Penguin Chronicles: January 2012

I’m a smoker. Well, I used to be a smoker. So I’m an ex-smoker. Or a former smoker. I’m not sure. What I do know for sure is that for 25 years I never went anywhere without a pack of cigarettes.

I told myself that I was an intentional smoker, not a habitual smoker. I intentionally had a cigarette as soon as I woke up. I intentionally had a cigarette with my morning coffee, and mid-morning, and before lunch, and after lunch, and mid-afternoon, and – well – you get the idea. And I always intentionally had a cigarette right before I went to bed.

I quit full-time smoking 20 years ago. I gave up the pack-and-a-half habit about six months after I started running. Even I figured out that coming back from a run and lighting up wasn’t the smartest thing to do. But I didn’t give them up altogether.

Somehow I convinced myself that there was a measure of discipline in only having one – or sometimes two – cigarettes a day. The one cigarette was usually after dinner, with a cup of coffee. If there was a second it was later that evening with a cocktail. I finally gave up cigarettes altogether about 10 years ago.

You math geniuses have already calculated that, yes, I was still smoking part-time when this column first started in Runner’s World. I was still smoking part-time when I wrote “The Courage to Start”. I was encouraging people to do what I had not yet been able to do: fully embrace a healthy, active lifestyle. 

This is all by way of saying that if this January you decide to embark on a new lifestyle, or improve your current lifestyle, or set new running goals, the first step in that process is getting honest with yourself. It’s not enough to want to change or achieve. You have to know what price you’re willing to pay.

When I quit smoking, the price was giving up the illusion of how cool it was to smoke. I had to give up the image of the suave, debonair, worldly man that I convinced myself the cigarette projected.

Like so many other folks, I’d like to weigh less than I do. I come from a round people and I am a round person unless I weigh what I did in junior high. I’d like to weigh less, but I’m not willing to pay the price. I’m not willing to give up the pleasure I get from eating certain foods. That doesn’t make it right, but it makes it true.

I’m willing to pay the price of skipping a cookie now and then. I’m willing to pay the price of making a healthier choice from a restaurant menu. The price of giving up all the foods I like all the time, however, is just too high.

I’ve run 45 marathons. I’d kinda like to run 50. The struggle is that I know what it would take to run that 46th marathon and I can’t quite bring myself to write the emotional and physical check that it would require. I haven’t given up on the idea, but I’m being honest about what it’s going to take. 

Not having any athletic talent I have to resort to rigorous preparation in order to run marathons. Marathon training divides my life neatly into two categories; what I have to do because I’m training for a marathon and what I can’t do because I’m training for a marathon. For right now the price of seeing the 46th marathon finish line seems too high.

What I’ve learned for myself is that I’ve only got so much self-control in me. I’ve got plenty of discipline, plenty of drive, plenty of tenacity and talent and ambition. What I’ve got in limited supply is the ability to make good decisions.

I can be good decisions about my eating for a while, but not forever. I can make good decisions about my training for a while, but not forever. I can make good decisions about some of my life some of the time but not all of my life all of the time.

The question I will ask in January 2012 is the same as it will be every day in 2012; what can I honestly expect from myself? What am I willing to change and what will I have to accept. What part of me is eager to become something else and what part of me is simply content to be what it is. 

I’m feeling good about the possibilities. And with just a little bit of luck, this won’t be a year that goes up in smoke.

Waddle on, friends.

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