On the road again: walking back to fitness

Some time ago, the temptation of a regular monthly income was put in my path. Up until that point, I had worked as a freelancer. The type of freelance work I did depended on what was most needed at the time. Sometimes it was photography, and at other times it was writing or editing or proofreading. For the most, things went pretty well. I either worked all day and all night, including weekends, and saw no other person, my family included, for months on end, or I lay awake at night worrying about when the next project (and next payment) would materialise.

To many, this may not sound like a very desirable way to live one’s life, but what I liked about this lifestyle was that I could go to dance classes in the middle of the afternoon, see a personal trainer in the morning and go for two-hour-long walks or longer whenever I needed or wanted to. I had been a regular walker and took part in the Discovery Cape Times Big Walk quite a number of times. I had walked the 20, 25 and 30 km routes before twice walking the 50 km route. Although my training always started late – about a month before the event – I managed to complete the 50 km route in under 7 h 30 min.

Then the offer of an in-house contract arrived at about the time that the gloss had worn off the never-ending cycle of shameless self-promotion, feast followed by famine and often more famine, worries about money, working through the night and never being able to take a holiday. I had fantasised about having regular working hours, paid sick and annual leave and money that magically appeared in my bank account each month.

This idyllic lifestyle comes at a price, though, notably loss of freedom and loss of self. Soon I was working the same hours I had worked as a freelancer, but without the possibility of extra money for extra work. By five in the morning I was sitting at the dining room table, working. Then, a few hours later, I would shower and rush to the office (you can’t be late, you know!) to continue working until about six in the evening, and sometimes even until ten o’clock at night. Once home, I would bang pots and pans around in the kitchen, trying to get the food out as quickly as possible so that I could continue to work until midnight or the early hours of the morning. If I left the office really late, I would call home and give the instruction to order pizza. As you can see, healthy eating played second fiddle to meeting deadlines.

Needless to say, dancing in the middle of the day wasn’t an option. The appointments with the personal trainer were cancelled, and the gym membership lapsed. My walking gear, like me, didn’t see the light of day.

It wasn’t long before there appeared to be something wrong not only with the waistbands of my skirts and trousers, but also with the bathroom scale. The clothes must have shrunk a bit, and the scale must be broken.

Not only was I packing on some extra kilos, but whatever muscle tone I had managed to maintain was quickly starting to atrophy. I am 52 years old, and the option of slacking on health and fitness, if there ever was such an option, expired about 20 years ago. After the age of about 45, a woman’s body starts to sabotage her. What once appeared to be plump and juicy now becomes fat and saggy. I had been half-heartedly trying to shake a stubborn three or four kilograms of extra weight for years, and the blubber was now attracting yet more blubber.

By the time I gave my notice, I had gained 4 kg, and was so miserable and depressed, I could barely muster the motivation to relinquish the remote control and get off the couch. I felt old, tired, fat, unattractive, unsexy and glum, glum, glum. I knew that if I didn’t get moving – soon – I would very quickly reach a point where it would be too difficult to turn myself around.
I started going for walks, not very regularly and not with much enthusiasm, but I got out there from time to time, and when I went, I would feel a bit brighter. I couldn’t face the gym. I felt too fat and out of shape, and the gym was too crammed full of beautiful bodies. Of course everyone would sneer. Freelance work started rolling in. With it came the usual crazy deadlines and last-minute changes, which meant that there was no way that I could commit to regular appointments with my personal trainer. In addition, I felt too out of shape to face the man who had me bench pressing, doing push-ups and shuttle runs and boxing on the bag and pads until the room swirled around me as the sweat poured into my eyes. I was too embarrassed to be seen trying to work out. It’s stupid, I know, but I am certain there are many women who feel this way. Our vanity and lack of self-esteem stand in our way of improving ourselves.

Even my dance classes had lost their allure. All I could see in the full-length mirrors around the room was an inelegantly shaped woman trying to create elegant lines. My legs felt leaden, my feet were slow, and the jive had me gasping for breath. The regular walks improved the muscle tone in my legs, though, and within about two months, I was feeling less breathless. But I was a long way from being back to my old self.

