It was a place where I knew I should be going, but I wasn’t. The laundry list of reasons was long and convincing. I wasn’t in good enough shape. I would start tomorrow, or next week, or once I picked up some new workout gear.
On the days I promised myself to go the excuses were Dark Side of the Force strong: You deserve a day off. Take it easy today. Why strain yourself when you can workout tomorrow?
Things only changed when the girlfriend left. The reasons why are unnecessary to delve into here.
But let this be said: it was all her fault.
After two weeks of drinking myself to the point of not being able to feel feelings, the urge to get a little workout in—nothing crazy, just a toe-in-the-water type of workout—bowled me over as I nursed the latest in a steady stream of hangovers.
I dusted off the gym wear, which had grown snug from neglect, and drove to the local gym. Filling out the forms I couldn’t help but feel good about myself signing up for the membership. So good that it registered a “good enough for today” thought.
Tomorrow I would come back, the voice in the back of my mind said. Tomorrow was going to be the day. Tomorrow it would really happen. For real.
And as I walked out the doors of the gym, she drove past, with her new boyfriend in the passenger side. Laughing with that fully belly laugh. The one I hadn’t seen her do in months.
I turned around, pulled out the shining gym membership from my wallet, and buzzed myself in.
* * *
The first week I worked out twice. I made a point of taking it easy with the weights, but it seemed like no matter how “easy” I took things, the following couple days were spent nursing the soreness bombs that had detonated across my body.
The rust, as it turned out, was deep.
The runner’s high that people experience after their workout was foreign to me during those first few weeks. The soreness, the difficulty finishing workouts I had once easily been able to breeze through over-shadowed everything else.
The only glimmer, the biggest thing keeping the commitment steadfast was that the gym was a clean break from the rest of my day, where my thoughts, experiences and people in my life seemingly served only to remind me of her.
The gym was my thing.
It was a place to escape her. Everywhere else I went in town there were things that beckoned memories of her. Restaurants where we’d celebrated. Parks where we’d read. Streets we’d walked.
The gym, and the complete lack of connection to her was a refuge. Even though I wheezed through my workouts, and pumped myself full of Ibuprofen to be able to sit on the toilet some days, the pain, the sweat, and the walls of the gym were mine and only mine.
* * *
After two weeks I begin the process of coming to terms with the realization that getting in “hilariously great, put the gears to the ex-girlfriend, shape” is going to take longer than I thought.
Looking in the mirror I see little has changed. I flex from different angles, convinced that with the proper angle and lighting I will see some insane indication of progress.
I rather grimly understand that I won’t be getting into fitness model condition any time soon.
I suspend all expectations. For now the goal is making it to the gym next time. And then the time after that. And so on.
As it turns out, this is probably the smartest thing I have done to date.
* * *
On week six I made it to the gym five times.
Two of the workouts consisted of little more than the lightest cardio work imaginable, along with some stretching, but in my mind making it to the gym and doing a workout, regardless of intensity, counts for everything.
Getting out of bed had become easier even though I was drinking quite a bit still.
The first few drinks always glossed over the pain. Numbed it. The combined high of being with friends and the potency of a handful of doubles made me feel like everything could be getting better.
But then there was that one drink that always sent things spiraling back down, with every subsequent drink carrying a policy of diminishing returns, until I was laying in bed at 3am looking at old pictures of us on my phone, bombed on gin and melancholy.
Seeing her friends out on the town didn’t help. They were nice—she had great friends—who all gave me the same store-issued tilt of the head.
“Are you doing okay?” they would ask, which only made me feel more strongly about being wronged.
I decided that I needed to stop drinking. Completely. For how long? I wasn’t sure. But I knew that it wasn’t helping things. The anxiety and loneliness I had on the hungover days left me vulnerable enough that I nearly texted her a few times.
I simply didn’t trust myself to not text her.
* * *
When I wasn’t physically at the gym I was usually mentally still there. I thought about the workouts that lay ahead, the things I had done, spent time on the web reading more about working out, diet, technique.
Visualization was a great help while I was working out as well.
If I was tired, or feeling the familiar surge of excuses beginning to rise up and try to take the wheel, I would simply think about her.
How happy she was. How she had hurt me.
The anger would help my fingers close a little more tightly around the bar. The frustration powered the tail ends of grueling cardio sessions. The unquenchable pain she was causing me sustained my workouts.
Not drinking turned out to have a bigger impact than I realized. It gave me back a sense of control. Alcohol had robbed me of that, and while booze wasn’t a part of my life at the moment, that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it again at some point. But for now, no.
I was also eating better, a symptom of not standing in drunken, disheveled line-ups at 2:30am to get two dollar slices of pizza.
I marked day 100 in my log book with little fanfare. I wasn’t as far along as I would have liked, but progress was progress.
* * *
I don’t remember when it happened. I don’t recall the exact moment that the gym became an irreplaceable part of my life. But I do remember the day it hit me.
I had planned a day off for myself, but was feeling so good—the better sleep I’d been getting was a big part of this—that I decided to go to the gym anyway. That evening, looking in the mirror in the bathroom I saw some creases and bulges I hadn’t seen…well, ever.
I allowed myself a weak grin. I knew what had gone into those tiny creases.
