A Fitness Journey


Playing sports and exercise has always been an important part of my life. I grew up in the era when lifting weights meant getting muscle bound and not being able to perform well as athlete. There were a few people who understood the value of using weight training to get stronger, but mostly weights were thought to be bad for sports. Despite all that, I was able to appreciate the positive aspects of working out and have continued to exercise with and without weights. It’s funny though, being muscle bound has never interfered with me being able to play sports. Maybe there are two reasons for that. First, I’ve never been muscle bound. Second, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve cared less about playing sports. Anyway, here is the “official” Williamsburg era fitness timeline.

William and Mary  (9th grade)

If you wanted to play sports in the 80s there were token happenings that a person had to do to be part of the team. One was lifting weights. I used the word “token” because there weren’t any formal lifting programs for high school kids and we still were seasonal athletes, yet to specialize in one sport. Each winter between the end of basketball season and the start of baseball our coaches would arrange for us to meet at William and Mary Hall and use the weight room there. The weights consisted of a Universal machine and rickety benches with rusting plates and bars. It was there that I learned that the “Bro Principle of Training” states, “Max out every attempt.” The adolescent ritual of figuring out who is the alpha male based on how much he can bench press was in full force in the weight room. Every exercise was a two-plate or full stack challenge. The room was saturated with teenage testosterone that was easily distracted when the women’s gymnastics team walked by, so very little actual conditioning ever went on.

The experience did get me thinking about getting stronger since I could not bench nearly as much as the other guys. During the off-seasons, I would lift a little over at Blow Gym. I liked the leg exercises, but they could not complete with the sound of a basketball pounding upstairs. After a couple of sets I was off to shoot some hoops. Those early years of lifting in the ‘Burg did little to enhance my strength or physique.

Nautilus (11th grade)

In eleventh grade, I hit the Nautilus for the first time. Back then the Nautilus was in a corner store in a strip mall. The front of the gym was a glass wall and the machines were stationed along the wall. My friend worked there and convinced me that I should come to an aerobics class to help me get in shape for basketball. He sweetened the motivation pot by mentioning that the English student teacher would be teaching the class. I couldn’t say no. It did not matter to me that I was working out for the wrong reason, I was at least working out. The class would sort of suck. It was embarrassing to be off the beat all the time right in the middle of the room while people were working out on the machines. I imagined them laughing at my inability to follow the choreography and then cringing at the thought of me falling into their laps as the worked on the abductor/adductor machine. I would never return to this Nautilus, but I would go to the Baskin Robbins, the student teacher also worked there.

ODU and Military Highway

One day in college, I decided to go to the gym with my roommates. They had been lifting for the whole year and with nothing else to do in January, I figured I would go with them. College aged guys lifting is about a pecking order. There are the super strong, the finely chiseled, and the wannabes. Because of my newbie status and lack of serious weight lifting experience, I fell into the last category. However, I refused to accept that I was a beginner and went right into the workout that my friends were doing. Two or three days later I was back to being able to lift my arms. Before CrossFit ever caused a commotion and haters began talking about rhabdo, I’m pretty sure I had rhabdo. I was sick, my muscles felt broken, my pee was not it’s normal shade of Milwaukee’s Best. I ached.

But I went back to the weight room with a new plan, the Nautilus machines. That was tough because they were a lot lower on the pecking order than evena weak bench press, but I needed to ease back into lifting. It worked and within time I was back in the free weight room doing what all college aged dudes do in-between sets. I was checking out the ladies. There was one who was very strong and muscular. A guy from my intramural teams who was nearly thirty leaned in my ear and said, “There’s a point where beauty and bulk clash.” I suppose, but who can be a judge of that, especially him. He only took classes so he could play intramural softball. Think of Robin as a real life Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.

I also took a job at a Nautilus off of Military Highway. Coincidently, it was owned by the same family who owned the Nautilus in Williamsburg. Working there showed me the glitz and hypocrisy of the fitness business. This club did its best to be LA. with fancy lights, chrome, neon, spandex, this place had it all. I heard stories of professional wrestlers attending high school proms. I watched people work their best lines in an attempt to meet the woman in the hot tub. I was horrified when a guy who was spotting his girlfriend on the bench press was paying more attention to the aerobics class across the gym and missed his catch. She paid for his visual indiscretion with her teeth. Quite gross.

Nautilus 2

Soon thereafter, I moved back to the ‘Burg and joined the new Nautilus which had moved down a few stores to a larger space. The new club had a free weight room, aerobics studio, and a proper Nautilus circuit. I joined. It was there that I accepted the gift of a weak bench press and substituted a decent squat for ego gratification and a medium place on the weight lifter’s hierarchy. I would also learn about the power of friends in high places when Mr. Trimble called his friend, a Mr. Ferrari, so that the Ferrari dealership in Norfolk would truck his new car to him rather than drive it. I saw what it meant to be a legend when William and Mary basketball players were asking me to hook them up with girls just out of high school. And these were guys with real jobs, houses, and cars.

What I loved about the new Nautilus was the sound. There was something about the old Nautilus machines, their chains, and brushed metal cams. There was a cadence to the lift as if the links where counting out the reps. It was easy to know if I was lifting too quickly because the clicking would become one smooth sound. The smell of 3-in-1 oil fought off the body odor stench and the carpet added a color in the most 1980s way.

It was also where I lost my Swatch. Damn…

Sanitized Fitness

While my career in fitness has moved to education, it started in the resorts of Williamsburg. The first fitness center where I began thinking I might make a living at was the Tazewell Club. Colonial Williamsburg entered the fitness craze with the air pressure resistance fad. The machines were clean, sleek, and versatile, but not so popular. Neither was the club. There was confusion as to whether it should be a full service spa or a place to get a workout. In the end, service could not replace sweat and since no one was using the gym it went the way of any struggling fitness business.

Kingsmill was a different sort of resort. There was a strong neighborhood presence to support the tourist end of the business. It, too, though, suffered from a lack of use. The Nautilus machines were shiny, the weights immaculate, the beer infused pockets deep, but the club was nothing more than a brochure amenity meant to help sell the resort to potential conferences.

So ended my fitness journey in Williamsburg…

And now…?

It’s many years later and I just walked into the weight room at my local YMCA. The free weight room is packed with current and former students. They are all young, mostly high schoolers and a couple of college students. I wonder if they would lift if the mirrors were gone. The have their conversations, sip their protein and energy shakes, sneak in a couple of sets, and always check themselves out in the mirror. They carry their heads high, shoulders back, lats flexed, and eyes casing the walls for the best angle to catch a peek of their youth. I see mine, too, just without the bulging muscles and cut-up shirts. There is an invincibility to their collective aura that comes with being young and having the rest of your life to live. I’m past that and on to living the rest of my life with modest sets and Mickey Mouse sweat stains on my shirt. It’s all good because I feel much better about where I am now. That high octane testosterone fueled life style is one I gladly out grew.

Two weeks later…

Today (May 14, 2016) I ran my first race since about 2008. That run eight years ago went really well because I was still training for running marathons. After that race, I pretty much gave up on my fitness quests until my wife introduced me to Cross Fit. I loved the craziness of Cross Fit for awhile, but the rigor of the workout began to wear me out. However, my interest in Cross Fit has never waned, it just comes with a bit of moderation now.

Today’s 5K reminded me of my first race that destroyed about every bit of running confidence I had. It also inspired me to run more frequently, faster, and longer. I thought the eight years off wouldn’t be a big problem, especially since the foray into Cross Fit, but fitness has a way of humbling you in a way that golf cannot. Golfers speak of the mental grind of playing golf and how missed shots will attack a player’s confidence like nothing else. I’ll give them that, but they should recognize that their hearts and lungs are still in check. Hitting a hill and charging up it while running makes breathing a chore and maintaining pace nearly impossible. It’s humbling to chili dip a chip shot, but it’s worse to be in the middle of thousands of people and unable to breathe while they all leave you behind.

Well, this 5K was humbling. It was an illustration of how far I had fallen in terms of cardiovascular fitness. It was an affirmation of “use it or lose it.” It was also a testament to experience as I knew from past awful runs how to survive. It was also a call to action. I probably won’t go for the muscular madness of Cross Fit or the stereotypical approach of long distance training.

“To real journeys…”


Photo Credit: snapwiresnaps.tumbler.com via Pexels

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