Monday, January 28, 2008

Something to Prove

There is nothing else like running in the rain. I love it. I woke up last night and heard rain pouring down outside and immediately thought of my morning run, and how my glasses were going to get all wet. I couldn't wait to go run in the rain.

Now you may be thinking, wait a second...wouldn't someone who claims to hate cardio look for any and every opportunity to skip it? You'd think that a downpour of rain would be cause for celebration - 20 more minutes of sleep! Well, you would be wrong.

As you've probably noticed by now, I am one of those people who like to overcome the odds. Give me a morning run and I'll do it, but that's boring. Give me a morning run in the cold, and I'm there. Give me a morning run in the cold with rain, and I am jumping at the starting line. I don't know why, but I love the kind of pain that comes along with pushing through something that would make most people quit. There is probably a special chapter in psychology text books about people like me.

It came out the other day in the weight room, too. It was a shoulders and back workout, and our trainer was really pushing us to our limits. The weight was heavy, the exercises were purposely inefficient, and he was smiling just a little too much at our anguished faces and furrowed brows. When the last set was done, I couldn't help myself - I went back for more. One more hurculean hoist of a shoulder press just to prove that he hadn't whipped me. I almost turned my car around once to go back and do another set of dead lifts just to show that I could.

But I had to wonder, who was I trying to convince - him or me? Sure, I don't like to be beaten, but that's his job - to get me to the point of exhaustion and fatigue so my body responds and changes. While the smartass in me enjoys doing one more rep as if to say, "that wasn't so hard," and challenge him to challenge me even further, I am also reminding myself that strength training is often mind over matter.

But the real realization came to me when I contemplated how this plays out throughout the rest of my day. After the sun comes up and I go on to my roles as mother, wife, and employee, many of the situations I face are out of my control, up for negotiation, or generally out of my hands. For someone like me, that can be frustrating. When I want to power through and make things happen, I have to play by someone else's rules.

Then it made perfect sense. I run in the cold and rain and do one more rep because in the gym, I am in control of my own destiny. I can push the limits, raise the bar, and prove to myself that while the rest of my day may be subject to approval, I make the rules in the gym.

When I got up this morning for my run, the rain had almost stopped. It was a light drizzle, windy, and cold. I zipped up my fleece jacket, put on my hat, and headed out for my daily dose of martyrdom. And when I arrived back at the gym 25 minutes later and walked in soaked and cold, a workout buddy remarked, "you're crazy." I smiled, stepped on the treadmill, and started my interval training. I'll show him crazy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mmm....More Humble Pie, Please!

It was week three in my training and things had been moving along nicely. I'd moved on from my cardio temper tantrum and now actually looked forward to my weekly 60-minute fight-to-the-death with the treadmill. And mentally, I had been getting used to the idea of putting myself out there and seeing if I really could play with the big kids. I wanted to see what I could do.

But I knew that before I could jump the hurdles of the obstacle course, I had a mighty big hurdle to clear at home: my husband (who for the purposes of this blog prefers to be referred to as "Lazlo"). From the very moment I mentioned competing in a fitness competition, he has expressed reservations. And not hotel reservations to cheer me on - I mean that for some reason, he didn't want me to parade onstage in a bikini while other men gawked and cat-called and otherwise made assessments about my physical appearance while he sat there unable to defend my honor. Okay, so I made up the cat-calling part but I know he was thinking it. He would say, "I'll support you in whatever you want to do," and while I knew he meant it, I could tell he was saying it because he is a good husband, not because he really wanted me to. So one night while we sat and tried to dodge the splashes of our son in the bathtub, I asked him: Do you think you can get to a point where this is okay with you?

To be honest, we had been at this crossroads a year before, when he had come home from his boxing workout and excitedly told me that his coach wanted him to box in an amateur match. He was pumped, but scenes from "Rocky" flashed through my head and I envisioned blood and black eyes and teeth flying across the ring and immediately said no. No way, no how. Naturally, I couldn't stop him from doing something he really wanted to, but out of consideration for my wishes, he let the matter go.

Boy, I regretted that.

No, not just because now the tables were turned, although that was part of it. But more than that, I finally understood the triumph he must have felt at the idea that he could do something like that, and most importantly, the ego boost he must have enjoyed when his coach showed that kind of confidence in him. But I had stomped all over it because of a few bloody teeth. And to make it even worse, when my turn came, he grit his teeth and expressed his resigned support.

I started to dish out some humble pie.

He told me that he feels beauty pageants are demeaning to women, and that I shouldn't gauge my self worth based on some score from a bunch of people who don't even know me. I countered that the important part of the competition is the skills test, where I can realize my strength and stretch my limits and see what I can do, and any score I receive based on my appearance is meaningless to me.

But was that really true? I wasn't sure. You see, I had started to have some fun with the idea of this competition. While I still wasn't 100% sold on the swimsuit part, I felt like if I put in my all and got to a point where I felt I could compete, why not? As a logical and rational woman, I know that my self-worth is not related to other people's opinion of my appearance. But is there anything wrong with wanting a little public validation of my ability to kick some butt?

