Writing through this blog has been a refreshing exercise in attaching my experiences to the attributes of the person I have become today. I never thought I would’ve fallen in such love with self-expression through writing. It's really felt great to share some things about me, that many wouldn't normally know. I appreciate the many visits to this site and the kind comments you all have shared - thank you!
Now, I want to share a more recent experience that is not unusual by any means and frankly, very cliché - its about hitting a ‘rock-bottom’ and climbing back up. I've had many people ask me about my journey over the past few months and now I'm ready to share the details. This will be a short series of posts I'll publish over the next week. So read on, and come back for more!
But before I go on, I’m intentionally staying away from making this blog about my achievements as an athlete and keeping it from becoming just another collection of best practices, tips and tricks for success, and race/event reports that just seem to highlight my feats in endurance sports over the past 25 years. There are a lot of those blogs around. I consider these achievements to be personal, regardless of performance. I prefer sharing steps to success and best practices in more of a one-on-one or smaller group interaction - more room for effective dialogue in those formats. That said, in this post, I will share a few race results because these results tie back to a greater experience. So, as for the rest of my race history, let’s leave it at this: I’ve done a lot; some good and some not so good. It’s all been a great experience!
Back in July of 2011, I arrived at what I deem the peak of my personal athleticism. This was my completion of Ironman Lake Placid. My first and only Ironman event to-date. I had trained for nearly six months with the goal to finish feeling good enough so I could relish in the accomplishment, head back to the finish line and cheer on my fellow Iron-Men and –Women to the same achievement. Mission accomplished – it was a great day shared with my wife, Deb, my two boys, my siblings, in-laws, and my step-mom. It meant so much to have them all there.
Here is a quick video of my finish. I'm the dude in the black shirt (pardon the screaming, but it was that type of day!):
I have so many great memories from that day and the week leading up to the race. One highlight that comes to mind was as I made my way back through town on my first loop of the run, I see my brother, AJ shirtless, standing in the middle of the street cheering me on as I trudged up a seemingly endless hill. Another great memory is when my other brother, Neil ran with me along Mirror Lake Drive as I completed the last mile of the marathon. Then finally, when I heard Mike Reilly call out my name and announce to the world "Tom Barbieri, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN" as I made my way around the very same Olympic rink where Eric Heiden won his five gold medals in 1980, and in the shadows of the arena where the 'Miracle on Ice' hockey team shocked the world. This was breathtaking! There are many more great memories from that trip, that I will always treasure.
I purposely waited I turned 40 to complete an Ironman event, because I had developed an early respect for the sport through my close interaction with many of the pioneers of triathlon through the '90s and my work in the sport directly in the early 2000s. Plus, I was enjoying shorter events as a participant, I wanted the intensity that is Ironman training to mean something more than just saying, "I did it". So after just over 20 years in triathlon, I finally completed my Ironman. I'm glad I waited.
Fueled by the athletic bravado that 14 hours of swimming, cycling, and running 140.6 miles will give you, I got my Ironman M-Dot tattoo a few weeks later. My athletic ego was still smoldering and huge! But let's face it, I did deserve it.
For me, the honeymoon of my Ironman performance was all about freedom. Freedom to swim, bike, run, eat, and drink whatever I wanted. “I did it all” I thought to myself. Like a kid out of school – no training or fitness plan needed, and no special diet I to fuel my long training weeks.
I watched myself slowly change.
As time went on through 2011, the pseudo-endorphic high was wearing off. A combination of unfocused physical activity and poor nutrition habits were beginning to be the norm (Note: Even during my Ironman training, and through all of my athletic endeavors, my nutrition was shit!). I was sleeping poorly and going through waves of extreme high- and low-energy bouts, and mental ups and downs each day. I worked out very inconsistently. It was a #shitshow in the making, and happening!
Fast-forward to late spring 2012. Each Memorial Day weekend our local master’s swim team here in Reston, Virginia hosts an open water swim at a local lake. Usually it’s a 1- and 2-mile event, but in 2012 they offered a 5k swim. Still feeding off of ego I earned at Ironman almost a year earlier, I entered the 5k swim and trained for about two months. I was slower, for sure, but always completed my workout sessions leading up to the event
I finished the 5K swim in just under 2 hours. I was in the bottom 10 finishers. It's not my finishing place that concerned me. What was most disappointing was how I felt. It was like I was a rock, trying to stay on top of the water. Like a rock!
I got out of the lake, staggered up the boat ramp and walked up to my waiting wife. She could see the distress on my face that matched the concern she had due to how long I was in the lake. I told her I wanted to quit any future participation in endurance sports. My head was not in a good spot. I did not participate in the 1- and 2-mile swim races the next day, like I had done 4 consecutive years earlier. I was done - #dunzo. I went home and partied with my neighbors (…another Memorial Day tradition, which I love!). I fell asleep a beer- and junk food-filled Ironman athlete. What a #shitshow!
