Tamsen’s Review: An honest, chuckle-inducing saga that is all too relatable for those of us on a fitness journey.
Why do we work out at the gym? To exercise and stay healthy. To train for that marathon. To offset our sedentary jobs. To keep the slow creep of general decrepitude at bay. I worked out at a gym for eleven years, warding off the evil, age-appropriate declines, before I was offered employment there and joined the crew in the administrative office. A free membership was an enticing incentive for me to take the job. I showed up the first week dressed like an accountant. Well, not a suit or hose or high heels, but business casual. After the first week, I took dress code cues from my fellow employees. Yoga pants, T-shirts and sneakers, while not exactly a uniform, were a more practical (and comfortable) mode of dress for sitting in a chair all day and cussing at numbers.
During the day, my fellow admin employees would excuse themselves to take a yoga, Pilates or Zumba class. Sometimes they would just go out “on the floor” to shake out a half hour on the elliptical or pump some iron (that’s gym-talk for lifting weights which no one in the fitness industry says except me). This behavior shook me to the core of my work ethic. Leaving your desk to Zumba away in lieu of preparing sales reports? Surya namaskar instead of bank deposits? Swapping sets with….well, you get it. It seemed like a breach of proper business conduct. Then I realized that working out was conduct my employer was promoting. Fit employees are great advertising and inspiring to those they come in contact with throughout their day! I wanted to be one of them.
As a compromise to the sensitive nature of my carefully crafted work culture, I started my day an hour early by jumping on the treadmill followed by leisurely stretching. This became so spectacularly easy to accomplish. From time to time I was interrupted by some minor emergency from the front desk staff, but for nearly nine years, I worked out every weekday morning (and some Saturdays) for exactly one hour before I started work. The transition to the office was with ease—just stop working out and start working.
When I quit that job to move away, it was with tears, not just for the loss of a great job and loving, supportive coworkers, but for the gaping hole it would leave in my athletic endeavors. Ok, maybe not so athletic, but where else would I find a super-long stairway to march up and down on as training for hiking in the mountains weeks before my Colorado vacation? We had one! No future workout routine would ever be as convenient as that early morning, pre-work workout.
When I moved to Asheville, I saw my opportunity right outside my front door. The streets in my neighborhood were hills. Pre-mountain hills. And I could see the actual mountains I would be hiking while I was walking those hills. Fantastic. Until the morning I was late for the bus. I cut through some low-lying shrubbery in my attempt to get to the stop in time. The menacing greenery grabbed at my feet, causing me to jump to avoid a potential fall. My feet hit the sidewalk in an Olympic-gymnast-worthy landing, a hard slam for which my knees chose to be unforgiving. I was not prepared for injury. I hobbled everywhere for weeks. Out of desperation and before depression, I visited the local drug pusher (orthopedist) and got a shot in the knee. I started walking again.
Then I went to the physical therapist who began taping my knees like they belonged to someone else and required adhesive to stay attached to my body. Bright pink tape. I tried to think of it as a badge of honor (Hey! she must be highly physically active to need that stuff to hold her knees in place) rather than as a neon sign announcing that decrepitude was winning this round.
I was not prepared for what came next. The weather changed, it was November. In Houston, November is a nice month where you can move easily without the near-death experience of heat stroke. In the mountains of North Carolina, it got cold. Cold and wet. I looked out the window and saw my fitness opportunities slipping away. Then snow in December. Then ice. I fell one morning on the ice which rudely shoved my foot out from under me and sent me crashing onto my ass at my front door. I was unhurt but training outside was no longer an option.
In January, out of sheer desperation, I joined the YWCA. It is close to the office where I rent my desk. The bus drops me off a half-mile from the gym. My office is another ¾ mile from there. Perfect. My first day was Martin Luther King Day! What a great way to celebrate. I jumped from my bed at 5:45 shivering in the early morning dark. Shivering. What was the temp? Ten degrees! Shit. I did not want to stand out on the corner waiting for the bus, nor did I want to walk the half mile from the stop downtown, down a street that was like a wind tunnel. The south slope they call that area, where the wind rips every ounce of warmth from your body. It’s a holiday, I thought and jumped right back into bed just as enthusiastically as I had gotten up. Seeking the warmth of my personal furnace that is my husband, I drifted off happy that today was a legitimate holiday that one should observe from a toasty bed. I heartily accepted the award for Wimp of the Year.
