Fitness (to firefighting!) Journey: It’s possible.

39 mins read

When I get to thinking about it, really deep down, the last 7 years have been a rolling storm. I think that can be taken in a few different ways, but it’s really the way I feel. Where the things that worked and things that didn’t work, as far as physical fitness is involved, started to blend together – that’s the storm. It’s not that I have a clear-cut path or that certain things didn’t work at all. The lessons learned are a swirl of effort over time – a tornado of tries.

My fitness journey, starting in 2014.

My story starts in 2014.

At that time, I was around 240lbs or so. I didn’t necessarily feel like that was a bad thing as much as it was a note that lurked at the back of my mind. A mental checkbox on the to-do list that I’d get around to someday. Surely, I knew that I wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t find my condition to be anything unmanageable. I wasn’t exercising at all and my diet was just a Royal Rumble. Whatever, whenever. Generally, I was in a decent mental state, but that’s where things were affected first.

Downhill, fast

A year after my son was born, I started to really slip. For some reason, I registered his birth as some strange entanglement with his death, or my death, or death in general. It happened quickly, too. I went from a dad awash in the trappings of new-baby euphoria to a very dark and anxious place. Specifically, my mind would find ways to tie almost everything I was experiencing into some form of a mortality problem. It was overbearing. Exhausting. It was every – single – day.

That went on for a little while. It eventually got worse. I would find myself at the edge of an anxiety attack with nowhere to go. Most specifically, I remember describing that feeling to my wife as a derivative of loneliness – like that entrapment was the source of some sort of isolating feeling or that nobody else was ‘in on the joke’, so to speak. It felt like some kind of line was drawn between me and everybody else in my life – and I couldn’t explain why.

Steady on course, even if it was in the wrong direction

That was the worst part, I think – I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did, couldn’t explain it correctly to the people who were concerned about me and didn’t know what to do about it.

That’s an important point. I didn’t know what to do about it. I hadn’t built coping strategies to help maneuver on those feelings. They would therefore flood into my mind with no way to fight back.

So, I found a way to fight back.

For the chemical deficiencies I was experiencing in my brain, I would help mitigate the awful anxiety by eating. At first, it was buying more bags of chips than I would normally attend to during the week. Then, it was stops at the gas station. When I first really noticed I was developing an ‘issue’ with using food to break the cycle, I had stopped at a dollar store to buy a handful of chocolate bars. That was the first time I really noticed my weight increasing, too. I guess I just never took a moment to look.

Eventually, I got somewhere around 270lbs. I stopped weighing myself. I stopped having pictures taken of me.

When I started to turn things around, the first thing that really started to happen was a combination of internal and external triggers. First, I noticed that I was really, honestly struggling. I brought that to my wife. I thought that if I was more transparent, we might both understand more toward what was happening with my mood and demeanor. After I brought that to her, she was instrumental in helping me recognize that talking wasn’t enough. I had to do something. The only way forward was to change my behavior to help pull myself away from the loop-thinking that would pull me deeper into the dark.

I had to fight back.

The first time I took it upon myself to make an actual change, it was very rapid. I think that’s probably why it worked to set me alight. I was playing with my son in the basement and, as toddlers do, he was on a tear through the rec room. Running, bashing into stuff.

I was winded.

Defeated, I remember actually saying to my wife; “I’m supposed to be Superman to this kid. I can’t even run around the basement with him.”

Hard as it is to write, I remember feeling pathetic.

Self-talk advocates would metaphorically wrap my wrist for such a thing, but it’s the truth. I felt and was pathetic. To be pathetic, in my own view, is to be helpless where action would otherwise make you helpful. In that way, I was absolutely pathetic.

For some reason, I was spurred right then and there to do something about it. I’m still not sure exactly what made that happen, but on that day and in that moment, I put my winter boots on. I laced them tight, put on a light jacket and told my wife I was going to run around the block. She looked at me, bewildered if curious and just said “Have fun!”

I walked to the bottom of the driveway and turned right. For all of 75 meters, I took off in a run before I hunched over and gasped for air. I made it to the corner of the block, but hardly around the block.

Pathetic.

I eventually carted myself around the block. If anything else, I wish I had journaled that era of my life a little more, to go back and figure out the early steps.

