THAT GUY: MY STORY

I remember the day that I started thinking I might have to give up riding my bicycle.  It was when I lived in San Francisco, I was about 28 years old and I lived in an apartment on the second floor.  Walking up and down those stairs used to completely kill my knees everyday.  I had “bad” knees since I was about 14, they popped and clicked, felt tight and hurt off and on.  I was used to that, I was used to discomfort going up and down stairs and walking up hills.  But then they started to hurt while I was riding my bike.  I was crushed.

I’ve written about my bike a few times on this blog before.  I love my bike — that might be an understatement, my bike has a name and I would easily describe him as one of my best friends.  I’ve always loved riding bikes, for as long as I can remember.  It was something I could do, even though I was never “athletic,” it always made me feel capable.

In 2005 my knee pain went from off and on to mostly on.  It hurt to walk up and down stairs, it hurt sitting down and now it hurt while I rode my bike.  I couldn’t believe I was going to have to give up this thing that I loved, that was my only means of transportation, that made me feel so free.  I was only 28, this didn’t seem right, but I didn’t know what to do about it.  If I’d had health insurance at the time I probably would’ve gone to the doctor.

The thing the doctor might have pointed out to me, which I’ll tell you now, is that at only 5’5” tall I weighed in at 200 lbs.

I was too young to feel that amount of pain riding my bike and walking up and down stairs.  In fact, most of my joints hurt since I had very little muscle mass to support them.  Could my body composition explain my near constant low energy and headaches?  Or was it my habit of eating a bag of gummy worms and a Red Bull from the gas station near work for lunch a lot of days (and often drinking at least a six pack of beer every night)?

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I forget that you might not know me.  That maybe you started reading my blog because a friend on Facebook liked it and so my profile pictures and my gung-ho positivity are your only experience of me.  I forget that you don’t know the me from 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, or even last year.  I forget that because I’m a personal trainer and nutrition coach a lot of people assume I have always looked like this, promoted this message, been this guy.

But there’s another guy that I need you to meet.  I need to be vulnerable and honest and share my story with you.

I was so inspired by Natalie’s willingness to be open about all of her feelings in her guest post last week.  And I thought back to messages I’ve gotten from people interested in my services, asking if I can scale what we do to someone who “isn’t fit” or isn’t “athletic.”

I think it’s completely natural to want to learn things from people who have been through it, who have had the experience of learning the thing they are teaching.  And I’m launching a very ambitious workshopsoon, taking 20 people through the process of change so that they can feel confident in the nutrition choices they make to get the results they want.  But how does anybody know that I’m someone who can guide them through that, let alone someone they can trust to guide them through the (very personal, and sometimes scary) process of change?

*****

I have been overweight my whole life.  That’s the guy I was 10 years ago.  But like most blanket statements it’s more complicated than that.

I was an overweight kid though I didn’t know it.  I remember sometimes getting comments from adults that seemed a little mean-spirited.  But I always felt confident that my body was just what it should be, after all I could run and play and ride my bike, what else was there?  I was always clumsy and didn’t enjoy team sports, but wasn’t playing outside by yourself ok?  I thought so!

And then one day in fourth grade a classmate called me fat and there was so much venom in his voice that I was completely taken aback.  I was no stranger to the cruelty of children or to bullying, but this somehow stuck with me.  I started to compare myself to my classmates and noticed that yeah, I was bigger than a lot of them.  Like most kids, I took on the identity that I was repeatedly told I had, so I became fat to go along with being a nerd.

As anyone who has grown up chubby can attest to, the feeling of being an outsider, of somehow being disapproved of no matter what good qualities you have, is overwhelming.  I was a straight A student, exuberant, funny, unique, as well as talented in drawing and writing.  But the message that so many of us get growing up is that if you’re fat then you’re lazy or somehow defective.

I probably don’t need to talk about how terrible junior high was, you went to junior high, too.

And then when I was 14 I figured out the solution to my problem:  I would just stop eating.  Throw in some team sports and a little bit of a growth spurt and I suddenly wasn’t an overweight kid anymore but a stick-thin teenager.  For the next 16 years my weight fluctuated from 115 lbs to 200 and everywhere in between, up and down many times.

I also became a vegetarian at 14 and was vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, and for a little while raw vegan (super don’t recommend that to anyone), for the next 20 years.  You may be thinking of fresh salads and lots of vegetables, but trust me, my version of a plant-based diet had few plants in it.  My junior year of high school my diet consisted mostly of Taco Bell, Mountain Dew, Reese’s Pieces and Cheetos.

