By Phillip Ratliff
Although I’m an Adonis now, five years ago, my weight had maxed at a gargantuan 190 pounds. At 5’8” and an ideal weight of about 150, the extra 40 pounds had nowhere to go but out. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror. I hated wearing clothes. I hated taking them off. How to be both clothed and naked at the same time? It was a conundrum no logician could ever solve. I had to lose some weight. And I did, 45 pounds.
How did I do it? The fact is, losing weight is about some simple math (he says, with an air of haughty douchebaggery). You have to take in fewer calories than you burn. (Consult your physician for details, for the love of Jove.) I decided to go at it from both sides. I’d eat fewer carbs: lots of Protein Power Plates from Zoe’s, smoothies, breadless globs of peanut butter chased with milk. And I’d exercise. I bought a mountain bike, then broke my shoulder, gained more weight during recuperation, then healed and eventually cycled until the weight came off week by week. Over a spring and then the following summer and well into the next fall, I quite literally pedaled my ass off.
As fall gave way to winter, I inevitably discovered that cycling is something that can only be done with any degree of comfort about nine months out of the year. When my first winter of newfound thinness rolled around, I decided I would not retreat, lest the fat that lay just beyond the gates marshal the troupes and retake the hill that was once my midsection. I must acquire a sport more conducive to the winter air—running—and I would build into my mastery of running a challenging goal. I would attempt, I decided, the Mercedes half marathon. With a heart rate coming in at a placid 45 beats per minutes, thanks to all the cycling, I was cleared for take off. Gump-like, with no training regimen in place save a quick primer from a website called “Couch to 5K,” I struck a trot. I jogged along Manhattan in Homewood and watched in the windows of Dawson Church’s education building my gut shrink even more.
Race day blew in at a bracing 5 degrees, and there I was, queued up at the Mercedes, along with hundreds of other runners. I was bundled up in all sorts of off-brand outdoor gear, some intended for purposes other than running. I wore a pair of Target running tights and over those a pair of bike shorts, a couple of nylon undershirts, jersey gloves compliments of the Trak Shak, a ski cap, and an orange half zip pullover from Eddie Bauer. I felt like quite the oddball, until I saw a 55 year-old dude carrying pompoms, wearing a cheerleaders uniform, and covered, un-enticingly, in chill bumps.
I froze at first, but about two miles into my 13.1 run, I was peeling off layers, tying them around my waist or tossing them into the crowd like the rock star I was sure I had become. I finished, triumphantly, my feet screaming like spanked children but my heart bathed in adrenaline. Afterward, I gorged on beer and doughnuts, confident that I had every carb I could find coming to me.
Two more attempts at half marathons followed, neither quite as successful as the first. One of these was the subsequent Mercedes half marathon, a race that never happened, thanks to a case of shingles. The other happened two months after my first Mercedes, an X-Terra half marathon situated in a challenging course along Oak Mountain.
As you may have guessed, it was a trail run. No one prepared me for the difference between running along downtown Birmingham and traversing the foothills of the Appalachian Mountain Range. During my Oak Mountain run, I stumbled across roots, up and down hills, and over rocks. The jostling, I would have learned had I read something besides “Couch to 5K,” can cause severe gastrointestinal urgencies, and that it did. The first paroxysm hit me about 10 miles into the run. What to do but pinch up tight and find the nearest bathroom? I finished the race, shuffling uncomfortably across the finish line, chest chaffed, sphincter squeezed, legs bloody from numerous falls. The list of casualties from the Oak Mountain run included one knee, two nipples, and the bathroom at the Highway 150 Target.
But the next year’s Mercedes was different. Past the unexpected outbreak of herpes zoster and sporting some damn healthy lungs thanks to a season of cycling, I was ready to take back the Mercedes. I was deadly serious, Rocky Balboa running on the beach with Apollo Creed yelling at him serious. Balboa-like, I discovered one of the city’s greatest training assets, the steps of Vulcan Tower. I ran up the Tower religiously for two months. One trip up the tower became two, then three. When the Mercedes rolled around this time, my endurance, if not my speed, was at an epic level. I managed to shave 10 minutes off my time of two years ago.
And now, a little fatter than my lowest weight of two years ago, I begin again the thrice-weekly ascents of Vulcan Tower. It’s tedious. It’s lonely. The payoff seems remote, especially in the dead of winter, when Vulcan Tower harbors an unshakable chill. But by the god of the forge I am resolved that this will be my fastest year. So look for me, along the streets of Homewood. Look for me, decked out in an orange half zip that has become my running wubbie. For I am resolved to cross the finish line thing, triumphant, and with an existential craving for all things carb.