Despite my obviously bookish inclinations, I have always had a great love of sports. I learned to swim as a very small child and my love of water, especially playing in it, has never left me. In elementary school I did a few years of soccer and basketball. My uncle was and is a soccer fanatic, so I imbibed his "Love of the game" (though I admit that taste hasn't stayed with me like my hydrophilia [FIFA, World Cup, what?]). Around the same time, I was, like so many pre-teens, also swept up into the Michael Jordan frenzy ("It's gotta be the shoes"), ultimately successfully begging a pair of Air Jordans from my parents, thus fueling my love of basketball. My love for that sport abides, albeit my skills are laughable by this time. And of course, no healthy American boy should be free from a devotion to football, at least for a few years. I was a massive Redskins fan in the 5th and 6th grades, a passion which bled over into my larger hobby of sports card collecting.
Then in middle school I got into crew. I can't say enough about crew, so, paradoxically, I will say very little (here, at least). That sport changed my life. To this day I can still appreciate the fitness foundation and inner drive it gave me. Providentially, one of my great intellectual and spiritual role models, Fr. Stanley Jaki, told me in our one encounter, less than three months before he died, that he had rowed in high school in Hungary. When he told me that, time seemed to stop and I felt like, "No wonder I'm drawn to him!" Jaki was much more robust than I had anticipated when we met, so his background in crew made sense of his well known and evident vitality.
I "did" crew for six years, eventually rowing in a few state champions fours and eights, and even being immensely privileged to go to England for small competition. Our four defeated a Scottish university crew and one of the top prep schools in New England, but that didn't stop us from getting utterly destroyed in the first heat of the Henley Royal Regatta (by an oratory, no less!). Glory days, I tell you. I did not continue crew in college, which I suppose I regret, but the primal love-hate I––like all rowers––have for "the erg" abides as strongly as ever. Indeed, one of the few pieces of "furniture" I have any intention of investing in, is an ergometer for that faintest of dreams, "my own home."
In middle school and high school I also spent lots and lots of time on my bike, jamming to my Walkman, or making runs to and from that most hallowed of secular places, Chamblin's Used Bookmine. I did a season of cheerleading, believe it or not, as well as a season of wrestling, for which I developed not only a "fearful" reputation even into college ("long story"), but also a peculiar spot in the mini-pantheon of my generation's wrestling underworld (because I, a sophomore novice, toppled a senior, with six years of experience, from competing at states… which of course didn't do anything to prevent me from getting folded like a tin can there… a premonition of Henley, I suppose!). I also did three years of cross country. In our sophomore and junior years, I am two of my best friends got on a pushup and crunch tear, where we committed at one point to doing 200 pushups straight (allowing for pauses, certainly, around 140 or so, but never coming out of the suspended-prone position) every night. And a good share of hiking during breaks. Oh, and all that treeclimbing I've done since I was a boy. Don't get me started on all my injuries….
When I came to Taiwan, I got into various martial arts, mainly judo and taiji (you can search the FCA archives for bits and pieces), which also led me into bodyweight exercise, a real love of mine. A couple years ago I was coaxed (no, badgered) into doing a triathlon here by my triathlon-nut friend and old roommate, and apparently my performance as a novice somewhat stunned competitors in his circle. I may go for another triathlon someday, but the sheer amount of time involved in really training for one is very unappealing to me as a "polymath" of sorts. Actually, I'm naturally more inclined to a certain range of aerobic sports. Hence, one lasting factor in my development as a "jock scholar" was my dad's many years of fairly serious running. I don't remember a whole lot from my childhood (unless, I suppose, I were to start cataloguing what I do remember, at which point it might seem like quite a lot...), but two constants about my dad were his love for movies and his commitment to running. I don't know how many years he did the River Run (in Jacksonville, FL), but I vividly recall seeing all kinds of running paraphernalia in the house. Love for movies and love for physical fitness have become lasting impressions from my dad, an inheritance which finds its perfection in the fact that he introduced me to Chariots of Fire.