Besides my adventures in disordered eating, I tried several times to figure out what the hell to do in a gym by just walking into one and doing all the things, I sporadically took up running and would sometimes ride my bike farther than to work and back.  I never had a plan, but I had a lot of desire to change.

In fact, and this may sound strange, there were days where I would just sit and imagine myself running.  I would feel all of this energy inside me and I felt like I should just break into a run.  I also felt like there was a strong person inside of me, but that he just didn’t know how to be strong.  I felt strong.  It felt like a part of me that was unrealized.  Like this huge potential that I didn’t know how to access.

I would love to tell you about some radical moment that changed everything.  Some explosion of light and flame where I rose like a phoenix with a desire to eat a balanced diet and hit the gym at least three times a week.

But I’m not that guy, either.

*****

I took a few yoga classes in college and I really liked them and I tried a few more in San Francisco before a friend took me to a hot yoga class in 2005 and I became obsessed.  Some magical blend of discomfort, near-impossible challenge and then the feelings of triumph when I survived was like magic to my frustrated inner A-type personality.  Within a year I was going to yoga 6 days a week, riding my bike to the studio and back.  I noticed that I was starting to make choices in my behavior based on how they would affect my performance in class the next day.

People started commenting on how I was changing, not just in my life, but in my body.  I noticed too, I noticed that I was starting to feel like I was becoming that “inner strong person.”  It was good practice for what was coming.

In the summer of 2007 the scale finally swung from one end to the other (pun totally intended, see what I did there?) when I decided that the way I felt when I was taking good care of myself was the way I wanted to feel all the time.  I’d had enough days where I could walk up the stairs without pain, ride my bike without pain, lie down in bed without my back hurting to want more.  I could sprint my bike to beat a red light without gasping for air.  I could look in the mirror in the middle of a yoga class and feel like the person looking back at me was who I really was, I was the strong person.

I still had days where I made choices I wasn’t proud of, that didn’t serve me.  And then I woke up one morning with the last hangover I will ever have and decided that I loved myself more than that.  I loved myself enough to take good care of my body and myself.  Getting sober isn’t easy for anyone, but if any part of it was easy for me it was because I was stronger now.  Not just physically, I had become mentally and emotionally stronger by pushing myself and deliberately choosing to prioritize my own well-being.

I started focusing on what I was eating, choosing more vegetables, not eating as much dairy since it made my stomach hurt.  I went to even more yoga classes, now averaging 10 a week (I had a lot of energy now and needed somewhere to put it).  Soon I got my crazy idea to ride my bike solo from SF to Yosemite and back.  Then I became a yoga teacher.  Then I moved to Kentucky.  Then I started rock climbing.  Then I started running, a lot.  Then I hurt my ankle so I took up training with kettlebells.  Then I broke 20 years of vegetarianism and also started trying to eat in a regular fashion (as opposed to skipping meals most days and then having a blood sugar crash and then having to eat a bunch of candy).  Then I got stronger and stronger.

When I started getting more serious about lifting and strength training I noticed that my joint pain disappeared.  I felt more capable.  More confident.  All the other activities I did (climbing, biking, yoga) were all better the stronger I became.  My posture improved, which was huge since I’d had major scoliosis since I was nine.  I was 36 and I felt better than I ever had in my life, physically, mentally and emotionally.

I decided to change my career and went back to school.  I soon started my own business as a personal trainer and now had the unique experience of getting to guide others on their journeys to strength.  It might sound like I’m adding hyperbole to what you could call being a professional-level gym teacher.  If you’ve ever gotten to go on that journey, as I have, then you know that I am not inflating it at all.  And being witness to others’ journey on this path is the greatest honor I can think of.

There were still some missing pieces for me.  The first was that when interviewing potential clients the thing they most stated as their goal was some sort of body composition change.  But I knew that exercise alone wouldn’t lead to the changes that they wanted to see, I needed to become just as educated in nutrition as I had become in fitness in order to give my clients what they wanted.

Have you ever met an eye doctor who doesn’t wear glasses?  How about a vegetarian butcher?  A barista who doesn’t love coffee?  My point is that what we often end up being good at doing are the things that we are first drawn to learn for ourselves.  Another missing piece for myself was that, as I would put it, “I couldn’t eat like a normal person.”  What that meant to me was that I felt controlled by food, anything with sugar in it in particular.  I have totally eaten marshmallows for dinner before.  That is a thing I have done!

