It doesn’t matter how many different books, papers, blogs, or testimonials out there touting the benefits of this high fat, low carb science called ketogenic that my Natural Born Heroes journey has started me down the path of exploring. No matter how much I read about it, there is still nothing that will ever make eating bacon feel like a healthy, athletic dietary choice to me.
Yet one of the startling, seemingly paradoxical aspects of my foray into the Maffetone Method is precisely that: high fat, high cholesterol things like bacon, long thought to be the bane of arteries and aortas worldwide, is suddenly back on the menu. There is of course a whole new set of precautions that comes with it, such as finding bacon without nitrates, or cured in sugar, which apparently, EVERYTHING is.
Still, every time I prepare it, I find myself doing so in disbelief that I’m actually eating this salty, fatty piece of pork as part of an athletic training diet.
One would think the sudden inclusion of bacon almost limitlessly into what is being billed as the ideal diet for an all-around adventure athlete would be a gift grand enough to outshine any other food consequently taken away. The truth is, I would trade all the cured pork on earth for a dish of rice and beans.
Yet if I am to truly test the results of the Maffetone Method, my beloved rice and beans are off the menu, at least for now. You see, to complete this experiment in its most extreme form, I have not only gotten rid of processed sugar, but also of any substance that BECOMES sugar once the body consumes it, such as bread, grains, and so on. And in trying to fill the caloric space left behind by our tragic divorce, bacon is one of the resources I have been forced to turn to. In fact, I have eaten more of it in the last two months than I have in the last five years.
Aside from losing the rice and beans, and the trouble not questioning the inclusion of fattier meats like bacon and sausage, my diet has largely remained the same. Vast quantities of greens, lean meat, avocado, and oils represent much less of a departure from what I have always eaten, albeit now in even larger quantities. Peanuts have become a daily staple, specifically the Hampton Farms brand, as I was to learn that even the vast majority of packaged nuts are coated with sugared gelatin.
I have refined things to the point of even making my own salad dressing, because, much like everything else I have looked at, it is not easy to find a dressing not loaded with the same sneaky additive as everything else. The sugar industry, just as the book has claimed, quite literally has its hand in everything. That vanilla powder in your caffeinated beverage? Full of sugar. Pickles? Sugar. Ground Turkey? Injected with sugar. Go have a look if you don’t believe me. It’s infuriating once you’re actually aware of it. Yet I finally seem to have it dialed.
The last item to go has been alcohol. While there is no denying my soft spot for IPA and good tequila, this was not a massive change either. I had put drinking aside well before this experiment, while simply preparing to return to Rainier.
I have lost a noticeable amount of weight, an unintended side effect of the experiment. Already naturally wiry, I have become thinner than I have been in many years. My mother, an alarmist by nature, is convinced I am dying, and clamoring to hospitalize me each time we cross paths. No amount of research or explanation is capable of assuaging her, so before long I give up and resort instead to claiming that I have intentionally ingested an entire jar of living tapeworms as part of a low paying college science experiment. She does not seem to see the same humor in it that I do.
My affinity for sarcasm and dwindling waistline aside, there is no denying the effect the experiment has had upon both my athleticism and energy levels. Just as the book claimed, they have become stable and seemingly endless, allowing me to function at a high capacity for an entire day off a single big meal if need be. As a survivalist, I have long taught clients that food is at the bottom of the list of priorities when stuck in a life or death situation, as the body can go three weeks or more without it. It is something that takes on a whole fresh realm of understanding now that I have trained my body to go straight for its own fat reserves. It sounds extreme, and there are points where it feels that way too. Yet if ever there was a better sign, a report surfaces admitting that major sugar companies paid off researchers to blame heart disease on fat, when in reality sugar was an equal, if not far more major contributor.
One of the side effects of the Maffetone Method is supposed to be that as your body adapts to burning primarily off of fat, your hunger levels should stabilize and lessen. I suppose they have, yet I still find myself almost constantly hungry. Admittedly not as often as I was when rice and beans where the driving foundation of what I ate. But still hungry.
Dammit do I miss rice and beans.
More challenging than their dismissal, however, is by far the heart rate training, or at least it was at first. The basic science is as simple as understanding that the body is content to burn fat as a fuel source so long as the body remains below the oxygen debt threshold, a fancy way of saying getting enough oxygen into your blood stream with each breath.
The other step, aside from removing the sugar is going back to training slow, keeping your body below a certain heart rate. While my (over) confidence suggests that my oxygen debt threshold should be higher than the number Maffetone’s formula grants me, I have committed to testing the project from scratch. The goal is to steadily increase that number over time, which if done correctly, will allow greater levels of intense movement for longer periods of time on less breath, creating the sought-after effect of a high efficiency, fat burning mountain machine.
So I adhere strictly to the number, stopping and letting my heart rate recover each time I perceive it being too high. It is at times stymying, as my natural inclination to take everything too far leaves every ounce of me wanting to hammer at full speed.
I do so without a heart rate monitor, stopping and checking my pulse at my carotid while counting a minute on my watch. I have committed to this method in hopes of developing a natural, subconscious awareness as to when my body is approaching oxygen debt, programming a silent, internal alarm in place of the shrill beep of a heart rate monitor.
At times, particularly in the beginning, it feels like going back to a crawl after a lifetime of running. But the crawl becomes a walk, the walk a jog, the jog a sprint, and before I know it, I am back to hammering.
At one point, I find myself getting back to New Jersey around midnight, after a late flight home from teaching a survival course in the Colorado Back Range. Instead of sleep, I throw on my Vibrams and run ten miles. I haven’t eaten in over six hours, and have been up since 6am, yet I scarcely notice the exertion. Instead of the suffer-fest sections of a long run, the motion seems fluid and endless, and feels as though stopping at ten miles is by no means mandatory. Often I wake in the morning with the sun, my van backed into the same shady corner of the Delaware Water Gap trailhead that I always park in. Within minutes of shaking the sleep from my eyes, I feel energized and ready to move.
Depending on the morning, I am either in just my Vibram Barefoots, jetting up my training mountain along a trail run that finds me approximating the “Cretan Skitter” described in the book, leaping and bouncing from rock to rock and drawing everything from odd looks to pleas for caution from the other early morning hikers. Other days the movement work is focused upon the more finite series of foot placements that comprise the art of mountaineering. This draws equal looks, as I am wearing full climbing boots and basketball shorts, carrying my ice axe and a full-size pack loaded with a hundred pounds worth of weighted vest and Poland Spring water bottles.
On days that I can’t make the Water Gap, I show up at my mother’s apartment building shortly after sun up, clomping up and down the multiple flights of stairs in the same half winter/half summer getup. Before long, the neighbors don’t even bat an eye.
Yet just as it was back in Alladale, my favorite bit of training has been turning what was once trail running through the woods into one fast moving, haywire, adult jungle gym. High Rocks Vista, long my local climbing crag, has taken on a whole new identity, and when I’m not climbing the faces, I’m hurtling through the place leaping, ducking, or swinging from everything I can get my hands on.
There is a special meditation to the madness, particularly as I get better at the moves, or bolder with leaping the gaps between the cliffs, at times seventy feet or higher off the deck. The intense demand for complete concentration blocks out every distraction, as any hesitation that leads to a stumble could find me winding up a stain on the deck below.
If there is such a thing as a wild athlete, I can’t help but feel that I’m well along my way to becoming one. As November approaches, and my looming date with the final stage of this test in the Nepalese Himalaya grows steadily closer, I wonder again how all of this is going to apply once high altitude is thrown into the mix.