By Api Sulistyo
Translated by Tami Sulistyo
This story is a continuation of the tale of steps I took in the years it took me to escape from the clutches of a lifetime addiction to smoking. In mid-July I decided suddenly to quit smoking for real, after countless failed attempts. Building up to that point of final success took way more than sheer willpower. It was a phased process of lessening the volume and frequency of my cigarette use, alongside the adoption of an activity that replaced the bad habit with something else.
I’m not sure if I could have gotten through that process and on to a life permanently without cigarettes if I had been living in my home country of Indonesia, where there is still a strong social pressure on men because smoking together is woven into the core social interaction customs of this collective society. I just might not have had it in me to quit in the face of that part of my culture because I love the social aspects, if not the smoking.
Three Ways to Quit Smoking
“You want to stop smoking, do it this way,” a consultant advised in front of twelve eager but skeptical coworkers who declared they wanted to quit smoking. At that time I worked in a prominent financial services company in the outskirts of Minneapolis. In an effort to promote health and well-being, consultants were paid to introduce a plan to quit smoking. I had seen a brochure about the program tacked up on a bulletin board and was immediately interested, partially because of the lure of $100 if you follow the program.
“The first way to quit smoking is through nicotine chewing gum,” the consultant continued, showing some examples. He said if we chew this gum, our desire to smoke will be reduced and over time we could eventually stop smoking altogether. I did not like the sound of this way to quit because I do not like to chew gum and because it would take a long time to be able to stop. Surely it would be expensive as well, having to buy cigarettes and nicotine gum both. And, I am not a patient person. I like fast results, which is one of the reason I enjoy working as a recruiter in a high volume, fast paced environment.
After answering questions, the consultant continued, “The second way to quit smoking is to wear nicotine patches (a bandage with slow release nicotine in it).” The consultant was confident in the efficacy of patches and showed some examples. Once again I was not interested, for the same reasons. When someone asked about the high cost of nicotine gum and nicotine patches, the consultant explained that the $100 incentive was to help offset the cost.
I waited for the third way to quit smoking. Half ready to get up and leave, expecting to hear another costly and slow approach, I found myself actually intrigued at last. The third way to quit smoking permanently, the consultant declared, was to replace smoking with exercise. The idea was that quitting any bad habit requires replacing the habit with something else, to fill the vacuum. My ears perked up, I kept listening, and asking questions. I believed my only choice was to start regular exercise, to replace my craving to smoke. We were informed that any type of sport could be selected. I wanted one that was inexpensive and could be done by myself anytime, anywhere, so I would have instant easy access anytime a craving to smoke might creep in. In the end I chose jogging as a way to quit smoking.
That night I smoked as many cigarettes as I could, until my head was spinning, I had a hoarse throat, stomach nausea and wanted to vomit. Since the next day I have not smoked. Quitting is one thing, but staying away from cigarettes permanently is a whole other ballgame. Having already slowly cut down the amount I was smoking helped me tackle this next step of going cold turkey and taking on jogging as a replacement habit.
Jogging is actually very simple. I like simple. Even without shoes we can still run. Compared to many other sports, running is an individual activity. No need to pitch a ball, does not need a racket, one does not need a partner, team or opponent. All it takes is the courage to start running. As a long time smoker, I would often breathe heavily, and I knew I wold not be able to run fast or for a long time. I was embarrassed to have people see me jog. So at first I just jogged in place, where I would not be recognized. I could not even run a block, or a half mile. It took me months to be able to run a full 5km. And then for many more months I jogged no more than 5km three or four times a week.Then one day as usual I went out to run 5km, but when I reached the 5km mark I felt that I could run a little further. That night for the first time I started to have confidence that I could probably run further as long as I keep running regularly. Jogging slowly become a part of my life. I was encouraged when my wife bought special shoes for runners as my birthday present. I started dreaming, “Maybe I’ll be able to run 10km. How happy would I be if I could finish a half marathon, or even a full marathon.”
A Statement To Start
One day we were hanging out with a few close friends and family in our home. Suddenly I was shocked by one of our guests who said, “I heard you want to run a marathon huh?” I did not see that coming, as I had told no one of the beginnings of my dream. In disbelief, I responded, “Who told you that?”
“Your wife says you’re going to run a marathon,” he declared, and suddenly everyone was silent. They saw me waiting for an answer. Yes, so be it, I nodded affirmatively, even though I had never told my wife about the marathon plan. She knows me well, and later told me she had wanted to publicly challenge me, figuring I would accept due to social pressure, being that I grew up in a collective society, and then would feel I needed to commit to living up to it. She was right it turns out.
