The end is the start to something new…

It’s over… I don’t think I’ve quite grasped that fact yet. Yet as much as it may be a cliché, the end is always the beginning of something new, the undiscovered country, the future. And I for one am looking forward to it. I sit here at Denver’s airport, overlooking the Rocky Mountains towering tall in the distant background, colorful planes coming and going. I’m on my way to Tucson for a couple of days, to see my dear sister, having just taken leave from my tribe, my beloved crowd of readers and authors of GRL. Four intensive days, climaxing – as always – last night – with the annual costume party. And yes, that is over, too.

A costume party and a goal

A slow but steady increase in weight around my waist had me look like this in March of 2017. Not what you want to show off in public…

The road to Denver began in early March when we were finally able to register. Just days later I learned of the theme for the costume party, and after my exploit in 2015, the pressure on me to pull another queen out of my hat has been high, from attendees as well as myself. And it’s always a tricky endeavor, as last year proved. My emperor Hadrian, champion of marriage equality, as amazing as the costume was, fell flat after the theme of the party was morphed from “over the rainbow” to a more specific “The Wizard of Oz”. Yeah, no Roman emperors in the emerald city, but I had already invested so much money in the costume design that it was too late to morph it into a munchkin or another twister. Instead, everyone marveled at a naked Tin Man, amazingly performed by vocal artist Joel Leslie Froomkin, with the body paint applied by his equally artistic husband. Hat off…

When the organizers told me that this year’s theme would revolve around the Wild West, I had a flashback to last year and Joel’s costume, and I’ll be honest (as always) and admit that I had felt a tinge of envy at Joel’s beautifully sculpted body. Yes, and my friend Meghan Maslow confirmed as much in a discussion we had, if you want to show skin, you can’t do so in a flabby dad bod. Nobody wants to see that. There is a fine line between being sexy and being embarrassing. I agreed. Yet oddly, the “wild, wild west” had me think of a slutty cowboy (because just going in chaps wasn’t very original). I have never been ashamed of my body, and I had people cat-calling and whistling after me in France way back in 1983 when I dressed up as a prostitute (female, mind you) for a costume party thrown by my language school EF. I was named Miss EF St. Malo for that mini skirt and t-shirt, wearing my madame’s bra underneath it. No shoes, because we couldn’t find any my size. Madame was petite. I was sixteen at the time, and I had the body for it: hairless, slim and no visible muscles. I had never worked out in my life.

My personal trainer, coach and nutrition expert, Markus Jielin from STC Training in Sweden. I got really lucky with him, and his gentle way was exactly what I needed to push myself harder and harder to reach my goal.

So being un-dressed didn’t scare me. What did scare me was my body. I had let myself go over the past twenty-five years, increasing in weight from the 75 kg (165 lbs) at my 6’1” to almost 90 kb (195 lbs), note that my skeleton only weighs 3.7 kg (8.1 lbs). The slope had been gentle and slow, but steadily downward, and while I don’t remember my clothing sizes as a kid, my upper body had always been a medium, but my jeans sizes began to increase from a 31 to a 34 two years ago. And it was a tight fit. At my age, other complications arose: I have a herniated disk in my neck, which had been giving me trouble ever since it ruptured in 2012, and I have a shot disk in my lower back which had my sciatica in turmoil for the past three years. There were many a day when I could barely get out of bed, and when my physical therapists prescribed me exercises to strengthen my core to help steady my spine, I couldn’t do them because of the pain. Or I didn’t do them because I wasn’t in pain that day, the latter a huge mental problem, more than anything else. I was badly out of shape, and mentally nowhere near ready to tackle the lapses of twenty-five years. I started gaining weight shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday. So it’s been a long time building. To be able to show off my naked torso and a six pack was a dream, a crazy, really crazy dream, but somehow it rooted itself in my mind and I decided to try and do something about it. Nothing but a challenge for me to rise to. I contacted a local gym, five tram stops from our port and hired a personal trainer.

Markus from STC probably (no, most certainly) thought I was nuts, out of my mind, when we first met for our first work-out on March 20th this year. I mean who hires a personal trainer just to get undressed at a costume party in the states, right? But I guess he thought “his money to waste…” and we began to work. One of the first things we looked at was my nutrition. I don’t use the word “diet”, because we all know that dieting doesn’t work, because the second you stop, you’ll gain that weight right back, and then some. You have to change your nutrition permanently in order to achieve results. Markus suggested going slow, making tiny changes, one at a time, not to overdo it, in order not to lose faith in the process. He was spot on. I always thought I was eating healthy. No bad fats, no cheap processed food and yada, yada. However, I quickly noticed two things: there was too much fat in my food (still), way too much sugar and, worst of all, we simply ate too much, drank too much, the casual glass of wine pretty much every evening for instance. Empty calories…

“Remember, nutrition is 80% of your success, working out only 20%”

Progress was fast, and by June, my jeans felt super loose. I had already lost two inches around my waist. Now I’m back at my 31” jeans waist.

