Archive for October, 2011

Ultreya…ever onward

I’m reading a can’t-put-it-down book about El Camino right now called I’m Off Then: Losing and finding myself on the Camino de Santiago, by Hape Kerkeling, a 46-year-old German comedian who made the trek a few years ago. Alone. And woefully unprepared.

Mr. Kerkeling was an overweight, smoking, unfit night owl who set off on his journey without telling anyone, not sure what he was looking for or why, and nursed himself through some excruciating leg and foot pain in the beginning, particularly after 13 miles one day over hill and dale in flip flops (!) because his hiking boots were soaking wet.

Since Kerkeling is a funny guy by profession, and has been since his teens, the book so far has many laugh-out-loud moments – for one, his descriptive distaste (utter dismay) when he encounters the ‘amenities’ of the refugios (one grimy bathroom for 35 people, creatures biting him in the night, incessant lights and noise) and his decision to stay in nice hotels, authentic pilgrim experience be damned.

(By the way, I’ve read that not all refugios are quite this ‘intense’; and all are run by volunteers who wish only to support the pilgrim experience).

While he was up at dawn many days, and manfully covered significant distances, he also hitched rides on occasion with farmers hauling sheep or families who took pity on his limping self.

He had serendipitously purchased one of those trekking sticks (something I’d not considered but now am), lost it, grieved for it as he would a partner, and immediately purchased another – which became his faithful companion on some very long, hot, strenuous days. Much of el Camino is considered a relatively easy hike (I’ve seen it described as ‘lightly undulating’); but parts are hilly, rocky, and most distances between stops are at least 20k.

This is not Hape but kind of looks like him. This pilgrim just finished a 37k hike.

He’s a lovely, wry, observant, self-effacing writer who makes me laugh. He is also, perhaps unwittingly, poignant and so affecting when he talks about some of the people he meets – elderly pilgrims, some with painful injuries, helping each other with each slow, slow step – determined to make it to Santiago, no matter what it takes or how long.

To these comrades, he says Ultreya, a medieval pilgrim battle cry meaning ‘ever onward’, and used to this day on El Camino and elsewhere to signal encouragement, blessing, strength of purpose. Ever onward. Ever onward. Ever onward. A simple, strong mantra that works for me, Camino hike or not.

In a similar vein, he begins his book with a statement, printed by itself on the first page:

“The Camino poses a single question to each of us: Who are you?”

I haven’t finished the book but this question, which flows out of the title about losing and finding himself, suggests more poignancy, more enlightenment, more empowerment to come. I had begun the book late at night, was only planning to get started before I went to sleep. But when I read this line, I bolted up, wrote it down in my bedside notebook, and read a good chunk of the book until the wee hours. The question continues to resonate, echo, chime softly within me.

The word camino means path, roadway, journey, the way. I think whatever camino, external or internal, any of us travel – so many over the course of a life, we consider – and grapple with – this fundamental question. Our caminos interesect, dead-end, expand into multiple possibilities; they are hard, easy, fun, complex and terrifying. And sometimes joyous.

Maybe we answer the question differently along the way. Or maybe we simply get closer each time to that core self that connects us to all others, to God (however that essence is defined or named). I don’t know. I simply hope I will know ‘it’ when I see it.

Dreaming about walking the Camino de Santiago, on a path foot-worn for centuries by so many people hoping and seeking and finding their way – ever onward – makes me feel an invisible, yet strong and precious, connection to humanity. Though much of what I’ve read suggests this pilgrimage, even if enjoyed with travel companions, is done alone.


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Camino Blog shoutout first: Stumbled upon a lovely blog by another peregrina who travelled the Camino last fall. Added to blogroll and here for ease of access. Joy is a Professor of Environmental Studies with a passion for ‘sacred geography’. Isn’t that so beautiful and fitting? I recommend taking a look at her wonderful capture of so many dimensions of her journey.



And back to Saturday….