The next morning I weighed myself. I was 228 pounds at 6 feet, 1 inch.
This was my rock-bottom.
I had to take action.
Now, I’m not going to get dramatic and say that I was on the “verge of death” and that “I wanted to live long enough to see my children graduate high school.” That's not what this was about; well maybe a little bit. I needed to be proactive and finally take a stand for my own health, fitness, and overall well-being. My family history was/is not good when it comes to health and longevity in age, but my family does have a history of being strong-willed, and stubborn. I needed these traits to take over!
Going back to basics was how I started to think. I reflected back on my college experience in biology, anatomy, physiology, and nutrition. "I had all this knowledge in these sciences - how could I let myself get to this point?", I thought. I wrote down all the classes I took and what I needed to go back and review to spark my memory since my studies had nothing to do with my current or even recent day-to-day life. I reviewed macro-nutrients, calories, metabolic systems and pathways, food sources, diet plans, even basic anatomy. Anything that could help me understand what happened to my body over the past 41 years, I went after it.
My brain was recharged and I was reminded as to why I loved learning so much about the human body and it’s response to it's environment.
The Tuesday back at work after the long, and very insightful and revealing Memorial Day weekend, I took an hour and did something I now call, 'mind-to-paper' work to identify what my core personal values would come from. I first made two lists - one that listed out what would I feel like (...not look like) if I continued on the same path without making a change and one list that showed me all the potential improvements in feeling (...again, not looks) I would have if I made small, permanent changes over a period of time. I then identified the specific scenarios, feelings, behaviors, and actions that put me in a position to make poor choices with food and nutrition. Last, I wrote a short paragraph on what I thought success would look like if I traveled six months in the future. It was a figurative mind-dump.
Now that I had some vision, it was time to create goals. I landed on two:
I jumped right in and built my action plan for each goal.
Goal #1: Lose 30 Pounds
For the weight loss, I needed to understand why the food I was eating made me feel unhealthy. To start, It was about keeping track of the food I ate and the energy I burned. I used the popular calorie-tracking application, My Fitness Pal to not only keep tabs on how much food I ate and how many calories I burned, but to really help me understand how food quantity and certain calorie sources affected how I felt. Kind of like when you first put together a household budget – you need to know where your money is going before you can decide where to allocate funds when you build your budget. This is what this ‘calorie in/calorie out’ approach helped me understand. My wife playfully chuckled at me as I began to realize what millions of people have gone through in pursuit of a diet. She was very right!
After one month of this deep-dive into research, application, and continued self-discovery around how my body functioned through nutrition and the ‘theory of the calorie’, I identified that 1850 calories per day would be my plan to get me to my target, functional weight. This came from a thorough understanding of what was realistic given my life demands, regular daily patterns, and training regimen. It was an all-inclusive plan that considered all aspects of my lifestyle.
How did it turn out?
When Marine Corps Marathon (my goal date) came around I had been through a whirlwind of mental and physical adaptations. I listened to and acknowledged every feeling my body bestowed upon me. At times, I questioned all that I had learned. Other times, I celebrated the progress I made when I weighed myself twice per day and slowly (...yes slowly, but consistently) saw results over time. I fought cravings and climbed mental mountains at events and gatherings where in the past I would’ve been gluttonous and detached from the negative physiological affects of my poor nutrition habits. I continued to ask myself how a simple plan could be so difficult. And it was. But those feelings of difficulty went away as I moved closer to my goal date and saw more progress. I just needed to be consistent and keep myself motivated.
One day in early September, I had clear vision come to me in the afternoon while sitting at my desk, while at work staring out the window. It was a moment in time where I had been removed from who I'd become through this still short journey where I wanted to walk down to the Panera next door to my office building and buy three cheese pastries. However, before I could get out of my chair, I leaned over and put my hands on my face, elbows on my knees and thought to myself, “you’ve come this far, don’t let yourself down.” This was the first time in my life I was able to clearly distinguish the ‘new me’ from the ‘old me’. It was a powerful moment that I will never forget.
It was a collection of small successes, that got me to where I needed to be.
I hit my goal and started the Marine Corps Marathon at a weight of 195 pounds - 33 pounds lighter than 5 months earlier. BOOM!
Goal #2: Set a Personal Best at Marine Corps Marathon
At this point, I had been a runner for nearly 30 years. I’d run all distances up to the marathon – with 23 marathons under my belt. I was never fast relative to the top 30% of runners, always achieving average finishing times, at best, in most of my events. I was satisfied with this, no doubt. For me it was about the experience.
