If you’re not sold on the theory that slow and steady wins the race, Ted Spiker can prove to you that it will get you to the finish line with 20 minutes to spare.
Just two years ago, Spiker, professor and chair of UF’s Department of Journalism, persistently chugged his way to finish his first Ironman triathlon after just one year of training and preparation. A seasoned journalist who has covered health and wellness topics for nearly 20 years, Spiker’s college nickname was Hoover, and he describes himself as having “a body history that isn’t pretty.” Check out the trailer for his book, DOWN SIZE: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success, released in paperback this month.
Having served for several years as an editor for Men’s Health prior to joining UF, Spiker was a co-author for the wildly popular YOU: The Owner’s Manual series of books by Mehmet Oz, MD, and Michael Roizen, MD, and is currently the author of “The Big Guy Blog” for Runner’s World.
We wanted to know more about Ted Spiker’s path to UF, his work as a health journalist, and his personal wellness journey. Here’s what he had to say…
What was the impetus for you to make the shift to academia, and what brought you to UF?
In college, I knew that I wanted to end up teaching college somewhere. I had a journalism professor who I just connected with, who was just so good and so passionate about helping people in their careers. And I saw not just what he did with me, but what he did with other people, and I think I just connected with the idea that if you can be someone who helps people figure out what they want to do in life, that’s a really fulfilling position to be in. And I just love the environment of higher education.
I didn’t want to go the PhD route, but I wanted to have some professional credibility, so I worked in magazines for about six years at a small magazine, then I worked at Men’s Health for three and-a-half years. And I just kept my eye on what was going on at universities. That whole time I was also adjunct—at the University of Delaware and at Lehigh—so I always had my hand in college.
When the job at Florida came open, I thought, “I’ve got to try to get this.” It was perfect. It was fully professional, teaching what I want to teach. So it worked out and now it’s great because I get the best of both worlds. I get to teach in this great place, but I also get to keep writing and staying in the magazine field.
What originally drew you to to writing about health and wellness?
I was always up and down with my own struggles and issues and never being the person everyone thinks of when you think of Men’s Health. But that’s kind of the reality for a lot of people. Even though [at first glance] it doesn’t look like it in the magazine, Men’s Health always had an appeal to—what they would say at the time—the regular guy, the kind of person who has struggles and tries to get in shape. Even though the pictures and stories are of really fit people, that’s aspirational. But the conceit was: We all know we’re trying to get better, not where we want to be.
How did you get connected with Oz and Roizen to co-author the YOU: The Owner’s Manual series?
They wanted to get together to do a book and had apparently tried a bunch of writers, but the writers never hit the tone that they wanted. The problem with a lot of health writing—at least in my mind—is that it’s a little too earnest, a little too sappy, a little to kumbaya-ish, right? And what they were looking for was a little more playful, but also a little more gritty, a little more self-deprecating, acknowledging that we all have obstacles.
So apparently Oz’s wife, Lisa, said they needed to find someone from Men’s Health, because Men’s Health had that tone. The way Men’s Health would describe it at the time was “big brother,” because it’s not a parent scolding you, it’s not a doctor scolding it you, it’s not a friend who or supports you unconditionally or just laughs it off. It’s a big brother who says, “I care about you, but I’m going to slap you if you need it … but we’re really in this together.”
It takes a while to get what that means in terms of writing and tone, but that’s really what they’re looking for. Now the interesting part is that a lot of these books are really mostly read by women, so the big brother tone doesn’t seem like it would work, but I think that it does because I think most of the time, a lot of women’s media feels like, “We’re all going to cry about everything,” but it’s not necessarily like that.
So they called Men’s Health looking for that, and one of the editors referred them to me for one of their book projects. It would never have happened if one of the editors hadn’t said, “Hey, you should try Spiker.” We probably did two books before I ever met them in person. Everything was done via a conference call every Sunday for seven or so years as we did about a half-dozen books.
What was the turning point for you personally in terms of your own health?
One of the things I came to realize when I got to do my own book last year is that I had always felt there had to be an end point. You know: Finally, I’m in shape. Finally, I feel good. But I think I finally realized it’s just going to be a natural rhythm of health and fitness and how you’re going to be. A lot of us are always going to have those moments of ups and downs. So when I stopped thinking, “Ok, you’ve got to reach this certain goal to find satisfaction,” then it became, “Ok, you want to be healthy, you want to be strong, you want to be all these things, but it doesn’t have to be a certain size or a certain weight any more to find that.”
And that’s a good explanation of what the book [DOWN SIZE] is about: trying to find that happy medium, because a lot of the health media are about reaching those endpoints or goals, but I think a number of experiences led me to the realization that it’s not about that. It’s more about putting the pieces together to get there. So in the book I talk about a couple of experiences I had with doing team-type things that were a little more meaningful than any pants size.
