Tuesday 19 March 2019

'I walked and jogged, I had trouble breathing but I kept going'

I started jogging to ease feelings of helplessness and what began with a painful shuffle around the block led to a lifestyle of ultramarathons fuelled by plant-based eating, writes Jonathan Cairns

Runner Jonathan Cairns from Rathgar took up running to lose weight and feel better about himself, and he hasn't looked back. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Runner Jonathan Cairns from Rathgar took up running to lose weight and feel better about himself, and he hasn't looked back. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Jonathan Cairns now enjoys a lifestyle of ultramarathons fuelled by plant-based eating. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
The Plant-Based Runner

Jonathan Cairns

I was 46, fat, fed up and frustrated. While time and my weight were catching up on me, the only thing that wasn't going up was my level of fitness. Coupled with a painful and messy separation, things were starting to crack. But it wasn't always like that.

Once upon a time, I was fit. I played rugby at school and for a number of years afterwards, and my diet was relatively good. But somewhere along the way, and over the decades, I managed to replace reality with that memory of myself. Instead of seeing the overweight, unfit person I was, the person I saw in the mirror was continuously fit, strong and slim.

So, how did it get to that?

At the time, I ran a company which was developing, and selling property in Florida, and I was spending a week per month in Orlando. A lot of my life was travelling, so I was constantly on the road, eating in airports, hotels and restaurants. It became a slow, slippery slope and my ideal meal was a steak and a bottle of wine. Nothing wrong with that - until that ideal meal became my daily meal.

Jonathan Cairns now enjoys a lifestyle of ultramarathons fuelled by plant-based eating. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Jonathan Cairns now enjoys a lifestyle of ultramarathons fuelled by plant-based eating. Photo: Kyran O'Brien

Coupled with that, I forgot to move. I was too busy to exercise and instead of dealing with it, I took the easy way out - every time I purchased new clothes, I moved up a size. Simple! So somehow, I didn't see myself as overweight or unhealthy. And being coeliac, I thought the creeping pounds were a symptom of my reaction to bad food and wheat. In the US especially, wheat is in everything.

Meanwhile, home was not a happy place, as I had three small children and a relationship long past salvaging. After we separated, to combat a feeling of total impotence, I started to jog. Although 'jog' is an imperfect way of describing my initial shuffles around the block. I started by putting one foot in front of the other. Sunday nights, after I dropped the kids back to their mother, were always the hardest. Driving away from your children is suffocating and one time, I arrived home, dug out some old running shoes and a pair of tracksuit bottoms and headed out the door. I walked and jogged, walked and jogged. It was painful. I had trouble breathing, I sweated profusely and felt weak.

But I persevered and kept putting one foot in front of the other in the weeks and months afterwards. Always at night under cover of darkness, I huffed and puffed my way around Rathfarnham. I had a three-mile loop from my house, but it took months before I could run it continuously.

But I kept going, and slowly but surely my fitness level began to rise, my weight started to go down, I slept better, I had more energy, I had more interest in eating healthier food.

My motivation? To be present for my children. Although the post-separation agreement meant my time with my children was limited, I wanted to have energy to fully enjoy my time with my children. So in order to build up my stamina, I started a routine of exercising three times per week. Painful as it was, I stuck to it. Three times a week, rain or shine, I put on my running gear and put one foot in front of the other.

It was difficult, but 12 months later, I ran my first full marathon in Rome and proved to myself that it was possible to go from fat to fit, regardless of age, weight or fitness level. I went from miserable to feeling good in my own skin.

In the first 12 months, I lost a stone. I am now 14 stone, just under 90kg. Since then, I have run many marathons and two years ago, I started running ultramarathons.

But I always remember how I got here. The pain of running three miles from my house in the early days has never been surpassed, not even in a marathon. The beginning is the hardest, with feelings of facing down a dark alley, unsure of where I was going or how to get there. It always came down to movement. Put one foot in front of the other and move. Action always wins. Everything is clearer and more positive when you are active.

Running just a few miles on a regular basis has a massive impact on your body. It changed mine. It took focus and consistency to start, but I managed to develop a healthy habit. Just a few small, active changes sent my life in a different direction.

Being overweight is a burden that a lot of us suffer. Yet, we all know how to lose weight. It's quite simple really, burn more calories than you eat. So, why is it so difficult? I found out why, for me anyway.

It started with ownership - my life, my body, my problem. I needed to know my motivation. I did, my children. On those wet, cold nights when I was hungry and tired, I often had to remind myself why I wasn't plonking my fat arse down in front of the TV. Consistency came next and that took discipline. "Three nights a week and no excuses", was my promise to myself. If I wanted to change my mind, I told myself I would address it after a run, not before. I always felt good and proud of myself after.

To remind myself why I was putting my mind and body through such trauma, I started to watch what I ate. I wanted to get fitter and leaner, not fitter and fatter. I started to cut out foods that didn't make me feel good. In my new role as a carer in St James, I had listened to a diabetic, who was unable to walk or use his fingers, talk about how he had no idea how he became a diabetic. There was no family history and he didn't realise that the food he ate had a direct and lasting impact on his health and quality of life.

While I was educated in terms of food, I wanted to learn more. How do we know which foods promote health and which fuel disease? Is white meat better than red meat?

I came across three themes, which were: eat more fruit and veg; eat fewer animal products; avoid processed foods. It's not rocket science, but I had to make a conscious decision to make a change - the trick was not to do it overnight.

I gradually changed my diet, cutting out sugar and reducing the amount of meat I ate. Over the years, I graduated towards largely following a vegan diet.

Declaring yourself a vegan these days can invite some eye rolling, but it suits my body because I'm coeliac. I occasionally eat fish and organic eggs and I've proven that a plant-based diet is more than sufficient to run dozens of miles a week. And it also drove me to include tasty plant-based recipes in my book.

Over my fitness journey, I have developed a strong appreciation for good health and the control we have over our eating and exercise habits. I know how hard it is to start getting healthy when you feel like a 'lost cause'. In fact, I was that lost cause. I thought I was too old and it was too late for me to turn things around.

This book The Plant-Based Runner is the kind of book I looked for when I started becoming aware that I was actually in control of my life. With so much conflicting information out there, I didn't want to be told what to do, I wanted someone to tell me how they did it.

I remember feeling fat, unfit and totally overwhelmed, and it was hard to see a reason to start. At some point I learnt that my first move was to take responsibility. For everything. My health is no one's responsibility but my own and that's 100pc responsibility, 100pc of the time. Everything that I eat and drink is a choice, my choice. Every time I exercise it is a choice.

The result? Feeling good in my own skin is wonderful. Waking full of energy and feeling strong and positive is worth it. Ten years ago, running for a bus was out of my league. One year ago, I completed the Belfast to Dublin 107 mile ultramarathon. I changed, one thought, one bite, one step at a time.

I often get asked 'what's the secret?' I whisper it: 'Put one foot in front of the other and just keep going."

Trust me, you can do it.

Jonathan's book, The Plant Based Runner, is available from Amazon

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