The Sick Jock Guide
10 Steps to Late-Life Fitness
This past summer I ran in a race called the York, Pennsylvania 10-Miler. I came in just about last, and it was a miracle. The miracle is simply that words "I" and "ran" are in the same sentence; the 10-mile part seems to have proceeded ineluctably from the initial conversion. Yet having completed the first four decades of life with no idea that I was anything but an overweight, nearsighted, accident-prone, orally fixated spaz with a figure that might be kindly described as Rubenesque, it was rather a shock to find myself trailing the hardbodies by a mere half hour. The weirdest part is that this transformation came about with so little adjustment to my basic personality. As it turns out, all any neurotic layabout needs to do to achieve radiant physical fitness is refocus her god-given obsessive tendencies on exercise. Forget your eyebrows, your pie crust, your children's sport schedules, your Martha Stewart Living, or whatever compulsions you're wasting your time on now, and get crazy about working out. In my case, for example, there were some trivial drug and alcohol issues. I have replaced them with exercise fetishism, and now instead of being such a dreadful burden to myself, my family, and my friends, I am the envy at least of the three people who finished after me in the York 10-Miler.
If you think you hate exercise, you may be focusing too much on the idea that it is good for you. Forget virtue. Forget social acceptability. To discover your inner Sick Jock, you will need to take a different approach.
1. Make exercise a habit like a heroin habit. Do it because it hurts, and you can't stop. Find the exact mix of guilt and desire that gets you going, and go. When you force your face down to the evil nipple of pain, you don't do it because someone else said you should. You do it because you are mentally ill. Be ill as you can be.
One of my running mentors, a 45-year-old marathoner named Theresa, shares my passing acquaintance with substance abuse. Now 13 years sober, she calls people like us "adult-onset" runners, as if we had a disease. Perhaps we do. Because we like that it exhausts us utterly and makes us smell bad. When it almost makes us puke, we like that too. We like the obsessive rituals required, the narcissistic routines that make our heads feel different inside. We do it because it is not working, it is not raising children, it is not being nice and helpful to other people. It is that other thing we so very much love: It is flight. It is escape. It is going, going, gone. We could just as well be at the crackhouse as on the hike-and-bike trail; who would know?
2. It is okay to think you suck and that you will never be a sleek buff well-coordinated and cellulite-free athlete. Especially if, as in my case, it is so, so true. But it's exactly my poor self-image that keeps me from comparing myself to people so much more gifted than I that they might as well be from a different species. I'm not one of them. This is not discouraging; it's just genetic. So I gaily smile and wave as two or three hundred of them run past.
When you have already lost the race, you are in the place of total liberation. You do it only for the head rush.
3. Shop. Buy expensive running shoes and cute tights and moisture-wicking socks and high-tech support undergarments. This is like in Transcendental Meditation when they used to make you pay $1,000 for your mantra so you would be in too deep to quit -- also like in those Discover Your Inner Artist seminars where they empower you to go out and buy fancy pens and purple ink and perfect notebooks from Florence. Well just like the bodhisattvas and the poets, you need gear.
To be all that you can be, buy all that you can buy.
Actually, for the first year or two, I ran in vintage housedresses and blue jeans, but true addiction has proved to require lucky socks and magic arch supports and the jog bra from hell. I have become close personal friends with many conventional, mail-order, and online retailers, and cannot even think of quitting running until I get my money's worth out of my most recent pair of $100 sneakers and sorbothane insoles.
4. Pray. Throughout the last mile of my first five-mile race and during the last two miles of my recent 10-miler, I prayed to God to help me finish, and I promised to give him or her all the credit if I did.
There is a time and place for religion, and this is it.
5. Make friends. As with other habits, peer pressure is helpful, at least when you're a beginner. So buddy up with people to walk with, run with, kickbox with, take turns on the incline bench. It's even better if these new chums are slightly ahead of you in obsession and ability and can possibly turn you on to new shopping opportunities or compulsive behaviors.
Finally, however, just as with drugs and alcohol, when you're really sucked in, you don't need company anymore. You may pretend you're still a social exerciser but the truth is, isolation works too.
6. Don't improve -- at least not consciously. Rather than setting goals for time and speed and reps, rather than going on six-week ramp-up plans from fitness magazines, just forget about getting better at it, and just work on getting more comfortable with it. To me, the point of aerobic exercise is to hit the zone where you don't even know you're moving: where your head lifts out of it and you are as free as you thought you were when you did your first line. You don't find this by brutally pushing yourself. You find it by letting your body be. Make sure you do it by yourself once in a while so you can connect with your natural gait or pace, which changes over time, but which is your deepest and most essential groove.
7. Lift weights. If you have never tried this, you cannot imagine how much fun it is to make horrific grunting noises and hideous faces in public. Being macho and strong is such an excellent way to occupy space compared to constantly trying to make yourself disappear. Weightlifting changes the outlines of your body faster than anything I have ever tried, except binge eating. It makes your body stronger for other exercise and provides cute arms like a movie star, sort of.
8. If it doesn't get you high, you won't do it. So don't do anything or think anything that ruins your high. Protect your pleasure in it the way you protect your drugs or sex. Crave it, move toward it, get flushed, breathe hard, drip with sweat from head to toe, get in the shower under the hot water, then cold. Do nothing that doesn't support your rush. If you are the kind of person who thinks drugs are good, but medication is bad, you must make exercise your drugs, not your medication.
9, 10, etc. Let nothing stop you. Grab it like somebody's trying to take it away from you, which is true: time and age and death and your own limiting voices and all the many more important and less selfish things you have to do today. Fuck 'em. Let your inner Sick Jock drive you to sit-ups on the cold tile floor of a hotel bathroom. To swim at dawn. To come in 200-and-somethingth in a field of 200-and-something in the York 10-Miler, with the endorphins to prove it.
Exercise turns out to be a mental challenge more than a physical one. It is all about what you have decided you can do. The muscle you stretch most thoroughly is your will, and just as the physical fitness you get spills over into other areas of life, so will the tough-mindedness. So remember: The obstacles are in your head. The finish line is in your head. Even your thighs are in your head. If you have a will of steel, you can have abs of steel. If you have a will of marshmallow, you can make s'mores. Get out of the fat, into the fire, and burn, baby, burn -- till you scream like Jane Fonda on MDA.
I offer these tips in the spirit of passing the bong. Just try it this once. You'll like it. It's really good shit.