We never came to a resolution; I am still training and he is still supporting me. But one thing has changed: Lazlo has gone back to the boxing gym.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cardio: 0. Me: Exhausted.

I'm in week two of my training, and I'm loving it. I love being a perfectionist about my food, measuring my portions, and logging it all in my profile. I love knowing that each workout will bring some new challenge, and that I will spend the remainder of the day unable to walk up stairs or move my arms or laugh, because I am so sore.

Well, last week the fun came to a screeching halt. My training partner and I were idly chatting about nothing when we were informed that for the next six weeks, our workouts would include a challenge neither of us were up for: a cardio marathon. For the next six weeks, we would do only cardio on Wednesdays. That's an hour. Of cardio. I hate cardio.

Sure, I like endorphins as much as the next girl. I like running outside in the cold and doing interval training on the treadmill. I'll swim laps at lunch and get on the elliptical when I'm feeling rebellious. But for a whole hour? Usually after twenty or thirty minutes tops, I am bored and restless, ready to move on to something else. Now I was facing 60 minutes of what I forsaw as mindless cardio, and more importantly, an entire day without weights...and then he really threw the book at us - at least 20 minutes of it had to be intense. We grimaced at each other, but we knew he was right.

I had been in a rut with my cardio for a while. I run a couple of miles, then get on the treadmill, crank up the incline, and power walk. It's hard, and my heart-rate monitor tells me I am in the zone. But I know that if I really want to perform, I need to crank it up. And I want to perform.

Naturally, the next day was Wednesday. I spent most of Tuesday psyching myself up. I came up with a schedule of changing things up often enough so I didn't get bored. Tuesday night, I loaded up my iPod with new songs. I was ready. When Wednesday morning arrived, I felt as if the guillotine hung over my head. I didn't want to do it. I hoped he forgot. He didn't.

I started with my usual outside 2-mile jaunt through the neighborhood. I paced myself; I didn't want to overdose on endorphins and stop having fun with 30 minutes left to go. And I reminded myself that this wasn't exactly a marathon. I was going to move my body for sixty consecutive minutes, no biggie. As I jogged down the sidewalk, I wondered what Lance Armstrong would do in this situation, but I already knew the answer. He would quit bitching and keep running.

After my run, I went inside for the treadmill. If I had to do 20 minutes of intense cardio, this was where it would happen: interval training. I cranked up the intensity, started running again, then played around with the incline. It was hard. Really hard. I wanted to stop/throw up/kill myself/lie on the floor in a big sweaty heap and sulk. But I didn't do any of those things. I glanced over at the next person on the treadmill and thought to myself, I do exactly two levels higher than her.

You see, in situations like these, I have to rely on my old standby of mental competition. If I think I can't do something, or even if I just don't want to, I look for someone else who is already doing it and then do it better. It's a habit I picked up in high school when I started pitting myself against the other girls in my theatre group. It was a game to me; they didn't know it, but we were racing, and if I didn't win then I used that lesson to be smarter and better the next time. Its how I operate, and it works for me every time. When in self-doubt, I use the success of others as fuel for my next set.

So I fueled my fire and banged out my cardio that day. As I enviously observed my friends doing their weights and my legs turned to jelly, I watched the seconds on the clock move towards the end of my hour. And then, because I could, I did 10 more minutes. Because after all, if I want to perform, I have to crank it up. And I want to perform.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The First Cut is the Deepest

I'm about a week into my new training, and already a lot has changed. It started the first day, when I increased my weights and started really pushing myself, which was partly fueled by competitive spirit and partly by a very real fear of public humiliation. And also, because my trainer told me to.

He also told me to increase my protein, drink a lot more water, and to put some clothes on already. You see, I like to run outside in the freezing cold January air for about 20 minutes before the gym opens, so my skin gets all red and my lungs start to burn and my ears feel like they are going to fall off. But, now that I am taking this a little more seriously, it turns out there is something called my "internal body temperature" that I need to be concerned with regulating. And apparently, that involves putting on a shirt. So, good bye tank top, hello thermal.

I started telling more people about my plans and gauging responses about the relative level of insanity I was currently in. One friend suggested that I start taking photos of myself in a swimsuit every two weeks so I can personally see the progress I am making. For a moment, a picture of myself on a beach, taken when I was about 16 or 17 and at one of my personal lows, flashed into my mind. I vividly remembered that day. I remembered that I had just eaten at an all-you-can-eat buffet and how crappy I felt and how much I wanted to change the path I was on, and how when I actually saw a picture of myself in such an unhealthy and depressed state, it was one of the pivotal moments in shaping my focus on nutrition and exercise. I didn't want to repeat that experience and be smacked in the face with the reality of what I actually look like. I know that I am not fat; the fact that today I am wearing my one-time "goal pants", and that they are way too loose on me, is a testament to that. But I still wanted to live in the reality I had created, where I could flex my muscles in the mirror and feel great about the way I thought my body looked. I didn't need to know how it actually looked. So I tabled that idea and thought, "maybe in a month."