It seems 3rd workout of the week with Stefan will now happen regularly on Saturday morning instead of Friday night. Energy was high today, high-ish anyway, and the annoying dizzy spells mostly disappeared, due to eating oatmeal an hour and a half before going to the gym, as per Stefan instructions.

Who knew there would be such constant tweaking and tinkering with blood sugar levels and water consumption and carb/protein balancing and anti-oxidant increasing in this ‘get fit’ plan? Sounded so easy when I said it fast a month and a half ago.

I’m still surprised about the difference small edits in diet can make in how I feel, move, even sleep. I think my mind/body/spirit (and food) connection has been, to put it kindly, off kilter for some time; I feel some days now as if I’m rewriting ‘me’, the person who considered chocolate an essential nutrient, not just my daily food plan.

I’m not accustomed to seeing me reach for an apple instead of a KitKat. And not only that, I am amazed when I can honestly feel this choice as a ‘real’ one, and not merely a diet restriction (deprivation) that will be lifted immediately upon reaching a numerical goal.

My head still spins some days as I get more used to all this – all this what, exactly? Well, certainly a new schedule. New workout program. New food. New pain. New thinking – actually ‘more’ thinking – thinking ahead about what to buy, prepare, and have on hand for those late gym nights. New approach – this consciousness I keep coming back to. Eyes wide open, at least know what I’m doing even if my ‘good choices’ mentality is not yet hardwired.

Recent example: Made and ate a really fine meal of chicken, roasted vegetables, and quinoa and then, trance-like, went rummaging in the cupboard for an old jar of Nutella, dug out a few heaping tablespoons of that sugar/fat/chocolate concoction for desert instead of the planned grapefruit.

Step away from the cake...

Excuse me, I’m having the strange need to quote Yoda (was it really Yoda? I have never seen a single Star Wars movie, episode, whatever). “Do it or don’t do it. There’s no trying.”

My goal (and hope) is that I will absorb, deep into my cellular self, this new – and healthier – way of life, and this new – is it too much to call it spiritual? – strength I’m developing along with better pecs and abs. This new muscle is being used to forge my own life with more focus and deliberation, following a path I can believe in and know will be more satisfying ultimately. I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan, a ‘quick bright thing’ that fades to black, once I return home from the Camino.

But hey hey, I’m getting ahead of myself once again – worrying, formulating negative possibilities and ‘failure’ scenarios before I’ve even purchased my plane ticket. This tendency – to let the past define the future and lose sight of ‘right now’ – is as much part of the ‘rewrite’ I’m doing as going to the gym.

And this thought presents a perfect opportunity to share a few words from Joy (Camino blogger mentioned above) she wrote back to me after I commented on one of her posts: “…the Camino is a wonderful ‘school’ in living one day at a time, seeking direction one yellow arrow at a time.”  Thank you, Joy.



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I had the day off work today – appointments and so on. No scheduled workout but I went to the gym this morning anyway after walking the dog. Stefan had explained I needed to intensify my cardio activity since he thought I was getting too breathless doing such things as step-ups. Ya think? Yeah, I saw his point.

Turns out aquafit isn’t the heart-pumping, heavy breathing activity he was looking for either. He suggested doing some ‘interval‘ work on the treadmill on the days we weren’t meeting. Interval training involves short bursts of very high intensity cardio activity (length of time varies depending on the workout) followed by lower intensity ‘rest’ periods to recover. Ok, I’m up for that.

Just 20 minutes, says he, 1 minute of power walking, as fast as I could go without having to run, at a fairly steep incline; 4 minutes recovery at a slower pace and much lower incline. Repeat a few times. This sounded sane and do-able.

I had done interval training during the power walking days in Toronto. Our group met once a week, oddly in the fancy Rosedale neighbourhood (all our other walks were in High Park and along the Lakeshore). It became clear after my first session that we met here because of a nearby pub everyone liked – one that served ever-so-healthy, all-natural sweet potato fries with burgers. Self-delusion is a powerful thing.

