It’s Working Out
I knelt on one knee, Batman on my right and Santa on my left, staring down at the trampled, muddy grass. I shifted back as a burly man with hair poking out from his orange tutu dropped to his knee in front of me. He smelled of sweat and stale beer. Noticing his bulky triceps, I then looked down at my own: puny, under the five-digit number recently inked onto my arms. The December morning chill gave me goose bumps and fueled my anxiety. Earlier, pushing through the throngs of spectators, I had tried to ignore the signs warning participants of alligators and poisonous snakes in the swamp crawls. As I joined the first wave of runners, the announcer described the course injuries from the day before—multiple bumps and bruises, concussions, two broken ankles, and a dislocated shoulder. He yelled, "Boo-yah! Are you ready?" The din of voices and rock-n-roll faded as we raised our right hands and recited the trademark pledge together: "I understand that the Tough Mudder is a challenge not a race...never put my course time ahead of helping my fellow Mudders...I will overcome all fears." I suppressed the urge to quietly drop and roll under the orange mesh separating the starting area from the crowds. How did I get here?
Ordinarily, I'm a runner. And not a very good one. Even after thirty years I refer to my daily ritual as the "gasp, waddle, and wheeze". I started as a college freshman, with goals of general fitness and unrealistic expectations of weight control. I kept at it, and found myself enjoying the exertion and achieving my humble goals. In graduate school I switched to trail running, which offers a more benevolent experience than cement and macadam to my now aging joints. The trail taught me agility and balance, and how to engage my core. I work harder over rough ground; I learned I love to climb. Trail running also comes with some additional benefits: peace, fresh air and smells, varied terrain, and the occasional glimpse of wildlife. A run with a view. In the last few years, I've also come to appreciate the privacy and solitude of my trail runs...the indispensible feeling of being unavailable and unreachable. Incommunicado. Incognito. All of it combined has made my daily jaunt, no matter how arduous, simply indispensable both mentally and physically.
My mileage varies with the season and my work schedule. Sometimes I vanish into the woods for longer hours when I have something to think through. In the last few years I have increased my training each fall in order to run an organized event in Death Valley, held the first Saturday in December. I've enjoyed the annual pilgrimage to the Furnace Creek Inn, and a chance to spend a long, peaceful weekend in a spectacular and cultural national park. My psychology and physiology became adjusted to this biorhythm, and I viewed the annual increased exertion as soothing compensation for the colder, shorter, darker days.
Last year my routine changed. My mother got sick, and I decided that I should visit her in Florida instead of making my usual trek to the desert. As the days began to shorten, I looked for an event I could train for in the Sunshine State. I stumbled onto the Tough Mudder, which was being held in Tampa that very weekend.
The Tough Mudder, billed as "the toughest event on the planet", is a boot-camp-style obstacle course over a half-marathon distance. The website boasts that mental and physical true grit are required and that "complete slackers" need not apply. Scrolling around I found the suggested "Tough Mudder Workout" and sample training videos. Adding to the daunting nature of this event was the male-dominated flavor of the lingo and culture: training exercises called "The Running Man", "Superman Planks", and obstacles called "The Ball Shrinker", "Hold your Wood", "The Dirty Holes" (Really?), and "Just the Tip". The FAQ's include "Are women allowed to enter in the Tough Mudder?" It sounded impossible, outrageous, and absurd, and also completely age inappropriate...And it was on the right weekend. Sign me up!
Plus, who could resist those quirky orange headbands?
Of course I had no idea how to train. The running seemed doable, but I'd never tried to get over twelve-foot walls or cargo nets, and I hadn't even seen a set of monkey bars since I was a buck-toothed, pig-tailed, sixth grader. Do you train for an electric shock? I printed out the sample training exercises and tried them in my living room. Okay, so I knew what a push-up was, and I could figure out the plank and side-plank poses, but the rest of it was a complete flail. What's a kettlebell? A lunge? That sounds violent. My husband stood and watched in generous silence as I twisted, reached, and contorted myself on the area rug, trying not to disturb the greyhounds sprawled on the sectional or brain myself on the brick fireplace. After I issued a particularly graceless grunt, he finally offered, "I'm not sure that's right. You might hurt yourself," then tentatively, "Why don't you get a personal trainer to help you?"
