Where, oh where, did my old body go?
You know all those scenes of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, where she’s kicking her own ass with exercise as sweat runs down her freshly shorn head? That used to be me in high school. Except, y’know, with hair.
I was on the track and field team as both a sprinter and a distance runner.
I participated in cross-country meets.
I was on the basketball, volleyball, and badminton teams.
And I was absolutely, positively unstoppable in the weight room.
I was skinny – too skinny, the by-product of bullying at my previous all-girl nightmare of a school – but I could hand out tickets to the gun show with the best of them. I had washboard abs that I have somehow never managed to lose, no matter how many pounds of superfluous flesh have come and gone over top of them. I could do one-arm pushups like a boss and climb a rope better than Tarzan.
No joke, I actually drew spectators at times. The double-takes I got when people saw how much I was lifting and the comments on my endless reps on the dip bar clued me in that I was abnormally strong for my size, but everyone’s gotta have something they excel at, right? At the time I simply assumed unlimited super-strength was just one of my better built-in features.
When I graduated and moved on to university, I soon discovered that while I would have to pay for gym access, my student ID gave me free run of the campus aquatic center, and I had precisely zero objections to trading in my tracksuit for a swimsuit if it meant I could save a buck. I began swimming laps in the mornings before lectures – one of the only times I have ever voluntarily gotten up earlier than I needed to – and practically grew gills. My body became smooth and streamlined and I trained myself to hold my breath longer and longer until I could swim entire laps underwater. The hardest part of my day became reluctantly hauling myself out of the water when I knew I had to get to class. I was at the faintly chlorine-scented peak of my physical condition.
But then I got busier, and shit got harder. My course schedule was erratic at best; I had joined a musical theatre society and was cast in several of their shows; my job lifted their cap on hours for part-timers and we jumped on the extra shifts like starving animals…at the end of each day my brain was so stuffed with facts and lyrics, my body so exhausted from standing at a till for eight hours before heading to the theatre to do some more standing, that trying to accomplish any additional activity was simply a lost cause.
I firmly believe that if I could go back and change any one thing about my life, I would reverse my choice to put fitness on the back burner. It didn’t feel like a choice in the moment, but I know that if I had really wanted to, I could have found the time and energy to stay active. The fact that I didn’t even try is one of the only things I truly regret.
Because five years and about twenty extra pounds later, I tried to get my ass back in gear, and it stalled.
Coming off half a decade of self-indulgence and apathetic inertia with a finally-diagnosed thyroid disorder and a graduate degree in tow, I knew it was time to get off my duff and back into my sports bra, so I joined a gym. It was within walking distance of our apartment, small and un-trendy enough that I didn’t feel conspicuous, and all sorts of classes were included with my membership. I figured I was going to waltz in there and get right back up to my old powerhouse ways.
I figured wrong. It was slow going. Very slow. How had I gotten so weak? Why could I only lift the most paltry of weights when I used to sling half the stack around, no problem?
And the back of my brain answered, rather unhelpfully, Because you slacked off for five years, dumbass.
My super-strength had an expiry date after all.
I used to run in the maximum allowable events at track meets without blinking an eye; now twenty minutes on the elliptical felt like an eternity. My arms, of the famed one-arm pushups, could now barely support me for even the simplest of body weight exercises.
This fucking sucked.
I became most painfully aware of the great disservice I’d done to my fitness during the first dance cardio class I attended. When the class began, I had optimistically staked out a spot in the middle of the studio. But fifteen minutes in, I came to an abrupt realization: I have made a terrible mistake. The little rubber man in long sleeves at the front who was leading us in yet another unrelentingly bouncy sequence of steps had yet to visibly break a sweat. I, on the other hand, was streaming head to toe like Niagara Falls and wheezing like a chain-smoker for good measure, and my only source of rehydration had been deposited well out of the way so nobody would trip on it.
Suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about getting to that water bottle. Every few steps I would sneak a look back at it chilling out with the others along the studio wall, and my brain would lick its lips and force me to imagine the cool H2O trickling down my throat. It was pure torture, and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. Swallowing my pride, I snatched up my mat and bolted for an open space at the back of the room where I could stay within arm’s reach of my sacred vessel of refreshment, and spent the next 24 counts ignoring Little Rubber Man and guzzling the best-tasting water that ever existed on God’s green earth.
The Great Dance Cardio Fiasco made me more determined than ever to get my old stamina back. I authorized Nutty Hubby to guilt trip me if I tried to weasel my way out of going to the gym for stupid reasons. I took more classes and convinced myself to stay on the machines a little bit longer every day. Just one more song on the iPod, I would think. You can make it through one more song. And I did. I got better, I got stronger, I got faster. I got rid of those clingy extra twenty pounds. Lo and behold, one day I even made it through the full hour of dance cardio without wishing death upon Little Rubber Man.
Then this happened:
With no warning at all, the gym’s owners shut the doors and fled the country. Oh, and charged us all an extra month’s membership for good measure, which thankfully my bank worked with me to reverse.
Well, the Couch-to-5K app seemed like a good start for someone who wasn’t willing to play the Will You Or Will You Not Go Bankrupt On Me game right away with another gym. I thought back to my track and cross-country days and recalled the adrenaline, the sense of purpose, the euphoric second wind that came with a good race. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?
Excitement sparkling in my eyes, I installed the app and headed out for Week 1, Day 1, knowing this was the next giant leap towards reclaiming my old fit self.
And I figured something out very quickly. I hated running.
That’s right. I, who used to joyfully compete in everything from the speedy 100m to the monotonous 3000m, could not stand running anymore. Two blocks and I wanted to die. My legs, which would perform just fine on a luxuriously low-impact elliptical trainer, strenuously objected to jogging on asphalt.
For some reason that was the saddest thing for me.
I pushed through for a while, forced myself to keep going on the next run, and the next, but after repeating the first two workouts of Week 5 ad nauseam trying to make the transition to that dreaded full 20 minutes of running non-stop, I gave up.
The worst part was that I knew so many people who loved running, and realizing that I was no longer one of them hurt. In this day and age of social media with people’s smart phones/armbands/brain chips auto-posting maps of where they’ve been running and how long it took them, it felt like technology was rubbing in more than ever how out of date I was.
But after a bit of healthy sulking, I decided running just wasn’t for me anymore, and I was okay with that. I broke up the pity party, researched my local gym options, and eventually got my workout groove back on through the local community centers. What’s that? I have pool access again? Don’t mind if I do!
So I got back to the weights, back to the laps, When I go to bed, I’m the best kind of tired. The post-workout brain cooldown of sleepy accomplishment. Teenage me still thinks I’m a wimpy old fart, and we both think early-20s me should be flogged for letting us down so badly, but we’ll all get through this in the end, I think.
Make that I know.
Because yesterday I did the unthinkable. I went out for a 2.5k jog on a complete whim, and wouldn’t you know it, I was smiling the whole way.