Confessions of a former 120-pound weakling
"Pain is weakness leaving your body." -- Motto of Marine Corps boot camps
When I first agreed to participate in the Fittest Loser Challenge as an "embedded journalist," I said that I wasn't too sure how enthused I was about turning my way of eating upside down. But I said I probably would enjoy doing the three-days-a-week exercises.
How naive I was.
Even before gaining 70 pounds over the past 45 years, my body was never mistaken for a Roman god. In fact, I had always been seen as the nerdy little 100-pound weakling, the last chosen for almost any team during gym class. The closest I got to competitive sports was playing clarinet in the school marching band.
Attending Abbott Junior High in Elgin in the mid-1960s, I got the Walter Mitty-ish idea of running in the school's Turkey Trot race on the day before Thanksgiving. As dozens of 12- through-14-year-olds lined up, I saw, as I had hoped to see, THE GIRL watching. The one I had adored from afar since she sneaked a kiss onto my cheek in the third grade. I really wanted to impress that girl.
A teacher counted out "3, 2, 1" and blew a whistle. The dense pack of runners surged forward. I took about three steps, tripped on somebody next to me or on my own clumsy feet (the Congressional investigation never did conclusively nail the exact cause). I went sprawling onto the asphalt. Two other runners tripped over me and spilled to Earth. As we untangled ourselves, the rest of the pack sneered and ran away -- along with my love life, I feared.
Nor did my fitness improve much as the years went by. My college buddy Jim graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University with me and changed from a war-gaming buff into a running nut. When we were about 45, Jim somehow convinced me to join him in a 5K Homecoming Weekend race through the streets of Bloomington. Something like 30 or 40 other alums participated, both male and female.
As we ran up and down the streets, I got more and more out of breath and became slower and slower. Ten people passed me. Then 20. Then 25. As the finish line came into sight, the one last runner behind me got closer and closer. Finally, exhausted, I just let him pass and finish 20 or 30 feet before me.
Later Jim introduced that faster, tougher man to me -- and explained that he is 78 years old.
This flabby condition was not entirely due to neglect.
In Elgin schools during the 1960s, just about every gym class began with calisthenics. But they were very basic -- pushups, situps, jumping jacks, chin-ups, all done without any equipment except our own bodies and an occasional chinning bar.
I actually rather enjoyed doing them. For awhile during my senior year in college, Jim, my fiancee, Patty; Jim's fiancee and a couple other students started doing similar calisthenics a few times a week in our dorm, guided by a book of "Royal Canadian Air Force Exercises."
Patty and I had trouble doing more than a handful of each exercise even back then. And when I attempted a pushup or a pullup 40 years later, I was asking my arm muscles to lift 70 more pounds than they had been doing as a college boy.
In the years after college, I had continued to do occasional bursts of calisthenics before going to bed. I occasionally did a lengthy bike ride along the Fox River Trail or the Illinois Prairie Path, often with a young kid in a seat atop my bike's rear fender. Sometimes I'd go over to the Abbott schoolyard with a baseball and a bat, hit the ball, chase it to wherever it landed, hit it again, and so forth until I was breathing hard.
During our annual trips to visit Patty's parents in Florida, I would devote two days in each trip to walking five or six miles. When we went on vacation in the North Woods, I'd swim in the lake every day. And for awhile Patty and I even went a couple times a week to The Centre of Elgin recreation building, working out on various weight machines or swimming. But we finally gave that up to save money.
During the years we owned a springer spaniel I enjoyed an enforced exercise program by having to walk him for a few blocks three times a day, 365 days a year, rain or shine.
Yet all this exercising was at best sporadic. The reason I enjoyed it was probably that it was not demanding enough.
When I enlisted in Fittest Loser and chief trainer Josh Steckler put me through an opening assessment of my condition, I could squeeze out one only one single, pathetic pushup.
But that was about to change.
• Dave Gathman is a Daily Herald correspondent. He is undergoing the same physical workouts and nutritional counseling as the Fittest Loser contestants as he writes about their journey.