During Christmas 2012, my family gathered for a portrait. When I saw the resulting pictures, I was disturbed by what I saw — namely that the negative feelings I was hiding inside were manifesting themselves on the outside, too.
At the time, I had a job that was OK but not great. I had a few friends, but my old pals from college had moved out of state for jobs or were busy establishing their careers. I had no real hobbies. I had found a wonderful, supportive partner, but was still feeling the effects of an earlier, emotionally abusive relationship that had affected my body image and confidence.
And worse yet, my health was suffering: I was 30 pounds overweight and depressed.
I never talked about these issues because I didn’t feel like I had anything worth complaining about. My life simply seemed “middle of the road.” Although I wore the mask of an outwardly strong person, on the inside I struggled with insecurity, regret, frustration, and disappointment.
Those Christmas photos portrayed the disconnect I’d been living: I wore a big smile I wasn’t feeling. I was standing tall in a body that felt all wrong.
I decided then and there that things needed to change — and that started with taking better care of myself physically. I knew I couldn’t control the fact that my friends were moving away or the economy made finding work difficult. But I could control what foods I ate and how I exercised. I could find another way to be in my life.
A Fresh Start
At the start of 2013, I purchased a pair of running shoes. When I first hit the trails, I lasted only a mile or so. Soon, however, I was running two, three, four miles, and more. And I loved it.
I started to realize something powerful: By dedicating time and effort to treating my body well, I could do amazing things, inside and out.
Since money was a precious resource, I decided that saving it up for athletic-event entry fees would help me stay focused and motivated.
I signed up to run a half marathon that would take place in March 2013, with the goal of simply finishing. When race day came, not only did I cross the finish line, but I ran the whole race — without stopping!
I had taken on a challenge and conquered it. Now, I wanted more.
After achieving my first goal, I continued training with daily runs, but within a few weeks, I grew bored. I admired the capabilities of triathletes, so I added doing a triathlon to my list of ambitions and saved up money for a bike. At the time, I thought the 13.1 miles of a half marathon was a long way. But by May, suddenly the 70.3 miles of a Half Ironman sounded awesome. So I began training.
Fueling for Fitness
To support my body, I had to explore new ways to cook. My dad is Cajun, so I grew up learning to cook lots of yummy meals — but not necessarily food that was good for maintaining my weight. I decided to experiment with different recipes, pulling healthy options from cookbooks and Pinterest, and swapping out pasta for quinoa or zucchini ribbons.
I stopped listening to confusing diet advice and started eating more whole foods: protein from organic beef and chicken (when possible) and wild fish; lots of veggies; and no more packaged foods. I found that the healthier I ate, the less I craved junk food. When I chose to enjoy a cupcake or a beer, I’d eat and drink less, but truly savor the experience.
During the summer, I diversified my workouts to cross-training for the Half Ironman with swimming, biking, and running. I added strength training a couple of times a week, and incorporated yoga and stretching. My weekends consisted of bike rides of 50 miles or more on Saturdays, and running with a great group of women on Sundays.
As I made these changes, I began dropping weight, and I noticed significant changes in my body shape. With all the running and food swaps I had made since January, by May I had lost 25 pounds — which made triathlon training that much easier.
I was less concerned with the number on the scale because I saw that my clothes were looser, and my legs and shoulders were more muscular. I wasn’t comparing my weight to others around me or to supermodels — I didn’t care about thigh gap or slim arms. I focused on making the strength and shape of my body the best they could be. And in doing so, I felt my confidence pick up as well.
Racing With a Purpose
I began participating in great events like Life Time’s inaugural Athleta Esprit de She Dallas Duathlon and Austin Cycle Tour, and they were wonderful. The women I met through these events inspired me to connect with others. And I also realized that I wanted to be an athlete who worked for a cause.
I decided to start Cowboys Against ALS (now Cowgirls Tri) in honor of my favorite boss and mentor, Chuck, who passed away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. In 18 weeks, I raised more than $1,000 for the ALS Association.
My life hit a bump when my dad was diagnosed with stage III lung cancer last year. In the past, this would have sent me into a tailspin. Instead, I decided that being strong for him and for myself was all I could do. My dad was too sick to be at my Half Ironman in October 2013, but I raced for him.
I love the sense of achieving and helping others, but I also do it for the old me — the woman who thought reaching such goals was impossible.
The new me is happiest making a difference in the world, pushing boundaries, and seeing how much challenge my body can handle.
I have come to see that I am in charge of my health. I am in charge of my happiness. I am in charge of the person I present to the world.
And I am, finally, very proud of her.
Meet: Jenny Paul, 27, a nonprofit development professional in Austin, Texas.
- Big Achievements: Finishing a Half Ironman, and the Athleta Esprit de She Duathlon and Cycle Tour. Training for a full Ironman, at 140.6 miles, in May 2015.
- Big Inspirations: A desire to create a life that makes her proud. Strong female athletes, such as those she met at Esprit de She events, and her mom and boyfriend, who have been her “biggest cheerleaders.”
- What Worked: Setting a workout schedule and committing to athletic events that motivated her to train hard. Eating whole, healthy foods that met her training needs and worked for her life and budget.
- What Didn’t Work: Getting confused by conflicting diet advice in the mainstream media, much of which turned out to be misleading hype that worked against her goals for sustainable health and fitness.
- Words of Wisdom: “Remember your purpose in pursuing your big-picture goals. Take pride in your accomplishments along the way — no matter how small. If you do that, you’re going to stick with it.”