To say “I’ve never been one for exercise” is to vastly understate matters. I inherited a quick metabolism, and a couple of people over the years have said sweet, misguided things like “You look like you work out!” and “You obviously do yoga or something.” Until last month, my response was always “Nuh uh” and “Nope. But I like to walk.”
And I do. I like to walk. Anything faster—let alone anything involving Frisbees or softballs, swimming pools with demarcated lanes, a track—makes my skin crawl with dread.
If I gamboled and somersaulted as a child, I don’t remember it. What I do remember is sitting on my tricycle at the top of an insanely high hill. We were living in Lausanne, so I must have been nearly four. The hill was right outside our apartment building. A few of my friends had been dragging their trikes up this hill and whipping down it, shrieking. I didn’t want to do this, but they all had, and they were saying it was my turn, so there I sat, poised, my feet on the pedals, the sidewalk dipping down and away from me like a rollercoaster track. I set a foot down and gave one tentative push, then another, and suddenly I was moving—swooping down so fast that I had to lift my feet off the pedals and hold my knees up and out, away from the handlebars. I remember feeling exhilarated for a few seconds, as the wind buffeted my face. I was powerful and free—imagine if this trike were a horse!—racing some invisible competitor and winning.
And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t exhilarating any more. I tried to put my feet back on the pedals but couldn’t. The sidewalk was leveling out but I was still going so fast—too fast. I remember the nauseating fear that gripped me right before I flew off the trike and skidded along the pavement. I ended up with skinned legs and palms, not broken bones, but that was it: forever after, I was leery of wheeled contraptions. Even on the Toronto Islands last summer, tootling around on an ancient, no-speed bike at 7 a.m., before the first ferry arrived, I got pasty-mouthed with dread whenever I saw people ahead of me on the boardwalk, or posts that were too close together. (In fact, one morning, while frantically attempting to swerve away from a huge garbage truck on a very narrow road, I ended up running the bike into Peter and throwing him straight into its path. He scrambled to the grass at the side of the road, where I’d already wobbled my bike to a halt. The driver grinned at us as the truck lumbered past.)
Then there was Mr. Evanoff’s grade 5 class. I hated lovely fall, spring, early summer days, because on such days he’d put down his chalk mid-equation, gaze out the portable windows, then say, pensively, “I wonder—would you guys rather do math or play baseball?” The other students would cheer. I, who despised math, would sink down in my chair, longing for more equations. Sometimes I’d bonk myself on the nose so that it would bleed (it did that fairly easily, luckily). “Mr. Evanoff…” I’d sniffle, and he’d hand me a clipboard so that I could sit on the big, shady hill and keep score. But sometimes my nose didn’t cooperate, and I’d end up swinging wildly at the slowest pitches in the world, or tripping over my own feet going after a ball in the furthest reaches of the outfield (where I’d imagined I’d be safe).
In grades 7 and 8 there were the “short” and “long” runs. Even the short one (across the back field, up the ramp and along a path that curved around to the school’s front doors) made me wheeze and gave me side cramps. But the long one…Oh, the long one. Across the back field, sharp right into the ravine beside the school, over bridges, down hills, up hills—I can’t actually remember much more, because long before we hit the back field again I’d be leaning over, gasping, trying not to choke on mucus or even, god forbid, throw up.
In grade 9 (my last year of gym—huzzah!), a miracle occurred. We had a two-week rotation on weight machines, and I liked it. My legs surprised me by already having some muscles. My arms surprised me by starting to develop them. I wasn’t competing with anyone, and no one was watching me, because the machines were set up in a circuit and everyone else was doing their own thing. Two glorious, surprising weeks—and then it was back to swimming and soccer and that familiar lump of dread in my gut.
Years went by. No more gym classes. Some walking. Lots of sitting at desks and on streetcars, too. Two kids. And, as the two kids grew and no longer needed me to haul them around on my hip or in a wagon, a niggling sense that I really should be doing something. This niggling became full-blown unease last year. My metabolism took a hummingbird-to-snail nosedive. I morphed into an achy, panting hunchback every time I went up a flight of subway stairs.
Something had to be done. I considered my options, and the memory of that grade 9 miracle returned. Circuit training. Yes. Maybe that.
I felt like an idiot at Winners, trying on workout clothes. I felt like an idiot getting into them for the first time in the change room. Who am I kidding? This isn’t me! I’m a bookish person who used to get nosebleeds! I haven’t owned a pair of running shoes in 22 years!
It’s been seven weeks now, and I’m feeling like less of an imposter. This place I go is for women only, and I recognize many of them from work (which is right across the street). Yes, sometimes I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror, trying to do a lunge or a side plank pushup, or hauling on some machine or other, and I think, Yup: still an idiot. But it’s kind of wonderful, doing something completely new and unexpected. It may not be particularly lofty or momentous, as when my 65-year-old high school Latin teacher went back to grad school for about his third doctorate (this one in ancient Greek, as he wished to read Thucydides “in the original”—and, by god, he did). But it’s difficult in a way that feels right.
And afterward, the wine tastes even better.