Saturday, February 12, 2011
How I Do It.
First I go to the locker room. It only takes a few minutes to shed the sweat pants I wear over my work out shorts. When the temperature outside rises above forty I will stop taking this extra step. I'll wear only shorts to the gym.
I only really have one leg that risks getting cold anyway. The other is mostly covered with prosthetics, protected from the bitter wind and cold of winter by silicone and plastics. But when the thermometer says 12, I wear the extra layer, for the sake of my one exposed leg.
I slip off my sweatpants and hang them on the hook under my heavy coat. I pull the ipod out of my coat pocket, grab my small towel and water bottle, and head out the locker room door. I'm very aware, even after seven years of being an amputee, that I walk into the locker room with a secret. Long pants cover the fact I don't have two real feet. Once I take them off, I know there will be looks.
But I don't really care. In fact, it makes me walk taller and stronger. I have valid reasons for being there. I know every person in that gym is there on purpose. Every person has a reason they make the effort to show up. Some want to lose weight. Many young men spend their time pushing and pulling weights to build their masculine physiques. The retired folks are trying to stay fit and active. Then there's me.
I want to be able to walk right. I want to have better balance. I want to do what comes easily to most people, walk fluidly. I want to have a healthy heart, and not die at age fifty, like my own mother did. And of course, I'd like to once again get down to my ideal body weight. But mostly I want to be strong and able. I want the decision to have my leg cut off to be worth it. And to make that happen, I need to spend a lot of time at the gym.
Some days I briskly walk over to the weight machines. I'm slowly working more strength training into my fitness plan. I know it helps my metabolism. It makes me feel better. It builds the muscles I need to have better gait. I don't mind lifting weights. But my true joy is that bike.
There are five stationary bikes at my gym. I love them all because they are heavy and stable, with wide seats to support my wide seat. I am lucky that they're not the most popular machines at the gym. The treadmills are where the cool kids go. And the ellipticals. The bikes are mostly ignored, which is good for me.
I pick whichever one has straps on the pedals. Usually it's the one nearest the wall. I have to have foot straps or my metal foot wants to wander. I've come close to falling off a stationary bike before, when I got caught up in the momentum and my foot slipped off. There's no need to repeat that experience.
Most people wipe down the equipment after they're finished. I do that. But I also wipe it down before I start, just in case the person before me forgot. Then I set the seat height to 12, throw my leg up and over, then bounce a few times to get used to the seat. A click on 'quick start', a push of the up arrow to level three, and I start pumping. Ear plugs are inserted, a playlist selected. Then it's time to go.
Slow at first, to warm up my muscles. When my legs start to feel loose, after just a few minutes, the resistance gets clicked up to four. Five more minutes of warm up, then it's time to get serious. I wait for the clock to come up to an even minute mark, then quickly push the resistance up to 9.
For a full minute I ride hard. Leaning forward, I stare at the control board in front of me and zone out. Pump, pump, pump. My quads start burning. Sometimes I count to ten, over and over. I learned this trick in childbirth. It's the one part of all those Lamaze classes that really worked. Focus on something else. Even if it's just numbers. One. Two. Three. Four. Five...
Soon the minute is up. It's not that hard to push hard, when I know it will be over in a minute. Once the :59 clicks back to :00, I allow myself to push the down arrow, back to five. Then I get three full minutes of a more reasonable pace. I chant the number I'm waiting for, the number I'll see when it's time to crank that resistance up for another minute. If I ended my hard minute at eight minutes, I start to chant, in my head, eleven...eleven...eleven. And when 10:59 clicks over to 11:00, I crank it up again. I do these circuits over and over.
It feels good. It makes me feel strong. It makes me feel like a real athlete. Like a person who can run. I've never been able to run, and it fascinates me. When I'm on that bike, pushing and counting and clicking the resistance levels up and down, I stare out the window. I focus on the cars in the parking lot and forget where I am (another trick I learned at Lamaze). I think about the people I know who run. I think about two in particular.