Personal trainer? Help? That meant...a gym, and working out. Gyms are for people who exercise inside, not me! Inside is for working, outside is for playing...in all seasons. No bad weather, only bad gear. Unless belly laughing counts as ab-work, I had never worked out. Furthermore, the phrase "working out" had never even been part of my vocabulary, my perception of its meaning landing firmly between vain, iron-pumping he-men, and a bad pick-up line: Hey! You work out? Eventually I realized with embarrassment that I had never contemplated what a personal trainer is. Humbling. I spent a few uncomfortable days confronting my long-held bias that gyms and personal trainers were for people who couldn't run—people who couldn't motivate themselves to shake their own booties. More humbling. Time to evolve, I thought. I geared myself up to try something new...something unfamiliar. In educational terms, it's called operating in your zone of proximal development (ZPD), a place where you are slightly uncomfortable (like sitting on the cow-catcher of a locomotive). It's tough, and high energy, but it's where you learn and grow the most.
I checked out several personal trainers on fitness center websites, and made calls. If finding a personal trainer was any indication of how difficult the actual training was going to be, I was in for a rougher ride than I thought. Internet dating couldn't be any worse than this.
I met the first guy at his gym. He had his calipers ready, like a lobster claw, reaching, ready to pinch and measure my body fat. He stared at me, wild-eyed and manic, his eyes repeatedly running up and down. Was he on drugs? He spoke rapid fire, and I couldn't get a word in edgewise. Whoa...I thought, Next!
The second guy shook his head after a few seconds of conversation, "You run? Running's bad for you, we'll cure you of that." Next!
The third guy: clearly on crack.
The fourth trainer had actually printed out the Tough Mudder Workout, which impressed me, but as he ran through it, he said, "Oh, chin-ups. Well, we'll skip those. You'll never be able to do that." NEXT! NEXT! NEXT!
Each trainer had launched uninvited into a lecture about the food groups, assuming that I wanted to lose weight. What did I eat for breakfast? How much did I weigh? How many hours/night did I sleep? I started to think that, as with many professions, certain characteristics lent themselves well to the field of personal training. Each person had been high energy (Great!) but also opinionated, bossy, arrogant, a poor listener, controlling, and quick to judge. None of them seemed interested in hearing my goals, and ran me over with immediate assumptions. It looked like I was going to be training on my own after all. At least I would be entertaining to my spouse...If I survived.
If I'd known the Friday morning phone call was another personal trainer, I would have let it go to voicemail, possibly changing my number, or flushing my phone. Instead, I answered, and a quiet voice introduced himself as Darren. He said, "Tell me what you're looking for. What are your goals?" Still a little suspicious, and with slit eyes, I explained. Darren was interested. He liked the fact that I engaged in endurance trail running on my own. He cycled and played ice hockey, and like me, viewed gym-training as an adjunct to that, not a primary focus. "Let's make sure the strength and balance work we do for the Tough Mudder event doesn't interfere with your trail running." Exhale...There IS someone for everyone. We set up an appointment at his facility for early the next week.
I'd never been to a gym. I called him back, "Ummm, what do I wear?" He suggested I wear whatever I wear to run. Is he laughing? Great.
I showed up feeling nervous and out of place. After how adamant I'd been about running, was he expecting some skinny, stream-lined, svelte, superathlete? As I walked through the doors I worried I should have called and explained that I am just a regular middle-aged lady who is trying something new. Darren knew who I was right away, and greeted me by name. Polite, I thought, professional. We started right in, and I was immediately hooked, because the exercises required not only exertion, but also coordination and focus. We used equipment I didn't expect—exercise balls, rubber bands, and nylon straps with handles hanging from the ceiling. I can strangle myself with those in a second, I thought. I felt unpracticed and awkward, but always engaged and the time flew.
Despite how much I enjoyed the training, the culture of the gym was a hard adjustment for me after twenty-five years of solitary runs in the woods. Gyms are loud, public places. Creating my own space amidst the chatter and bodies was tough. Mirrors faced me in most directions, which meant I could look at myself or at someone else—neither option all that attractive. I realized with some discomfort as I caught the eye of a sweaty treadmill user that I could be observed as well. I'm sure I provided some riotous entertainment for other more seasoned gym-goers as I tried to master the new equipment and complicated routines.
