The Story – Going Vegetarian at 51 to get Leaner, Fitter, Stronger

January 2010.  I was an overweight smoker.  My primary hobby was brewing beer and drinking as much of it as I possibly could.  I was quite good at it.  I had seen a new Doctor just a few months earlier who asked me if I exercised and my reply was “not on purpose”.

I simply looked at myself in the mirror one morning and thought, “Who is that?  That person does not look like me.”  At the time I was also mentoring my son Julian’s high school robotics team (Go Team 4 Element!) and a couple of days later I got the 2010 team t-shirt. I had ordered a large but to my dismay I received a medium.  I tried it on, but it was too embarrassing to wear in public, the shirt tight around my belly that was hanging over my belt.  The first competition of the year for the robotics team was scheduled for March and I decided right then that I would be wearing that t-shirt at that competition and would not be embarrassed.  I was right around 200 pounds at that point and so I started dieting, in the classic way – I still ate whatever I wanted, just less of it.  I still drank a lot of beer – I was still brewing 10 gallons every couple of weeks, but it worked.  Conscious effort and self control helped me shed more than 25 pounds in 12 weeks and not be too embarrassed at the competition.

A couple of weeks after I started to diet, a coworker was outside smoking with me and said “Hey 3 of us from the shop are going to stop smoking tomorrow, are you in?” and I said “Are you crazy? I just started a diet, it’s working, and you want me to stop smoking now, too?”, but I did.  I was the only one who stuck with it, in fact.  Coincidentally, my son Julian had started cycling at the beginning of the year and I was starting to notice the changes in his body – he was looking lean and strong and I decided I could use some of that, too.  One Saturday in June, I borrowed my older son’s Townie that needed a replacement pedal and we rode 6 miles to a local bike shop to have new pedals installed.  When we got home, I literally felt like I might die, or at least be permanently injured, but I knew if I survived, I would never be the same – I was hooked and the two of us started riding together every weekend.  We even made a couple of trips across the valley to pick up hops & grain & yeast at the brewing store.  We learned about changing flats and bringing adequate supplies.  My older son was out of school and had no place to go so I pretty much claimed the Townie for my own that summer.  I started commuting to work and our weekend rides approached 50 miles. More pounds came off and for my birthday in August, I treated myself to a real road bike – a Giant Defy 3 with a ‘racing triple’ crank.  What a revelation that bike was! Our riding horizons quickly expanded.

Just a little more than a month later, we were on our first ride through one of the iconic canyon roads in the local foothills, Little Tujunga Canyon. On the last descent poor communication caused me to crash into Julian from behind at full speed.  I was launched over him and hit the tarmac up the road squarely on my left hip, breaking my femur.  My first question to Julian was “how’s my bike?” because I knew lying there on the gravel and hot asphalt that as soon as I could walk again, I’d want to ride again.

Rehab gave me some time to rethink and refocus and taught me to incorporate a simply daily exercise routing into my day, off the bike.  I lost more weight during my rehab, but I lost a lot of muscle and strength, too.

6 weeks after the accident, I was back on the bike and as I got back up to speed, my weight crept back up.  I settled in at 145 pounds and would pretty much stay there for the next two years.

In December of 2010, we joined the San Fernando Valley Bicycle Club to see what group rides were all about.  This is a great group to get started with and for many recreational cyclists, all you would ever need.  Great people, great camaraderie, great rides and very well organized with rides for just about any skill level.  After riding with the club for about a year though, we started to get a little restless and dream of racing.  Julian started riding Tuesday nights from CSUN with a group of local racers, I joined him when I could and in the fall of 2011 I we raced our first crits together in Carson.  Over the winter we frequented the world famous Simi Ride and by spring had joined the Serious Cycling race team and got to try some road racing at the UCLA road race, Poor College Kids road race and Devil’s Punchbowl.

During this time, I became fascinated with nutrition and made many small improvements to my diet and even though my weight didn’t change much, I was building muscle and getting stronger.  I burned off a lot of fat, but a stubborn layer remained, particularly around my belly and neck.  I got a little schizophrenic about whether I should be restricting calories to cut the fat or eating more to build muscle.  Endurance sports are all about power to weight and I knew I needed both.  Having ignored and abused my body for decades, I needed to trim the fat, but I also needed to add muscle and power.  Don’t forget that I was rapidly approaching my 50th birthday, the magical age when they say both of those things become more difficult.

I was also able to upgrade to a BMC Road Racer SL01 in February 2012 which I am still riding today.  Julian is in college in Massachusetts now riding my original Giant frame with components swapped from his beloved Felt that he destroyed in a bad crash descending Portrero road heading to the coast on a team training ride that same year.  That crash happened six days after he crashed out of a crit in Carson on the last lap which dampened our enthusiasm for racing somewhat and slowed Julian down for a couple of months.