I'm rather a good swimmer and am a naturally strong cyclist. I even entertained fairly serious thoughts of trying out for road cycling at the national and even Olympic levels back in college. But, again, my "practical" side got to me: investing in bikes is too damn expensive! Even so, I love riding and am good at it, so my sophomore year, I and a friend rode from Pueblo, CO, to the IL-KY border, whereupon we split up for differing itineraries and then I continued on to D.C. and almost down to Florida before a friend of mine picked me up. 2600 miles in 6 weeks. A life-changing privilege.
A year or so later, when I was training nearly every day on the road bike, I was "attracted" into contact with the university cycling team (by "attracted" in I mean I fell for a girl on the team!), though my extremely individualistic nature made me wary of "team sports", aside from crew, which is "just different." One day, my "attraction" (who was also being vied for by the head of the team!) persuaded me to join them for a Saturday morning time trial event. So, I pedaled my silver, steel Schwinn Le Tour (with downtube shifters, no less!) to the rendezvous and was assigned a spot for the time trial. I was unfazed by, yet for all that not unaware of, the superior equipment of the other riders: carbon, titanium, etc. It was a two-mile (?) up and back loop, which meant we staggered our trials and then our times were calibrated based on our net time after everyone had returned. I burned past a few people that had set out before me and cranked into the finish line, whereupon we chatted and slurped from our sports bottles, waiting for everyone to finish so we could see our adjusted rankings. Turns out, I had come in third or fourth place, topped only by the team captains. I maintained (and still maintain!) humility, but I also tacitly agreed with my few slightly skittish but polite betters that, if I upgraded to lighter, faster components, I could challenge the top spot. I never invested in those saving components, content in the knowledge that I had achieved such a "dark horse" success in my first appearance 'among' the team by training on my own, using that indefatigable, some might even say, incorrigible, rower's will to push myself against myself. That is the essence of what sport is for me: to defeat myself and thereby defeat competitors without even realizing it.
Now, I'm a wiry guy, which means I'm stronger than I look to most people. I've never had much of a desire to be "big", partially because, again, serious bulk requires serious gym time, but mostly because I don't want my strength to be ostentatious. Call it meekness or call it cunning, but I believe greater power lies in not letting everyone know just how much you can bring to the table, force-wise, from just a glance. Even so, my love of physical exertion and bodily power has always inclined me towards the gym. As it turns out, my stepdad was a serious bodybuilder in his younger days, and even trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger once in California. In high school, he got me Arnold's Bodybuilding for Men, which simultaneously inspired and immobilized me. For by that time, I was "a rower," so not only did most of my body's time go out on the water, but I also realized the intense anaerobic commitment of bodybuilding wouldn't jibe well with the highly aerobic––but no less grueling!––demands of crew. Rowing also reinforced my proclivity for hidden strength since it was precisely my smaller size that gave me a greater impact in the boat.
When you do an erg, there's your "raw score" and your "adjusted score." The former is how long it took you to pull 1500m, while the latter is a time derived from a simple formula that factors in your body weight. The adjusted score is important for coaches so they can assess, roughly, which rowers are really generating the most power on the water. A big guy with an awesome raw score might have a terrible adjusted score, because, in the logic of the conversion formula, his great chain-tugging mass on an erg only becomes great drag on the hull of the boat in a race. By contrast, someone like me might not have as stunning a raw score but my lighter mass means all the power I put on the oar moves the moves faster because I create less drag. In concrete terms, in my junior year or so, I was about 155 lbs., while our stroke (the "lead" or "8-seat" rower int he boat, facing the coxswain), was over 200 lbs. His raw score was the top at the boathouse, about 6 minutes and 20 seconds. Mine was good but still behind some key rowers in our four and eight. But then coach computed the adjusted scores and our stroke's erg went up to, arbitrarily off the top of my head, 6:40, while my score went down to 6:20 or so. Whereupon, I became, officially, the most powerful rower on my school rowing team.
