I have always felt most alive when I’m active and pushing my body. I was a competitive gymnast for ten years, and am now an avid backcountry skier, mountain biker and backpacker. Careful to give my body enough fuel for these physical pursuits, I have eaten healthy, conscientiously, and often. Between constant activity, a petite frame, and good genetics, the first time I think about restricting food doesn’t come until I’m in my late 30s. Rather than going on a diet, becoming a vegan or eliminating gluten, I try a juice fast.
For years I’ve heard friends talk about fasting, but as spring approaches it seems like “everyone” is doing it. They use words radiant, transformed, and invigorated. The CFO at my job tells me about his fasts. “I have so much energy,” he says. “I feel light; like I can run forever.” More than one person mentions ridding the body of toxins and the purifying, healthy feelings that result.
Who doesn’t want those things? I become intrigued with the idea of going on a fast. Health and fitness-wise I’m in top shape but perhaps a little time spent cleansing my system will turn me into a stronger and even more dynamic me. I’m already picturing the new post-fast Ann who is endlessly vibrant, doesn’t cave under the weight of a heavy backpack, and can ski all day, every day.
Normally I’m a planner, but this time I jump in with minimal research. Friends’ enthusiasm convinces me fasting is an excellent idea, and I quiz them on their experiences. Only one says she found fasting “unpleasant,” but by this point, I’ve heard so much praise one negative comment doesn’t faze me. If fasting promotes health and increases athletic performance, count me in.
Friends steer me towards a three-day fast of apples, celery and carrots, and advise me against using my blender as only the power of a proper juicing machine will do. I plan my last meal for Thursday evening and will break the fast 72 hours later.
Day one starts by setting a borrowed juicer on my otherwise Spartan kitchen counter. The colossal fruit-pulverizing machine looks clumsy and wreaks havoc with the Feng Shui, but it is a necessary part of the process. Besides, I won’t be cooking any elaborate meals during the fast, so my kitchen and I can take it.
I assemble the juice machine placing a bowl beneath one spout to catch the pulp and a glass beneath the other for the liquid. Eagerly anticipating the elixir, I add the ingredients and switch on the machine.
What I don’t anticipate is how much pulp spews out of the chute. Lots of it, a big, icky, peeled mess. That’s it I think as I look at the splash of juice in my glass. Gunk is caked all over the machine and it’s going to be hard to clean. No one ever tells you a juicer is a royal pain in the ass.
Dejected, I drink the lumpy, bland-colored juice. It palatable, but I’m not loving it. What I’d really like is to add splash of chocolate or some strawberries or a handful of flax seeds.
I head to work with nervous anticipation for the next three days. What am I going to do without skiing or biking? Socializing includes food and drinks. Could I survive the temptation, or would I have to hole up alone for the weekend?
As the work day moves ahead, it’s all about what I need to avoid, not just food but lunch meetings, coffee breaks with co-workers, and the ever-present conference room snacks. At 3 p.m., my hunger becomes hard to ignore and I have a hard time concentrating. The end of the day finally arrives and as I leave, I find one more thing to avoid, the posse of coworkers gathering for happy hour. Heading home, all I can think of is my growling stomach.
After drinking another juice, I curl up on my couch and try to figure out what to do with the evening. I opt for a mellow night at home, stay up late reading, and sleep in the next morning. With much of my time spent balancing work, outdoor activities, and socializing, downtime is a rare and savored luxury.
Day two starts with my first juice. That afternoon, I have plans to visit my friend Dave. He’s owned two health food stores and is a proponent of fasting, so he’ll know what I’m gong through. Additionally, Dave recently had knee surgery, so he can’t tempt me to do anything strenuous and we can help one another out. It’s perfect.
My morning is filled with a trip to the library. Time at the library is something I rush to squeeze in during the week, but today, to my delight, it is taken at leisure. I read magazines, browse travel books scheming trips, and check out a few novels.
After the library, I head home. Back in my kitchen, I battle with the juice machine. In goes the fruit, out goes the gunk, and I drink the pittance that ends up in my glass. I’m hungry, I’m cold, and my simple walk to and from the library has left me tired. I’m not exhausted and I’m not starving, I’m just kind of dull and blahed-out, enough so that I don’t care I’m not doing anything outside.
At Dave’s, I find him propped up by pillows on the single bed in his guest room. With his medicine and books on the nightstand, and the TV and DVD player on the dresser, it feels like a hospital room but with the shades drawn and the room silent, it’s peaceful. My normally energetic ski buddy is still, and I’m glad for the quiet company.
“Can you hand me my notepad,” he says. “I’ve been kinda loopy, and I’ve gotta keep track of my meds. How’s fasting going?”
“It’s hard. I’m hungry and tired and cold.”
On the verge of whining, I change the topic. “What do you want to do?”
We opt for watching a movie. Dave picks Office Space, and I don’t have the energy to tell him I’ve seen it a bunch of times. As the movie begins, I can’t remember the last time I lounged around in the middle of the day, and giggle as Dave and I squeeze into a single bed like plutonic college friends; he under the covers, me wrapped in a blanket. Skiing is far from my mind and I’m content. Dave falls asleep quickly and after the movie ends, I’m out too. Two hours later a fidgety Dave stirs.
“I need to take my medicine.”
