7.08.2006

I Will Not Be Stopped.

Life is full of obstacles, challenges and temptations. If “cheat codes” existed, achieving our goals would be far less rewarding. When it comes to physical achievements, I've failed often and spectacularly. When every other guy in my high school was running a mile in six minutes or better, I was wheezing across the finish line just shy of twelve. R. Lee Ermey has nothing on Catholic high school coaches. College was less demanding, with no gym classes required, yet because of all the walking I did on campus and in the city, as well as skipping meals when I lost track of time doing schoolwork, going to basketball games with the pep band, or just hanging with my friends, I was probably in the best shape of my life. The Summer I spent as a gas station attendant left me lean and tan at 150 pounds. If I wasn't a geek and was a foot taller, I might even have had more success getting dates back then. Of course I still thought I was overweight and not much to look at, even if every now and then an old photo will surprise me. It didn't matter that the kids who called me names in elementary school were ghosts of the past; their words still haunted my subconscious. Granted, my college friends had some names for me as well but it was mutual, and part of a bonding process; inclusion rather than exclusion.

I graduated, started sitting in front of a computer for ten hours a day, and the inevitable happened. 150 became 160 then 175. Sometimes it was as bad as 190. Four years after I was out of college I learned the real reason I would get sharp pains in my side when I ran, and a birth defect was discovered and removed, long overdue. I joined the gym at work, encouraged by two friends who joined at the same time. I started walking on the treadmill, expecting coworkers to mock me. No one did. Everyone apparently worked out in a vacuum, equally self-conscious, mentally forging imaginary boxes of invisibility around themselves. Walking gave way to running. I started to think of the treadmill as a video game, and the numbers appealed to me. Could I beat my high score? I began competing with myself, and with the ghosts of my past. One of my friends got pregnant and eventually left the gym. The other one who joined at the same time, Rey, also found himself drawn away with an impending second child, and time home with family more important than staying late to work out. People joined and people left, and amid all of it I just kept running. I may be stubborn and lazy at times, and it may take supreme effort to get out of bed every morning, but I am the living embodiment of Newton's first law of motion. I might stay at rest when I'm at rest, but when I'm in motion, I will not be stopped.

The gym wasn't the perfect collection of adults I make it out to be of course. There were the occasional snickers, which I tuned out. One of my friends gleefully shared his girlfriend's account of my treadmill activities, describing me as “an ass and two legs” whenever I pushed too hard and had to lean on the railings for support. I became very aware of my posture, kept the speeds more realistic, and also realized that no matter what we do in life, what we achieve, there will always be someone trying to stop us, to pull us right back down beneath them where they think people like us belong. Tune them out, or turn their words in to fuel, but never let them stop you. This was a lesson I should have learned decades ago, and my life might have turned out differently if I had. It still takes conscious effort sometimes to remember it.

I entered a competition in the gym, and became obsessive about winning. Each week we earned points by completing certain activities. Feats of strength, cardio, and stretching had to be completed in a balanced workout before activities could be repeated for extra points. My team was neck and neck with two other teams for first place, and the last week of the competition I crossed into insanity, waking up at 5:30 in the morning to hit the gym for a few hours before work, showering, and later returning after work for another session. I was in the gym for six hours a day for two weeks, and got on the manager's bad side one night by staying a few minutes past closing time. She was plastic smiles and nods as I signed out for the night, but the next day everyone received a “friendly” reminder about the gym's hours via e-mail, and I noted the timestamp was exactly the time she was smiling as I checked out.

My friend and I won the competition, and got three free months of membership in addition to the free lunch everyone got for participating. More naiveté would be squashed as I expected to be treated the way athletes were when I was a kid. The girls would be all over me, wouldn't they? Instead, reactions at the lunch ranged from anger to indifference, and one even cracked a few jokes at my expense. “You got up how early for this?” A second lesson was learned, and I realized that as much as the real world could be like high school, in many ways it wasn't. I continued working out, continued running, because I would not be stopped. I was no longer doing it to impress girls. I was doing it for myself, to prove that I could. I entered a 3.5 mile race, and finished in 32 minutes. That's not that great compared to other runners' times, but considering the fact that it would have taken my high school counterpart 42 minutes or worse, I was happy. I felt good. I went through a rough patch a few months later however, after a dizzy spell on the treadmill followed by inconclusive results from doctors' examinations left me anxious and unsure. For a few months, I couldn't even drive a car unless someone was with me. Logic said it was all in my head, but I had ignored real medical problems like my birth defect in the past, so I wasn't taking chances. When everything said I was healthy, I worked through the mental barriers and got over the dizzy spells. The damage had been done. I couldn't run as fast as I had when I went to the gym regularly, and an increased workload following some layoffs meant a lot of late nights. Sometimes I'd only get in a half hour; other nights I would miss the gym entirely. It was very depressing.