In any event, I've mostly shelved rowing since then and have not made any effort to join a club here in Taiwan, much less made any move towards investing in a scull. My experience with martial arts has done little to encourage gaining mass, since, for example, the whole premise of judo is that even small people can defeat big people with the right ergonomic technique, while my taiji instructor told me flat out not to bulk up or even do much strenuous gym work, since that would stiffen me too much for taiji. I don't do judo or taiji anymore these days, but would love to take them up again when the time is right. Something about being too busy right now and not really being up for the social entanglements of those group-training sports. The upshot is that my inveterate aversion to anaerobic exercises is greatly atrophied and, moreover, my long-time undergirding love for free weights and working out, now has room to flourish!
(Actually––another anecdote?––I set up a little gym in our living room for a couple years in college, which not only inspired one roommate to shed some fat with me after weeks of me pumping iron just off to the side of the couch while he watched Gator games and chugged Coca Cola, but also was the season I plateaued on the bench. The highest I have ever benched was two reps at 200 lbs., which means I suppose I could have maxed out with one rep at over 200 lbs. At that time I think I was about 185 lbs, very lean, a solid wiry Greek. These days I've put on a smidgen of fat and have generally just "bulked up" as men tend to do over time, so I am now just shy of 200 lbs. The thing is, in the 7th grade I was 145 lbs., still shedding some baby fat, and by the time I finished high school I had only gained 20 lbs. or so, though I had shot up by several inches. I have actually grown in height a little since coming to Taiwan [I was a late bloomer and I think the last tendrils of hormonal puberty finally withered in me only last year or so], but I still insist on keeping a basically trim physique. I'm also happy to say that in the span of, now, eight or nine years, my exercise habits in college "converted" another roommate into a serious fitness junkie, or so I gather from our periodic online chats. But I digress… from my other digressions.)
So, last weekend I joined a gym close to my home and intend to be there four nights a week: Wednesday and Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The gym, called "Central Power", has been recommended to me by a few friends, not only because it's a bargain (I paid about US$95 for a six-month membership!) but also because it's simple and raw: no Hollywood or California frills. Not a meat locker, by any means (come on, this is Taiwan), but it definitely has a robust free weights section. Hoo-rah!
And so it came to pass that Elliot decided to keep a log of his progress in bodybuilding. Moreover, he decided not to be coy or "broad-minded" (with himself) about it and instead simply to say up front, "Self, World, God, Groucho––I am hereby embarking on a season of bodybuilding. I've toyed with the idea long enough and now I'm going for broke. We'll just have to see what the results are and how long the season lasts." And again it came to pass that he, ahem, procured and bound a copy of Arnold's Schwarzenegger's earliest memoir, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, and already finds it entrancing. It shall be his vademecum as he makes his way back towards something like muscular excellence, followed, no doubt, by other guides in the course of time. He still has a foundation––having yanked and swung and pushed and twisted dumbbells and cinder blocks and bokken and ropes and water jugs and pullup bars and whatever else for the past couple years––but also still has a long way to go before he can call himself anything like a "bodybuilder."
(Now, where was "I"?)
It dawns on me that in the course of this post, it may seem I have done a fair share of bragging––hell, it may be that I've done a good deal of it!––so let me close with a deliciously self-deprecating (wait for it) anecdote. I decided to join Central Power last Saturday and I was so excited, I hit the weights right after joining. My standard workout is to do three sets of curls, pushups, crunches, pullups (maybe with a few chinups tossed in), and squats, so I made my way from station to station in Central Power, seeing what they had to offer, gauging my outmoded strength, flexing my dim memories of gym instincts. I was still very shaky as to how much I should go for each set, not only because I knew I had to stick to my three sets, but also because I knew it was high time to switch from my usual high-rep format to a higher-weight routine––and higher weights are not in demand at Central Power. (It didn't help my assessment that the weights were in a potpourri of Metric and British units!) Curls felt good: 20 kg plus handle weight for 15 reps the first set. The bench was much trickier: it's easy to strain the chest switching from bench to pushups, and vice versa. I had to shed 5 kg in my first set. Assessing. Tuning. Gauging. Like a predator sizing up a prey, or, perhaps more accurately, like a prey sizing up its chances of escape or self-defense. Crunches (I typically do rowing crunches) were good, but even better now that I could throw in a small dumbbell for resistance. The squat press really caught me off-guard. Rowing and biking had once made my legs columns of steel, but, for shame, I have atrophied and it's going to be a while before my quads look anywhere like they used.