I do my best to be supportive, but I’m feeling needy and can only give so much. I repeat my fasting mantra, a whine sneaking into my voice this time.
“I’m hungry and tired and cold.”
Dave knows what to do. “Let’s make some fasting tea.”
The tea comes in a yellow box with a yogi on it. This enlightened guru sits peaceful, fortified, and relaxed. I want to be him. After the water boils and the tea steeps, I take the first anticipatory sip. The warm red liquid is not much different than any other fruity herbal tea, but the moment it slides down my throat, I’m convinced it’s the nectar of the Gods. A perfectly sweet cornucopia of fruit sashays across my pallet. Is it my imagination or has it given me energy?
“Thanks Dave. This is the best I’ve felt all weekend.”
Maybe now is the turning point, the point of enlightenment, weightlessness, and increased vitality. I’m ready so bring it on.
Dave and I pass the time chatting about fasting and skiing and music and life. In our on-the-go lives, we seldom take time to chill and connect separate from outdoor activities. It’s another chance to appreciate the moment, and I forget all about being hungry and tired and cold.
On my way home from Dave’s, I stop by the health food store for my own fasting tea.
“What kind of fast are you doing?” the young dreadlocked cashier asks.
“Juice,” I say, and he gives me a “right on” along with my change. Box in my hand, I feel hopeful. I can do this.
My peaceful Zen moment is shattered upon returning home. At 45 degrees outside, it’s a pleasant spring evening but tonight my place is freezing. I have one more juice today, but the sight of the juicer makes me cringe. Still disassembled with residue coating the surface, I say screw it. After soaking the pieces in the sink, I brush my teeth and prepare for bed.
Goosebumps cover my thighs as they touch the stark white toilet seat. I will myself to loosen up, but nothing budges. Constipated and irritated can now be added to my list of objectionable feelings.
In my warmest flannel PJs, I crawl into bed. Normally, I’d call this cozy but tonight I’m agitated. For over 48 hours, I’ve been uncomfortable. I’m not light, and I don’t feel radiant. After a few pages of my book, my eyes droop and sleep comes easily.
Later that night, I head to the ‘fridge and scoop some caramel out of the jar. As the rich sauce hits my tongue, my taste buds come alive. Like the tea hours earlier, it’s ecstasy. This simple concoction of milk and sugar has never tasted so good, and I purr like a kitten.
But for some reason, my head’s fuzzy. I can’t believe my lack of willpower and am disappointed in myself for scarfing the caramel. Three numbers catch my eye, a red 728 against a black backdrop. A soft light fills the room, the silence of morning.
It takes me a moment to realize I’m awake; it was a dream, a vivid food dream. There was no scoop of caramel, so I did not break the fast. Relieved, I fall back asleep until 10 a.m.
Thankfully, I fight with the juicer for the last time. After puttering around the house, I take a walk and go window-shopping in the boutiques downtown. Around me tourists flit about, happy smiles fill their faces and energy radiates from their bodies. Restaurants smells waft through the air and tempt me. My head is filled with images of bison burgers, sushi, Thai food, and crème brule, just the things to take me out of my misery. But I know myself too well, and quitting is not an option. I fill my head with positive self-talk, but it still takes extreme willpower not to give in to the food delicacies surrounding me.
Back at home I’m restless. Anxiety grows. The clock doesn’t budge. I can’t focus on anything, and I can’t think of a single thing to do other than wait. The phrase “just be” pops into my mind, and I try to meditate but I don’t know a thing about meditation.
These last few hours are the hardest but somehow, they pass. 72 hours is up, and I’m just as scared about eating food as I was about eliminating it. Will my stomach protest? How will my body react? Eating alone, slow and silent, I break my fast with a simple rice and vegetable dinner, and my body accepts the meal with no complaints.
The next morning it’s a relief to get back to work and my normal eating, socializing, and activity routine. To celebrate my achievement and the pleasant spring weather, I put on my perky yellow pants, which now slouch on my hips. A co-worker, unaware of my weekend fast, says I look skinny.
As the day goes on, I start to feel like me again. Work routines return to normal as I savor cappuccino at my desk and have a pleasant working lunch with colleagues. That afternoon, a friend texts and we plan a mountain bike ride after work. Throughout the day I can’t stop thinking of how lucky I am to live a balanced life of rewarding work, close personal connections and active pursuits. While the fast didn’t make me feel healthier or more vigorous as I thought it might, it helped me realize I am fine as I am.
Several years have passed since my fast. While I haven’t been tempted to try one again, it was a new way to test myself and I’m glad I did it. Today, outdoor activities continue to be a big part of who I am but they’re not the only thing I am. Thanks to fasting, I started to realize time spent reflecting, recharging, and connecting is important, something to make a regular part of my life and plan for like an epic backcountry ski tour or a long backpacking adventure in Yellowstone.
Ann Vinciguerra is equally at home in the backcountry and at the symphony. She lives in Bozeman, Montana where she practices the art of balancing work (Communications/Event Director, Montana State University Library) and play (Backcountry skiing, mountain biking, backpacking). Her work has appeared in Ascent Backcountry Snow Journal, Cutbank, the Denver Post, Outside Bozeman, newspapers in Jackson Hole, Wyo. and Crested Butte, Co. and several other smaller publications. Interestingly, Ms. Vinciguerra is a dual American-Italian citizen.