Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hey Everybody. So Like, My Name's Rocci, and I'm Caffeinated.

I'm reporting to you today from my workstation, which I never do. I think it's got to do with being too scattered to sit still in my proper writing chair, which reclines fully and is overstuffed but does not swivel. The reason is venti. I did without caffeine for a couple of weeks, but today I went venti.

Credit: Josh Hara / @yoyoha /
This is going to be a bit of an ode to caffeine and some other tangentially related things like sleep, work and weight loss, both to better answer questions I've been getting lately and to get some of it straight in my own head. [Disclaimer: Little to no scientific data to follow. ]

Once upon a time, I was twenty-two and immortal. I worked in a print shop in Concord, CA by day and played poker by night, mostly in a seedy but somehow venerable old card room called The Oaks in Emeryville. I ate about a pound of processed sugar a day and enjoyed a more-than-occasional craft beer, but had a real suspicion of over-the-counter pills and mood-altering substances like caffeine. Those are bad for you.

Being twenty-two and immortal, I often went directly from the job I was quickly discovering I'd always been wrong to want to the card room, where I would play all night and often drive back just in time to grab a breakfast sandwich from the shop next door to my job. I might sleep that night, but I might also might go back and play again.

I've always had an abrasive, maybe even abusive, relationship with sleep.

Somewhere into the year I was twenty-three, my immortality started showing surface cracks. I couldn't make it through work on the second day and I was packing on some pounds. I've always been biggish, but it was taking on a scary tone with back and lower-extremity joint pain. I was having a harder time focusing both at work and at the poker table,, so I did the logical thing: I got a new job in Oakland and and moved to Emeryville.

The new job was more physical and had longer hours, which lead to two quick discoveries. One: processed sugar is evil and possibly the root of most physical ailments in the western world, and Two: in a pinch, energy drinks will definitely do something.

Ah, energy drinks. I could write a really outdated book on those now, but it basically comes down to how caffeine affects you, how B-vitamins affect you, and how a random smattering of other supplements like carnitine and various aminos affect you. Getting the right combination kicks you up about one gentle notch and lasts for a while. Getting the wrong one probably means a glaring spike and a crash that isn't near fatal but you wish it was.

A little while later, I quit the new job to play online poker full time. That was when I really first began to hone my caffeine, diet and fitness strategy, mostly because my schedule was flexible for the first time in my life. I started to get in better shape around that time, and even kept it up for a little while when I went back to work because poker changed in a way that made it a lot less profitable for me.

Then the work went away. This was 2009, which would make me thirty. The poundage had gotten more stubborn and the attention span more nebulous. I came back to Concord and an old friend got me back into another print shop. I got fat and hateful again, and doubled my caffeine intake, which really didn't help so I drank more beer. You get the picture.

I went on like that for... I don't really know how long. Must have been a couple of years. Eventually I stumbled back into the gym, adjusted my poker game, and took another run at it. It was starting to go okay. At some point during all of this, I discovered the closest thing to a perfect energy shot there is, and I started stocking up and rationing in line with my workout and poker schedules.

I'm not going to say which one, but I will point out that I tried a pre-workout energy supplement and had about the worst reaction since ephedra was taken off the shelves. Can't say I recommend those, but to each his own.

I got into the swing just in time for the DOJ, shitheads that they are, to shut down rather than regulate and tax, a multi-billion dollar revenue stream the federal government desperately needed. Online poker in America went poof* overnight on tax day, 2011. Right around this time, my dad landed in the hospital and it was bad for a while. When he got out he was going to need physical assistance and then surgery and some more physical assistance. I was handy, broke and, not least, happy to do it, so I got free room and board while the shop I worked at slowly starved, as print shops are wont to do in this day and age. It eventually sold to a bigger shop that was consolidating similarly-situated shops, and I stayed on as a consultant, trying to wrangle a gazillion different processes into something that looked like a pipeline.

I'm the asshole with the pony tail and the straining 44" waistband.
Thankfully, Dad got better, and pretty fast. That was good, because when I finally looked around, I was a fucking mess. I went to a craft brew festival and somebody with a camera documented me, looking the worst I ever have. I'm pretty sure I'd broken 300 ell-bees by that time. 

I started walking because that was all I could do. For the first couple of months, I hauled a camera around the Martinez Marina Park, mostly as an excuse to get out and around after work. I got some fair-to-middling shots, and it felt good to move a little. The first time I weighed I was 293, and that finally scared me. I started tracking everything, but it didn't occur to me to take progress pics until I'd already gotten a little under way. I should have done more and kept a log or diary (or maybe -- and this is crazy -- a blog), but I was also branching out in my consulting business and I just didn't have the energy.

Ugh. I haven't wanted to get into this because it would eventually mean breaking more personal taboos. Oh well, I guess that's a big part of what this blog is about. 

If it's actually about anything. 

NSFW WARNING: Photos below depict a fat guy without a shirt. And then a skinnier guy, still no shirt.

Here are dates and milestones. I don't think this progression will see many more updates as I've pretty much attained all I can without going completely off the deep end. It really took going off to accomplish this anyway, and I don't know if I have another run like that in me. I still want to see if I can get under 200 (I set the goal at 190 when I was about 290, knowing I would never get under 230), but that's mostly just to do it. There's no real urgency and I need to spend more time working and writing.** 

People I know have been asking me what I did. That's a whole other post and probably a few spin-offs, but here are the broad strokes:

[Disclaimer II: This is what I did. DO NOT take this as advice.]