One evening I was hefting the grocery shopping out of my car when I noticed two young women walking down the road. Tall, tanned and slender in their very short shorts, their ponytails bobbing as they walked and chatted, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched them. As they approached me, I said ‘Come on, girls, how must I feel seeing those legs? Keep them covered!’ The one sighed the world-weary sigh of a twenty-five-year-old and said ‘Well, if you walked 20 km a day …’ We exchanged some mild banter, and they set off into the sunset to maintain their toned legs and bums while I teetered into the house to get supper started.

I was feeling pretty good that evening. I had been walking for a few weeks and I quite liked the way my legs were looking in my high heels. I was still bulging in the middle but was managing to disguise the rolls as much as possible by wearing slimline dresses and jackets over my jeans.

‘Twenty kilometres a day, huh?’ I thought as I unpacked the groceries. If all it took to look like that was 20 km a day, I was signing up immediately. So, there and then, I was inspired by two young girls going for their evening walk and who, I am certain, never gave me another thought.

I got out there more regularly, and toyed with the idea of signing up for the 80 km route of the Big Walk this year. An elaborate training programme was drawn up, and I was out of the house by seven o’clock each morning. I renewed my gym membership and started taking the abs classes. The weight wasn’t really dropping off, but the person in the mirror started looking a bit better. Certainly she smiled more often and had more energy.

It helped that my daughter started walking with me. Being young, her body quickly responded to the regular exercise. She lost weight and her bum, thighs and tummy became firm and toned. Seeing the progress, she was keen for more, and so stood at my bedroom door, dressed and ready to go, before I was properly awake. I would groan and send her away, but she never went far. Minutes later she would be back in the doorway, checking on my progress.

More freelance work rolled in and before I knew it, I was back to working long hours and skipping walks and gym sessions. I noticed, though, that if I didn’t walk, I would be irritable by evening and glum by the next morning. Vigilant of not returning to the near-vegetative state of my office days, I made sure that I got out there at least once or twice a week. It wasn’t easy, and supper was sometimes late, dishes didn’t get done, the garden needed a bit of love, and some projects remained unfinished.
I had lost about three months of my ambitious training programme and would have to start from the beginning, pretty much. The 80 km route of the Big Walk was going to have to be next year’s goal.

Then my husband presented me with an opportunity: he and his running partner are going to run the New York Marathon. I have never been to New York, and this would be a great opportunity for me to see this amazing city. The marathon’s cut-off is eight hours and you need no qualifying races to enter. A South African travel agent organises everything, from the race entry to flights and accommodation, to transport to Staten Island, where the race starts. It would be a huge extravagance, of course, but I would be crazy to turn it down.

So I got started again. But this time I have a real goal. I will be joining 50 000 people to make my way along 42 km of New York City roads and bridges.

So, this is who I am and these are the challenges I face:

I am a 52-year-old woman with about 8 kg to lose. I have too many interests and goals and too little time and money. I have two daughters and a husband, none of whom are able to notice that dishes need to be washed, laundry needs to be put in and taken out of the washing machine, dinner needs to be cooked and the garden needs whatever a garden needs. I have an appetite for pasta and wine and love a party. If there is a music festival somewhere nearby, I am likely to have a ticket for it. I am a freelancer in an oversubscribed, competitive industry, and so have worries about money and deadlines. If that is not enough to keep me awake at night, I also have a husband who snores and whistles through his nose at night, and so I often end up sleeping uncomfortably on a too-short couch. I am pretty competitive, which is something I learnt about myself only very late in life, and so must take every activity to the extreme – I must know everything about it, must take classes, join organisations and enter competitions. Each interest is time and money intensive – mosaic, ceramics, sewing, crochet, dancing, wine tasting (make that wine drinking), cooking, travelling – and I never know which one to give up so that I can focus on fewer.
It is clear, then, that who I am is the major challenge to my progress.

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