Originally published in November 2002, my story of how with enough effort, bravado, and kinetic energy, you can accomplish something completely unexpected…
Last month after 8 weeks of paperwork, faxes, contracts, waivers, clearances, and a note from my doctor, I was able to complete the final bureaucratic hurdle between myself and something I’ve been after since May of 2001: I was finally able to join my company gym. There’d be no more cutting out to the YMCA mid-day, no more birdbaths post-run in the men’s room: I could run downstairs during lunch, lift weights, run, shower, and get back to my desk with a mountainous salad and a few million endorphins running hot laps through the empty canyons of my mind.
Before I could lift a single weight, I had to go through a “Fitness Assessment” to be allowed to workout. I was told that all members must go through this orientation workout so that Wyeth will know that said employee is actually (1) Alive, (2) Intending to stay that way, and (3) Capable of breathing in a safe manner.
I made th eappointment, certain that this would be a mere formality. After all, my doctor had mentioned in his 8-page application and waiver that, “The applicant is an Ironman Triathlete™ and is in VERY GOOD SHAPE.” He underlined it three times, which I thought was very nice of him. What could the staff throw at me?
Granted, when I’d taken my company physical before signing the contract, the company doctor pinched my stomach and simply said, “You’re fat. Lose that gut.” No measure of weight, no nothing – just a quick pinch and out the door he went. I said to him, “I’m running a marathon on Saturday!” and he replied (without turning around), “Well, that’s a good start then!”
How much worse could it get then that?
(Aside: I talked to the nurse, most of my co-workers, and the HR department. Every single employee in the history of this location is fat according to this doctor. The score is 1,291 to 0 – so I don’t think I have to worry about his rapid-fire appraisal…even though I entertained myself with 24 witty replies on the way back to my desk).
The assessment started with the hardest test of all: “Bob, could you step on that scale?” Author Leo Buscaglia once said that no day is truly complete until you laugh and cry before going to bed. I’ve found it’s best to get the crying over with early, so I take care of that by weighing in right out of bed. Since I’d already reached for the Kleenex once, this was unexpected bonus despair.
“196.5 pounds. Hmm. You don’t look that heavy!” The trainer was a real charmer. Next, she reached for the body-comp calipers and started pinching. “You know what I’m doing now, right?” I sure did. She was getting ready to give me the worst news I’d heard since my first girlfriend had dumped me in High School for someone else by telling me, “I’m sorry, but he’s got a better car.”
The trainer pinched, folded, measured, and re-did the same. Halfway through the second lap she asked, “So why aren’t you breathing? You’ll be okay – really.” I couldn’t help it. Bad news was coming – I knew it.
“I’ll have the numbers run tomorrow, and we’ll go over them before your first workout.” Great. 24 hours of unabated brooding over the sheer volume of my fat cells. Bastards. I’ll get you all, just you wait…
Next she had me get onto an old school, non-spin-class exercise bike. “I want you to ride at 50 RPM for the next two minutes to warm up.” 50? Warm-up? Oh, my. What we have here is a situation. I started to spin as slowly as I could, and the trainer raised an eyebrow at me. “That’s about 75. Slower, please.” I couldn’t do it. I simply couldn’t pedal that slowly. My legs refused to answer the command, and we settled on 65 RPM as the middle ground.
After m ynon-warm-up-warm-up, she turned the tension knob up and watched me pedal while taking a blood pressure reading. I continued to spin slow circles. A minute passed, another turn. I could feel tension in my legs and didn’t have to pretend I was actually pedaling, but it was hard for me not to look bored.
A minute would pass: Another reading, another turn. After 5 turns, I took my first real breath. I wasn’t trying to be a problem, but I could tell that the bike was going to run out of tension before I ran out of leg. Another turn, this one with both hands. I could smell the brake pads starting to get warm. Another blood pressure reading and I asked, “How is it?” She corrected me, “It’s fine. Concentrate.” She grabbed the knob with both hands again, and exerted the kind of force usually reserved for Mason jars that have been sealed since last winter. I was still trying not to smile.
The battle was at a crossroads – I was almost (but not quite) pedaling in squares, and I’d actually started to sweat. However, the bike could give no more. “Cool-down.” She chirped, taking 7 full turns out of the tension. It was a small victory, but that momentum wouldn’t last long.
“Sit here onthe floor, and put your feet against this box. When I tell you to go, I want you to stretch as far forward as you can with your legs flat on the floor.”
