By Jenny Paul |
During Christmas 2012, my family gathered for a portrait. When I saw the resulting pictures, I was disturbed by what I saw — namely that the negative feelings I was hiding inside were manifesting themselves on the outside, too.
At the time, I had a job that was OK but not great. I had a few friends, but my old pals from college had moved out of state for jobs or were busy establishing their careers. I had no real hobbies. I had found a wonderful, supportive partner, but was still feeling the effects of an earlier, emotionally abusive relationship that had affected my body image and confidence.
And worse yet, my health was suffering: I was 30 pounds overweight and depressed.
I never talked about these issues because I didn’t feel like I had anything worth complaining about. My life simply seemed “middle of the road.” Although I wore the mask of an outwardly strong person, on the inside I struggled with insecurity, regret, frustration, and disappointment.
Those Christmas photos portrayed the disconnect I’d been living: I wore a big smile I wasn’t feeling. I was standing tall in a body that felt all wrong.
I decided then and there that things needed to change — and that started with taking better care of myself physically.
I decided then and there that things needed to change — and that started with taking better care of myself physically. I knew I couldn’t control the fact that my friends were moving away or the economy made finding work difficult. But I could control what foods I ate and how I exercised. I could find another way to be in my life.
A Fresh Start
At the start of 2013, I purchased a pair of running shoes. When I first hit the trails, I lasted only a mile or so. Soon, however, I was running two, three, four miles, and more. And I loved it.
I started to realize something powerful: By dedicating time and effort to treating my body well, I could do amazing things, inside and out.
Since money was a precious resource, I decided that saving it up for athletic-event entry fees would help me stay focused and motivated.
I signed up to run a half marathon that would take place in March 2013, with the goal of simply finishing. When race day came, not only did I cross the finish line, but I ran the whole race — without stopping!
I had taken on a challenge and conquered it. Now, I wanted more.
After achieving my first goal, I continued training with daily runs, but within a few weeks, I grew bored. I admired the capabilities of triathletes, so I added doing a triathlon to my list of ambitions and saved up money for a bike. At the time, I thought the 13.1 miles of a half marathon was a long way. But by May, suddenly the 70.3 miles of a Half Ironman sounded awesome. So I began training.
Fueling for Fitness
To support my body, I had to explore new ways to cook. My dad is Cajun, so I grew up learning to cook lots of yummy meals — but not necessarily food that was good for maintaining my weight. I decided to experiment with different recipes, pulling healthy options from cookbooks and Pinterest, and swapping out pasta for quinoa or zucchini ribbons.
I stopped listening to confusing diet advice and started eating more whole foods: protein from organic beef and chicken (when possible) and wild fish; lots of veggies; and no more packaged foods. I found that the healthier I ate, the less I craved junk food. When I chose to enjoy a cupcake or a beer, I’d eat and drink less, but truly savor the experience.
During the summer, I diversified my workouts to cross-training for the Half Ironman with swimming, biking, and running. I added strength training a couple of times a week, and incorporated yoga and stretching. My weekends consisted of bike rides of 50 miles or more on Saturdays, and running with a great group of women on Sundays.
As I made these changes, I began dropping weight, and I noticed significant changes in my body shape. With all the running and food swaps I had made since January, by May I had lost 25 pounds — which made triathlon training that much easier.
I was less concerned with the number on the scale because I saw that my clothes were looser, and my legs and shoulders were more muscular. I wasn’t comparing my weight to others around me or to supermodels — I didn’t care about thigh gap or slim arms. I focused on making the strength and shape of my body the best they could be. And in doing so, I felt my confidence pick up as well.
Racing With a Purpose
I began participating in great events like Life Time’s inaugural Athleta Esprit de She Dallas Duathlon and Austin Cycle Tour, and they were wonderful. The women I met through these events inspired me to connect with others. And I also realized that I wanted to be an athlete who worked for a cause.
I decided to start Cowboys Against ALS (now Cowgirls Tri) in honor of my favorite boss and mentor, Chuck, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 18 weeks, I raised more than $1,000 for the ALS Association.
My life hit a bump when my dad was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer last year. In the past, this would have sent me into a tailspin. Instead, I decided that being strong for him and for myself was all I could do. My dad was too sick to be at my Half Ironman in October 2013, but I raced for him.
I love the sense of achieving and helping others, but I also do it for the old me — the woman who thought reaching such goals was impossible.
The new me is happiest making a difference in the world, pushing boundaries, and seeing how much challenge my body can handle.
I have come to see that I am in charge of my health. I am in charge of my happiness. I am in charge of the person I present to the world.
And I am, finally, very proud of her.
Jenny Paul, 27, a nonprofit development professional in Austin, Texas. Finishing a Half Ironman, and the Athleta Esprit de She Duathlon and Cycle Tour. Training for a full Ironman, at 140.6 miles, in May 2015.A desire to create a life that makes her proud. Strong female athletes, such as those she met at Esprit de She events, and her mom and boyfriend, who have been her “biggest cheerleaders.”Setting a workout schedule and committing to athletic events that motivated her to train hard. Eating whole, healthy foods that met her training needs and worked for her life and budget. Getting confused by conflicting diet advice in the mainstream media, much of which turned out to be misleading hype that worked against her goals for sustainable health and fitness.“Remember your purpose in pursuing your big-picture goals. Take pride in your accomplishments along the way — no matter how small. If you do that, you’re going to stick with it.”