One day when I tried a new core exercise throwing a weighted ball at a mini-trampoline, the ball flew back at an unexpected angle and speed, smacking me in the face, and knocking me over. I've gotten better at that one. Warming up on a treadmill (running on a machine was a brand-new experience for me), I tried to remove my sweatshirt, which predictably got caught on my head and over my eyes. I fell off the back, slamming into the mirror behind me and sliding to the ground. Bowled over by my own stupidity. A man stopped his run to help me, which was embarrassing enough, but later in the same workout, I tripped over a mat and went sprawling (a Superman fall, we call it on the trail) in front of the same guy. He stopped to help again, looking sympathetic. It would have been better if he had just laughed out loud. I quickly introduced myself hoping he would associate my name with my face, instead of inserting some other less flattering term, like spaz, goofy, or Grace. I am used to falling, especially trail running over uneven terrain, and can live with the usual consequences—skinned knees, bumps and bruises, and poison oak. During one run, at a lake not far from where I live, I tripped and rolled down a steep incline, splashing into the water. Usually only the coyotes and the rattlesnakes observe my stumbles. Having a human audience offered a whole new level of injury.
In an attempt to generate a healthy coping mechanism for my foibles, I came to think of my fellow gym users as my victims. My lack of coordination reached a darkly comic level one day as I practiced on the recently-installed, shiny, red monkey bars. This required swinging from the ceiling in a large movement that already made me feel self-conscious and too visible. One day I swung too far to the left, and kicked an unfortunate man who was doing sit-ups in the head. It was really just a graze. And he didn't lose consciousness. As a matter of fact he laughed out loud, and claimed responsibility, citing his poor choice of location for ab-work. He actually complimented me on being able to perform the chimp-like exercise. I smiled to myself, jealously guarding the secret to my success: my monkey-bar morning, banana-eating ritual. I didn't introduce myself to this guy, hoping it would all just go away unnoticed.
Eventually I got the hang of most exercises, and generated good focus. I settled on looking up, at the top edge of the mirrors, which helped with both my balance and my self-consciousness. Darren and I designed a routine of every other day. I always looked forward to the next session. Besides the physical aspects of the training, I learned about my body. We talked about fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers and recovery nutrition. I enjoyed the mental coaching and strategizing for the Tough Mudder. One day I was so engrossed in Darren's commentary on grip strength that I unwittingly slammed my chin with the metal bar during the shoulder press. I paused and registered what I had done only because I noticed a worried look on Darren's face. Discretely swallowing the chip from my first molar, I just re-set to start over. I used make-up to cover the bruise spreading over my jaw, so he wouldn't see it at the next few sessions. We continued training on schedule.
As with most events, the December Tough Mudder arrived too quickly. Kneeling at the start, and thinking about the twenty-five obstacles over the twelve-mile course, I coached myself: ignore the anxiety and the warnings; ignore the announcer's remark that the magic marker numbers on your arms and forehead are for later identification of your body. Suddenly, the horn blew, and we started out as a group to "Eye of the Tiger". For the first quarter-mile the course felt crowded, and I moved in baby steps, trying to avoid my fellow runners and conserve my energy. By the first obstacle, The Arctic Enema, a plunge into storage containers filled with fluorescently-dyed ice water, the group had spread out, and I moved at an easy pace. I felt strong on the run, and grateful for all my mileage in the hills. I waded or crawled through mud at least a dozen times. I wiped the mud from my eyes at least a hundred times. I tasted mud, and my teeth ground against the grit the whole race. Mud collected under my nails, in my sports bra, between my breasts...and other less convenient places. I wondered how I would ever get clean.
Thanks to Darren, and my dedication, I tackled all the obstacles—walls, nets, mud, even the monkey bars—at least optimistically, if not with the confidence and aggression I saw in the other Mudders. As advertised, I had help. Batman was there more than once to boost me up over the twelve-foot walls, and many other folk offered encouraging words. I tried to do the same. I swung like a chimp on the monkey bars, labeled The Funky Monkey, but suspected my success was related to the banana I had eaten at the start, rather than all the chin-ups and work on grip strength. Later on the course, I panicked and stopped dead, looking down two stories at the muddy water from the platform of Walk the Plank. Suddenly discovering my fear of heights, I just sat down, with other Mudders and the course monitors just staring in disbelief. I let several muddy bodies go past, watching them fearlessly soar, flip, and plunge off the edge. Finally, in order to make the leap, I stood on the edge with my eyes closed, and asked the monitor to tell me when the coast was clear below, stepping off blindly into the free fall.