I enjoyed this part of our training – we would do a variety of interval patterns; for example, 1,500 metres fast, 1,0oo slow, followed by 1,000 metres fast, 500 slow, and so on. In total, whatever the interval pattern, we’d usually cover about 5-6 kilometres over the 45 minutes. Then we stretched, then we inhaled burgers. Endorphin rushes a-plenty.

Today’s intervals were a little different, though I felt some familiar sensations when I was sucking wind on the first all-out burst. Warmed up with a couple of minutes of light walking on the ‘mill, then punched in some new numbers for the first 1-minute interval.

Speed – 3.8 mph, incline 13.0. (13.0!) Four minutes ‘recovery’ at 2.5 speed and 2.5 incline. Here’s the thing. I’d *never* put a treadmill at an incline beyond 4, even at my fittest, which pretty much makes me a wimp.

I’m ok with 3.8 speed; add the mountainous incline and I was sweating buckets in seconds. I did the requisite 20 minutes, wrung out my shirt, poured water back into me, and went grocery shopping. (longing for sweet potato fries).

I still like this interval thing, though…there’s something about an all-out, go for broke explosion of intense energy, with breaks in between, that appeals. You can do anything for 1 minute, right?

You can’t think – well, I couldn’t; the ever-present gym televisions on 10 different channels no longer distract; you don’t care anymore about the uber fit guy next to you who’s running 100 miles an hour and not breathing hard. And despite no burger reward, I felt great afterwards.

So I’ll be doing this 3-4 times a week now, too.

News flash from last night’s workout: Plank Record Broken !!!!

Yes, I achieved 17 seconds of holding the dreaded plank before collapsing face down onto the mat, breaking my previous record by 12 seconds. I am clearly the most plank-challenged person in the world.

Fit woman doing plank: Doesn't this look easy as pie? Maybe one day...

In food news, stand by for a commercial on Greek yogurt. Who knew that old-hat yogurt smoothies could be so amazingly wonderful? Greek yogurt is the difference. I won’t go as far as to say it’s like ice cream, but honestly, it’s close.

Here’s what goes in mine (breakfast, as well as pre-workout snack plus hard-boiled egg). 1 cup greek yogurt (and not even the no-fat kind – whoo hoo!); a good handful of frozen fruit (Stefan says berries are best though my fave is papaya), a tablespoon of all natural peanut butter though I’ve also used almond butter, unsweetened cocoa powder, some water so everything doesn’t glop together.

You can even throw in some spinach leaves for extra nutrition value – you won’t taste this, promise. And spinach has phytonutrients!!!! Yeah, I don’t know what this is either.

Magic bullet this into a milkshake – this is good, seriously. I’m sure Stefan will read this and tell me I now have to add ground flax seed, eye of newt, or something equally delectable. He has his buzzkill moments…no, no, I take that back (visions of plank-filled workouts in my future!)





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Great workout last night – they are all great, in different ways, but this one felt particularly endorphin-rich afterwards, which is not to say it was a piece of cake, so back down, Stefan, I don’t do cake anymore – in the gym or in bakeries.

Birthdays yes, gooey frosting excess - not so much. Maybe one little bite? Three?

On my way out, I thanked Stefan – with feeling – because I truly appreciate who he is and how he is with me – a gym neophyte, at least with this whole weight-lifting extravaganza. And he doesn’t have me travel the standard weights machine circuit doing the same things every day by rote.

We’re doing free weights, stability balls, TRX, and more, as I’ve described. This style of strength training requires more customizing, more whole-body awareness, more attention to detail –  posture, breathing, speed, how you hold your shoulders, it’s endless!  Stefan’s all over that. And then some. Form is every bit as important as content. I need that structure – I honestly don’t have a real clue about this stuff, despite dabbling with it a little some years back.