Later that night I went for sushi with the boys. Floating on progress and improvement I ate sashimi and we talked about the stupid things that boys talk about. They commented with disbelief at my newfound appearance, and even though I didn’t feel like I had changed that much, I accepted the kind words.
As life has a fond way of doing, it opened the door to the restaurant and ushered in her and the new boyfriend.
We connected eyes for a brief moment, and without missing a beat she smiled to the other guy. To the new guy. To the guy who had a better car, a better smile, and a better life.
I exhaled slowly through my nose, heart blasting against my chest, stomach churning in that nauseating way that only the love of your life can effect.
I finish my meal in silence, wishing that the gym was open.
* * *
Going to the gym regularly you see the same people over and over. The guy who uses the chin-up bars like monkey bars, swinging back and forth wildly like Tarzan. The power walker crushing miles on the treadmill. The Crossfit guy who is training for something Crossfitty.
You get to know them without ever talking to them. You wonder where they have been when they disappear from the gym for a couple weeks.
You learn their routines and machines and can see how their day is going by the intensity which with they left. You know their workouts almost better than they do.
With nothing more than a nod behind the curtain of blaring headphones I can indicate that I am down to share the squat rack with you. I will unrack my weights to your desired weight, and you will do the same for me.
I don’t let anyone inside the walls that the iron and the headphones provide me. Here I can be myself, whoever that is without her. Here I can challenge what I think is possible, here I find my mettle and seek to bend it little by little.
The gym had started as a refuge, but now it is home.
* * *
It had been a particularly cold day. Raining, spikes of winter spattering down, a quarter of a degree colder and it would be snowing. Jacked up on pre-workout and ready to rock and roll I made my way down to the gym for my morning session.
The previous month I had graduated to doing two-a-days. Not every day, but twice a week I was working out twice a day. It was simply the next step in an ever-escalating series of progressions. Now I was looking at competing, and doing so would require leveling up the work.
I parked in the usual spot, hopped out into the cold rain and threw my bag over my shoulder. As the door swung shut I caught sight of the keys, still dangling from the ignition.
I stood for a stunned moment, locked out, the December drizzle piercing my sweatshirt, stinging me. My cell phone, naturally, was tucked away in the glove compartment.
Futilely trying to shelter myself from the rain I ran into the gym, leaving shattered puddles in my wake. Shaking the water off my face I realized that after six months of being there nearly every day that I hadn’t ever stopped to talk to anyone at the front desk. Reason being that when I walked into the gym I was strapped with a “I am here to do work” snarl on my face, loud music blocking out any possible niceties.
I asked to borrow the phone, and a brunette behind the counter who I had noticed over the months but also not noticed was kind and helpful.
As I stood there on hold (“Your call is very important to us”) with my roadside service we joked about the winter. The rain. And people doing bicep curls in the brand new squat rack.
She was pretty. And her smile was bang on.
These things hadn’t stirred anything previously. Maybe that had changed now.
We trade smiles as I walk out.
* * *
Something interesting happens after an extended bout of consistently working out.
It becomes a part of your identity.
Whereas at one point people might identify you as the person who is a complete and utter hoot to get piled up with, now you are the person who has the gym as an over-riding priority.
This causes some friendships to fade. Not because of any particular transgression or disagreement, but because my new identity doesn’t fit in with what they have going on. Without the bridge of alcohol, I realize that I have little in common with a lot of the people from my old life.
I like my new identity. I like what it represents. I realize that I can’t remember the last time I liked myself this much.
Along with the workload, expectations progress. The workout routine develops, hardens, progresses.
You expect a certain measure of leveling up with each week, and after six months I had finally hit my first real plateau.
Monday and Tuesday had produced frustrating sessions, and instead of engaging in some contrast training, or taking rest, or switching things up entirely, I tried to train my way past it.
A training plateau was nothing compared to the heartbreak I was enduring… Or had been enduring. I couldn’t tell the difference anymore.
I realized that I hadn’t thought of her in a couple days. Possibly longer. Even though it had been another frustrating workout under the bar, this brought a smile to my face as I walked out into the springtime air that afternoon.
* * *
“Have you mastered the art of not locking your keys in your truck?” she asks me as I am renewing my gym membership.
She not being she, but she being the brunette from the gym.
I smiled sheepishly.
“Have a good workout,” she says.
* * *
As time progresses, and my one-year anniversary of going to the gym, semi-regularly at first, religiously soon after, begins to approach, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about where I once was.
I wince a bit when I see old pictures of myself on Facebook or on my phone. I wonder what excuses I had then that were so convincing as to keep me from feeling this wholesome and this good.
Falling in love with the gym, with the routine of going every day, is the best thing that has happened to me in longer than I can remember.
While I am still not where I want to be, nor do I feel the apex of what I can do, I sense that irreversible momentum that comes when you have passed halfway to a destination. To turn around now would take longer than it would to just keep going.
And so I do.
I need the gym more than I ever realized I would ever need anything.
I am grateful for it. For the non-judgemental way it receives me. For how it is always there when I need it most. For being the place where I can unload the worst parts of my day.
In more ways than I can count, I know that working out has saved me.
* * *
Yesterday I walked in the gym without the headphones blaring. I slow my pace until she emerges from the stockroom so that I can catch her for niceties.
We talk about sushi. About working out. About going for a drink on the weekend.
I know that I am going to have a good workout.