I used to live on fast food and candy bars. That's not hyperbole; I really ate little else. The sick thing is, I can cook and when I do, it's usually pretty healthy. I was given something of a gift in this category when my dad got better, as he's a hell of a cook and loves to do it besides. It wasn't perfect for dieting, but it was a good segue away from the drive-thru and into food worth eating. Plus, he almost always makes a salad with a vinaigrette dressing, which gave me something to fill up on and save the heavier stuff for lunch the next day.

When I made the move to Reno (right after I got down to 260), I lived almost totally on variations of that salad, Korean kimchi dishes and random ground beef, chicken and egg concoctions. NO processed sugar if I could avoid it, and the only dense carbs came on cheat days, like kimchi fried rice or some kind of ramen stir fry. 

The only number I watched was calories. At the start, I just shot for a 1000-1500 calorie deficit according to my pedometer, but a few weeks with a heart rate monitor showed me that it, like cardio equipment, way overestimated the calories I was burning. I switched to a hard line of 2000 calories in per day, and really aimed at about 1200. 

All that said, it seems like the biggest help was cutting sugar, starches and carbs, and alcohol out almost completely.

Exercise I

Walking / Hiking 

Like I mentioned above, it started as a photography hobby. Then it was cramming in a few extra miles at night to keep the pedometer happy. Then it was six or seven miles in the hills at a park by my dad's place. Every day.

Resistance Training

This started (again) about the time I started doing hills. After the hike, I hit my bench and adjustable dumbbells for about 35-45 minutes with short rests, 4-5 times a week, doing one of four muscle groups each day.

Exercise II

Intense Cardio

I started mixing in a mile or two of running in the hills, but my joints didn't like it. I tried to do roadwork, but they didn't like that either. I figured I was still too heavy at 260ish, but I joined a gym when I moved to Reno and running on a treadmill was better. Once I could do a couple of miles in under 20 minutes, I started mixing in intervals a couple of days a week. That, combined with a minimum 20 minutes of moderate cardio after weights every day made a HUGE difference.

More Resistance Training

My strategy didn't change that much, but the variety available did. I don't have much to add to this except that variation is good, in weights, specific exercises and sets/repetitions. Also, doing some kind of core (abs and lower back) threeish times a week is critical if you're not a fan staring at your ceiling with your feet up on a laundry hamper for days on end. I stand by that statement whether you do any or none of the above. 


Okay, that all got more granular than I meant it to. If you remember how this got started (a long, long time ago), I was talking about caffeine and the roles it's played for me. I took a couple of weeks off lately, both as a control now that I've attained a reasonable state of fitness and shirked most of my bad habits, and because it's an expense I would cut out if I could.

Basically, I limit my (regular) caffeine intake to the energy shots I take to get up in the morning, and occasionally for an extra bit of pep in the afternoon. They're not that heavy on it, and in fact, most coffee drinkers get more of it than I do. But, to get my workout schedule to line up with my work schedule, I have to get up at 5 am. Were I religious, I would compare that to heresy, sadism and a multitude of other sins that often euphemistically replace "unpleasant." If I can get an energy shot into my system within seconds of my alarm going off, I have a chance at fighting through. If I can't, it's a toss-up. 

Particularly on days I've managed this feat, one of those shots may also mean the difference between completing a project that afternoon and zoning out to a podcast or a baseball game. 

Sleep has always been a bitch for me. The best control I've ever had has been when I fall into a pattern of get up at five, slam an energy shot, go to the gym, clean up, work, take another shot if my ass is dragging no later than 2 pm, work some more, hopefully write a little, fall asleep to the news. Rinse, repeat, skip the shots on Sunday. That went all to hell on my caffeine-out, sleeping erratically and unsatisfactorily the whole time.

My mental acuity also went to hell. Harder to focus, shorter attention span, less mental stamina. It was a little like being back in grade school -- if I got really into something I was fine, but everything else was a stupor-inducing struggle. I'm not sure if that makes me an addict or just somebody who's a little dumber without direct intellectual stimulation, but it seems to be solid evidence. 

Not that this rambling post does much to argue for it, other than existing. I tried to write another one on the whole NFL debacle earlier in the week, but it was so disjointed and aimless I scrapped it. Now, it's true that that happens all the time, but it was the only thing I even managed to start on during this whole experiment. Not good.

The expanse question is also self-answering. I can usually find these energy shots for about $1.50 a pop, so best case, lets say I take one in the morning six days a week and one in the afternoon twice a week (the average before this was down to more like once, which was half the reason I tried this at all). That's 8 x $1.50 = $12. My retail rate is currently $65/hr, so if I average an extra fifteen billable minutes I've already made money on the proposition. Worst case would be if I pulled an all-nighter on a Saturday on a week where I'd already used two/day every day (they say don't exceed that and I don't, ever), for 14 x $1.50 = $21. By definition, those bad boys are way paid for if I'm under that kind of a load.

I guess the point of all this started out to be how central caffeine itself is to my health and general well-being, but now that I look at it, the whole picture was a big one that took a long time to get right. It's complex and interdependent on a lot of outside forces, but I'm at the point where I don't think I can do it much better. That feels pretty freaking good. 

*There were still technically ways to play online, but they really, really sucked. There are more now, and yes, they still suck very much.
**I don't get into it here, but there was actually about a six-week span where I was doing two-a-days at the gym, averaging nine or ten visits/week. I might have done that more but I hated the night crowds almost as much as taking trouble calls in the middle of a cardio set.

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