“Oh, am I screwed…” I thought I don’t have hamstrings – I have bowstrings. I mean, my hammies could be used to suspend roadbed over a river. They’re about as flexible as steel, my parents about curfew, and Spencer Smith’s belief that pink is not a measure of a man’s character.
I reached, and moved the measuring slide about ½”. My fat cells giggled. “Try again…” she said. I did, and this time I moved it almost one full inch. “One more!” I reared back and charged forward from the waist up. The slide moved almost TWO inches, but my stomach flab pushed back so hard when I maxed out that I nearly flew backwards from the recoil at the same time my butt came off the floor. The net effect looks like I’ve farted with enough force to produce liftoff, but the slide tells the tale.
“Pushups!” The trainer charged; “On the floor– give me as many as you can without stopping or pausing. Ready? Go!” I start slowly, knowing that if I rush it in the first few I’d never recover. After 10 I didn’t feel so bad. After 15, I did feel so bad. After 18, I wasn’t sure 19 would be happening. After 21, I paused at the top for a half-beat, and fell flat on my chest. Would there be a moment to recover? No way.
“Sit-ups! You have 60 seconds. These aren’t crunches; these are full-on sit-ups, so bring your hands over your knees with each one. Ready, GO!” As the first few ticked off, I remembered doing this test in High School. I remember being so sore afterwards; I couldn’t move my torso away from the direction of my legs for three days. I walked around like a cross between Batman, Frankenstein, and Fat Albert. Because I was still reeling from the push-ups, I knew there would be be another week of looking around corners by bending at the ankles in my near-future.
45 seconds later, only my torso was getting off the ground. There was so much lactic acid in my abdominals; I swear I heard it filling my ears. By 50 seconds, I was only lifting my head off the floor…and soon even my neck muscles crapped out. I performed the last two sit-ups by succeeding in moving only my earlobes and thinking, “Holy cow – I never knew I could move my earlobes.”
“Great job. See you tomorrow for the results.” She said. I was whipped. I was beaten. Ironman, shmironman. I couldn’t get off the damn floor. If the building were to catch on fire, I’d have to be rolled out the door to safety.
It was then that I learned that I would have a long way to go.
The next morning, reckoning came at 10:00am. I watched the clock minute by minute like a defendant waiting for the jury to return. At 9:59 I was in the office of the trainer, waiting for my report card. She started off nicely: “You’re VO2 Max is in the 99th percentile for your age – you measured at 55.7, very good!” Good news! Lisa Bentley happy dance for Bob!
“However…” she carried on. Oh, how I HATE ‘however.’ That always means there’s irony afoot. The happy dance in my head stopped.
“…You scored in the 50th percentile in flexibility, and your sit-up and push-up scores were in the middle as well.” Well, that’s okay. I can work on that, right?
“Your body fat…” she carried on, dropping her tone. I stopped breathing. My mind starts making guesses: 11%? No shot. 30%? Maybe. What was I at 240 pounds –36%, right? So now I must be what 15? 20? 25? I can’t take the pressure!
“..is at 19%.” The happy dancer in my head reached for a well-placed box of Kleenex, thereby completing her day.
“You’re heavy, but you knew that. All in all you’re in good shape for your age, and there’s a lot you can do here now, right?” The trainer made the words, and I nod to them from my knees as much as I can, anyway. My neck muscles were still functioning like swollen rubber bands from the fading sit-up test, and all I coiuld see was that number – 19%. I was nearly 1/5th flubber.
I was fat. This made it official. However (this is a good however, however), the end result of all this was that I now had full access to the gym: Weights, treadmills, showers, all sorts of goodies – even classes! As I went to leave for the day I noticed a sign-up sheet at the front desk: “SPIN CLASS – 30 Minutes, Wednesday.”
My moping stopped. I’d never done a spin class. There were bikes available. Why not start with something known? I scribbled my name into a slot, and my mood improved immediately.
I asked a staff member, “Can I bring my own pedals?” He seemed surprised: “Sure! You’d be the first to do that, but that’s allowed.” Excellent. I unscrewed the pedals from Phoenicia that night, and packed a bag like a kid going to camp for the first time. This was going to be great – better then riding alone, good music, and it’ll break up the day nicely. Great!
The next day I was the big dork that showed up for class first. I had my bike set up, and in true tri-geek form, I also had a measuring tape to get the saddle, bars, and pedal-seat lineup close to my road bike (scoring an 11 out of 10 on the Stableford Fredness Chart). I filled my bottle, got on the saddle, and waited for everyone else to show up.
