Angel – know our sympathies are with you during your lifting career. Listen to the big, scary Russian – he knows what’s up from his own mistakes.
I see my body begin to turn from “woman” to “runner” in the space of a few days. The legs start to look less like body parts and more like pieces of equipment: two encasements of muscle, one big, one small, supported by a knee and a foot, respectively. The foot is comparatively well-off, considering that it’s housed in an expensive shoe. The knee, while helped by a shoe, is not in one, and this is a problem. Knees are the reason why people, at a certain point, can no longer run, or can no longer run as fast as they once did, or are forced to stop running by an orthopedic surgeon. I believe knees are the reason there are so many angry men speeding around Central Park on expensive bikes at any given moment.
Like arteries, knees are one of the many things we can’t peer inside without expensive help, and that seems fine for now. But if we could see them: even my years of laziness since I left my college running days behind – “saving up” my knees for some notional future marathon career – have not spared the cartilage, the closest things my knees have to the “lunar” foam inside Nikes (NB: running in Nikes is nothing like walking on the moon, though it’s certainly better than running in, say, Toms). I have run, therefore the cartilage has dwindled. I have mostly run on paved roads, and it’s only a matter of time before I switch to trails or give up running altogether and become a cyclist. But the term “matter of time” is so friendly and vague, i.e. “Time will take care of it.” It’s time’s responsibility, not mine. Maybe time is too busy to apply his rules to me right now.
But go to a gym and you will start to feel that time is taking care of it right now, so (also), thank god you’re here. Everyone in the gym looks younger than I, although there are some older people who only look older because they’re so depressed about all the young people. I think my gym invites models to exercise for free in exchange for looking like dainty ponies who don’t sweat and breathe only through their noses while running eight miles per hour. But exercise slows the aging process, helping our cells to regenerate faster, so here I am, looking younger by the second.
More important (allegedly): how do I feel? Alternately euphoric and suicidal. As the visit progresses I will feel exponentially better, so that on my walk home I will feel as if I have won all the world’s top prizes: Nobel, Pulitzer, Grammy, Oscar. But all I have done is the thing that plenty of Americans do every day – and tens of millions never do. I am proud because the endorphins tell me to be, but I am also proud because I beat the odds. I made my heart work for its place on the earth today.
But before tomorrow will have even arrived, this day of relative accomplishment will give way to a day of mere potential, and potential can be suffocating, especially if it involves exercise. I am unable to think fondly of my progress – the way my body can still quickly adapt to my chosen sport, become an instrument of it. Instead I fixate on what I am losing, that it could all slip away over the course of a few hours or days of sedentary daydreaming and dawdling. My coach in college used to tell us that one day of missed training dropped our fitness level the equivalent of two training days, which is a Sisyphian theory that we all fell for. I still do. But instead of exercising every single day, I prefer to spend atrophic days off sinking good-naturedly into a bog of defeat.
Life gets more complicated as you age; life goes by faster. These clichés do not really get at the experience for me thus far, which feels like an increasingly heavy weight pressing down on my shoulders, heavier each year. Most days I can’t feel the weight and I get on with things. But “things” are more fractured than they once were, and progress is met with twin nuisances of emotion: self-congratulation and dread. There is not so much emphasis on tomorrow, the space where half-marathons and personal record-slashing used to go. There is today, with its dwindling hours and that creeping sense of responsibility to all proximate things and people that women seem powerless to shake. Terrifyingly, I have thought a couple of times while running: I should really go running. There is a term for this, and it is another cliché: I am not being present.
The thing about the gym: the gym, the waystation of $72 moisture-wicking tank tops, white smiles, burnished biceps, flirtatious (and bored) personal trainers and blasé pony-women, is a place where I feel very present – in fact, the least concerned about anything in my life of any significance. The gym, if you can ignore the beautiful bodies or at least learn to appreciate them, is one of the most neutral territories available to the average person. It is a safe zone. Few things can go wrong here. You could fall off the treadmill, but you will not get yelled at by your boss, or feel the need to vacuum something. You will probably not think about work at all, or what to do about dinner. The endorphins and the act of exercise have a way of purging all nonessential data from your short-term memory.
One of the slogans of Crunch is “No Judgments” and I truly believe this: the only one judging me, potentially, is me. Or at least here, in this big, badly lit, clement room, we have these shields that block out what we’re all thinking about each other. We have tools to help us: fun, special, overpriced clothes that we save just for this occasion. Blackened rooms with purple lights into which we can disappear for 60 minutes to ride a bicycle while listening to necessarily loud electro house.
Most important, we have our shared goal. We are all on the same side. The singer from Vampire Weekend is here and he, too, is grimacing through a set of lat pull-downs.
After it’s all over, invariably I am lying on a towel on the floor looking up at a fluorescent light and a ceiling fan. The towel smells like a diaper and my face is covered in a thin mask of dried sweat. I lift my legs up above me at a perpendicular angle to my torso and back down 30 times and it doesn’t hurt as much as it did the other day. Being here is a cure-all. Getting here is next to impossible.