The First Cycle
My hand shoots out from under the warmth of the covers, and my fingers roughly press into the snooze button of the buzzing alarm clock. I nuzzle my face against the warm pillow, pulling the quilt tighter around my shoulders.
Get up, get up, get up and go. You have to. Don’t think, don’t wait another nine minutes, just get up.
Ruthlessly, I throw the blankets off my body, swing my feet to the floor, and stand up. I extend my arms over my head as the air of the room engenders goosebumps from my formerly-cocooned skin. Muscles groan with relief at the stretch, and my spine contracts then loosens with the motion. I flip the clock’s switch to “off” and lightly step my way to the bathroom. The cold linoleum punctuates the chill in my toes as I relieve myself.
As I wash my hands, I study myself in the mirror, brown eyes struggling for alertness. I brush the stars from my eyes and reach up to pull my haphazard hair into a ponytail. The action stretches my body in the mirror before me, and I can’t help the sudden awareness of my torso. Hair secured in place, I now bring my hands to my stomach.
Recent months have brought hours of running, circuit training, and weightlifting, and my abs now feel unfamiliar to me. The change brings me pleasure, however, as my palms caress skin-sheathed muscle and still a little fat. I’m making good progress, I think. Oh man, this is awesome. I study the burgeoning definition and imagine how it will look when I have a full-blown six pack.
Newly motivated to continue the grind, I pull myself from the mirror and return to the bedroom. I pull open the top drawer of my dresser: socks, sports bra, underwear. Next drawer down: T-shirt and mesh shorts. I cover myself with the ensemble, then make my way to the living room to peer at the atomic clock. I read “48” for the outdoor temperature and opt to pull on long-sleeves over my T-shirt.
Back in the living room, I grab my Asics and sit in my computer chair. I put on my left shoe first, pulling the laces tight so that the shoe hugs my long, slender foot, and double-knot the bow at the top. I do the same with the right shoe, except I don’t double-knot it just yet. As I make my way to the front door, I slip my apartment key off the rest of the keyring, then toss the rest of the keys onto the end table. I step out into the dim hallway of the building, locking the door behind me, before I bend over to weave the key into the laces of my right shoe. I knot it securely, then descend the steps of the dank hallway.
Cool, damp air greets me as I exit the building. I shaved last night, but I can still feel the hairs on my legs stand on end in the climate of early spring. I walk to the street, and the gravel of the disintegrating driveway crunches under each step. At the end of the driveway, I break into a light jog, rubber soles kissing the pavement. I feel particularly light this morning and I fight the urge to shadowbox as I glide down the street. I stretch my arms as my legs move, recalling a scene from an old Muhammad Ali movie, where Ali shadowboxes on an early morning run. I don’t remember the name of the movie, or even whether I watched the entire flick, but pretty soon the temptation overwhelms me, and I throw a couple quick jabs into the air in front of me. I doubt anyone sees me this early in the morning, but I feel foolish anyways and resolve to stick to running.
I turn the corner and continue for about a mile. Trained by years of careful stepping, my feet deftly pick their way around loose stones, cracks in the cement, potholes, and various empty beer containers. My mind wanders through a labyrinth of thoughts about work and school and relationships. A murmur of existential angst tickles the edge of my consciousness. Vaguely, I wonder whether the ancient Greeks, in their quest for arete, engaged in such cogitation during their exercises.
Finally, I arrive at the elementary school playground. I circle around the safe, plastic equipment designed by societal paranoia and head for the old school metal of the monkey bars. My hands still haven’t quite adjusted to gripping the bars, but that will come with time and persistence.
I decide to start with push ups. I climb the ladder at the end of the equipment and pull myself on top of the bars. That gets easier every time, I think, once again pleased with my progress. Carefully, I position myself into a plank across the top of the bars and try not to imagine how painful it would be to slip and fall mouth-first against the hard metal. I bend my arms, lowering my body just over the bars, and push myself back up. Twenty-five reps, quickly but careful.
Rather than climb down, I then move to the end of the jungle gym, sitting on the last bar while looking at the center of the apparatus. I hook my knees over the bar immediately in front of me and anchor my ankles beneath the one just beyond it. I lower my upper body backwards into the empty space behind me, then posture myself back up in a situp. Another twenty-five reps. I force myself to ignore the rush of blood to my head with each bend backwards and the dizzy feeling that comes with it.
I lower myself to the ground and prepare for pull ups. I manage one unassisted, but at the moment, I do not possess sufficient upper body strength for more. I hook my feet on top of the ladder behind me and do five more pull ups, assisted. I feel metal rubbing against the top edge of my palms, opposite my knuckles, threatening blisters.
With pull ups completed, I start over at push ups. I repeat the full cycle four times, visualizing the contraction and release of muscles with each rep. Every set grows more difficult, and breaks become more frequent, but I push myself to finish because I know that by doing so, I will make it easier for myself tomorrow. A month from now, I will look in the mirror once again to find even more definition and less plasticity in my stomach.
I complete my jungle gym workout and set out for the run home. I feel simultaneously hot and cold as the morning air greets the sweat now permeating my T-shirt. I contemplate the next items on my schedule: shower, a quick breakfast, then off to work for a grind of another sort. My life cycles from one grind to the next, but I now can hear the melodious chirping of the birds, and the sun peeks over the distant horizon.