I had taken a few swings at fitness before, but nothing structured or really enriched with the effort required to change. I had hit a heavy bag a few times, tried running here and there. One evening, I even went to my current Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club, way back in the day, and promptly left once I saw the gorillas inside.

If I really think about it, I remember specifically feeling or maybe knowing that I could do something about the way I was feeling.

That it didn’t just have to be.

I don’t know exactly what happened inside my head, but something shifted. I visualize it like nudging a boulder at the edge of a hill. One tiny movement can create all kinds of momentum.

In very quick succession, I had done a few things that carry on to this day.

Within a week, I had started toying with the idea of logging my food. I downloaded MyFitnessPal and started plugging in the things I was eating to see how it added up. As most people are, I was floored to learn how brutal some of the foods I had then considered to be ‘healthy’ were tallying up. I didn’t know much about calories, sugar or macros, but I used a ‘baseline’ metric of 2000 calories a day to start measuring and I remember just saying over and over how I couldn’t believe how many calories certain foods were.

A large double-double.

One of the first dietary changes I made was reducing the amount of calories I was taking in from coffee. It was just burning through my 2000 before the day even really got started. I switched to tea with sweetener and have been a tactical-tea guy ever since.

By the way, where’s all the cool tea brands?

I started planning out my meals and unlocked a little competitive nature in myself. Deep inside, I wanted to know if I could beat this thing.

I wanted to prove I could beat this thing.

At the very same time, I recognized that other forms of input were just as crucial to manage. Turns out that listening to Elliot Smith isn’t a fast-track to feel-good.

I was already listening to the Joe Rogan podcast. Luckily for me, this was well before the politically charged social atmosphere we find ourselves in today and his show was filled up with lofty conversation from Duncan Trussell and Kevin Smith.

Over and over. Multiple times a day.

Very specifically, I found a video from Joe called ‘be the hero of your own life story’. Without exaggeration, I listened to that video every single day. I’m (luckily) one of those people that gets really fired up from motivational speakers. This video was one of those forms of input that I could control. Once I recognized that input I control can build just as much momentum as slogging around the block, I devoured this content.

Over and over. Multiple times a day.

Once I started, as I said above, the momentum I had created lead me into new and valuable better places. Once I started to adjust my diet, I looked for hacks to make less food seem like more (hint: it’s protein.) I worked hard to break down some of the habits I had created, too. For instance – a lot of the crap food I was taking in was after supper. To curb that, I set a new rule.

No food after supper.

I kept that up for about a half of a year, until I had become a fundamentally different person – we’ll get to that later. Instead of food – and because fasting wasn’t the goal as much as not eating – I replaced it with gum and tea. I would later come to find out that caffeine is a mild appetite suppressant, so, I guess that’s why that worked.

As for meals, I started planning out what I would eat and found a bunch of ‘groups’ that worked well together. I learned how to eat meats without sauces and how to make salads that didn’t suck – protip; add apple.

I ate a LOT of chicken breast and red pepper with rice and soy sauce. After I got sick of that, I ate a LOT of pork tenderloin.

Those foods worked for me.

Over time, I really dove into the ‘fitness’ realm online. I was eager to learn about nutrition, performance and how I could better ‘optimize’ my experience. It seems like everybody also knows that there are many snake oil vendors in the fitness world. Those pills that promise. The ‘five day fixes’. The harder you work toward your personal fitness goals, the faster you will find out exactly how ridiculous some of those promises can be.

I kept running, too. I eventually ran around the block and wanted more.

With Rogan telling me so, I hero’d my way up to 5k and came back to the driveway with my arms up like at the end of a Rocky movie. I flatly couldn’t believe it. I ran a 5k!

What else can I do?

I registered for a 5k race and ran it for fun with my wife – then and now an avid runner. Then we signed up for something crazy, a 10k.

That’s when I unlocked the next fork in the fitness skill-tree. Eventually, I figured out how to ‘train’ instead of just ‘exercise’. Where I was broadly focused before, I had to adapt my sleep, diet and mindset to a singular goal. I can honestly say I’d never done that before. With each incremental step, the pounds kept shedding off too.

Once I hit 199 (Onederland, as they say on Reddit) I was determined and extremely focused on getting to the 100lbs-lost mark. I kept running and stayed true to the plan for food.