He also creates challenge and diversity and increasing toughness, and watches me closely, explains the science and mechanics behind his instructions, checks in, makes sure I’m doing ok, always able to see the difference between ‘regular’ tiredness and wobbliness that may signal the need for water, a short break, a stretch.

A word about increasing difficulty: as I posted, I lost 10 lbs this first month. So, what happens at the gym? Stefan puts 10 lb weights (in both hands) when I’m doing step-ups I previously did without any. You lose some, you gain some in this marathon.

One fine Zen day, I will stretch into this pose.

He pushes but doesn’t berate, he encourages in his quiet way and it usually works (except with planks), he adjusts individual exercises as required – up or down – depending on what he sees going on with me.

He’s more Bob than Jillian.

Good trainer/trainee chemistry has to be there, I think, for this process to work. For one thing, it’s entirely possible you will see your trainer more often than close family members.  For another, there’s huge trust involved in putting your whole body/mind to the test as you explore new territory, pushing your own boundaries further and further.

Unless you’re already a ripped, weight-lifting expert, this form of workout will break you down, expose everything, and challenge every idea you ever had about what you can and can’t do. And you start to write a new script for yourself – or at least I am, and I see someone emerging who is stronger, in all ways.

A good trainer is right there with you as you face all your demons (failure goblins, ghosts of past diets, fear of injury, aging, you name it). He or she sees it all, up close and personal – your weaknesses and your budding strengths, the struggle, and how you deal with it. There’s no hiding or fake-out in this relationship. There’s quite a bit of humility.

Forget being cool or cocky in any way. Get rid of your ego. And get ready to feel – well, everything, and I’m not just talking aching muscles. Emotions bubble up unbidden – though so far, I haven’t cried.

(Another thing Stefan and I share – addicted love of the movie from whence the line ‘There’s no crying in baseball’ comes. And another few we like from same: ‘Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it good.’)

I’ve felt frustration, certainly, especially when I sense the words ‘I can’t’ rising up, occasionally a twinge of fear ‘Am I going to drop this gigantic dumbbell on my face’? (No, see trust point above. A good trainer always spots you).

On Saturday, during one of the last abdominal strength builders, also known as my own private hell, I told Stefan I was going to vomit. On him. Of course, at that moment, the usually cacophonous gym had fallen unnaturally silent and several people around us stopped what they were doing, looked to see if this was real and whether they were in my line of fire. And then they laughed. Not my finest hour. But pretty funny.

Anyone have any good trainer stories to share? If you’re considering going this route, find someone who’s got all the right background and expertise, for sure, but also someone you don’t mind hanging out with night after night, sweating buckets on the floor, looking and sometimes feeling your worst as you get to be your best.

I consider Stefan my partner in this journey. He’s in a league of his own.




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The possibility of a hike on El Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) opened up for me about 2 months ago. I was so drawn to this pilgrimage right from the start – and so began the long preparation – outside and inside – I’ve been writing about since.

My fellow hikers and I (Wendy and Linda and maybe a few others) have not yet nailed down all the trip details. We know we will fly to Spain late next August; we are pretty sure we’re hiking from Sarria to Santiago, the last stretch of the trail. We are staying in small inns along the way, with our luggage driven from place to place; others hike carrying everything on their backs, stay in refugios, cook their own meals when facilities are provided and wash when they can.

One of the larger refugios - often the mattresses fill all the floor space.

But there are many ways to travel The Way, and many multitudes who have done so, many more to come.

It seems as soon as I said the words El Camino more or less out loud – on facebook, at work, and with friends, I was immediately – and warmly – ushered into a new world, one I’d never seen, and began to meet wonderful new people, though none face to face.