I had experience putting together training plans for myself and many others that helped achieved goals and personal bests for many years. But, before I sat down to draw up a plan, I needed to really assess my priority here. I do not think it’s possible to successfully lose weight via a calorie deficit-approach and train as I had always trained in the past. Meaning I had to move from training a lot (…volume) and moving to training effectively (…quality). With a limit of 1850 calories per day, weight loss became my priority because the weight would be overall driver of my health. This is how it would be.
I built a progressive training plan that moved me from June 2012 to October 2012 focusing on quality run sessions, and low volume as my body safely adapted to the limits I designed to achieve my main goal. I was very detailed and specific with every week of the plan.
I started running at 10:30 pace per mile for about 3 miles only three days a week with a longer run on the weekend. Once I saw my pace increase while feeling like I was not putting forward much more effort than I was at my slower paces, I began to run one of those days as speed work. This was in July, in Virginia and it's HOT! I'd head to the high school track on Wednesday mornings at 5 am and peel through mile, 800, and 400 repeats. I went back to basics when it came to my track sessions. Something I hadn't done since more than 15 years earlier. My first track session was about 5 miles in total. By the beginning of October, my track sessions moved to the treadmill and were as long as 12 miles. My long runs on the weekends started at 8 miles and went to 22 miles. The pace during my long runs went from a 10:44 average per mile to a 9:31 average per mile on my last long run in mid-October. I did the plan. I was consistent. It worked. I was CONSISTENT.
This was the first time I followed my own training CONSISTENTLY. I did not miss one training day - not one!. If I had to, I ran at 4 am. I ran at night, if I needed to. I was able to balance my responsibilities as a dad, husband, employee, coach, etc. all because I wanted this goal THAT MUCH – I was motivated. I wanted it.
How did it turn out?
This Marine Corps Marathon was extra special. For the very first time, some one close to me was right next to me on the start line. My brother, Neil, was going after his first marathon finish. We ran our long runs together. As I saw Neil's experience running, it brought me back to my early days and how much I enjoyed the little feats and ‘bests’ that training for something you’ve never done before gives you. It was a very reflective experience for me. I’m glad he was there with me and that he had a great race and finished the marathon feeling great!
Just like achieving the goal of losing the weight. It was a collection of small successes, that got me to where I needed to be with my running.
I ran Marine Corps Marathon in a time of 4:11. This was 9 minutes better than my goal. My previous Marine Corps Marathon time was 4:54 in 2010. It felt great to run at a 9:28 per mile pace. I struggled a little towards the end of the race, but all in all, in my mind I won.
I had done it! I achieved my two main goals while learning much about myself. Recharged and rejuvenated with life, I continued the successful behaviors I adapted to over the past five months past the marathon. Yes, I still counted calories and was sticking to my 1850 per day limit, but I began to transition in my nutrition intentions in a similar way I did in my run training back in June: moving from looking at the quantity of food through calorie to understanding the quality of different types of food and ways to eat. I had once again evolved.
I think that was what was missing for me for so many years. My body was trying to evolve, and I never had enough faith in myself to take the risk and know that however I turned out, everything would be ok. I never allowed my body and mind to adapt.
My running evolved too. I wanted to start getting faster. So I needed to change up my runs. RIght? Nothing changes, if nothing changes!
If I could go from nearly an 11:10 minute mile to under 9:30 per mile for the marathon in 2 years, I could certainly get even faster. And I did. I began just running faster right after the marathon in 2012. Heading out for 8:00 minute per mile pace runs immediately. It was hard and uncomfortable adn my runs were short at about 3 miles to start, but the feeling improved quickly. Again, I adapted! (See a theme, yet?) I was motivated! I pushed my speed sessions to dial-in paces that built aerobic capacity at fatigue so my easy paces would get faster and my faster paces would get easier. It hurt, and took patience. But it worked.
I was no longer like a rock sinking in the lake that Sunday back in May. No more, like a rock!
I completed the 2013 Marine Corps Marathon (…again with my brother, Neil) in 3:52. This was a 19-minute improvement over the previous year, with an increase in pace of nearly 45 seconds per mile. I've since run a 3:43 marathon, in training. Not too bad! Oh, and at a weight of about 175 pounds! That's about where I've stayed with my weight to this day.
Now, I am at a good place with my running. On my schedule for this year are primarily local races. I did a local 10-miler, and two half-marathons (one trail and one road)…all PRs. I did my annual Memorial Day lake swim – and this was extra-cool since my wife, Deb jumped in to do the 1-mile race this year, in addition to the 1-mile practice swim she usually does (...she killed it!). Coming up I have my first RAGNAR event in West Virginia in June, with a 50K, Marine Corps Marathon, and the Richmond Marathon lined up for fall. There are some other events ‘penciled’ in on my calendar that may come to fruition. We'll see.
This is not the end.
There's much more to share, so come back in two days to read about how I took my nutrition to the next-level and built the ground work for the next two years.
Thanks for reading!