Fitness as a path tends to snake it’s way through your life.

As things came up, I had to adapt the plan – I didn’t have the luxury of building my life around fitness the way a professional athlete might. Where events, work and other commitments started to pull me (as they do), I had to make sure I kept a focused eye on my fitness plan. I think that’s maybe where some people hit an obstacle. It’s hard to manage priority when things start to stack up.

Eventually, I would go on to run a good handful of 5, 6, 10 and 25k races.

Here, I'm competing at a local OCR
We competed in the ‘elite’ wave of a local OCR, complete with marker-on-head numbers for each of us. Little did I know, this measure of ‘elite’ was far below the ‘standard’ I’d come to know at GoRuck.

After the 10k race (I finished!) we dabbled in obstacle course races for a while. A small group of us participated in a number of OCRs spanning from up north of Toronto to a few more hosted locally. At one race, we even signed up for the ‘elite’ wave of first-to-leave racers. In all, the OCR scene was good fun, but I had a really little kid staying with my parents while we were out, so we didn’t really get a chance to stay behind and take in the atmosphere. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t bitten as much by the bug as some others.

OCR: Not for me

OCR events are a different thing to train for as far as the physical goes, but I was left wanting more. They are often marketed as these be-all-end-all feats of fitness and touted to require ultra-human fortitude. The truth is, my experiences basically went like this; run, run, wait in line for a bunch of people from a local office to get past an obstacle, do the obstacle and run to the next one. In all, it’s a great and active way to spend an afternoon, but I thought I was getting into something that would be way more difficult than it really was.

Enter Jits and GoRuck. Get tough.

When I came back to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club, The Rumble Academy, I did so already defeated. I’d been beaten before I’d even shown up having years before seen the savages inside sparring and deciding I was better not to join. I arrived early to meet the instructor, Bryan Rumble. He asked me why I wanted to look into BJJ and my answer was simple.

“I want to do something difficult.”

He stopped putting his gi on for just a moment and smiled.

“Well, this is difficult.”

He told me to sit on the side and watch the class – that I could come back later in the week to try it out if I figured I was game. I watched the combatants spar with each other, locking limbs and securing strangles before clapping hands with a smile and tossing each other again. I watched a short bit of the instructional after the sparring session and made my way out, resolved to check in the following week.

When I arrived for my first class, I was warned of ‘the gauntlet’. A warrior tradition, if I may say, where the new guy is placed in the middle and each person has their run at him – 2 minutes or first submission.

How’s that for an introduction.

Few people come back after their gauntlet. For some reason, I fit into the small category of people who did.

I spent a year getting absolutely smashed – as is tradition. If you don’t know anything about the art, you can’t hardly defend yourself and the beautiful part of Jiu Jitsu is that it is practiced at full speed and full strength. If you persevere, you will eventually learn to survive. A lesson that repeats itself with everything I engage in.

Fitness and fighting
Several years later, I’m still representing Bryan and The Rumble Academy – but now I’ve got a purple belt!

After two years on the mats, I found out about another test. It sounded absolutely ruthless. They’re motto made me want to do it even more – a promotional video released around the time I participated in the GoRuck Challenge stated simply.

This probably isn’t for you.

I used a backpack I already had and filled it according to the standards mentioned on the site; 6 bricks.

I would come to find out that GoRuck was all about standards – something that might be missing from many facets of what we’re used to these days. Their presence was all about patriotism and grit. Fill a bag, carry heavy stuff and do it without complaining.

I signed up for the GoRuck Tough Canada Day event in 2017.

I arrived at a public park in the late evening. The summer sun still glowing white-yellow, I saw a few more with big bags idling near the meeting spot and asked if they were waiting for the event. I was really happy to find out it was their first time, too. We eventually amalgamated into a solid group of 25-or-so. Cadre appeared with the rigor I had expected and inspected our kit. Bags, water, gloves, lights, weight.

And then the Welcome Party started.

The GoRuck Challenge
GoRuck Class 2347. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 1 July 2017.

We floundered there in the park, doing weighted pushups until we could do them in unison. We did squats, man-makers and buddy carries in that park until the sun started to go down. No quitters, but I’ll be honest, GoRuck definitely put out where the OCR events I attended fell short.

