of the finale. Maybe it’s time to move on to better food, and edit $5 pizza bombs out of my life.

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Is going on a diet like joining a cult?

Is going on a diet like joining a cult?

set_penn_jillette_pesto_9781501140181This is one of the jokes magician Penn Jillette makes in his book Presto: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. Jillette is the loud, tall and formerly fat half of the duo Penn & Teller. Facing raging blood pressure levels that his doctors felt required gastric sleeve surgery, Jillette instead became a guinea pig for an ex-NASA buddy who turned out to be  a control freak with some pretty unconventional dietary ideas. But Jillette shed weight in a hurry and many of his pals “joined the cult” along the way. So while he’s had to get used to a new belief system that shuns pizza, doughnuts and Ho-Hos, he’s got lots of company.

He also manages to have way too much fun for a guy in his early 60s who now eats only whole plant foods.

This book didn’t make me want to join his “cult.” But there are a lot of interesting ideas packed in amid Jillette’s signature profanity. Here were the takeaways for me:

* It’s important to know your dietary personality. Some people like to make small sensible changes that Jillette calls “dieting like a grownup.” My dad falls into that category. When he wants to drop a few pounds, he “just eats less.” Like Jillette, more extreme measures appeal to me. I like a diet to feel like a quest or an adventure. I hate when eating is boring, even when I’m trying to do less of it. With Weight Watchers, I was obsessed with gaming the system to figure out what I could get away with without going over my points total. I got similarly obsessed with Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet a couple of years ago, which, now that I think about it, was a bit like “joining a cult” in that I was totally focused on the cheat day reward that SCD followers were always rhapsodizing about. This diet got me leaner, even though I wasn’t able to run due to injury at the time. But once I lost faith in the cheat day concept, I couldn’t stay on the six-day regimen to save my life.

presto-9781501140181_hr-back*I love the way Jillette learned to turn “not eating” into an action verb.  People are so used to feeling like they’re suffering on a diet, when they have to say no to cake or cookies or whatever. On business lunches with no good options, he learned to say he simply wasn’t hungry. He ordered decaf coffee and seltzer water and found he was better able to focus on the deal, which was the whole point of the meal anyway. On New Year’s Eve, he ate a big salad then drank decaf espresso all night while everybody else was scarfing party food. “At midnight, bringing in a new year in which I would be thinner, I had a big tasty slice of … nothing, (expletive). I was doing this thing.”

*When Jillette’s fat friends whined that they “like food too much to eat like you do,” he countered that he’d found he had a whole new perspective on taste. Cutting fat, salt and sugar made him appreciate the more subtle tastes of fruit and veggies, beans and rice. Hearing their whining, he writes, “makes it sound a bit like ‘I like music too much to listen to Miles Davis.’ It’s not food you like too much – it’s shitty, corporate, jive-ass TV food you like too much.”

From what I gather, Jillette’s buddy “CrayRay” started him out on a two-week “potato famine” in which he ate nothing but plain potatoes, all types including sweet potatoes and fingerlings, as much as he wanted. That recalibrated his taste buds to the point that corn tasted like candy. From there he started eating vegetable stews made of corn, beans and tomatoes, and then salads. There were also “feeding windows” to promote the equivalent of intermittent fasting and cold showers to expose a guy who lives in Las Vegas to cold. . There was no exercise until Jillette reached his target weight, because CrayRay believes that shedding fat and building muscle are “two entirely different physiologies.” At that point, he started the New York Times 7-minute workout and now eats a maintenance diet that’s pretty much straight-up Dr. Joel Fuhrman, best known for pushing whole plant foods on his Eat to Live series.

I’d be pretty interested in reading CrayRay’s forthcoming book. I remember his ideas on “metabolic winter” – back when he was known as Ray Cronise, before Jillette gave him this funky nickname – were explored in Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body. Unfortunately, when I checked out Cronise’s kickstarter page, it looks like he’s at least a year behind schedule.

In the meantime, even Jillette advises that you be careful taking health and diet tips from a Vegas performer who’s still at least part “carny trash.” His book is an entertaining read, but be forewarned – the profanity content is truly stunning.

