Those of you who read Kyle Cassidy’s blog or twitter feed have followed his gym adventures and running milestones over the last few years. He has inspired many, myself included. Part of Kyle's motivation came from watching as Neil Gaiman started running and eating healthily back in 2011.
I kept thinking to myself that if Neil and Kyle could do it, so could I.
I finally made the commitment, along with a few friends, to begin working out in December 2013.
In the beginning, I despised it.
The first morning we met at the tiny neighborhood gym, I was grumpy. So grumpy.
This may have had something to do with the fact that I had:
1. Gone to bed at 2am
2. Woken up at 6am
3. Not consumed any coffee before working out (hoping that coffee as reward would be good incentive)
4. Forgotten how much I disliked treadmills and gyms
My friends were more chipper than I, so I put on my headphones and tried to listen to an audiobook. After all, Neil had successfully run while listening to Dickens’ Bleak House with impressive results.
I already love audiobooks, so I chose Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. The stories and narration are wonderful, but I couldn’t enjoy them while running. It made me feel more agitated and reminded me of the time I could be writing but was instead running in place like a hamster in the dark, noisy gym. I hated the monotony of running in place. I wasn't fond of the televisions or the loud music. I wanted coffee.
Had I been doing it alone, I likely would have quit that first week; but the commitment I made to the ladies held a lot of weight. In addition to the treadmill, we did a rotation on some of the machines and some floor exercises. We were in it together, and that pulled me along.
I’ve always been active, but that’s not the same as being fit. After three children and a lot of time spent sitting at a desk in front of the computer writing, I could feel that my body was not as strong as it had been. I missed having muscles with tone. I wanted to enter into my 40s as someone who cared for her body, as well as her mind and spirit. So I stuck with it.
I made some changes, and they were exactly what I needed to keep going:
1.) Enjoyed one small cup of coffee in the morning before going to the gym
2.) Switched to music while running, more specifically the kind of music that would have gotten me on the dance floor at Neo in the 90s
3.) Set goals for myself on the treadmill to give me challenges to overcome
4.) Created an exercise nemesis about whom I could create ridiculous stories in moments of exercise-induced grumpiness, usually involving slow and painful deaths
He doesn’t have another name, he’s just the sadistic, angry robot who hangs around the gym, sabotaging the equipment and cultivating an air of discouragement. I will you spare you the stories of his castigation; they are gruesome and not for the faint-hearted.
Those four things helped. A lot. The coffee made me feel less like a troll in the morning. The music helped to motive me and keep me moving. Achieving small goals gave me a feeling of progress. And Nemesis…well it was fun to destroy him daily with my mind.
After two months, I still didn't like working out, but I began to feel stronger.
Around the same time, Neil wrote in his blog:
"In truth, I have not changed that much. I'd still rather read than go outside and run. But...
I like how running makes me feel afterwards.
I like the way it clears and unclutters my mind, and, sometimes, leaves room for new things to come in, like stories.
And I like the idea that time I spend running is Free: it doesn't come out of the hours of my life, but it adds to them instead."
At the end of January, Kyle came to town to run with Peter Sagal in a marathon around the lake. I saw him after his run and complained about still not enjoying the process. “Stick with it,” he told me. “It gets better.”
He was right. Sometime in April, I missed a few days of working out, and I actually missed it. I missed the way I felt immediately after. I missed that time spent clearing my head and being in my body. When I came back to my gym, I actually nodded and smiled back at the person next to me on the treadmill. I was almost enjoying myself. I didn't love it, but I no longer hated it.
A few more months have passed, and I still don’t approach running with the kind of consuming determination that Kyle has. I don't think I'll ever be someone who runs marathons. I occasionally need to remind myself of something Kyle wrote after running the Philly Marathon last November:
"Which reminds me -- I wanted to say something. Occasionally people will say "It's great that you love running" or "it's great that you found something that you love to do" and I want to point out I don't like running, it's kind of awful. I had a conversation with my nephew about this a few months ago, he's a real runner, like the cross country type with .02% body fat, and he said something along the lines of "successful running is just distracting yourself from the pain for as many fractions of a second as you can" -- and that's kind of it. It hurts, you see a lake you think "lake! I wonder if you can rent a canoe here" and hey! you've distracted yourself from the pain for like half a second and then it goes back to sucking again . . . I don't like running. But I like being someone who runs."
For most of my life, exercise happened when I was doing something I loved: Ukrainian dancing, belly dancing, Argentinian tango—basically any kind of dance that allowed me to joyfully lose myself in the motion of my body. I don’t love running or working out, but I like being someone who does.
I like feeling stronger and healthier. I like watching as muscles slowly reappear on this 40-year-old body. I even enjoy the familiarity of my dark, noisy, neighborhood gym with its cast of quirky characters.
Once in a while, when the right song comes on Pandora, my heart does a little leap. In a perfect synchronization, my stride matches the rhythm which matches my heartbeat, and the whole experience comes really close to dancing. For a few minutes, the world melts away and all I am is movement and music. Because I spend so much time in my head writing, that’s a delight. It didn’t happen the first few weeks, but it happens now, and it helps to keep me going. It's a touchstone.
I'm a firm believer in the importance of touchstones. They remind us of what we are building in our lives. We can hold onto them when we feel like we can't go on--whether in fitness, work, art, relationships.
Sometimes it is a physical talisman, like a running medal or a card or a pendant. A touchstone reminds us of what we have accomplished, what we have overcome, where we are headed, and the support we have along the way.
Sometimes touchstones are people in our lives; dear friends who believe in us, whose eyes reflect back to us the image of who we are or wish to be.
Sometimes a touchstone is a song that captures so perfectly a feeling or a moment, or a work of art that gives form to a dream.
Sometimes touchstones are memories--powerful enough they don't need a physical manifestation, and strong enough that they form a foundation for something to come.
Whatever the touchstone, the important thing is that it keeps us going.