Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'X' Marks the Spot

There I was, laid out on my back, gasping for air, beads of sweat pouring down my face and stinging my eyes. I attempted to get up but couldn’t. My body was somehow aching and completely numb, all at the same time. With my life flashing before me, I battled disorientation, as my mind tried to make sense of the trauma it had just been through.

Was it a nightmare? Had I been shot? Was I having a near-death experience? Was I getting my chest waxed like The 40-Year-Old Virgin?

Nope…I had just finished my first workout for P90X.

An “extreme home fitness program,” P90X promises to get you in the best shape of your life over a 90 day period by putting you through a diverse set of workouts for an hour or so a day – and it’s that “or so” that’ll get you – six days a week. You push, you pull, you lunge, you extend, and you hope you don’t vomit, all within the friendly confines of your own living room.

The evil mastermind behind the series is trainer Tony Horton, one of those perfect looking, impossibly fit dudes who sadistically finds pleasure in a burning quadriceps muscle. He’s the leader on the DVDs, instructing you what to do while also doing the workouts himself. And as you’re grinding and grunting, trying to keep your lungs from ejecting out of your esophagus, he’s smiling and laughing, making it all look so easy. The man is an absolute beast. I sometimes wonder if he has any furniture in his house, or if he just gets into a “Wall Squat” when he feels like sitting down.

I first learned of the program about a year-and-a-half ago on sports talk radio, when seemingly every show I listened to began endorsing it. The hosts were all doing the workouts, and you couldn’t flip the channel without hearing somebody going on and on about how great they felt and how much their body had been transformed.

Despite this constant bombardment, though, I never really considered doing it. Beyond the basic commitment that would cut into my “doing nothing” time, I just really don’t like working out. The straining, the sweating, the shaking…it’s not fun. And while I’ve forced myself to do a consistent routine a few days a week for some time now, I always want it to be over as quickly as possible. Honestly, if I had access to a wish-granting genie, the ability to jam all of my exercising into a Rocky-esque montage – where three minutes, some inspirational music and a Russian mountaintop is all you need to become a chiseled world champion – would be on my shortlist.

But over time, like any commercial jingle, the gospel of P90X seeped into my subconscious, growing on me the same way George endeared himself to the “Rat Hat” saleswoman who at first couldn’t stand him.

Opening me up that much more to its message was the fact that I’ve been feeling stressed and a little out of sorts lately, like something just isn’t right. And as a way to cope with all of these fears and anxieties, I’ve been breaking down and bending my self-imposed exercise and diet rules. I’ll skip a workout. I’ll go to McDonald’s. I’ll skip a workout to go to McDonald’s. And while these rebellions have initially been freeing, it never takes long for the shame and guilt to set in, leaving me to wallow in regret, as I poke my ever-softening midsection and try to figure out how to not lie when my mom inevitably asks, “Have you been taking care of yourself?”

Things finally tipped a few weeks ago when I was, of all things, going to pick up my car from the shop. The service station I use is right across the street from my office, and it sits on top of this big hill that, while annoying to go up and down, shouldn’t be anything that a seemingly healthy 33-year-old should even notice. But as I made my way up it, I found myself struggling to catch my breath.

And I was just walking.

Standing in line to pay, I was downright embarrassed, and also a little angry. Here I was, blessed with great genes and a strong metabolism, and yet I was wasting it all on Scrubs reruns and chicken nuggets. How had I gotten to this point? I knew that I was better than this, and I knew exactly what I had to do about it.


After buying the DVDs and spending approximately 83 hours assembling my pull-up bar, the final step in my preparation was determining when I was actually going to do the workouts. An hour a day is a lot, even for someone who isn’t married, doesn’t have kids and whose to-do list often includes watching high school highlight reels of potential Texas Longhorn football prospects.

(I’ll pause here for all of the parents of young kids to shake their heads in “Time…there’s never any time” disgust).

While I’ve always had an allergy to alarm clocks, I ultimately decided that I’d wake up early and exercise before going to work. It was like playing with found time, I figured, and it’d be the perfect way to get the agony over and done with. Plus, I’ve always heard people talk about how good they feel after a pre-dawn workout, how it’s a great jumpstart to their morning, how it’s a natural high that fuels them throughout the day. Maybe I could turn into that annoying, sunshiny person who everyone else quietly can’t stand.

Well, I haven’t.

Instead of being energized and invigorated, I’m just exhausted. I walk around in a haze, and come 9pm, I’m buried in the couch, doing a dead-on impersonation of my early-to-bed mother – sitting upright, my head drifting down, down, down until it snaps back to level, as I violently pinball in and out of consciousness. Once I can finally summon the motivation to get up and go to my room, the sensation of sinking into my mattress is one of pure ecstasy.

It’s the moment that I look forward to all of my waking hours, and it would be, without a doubt, the highlight of my day, if it weren’t for one haunting realization:

The next time I’m awake, there’s another workout waiting for me.

And these workouts are absolutely brutal, punishing every muscle you can imagine with exotic sets like “Full Supination Concentration Curls” and “Flip-Grip Twist Triceps Kickbacks.” There’s a running clock at the bottom of the screen that lets you know how much time is left, both for that particular exercise and for the entire workout. While I barely noticed it initially, now I can’t take my eyes off it, like a 5th grader looking at his watch, waiting for the Recess bell to ring. And I swear it keeps moving slower and slower with each passing routine.

Forget bull riding…do Plyometrics once, and you’ll gain a full appreciation for just how long eight seconds truly is.

I was at a wedding the weekend before last, and there was a single-person restroom right outside of the reception hall. As I was about to go in, I saw that there was a sign posted saying that the restroom was only for people who couldn’t make it down the stairs to the larger facilities. Now, I’m the last person who’d ever take a handicap parking spot or purposefully inconvenience the elderly, but I stood there for a good minute trying to rationalize to myself that the authors of the sign had “people in the first week of P90X” in mind when they wrote it.

(Then I remembered that when you’re faced with a dilemma like this, think of what Larry David would do – and do the opposite.)

Just 10 workouts into the program, I not surprisingly have little to show for my efforts. I’m not even capable of doing all of the required exercises yet, but I figure I’ll see some level of improvement eventually, if for no other reason than that I’m doing something more than I was before.

But honestly, I didn’t decide to do P90X just for the physical benefits. Like I explained here, for as long as I can remember, my life has felt like it’s out in front of me, like my present is nothing more than an inconsequential prelude to the real thing. And this “someday” quality has taken away any sense of urgency. I can sit around and watch TV all I want…the important stuff can wait for another day.

It’s like I’m standing at a crossroads and never choosing a direction.

But the time has come to change that now, and in some strange way, taking on this program is a way to get things started. It’s a first step, a shift in energy, and if I can complete something that’s this far out of my comfort zone, then…I don’t know…who knows what else I can do?

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m drenched in sweat, my legs convulsing and my will to live quivering as I try to hold a “Half Moon” pose in the Yoga workout. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but I made this commitment, and as long as my body will allow me, I’m going to keep showing up, keep putting that DVD in the machine, and keep hitting play. Because, as the immortal Tony Horton would say, once you do that, there’s only one thing left to do:

Bring it.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?