I am, by most metrics, a scrawny weakling. Last night I went to a gym for the first time in almost two years. Since I’ve moved to New York, my exercise regimen has ranged from nonexistent (the norm); to scattered sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups; to the more recent addition of long distance runs. My friend Karyn, upon hearing about my participation in the Wheaties Tough Mudder Challenge, informed me that my entirely improvised training plan might not be sufficient. She had a good point. The Tough Mudder is a modern race. It taps into the contemporary cross-training zeitgeist, which makes people use terms like “muscle confusion” and “ungh!”
Even when I went to a gym regularly, I exercised like a guy in the 1950s. I did some running, lifted some weights, smoked a cigarette in a hospital, and called it a day. It was the Don Draper fitness plan. There was no science behind it (though it may be responsible for my Jon Hamm levels of chest hair).
So yesterday, Karyn generously shared a guest pass to her fancy downtown fitness facility. It was amazing to see how the other half works out. When I lived in Boston, I belonged to a Planet Fitness. It was a discount operation, the Old Navy of gymnasia. The floor seemed to be made of recycled tires, and the towels were of the elementary school brown paper variety. There were no classes and no sense of community, and that’s how I liked it. When I’m doing something I do not excel at, I prefer to fail in a place where I imagine no one is watching. It’s why I never thrived at competitive sports. I prefer to take advice and apply it somewhere alone until I can get it right. Running drills in front of teammates embarrassed me. (Also, I’m 5’9” with no jump shot, which left me without what you’d call a “natural position” on the basketball court.) When I saw anyone I knew at Planet Fitness, I chatted with them for a moment and then prayed they would choose to exercise on a machine far, far away from me.
Karyn’s gym offered massages and protein shakes. Some of the machines looked like old time weaving looms, but with people on them. There were actual cloth towels. People seemed to recognize each other and chatted while they stretched. I was terrified.
We planned to take two classes, one “Core” class for a half hour and then an hour-long “Boot Camp.” Now, core I understood. It’s the middle part of you. I imagined doing sit-ups and bicycles and other abdominal exercises. Boot Camp intimidated me. It sounded…militaristic. I imagined the posh, Manhattan gym turning into the first half of Full Metal Jacket, and I had a hunch who would be the Gomer Pyle of the group. (Hint: Me) Also, given my lone wolf approach to my health, I conflated Boot Camp with Cross-Fit. So even though the gym had more of a yoga studio vibe, I worried that I’d be in for an hour of a former marine yelling at me while I completed arduous and arbitrary fitness tasks. “PUNCH THIS TRACTOR!” “KISS THESE SCISSORS!” “SWALLOW THIS EXTENSION CORD!” I had no real idea what was going to happen.
The instructor for both classes was a young black man who Karyn told me was a ballet dancer and Golden Gloves boxer. I wondered which came first. Did he start with the fight training and use ballet to increase his agility, or did he embark on a career in ballet and then think: “I might need to punch some people, too?” Either way, he was terrific. Throughout the core class he encouraged the participants to maximize their workout with proper form. He called everyone “Champion,” which I liked, because I’m not the champion of anything most of the time (although my Wheaties intake has increased dramatically over the past month). My only problem with the instructor that he was in such good shape that when he demonstrated exercises, he did so with the ease of a video game character. His hand was on the ground. Then it was on his toe. No effort appears to be expended. When I tried the same movements, it was a sweatier, wheezier affair.
The core class passed quickly. Though some of the exercises were difficult, I pushed through almost everything, coasting on my sloppy technique and being in half-decent shape to begin with.
Boot Camp was another story. We started off with a series of outdoorsily named exercises (Bear Crawls, Mountain Climbers), which is not my comfort zone to begin with. I love being outside. I like parks and lakes and hills and meadows. I’m less comfortable with “the outdoors.” I don’t camp. I’ve hiked (and liked it!) but only for hours at a time. The class encompassed a pretty diverse assortment of physiques. A slim woman who might have been cooling down from a stint in the Israeli army. A guy who looked like a former high school football player trying to get back in shape. A short woman with red hair whose face flushed right away despite her ability to flawlessly perform every exercise. One dude in a bandana (come one, guy). Despite the fact that I’ve been running six days a week for the last month, I was winded immediately.
In fact, within fifteen minutes, I was more than winded. A thing about me I don’t often share is that I’m a big queasy wimp. In elementary school, while reading one of Goosebumps author RL Stine’s forays into adult horror, I got so squeamish that at one point I grew lightheaded and walked face-first into a door. I recently experienced the same feeling listening to an adult film star on a podcast describing her job. I don’t like to see how the sausage is made, apparently. (Also, in the case of porn, I’m not really into the sausage at all. This metaphor is confusing. I’m not into porn is what I mean.) Anyway, after fifteen minutes of Boot Camp, I felt like that.
The worst part is, we were working with five-pound weights. It is so dorky to be done in by a five-pound weight, an object with the same mass as a premature baby. WHO HAS EVER BEEN THWARTED BY A PREMATURE BABY?
My mouth felt dry. I saw spots. Not a ton of spots, but six or eight, which is more than usual. As the rest of the class powered up and down the gym’s stairways, I staggered to the water fountain. I thought about quitting.
Our instructor checked in on me as I rejoined the class.
“How are you doing, Champion? Take your time. Do it at your own level. I’d rather people stay and do what they can than leave because they can’t do everything.”
I decided to stay.
The second half of the class passed much more easily. I don’t know whether it was because I found a second wind or the exercises suited my abilities better (maybe it was the pep talk), but I didn’t even see one spot for the entire final half-hour. When we finished, Karyn and I walked out.
“Don’t you feel good?” she asked. I did.
“Treat yourself to a salad,” she proposed, smiling.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll do that.” Then I went home and treated myself to pizza.