The Health Of Magic

Riki reminds us that it is Survival of the Fittest out there, and that the time to think about how you’re going to win the Pro Tour in ten years starts today. What misplays do we make after the tournament, at the drive-thru window?

“It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
Every motivational speaker ever

If you are reading this article, you probably have some lofty goals related to Magic. As a player, perhaps you want to win a PTQ and go to the Pro Tour. If you’re a judge, maybe you aspire to be a Level 3. These are both long-terms goals that can take years to see fruition. After all, it’s not a sprint…

Four years ago, I set a long-term goal for myself to run an actual marathon. I told quite a few people this goal. I’m not sure why I decided to make this something I wanted to do. I remember reading Haruki Murakami’s novel “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” and thoroughly enjoyed it. There were just a few problems with the idea of me running a marathon.

First, I was in terrible shape. I had been an athlete in high school, four years on the tennis team, but hadn’t really kept up with anything athletic since then, over a ten year gap at this point. Many of you might be too young to understand this, but as you get older, there is a certain conceit that you will always be as smart, or athletic, or as good-looking as you were when you were younger. Part of it is self-delusion, but part of it is that it is very hard to notice a slow decline. When I was in high school, I could run a seven-minute mile. I didn’t really train back then. Why would I be that much slower now? I found out just how slow I’d become when I began working out again on a treadmill. I could barely even run a mile at first.

It turns out that after many years of not exercising and having unhealthy eating habits, I was overweight. I never weighed myself at my heaviest before I started working out again, but my guess would be that I was over 200 pounds. That’s for someone who is 5’7” and was around 140-150 through most of high school. It is a shocking number from my perspective, and looking at pictures from that time period and comparing them to me now, it is clear that I was not healthy, and yet I never felt fat, obese, overweight, or whatever word you want to use.

Part of the problem was that I didn’t look particularly fat. This comes from living in America where everyone is at least ten, twenty, thirty pounds overweight so you don’t really notice too much that you’ve let yourself go. I also tended to wear clothes that didn’t fit, L(arge) sized T-shirts when M(edium) would have fit me better. So I slowly grew into those Ls until they fit snugly, and I never went through a period of “why don’t my clothes fit anymore?”

Here’s a pretty good comparison of me over the years.

Shortly after starting my running regimen, I joined a Weight Watchers group at work. I got a lot of sideways glances from my coworkers, mostly women in their forties and fifties. “Why do you need to lose weight? You’re so skinny.” (Again solidifying the fact that I didn’t look that overweight.) Those are hard words to hear. Maybe it’s not as bad as someone saying “You need to lose some weight,” but it is a different kind of emotional pain to be told that you aren’t fat enough to want to lose weight. My initial weigh in was somewhere north of 190 pounds. It was the first time I had stepped on a scale in years and I was embarrassed at that number.

Being in that group was very helpful. Although they were skeptical at first, my coworkers did accept me and we helped each other through the process. I’m not here trying to sell this, or any other particular brand of weight loss / fad diet. I think the most important thing is that you find a system that you can commit to and have a support system so that you don’t fall back on old habits.

Over the next few months, I steadily lost weight and running became a lot easier. In Magic player parlance, “It turns out that it is easier to run when you don’t have to carry as much weight.” After three months with WW, I was down to about 160 and I ran a half marathon in Oakland in 2 hours 10 minutes, or just about a ten minute-mile pace. Things were going well. Another couple of months and I was at my goal weight of 150 pounds.

Riding on a wave of feel goods, I took a job with StarCityGames in the (then) Events Department. I moved to Roanoke, Virginia. As a Californian moving to Virginia, I suffered quite a bit of culture shock. I won’t go into the depths of most of that now. For this story, the important thing is that I fell off the healthy wagon. Southern food is delicious. It is also mostly fried or barbequed meat. Our workplace also featured a bunch of fast food and stuff-your-face buffets nearby that made for convenient and fattening lunches. The final nail in the coffin was that I stopped running. I could list off a few of the excuses why. My apartment’s gym had a crappy treadmill. It rained a lot, so I couldn’t run outside as consistently. Work hours made it hard to slot in a good workout time, especially when we moved and I had to commute 45 minutes to work. On and on and on.

In the end, it is just a list of excuses. Some may be familiar to you. The end result is that I ended up in familiar territory, overweight and not knowing it (or not knowing just how much). I hadn’t brought a scale with me, but I did have the unglamorous experience of having to stop wearing certain pants because I couldn’t fit in them anymore and going shopping for a larger size. Again, I didn’t think it was that bad. I had bought a bunch of clothes when I was at my skinniest, so I accepted that I was backsliding a little, but deluded myself about exactly how much.