The next day dawned bright and breezy. I got up an hour later than the day before. It was a cheery 27 degrees. Much better, in a shitty, comparative sort of way. I loaded up on clothes. I had no winter coat as I had not had to deal with winter for the forty-two years I lived in Houston. With three layers on each half of my body, I had to quickly depart for the bus before I started sweating. Freezing sweat (urban hypothermia) would be fatal at the bus stop on the corner of a very busy intersection, where the cars whip by and the trucks practically knock you off your feet in their back draft. The bus was a welcome refuge and slightly warmer than the corner stop, perfect for avoiding an embarrassing trip to the ER after they found my near-frozen body in the shrubberies—I was warm when I left the house!
Then came the walk of the damned. There were about three or four of us who left the bus at this stop. We all turned the corner into the wind tunnel. This frigid morning, my silent companions left me one by one and I was alone to face the gauntlet. South French Broad Avenue. The first block, down which I marched stoically, has a few businesses with early morning traffic. Bracing myself at the next intersection, I dreaded crossing into no-man’s land. The park. It is probably a lovely park in the summer. In the winter, it looks abandoned as an old mine. At one point a stone wall marks its border with the sidewalk, the grassy areas of summers past are uphill beyond the wall. My mind landed on the images of lurking heroin addicts and the bodies of the frozen homeless tucked away in the weeds. My shivering may not just have been caused by the current temperature. I scurried through there like a frightened mouse, with a heart rate most trainers would be praising. Next up, public housing. I relaxed a bit through the public housing area as there was the potential for more people to be out on the street. There’s a bus stop and a parking lot with a few cars. That first YWCA morning there were no early walkers, bus riders or car parkers to greet me. I was feeling lonely out there as I approached the final block. Inside there was warmth. Inside I was greeted by friendly humans and I was able to lower my heart rate before I went into the workout room to increase my heart rate. On purpose.
The gym of my former employment is somewhat of a neighborhood institution, a fixture in that location for 40 years. Working out there is a social event. Women come in pairs to sweat it out on the treadmills and yak up a storm—sometimes annoyingly so. Retired guys hang about together in the lobby long after their physical activity is done to kibitz and have a few laughs. A minority of people are serious about their athletic prowess, a few are wannabe buffoons who think their inept, potentially injurious fumbling makes them look cool. Most are people like me who want to stay healthy with a little exercise and a little social time. I was an integral part of that social scene. In a new town, in a new gym, I felt isolated. No lively conversations in the stretching area. No greetings from the other treadmill users. I felt keenly aware of the loss. I was going to have to work out in silence, when what I wanted was a conversation to jump in on.
Until I made connections with my fellow Y’ers, I would be on my own. In the following days I turned to my phone for inspiring music. Not only did this keep me from any possible conversation, I sometimes forgot I was connected to that device, creating a spectacle as it crashed to the floor when I inadvertently dragged it off the elliptical in my clumsy dismount. That move certainly gets attention. More of the first responder type attention, but I am becoming known in the workout area.
I finally made the decision to forgo the use of the phone. I use my time more wisely now, in my head where I belong. Repetitive motion promotes great brain activity. I buzz around in there and come out from time to time to be in the present, sweaty, breathless moment, searching for potential commiseration with other sweaty, breathless people. It seems to be a good balance for me. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Balance and a carefully executed plan for defending against the slow creep of decrepitude.
May you never have to tape your body pieces back together again,
Tamsen is the front desk guru at my office space. I look forward to her greeting each morning. She helpfully pointed out the language I used to confuse the reader and that maybe this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Clarity is a virtue.