I wanted to try the race again, to give myself a goal to work toward rather than mindlessly running nowhere before driving home each night. But two years in a row it conflicted with an Italian feast in Hoboken, and musical duty called me out of state. The gym started closing at 7:30 rather than 8, and my struggles to get my job done in time became more challenging. A friend helped me to get organized, and once I started prioritizing my responsibilities, I found I could manage the extra workload. I didn't have to stay as late as often, at most putting in an extra hour or so each night. I got to the gym, and I still managed to leave a good fifteen minutes before closing time, avoiding any more obnoxious e-mails from the girl downstairs. One day, a few months ago, I decided to check my weight on the medically accurate scales they offered, and was horrified to learn I had reached 215 pounds! It explained why I wasn't running as fast as I used to, and forced me to start pushing myself to run faster again. I knew I wasn't going to pass out, and the only real obstacle would be my own weakness. I would not give in. I would not be stopped. The announcement for this year's race arrived, and I realized that I could finally make it, since the feast fell on the following day. I had my goal. Of course after 30, I had to accept the fact that I couldn't eat anything I wanted as long as I was physically active. I'm not strong enough to go on a real diet, but I decided to at least try to cut out snacks. There would be no ice cream, no chips, and no Venti Mocha Frappuccinos accompanying my lunch. When I came home, I wouldn't eat cookies while waiting for dinner and I wouldn't watch television with a bag of pretzels. There would be no food after 9 PM for me. On weekends, I would skip lunch entirely, satisfied with only two meals each day, and I would try to walk as much as possible. The first few days were hard, but then I didn't miss the snacks. Hunger can be a product of the mind sometimes and once the mind is distracted from temptation, it's no longer a threat.

Last Friday, at 6:59 PM, I had two minutes left on the treadmill. The manager came out and, with false sweetness asked me, “You do know we close at 7, right?” I was on a roll, having maintained 6.3 MPH for nearly a half hour. I would not be stopped. “Just...a...minute!” I gasped. I finished, left for a long weekend, and didn't give it a second thought. I returned to work on Wednesday, worked out until 7 on Wednesday night, leaving at the same time as two other people when the guy watching the gym during that shift reminded us of their Summer hours. When I came to work Thursday morning however, I had the following “pleasant” e-mail from his boss, one that annoyed me more when I realized it was only addressed to me:

Hello,

Please be reminded that the fitness center does close at 7:00pm. This means that all members should be in the locker rooms, finishing up at that time.

The staff cannot be responsible for anyone in the men's locker rooms after closing, since they do have public access to the building. However the exercise floor, will promptly be closed at 7:00pm.

Thank you for your cooperation with this.

Program Director


The words burned at me. I wanted to write back and apologize for the one day I was in the gym ONE MINUTE OVER in the span of the last three years. I started noticing grammatical errors. I considered quitting. I sent Rey the message and he restored some sanity by suggesting I join a real gym that was open until midnight. It's really convenient having a gym in the building, and it doesn't cost much at all; $10 out of every paycheck. She wasn't wrong, but for ONE MINUTE, considering all the times I'd left 15-20 minutes before closing and she's closed early, it was still really obnoxious. This time I remembered the earlier lesson. People who try to bring us down only win if we let them. The letter could douse my spirit or fuel it. That night I ran even faster, and got the aggression out of my system. When I got home, my dad offered me ice cream cones and I reminded him that I was off snacks until the race. He insisted. I declined. He started reading the fat content. I snapped that “no” was my first answer and that should have been the end of it. He sulked that I still needed energy. Italian parents always worry about their children being malnourished, and criticize them when they get the physique of a pregnant woman. I've seen many instances of it, not just in my own home, but I'll never fully understand that dynamic.

Suddenly, the race is a mere 18 days away. I'll let everyone know how I do. According to the accurate scale, I'm down to 195. I don't know that I look any different, but I definitely feel less resistance when I run. I don't know how much I can lose in the next two weeks, but I'm going to do my best not to embarrass myself. If I match or beat my previous time of 32 minutes, even slightly, I'll be pleased. I won't be too upset if my time is at least under 40 minutes. The people that actually win usually come in around 17 minutes, which I'm not even aiming for. A goal has to be realistic, or I'll fall even further into despair when I don't succeed. So I'm going to keep going no matter what people say to discourage me, and turn down extra food even when people insist. I'll keep playing in my head Wherever I May Roam, Eye of the Tiger, The Touch, The Flash theme, the Superman theme and anything else to distract me from fatigue and the temptation to just give in and rest.

I will NOT be stopped.

5 Comments:

Blogger TheWriteJerry said...

you're dedication is an inspiration.

The attitude of the gym worker just pisses me off! One minute?!?!?!?! Talk about freakin' lazy that they can't work 1 extra minute to give a guy the opportunity to improve himself. It's not like those gym workers do much more than chat away with their pals and admire their own bodies anyway.

7/08/2006 3:32 AM  
Anonymous A Wanker said...

You go MCF!

Maybe depriving yourself from sweets and the surge of testosterone from all the training can explain why you went wilding all over my comments yesterday. It's all good...

7/08/2006 8:50 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

You have already not been stopped. This is really inspiring, and I hope ou'll let us know the outcome....and if you had a snack after...

7/08/2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Lyndon said...

MCF I don't know if it means much, but I think your story was the push I needed to start improving my health.

I'm going to finally kick the little negative voices that have been holding me back to the curb.

Hope you do well at your race and can't wait to read your post about it.

7/08/2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger Rhodester said...

Buddy, I'm with Lyndon on this one - you're an out and out inspiration! Thanks for sharing all of that, and even though I'm not going to be running in any races, you may have just given me the push I need to cut down on the junk and hit the treadmill myself. We don't have a gym in this apartment complex and I can't afford a fitness center, but there is a room with some workout machines that I've never made use of.

BTW, sorry for my non-participation in the recent blog party. The topic just didn't apply to me. My family is all dead, as are all of my past pets. Dorian is all I have, and even though she's with me here in the moment, she's never left, so frankly, I've never had anything "return".. that I can think of. Unlike Darrell (whose account I LOVED, btw), with me, when they die they die and that's it. Noone and nothing has ever "returned to me".

I'll try out for your next one, I promise.

7/09/2006 9:53 PM  

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