63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin

hampton-court-palace-and-west-ham-diet.jpgAs a schoolboy, I was amazed and impressed to read that Henry VIII had died of ‘consumption’. Had he really eaten so much that it had actually killed him ?

Now, of course, I realise that the description actually refers to tuberculosis, but also that there was likely still an element of truth to my post-mortem interpretation.

Consumption is a life-long pastime, and in these more leisurely weeks after the Blackpool Marathon, it has once again made its presence felt.

After the race, my second marathon in two months, I simply had to take it easy for a while. I needed to rebuild my busted legs and exhausted morale. I ate chocolate. I drank some lager. I took a three week break, and decided to run a few times, walk a few times, for a few more weeks. It seemed reasonable. The result: I put on 4 kg. Disappointing.

The thing is, you see, that last winter I was delighted finally to make real progress in losing some weight. Those who know me would typically say at this point, ‘But you’re not fat’. Maybe that is still (just) true, since I am 6’3″ (1.91 m) tall. But two other truths also spring to mind: 1) I’m not thin, either; and 2) I’m much fatter than I used to be.

How do I know ? Well, in 1995, I started a new job, and the doctor weighed me at 84 kg. In 2003, I started another new job, and had another medical. 88 kg.

The doc was actually quite impressed. He said that a weight gain of 4 kg over eight middle-aged years was much less than the average. Sadly that new job in 2003 also saw an end to my walk to work over the Downs each morning, and exercising the Ford Focus instead of my feet eventually saw my weight rise to 91 kg by the end of the year. But I was hardly a slouch in comparison with 1995. That year I was unfit and didn’t run at all. In 2003 I ran three half marathons, completed my third marathon, started preparing for a fourth and ran 1 200 training miles. So how could I possibly be 8 kg heavier ?

The simple answer, as I have belatedly realised, is that I eat too much. For some years now, I have used running as a bit of a licence. Six miles spent ploughing across the fields can provide a perfect reason to eat (and drink) later.

It’s a training strategy, and an excuse, that I have mastered over the years. When I started running, seven years ago, the weight peeled off me in the early weeks. After a month, it stabilised, and then, very very slowly, it came back, along with my appetite.

Of course, I’m much fitter than I was. But for all of that, I am heavier. Last year, one of my new colleagues christened me “The Hungry Horse”. It was an accurate, if friendly soubriquet. After all, I’ve been called much worse. The defining incident was probably my consumption of two large packs of sandwiches in the departure lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 en route to Africa one afternoon. In mitigation for this offence, I could reasonably cite my 10 miler that morning in training for the Great North Run the following week. But the case for the prosecution was firm, with the evidence of my guilt only too clearly evident from the scales.

Finally, then, over the course of last winter, I changed my routine. I trained for a marathon, whilst trying to eat normally. It was hard. I had a lot of bad runs early on, probably because I was underfuelled. But over 18 weeks, I lost 18 pounds.

A slow, gradual weight loss. Surprisingly slow, perhaps, but rational. My GPS told me I was regularly burning around 4 000 calories a week through that time. Since 1 pound of fat equates to 3 500 calories, my half a million steps of marathon training equated to just 70 000 calories, worth 20 pounds (9 kg) in all. That’s very nearly exactly how much I lost, if you allow for the Christmas pudding, as of course I did.

So, what have I learned ? Well, I’ve got to keep running. And I’ve got to keep paying more attention to what I eat, and what I drink. One of the many ways that running has already changed my life, is that I really do think about these things, all the time. It doesn’t mean that I’ll follow a rigid code, just that I need to note when I’m stepping out of line. I’ve made a decision to eat that cake, drink that beer, and to stuff the consequences. Those consequences being a fat stomach.

Another thing I have learned, is that I am what I eat. Or rather, I am what I ate two weeks ago, since there seems to be a considerable lag between consumption and effect. Last week, with a 3.5 kg gain since Blackpool, I realised this was no longer a statistical blip. I had to exercise more, and eat less NOW if I wanted to avoid a catastrophic landslip back into gluttony.

So, this week, I ran three days, cycled two, and turned down a couple of appetising puddings and beers. I played a game of tennis. I caught the train and bus to work one day, meaning I had to walk some. I ate no chocolate whatsoever. None. The result ? A weight gain of 0.5 kg. It’s a performance which would see many of the sad and once-famous evicted from the Celebrity Fat Camp, but in reality I know I’m still gaining weight from the (honestly modest) excesses of a fortnight ago.

It was in another airport lounge, en route to Aberdeen, that a colleague once remarked how life beyond the age of 40 seemed totally different from life before. Suddenly it was a real struggle, he said. Suddenly he had to watch every single thing he ate and drank. And suddenly it was far easier to gain weight than to lose it. Well, I’ve already proved that I can go against popular reasoning, gaining weight whilst getting fitter. If I’m going to control my weight, it’s got to be through an even more rigid imposition of lifestyle and eating choices. There is simply no cheap licence to eat any more, or, if there is, it comes only at an acknowledged cost of backtracking on gains I’ve made before. The trick will be to make those setbacks temporary, rather than a route to permanent relapse.

But all is not lost. I’ve said that it’s a problem of scale, and that cuts both ways. Over a long time, a subtle but consistent change can reap huge benefits. Through the course of a year, a weight loss of 5 kg means either running nearly an extra mile each day, or consuming 110 fewer calories. That’s one glass of fruit juice. Now, then, which of those approaches is going to make more difference ?

It was very hot here in West Sussex today. I ran 5 miles at lunchtime across the fields, with the heat steaming out of the grass beneath my feet as the planes landed in the Gatwick heat haze beyond shimmering summer hedgerows. Last week I had to stop to walk, but today I managed to grit it out, even if it took all of my mental strength to keep going. This morning, too, I ate my normal hale and hearty muesli breakfast with the customary enormous glass of orange juice. But for once, I diluted the juice with water, and I must say that it was quite refreshing.

Right. That’s just 364 more days to go, then.

Related articles:
118. The scales of truth
76. A year of running, rainily
79. In sickness and in health
127. Altiora peto, and other Latin lovers
57. Blackpool Marathon: Welcome to the Pleasuredome

2 responses to “63. Henry VIII’s consumption and the rocky road to running ruin

  1. Excellent post. Two immediate thoughts: muscle weighs more than fat, so a modest gain from fitness is nothing really.

    And your point about not walking to work hits home. I walked everywhere in NY and loved long walks in Central Park on weekends. How ironic that now, living in a state known for hiking trails, I have to drive somewhere to be able to take a long walk.

  2. Thanks, Ella. Despite impeccable logic and intentions, unfortunately it seems I’ve put on another couple of kilos since writing this.

    But it’s all pure muscle. Maybe.

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