This is Markus’s mantra, and he (and all scientific research in the area) are of course right. But we did work out, once a week together, him showing me new exercises, pushing me to lift more weight, me alone, twice every week. I remember how frustrated I was, not remembering them, not knowing what to do, how to do it, but I began to spend many hours at the gym, every week, with three hours of weightlifting and two to three hours on the treadmill, walking off calories. Progress was swift. By the end of June, that excess flab I had built up in the past four to five years was mostly gone, my body fat count had dropped from 15.6% (which is pretty average in Sweden for men my age) to 10.7%, but I had also lost muscle tissue, even though I was feeling stronger.

We increased the tempo and made more nutritional changes, which also included to pretty much forego alcohol. We increased my protein intake to help build my muscle strength, and my first real mental challenge was the cruise and vacation this summer: all this amazing food, free drinks on the ship, and I could barely partake, because I realized that every mojito meant less food left to be eaten. I could not, I would not, exceed my daily calorie targets. It paid off. By the end of the summer, my body fat count was down to 9.9% and I began to see muscles in my upper body. As a former runner, I’ve always had muscular strength in my legs, and even though I’ve increased my leg press results from 350 lbs in March to 750 lbs (!) in September, it wasn’t a priority. My arms, chest and shoulders were (re herniated disk). At the beginning, I could barely do a bench press with the 20 kg (44 lbs) empty bar. These days I press 70 kg (154 lbs) and I’m sure I have room for improvement. To do a pull-up was a dream for me, but to lift that chin and the 89 kg of my body over the bar just was not in the cards. These days I can easily do ten, and one with 30 kg (66 lbs) attached to my body, totalling 244 lbs. More than any other of Markus’s clients, and by a fifty year-old? I’m proud of myself…

I don’t care about the costume party any more…

The slutty cowboy or “unique”, as I’ve called him last night… The end of the road, or?

Not entirely true, but as I learned about my body, my nutrition, and when I saw the changes in my physical appearance, I also began noticing the effects of it on my general health: I began to sleep better, my bathroom visits less complicated (no need for details), my mood improved, there was a ‘spring’ in my walk and my mood. It’s really hard to explain, but I began to feel happier, and proud of what I had achieved, the fact that I had achieved it. But I wasn’t quite there yet. Not for Denver, not for GRL, not for that six pack. For many men, body fat first gathers around the belly, and I quickly learned how hard it is to realize that “the first place you gain it will be the last place you lose it…” After the weigh-in in August, I realized that if I really wanted for people (and myself) to see the growing six pack, I needed to push myself even harder and decrease the fat content of my body even further.

Last Monday, the day before I flew to Denver, at my final weigh-in, I had it pushed all the way down to 6.4%, lower than Markus’s own, and he’s been working out regularly for decades, a former elite athlete. Mission accomplished. But that wasn’t important any more, as much as it was a mile stone worth celebrating. I am healthy as a horse, and while my sciatica still hurts regularly, it’s not debilitating. I’m not having trouble getting out of bed, I move freely. I am happy.

And as weird as this may sound, at the age of 50, I look better than I ever have in my entire life, sexy – if I may say so – not embarrassing, beach 2018, where art thou?. The six kilo that I’m heavier than I was when I was sixteen are all muscle, and these days, my t-shirts aren’t tight around the waist, they’re tight around the shoulders. An amazing feeling. I’m healthy (as certified by two doctors), I’m happy, and I’m stronger than ever before.

The statistics behind my physical change. We never did a weigh in at the start so those figures aren’t complete. I guess Markus didn’t really believe I would stick to it in the beginning… I’m surprised myself that I did. Then again not. I tend to rise to a challenge, particularly when people say “you can’t” or “you won’t”…

So when I finally got ready for the party last night, having duped people for over seven months, wearing a fake santa belly for the entire conference, I was ready to show off my new body. Oddly, I wasn’t excited though, or nervous. Had I not spent so much time, I might as well have just attending in jeans and a t-shirt. It was almost anti-climactic, because I had already reached my real goal. The goal that had begun to take over as I began to enjoy the endorphin kick of a good work-out, as I was able to walk and hike again without being out of breath after a half-hour, as I was able to admire myself in the mirror after the shower every morning…

I did dress up (or down), and I did go to the party. I did have a great time, and nobody recognized me, some not even after I’d removed the mask, which had been a sort of sub-goal of the whole process with the little white lies (of not even going to the party) and the santa belly I’d worn all week (which was hellish btw, killing my posture and impeding my mobility, which was an odd reminder of what it meant when I was carrying around the worthless weight of the 8.8 kg (19.4 lbs) fat I’ve lost.

