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Burning Runner: An Honest Path To Weight Loss

Week 5: T.J. reveals how he began to unwind his downward spiral.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

A few days ago I was talking with a co-worker about my condition circa two years ago. I recall it well. My personal life–and me along with it–had flown off the cliff, and my health had deteriorated at warp speed.  My diet, which was nothing to brag about in the first place, was wrecked with bagels and cream cheese, various fast foods, roast beef sandwiches, chips, cookies, beer and very strong coffee. Breakfast was usually coffee. I was living evidence supporting the idea that if you want to record a day of healthy eating you have to start things off with an intelligent breakfast. Failing to do so generally sets the tone, leading to an evening of binge eating.

The Downward Spiral

I never thought it would happen to me but it sure as hell did. The downward spiral builds momentum as additional bad habits sweep in. I tried running here and there, but pounding the pavement was such an unpleasant experience I just gave up. My energy pattern was the same every day: drag myself to work, ignite myself with a coffee buzz, and by the end of the workday I had nothing left. I’d drag myself home. The lifestyle was reflected in the digital readout of the scale.

The turnaround took time. But when I stopped whining about it and instead starting doing the right things one at a time, I began to dig myself out.

It feels like yesterday I was battling all this. I think this is why being so new to a complete overhaul of my diet I can see both sides of the physiological state that can exist, as described by Dr. Neal Bernard in his book, “Breaking the Food Seduction.”

“For many people, the problem starts with gaining a few pounds,” he writes in the introduction. “As the bathroom scale becomes more and more discouraging and our clothes no longer fit, our self-esteem takes a bit of a knock…. if our weight gain causes other symptoms—joint pain or diabetes, for example—we don’t feel like ourselves at all. Food habits gone askew also lead us toward high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, digestive problems, or other conditions, replacing youthful vigor with a feeling of vulnerability.”

In the next paragraph, he describes the flip side.

“When you break the seduction and unwind the downward spiral that food habits can cause, physical problems start to melt away. You feel younger and healthier, with a new sense of control. You have more energy, and it shows.” He then quotes one of his research volunteers, who says, “After having been overweight my whole life, changing the way I eat has finally allowed me to maintain a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle. Now I eat so much better and am never hungry.”

An Honest Path To Weight Loss

It has been a revelation that the route toward burning off excess weight and all the baggage that goes with it is not a matter of just running a lot. I was also ignorant that using diet to lose weight wasn’t a matter of walking around hungry all the time.

Dr. Bernard’s book doesn’t serve up the usual diet book fare of gimmicks and false promises, tricking people into buying the book because it seduces you with the idea that you can go around eating spare ribs and fine cheese and lose a dozen pounds.  Rather, he lays out a basic approach that exchanges the governing forces driving what and when you eat. The heart of the book is a 21-day program that works to unleash you from cravings, “clean the slate” and connect with the satisfaction that a smart, consistent diet staked in his revision of the food groups: Vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits. “When you reach the three-week mark,” Dr. Bernard writes, “your body is physically different. Your blood sugar and hormones are now more stable, and your body’s sensitivity to leptin and insulin has almost certainly improved.” If you perform the program correctly and keep blood sugar up with these foods, the cravings that have been haunting you, he says, should largely have diminished. “In our studies, the vast majority of people have dramatic reductions in their desires for meat, cheese, chocolate, sugar, cookies, and potato chips, and have a new appreciation for the fruits and vegetables their mothers would have wanted them to eat.”

As far as my personal experience making this change, I felt many of the changes he was talking about almost immediately. I’ve been losing weight (to my delight I weighed in under 180 this week) but there’s been absolutely no starving myself to do it. And I feel like I’m steadily losing my taste for the things I used to be inadvertently punishing myself with.


Last week I recovered from the Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon and began my training for the Las Vegas Rock ‘n’ Roll event. I haven’t been shy about seeking out expert advice and support, even though I have logged many years, and miles, as a runner. I signed up for an online coaching service through a coach I have a lot of respect and admiration for, Greg McMillan, and I like the way he applies sound physiological principles with insight that only comes from years of being a runner and working with runners. In the early summer I could feel a few warning signs from the various hot spots that tend to plague many runners—chiefly heel and Achilles tendon pain.

In my growing list of waking up to some of the better information and ideas available to runners, I’m continuing to work with Frank Alvarez, a personal trainer/marathoner from 24-Hour Fitness. I’ve had several moments where I’ve kicked myself for not doing this years ago (how many hours have I wasted in the gym improperly doing the wrong exercises?). Frank is more of a power guy then I am—throw 700 pounds on the leg press and he can bust out a set—so he’s not a featherweight. Yet he can say something I can’t: through his marathon running career he’s never had an injury. What he’s been teaching me is how to do the right exercises correctly, most of them tricked up a bit so that I’m engaging the core muscle groups even if I’m doing something like shoulder presses with a dumbbell.  I see this as developing a resistance to the usual pains and injuries that leak into a running buildup.  This past week he took me through a leg routine that, like many of the other exercises he’s showed me, helped me understand why “functional training” has become so popular. Thanks to Frank’s guidance I’m far more aware of my posture when running or even when sitting at work. I assume this has something to do with tuning up my overall level of core strength. In a few weeks I’ll report on whatever tangible progress I’ve been making.

Rock n’ Roll Los Angeles

To invigorate the early phase of my training for Las Vegas in December I’ve decided to put in a checkpoint to my preparation—and spice things up—by adding Rock n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon, on October 24, about 10 weeks out from my goal race. It’s a flat, fast course–a good place for a time faster than my 1:51 two weeks ago.

I received some feedback on my goal of sub 1:30 in December as being a bit too ambitious. I think that’s a fair criticism. However, one of my favorites from American running history is the late Ron Daws, a true runner’s runner, an athlete with minimal talent who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 1968 through cunning smarts and a huge work ethic. In the 1970s Daws wrote a piece about his philosophy of training, and in it he encouraged readers to set lofty goals. Daws said to “shoot for the stars,” adding that if you only reach the moon, that’s still pretty damn good. I find it hard to argue with this line of thinking.  And what the hell? Time to just let it rip.


T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at