Since December I’ve presided over the gradual decay of my body with mindful indifference. My slide actually began last July, when I tweaked my achilles tendon while running. After trying (unsuccessfully) to “push through the pain,” I ended up shelving running altogether, becoming a slave to the semi-circular, gerbil-on-a-treadmill monotony of the elliptical machine.
I diligently stuck with this for far longer than I humanly though possible. I plumbed depths of boredom I didn’t know existed. I listened to and then abandoned music. I listened to and then abandoned podcasts. I watched and then abandoned SportsCenter. Nothing – absolutely nothing – made or can make ellipticaling remotely interesting.
As 2013 wound down, my tangles with the elliptical machine became less frequent. I’m pretty sure by the end I viewed this piece of machinery with about as much enthusiasm as it viewed me. I started justifying my lack of activity by arguing to myself that my professional workload had escalated exponentially. December bled into January. January into February. My pants (and socket) got progressively tighter. Food that dropped off the end of my fork no longer made it to the napkin on my lap, but instead got swallowed up by the mound that passes for my midsection.
I hit the breaking point just over two weeks go when I saw myself in the mirror. The person staring back at me looked like an older, fatter, and more slovenly version of me. (When you’re starting from a best-case scenario as a short, bald, one-legged, pasty-white middle-aged male, seeing something that looks markedly worse than that qualifies as nothing less than an outright horror show.)
I promptly did the one thing I never thought I’d do. I signed up for a gym.
* * *
I have always seen myself as fundamentally different from people who have gym memberships. Gym people willingly insert their bodies into contraptions that look like small prototypes for Pacific Rim. Gym people believe spandex makes them look good. Gym people stare at their reflections in mirrors as if the secrets to the universe lie within. I am not a gym person.
Except today I am.
It started when my wife, Cara, followed a dance instructor there. She came back with amazing stories of acres of high-quality equipment, friendly staff, and a location less than 15 minutes from our house. I weighed my “I am not a gym person” persona against the fat man looking back at me from the mirror. The fat man lost.
I now have a gym membership. I have an ID number. I have a webcam picture of myself that I’ve never seen but that impossibly young, beautiful people behind the counter view without visibly cringing whenever I come in. I pull small forests of hand wipes out of canisters 3 feet high and wipe down the equipment I sweat on. I lift medicine balls and throw them into a container while doing sit ups. And for the first time since last summer, I now run.
* * *
As I have chronicled many times in the past, I don’t like running. But not liking running isn’t the same as not wanting to run. Running was the first real “sport” I relearned after losing my leg. It made me feel like the athlete I always thought I was (but probably wasn’t) – a hugely important psychological step in my rehabilitation. So my post-accident life has been defined by the following dissonance: I need to do something I actively dislike in order to feel whole.
As I put on my running leg for the first time in nearly 8 months it was like stepping back into a better version of myself. There’s nothing that makes me feel stronger than stepping into that socket with that foot. When I wear it, I’m 10 pounds lighter and 2 inches taller. I can get away with wearing neon green shorts. I’m Tony Stark without the girls, the brains or the money (which actually makes me the Tony Stark fanboy working the TV van in Ironman 3).
So I walked into the gym yesterday for the first time in the two weeks that I’ve been a member there wearing my running prosthesis. I stretched out my achilles tendon hoping not to have a repeat performance of the last time I ran – less than 25 minutes and lots of pain – and then climbed onto the treadmill. I set the speed at a languid 3.5 MPH and began jogging slowly.
Running with an artificial limb is like riding a bike. You don’t ever forget how to do it, but if you try it after a long layoff, everything’s a bit wobbly. After 5 minutes of getting reacquainted with this activity, I took it up to 4 MPH, a still-not-very-fast-but-not-completely-embarassing 15-minute mile pace. At 10 minutes I raised the speed to 4.5 MPH, monitoring how everything felt with every step. Around minute 12 I felt some discomfort in the back of my leg and adjusted my stride length. By 15 minutes I was pain-free and settling into a comfortable groove.
At 20 minutes a woman who understood a little about prosthetics (her mother is an above-knee amputee) and less about gym etiquette while someone’s working out came over and, after telling me that she didn’t want to disturb me, proceeded to disturb me until minute 25, peppering me with questions about my running prosthesis. I would’ve been angry, but she also complimented me about how good I looked running. Even though I’m pretty sure she’s totally unqualified to render judgment on such things, this statement immediately made her the smartest woman in the gym.
At 27 minutes I cranked it up to 5 MPH – 12-minute mile pace – and held it there for the final 5 minutes. I finished with more than 2.25 miles behind (under?) me, sweating heavily, and out of breath enough to remind me I’d had a real workout but not so much that I would classify myself as desperately out of shape.
It has been a long time since I felt that good. I hate running. And I can’t wait to do it again later this week.