I’ve started back at the gym recently. Nothing to stop the presses over I realize, but it’s a big step towards living life in a fear-less way.
Let’s be honest – gyms are intimidating as hell. All those mirrors, all those machines that may or may not have been intrinsic to the Spanish Inquisition, all those perfectly sculpted bodies clad in skimpy form-fitting Lycra, all those apparatuses that require an advanced degree in physics to operate. I walk in and feel like mushy mere mortals such as myself have as much business here as we do traipsing through the marbled halls of Mount Olympus with Zeus and his gang of Greek gods.
The negative little voices start up in my mind (you know the ones) – you’re not fit enough, you’re not thin enough, your workout clothes are older than Jazzercise, you’re going to make a fool of yourself, you don’t belong here.
And there it is – Fear, creep, creep, creeping up to rain self-doubt and loathing down upon my psyche. Fear trying to maintain the status quo and boundaries I’ve created around my life. Fear trying its damnedest to keep me under its control.
But then my practical brain kicks in to remind me I’d taken advantage of the opening special and have prepaid for four months (and received two months free!) so there was no backing out. Crap.
I steel myself for utter humiliation. May as well get it over with, I tell myself. Get in, sweat like a Sumo wrestler in a Swedish sauna and get out before I have to make eye contact with anyone.
So far so good. No one has tripped over their Nikes yet wondering how I snuck in or fallen off the Stairmaster snickering at my running shorts from 1999 (having a design resembling confetti exploding all over your butt was considered the height of active wear fashion back then, thank you very much).
The staff are helpful, seem genuinely nice and make a point to learn my name.Of course, they are paid to make everyone feel good but it lulls me into a sense of security. Feeling pretty pretty good. I see my friend who runs 1,000 km a day. She’s thrilled I’m getting physical, maybe secretly hoping I’ll become her running buddy. Sure, if they give out bionic legs and lungs to keep up with her. I run into someone else I know. He’s the Costa Rican version of a Runner’s World cover model. He smiles and wishes me a buenos dias . OK, so maybe I may just get out of this with my dignity still in one piece.
Then I get talked into trying the daily challenge they’re hosting for prizes. My competitive streak rises to the fore – once an athlete, always an athlete I guess and I’m not about to step away from a goal just because the most active thing I’ve done these past months is running my mouth off. Game on!
“It’s easy”, says Marathon-mom friend. “Row 400 meters in two minutes.”
Sure it is. You’re an Amazon Queen in Spandex. Me, not so much. Two minutes, I calculate, is enough time to possibly cough up a lung but probably not enough to cause cardiac arrest. I think I can do this. I watch the first two ladies try. We cheer them on, hoping our cries of ‘si se puede’ will somehow heave a Rocky-esque victory of body over machine out of their struggling souls. One concedes her failure to the Mighty Rowmaster after a minute and the other squeaks in at the 1:59 mark.
Suddenly, I’m thinking I’ve over-estimated exactly how much I can push this 50-year old body before it tells me to piss off. And right about then, my old friend Fear shows up. You’re not fit enough, she whispers wickedly. You’re going to fail in front of all these people.
You’ve become old.
And there it is, out in the open. I’m afraid I’ve become a shadow of my younger, fitter, more flexible self. In my mind, I’m still the young girl who ran circles around the track, the young woman who was captain of the varsity fencing team, the woman who made her living through dance. I pushed my body to be faster, higher, better and it complied. Nothing seemed impossible and failure wasn’t even a consideration. There was no try, only do. And I thought I’d be that way forever.
Being here, surrounded by mirrors and machines to push my body in ways it hasn’t in years, in ways it protests against or outright refuses to cooperate with, I have no choice but to face the reality that I’m no longer that young woman. My youth has slipped away, leaving in its wake middle age. And that’s what scares me. Not the baby belly I’m still carrying around eight years after my daughter’s birth, not the fact I can’t run 10km without needing a medic nor that I need to lower the weights my trainer had optimistically set for my maiden work out (bless him for thinking I’m that strong).
I have a choice – admit defeat and live in the shadow of what was or take up the challenge and move onto the next chapter of Life.
Onto the rower. Count down and…go! I start off strong. Ha! I’ll show Fear and Señor Rowmaster who’s Boss!
Thirty seconds later, the fatigue hits. Who am I kidding? This is killing me! Another minute and a half? What the hell was I thinking?
Fear dances delightedly. She’s winning by my defeat. A lung feels like it’s migrating North…
“Don’t you DARE stop.”
Marathon-mom’s sensing my weakening and isn’t standing for it. All muscles and purple spandex, I’m not about to broach her, despite the fact I think I may start to hack up blood.
Now everyone is rallying behind me, urging me onwards, counting down the final meters. So…close…
I feel my head beginning to swim, my breath like hot lava in my lungs, my arms and legs over-cooked spaghetti from an Olive Garden in Des Moines. This mortal coil is 10 seconds away from being shucked off.
And then I’ve passed the finish line. With eight seconds to spare.
“I knew you could do it,” beams Marathon-mom.
Just like that, I’ve done what I thought I couldn’t. Others saw my potential but my little friend Fear had convinced me otherwise. As I collapse in a sweaty, heaving heap, I realize that listening to Fear holds us back from so much. We give in to its deceptions, stopping before we ever start. And by not doing anything, Fear wins.
Life is about doing. Like a shark, Life needs to keep moving forward or it dies. Progressing in Life means gaining years so getting older isn’t failure – it’s fact. Nothing stays the same and aging requires that we adapt and adjust. No one is immune to Time and to expect otherwise is just nuts, despite what the beauty creams and plastic surgeons say.
As my breathing returned to normal and feeling returned to my noodley legs, I had a flash of insight. Fear doesn’t want us to let go of the comfortable past while Life needs us to move forward, into the adventure of the unknown. We will never have this day or hour or minute again so trying to hold onto the past is futile. We’ll never be that young girl/boy or woman/man we were because Time has marched us into the Future. They no longer exist because a newer version of ourselves has replaced them. Rather than struggling to hold onto those outdated versions of ourselves, we must open the space for the new, improved us and release the idea that we will ever be what we once were. Comparing our current selves against what we were takes us into Norma Desmond territory, frozen in a crazed time capsule complete with pet monkeys.
I look forward to the gym now, to what my body accomplishes on its daily adventure, seeing the supportive group of folks doing their best to improve little bit by little bit. I’ve made peace with the mirror – the workout clothes may look the same as they did back in the day but the body wearing them doesn’t and never will again. Nor is the body capable of what it was 15 years ago. And that’s OK because I’m excited to see what I can do, how I’m changing and where this swimming shark of Life is taking me.
Maybe I’ll buy some new gym shorts to celebrate.