I realized I might not be able to prepare for a marathon alone. I started looking for information on marathon preparation and turned to a friend of my wife, Laurie, who introduced me to a group of local marathon runners by the name of Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA). I joined and followed the training program to enter The Twin Cities Marathon in 2008.
Running the first time with the group we had to go about 10 miles (16km). At that time I had already jogged 10 miles on my own, but very slowly and I stopped often. The night before running with the group, I was restless and could not sleep well. I was afraid that I would not be able to run that far and would be left behind by other runners. Very different from what I had worried about, the group jog was very comfortable and pleasant accompanied by lots of jokes and laughter and informal mentoring of each other. In the beginning I listened more than I talked but the idea is to keep a pace up where talking while you run is fairly comfortable.
The 18-week group training program went smoothly. We did a shorter practice race as part of the preparation. My wife talks about how she waited and waited at the finish line with our active young kids, trying to be patient and challenged to keep a constant eye on the four children, all running around playing in different directions. They kept expecting they would see me coming, and got concerned when a handful of elderly experienced runners finished well before I came along. I have seen many inspiring runners of all ages who humble and motivate me. I did finish that practice race eventually, and before I knew it, ready or not, it was my first time to run a marathon. I did not set a goal to enter the finish line at a certain time. I just wanted to get to the finish line and enjoy it.
Since that first marathon I have completed other marathons and half marathons in various places. In the process I have gathered many interesting memories of the beautiful views, welcoming spectators along the streets, live music performances, food, faces, and my dedicated family going by car to rush out at multiple stops along the race route to cheer me on as I passed by. It took a lot for my family to support me those early running days. I was gone from them many evenings and weekend hours in order to get in the required runs, placing the care of our four children on my wife, who I could tell was challenged by this, but remained a fan all along. She says she noticed how running benefited my mood, my energy, my confidence, in addition to keeping me from smoking and improving my health.
Since I come from the Indonesian island of Java, I once wrote “Java Man” on my race shirt. Along the route, a crowd of college students I did not know shouted together, “Java man, Java man, Java man!” I danced in front of them as I passed by, grateful for their support and their spirit.
Another very meaningful memory was the the Marine Corps Marathon, administered by the US Marine Corps in Washington D.C. Ok, so my wife points out that running is more expensive than I thought, considering the cost of race fees, new shoes every 400 miles, and travel. There were 23,000 runners racing together along past the Potomac River and national monuments, including the White House, as Hurricane Sandy began to barell down upon us. The wind was so strong, I have never experienced anything like it. Immediately after entering the finish line, the Marines stood at attention in front of me, and all finishers, while placing a medal over our necks. I was almost in tears at the time. This is a memory that I will remember for a very long time.
People say that jogging makes people addicted. “Once you are a runner you are always a runner,” I heard. I think this statement is true. It feels like there is something wrong if I do not go for a run for one or two weeks. I used to be addicted to cigarettes, now I am hooked on running, replacing one bad habit with another healthier habit. Jogging is not the only sport to help quit people smoking. Any sport will do. I hope you find the right way to help you quit smoking. It won’t be easy, but it so worth it.
By the time I quit for good, I had cut down smoking to a few cigarettes a day. On Monday, the first day of quitting, I did not have any cigarettes in my car or in my work bag. I went straight to Northwest Athletic Club, (acquired by Life Time Fitness in 2006) to start jogging instead of going to the store to buy cigarettes. I was very grumpy and easily annoyed by many things during the first few days. My family, coworkers and friends can attest to that! On the fourth day I thought, “I already quit for three days, why should I start again?” I was following the same thought process after quitting for one week, two weeks, etc, until now, many years later. “Why should I start again?” Instead, I compliment myself that I was able to reach these small milestones. One baby step at a time, one moment at a time, but no looking back.
- We all have at least one bad habit. Most of us have many. What is one of yours? What new positive habit could you replace your bad habit with? Why does this matter to you? How would your life be different if you succeed? What’s your plan or strategy to quit and then to not restart? The book Power of Focus is very helpful.
- What part of your own culture makes it harder for you to change one of your bad habits than if you were living in another culture that has different customs and beliefs?
Api Sulistyo’s LinkedIn profile:
Marine Corps Marathon
Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon