When people try to talk to me about running or working out, I get nervous and awkward. I’m not really sure what to say. I’ve been exercising regularly since January, and I’ve lost over 40 pounds. I ran my first 5k in early July, and my wife is really proud of me, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when it comes up. But I have found myself feeling embarrassed to talk about it.
So I tell them some of the truths. One of the truths is that most people aren’t really interested in fitness unless they’re already into fitness. When someone has an interest that they’re passionate about, especially when it’s a new thing for them, there’s a tendency to want to talk about it endlessly. It’s new, it’s exciting, and you’re learning all these cool things that you want to share with people. But something I learned a while back is that most people really don’t care, they were just asking to be polite. And they’ll listen to be polite, but they’ll die a little inside as you go on about body weight workouts and interval training and what your personal record is and how that’s improved over the last few months and the plans you have to do better in your next race and the benefits of cross training and strength training and they just don’t care. Or they know more than you and you sound like a moron. Even your closest family and friends, unless they’re into the same thing, they don’t really care, they’re just being nice. So I don’t want to be That Guy who suddenly has gotten into fitness and is now trying to talk everyone’s ear off about it like they’re a born-again Christian and you, my friend, need to hear the Good Word and be Saved.
Or I’ll tell them a different truth, that it’s because when I was growing up, people who were into exercise and fitness were jocks, and jocks were a completely different species than me and my friends. In elementary school I was bigger than all the other kids, and I learned early on to be careful because of my size so I became reluctant to play too rough. I never had a competitive disposition anyway, and I would rather play superheroes than baseball. A little bit later I was a fat smart kid who was into science fiction and fantasy novels and comic books. I was big, so everyone assumed I’d play football, but I just wanted to read books. I did play football for one year, but I didn’t get it. Why do I want to smash into the other team and hurt them? Why is it so much different if we win or if they win? Why are you making me run up this hill so many times?! No one could explain the benefits of physical fitness to me in a way I’d understand, so I finished the season and that was that.
In high school, I discovered punk rock, and it was electrifying. I started forming bands with my friends and before you knew it we had our own little punk rock enclave in the middle of our small town Michigan high school. Punk rock was something that we could call our own, it was a tribe where we all fit in because none of us fit in anywhere else. Now there was a clear dividing line, it was Us vs Them, and Them was all the ignorant, narrow-minded jock and redneck assholes that, it seemed to us, comprised the majority of the rest of the student body.
(Looking back, it wasn’t all like that. Sure, there were assholes and we had conflicts, but most of the other people in school were scared, insecure kids like us, just trying to figure out who they were. But that’s maybe something for another day.)
Today, I’m 32 years old, and I feel distant and cut off from that fired up, idealistic punk rock kid that I used to see myself as. When I went off to college I quit the band I was in. The few new friends I made had different interests and weren’t as taken by the angry three chord anthems that spoke directly to my heart. I got out of school and, within a couple of years, settled into an office job, where I worked diligently until I got promoted to manager and developed a healthy drinking problem. I was smoking all the time and drinking most days, and I wasn’t happy with myself because I was just another fucking office drone doing a bullshit inconsequential job making money for somebody else and throwing my own cash down the bottomless whirlpool cesspit of the American Dream. And I drank myself stupid every night and every weekend so I wouldn’t have to think about what that punk rock kid would think about where I had gotten myself. And, blind stinking drunk, I wouldn’t have to do the hard work of digging myself out of that predicament.
But eventually I did. I quit drinking, and I quit smoking, and I quit that fucking job. I’m back at school now, hopefully for a career that will be more fulfilling. I’ve got a daughter, and I exercise 4-5 days a week, and I am working constantly, and I don’t know who I am right now. I’m in the process of redefining myself after pulling out of my alcoholic nosedive, but I feel like I have no identity. It’s coming back in bits and pieces, and I’m rediscovering old music and ideas that excited me before and I’m finding new music and ideas that speak to me now. But when I think of that punk rock kid who didn’t want to go to college and let his parents talk him into it, I can’t help but think that he’d be confused and disappointed in me right now. I can’t help but feel like I let him down, like I’m still betraying him because I’m becoming one of Them.
And that’s not all. Dig a little deeper, a harder truth. I did let him down. I let myself down. I abandoned pursuit of my dreams and wasted the better part of a decade chasing the bottom of one bottle after another. Hiding from reality and just drifting along with the flow of life from one thing to the next. I’m grateful for my family and my wife, because without their influence I could have ended up in a much worse situation. I’m eternally thankful that our marriage survived long enough for me to get sober, and now we have our daughter Molly and that’s just the best thing I could never have imagined before it happened. But I’m still disappointed in myself.
For me, fitness is linked with my sobriety and with my self-reinvention. When I work out, I have a lot of raw, personal conversations with myself.
“C’mon fat boy, keep going. You gonna quit now? One more set. You can do one more set, fat boy.”
“Don’t be weak. Don’t stop now, you’re not weak, you’re not going to keep being weak.”
“What, this is too hard for you? Would you rather have a pint of vodka and a pack of smokes? C’mon fat boy, one foot in front of the other.”
“You don’t have to be fast, you just don’t get to quit. You don’t get to quit, you fucking loser. You fucking loser. You fucking loser.”
I say a lot of mean, nasty things to myself while I’m working out, because I am not happy with a part of myself and I am trying to beat it into submission. I am trying to purge the weakness from myself and make myself stronger, faster, better. And yeah, I’m trying to punish myself for letting me down so fucking badly. Fitness has become a very personal, somewhat private pursuit for me. It’s something I’m proud of, but it’s also tied up with something I’m deeply ashamed of. So when someone asks me about running, I think about pushing myself and berating myself and calling myself names just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I think about gritting my teeth and telling my body to shut up and ignoring the ache in my muscles and dragging my legs made of lead and iron up and forward and down and up and forward and down and oh god it’ll be done any minute now, just keep going. I think about looking at myself in the mirror and being proud that I can see my progress and immediately being ashamed at my vanity. I think about how I gave up on pursuing my goals and drank myself stupid for years and how I do not want to give up again.
I think about my daughter, and how I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her down. Every kid should think their dad is a superhero, and I will be a goddamn superhero for her.
So when people try to talk to me about running or working out, I’ll just tell them “yeah, it’s been going good.”