The end of the road?

In order to maximize the “look” of my muscles, Markus set up a brutal body-builder competition regimen, something I don’t care to repeat, but yeah, one of those things you do for maximum results. I wasn’t allowed to work out the last three days before the costume party. I couldn’t abstain entirely, and did walk quite a bit, even sneaking into the gym at the hotel in the middle of the night for a walk on the treadmill. This morning, when I woke up, my body ached to work out and break out a sweat. 45′ in the gym did the trick. Some arms, legs and stomach exercises and a few minutes on the treadmill were exactly what the doctor prescribed. Weird, because I had never had that urge before. I do now, and I can’t wait to see Markus again and discuss new goals, to further strengthen my back, to alleviate my back pain some more, and to continue to work on my upper body strength and particularly my shoulders. But I’ll be honest and I can’t wait to actually drink the champagne on my flight home, not just sip it, and to drink a good glass of wine with a great dinner again, not that I’ve felt the urge to drink alcohol tbh. But to be able to…

I’ve changed my entire life-style to a healthier one, both for me and my family, and the only way to keep this body is to keep working out, because I know what happens when you stop, and I don’t want to lose that amazing feeling of feeling great.

How to read this post and what it isn’t…

This week I’ve also come to accept that I’ll never be able to repeat San Diego. Her Majesty is a GRL legend, and no other costume idea will ever top her accomplishment. What I did this year may be amazing for me on a personal level, but in terms of costume, it was nothing out of the ordinary. That is quite alright.

We talk a lot about fat shaming in my community and amongst my friends, and I do have friends society would consider “obese”, and who are called “fat”. Some even call themselves those words. There are a gazillion reasons why people’s bodies act and react differently to things. And we, as a society, tend to go for the physical look and judge a book by the cover. Trust me, as an author, I know that to be true. I didn’t talk to many people, and particularly avoided friends who feel self-conscious about their bodies. Progress for me, as hard as it was (in terms of labor), was easy. I have a lean physique, genetically, and I had the means, in terms of finance and time, to spend up to eight hours per week at the gym, slaving with weights, treadmills and bikes. Many do not. No blame, no finger pointing. We are all very different, and while it took a silly costume party to finally get my butt out of the house, someone else’s motivation may be different. I don’t want to hand out advice. Medical science knows exactly what can be done and how in order to achieve a healthier life-style. Yes, perseverance and hard-work, alongside lasting, permanent changes to your nutrition are at the core. No free lunch, no quick fixes. I need to remind myself that while I may have lost a lot of fat in my body, the fat cells remain, ever ready to be re-filled.

But as I enjoy my now regular breakfast with eggs, quark, fresh fruit and berries, I also realize and smile at the fact that eating well and healthy can actually mean to eat more, and tastier. I do hope that my journey might show that it’s never too late to aspire to change, that a 50-year old can have a ship-shape body, and if you do want to change, I hope you find the motivation, that first goal, you need to get started, as well as the help of someone like Markus to guide you professionally. I wish you the best of luck on those first baby steps (no leaps!) into your undiscovered country, your future. I see a lot of very old people at the gym, and I’ve met some amazing and strong people, whose much bigger muscles aren’t visible, so just because you have a roundish figure doesn’t mean you can’t be super healthy and strong. The two just aren’t totally correlated. Will I stay as lean as I am now? Probably for a while, but it’s not even healthy in the long run. There is a biological need for fat to e.g. grease joints, so I’ll try to gently increase to a more sustainable level, with Markus’s help. I’m not getting younger and over time, as my skeleton weakens and the clock ticks, my body will change naturally. I’ll need to adapt. And that is fine. The one thing I want to retain though is my happiness, and that spring in my walk. It’s made me a better person.

Denver, October 22nd, 2017

Hans M Hirschi
author and 7 month fitness convert

PS: I know that I’ve been consciously telling a ton of little white lies to a bunch of people over the past seven months, about me never working out, about not knowing what to do for the costume party, not going etc., culminating with the Santa belly this entire past week. If anyone has taken offense, please accept my sincere apologies. I never meant to hurt anyone, and I doubt I did, but these days you never know what people are hurt by, so better sorry and safe, to paraphrase the old saying. I’m not a liar, and it wasn’t easy to keep the charade alive for such a long time, particularly not around some of my closest friends.

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