Running out of excuses

by Gautam Raja

Someone I know, let’s call her Elle, sometimes feels hounded for a surprising reason: she’s slim and healthy. Any concern she has about her appearance is instantly shouted down. If she refuses dessert or a second helping, she often has to hear a snarky “What do you have to worry about?”

It is, of course, the holding back on extras that got her where she is. As well as running hundreds of miles and counting. “People sometimes don’t understand how hard I have to work just to stay the way I am,” she says.

Although Elle loves running, she’s troubled that sedentary people think exercise comes easily to fit individuals. Swimmer Ian Thorpe and cyclist Lance Armstrong are both incredibly driven athletes. Yet they write about how much they had to fight themselves on cold mornings, or days they just weren’t in the mood. What separated them was not that they jumped out of bed every day dying to be in a pool or on a bicycle, but that they did it no matter what.

Similarly for Elle, going for a run after a horrid day at the office isn’t easy. And yet she grits her teeth and goes, knowing that excuses are insidious. And knowing that she’ll thank herself after the workout; her bad day a distant memory.

Even when travelling regularly across time zones, she found a way to get her exercise, usually in a hot, smelly hotel gym the size of a large cupboard. A few years earlier, when new to the Middle East, she ran outdoors on summer evenings, the air temperature higher than her own body’s.

In short, she ran through and over all the standard excuses: “I’m too busy”; “It’s too hot”; “I travel too much”; “I’m tired in the evenings”. And so, when she talks about the fight and someone says, “Oh come on, it’s easy for you!”, it’s hard not to find that unfair. People who are full of excuses and good intentions seem to think that while they “struggle” with weight loss, the people who endure sweat, tears and even blood, simply do what comes naturally.

Nike’s “Just do it” might refer to Michael Jordan attempting an impossible cross-court shot, but it’s just as easily a call to action for the legion of people who plan their eating and exercise schedules, and purchase memberships or equipment, and then decide to get round to it “next week”. Somehow the guilt these people feel for not getting off their rears is transferred to people like Elle who are made to feel their willpower and body shape are slaps on others’ faces.

“I couldn’t hold back like that,” is a common retort to her entirely personal eating choices, the subtext being, “I may be overweight, but at least I enjoy life.”

Those people should see Elle towards the end of her run. She’s aglow, almost incandescent, her gait light, her beaming face saying, “This is what it means to be alive. This is bliss.”

After her run, all tiredness, moodiness and irritability are gone. When she goes to bed, she never lies awake worrying about the next day or reliving bad client meetings—she’s asleep in minutes. Her energy and sense of purpose are strong: I never see her overcome by exhaustion, and no matter how hard things get, her inner happiness stays intact.

That second bowl of ice cream starts to look pretty insignificant now, and Elle sometimes wishes she could say all this. But she knows that epiphany can’t be handed out, it must blindside. All she can do is keep on running.

First published in Gulf News, May 18, 2010