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Exercise Health Journal

The Strength Within

Ever since high school where many of the all-male students used to test each other’s maleness by beating up the weaker students and competing in he-man sports like wrestling and basketball (the most popular and highly funded sports in the school) to bolster up an image of glory and dominance, I’ve disliked, even hated, sports that emphasized one person’s preeminence over another. I’ve steered away from gyms where the odor of male sweat and the sight of men sizing up one another both intimidated me and made me feel scornful. And, after, the bench-warming days of the high-school soccer team, where winning the matches played a more important role in the existence of the team than the enjoyment and participation of the sport that every team member had signed up for, I have rarely gone to mass spectator games or found much interest in the super-hero athletes that so many boys get all starry-eyed over. All of it was annoying and pointless, with too much weighted toward crooning over men who spend their lives kicking or throwing a ball, rather than giving equal respect and praise toward those who might prefer to use their minds. I have nothing against people who do amazing things with their bodies and take care of their health in a balanced way; I just have little patience for people who spend too much time thinking about winning and losing.

I guess these are some reasons why, ever since I can remember, the equally physically demanding sports like hiking and mountain climbing, bicycle touring, and kayak touring have always held such great appeal to me. They don’t require that you compete against anyone but yourself, and they rarely come with rewards other than the accomplishment of reaching a peak or simply being immersed in the elements, feeling alive. I still have high school classmates who snicker when I tell them I love backpacking, thinking that what I do is somehow not cool or that it is wimpy. But that’s the thing about such activities: I have nothing to prove to anyone. And so their comments slide off, sounding silly and ignorant. I doubt most of those former classmates could keep up with me on the hills.

Over the last few years I’ve let my body run down, though, and for the first time in my life I’ve gained weight. This is due mainly to the amount of insulin I have to take, which causes me to gain weight even on modest amounts of food. With my desk job and distance from the mountains (the nearest mountains are two and a half hours away by express train and those are not even the real mountains I love walking in… it takes me at least four hours to go to the bases of the nearest higher peaks and about six or seven hours to the places I’m most interested in… all of which makes it hard to get out to where I want to be on the weekends, especially since I’ve still got to climb those slopes!) it is harder now to get the mountain training I need, but I’ve also slacked off from sheer laziness. Depression had me lying about too much, getting soft.

Back in January, though, I, and some of my university colleagues, got together to learn and train with Crossfit, a training regimen that focuses on all-around fitness by concentrating on intense, short workouts that vary day-to-day, and are scaled according to one’s level of fitness and abilities. It is quite demanding and never easy, but the results have been astonishing. My muscles have grown and the strength of my twenties is slowly returning (though recovery is taking considerably longer). I surprised myself the other day by being able to do 53 pull ups without overly straining myself. And last Sunday I did a 10 kilometer run during which the old rolling, smooth glide over the ground, where my legs feel as if I am flying without gravity, something that I hadn’t felt since 1997 when I used to run every day, returned. The fat has yet to really come off, but that is only a matter of time. When I visited my diabetes doctor last month she announced that my blood hemoglobin (the measure of the severity of the diabetes, with 6 being normal and 10 to 12, which I had been at for over seven years, being close to dangerous) was better than it had been in seven years. At this rate I will be able to scale the more difficult peaks this summer, something I had almost given up on in the last few years.

The funny thing is, I enjoy heading to the gym now. Having those young, annoyingly fit judo fighters and gymnasts from the university pumping weights alongside me no longer bothers me. For the first time I see their world a little bit more from their point of view, and it isn’t so different from mine. Maybe it’s just Crossfit, which discourages too much competitive comparison with others, or maybe it’s because I feel stronger and competent enough to challenge those youngsters should I desire to.

Whatever the reason, it’s just good to be in shape and feeling good about my body. If only they had taught this back in high school!

Categories
Exercise Health

Howl!

Moonlight Moosehead Lake
Full moon over Moosehead Lake, Maine, U.S.A. 1991

For the first time in almost two years the strength in my body broke through the accumulation of inactivity and slow muscles. For four weeks now I’ve been keeping up a regular succession of exercise, in part to prepare myself for less encumbered mountain walking this summer, but also to take control of my diabetes and to just plain feel good about myself. With all the heavy events and responsibilities of the last two years, turning 41, then 42, and now 43, seemed to weigh down upon my sense of vitality, as if all the voices had pummeled me into submission and I was about to join the flocks of flabby-midriffed housebounders. So many people my age seem to have given up. They want life easy and handed to them on a plate. They feel they have earned the right to rest and atrophy.

But I miss the mountains. I miss swinging my legs and feeling the air fill my lungs and my legs propelling me along the ridges. And I miss waking with a jump out of bed. I feel that piece by piece the elation at being alive is blowing away on some temporal wind, like dandelion seeds. That’s not how I want to grow older. I don’t want to succumb to cynical newspapers, closed curtains, and packages of potato chips. The engine that drives me… that drives us all… yearns for hope springing eternal. Again and again.

So I’ve embraced this physical promise of reawakening the muscles, bones, lungs, and eyes, talking myself into rhythms, tweaking a defiance against gravity, pushing and pulling at the immovable. It is a kind of dance, and the more often I reincarnate this resistance against entropy the more the movement reinforces itself and my body awakens. It is just sleep that incapacitates us.

Tending my core with Pilates workouts, yanking gravity with weights, bending branches with stretches and calisthenics, and touring my neighborhood with long loping runs and walks, all leave a feeling of occupancy, of claiming my place in space.

The effort has begun to pay off. This afternoon the weights lifted with less pull. My head inched closer to my knee. I breached the pull up bar five extra times. And most of all the run felt like bouncing, allowing me to spend more time acknowledging the glint of sunlight on the river’s water than on the crashing of my feet.

On the way back to my apartment I passed a house where a huge German Shepherd occupied a metal cage (Japanese have a bad habit of buying dogs too big for their tiny homes and often leaving them locked up in cages). Right as I paced by, the nearby kindergarten’s 5:45 chime went off, a loud, canned version of Big Ben’s bells. At the same moment the German Shepherd began to howl, sounding for all the world like a wolf. I stopped and watched him, his muzzle raised to the air, eyes shut, lips pursed, and hooting at the sky. With my rediscovered muscles bursting with energy I wanted to join in, to call to the horizon and regain paradise, the pack rolling over the hills and taking me away. Something was singing in me and I wasn’t alone.

As if a silent start gun had gone off my legs resumed their walk home. This is just the beginning. The cage will melt away, and I will heed the calling of the wild.

Categories
Exercise Japan: Living Journal Nature

Evening Rhapsody

Took a run this evening along the river near the apartment. Twilight had overcome the earlier fiery sunset and it had gotten cool enough to need a windbreaker as I ran. It had been a long time since I felt so light and agile and, deciding to take the run slowly, it seemed as if the passage of concrete and soil beneath my feet slipped past without effort. Something about today seemed to awaken the animals, too. As I left the path that followed the river and descended to the overgrown trail next to the river itself, the air was filled with bats swirling about my head. Some passed close enough to hear the soft batter of their wings. Spot-billed ducks watched me warily from the water and everywhere cats stalked among the tall stands of grasses.

It was a perfect blend of tranquility and energy. A whisper of the world long before we plastered over it.