Well, exactly a week later, I succumbed to the curiosity. I am a believer in living in reality, and that you can't truly move forward until you know where you're starting. So, in the spirit of working on a better version of myself, I donned my red swimsuit, handed the camera to my husband, and said, "cheese." I immediately snatched the camera back once the photos were snapped so I could scrutinize my pale self. I uploaded the pictures, opened the files, and....I didn't look that bad. I actually almost looked good. It was literally the first time I had ever looked at a picture of myself in a swimsuit and thought, "not bad." It was weird.

I definitely have more work to do before I can get on a stage and compete, but I can see myself getting there. I might not turn out to be the laughing stock I have been imagining.

I kept going back to the computer throughout the weekend and looking at my pictures. I felt that I had turned a corner in my life...not only was I looking at a woman who didn't look half bad in a swimsuit, I could finally admit that it was me.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

You Gotta Start Somewhere

2007 was in decline, and 2008 was rearing its ugly head. I had taken a short break from my usually manic schedule of workouts, calorie crunching, and body fat analysis to sit on the sofa and eat peanut butter cookies dipped in chocolate and watch "A Christmas Story" for two weeks. It had started out as fun, but as the days passed I found myself in a position of one of my best traits working against me. Usually I consider my unrelenting drive to accomplish a goal to be a strength, when I can beat the odds and leave my self-doubt in the dust. But when that goal is to eat as many peanut butter and chocolate cookies as humanly possible, that becomes a very dangerous personality trait. I was a week into it and wanted out, but was determined to wallow in indulgence until 12:01 am January 1, 2008. And wallow I did.

So much so that when I showed up to the gym on January 2, I felt blobby, gross, flabby...pretty much like anyone else would feel after two weeks of atrophy. I was ready to hit the weights. As I jogged along listening to Christina Aguilera and trying to remember how my new heart-rate monitor watch worked, I wondered what my 2008 goal would be. I needed to shake up my routine, but I didn't really know where to start. I wanted something more than just beefing up the weights and shaking up the cardio. I needed a GOAL.

The goal hit me square in the face a few moments later, as I twisted my face and supressed a she-roar and contemplated the sweet relief of a brain aneurism during an incline bench press. My trainer nonchalantly asked me if I was interested in training for a fitness competition.

Now, I've been working with my trainer for just a few months now, and although he had surely figured out that I am a masochist in the gym, I wasn't sure if he realized the ramifications of asking me to participate in a competition, my personal drug of choice. My chest swelled and I puffed up like a peacock. Sure, I cockily answered. I need a new challenge. I asked a few cursory questions about what was involved and relished the news that my workouts would become more intense, my diet more finely-tuned, and I would be in the best shape of my life. Sign me up.

Later that day I was at work sharing the good news with a workout buddy. I proudly announced, "I am going to be in a fitness competition!" My kind and supportive friend replied, "are you going to look like a man?" And then, "ooh, you're going to have to put on three layers of self-tanner and lather up with baby oil and then put this stuff on to make your veins pop out and walk on stage in a bathing suit!" She said this last part with a twisted sort of glee, as if she couldn't wait for the heckling to begin. But I wondered...was there more to this than I realized?

So I called my loving husband that afternoon. "Guess what? I'm going to participate in a fitness competition!" His response: "oh." But he said it in about the same voice he would have used if he noticed that our cat had vomited on the rug. "Are you going to have to walk on stage in a bathing suit?"

So the response was underwhelming. But I was still psyched. Surely, the bathing suit and baby oil part was a very minor aspect of the competition. To be sure, I googled it and soon found a competition in which bathing suits (technically called "Grace and Physique") were optional. I was vindicated. I was still in the game.

The next morning at the gym I confronted my trainer:

"Am I going to have to wear a bathing suit?"

"Well, yeah."

"I'm not doing that!"

"Well, there's evening gown, too."

"A PAGEANT? I am not doing a pageant!"

He laughed and showed me a video on YouTube of very tanned and shiny women wearing bathing suits too small for the community pool walking and posing on a stage. I shared my disbelief that I could ever be in that kind of shape. I turned to my training partner, who was also on the hook for the pageant. Her eyes widened and she nodded her head. We were two women in their 30s who could kick some butt and act like big muscleheads in our little gym, but we didn't hold a candle to these women. My mind wandered for a minute to a mental image of myself walking onto a stage in a bikini and President Bush immediately declaring a national state of emergency. Then the voice of my trainer brought me back to reality. "Let's train for 6 months and see how you feel."

And so, here we are. I've decided to share my experience with you here, because as the title of this blog states, I am not an athlete. I don't have a great body. I have never been on a sports team, I was always picked last in phys ed, and I am the last person you would expect to be participating in a pageant. But, I love a physical challenge, I love weight training, and I've been needing to get out of my comfort zone. And, I needed a goal, so I might as well do this one.

I'll update this blog as I progress through my training and take you along this journey with me. I have no idea how it will end up, but I can promise it will be painful for me, and that means entertainment for you.

So we're off!