Sugar Cookies

The night progressed with our first movement to the lake. We settled up on the beach where the instructor made us into ‘sugar cookies’. Yeah, it’s about as awful as it sounds.

My primary takeaway from the night was during the first two hours. After the Welcome Party, the cadre asked us who wanted to be the Team Leader. When nobody replied, the pushups and squats continued. After a second time, the intensity grew while Cadre Jake shouted that he wouldn’t let off until somebody stepped forward. When I did, he told me something I’ll never forget. He said “Leadership happens just as much from within the chain of command as it does from the top down.”

We ended the event and received our patches with a punch to the chest.

A lost cultural rite.

After the GoRuck Challenge, I was a different person. Fundamentally, I had become something I was not when I walked into the park that hot evening in July. I had learned about new limits. I had learned about absolutely pulverizing the voices in my head to submission.

Fast forward to 2020. In-between, I stayed on course with running, supplemental weightlifting stuff and BJJ.

When the pandemic hit, a line was created between those who work and those who wish.

I watched people fall off the path. Some more than others.

I was lucky – and I hate to say that, because the ‘luck’ I’m referring to here was the direct by-product of hard work – to have a home gym. Maybe not ‘lucky’, as I said above, but in the sense that I didn’t have to rely on a formal gym setting to get my reps in. That said, neither does anybody else. Those people who fell off because they couldn’t attend a gym made excuses.

Those excuses, more often than not just rolled into more excuses.

At the very start of the end of the world, I escaped back into running. I was pushing for distance again not because I was training for a big (cancelled) race, but because distance running is both where I can spend good time with myself piecing together my mind and greet ‘the wall’ once again. The wall looms ahead when you’re on a run. When your brain tries to convince your body that you’re done.

That’s the wall.

When you’re approaching the wall, there’s a critical point to make a decision to continue – because, you can almost always continue. Running, rucking and Jiu-Jitsu allow me to meet the wall every other day. Imagine the mental fortitude you can actively train by encountering the wall on such a frequent basis.

During the summer of 2020, I was lucky enough to be challenged by my peer group to pursue a different type of training. At this time, we had a cohort of dudes who followed protocol to continue training BJJ in my basement and among them were some very strong founding members of the SIXFEET gang. I started to long for a better handle on strength training.

Just throwing weights around wasn’t working.

Together, we built a plan that was largely submax-strength by high-rep to try to build some size and get stronger at the same time. Here’s my first dose of the ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’ feelings that I’ve come to realize are those lingering failures that I still need to work on.

‘Wasted’ is a strong word, but it’s how I feel.

I wasted the majority of my 20’s being out of shape and worrisome. One of the things I’m working on now is understanding that my current perspective is a product of my ability to reconcile what has already happened. Especially following minor injuries from training, it’s easy to get wrapped up in frustration about not starting earlier, but it’s easier now to let go of those feelings – I already know how counterproductive they can be.

I adapted my diet once again to support this program. Here’s a problem I never thought I’d have; it’s hard to eat for gains!

More specifically, it’s hard to tell yourself it’s okay to eat for gains after years of ‘food means weight’. I was fortunate enough once more to have a peer group who would regularly remind me with texts like;

Go eat.

Over about a year, I went hard into the weight room while I waited for our regular Jiu Jitsu club to open back up. I kept on running, too, and ended up really getting into the best shape of my life. Take that 25-year-old Bill!

Now, about a year after that, I’ve kept eating and kept lifting. I’ve kept up with BJJ and ever since I got hired onto the Fire Department, I’ve been running and rucking to the station quite regularly – a 8km round trip.

Sometimes, I’ll grab a log from a local forest to shoulder up while I run – a ‘caveman’ workout I used to do a few years back. I think it’s a good feat for building mental toughness but it’s probably more cumbersome on my frame than it needs to be.

On the subject of being brought into the fire service, there’s a few things that I think need to be said.

Fitness is not a hobby.

Too often, it’s too easy to quit. In fact, our participation in most things is hinged on that – how do I get out if I want to?

You might not assume that to be the case, but the more I think about it, the more I see it. Or, certainly, the more I catch myself thinking things just like that.