The way we tend to talk about health is: Here are the hard and fast data about what works, but the X factor is what influences whether you’re going to choose those things. What is the X factor in terms of whether you enjoy those things? And what is the X factor that’s going to make you continue those things? That’s the part that nobody talks about. You get a little bit of that motivational talk, but it is a little deeper than that. It’s not just about what to do, because I do think that most of us know what to do. What’s hard is doing it. To me that’s where the chasm is. You have to create these structures and systems to do it, but then it has to work so that’s just who you are now. And it’s not easy.
You completed an Ironman two years ago. What was that experience like for you?
It was something that I always—even when I was younger—would look at and think, “Wow those people are amazing.” I’m not an endurance athlete, but I can chug along, and I always wished I could do it. I feel like I can do anything if I can just plug away at it and there’s no time involved. I can finish. But with [the Ironman], there’s a 17-hour time limit. If you finish in 17 hours and one second, your actual race result is DNF—did not finish.
So one of my friends I had done mud runs and other things with said, “We’re signing up for Ironman next year.” And I was like, “OK, let’s give it a try.” I always wanted to do it. So we volunteered the year before. That’s how you get to sign up for the following year because it fills up so fast—at least the Florida one does. So I’m volunteering and I’m watching these people and thinking, “Are you kidding me?”
So after that, I just started training and plugging away. Obviously being a bigger guy, I’ve got a lot to move throughout that course. It’s 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles on the bike, then a marathon of 26.2 miles. So it’s 140.6 miles you have to cover in 17 hours. I wasn’t as aggressive as I probably could have been in training because I wanted to make sure I got there healthy and not hurt myself. But I knew it was going to be close if I looked at the calculations of what I was doing in training.
I got to race day and knew I had a good swim, but I knew the bike was make or break and I wasn’t that good on a bike. There’s the wind, and if you have a flat—that’s the part that worried me. I knew I could do the run walking fast if I needed to. My bike was slower than I had hoped and it was right on the cusp of being able to finish on time. So the whole day was like a low level of stress: How close am I going to push this to the finish?
I had one freak out moment halfway on the run. I had 13 miles to go, and on the course there’s a turn-around where you actually see people ahead of you. So they’re about 10 minutes ahead of me is what I estimate. And some woman runs up to this guy and yells at him, “You have got to move it and move it fast because they are tracking you not to finish!” So here I’m thinking: Ok, this guy’s 10 minutes ahead of me, and they’re tracking him not to finish.
That’s when I had a mini freak out. And that was my fastest mile. But then I just relaxed because I remembered they’re tracking the time based on his progression, and he’s slowing down, so they’re tracking him not to make it. So I relaxed after that mile and kept chugging. But I didn’t fully relax until I was about two miles out, because then I knew I could cover it. So I only finished with 20 minutes to spare.
How did you feel?
It was awesome. I feel like that was the moment when the weight was lifted. I wasn’t in perfect shape, I hated my race pictures because they still showed me looking bigger than I wanted to look but when I crossed, I realized, it wasn’t about the weight. I did something I knew I wanted to do. I had a ton of people supporting me. And it was like, ok, that’s what it’s about. It’s about this journey. It’s not about all of these other things.
What advice would you give others struggling with their weight or to meet goals?
I’d say there are several kinds of goals. Some are so far in the past that it’s really hard to stay motivated and it takes too long to get there. Then the way people are working now is through this daily tracking, whether it’s calories or steps or whatever. But to me, there’s a flaw in both. The flaw in the long-term plan is it’s hard to stay with that motivation when the goal is so far out there, and the flaw in the daily thing is the same thing that happens with the scale. If you stray or you don’t hit your numbers, you say, “I blew it today,” then you just go crazy.
So for me the structure that can work for lots of people—and everyone is different—is to use a weekly rubric or metric. So instead of saying, “I have to hit this calorie count every single day, you need to give yourself some joy if someone brings in some lasagna for lunch and you want a freaking piece of lasagna. So by having a weekly metric, you get flexibility, but you get some fencing.
So I do the 10,000 [steps] a day, and I was doing it for two months, and I was happy I was doing it. But then I missed, and it totally deterred me. My streak’s over. OK, am I really less because I hit 8,000 one day? But that’s what I thought. To me, the weekly metric really allows you to go with the flow of life.
It’s the deterrent is in everybody’s quest: Life gets in the way of my workout plan, my best intentioned eating goals. And I don’t know if [my method] works for everyone if they need a more rigid structure. But I get the psychology of being deterred because it happens a lot, and how you combat that is the real question. And it’s about individuals finding out what works for them.