Bluebells and Bicycles: Marginal Gains

words by Alice Bond / photos by Mike Kenneally

The fourth in a six part series by Alice Bond

When I sensed God whisper very gently into my heart four years ago: eat three meals a day, I had no idea of the seismic effect this would have on my health, my relationship with Him and others, and, in fact, my whole life. His words tend to do that. Even at His most quiet, His words have capacity – like a strong hammer can break a rock, or like a fiery furnace can melt mountains like wax, or like a seed of creativity can explode worlds into being – to turn whole lives upside down, or in my case, the right way up. Three meals a day. What’s the big deal? Surely this is normal; how most people live. But not me. I had done what every non self-respecting young person does – binged and purged on my drug of choice – which for me was food. My purges were for the most part – socially acceptable. I would exercise and fast (in secret – I was very devout). And once a week, every week at university I would do both at the same time: only drink water for 36 hours and in the midst of that period work hard in the gym for two hours.

There are ways of loving oneself, and there are ways of hating oneself. I believe that we can exercise in ways that love ourselves. We can move our incredible, dynamic, versatile bodies in ways we love, both on our own or with friends and family: gardening, dancing, playing football, swimming, running, cycling, playing tennis, mountain climbing, surfing, playing rugby, horse riding, cricket, walking. We can also eat in ways that love ourselves. We can wait for a meal which we or others have prepared carefully and lovingly. And then we can celebrate our incredibly precious lives with others – through sharing this delicious food with them, whilst at the same time stewarding and nourishing our bodies mindfully, graciously and generously. Or we can demonstrate our self-hatred through mindless, isolated, numbing over-eating, compensated by self-denying under-eating and gruelling over-exercise.

So when God whispered into my heart ‘Eat three meals a day’ – it was a big deal. What He was actually saying to me so very gently was ‘I love you and now is the time to love yourself the way I love you. And eating three meals a day is a small part of receiving my love for you’. Well of course like any spirited toddler I spent most of the first year ignoring this whisper (‘it can’t be Him’; ‘it’s so religious and legalistic’; ‘that’s not the freedom He won for us’). But, whilst I don’t know God very well, I do know two things – firstly, there aren’t any excuses, and, secondly, His whispers never return to Him empty. Like a very good parent – He was not backing down. When I finally realised this I spent another good year kicking and screaming (‘I can’t believe I have to limit myself in this way’; ‘this is so unfair’; ‘why do I have to abstain and then engage and then abstain myself  EVERY DAY?’; ‘this is so hard, other addicts just get to abstain forever’, etc., etc). But every now and again I simply made peace with His words: eat three meals a day, and would taste the freedom, peace and joy He was inviting me to share with Him. And in my deepest places, at my most honest moments, especially when I had tasted a whole day living in this way – I knew that I knew that I knew that I wanted to live like this forever. But that I was terrified that I would never be able to. My self-hatred would manifest itself in an incredibly harsh treatment of myself at even the faintest whiff of failure in any area – and particularly this area. The transition from my binge purge cycle to eating three meals a day was initially utterly excruciating because of the amount of guilt and shame I would pile upon myself when I messed up. Which invariably I did by lunchtime each day. And I never noticed, let alone celebrated, any progress. I was in a worse state than I had started. About then during the third year after God spoke to me, I learned one of my most precious life lessons: marginal gains. I came across an article about the tremendously successful British cycling team. In the article their manager was sharing the secret to his migration of British cycling from a national joke to world class excellence: attention to detail. Every aspect of his athletes’ lives was dissected and reassembled to ensure their optimum performance: the bikes themselves, the training regime, the nutrition, the right bedding for the most effective sleeping on tour and even the best individual washing powder for Lycra that would cause the least skin irritation for each cyclist. Some might say he was obsessive. But his point was that the extraordinary transformation of the British cycling team did not happen ‘as if by magic’ over night. His success was hard won through the momentum gained from hundreds of seemingly insignificant choices made consistently over a period of time, in other words, through marginal gains.

Now I had never really come across this approach to life. I was big picture, visionary, pie in the sky. Details seemed an irritating disruption to the great plan to change the world. So I was blown away that one man did change his world, his British cycling world, through attention to detail. Well I was desperate – I couldn’t go back and I didn’t feel I was going forward. I was prepared to try anything, even details. So slowly but surely I applied the principle of marginal gains to how I approached the invitation to eat three meals a day. I decided I would ignore / let go of / not give a second thought to any poor choices and celebrate only the great choices, however small: to eat slowly, socially, mindfully, appropriately, and with attention to the needs of others (rather than just myself). And although I would continue to mess up most days by lunchtime, instead of beating myself up I would, as if a toddler learning to walk, brush off the dust, get myself back up and keep on contending for the wholeness God was inviting me to experience. I would make 99 poor choices, but let them go (knowing that God lets them go) and would only focus on celebrating each individual step of one great choice. I also made sure I shared this area of my life, transparently, with Chris and close friends.

And slowly but surely I noticed that these small, often seemingly insignificant choices, were indeed creating a momentum in my lifestyle that was authentically transformational. I started to feel hunger for the first time; to look forward to (rather than dread or resist) meals with family or friends; I found my appropriate weight and kept to it; I started to enjoy eating; and most importantly of all, despite the weakness of my offering, I experienced His deep love for me.

Whilst I taste freedom a lot more now than I did; the most significant thing I have experienced through this journey is His incredible character.

On the one hand He is so gentle, merciful and kind to me in my weakness. And yet, on the other hand, He is so unrelenting in His commitment to transform me into His vision of how He sees me: a strong, successful, whole and happy woman. The integral aspect of this vision of me is that at every step of this journey He not only genuinely invites me to participate in my own personal transformation, but actively resists working in me any change that I have not given Him full permission to bring. In terms of the list of sports above, He must like tennis A LOT because in the area of personal transformation He has placed the ball firmly in our court.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. Jeremiah 586 BC