I used fundamentals from the workouts more than once. I found them most helpful on The Everest, a twenty-foot slick quarter-pipe that runners charged up, hoping to grab a hand hold to make it over the top. For me this was the most physically difficult obstacle. Twice I tried to sprint up high enough for the hand hold, legs eventually spinning ineffectively like a cartoon character, and sliding down on my face. I stopped to think about a strategy.
First, Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right, I heard Darren say. Ok, I can do this. Maximize your strengths. My strength wasn't the sprint; my strengths included climbing, and the spring I can draw from my quadriceps. I remembered, Learn to lead with your left, it will double your chances of getting your timing right. I faced The Everest again and headed up, climbing not sprinting, reaching for foothold, not speed. At the right spot, I planted my left foot, picturing the chunky trail-running treads digging into the surface. Look where you are trying to get. I looked up, and asked every lunge, every pop-squat, and every mile to spring out of my left quad as I threw my right hand toward the top. My fingers closed around a faceless, masculine wrist and before I knew it I was pulling myself over the edge. I smiled a thank you, glimpsing the sloppy, orange tutu, before heading down the other side, and off to the last obstacle—The Electroshock Therapy. My only goal there was to get through without losing the contents of my bladder. On my charge, one of the wires caught my left thigh and I flew over a hay bale, doing a face plant. But I didn't care—the finish line stood in sight, a hundred yards in front of me. Picking myself up, I ran, hands in the air, smiling unself-consciously despite the mud in my teeth, and more energized than exhausted. I accepted my headband, t-shirt, and beer, and for a moment I felt more like a gazelle than a weeble. I gave my beer to Batman, still thinking about the course—an engaging, challenging, but doable event. The atmosphere was one of camaraderie, cooperation, and support. The organizers claim the Tough Mudder is not a race, but a challenge...and it was true. I was already planning for the next one.
Future events or not, I have continued the workouts in addition to my trail running. I still seek solitude, and the scent of sage and wet earth. But the gym and my runs, they complement each other. And I feel like a more complete athlete. The benefits have surprised me. I place my feet firmly, run a little lighter, and even a little faster. I feel stronger and more confident. I stand straighter. I stumble less. My body has changed. My palms are proudly calloused from the monkey bars. My muscle mass has increased and my body fat dwindled. I find myself compelled to let go (just a little) of my ponderous and roly-poly self image, and picture a different woman running through the trees. Perhaps the most unexpected and delightful benefit has been impressing my spouse of more than two decades. The years, while nurturing maturity and growth in my psyche, have not been so kind to my physique. I never worried about Ben comparing me to other women, but what about comparing me to myself? He met this body at age twenty-three. Is he disappointed as it approaches fifty? No amount of feminism could convince me that that my education, wit, and intelligence makes up for the years of gravitational pull. "My wife's got guns," I heard him announce one day to a friend. I pictured myself swinging onto the saddle slinging sidearms until he explained to my delight that he referred to my newly defined biceps. I will never forget the sight of him, standing next to the monkey bars screaming, "Hooooleeey shit! Goooo, Honey! You're doing it!" and pointing, "That's my wife right there! Look at her! Yaaaay!!!" To this day, he calls me Cheetah.
I called Darren to say thank you, and tell him about the course. He was laughing when he asked me what I planned to do next, the Ironman? I'd have to think about it, I told him, twisting the orange headband onto my wrist. In middle age, I've come to view comfort as my enemy. I feel determined to fill my life with challenge not complacency, and curiosity rather than fatigue. I want to sit precariously and gleefully on the cow-catcher, legs and feet flailing in the wind. Last week I burst into the house and lifted my shirt to show Ben my back...and my brand-spankin'-new Tough Mudder tattoo. I exhaled when he guffawed and rolled his eyes. "You're full of surprises, aren't you?"
I hope so.