“It’s an addiction,” says my friend. She’s a bad-ass ballerina turned fitness instructor in Portland. I check out her Instagram feed now and then – kettle bells, clean and jerks, work out wisdom – usually against some epic northwest Oregon backdrop too. I’m not addicted to exercising myself though. To me, working out is more of a strange obligation that I follow through on sometimes and always seem to be writing down as a to-do item somewhere near the middle of my notepad list.
I think I exercise mostly to feel better about myself. That feeling after a hard work out – the endorphins or dopamine or whatever it is that gets released – that’s great too, but for me it’s as much about having successfully forced myself to do something hard and uncomfortable as it is the physical feeling. I get this strange sense of guilt too about watching sports on TV when I’ve been sitting on my ass all day. This happens mostly during the NFL season, which sucks because it’s usually 30 degrees or less out when I open the door to go for a tortured jog as penance for indulging in Sunday afternoon football. Once I’ve run a couple hills through the snow and seared my lungs with cold air, I feel a little better watching Julio Jones’ sinewy arms cradle in an impossible ball before bolting into the end zone like a scared deer.
Even if I haven’t been lazily watching sports, sometimes my conscience can start to bother me with an accusation of being soft. I’ll be sitting on the couch late in the evening and just start thinking about my granddad – a WWII vet who won a silver star in the steamy, jungled hell of the Philippines’ Guadalcanal. Or it’ll be thoughts of my own 70 year old father who’ll still spend hours a day hand-hewing pine logs into 10×10 square beams with an 10 pound broad axe. Sometimes its remembering the stories I’ve read of George Mallory freezing in his bivouac tent at night just for a shot at conquering Mt. Everest’s brutal summit back in the 1920s…
The exercise I do is sort of weird. Most people it seems, practice something more or less normal like listening to a podcast on an elliptical machine, grunting their way through muscle groups in weekly free weight sessions, or going for a scenic jog at a talking pace with a partner. Occasionally I’ll find myself doing similar stuff, but I’ve never believed in gym memberships, I find free weights to be an incredible bore (though I lifted all through high school), and work out partners have just never worked out. My routines are usually short and extreme. I was an athlete for many years, but I’ve since scrapped most of the work out basics I was trained – stretching, hydration, warm-up, cool-down, full-body involvement, goal-setting – I don’t do any of it anymore. Mostly I’m just looking for a burn. I think I’ve always subconsciously held to the idea that it doesn’t count if it doesn’t hurt a lot, so my bouts of exertion are usually over in a frantic 20 minutes or less that ends with me begging myself for mercy.
I have a couple favorites for pitting pain against willpower (and by favorites, I mean I hate them all equally). One of them is sprinting the Rialto Street steps – one of the steepest grades in the city. The first couple sets of steps are like 8 or 9s, followed by 5s, then the last bit on the part that planes out are a bunch of 3s. I usually start down by the river to eye it up for pedestrians. Once it’s clear, I’ll give it like a 80% sprint, my breath cadence huffing to the melody of some damn song that I wish wasn’t stuck in my head. At the top, I hook left and stride it out in desperation until the milder incline of Troy Hill finally gives way to the city lights reaching up beyond the Provident Charter School ball field. Under 15 minutes all told. I usually walk the whole way back down, feeling the fire slowly leave my lungs and going back and forth in my head on whether that actually counted or not.
The other one I used to do a lot is the mausoleum road in Bloomfield’s Allegheny Cemetery. I’d usually jog up there from my apartment after dark and squeeze slowly through the gate, being sure to leave enough time for the ghosts to disappear into the shadows before I get all the way in. I head off to the right past the biggest mausoleum and take my time walking down. I’m not gonna say I never get the willies because I do – it gets really dark as you go down under the thickening tree cover, and the moonlight only adds an eerie glow to the stoic tombstones. A deer once scared the living crap out of me down here – darted across the road from behind a bush and was the spitting image of the grim reaper until I saw it’s tail. That shot of adrenaline was the same sensation as electrocution – just not as fatal. Usually, I’ll walk all the way down to the flat and make myself stand there for like 30 seconds to peer through the darkness and convince myself I’m not scared. Once I start, the fear pushes me out of the gate hot, running for my life from some ghoulish demon that just cracked a twig as it caught me encroaching on this dark plot of the dead. The grade steepens for the last half and I’m snarling in my head between gasps as I start to fall off pace -“come on, damn you – don’t be a bitch!” The fading sprint ends on the raised asphalt turn-around for the main mausoleum where I bend over wheezing for oxygen, fears evaporated and the dead all awakened to a false rapture.
Those two routes are mainstays, but sometimes I’ll throw in some other random stuff too. For a couple of weeks I was pretty into alternating push-up sets with boxing rounds on a medium bag hung in my basement. After 4 or 5 sets, I’d barely be able to hold my arms up – kind of like Conor McGregor in that Mayweather fight except I was getting bested by a red rubber bag swinging from a chain instead of the greatest welterweight boxer of all time. My roommate wasn’t wild about the whole thing because the punches would rattle the rafters and dining room table glass upstairs pretty bad. I used to put a cloth down under the glass so it wouldn’t crack, but he was still happy when I tweaked my shoulder and had to stop.
It feels good to sit back light-headed after a workout, after you’ve made it across the different stages of pain and you can enjoy a few minutes of private lightheaded pride over your self-discipline. I don’t always make it though – it could have been a bad day or some other half-baked excuse – but just as the first sweat beads are breaking out on my brow and ankles, I’m just not up for it, and with a string of profanity and grit of teeth, I throw in the towel and storm off to the shower muttering, “stupid…this is stupid.”
Sometimes I wonder if maybe training for a triathlon or something would fine-tune my fitness focus – give me a reason to start and stick to a more normal, balanced exercise regimen. Most times, though, I find I just don’t care that much anymore – my metabolism still shrugs off chocolate cake and Chicken McNuggets, and I feel more or less as physically able as I used to be (though I’m probably not). I could finish a triathlon if I wanted to, but it would almost feel childish to try to go back now to the levels with which I worked out for my sports in high school and college. So no, I don’t think I’ll be signing up for Orange Theory or LA Fitness, and Cross Fit’s probably out too. But one of these night’s it’ll happen again – right when I’ve misplaced my sneakers and settled down to a good book. Some sweaty Gatorade commercial will flit across the TV and set me off sprinting up the Rialto Street steps and doing push-ups in the dirt. I’ll walk in the door at 11:30 exhausted and dirty, but I’ll go to bed at least having bought a few more hours of self-respect with the burn.