Running, Writing, and Dieting

August 17, 2011 6:58 pm by MRM in Writing

Once upon a time, I was well on my way to achieving the perfect stereotype of software engineer / writer physique. It was unity with nature; I was fulfilling my destiny. Being a writer of science fiction and fantasy somehow made it doubly appropriate that I should swell into my maximum pear-shaped potential.


Fat Michael contemplating working out
Clearly, I’m thrilled to be around these strange machines.

I was writing at a decent clip then as well; probably a quarter of City of Magi was written while my BMI was pushing 30. While I can’t explain my expression in the picture, I can say I was carrying about 220 pounds. This was right after I moved to Maryland back in 2009, and for a while I was living by myself while my wife was trying to get a job in the area. I had plenty of time for writing, but I didn’t get as much done as I had hoped. I averaged something like 2500 words per week, and there was plenty of variation around that average. The DC area may have had something to do with it, but I often felt wiped out after work and really didn’t have it in me to sit down and create something for a couple of hours, even if I had nothing else to do.

Even today, writing takes energy, not just time. It’s simply not the case that any time I’m sitting down to watch TV, I could be writing. Consuming is a lower energy activity than creating, no matter what you’re talking about. Sit down and write for four hours straight and tell me you’re not tired. Compounding this may be the fact that my job is almost strictly a creativity and creation based affair – I write code. It’s quite a bit like writing fiction in many ways (as I’ve mentioned before), the principle one being you often know where you want to go, but you have to figure out the “words” that get you there. If you create for eight hours and then spend an hour or two of your free time creating something else, your ability to produce new ideas just runs out. Mine does, anyhow. And it ran out even faster and harder around the time that photo was taken.

I can’t cite a specific point of motivation, but my best guess was that I got tired of being “the fat guy” married to the fittest woman on Earth. I was jealous of my wife finishing half marathons while I couldn’t finish a mile without taking a two-minute breather. So I did something – I enacted the most complicated diet in the history of the world. If you’re inclined to follow in my footsteps, read carefully:

  1. 1. I sat my fat ass down in front of a computer. This was a familiar position for my body. Using the powers of the internet, I looked up how many calories I burned in a day, assuming little to no exercise (this was a fairly accurate assumption). It is a relatively straightforward calculation based on your gender, age, weight, and activity level.
  2. 2. I ate less than that, by about 150 calories per day.

That’s it. I’ve thought about publishing a diet book, but I have a feeling they’d want me to pad the word count. Now, to be fair, number 2 on that list is actually kind of hard to do. You have to know exactly how many calories are in everything you eat, and that’s no small feat. I recommend 100-calorie snack packs (they’re everywhere these days) and restaurant chains that reliably publish nutritional information. Fortunately, Maryland forces most restaurants to put calorie information right on the menu. My lunch and dinner of choice was Panera. Bear in mind that you can do horrible, horrible things to your diet at Panera. If you eat any bread infused with cheese, may God have mercy on your soul. Your greasy, portly soul. They also have salads and low-calorie soups. To be clear, I didn’t do anything more complicated than count calories. I didn’t avoid high fat foods, carbs, or anything like that. If I wanted a beer, I drank it. If I wanted another, I drank that too. Beer, however, is about 200 calories a bottle (good beer is; you can keep your filthy Bud Light). If I drank 400 calories, that was 400 out of my daily allotment of 2200 (my daily allotment went down over time). When I did this the first day, I was a pound lighter. So I did it again the next day, and I lost another pound. So I kept it up.

I am leaving out a key third step, though it’s required if you adhere to step 1 as a continuous function over time. I weighed myself every morning (at the same time) and plotted the results in a spreadsheet. Sadly, I didn’t think of storing the data until I was already 25 pounds down.

You hate the peaks SO much.
You learn to hate the peaks.

This covered a period from about 8/17/2009 to 12/5/2009. I should mention at this point that I’m not a doctor (though you might have ascertained that from the part where I said I was a software engineer). If you are thinking about embarking on a weight loss plan, you should probably talk to a doctor. I was kind of lax about that, and in fact this rate of weight loss is slightly faster than what is recommended. It didn’t hurt me (that I know of), but keep in mind that at the time, I was 28-29 years old and male. I’m still male, now that I think about it, but I’m not 28 any more. I’m also up at 170, but a fair amount of that is muscle gain. Anyhow, plotting my weight was extraordinarily helpful for me. Looking at that graph was a shot in the arm when I entered the new data point every morning, particularly in November when I looked back at where I once was.

The first thirty pounds I lost almost exclusively with diet; I only added exercise when it was getting way too annoying to cut down on my calorie intake. There’s a limit to how little I can make myself eat. At this point, the calculation for how much I was allowed got a little bit more complicated since I needed an accurate estimate of how many calories I burned exercising. Protip for anyone trying such a thing: never, ever believe the calorie readouts on exercise machines, with the occasional exception of treadmills when you aren’t running with an incline. I used to avoid treadmills because I thought they just didn’t burn enough calories; elliptical machines gave massively higher calorie counts. It turns out they also “overestimated” by a factor of up to 5. Seriously, screw elliptical machines. If I wrote a diet book, I would add that sentence at least once every chapter.

Eventually, I took up running again, and in October of 2009, I ran my first 5K since high school. I completed it without walking, and it was a great feeling. I thought my days of being even moderately athletic were far behind me. Now, that same day that I ran a 5K, my wife ran a half marathon and broke two hours (the half marathon was at the same event), so I had some room for improvement.