It was my good friend Kali Anderson who finally got me off my ass again. Also unhappy with her weight and health, she started a diet program and started to lose weight. Being a competitive individual, I proposed a contest with her to see who could reach the goal weight of 145 first. I went out and bought a scale and weighed myself: 193.8 pounds. I had done it to myself again. But on the flip side, I knew that I could get myself out of it because I had done it before.

That weigh-in was January of this year. Tired of all the excuses, I got a gym membership and started getting up early to get in a run before work. I also went back to some of the healthy eating habits I learned at Weight Watchers, cutting out a lot of sugars (mayonnaise and ketchup have a surprising amount) and fried food from my diet. I ran another half marathon, shaving eight minutes off of my previous time. Right now, I am once again right around 150 pounds and inches away from winning my bet with Kali. And I finally accomplished the goal that started all this so many years ago. On October 6th, I ran in the Portland Marathon. It was a grind and I almost didn’t make it. For more of my thoughts on running the marathon, check out my blog here.

Now a week later, I can definitely say that I will be running another marathon in the future. I enjoyed the experience and feel like I can do better. I know I made some mistakes in my training and in my pacing during the race. After the tragedy at the Boston Marathon this year, I made a Tweet about qualifying for that race someday. I’m far off from being able to do that, but I do think that it is something I can accomplish.

Why did I write this story? Why did I bare my soul? Mostly, I want you all to understand that I’ve been there. I understand what it is like to hate to step on a scale, hate how you look, lack energy and motivation to do stuff, and wonder how things got so bad. It happened to me twice. Although I am now healthy, I live with a constant fear that I am just going to yo-yo back and forth over the years.

I think a lot about goals, motivation, and inspiration these days. I know that a lot of people look up to me for various reasons largely related to judging this card game. I’ve grown up with this game, more figuratively than literally because I was already a teenager when it first released, and I feel that I am a middle-aged statesman (don’t call me elder quite yet!) Given that position, I feel a responsibility to speak up on this topic. I look around me at Magic tournaments and I see unhealthy people all around me among players and judges. If America is on average obese, I feel like our community goes one step beyond that. Many of us live in the middle class, and despite all the talk about the 99%, we live in the comfortable percentage that can eat whatever we want, whenever we want, and we do so frequently.

The game we play promotes a sedentary experience. We sit to play for long hours at tournaments, and we do so at home as well. Think of how much time human beings spend in front of a computer now. We Magic players probably blow that figure away. MTGO, reading websites, watching videos and streams, and chatting with friends in other cities are just a few things we do for hour after hour. The game can also contribute to unhealthy eating habits. McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and an after-tournament meal). You’ve done it. You see others do it.

I am now at an age where many of my friends are getting married and having kids. First off, this is a fantastic thing. You all have beautiful babies. Now stop posting so many dang pictures on Facebook. Second, kids are another time sink. When I watch The Biggest Loser, one of the things that keeps coming up with the contestants who are parents is how hard it is to find the time to exercise between cooking meals, taking kids to school, and everything else.

One of the things that I am afraid of is that I am now at the age when I will start losing my friends. Billy Joel sang “Only the Good Die Young,” but in today’s culture it is the obese. This is just one website with some startling numbers about the current state of obesity, and the future that awaits us if things continue on the same path. Many of us are destined to die young from obesity-related illnesses.

I don’t want to see a bunch of people I know die because of our unhealthy lifestyle. I love the Magic community. I live and breathe this game. My fiancée is also a Magic Judge. Planning for our wedding next year, I don’t have a large family, so most of the guests on my side will be filled with players and judges, as will a few on her side. I want to stay involved with this game for the next twenty years, and it breaks my heart to think that some of the people at my wedding might not make it through those twenty years not because of some accidental tragedy, but because of something that we can control.

I think it’s important to start now and address this issue within the community. We need to promote healthy eating, bring fruits and vegetables to events for snacks instead of cookies and Pop Tarts. We need to promote exercise and fitness. Maybe not at events — although now I am imaging having exercise bike stations at events — but at the very least promote a culture of fitness at home. We have “crack a pack day.” Why not have a “take a hike day?” Several people have commented to me that my running exploits have inspired them to get out and take up running themselves. If running isn’t your bag, join a spin class, take up bicycling, or find a group of buddies to play basketball with. Get up, get out, get fit. Let’s grow old and play M40 together.

I hope you will leave a comment on this article to continue this discussion. Tell us what you are already doing to stay fit and healthy. Tell us if you’ve inspired to make some changes. Tell us if you’re afraid or unsure about how to change your life. Together we can be stronger. Together we can survive this.