The first thing I noticed as they came in was that most of the class was women. Actually, I was the only guy. I was also the only one wearing Lycra shorts and a sleeveless jersey. I was definitely the only one with loud yellow shoes, Look cleats, and no clue how to ride a spin bike. For those of you that don’t know, a spin-bike is a special stationary bike with a 45-pound (~20 kilo) flywheel and a resistance knob. You can turn the tension up or down to simulate climbing, sprinting, and anything else. The classes are usually led by aerobics-type instructors with enough energy to tell you what to do, ride out what they’re telling you, AND yell at you all at the same time.
As our resident instructor told us, “Okay, lets get going…” I clipped in. Her eyes spun my way and looked really closely at my feet. “First class?” She asked me. I nodded. “Great! Enjoy it!” After 30 seconds of easy spinning, she nailed us: “Ready guys – SPRINT! GO! GO! GO!”
BOOM! Just like a crit from my roadie days, we were off like a cow nailed on the @ss by a bottle rocket. I had no resistance on my wheel yet, so I sat and spun like Marty Nothstein would (okay, about 40 RPM slower). I was listening to her tell us to go, trying to catch up with the music, and wondering just how hard these next 30 minutes were going to be…
“STOP! Good sprint – we’re off!” She said. Like a good roadie finishing a sprint, I set the cranks to 3 and 9 and mock-threw the bike to end the interval…
…which was a remarkably stupid thing to do with a 45-pound flywheel hurtling around at 29 miles per hour.
My left foot snapped out first as the pedal simply whipped out from the cleat, leaving my foot dangling in space like Wile E. Coyote when he’s missed the turn.
My right foot was driven upwards, and without anything holding back from the left, I began the usual slow-motion thought process that only comes out for the very big crashes. My body slammed forward and downward onto the handlebars, causing the bike to lift its rear-end about 10” off the floor. Did I mention that on the front of these bikes there are little rollers to help you move them into place before class?
For the first time in recorded history, these rollers now took an active part DURING a class as I performed an unrehearsed, one-legged-nose-wheelie forwards, thinking to myself, “So help me God, I’m really going to crash a stationary bike.”
“And I don’t have a helmet!”
In a blink the back of the bike slammed downward, and the skidding stopped. I’d only moved about a foot forward, but I was sitting there still pedaling with my right leg while my left leg was just stuck out into space. The instructors eyes were wide open, and she’d spun her head so fast towards my personal train wreck that she’d wrapped her headset 2 ½ times around her neck. The woman directly across from me opened her eyes a few seconds later, thankful that she wouldn’t have to explain a head-on collision that involved two non-moving bicycles to her insurance company.
I clipped back in, pedaled up to speed, and made a mental note about the important safety tip: N-E-V-E-R stop while at speed on one of these things. I thought to myself, “What would Lance Armstrong do if he’d screwed up like this? I know – he’d take a drink and act cool.”
I reached for my bottle. Pity that the launch and landing had popped the top about halfway off. As I went to open the nozzle with my teeth I proceeded to dumped most of my water down my face, which then cascaded down my torso, and then all over my bike. I created an instant lake on the floor, but at least instead of looking cool? I WAS cool.
I waved at everyone still staring and said, “Hi. How are ya? I used to race bikes, you know.” The water dripping down and warping the hardwood floor quietly underscored my coolness. The class was three minutes old and I’d already had a near wreck, created a flood, and blasted through my AT. Not too bad, really. I’d gotten all the mistakes over and done with in the first class.
Following the dramatics of my debut, things did get better. After my second class, I’d learned to rid ethe bike without being a danger to myself or others. By the third the instructors started to let me go in early (and stay late) to get in more mileage. I’ve even become known as, “That triathlon guy” because I’ve started to sign up for back-to-back classes when they have them so I can get in 90 minutes. They think that’s insane. They don’t know me yet.
Speaking of insane, there’s a new Pilates class next week I’m thinking about trying. Yes, I’ve heard that it’s like a cross between Yoga and Medieval Torture, but at least there aren’t any moving parts involved to start with, right? Even I can’t crash a Yoga mat…I think.
The battle is on. I’m at 199 pounds at the moment, but I’ve got lots of new weapons here. Assuming I survive the next few wintry months, my fat cells won’t know what hit them.