It felt like there had been some day at school I missed where I should have learned how to eat in order to be healthy.  Why did some people seem to like eating things that I thought of as “healthy” where I had to work to eat those things because I “should.”  How did you know how much you were supposed to eat?  Counting calories was the most distasteful thing I could think of, there had to be another way!  Why was nutrition so goddamn confusing?  Should I eat paleo, do intermittent fasting, or something else entirely?  It was so frustrating!

While finishing my school program one of my teachers introduced me to the work of Precision Nutrition and I was blown away by their entirely realistic, down-to-earth take on nutrition.  The more I read about them the more I felt like this was the educational piece I needed.  I wanted to provide excellent nutrition coaching to my clients, but how would I know if this really worked?  Because I was going to hire Precision Nutrition and become their client first.  If this worked for Mr. Marshmallows-for-dinner then I would know that I could go on to become certified as a coach and offer this service confidently.

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The things that I learned from two years of working with a coach have completely changed the way that I approach food, eating and training.  But honestly, what I learned about how to eat for my unique body and goals weren’t even the biggest part of the change that happened for me.

What I learned from working with a coach was how to prioritize my own well-being and my own self-worth.  I learned how to value and appreciate my body even more.  I used to look at photos of “fit” men and wish that I could look that way one day.  After my first year of coaching I had the profound experience of looking at my own body in the mirror one day and being excited about how I looked.  I no longer wanted to look like someone else, I wanted to look like me.  I felt so worthy of my own appreciation in that moment, I was so proud of all the work I had put in to become who I was right then.

And this was the third missing piece for me, and the most important.  As I said above, most of my clients state some sort of change in body composition as a motivation for hiring a personal trainer.  So much of my life has been about positive change that I fully support any effort that anyone makes to improve their quality of life.  At the same time, I know full well the obsession with appearances that can be so prevalent in the media and especially fitness media.  Is it possible for people to work towards changing themselves while also learning to accept and love themselves for who they are?

That’s a tall order, or so it seems at first.  And at the heart of it is what seems like an impossibility:  that we are only capable of change when we accept ourselves and learn to love who we are.

The ability to look at ourselves with a clear eye, unclouded by judgements of “too this” or “too that,” and to accept ourselves completely for who we are exactly in this moment can feel like standing outside in a hurricane.  Messages of who we need to be in order to be worthy of love or inclusion swirl around us in a maelstrom of self-hate.  To stand up to that we have to be strong.  We have to be strong in order to love ourselves despite the onslaught of messages to the contrary.  And we have to be strong in order to make the changes required by that love.

Here’s the truth:  we are all beautiful because of, not in spite of, the shape of our bodies.  We are all deserving of love, not just from others, but from ourselves.  And we are all required by the love we have for ourselves to take good care of ourselves.

I changed my diet and my exercise patterns, I started to prioritize things that made me feel good over things that made me feel bad.  As part of this process I lost a lot of weight.  Losing weight did not make me happy.  What made me happy was prioritizing my own well-being and my own self-worth.  What made me happy was the act of loving my body by exploring what I was capable of and tending to my physical needs.  What made me happy was embracing that taking good care of myself was how I loved myself, no matter how I looked.  I didn’t have to earn love by fitting some image of the ideal.

I didn’t change my body in order to love myself.  I learned to love myself and that changed my body, because it changed my relationshipwith my body.  My body became a physical manifestation of the strength of spirit I was finding by standing up to that maelstrom of self-hate every day.  Every time that I was able to hike a little farther or carry an extra bag of groceries up the stairs I knew I was being him, the strong guy, the guy that I had known I was all along.

I’m still becoming that guy, every day.  On the days that I go to bed early enough so that I will be well-rested the next morning.  On the days that I take five minutes to myself to meditate and clear my head.  On the days that I set my gym clothes out before bed so that I’m prepared for my workout tomorrow.  On the days that I look in the mirror and remember to tell myself, “you are the strong guy,” I see him in my reflection, looking back, just like he always had been but I couldn’t always see.

*****

This isn’t everybody’s story, it’s just mine.  It’s the story of how one guy found his path because he accepted who he was.  If I hadn’t accepted the part of me that hated myself and treated my life and body and well-being with such disrespect I never could have changed that.  And if I hadn’t been that guy at one point I wouldn’t be the guy I am now, the one who has been there and been through it and wants to guide others on their own journey.

The process of change is bolstered by self-compassion, solid guidance from a mentor who has had a similar experience and solid and easy to implement tools that create the most impact.  This is what my new workshop has to offer and I would love to travel this path with you.

If you have any questions about this, my workshop or would like to share some of your own story please do so in the comments below!

Elias Gross