A year later, more Simi rides, more Tuesday night world championships, top 10 overall in the Mulholland challenge. (5th men 50+) and still 145 pounds.  That wouldn’t bother me quite so much if it was all ripped muscle & sinew, but I can still grab hunks of fat all over – my belly, my back, my butt – my knees for chrissake!  For a cyclist with my frame, 145 pounds is just too much anyway.  At 69” tall, world class climbing weight should be less than 138 pounds.  That’s totally within reach; I’m just not getting there.  Time to change something.  I decided to get serious again about tracking my weight and making more improvements to my diet.  #1: avoid all sources of refined sugar, #2: cut way back on refined flour and white rice.  I formally started tracking my weight again weekly on July 12th at 142 pounds.

Preparing for a plane ride to Massachusetts to deliver Julian back to college I ordered a couple of books from Amazon, most notably Rich Roll’sFinding Ultra” and Brendan Brazier’sThrive”.  I had already started working on incorporating more plants into my diet, but this trip was the tipping point.  After our arrival on the east coast, we spent a day visiting my sister-in-law in Manhattan. Dinner that night was at Mehtaphor, a fabulous tappas style restaurant with a well-rounded vegetarian menu and plenty of gluten-free options.  Turns out my sister-in-law has recently eliminated migraines from her life by eliminating gluten from her diet. My first encounter with a real world case of gluten gone bad.  Because of this intolerance, she has also had to reinvent breakfast and the next morning while we were frying eggs and buttering toast, she was cranking up her Nutri-Bullet.  “Hey, wait, everywhere I look for the past 3 weeks, everyone is writing about green smoothies…” So she made me one of those, too.  I swear, drinking that first smoothie was like drinking a glass of vitality, it felt like magic.  The rest of the trip I started really consciously working on further reducing my consumption of meat and upping the vegetables.  On my way out of town I was passing a bookstore at Boston-Logan airport and a Mediterranean diet cookbook caught my eye. Despite the fact that I still had two brand new, unread books in my backpack, I left the store with that cookbook and Michael Pollan’s “Cooked” and “Food Rules”.  I devoured those on the plane and followed with “Omnivore’s Dilemma” which was sitting on the bookshelf at home.   My 51st birthday was now just a few days away so I sprung for my very own Nutri-Bullet and started ordering cookbooks:

Michael Pollan really helped open my eyes to the reality of the modern industrial food complex and the western diet of “highly processed food-like edible substances”.  Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier opened my eyes to the potential benefits of plant based living.  I was still holding out though, unable to imagine a life completely without meat, particularly the occasional treat of a rare steak or a really good grass-fed grilled burger.  On the occasion of my 51st birthday, I celebrated with a fine grilled fillet Mignon, but it was only 6 ounces and it was flanked by a mountain of green salad and grilled broccoli with garlic and onion.  Over the next couple of weeks, meat faded from prominence in my meal planning and by early September I started thinking “Why do I think I can’t do this?  Why not at least give it a try – experiment, see what happens?”  So here I am.

September 17, 2013.  Day 10 of my personal vegetarian challenge.  I’m having a great time experimenting with new foods and I don’t miss the meat at all.  My wife and daughter are omnivorous hold outs and that’s ok for now, I’m not pushing anyone, but they did both remark last night – “our house always smells good now” – I was making curried lentils at the time.

I’ve dropped 7 pounds since I started tracking again and 3 since giving up meat.  My goal by the end of the challenge?  125 lbs.  I think I can do it, my frame is made for it, but of course, these are the very toughest pounds to lose.  The first 40 were easy.  Will it take more adjustments? Will the dairy have to go as well as a practical, tactical matter?  We will know before Christmas.  I will continue to strength train at the same time, so it’s not just about dropping pounds, it’s about performance, but I swear I can reach out and grab 10 pounds of fat right now.  If I come in a few pounds over but with well-defined abs I’ll be happy.  I really don’t know what my ideal weight should be, that’s also to be discovered as part of this experiment.

I’m not an ultra-marathoner, I’m not a professional athlete, I’m just a regular guy with a regular job and a regular life who also happens to enjoy riding his bike uphill and remembers what it felt like to do 125 consecutive pull-ups and fly up the rope climb.  I also want to make some small statement with my wallet and my saucepan that processed, packaged food and factory farms are not good for our health, our economy or our planet.  Most of what’s for sale in our supermarkets and restaurants today is engineered to enslave us and fatten the wallets of the titans of the modern industrial food complex.  It’s possible to break the addiction and if enough of us do it, it’s even possible to force change in the system.

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