First responders are a different breed – or, should be. You’ve arrived to a career that is predicated on being the person that doesn’t quit. They’re counting on you not to quit. They called you because they need somebody who won’t quit.

Firefighter fitness doesn't have to be expensive.

Be resourceful

A general complaint toward getting started or re-involved in fitness is a lack of equipment and resources.

I started this platform and the associated Instagram account to disprove that complaint.

I deposited a 35lb kettlebell at our station. If you’ve ever really put some time under a kettlebell, you know they can knock the shit out of you in short order. Plus, you can stash a kettlebell in a corner or somewhere out of sight. Now, that was a personal investment, so sure – you might be saying ‘well, I can’t be expected to buy the equipment for my station’, and I agree.

Cinder blocks and logs are generally free.

You need to adapt a new mindset – no equipment, no problem. Find stuff to do and learn body weight exercises.

Personal fitness isn’t a subscription fee.

My training now is based more in an extrinsic motivation than something from inside. I know how this sounds when somebody says it, so it must read the same, but it’s true. I’m working for them now, not for me.

Now, I’m directly related to the goings-on of emergency response. Whether you’re comfortable with that idea or not, it’s the same outcome – you are immediately responsible for the safety of the public and your crew – and your level of fitness compounds your operational readiness.

Formal programming

As of December 2021, I’ve finished the Peer Fitness Trainer program with the IAFF. That course lead me through all kinds of great information that I was missing. Sure, I basically understood the ‘run more, get better at running’ scheme of fitness planning, but the Fit 2 Thrive program allowed me to learn the differences between endurance, power and strength – and how those outcomes live on a spectrum, not in separate buckets. They formally broke down fitness program planning, elements of mobility and the reason behind certain movements. If you’re thinking about taking the program, it’s really worth your while.

I’ve heard rumblings the IAFF is planning a nutrition program, too.

Count me in.

At this point, in the winter of 2022, I’m several years in. I’ve done the bulk weight loss, injuries, skill development and planning for a healthy future. Where I used to feel a healthy heap of imposter syndrome when speaking on fitness, I don’t so much anymore – especially after recently laying out my experiences on the IgnitedFF Podcast. That conversation let me feel that I might be ‘that guy’ afterall.

I know a lot of posts about this kind of thing wrap up with some actionable ideas. I’ll list what I reiterate to people who ask me about my fitness journey.

1) Input and output.

Fitness is about managing what you take in and what you put out.

I feel like the things I’ll be writing here are things you already know. For the most part, the axioms of fitness haven’t changed. The science of getting stronger and faster basically boils down to the idea that you are what you eat.

For the VAST majority of people, the middle isles of the grocery store represent the fatal flaw in our monkey brains; Doritos taste good.

You have to not only learn which foods will fuel you correctly (and that might be slightly different for each person, but will settle among a base of common good; greens and meat) but you have to cook them too. For me, that was the entrance to a great span of awesome cooking YouTube channels and kitchen experiments.

Not just food

Make sure you’re fueling the other parts of your person correctly, too. Ditch as much screen time as you can, understanding that you have been hacked into attraction. Make sure the screen time you are taking in is well-spent. Do some spring cleaning on the pages you’re following. Most of the inflammatory political stuff will give you more peace once it’s expelled from your attention.

Once you have mandated the proper input, you can start focusing on your output. Start small. Build momentum with each positive decision you make. Fitness isn’t a measurement of volume – it’s a measurement of will.

Can you keep making progress?

And speaking of making – make more. I think there’s a good argument for trying to produce more than you consume. Find better ways to spend your time – and literally spend your time as an investment into your future.

With some critical thought, these ideas are much deeper than I’ve managed to express them.

2) Be open to the possibility that you actually can change.

I have a few friends who, despite years of effort, money spent on gear and countless laps around the proverbial track, they manage to land at the same spot.

For some, it’s nagging injuries not properly attended to. For others, it’s unrealistic expectations.

Fitness is a product of time, effort, pace and cadence.

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately on the idea of setting goals correctly – because it’s very possible to set your goals incorrectly.

In fact, I’ve developed a comprehensive program for setting goals correctly. You can access it for free right here.

3) Finally, and you know this too – don’t quit.

Nobody is coming. It’s up to you.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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