I’m corresponding with one man in the UK, an uncle of a colleague, who is a veteran traveler of El Camino and has been extraordinarily generous with his time and thoughts and suggestions – from the highly practical (vaseline on feet every morning!) to exquisitely lively descriptions of Spanish towns coming to life at night or beautiful evocations about the Mass given at a 1,000-year-old Monastery in Roncesvalles, Spain  “where the priests administer a pilgrim blessing, as they have been doing from the beginning, in all the languages they know, and finishing with the words, ‘And please remember to pray for us when you get to St. James.’ ”

The Camino Effect – emerging from a network of pilgrims who have made this trek, parts of it or all of it, in every conceivable way. And for every conceivable reason.

Some go to lose weight (it’s a frequent question on El Camino forums); some go to walk through their grief; others are seeking – God (going by many names), community, a sacred experience, an epiphany, a nameless ‘something’. Others simply think it will be fun.

And, of course, there’s the movie that’s recently been released – The Way, with Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez. I can’t wait to see this (though I’m afraid Martin Sheen will always be President Bartlett to me, forevermore.)

I am not entirely clear what has drawn me to El Camino – more and more as time goes on. I am aware of a sense of wonder and humility when I consider the mass of humanity who originally walked to seek forgiveness from the apostle St. James, whose remains are thought to be buried in the cathedral in Santiago. Right now, I feel like I don’t want to wrap myself up in expectation, but rather be as open-hearted as I possibly can be to whatever emerges.

Here’s something I loved from yet another new person I’ve been introduced to in the Camino network, through a mutual friend on facebook.

“What to expect on the Camino:
Sunshine, virtually no rain (in August), joy, blisters, laughter, tears, snoring (in refugios). Kindness, friendship, aching limbs, tiredness. Wonderful landscapes, modern windmills, cows, sheep, acorns beneath your feet, birdsong, the sound of water and of cow bells. Traffic swishing past, sometimes uncomfortably close; car horns honking to encourage you onward. Celtic music blaring from speakers in grey-stone Santiago. A babble of languages, wonderful dinners (pulpo, caldo gallego, pimentos, Santiago cake) and some not-so wonderful ones. Good wine, red and white.

Rediscovery, renewal. A sense of loss when it’s over. Fulfillment?”

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So I guess this stuff sort of works – eat better, lift some iron, and look what happens!

This Saturday morning was the one-month checkpoint with Stefan – a weigh-in and re-measure of legs, arms, waist, chest, etc. etc. Naturally, I didn’t want to do it – scales and measuring tapes generate an automatic fear (and loathing) response in me.

I have not been weighing myself at home – again, trying to break entrenched patterns that perhaps weren’t so helpful, such as daily weighing that often left me feeling overwhelmed (if I’d gained even 1/4 lb), anxious if I stayed the same, and defeated if I’d really gone up.

Not a good way to start the day. I try to make a choice every morning to face the day with optimism, gratefulness, and hope. Getting my head all gummed up by the numbers game – not the frame of mind I want.

Once again, to take a potshot at celebrities and supermodel culture, we also have a skewed sense of what a ‘healthy weight’ is, what it looks like, and how it relates to our overall strength and fitness. (cf Marilyn Monroe note in earlier post)

This new path I’m sweating on is healthier in all ways, I hope. I am not obsessing, not manically focused on the number on a scale, trying to ‘feel’ my progress in a whole body/mind sort of way. A monthly check-in on how things are translating numerically into outward change is just fine. And on that note – WHOO HOO!

Today’s morning workout was great – except I didn’t leave enough time (again, sigh) between eating and sweating, so I did have a few woozy moments when insulin, blood sugar, and exercise did not play well together. Learning, learning, learning.

Part of our program now is something called TRX. This is a form of suspension training that uses a large apparatus with ropes and handles and your own body weight as – well, you know what, look at the link and this pic.

It was new to me – and I like it! I’m doing much deeper squats, for instance, and in resistance training land, this is progress. Not that it’s easy – though of course it looks like it is. So, TRX, pushups, and ending with that godforsaken plank, which I simply cannot do for more than a few seconds – plank, hear this, I’m coming after you. I’m going to own you (one day)!