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Letting go of 2017

A few days into January I toyed with the idea of going for 2,017 miles in 2017. A couple of Colleen’s teachers who are also runners were going for it. Averaging 5½ miles a day sounded completely doable under their rules, which allowed running mileage to be supplemented with FitBit steps.

I don’t own (or desire) a FitBit, and there was this plantar fasciitis problem to contend with. But  even with no running I was getting 5 miles a day just doing five 15-minute walk breaks.  

Somewhere along the way some of those short quick walks morphed into more diverse activity sessions. I’d do a quick Tabata cycling or kettle bell workout, or set the stopwatch on my phone and just pick up sticks in the yard for 15 minutes. In doing so, I realized that I really didn’t spend that much time outside if I wasn’t running or riding my bike. In fact, I really didn’t get that much exercise at all, some days, outside of running. As a writer, a lot of what I do is pretty sedentary stuff.

These mini sessions became a real respite from the day. Whenever I felt stressed out or hit a roadblock, I’d get up and set my timer and just walk around or go do something. In the process, I stopped caring about mileage. Needless to say, I’m no longer on track for 2,017 miles. Like old Jiko in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, I let that big fish swim away.

One day last week I realized that even though walking down the driveway to the mailbox has become part of my new routine – one of my tiny attainable goals for this year was to resist stopping the car at the end of the driveway to get the mail  – I’d never once in 15 years of living “out in the country” walked out to get the morning paper before breakfast.

Now, we subscribe to three newspapers (five, if you count the recent addition of digital access to The New York Times and The Washington Post), so it’s not like there’s ever any shortage of brain food at the breakfast table. But there’s something quaintly old fashioned about heading out on a cold dark morning to fetch the paper before I get the girls up for breakfast.

It’s a very small thing. Just one of the tiny unexpected pleasures that have come from laying down a backbeat of activity in my day. I can’t wait to get back to running. But when I do, I hope I can think of it as adding the melody to a pre-existing tune rather than an obsession that makes me anxious if the numbers aren’t there.  

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Annie’s 7-year, 200-pound weight-loss journey

Annie Giddens started her weight-loss journey about the same time I did, in January 2010. Seven years later, she’s lost 218 pounds, with “six or seven” to go.

I met Annie last week, during an interview for this week’s News-Sentinel column, and was instantly inspired by her determination to not only keep going, but to keep getting better — stronger, faster, healthier.

Annie had every excuse to fail. She was a single mom working long hours. She had A LOT of weight to lose. At one point, during a stressful period, she put 55 pounds back on. But she kept going, and she’s changed up both her diet and her training as needed over the years to stay motivated.

Now 42, the same age her dad was when he died of a cerebral aneurysm caused by hypertension and atherosclerosis, she eats and trains like the hardcore CrossFit athlete she’s become.

If you could use a fresh dose of inspiration to revive your New Year’s determination, check out Annie’s story here.

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Here’s Annie competing in a CrossFit competition in Fort Wayne last August. She hoisted 115 pounds in that exercise; her three-woman team placed second overall. 

 

 

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Using ‘workout mode’ to tackle an unpleasant task

Why is it that I can embrace all kinds of pure fitness workouts, but I have to trick myself into a grueling, cumbersome task like getting out the heavy 12-foot step ladder and cleaning gutters?

When our son’s not off at college, this is his job. He would’ve been amazed to see his mom carrying and then setting up that monster ladder all by herself. Here’s what got me over the hump: The whole time, I was pretending some drill sergeant of a CrossFit coach was hollering orders.

This was easily my toughest workout of the week. Just sweeping all the sticks off the roof (along with some stubborn moss clinging to a few shingles on the north side) took a lot longer and much more energy than I expected. Then using my arms to hoist myself up and scoot my butt across the edge of the roof so I could reach down and clean the gutters was another CrossFit-worthy activity unto itself.

I would’ve MUCH rather used those two hours to go for a run instead. But it was one heck of an upper-body workout, and the only person I had to nag about finishing the job properly was myself.

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