“My journey has been a path toward discovering the fullness of my self—body and spirit. I hope that my story will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of his or her body, whatever his or her physical condition.” — Ragan Sutterfield, author, This Is My Body
A brand new book by author and blogger Ragan Sutterfield delivers an honest and powerful story of one man’s long and rocky relationship with his body. This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith, is a body memoir of sorts, a story of Sutterfield’s journey from unathletic, body-conscious teenager to confident ultra-runner — and the destructive years of obesity and smoking in between before reconciling with his body as a beautiful gift from God. Weaving in his Christian faith and a biblical perspective, This Is My Body is a brilliant exploration of the spirituality of the body, from damnation to redemption to beloved.
We got to ask Ragan a few questions about his new book for the Patheos Book Club this month.
You have written a very candid memoir. Is it for spiritual seekers or people who want to lose weight?
My journey has been a path toward discovering the fullness of my self—body and spirit. For me that involved losing weight because my denial of my body had resulted in some very destructive habits from smoking to eating very poorly. Other people may have the same unhealthy view of the body as I did and yet look physically well. I hope that my story will resonate with anyone who has tried to make sense of his or her body, whatever his or her physical condition.
A television in front of the treadmill? You say it’s like a ball for a gorilla in the zoo: entertainment in the cage. How so?
Televisions in front of treadmills help promote the idea that exercise is a chore, something from which we have to be distracted. If you are just jogging along with your body while a rerun of NCIS absorbs your mind, you are re-establishing the divide between mind and body. If I run on a treadmill, I turn off the TV and run hard intervals that require my whole self—mind, body, and spirit. Otherwise, I run outside and get some fresh air.
It wasn’t until you took up endurance sports—triathlons and ultrarunning that you experienced in your body what you had experienced in your mind and spirit. How do you maintain that?
What endurance sports gave me was an integration of myself because there was no way I could reach the finish line through my body, mind, or spirit alone. I needed all of myself to move over such a long distance. One way I maintain that integration is to keep racing. Every major race is like a kind of retreat for me. Not long ago, I completed my first 50 mile ultramarathon, and I left with a renewed sense of wholeness. We live in such a mind-oriented society (at least in certain social classes) that this integration is a continuous task.
You write movingly about the book of Psalms. What does that book have to teach us about our relationship to bodies?
The book of Psalms, like much of the Hebrew scriptures, is a very concrete, physical book of prayer. Of the 150 psalms, 143 reference the body. It is hard to read the psalms without seeing that we praise God with our lips as much as our spirits, that we suffer alienation in our guts as much as our souls, that we feel joy in the dancing of our feet as much as in our minds. These are prayers that come from and call us toward a wholeness of being.
Routine is the foundation for getting good; how do we start a good mind and body routine?
For me the key has always been to have some external plan. I never did very well with simply saying I was going to exercise everyday. Instead, when I finally started becoming healthy it was with the help of very specific training plans for races that told me what I needed to do each day. In the same way, committing to morning prayer from the Book of Common Prayer was a key to moving me out of a slump in my spiritual life. Either way, my will didn’t have much to do with it. To establish a good routine, we simply have to get the decision whether to do it or not out of the way.
At your heaviest, what did you weigh? Do you remember the catalyst for getting off the proverbial couch?
At my heaviest, I was upwards of 260, which is around 90 pounds heavier than my stable weight (I drop 5-10 pounds below that in racing season). I had a good many starts before I finally made it “off the couch.” Getting help from a personal trainer friend was a major step forward. She helped me with my eating which was the main source of my weight gain and then loss. The major leap in fitness came when I was the support kayaker for my wife (then girlfriend) as she swam 12.5 miles around Key West. After that, I finally got the courage to race my first triathlon. The experience was addicting. In the few months that followed, I raced my first half-marathon and first 100-mile bike ride. I’ve mostly kept off the couch ever since.
For more conversation on This Is My Body, check out the Patheos Book Club here.