Getting fat - getting (reliantly) skinny

September 7, 2014

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The other day I was searching for an old image of me on KMFF’s Facebook page (I was looking for this one as I’m doing some talks for Doug Scott this winter), but the image that popped up was hardly recognisable - I just looked so skinny!

I often come across old pictures like this which always surprise me, as my self image since my early teens, has been of a fat porker.  Even when I was cycling 24 miles a day five days a week to work, as well as climbing, I still thought I was fat (I lived on a diet of bake potatoes and chips, and would often eat a whole cheesecake with little effect), but I obviously wasn’t, being about four stone lighter than I am now.

A big problem for me was I was often working with people who where all suffering from eating disorders and malnourished (i.e elite climbers), and I remember not finding it that strange when someone once told me he ate toilet roll for lunch to fill himself up!  Sheffield in the 90’s was pretty unhealthy, with most good climbers having a very bad relationship with food and body weight/images, which may be a reason why so many of them were also always injured and downright miserable.

The first time I remember people questioning this super light philosophy was when Chris Sharma and Fred Nicole burst onto the scene, with neither looking that light or skinny (maybe harking back to the beefier Stonemaster physique, rather then euro stick man style), with Nicole apparently living off box’s of chocolates.  The thing was I was never going to be cranking E7 and 8a’s down at Rubicon, I was interested in climbing in the Alps and mountains, and walking 7 miles to work with 40kg on your back was never going to be conducive to matchstick legs (people often made fun of my thighs down at the Foundry as well).  Never the less my self image was always poor.

Becoming a father did some damage to my body, as a more sedentary life began to make my body more how I’d viewed it (I used to eat a whole white baguette for lunch!), but even then, looking at pictures, to anyone but a climber, I was thin, and when I started going away on trips I invariably lost all my ‘home fat’.

Since then my weight has always been up and down, with trips and training cutting away the fat, and months in between doing sod all adding it on again.  I think the first time I really got fat was when I went to Greenland in 2006, following the advice of Ben Saunders to just get really fat - which I did, getting so fat I could no longer zip up my coat when I arrived and it was raining.  My mate John (editor of The Quietus) once told me that being fat - like really fat - was when you walk along the edge of a swimming pool and you pull in your stomach and you still look really fat (my own version of this is that if you turn you head really quickly your face takes a moment to catch up).  Anyway Ben’s advice was good (I would recommend people bulk up before any extended trip where you’re going to be living off dried food), and I lost all that weight I put on, plus a lot more and came back skinny. 

This going up and down on the scales seemed to be a bit strange, but then I spotted that Ricky Hatten seemed to have the same approach - getting close to obese, before losing all the weight training for a fight.  People often say this yoyo way of dieting (I wouldn’t call it dieting, in fact it’s the opposite, you just keep eating!) is bad for you, but I know a lot of pro athletes who’s bodies are fucked up by overtraining and a near starvation diet who are way less healthy than me (an important point).  There is also evidence that some people’s genetics allow them to put on weight quickly, and also lose it just as fast, natures way of allowing humans to live through time of feast and famine, which makes a lot of sense (that’s why the poor get fat and the rich stay thin, as the ruling classes are always the last to starve!).

This year my weight began about 98kg (which is very heavy), dropped to 82kg, and then has climbed again to 103kgs, due to doing no exercise (I climbed the Nose and Moonlight buttress but that doesn’t count) and literally have not stopped eating since I got back from Antarctica (I guess I felt my body needed pampering). My BMI states I should be between 58-79kg for my height.

And so I’m fat again, not proper fat, all the fat is around my stomach (which sticks out like Andy Capp, something people often point out to me, sticking their fingers in my belly). Do I care?  Well a little bit, but mainly I see it as a passing phase.

So where does this strange relationship with food/weight come from?

I can identify a few reasons for this weight problem, one being that it’s taken me many decades to establish any real understanding of my body shape, that even when I’m at my lightest I will never be light, my legs and arse, back and chest are just not meant to be small like a small child (like many top climbers).  I remember someone saying that it was no wonder my mate Paul Tat was a great climber, as he’d been born with the hands of a dry stone waller and the body of a 12-year-old child. I’m like a Shire horse and will never have my day at the races.  Why have I had this confusion in my body image?  I think it’s down to poor self-esteem as a child (why? - well that’s another blog post in itself), and that seeing your body as strong and capable doesn’t fit in with your self-view of weak and incapable.  It was only over many many years did I begin to see my body shape for what it was, good for carrying things, and good at taking punishments and abuse (including no food and water), and most of all designed to survive when my skinny mates just collapsed.  My body shape and abilities are probably due to the genetics of my ancestors, who by the sound of it were labourers and grafters (dockers, stonemasons etc).

A few things I have learnt thought in this life of fat and thin:

  • Losing weight is easy - it’s just doing it that’s hard.
  • Not being seen as having an “ideal” climbing physique is other peoples problem.
  • Generally the lower the % body fat the more boring and serious a person becomes.
  • People who are a bit fat tend to get injured less than those who are super fit.
  • If being a bit fat means I can sit in cafes and drink coffee, eat cakes and eat nice meals, hang out and read books and write instead of hitting the gym then I think it’s a price worth paying.
  • Never go on a diet, just eat the same amount as you did, only something healthier.
  • If you want to train away from your fat then ignore the fat, and just focus on the muscle beneath, as sooner or later the fat will catch up (a super fit body under a fat suit is perfect for expeditions and long trips).
  • Your body adapts to what it’s doing right now (being a writer / being a father / being a climber), so don’t sweat it as it will quickly adapt to what you’re doing if you do that thing enough.
  • Somewhere between how fat people think you are, and how fat you think you are, is the the truth.

The last words go to skinny legend Dave Hesleden, a man with the same body fat as a dried prune, who I bumped into at Outside this week.  Dave asked me what I’d been up to, and I replied “getting fat”, to which he replied - with typical Northern candour - “it’s not how heavy, but how strong you are that counts” - which I took to mean my belly hanging over my jeans were OK - but maybe he was just taking the piss.



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