Anyway, by my second set I was feeling good: sweating, mildly burning, getting a feel for the weights, eyeballing the other gym monkeys and seeing where I ranked. As always, I was in the upper-middle class, with lots of room to advance if I push myself. So it was with a real optimism that I put myself back under the barbell for a second set. First rep felt very close to just right: an even resistance in lowering and raising the bar, not just going through the motions. Then I came down for the second rep and that's when I heard the dull flicking sound in my right pec. "Well, that's the end of me benching for today," I realized, "and probably for another week or two." After years of exercise and sports, you just 'know' how serious an injury is. "Amateur," I sighed to myself, shaking my head, "Very amateur." But humility is not only the beginning of wisdom but also the foundation for fitness: you have to admit from the outset that you need to exercise in order to get better than you are. In other words, you first have to admit that you suck if you don't want to suck. Further, all along the way and at the start of every routine, you have to admit that there is always someone better than you.
My injury was what I call a "geometric" strain, meaning I could clearly visualize the size, depth, and shape of the tendon that had been strained. I staggered back into the equipment area to see what I could still do to work around my chest without totally jettisoning my extension exercises. As I rubbed the muscle, I could feel a tight, lightly jerky, rubbery resistance just in from and below where the pec merges with the deltoid. Nothing of the same kind on the other pec, so I knew it wasn't just a new consciousness of a normally unprobed tissue. I was dejected but also strangely heartened since I knew this is exactly what it is to do weights: pain. Setbacks without surrender. It felt good to feel bad.
For despite my genuine ambivalence about much of the "bodybuilding world"––its baldfaced narcissism and vanity, its confused chauvinism and machismo, its essential egotism and unaddressed insecurity, its implicit lasciviousness, its studied devotion to the body and typically consequent diversion from the soul––despite all that, I believe exercise is a genuine tool for spiritual and moral growth. There is after all a reason they make Bibles like the Sports Devotional Bible. My fundamental position as a "Christian jock scholar" is 1 Timothy 4:8: "For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come." 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is of course also a guiding Scripture in this arena (!): "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." Along similar lines St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." And as we read in Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…."
These Scriptures, and others in the same vein, by no means "promote" or "outline" a Christian "fitness regimen," but they do indicate that the experience of being an athlete, of pushing your will beyond your body's natural fear of pain and fatigue, gives psychological depth and an analogical fortitude in the spiritual life. I can vouch for that, too, from my own experience. As Brooks D. Kubik says, "Train heavy. If you don't train heavy, you might as well give it up." How could any Christian not agree about their own commitment to the Lord? In Revelation Jesus warns He shall "vomit the lukewarm," and in Luke 9 he teaches against putting your hand to plow and yet looking back for rest in the shade. Catholic piety could probably be summed up by saying, "All in or all out." If you're not "in it to win it," you're not really in it. "Put out into the deep," Jesus tells us through His disciples, "and put your nets down for a catch." Dig deep. Embrace the pain. Know that God will heal you as you die to yourself, your flabby, lazy, mortal self. I've written before (last June, actually) about the tearing down and building up of the body and heart in the Christian life. When I wrote that post, I was embarking on what has become a year of unremitting struggle, woe, self-examination, repentance, deliverance, joy, and freedom, and I can assure you that my experience as an athlete factored into my endurance this past year. Moreover, my experience in sports also gave me the cushion I needed to accept that, ultimately, I lost. For the heart of sport is not in winning but in training to win and in losing like a winner. I've learned how to integrate my faith into the hardest, darkest struggles of my life so far because I learned to integrate sports into my life of faith.
I think that is why Chariots of Fire has always been a paradigmatic movie for me, up there with The Mission in my cinematic attachment to Christ. My prayer is that my excursion into weightlifting, such as it might be, will reignite my faith in ways it used to thrive when I was an athlete "back in the day." For if I was privileged to have "glory days" as a teenager, surely I must awaken, day after day, to the call I have to live for eternal days of glory.
But that's enough for now. Stay tuned.