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There's a sound a man makes when he's physically breaking. It's primordial, somewhere between grunt and shriek, as if he's calling out to his fellow Neanderthals for help. I heard it from the mouth of some poor dolt the first moment I walked into the Crossfit Little Rock facility. Within the hour, I was crawling on all fours, all the blood had left my face, and the sound was coming from me.
I've never been one to push myself at ... well ... much of anything. In high school, I opted for golf over baseball each spring because there was no running. An MFA over a Ph.D because there was less research, less writing, and citing sources seemed like a pain. And though I've exercised for years, it's been of the candy-assed persuasion. A set on a weight machine, followed swiftly by a lot of sitting on said machine and listening to bad, canned radio. In other words, my gaze is and always has been trained on low-hanging fruit.
So then why, at 35, for perhaps the first time in my life, is every article of clothing I'm wearing soaked through with sweat? Why did I just attempt exercises called "burpees," and "snatches" and — God forbid – "man-makers"? And why do my chest and arms and calves feel like they are in hellish, interminable flame?
The easy answer is that this is just one brief chapter in the tome that is my early mid-life crisis. But it gets more complicated when you look around and see how many millions of men and women across this desperate and fanatical land of ours are doing the same insane shit.
Gyms have always been full of these types of extremists. Marathons are obviously nothing new. However, never have there been so many marathons (and ultra-marathons and "death races"), never have there been so many gyms (and, better yet, alternatives to gyms), and, most importantly, never have so many Americans taken part. Locally, our fat, middle-aged asses can train like the Hogs we always wanted to be at facilities like D-1. We can brave the sparse warehouse of Crossfit, which looks more poised for the interrogations of Torquemada or Guantanamo than exercise. Or, if you're a more solitary sort, through programs like P90X, you can exhaust and abuse yourself in the comfort of your own living room. To put it simply, extremism has become democratized.
The question, then, becomes "Why?" Why the spike? And what does the average man or woman take from programs or feats that are seemingly irrational and sometimes even unhealthy? Here are my answers:
1. This all fits in well with our bipolar nation. We spend everyday eating like we're at the fair. The numbers for obesity, diabetes and deep-fried turkey purchases are staggering, so our healthy rebellion must be just as extreme.
2. Vanity. A desire to stay physically appealing long past our primes.
3. There is, at the most fundamental psychological level, an attempt to deny that we are mortal, the acts themselves the most base and basic denial that we need rest, or will one day rest eternally.
4. "Masochism." That was the opinion of my therapist when I asked him. "Really? No more nuanced than that? Just pure masochism?" "Masochism," he repeated.
5. Our soft, modern hands. You know who you don't see in these gyms? Roofers. Movers. Farmers. Why would you? Those people work for a living. They're exhausted. We, on the other hand, have removed truly strenuous work from our specialized society, so we have to make up for it by taking part in "paleo workouts" where, 20 minutes in, our bodies feel like we're being chased by a cave lion.
6. But most importantly, I think — more than narcissism or masochism or a repudiation of death or our contemporary citified frailty — we want to find out if we can.
Take the marathon. There's not a sensible doctor on Earth who would tell you that running one is good for your body. Marathons are, however, a grueling and admirable testament to a person's ability to make his body submit to his will. And, as with these high-intensity workouts, the goals are set and clear. Do this many reps of these exercises in this amount of time. Oh, and by the way, they're designed to make you quit. They're designed to make you yelp like a child. But can you finish?
I'm the worst advertisement in the world for Crossfit or the like because every time anyone asks me how it was, I say, "It was horrible." And it is. But there's a camaraderie in standing around with fellow martyrs and telling war stories of how bad it all was. Also, despite all the pain, it's fundamentally satisfying. I'm a writer who doesn't enjoy the process of writing, but love having written. Exercise is no different. And when you have done all your body will allow you to do within that set time, you are contented. Inevitably. Clear. Simple. Fulfilled. In how many other areas of our lives can we say that?