Afterwards, I went straight from the gym to do grocery shopping, came home and walked the dog for 40 minutes, and only then did I eat for second time. I’d texted Stefan with a question about the lunch I’d made and he said I had to eat a LOT sooner after the workout than what I did today. He used 3 EXCLAMATION POINTS. Still learning.

And now I’m off to dixieland jazz at a great old bar – because nothing says ‘happy dance’ like this joyous music.

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My pants are looser…

After the daily early morning dog walk, be-draped in worn out track pants and shapeless sweaters, I began the also-daily and mildly panicked search through my closet for something more or less decent to wear to work, and most important, for something that fit.

If I rub my lamp 3 times, will she come to my closet?

By accident, I grabbed pants I’d set aside because I could barely button them a few months ago. And today, after a mere month of diet and exercise reform, they fit, and maybe even just a teensy little bit loosely. Not falling off me…no danger of major embarrassment at work…just not a waistband like a death grip.

I was happy about this – within reason. Because of an adult lifetime of diet mania, I have experienced the dizzying elevator ride of clothing sizes – up and down – up and down – penthouse and basement – and the accompanying glee or despair, about a gajillion times. Wrote, directed, produced, starred and co-starred in that movie, its prequel and sequel. Too much?

Seriously, I could have clothed entire villages in what I have grown into, out of, way out of, either way. I have given clothes to smaller or larger friends. I have made countless trips to charities and Salvation Army bins.

I don’t feel good about this – this manic wardrobe acquisition and distribution throws in my face issues of waste, privilege, and consumerism, not to mention failure, compulsion and body angst.

Here’s what I know now, however. I can’t do one blessed thing about the past; certainly mucking around in it wishing it were different or berating myself about it does nothing, nothing at all. I have right now, today – that’s it.

I know this is an old adage. I didn’t really get it until this past year of tumult and change and new choices. But it’s become quite clear that while we might like to rewrite the past or completely control the future, the only thing that really makes sense is paying attention to the gift of ‘right now’; and the only thing we can really influence is how we think and feel about things. And we can try to get rid of the ‘mind-forged manacles‘.

Well, I’m still a novice…learning lessons perhaps a little late in life, but still learning, happily.

And so today, I’m choosing to celebrate the ‘possible’ pound or two of  weight loss (Maybe I just stretched the pants unconsciously). That’s part of the goal, yes, for sure. But it’s not everything. It’s not the whole picture.

In fact, instead of focusing on what I’m losing, I’m trying to embrace what I’m gaining – and building. I am gaining strength – today. I am building a healthy life – today. I am changing on the inside – and outside (eventually).

Second chapter of this post: Sorry for the 2 in 1

I didn’t post about last night’s workout, not because it wasn’t good, because it was. So for anyone still reading…we began last night’s sweatfest with something called (I think) a sumo squat deadlift.

The caption said never lift kettlebell over face. No problem.

You can’t imagine the mental image I conjured when Stefan came out with that one! So it involves standing with your legs fairly wide apart, toes out – yeah, just like the wrestler pics we’ve all seen and squatting down, picking up what I learned was a kettlebell (which I’m pretty sure Stefan said was 26kg – that’s over 50 lbs of solid cast iron!!), and doing this a bunch of times.

So that was new. And tough. And weird. It’s hard to describe the feeling of lifting such concentrated weight in a relatively small object over and over. It’s got a Zen dimension to it…it doesn’t seem real, somehow, because the mind just won’t accept that this small thing actually weighs a ton. I will admit here that for round 2 of these, Stefan lowered the weight – I was struggling. After this and more, I felt tired and wonderful.

Next workout: Saturday morning instead of Friday night. Stefan basically told me that by Friday, my limbs are more linguini than rockhard muscle. So we’re checking out this new schedule to see if a longer break would help.

And now the day has come full circle – going to eat soon and walk the dog. (And maybe purge the closet. Or not.)


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