My brother in law, Kurt, is an amazing runner. He wasn't the fastest kid on the high school track team. But he was dedicated. He ran casually through his twenties but at some point in his thirties he got serious again. He started training every day. He now runs 5Ks just about every weekend. He runs half marathons and full marathons. He's a running beast. He has about 2% body fat. But I'm not nearly as jealous of that as I am the fact he has a beautiful running gait.
We've gone to races to cheer him on. He is amazing to watch. One foot in front of the other, stride after stride. Pat, pat, pat, his feet hit the ground so rhythmically. Mile after mile after mile. He makes it look so easy. So fluid.
Sometimes when I'm on the bike I think of Kurt. I imagine what that feels like, to run so smoothly. With each pedal stroke I can imagine a running stride. Up, down, up, down. I imagine I'm him, at the 18 mile mark of a marathon. Wanting to stop but knowing I still have something left. I have a few miles left in me. Pushing on, imagining people lining the street next to me, cheering and clapping. I pedal on, in my mental marathon.
And sometimes I think of Kurt's wife. She's become my sister through the years, as the 'in-law' part fell away with shared respect and affection. She's also a runner. She runs those 5Ks with her gifted husband. She runs the half marathons and has done her own full marathons. But she doesn't get the benefit of fluidity like Kurt does. She has asthma and other health issues. She fights for her miles.
She plugs away and gets the job done. Mile after mile she doesn't give up. When it's hard to breathe, she slows to a walk to get control, then she picks it back up again. She's always smiling. Even when it's hard. Even when it hurts. Sometimes I think about Terry when I run.
I feel the air filling my lungs easily. I take deep breaths, in and out, and am consciously thankful that they come so painlessly. I imagine being Terry, and pushing ahead even when it would be so much easier to call it a day and go home. I think about all the days she spends on the country roads by their house, running and running and running. I look down at the mile marker on my bike and set a goal. If it says I've ridden for 12.3 miles I decide to ride at least until I hit 13. It's the kind of thing Terry would do. Hit a wall and keep going.
After about twenty minutes on the bike my body is in a full sweat. A cleansing sweat. If my legs are going too fast it means the resistance level is too easy. I need to crank it up. I need to feel just a bit of burn. If doesn't take some mental effort, it's not worth it. It's not making me strong. I think about the rhythm of the song in my ears. I match the up and down of my legs with the beat of the music.
I concentrate on pushing a bit more with my left leg, the one with the plastic foot at the bottom. With each stroke I push a bit harder on that side. I wait for that thigh to burn a bit extra. Then I switch my focus to the other side. Pushing down harder with each rotation to the right. Then back to an even stroke, left, right, left, right.
After almost an hour on the bike it's time to slow things down. I look at my numbers and decide which goal is my ending goal. I can either end at a specific mile mark or a time mark. Or I can wait until the song on my ipod finishes. When it's finally time to stop, it's like stepping out of one body and into another. Everything slows down.
I exhale deeply and release my feet from the pedal straps. I let them hang loose, wiggling them back and forth, trying to shake the burn out of them. Then I crawl off. I take a few steps away from the bike and shake out my legs again. It feels good to have asked so much of them and gotten a response. Once I'm acclimated back to being on the ground I do my duty and wipe the bike off. I collect my towel, water bottle and ipod and slowly make my way back to the locker room.
My leg socket is full of sweat. I don't feel it as much when I'm on the bike, but as I try to walk away it's hard to ignore. Squish, squish, squish. Every step is like walking in a shoe full of water. I limp back to the other side of the gym, very aware that many might imagine I'm in pain, by watching my gait. But nine times out of ten, I'm not. It doesn't hurt to have sweat fill my leg. It's just annoying.
In fact, I'm usually just the opposite. I'm high. I'm exhausted and spent. My body is damp and smells bad. But I'm feeling good. Really, really good. Because I'm strong. My muscles have worked hard and done their job. My body has done what it was created to do, and done it in a very efficient way. I'm happy and grateful to be healthy. I'm thrilled to be smelly and tired.
This is why I had that foot cut off. This. Very. Reason. So I could squish back to a locker room and feel good about my fitness progress. So I could sit on that bench and wipe out that sweat, and emerge a few minutes later, able to walk tall and strong, back to my car. So I can be just like everyone else at that gym, and be the best that I can be.