A funny thing happened to my writing as I was losing weight. It got faster. Much, much faster. By mid 2010, I was writing at least 1000 words every morning, and I never missed a morning. On weeks where I’m in Maryland (I moved back to NC in 2010, but kept the same job), I can reliably get 2000-3000 words a day. City of Magi, which I always worried I would never finish, went from a quarter done to completely finished in just over a year, and it ended up clocking in at 250,000 words. Now, I have some editing to do, but I never would have had a complete work to edit without my writing regimen, and I would never have been able to keep up my writing regimen without getting in shape. Seriously.

Getting in shape changed my life in more ways than I had ever imagined. First, I pretty much don’t get sick any more. If you don’t know me, you might not find that impressive. After all, I’m still a 30-year-old guy in good health. To me, however, this was a miracle. In 2008, I got strep throat seven damn times (they did eventually remove my tonsils). I might have just blamed it on a recurring infection, but to be honest this sort of thing happened to me all the time. I was the kind of guy who was always sick. If I didn’t have to take a day or two off of work each month to deal with a cold, it was a miracle. I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that I’m miraculously immune to disease, and it’s been almost two years now, during which I’ve had exactly one minor cold. Not getting sick removed a huge impediment to my writing; when I was ill I never felt like writing. It’s the issue of creation versus consumption; creation takes more energy, and when I was fat and sick I never had any. The other way my life changed that influenced my writing was that I gained discipline. I used to write “when I had the time.” Now, I went out of my way to make time for writing, but it was still subject to how much effort and energy I could put into it. Getting in shape got me used to working out every morning. I can’t let up, because I know how easy it would be to go right back up that weight slope, and I haven’t been thin so long I don’t remember what it felt like to huff and puff up each flight of stairs. When I get home from working out, I shower, play with the dog, and spend an hour writing. Every day, like clockwork, I get this done. This is something I just couldn’t do before. Some days I would wake up late, feel too tired to write, or decide I wanted to have a beer and watch football in the evening rather than write.

Having energy and discipline means everything to my writing, and I know that my work has gotten better as I’ve gotten more disciplined about how and when I do it. Shelter From the Storm never would have come together over the course of just a month and a half, at 37K words, without this change in my life.

There is another factor in how my writing has changed. It’s actually what I meant to write this post about, but it sort of took on a life of its own. Running. In the spring of 2010, I was determined to stretch out the distance that I could run without stopping. It was my favorite new measure of my health, particularly since I wasn’t losing weight any longer. I worked up my endurance and ran in the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in DC, and then I knew I was up to the challenges of races that had the word “marathon” in their name. I did my first half marathon that April. After that, my wife convinced me to join the Raleigh Galloway program, where I got it into my head that I could run a full marathon.

As my runs stretched longer and longer, I would have to find things to occupy the time. I’m not the most talkative man on Earth, so I would find hours passing in relative silence, with only the occasional shout-out of “Post!” breaking my concentration. Writing became my natural mental companion on the Greenways of Raleigh. Entire sub-plots would play out in my head over the course of a twenty mile run. New twists gave me the excitement I needed to make it up a hill. It became my inspiration. I couldn’t wait to get what I dreamed of down on paper. Running was the perfect “muse time” for my work, and it’s hard for me to imagine truly progressing in my work without it these days.

It has other benefits too – it’s easy to stay focused on writing for an hour or two when I’m used to keeping at the same task for three or four hours at a time. The energy boost I got from losing weight was nothing compared to what I gained from my marathon training. It’s to the point now where every step of a training run fuels another page.

Getting to the point where I could take up running has made more of a difference in my writing career than just about any other step I’ve taken.

-1 item on the bucket list
Outer Banks Marathon Finish Line, November 2010

There’s the intimidation factor to consider as well. Finishing a book is hard. I went through three failed efforts before finally finding a story that could finish and finish well in City of Magi. Finishing a marathon is pretty tough too. When I weighed 220 pounds, I never imagined that I would be able to finish a marathon in just over a year. I also worried that I would never finish a book, and that I would always be one of those people working on a never-ending novel project, chasing a dream I couldn’t ever hope to reach. I certainly haven’t reached my dream yet – City of Magi is finished, not published and there’s a lot of work to be done before it gets to that point. Those Who Die Young is in its infancy, with only one issue in the market and the other in editing.

The thing is, after finishing a marathon and training for more (I got injured and had to miss what would have been my second this spring), getting to that next step doesn’t seem so impossible any more. I have a short story that I’m putting out there. My serial issues are churning along and turning into something I’m really proud of. Polishing, editing, and shipping out my novel is on the horizon, and unlike before I know I can get there. It can’t be harder than running 26.2 miles.

About the Author

Written by MRM

I'm a speculative fiction writer that spent lots of time trying out new places to live before finally settling in NC. I love code, craft beer, football, and fiction - in no particular order. My currently running works of serial fiction can be found on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords. If you're comfortable moving files around to your ereader of choice, always pick Smashwords as your e-bookstore of choice - they give authors a much bigger slice of the pie!

2 Responses to Running, Writing, and Dieting

  1. Richard August 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    That is good news. It tells me it can be done. I have let my weight get away from me as well. I used to play soccer and run a lot. But, now I spend far to much time sitting on my butt. I have made a pledge to myself to visit the gym more, even if it cuts into my own writing time. In fact, I have come up with a few ideas for my writing while on the treadmill.

    Good work! Perhaps in a little while I can share my own successes at the gym.

  2. Louis August 21, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Interesting post there. Writing and exercising should go together. We sit for too long.

    But as you probably know you’re not the only writer to run. I know of one older guy, sixty I believe, who has written 100 books and he is out practicing for a marathon. I believe he ran one a quite few years ago and realized he was way out of shape to do it again.

    Personally I like to go to the gym even though usually it’s one of the places I don’t write. I mean in my head. Something about riding the lifecycle that usually keeps my attention elsewhere. And the weightlifting goes by too fast.

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