Monday, February 28, 2011

Gym stereotypes: college edition

According to the feedback I’ve received from my most loyal readers (thanks Mom and Dad!) my post about stereotypical gym characters was a smashing success. So I have decided to produce a spin-off—let’s hope it’s better than Joey.

College rec centers are like the Marshmallow Mateys of indoor fitness facilities. On the surface, they look, smell and taste pretty much the same as the real thing. But when you take a moment to chew more slowly and really concentrate on the distinct combination of flavors and textures, you’ll realize that something is slightly off. Marshmallow Mateys are not Lucky Charms, and college gyms are not regular gyms.

As with any gym, though, university rec facilities harbor several distinct, stereotypical groups of exercisers. The following line-up is based on over four years of informal research conducted in the rec center at my alma mater.

The Newbies: These wide-eyed 18-year-olds usually travel in groups of friends they probably met at last night’s floor snack. They wander aimlessly through the gym, talking about trying different machines but never actually committing to one exercise for more than five minutes. At the end of their “workout,” they can be spotted purchasing smoothies at the snack bar with their meal plan swipe cards, thus outing themselves as freshmen, because seriously, who else would pay $6.00 for a cup of banana puree? Other key defining traits: high school sports t-shirts, university lanyards, visible insecurity.

The Dudes who are Trolling for Chicks: They work out in pairs (one dude-on-the-prowl, one wingman) and try to pass by the cardio section as many times as possible over the course of their workout. Each time they cruise by the row of elliptical machines, they consciously puff out their chests, flex their biceps, and walk like they’re carrying a keg under each arm. Other key defining traits: Hurley brand t-shirts (cut-off sleeves optional), backwards flat-brimmed baseball caps, cubic zirconia ear studs.

The Chicks who are Trolling for Dudes: These are the girls who come to the gym looking like they just wrapped a photo shoot for the spring Nike catalogue. Everything—from their brand new Nike Frees to their no-slip elastic hair bands—is color coordinated, probably in hot pink or neon purple. They pretend to be interested in the latest issue of Star magazine as they move just fast enough to keep the elliptical from slipping into energy conservation mode. Each time a remotely good-looking dude walks by, they push out their cleavage, stare seductively into his eyes, and flutter their mascara-clumped eyelashes. Other key defining traits: vanilla lattes, cakey makeup, bedazzled cell phones.

The Honors Students: Between their graduate-level organic chemistry courses and their weekly conference calls with Ben Bernanke, these scholastic overachievers have virtually no time to devote to the sole pursuit of physical fitness. But being the brilliant problem-solvers that they are, they have devised a system in which they can work out, write their doctoral dissertations, and catch the latest episode of Jeopardy!, all in one fell swoop. You can catch them in action in the stationary bikes area, where they can be seen pedaling feverishly as they work multi-page calculus problems and yell out phrases like, “What is the epiglottis?!” Other key defining traits: ankle socks, prescription goggles, high earning potential.

The Scrawny but Sporty Guys: Their beanpole physiques might have cut it in their high school basketball days, but once they set foot on a college campus, they realized they needed to beef up if they wanted to impress the ladies. These guys are serious about building muscle—they’ve really taken the whole “no pecs, no sex” joke to heart. They can be seen shadowing their bigger, buffer peers in the weight room, carefully imitating their every move with weights that are obviously too heavy. Other key defining traits: visible clavicles, baggy basketball shorts, lower back strains.

The Ban-the-Bombers: They use pickle jars as water bottles and shop exclusively at Goodwill and the farmers’ market. In their crusade against big business corruption, they have boycotted companies like Nike. If you make the mistake of engaging them in friendly conversation, they will try to convince you to sign up for their next sit-in protest and trade your new Nike Shox for clogs made of recycled organic clay. Other key defining traits: Sierra Club t-shirts, nose rings, hemp necklaces.

The Health-Conscious Professors: They’ve never heard of an iPod, but they are perfectly content to read the latest issue of The Economist as they power-walk their way to lower blood pressure. Often sporting t-shirts from obscure athletic events of the 1980s—like The 2nd Annual “Let’s Get Physical” 7-Mile—these sagely scholars are here to not only manage their high cholesterol, but also to show all the young whippersnappers that they’ve still got it. Other key defining traits: tortoise shell eyeglasses, ear hair, striped cotton tank tops.

The Track Team: They’re loud, they’re sweaty, and they are definitely exceeding the half-hour time limit for the treadmill they’re using. You came to the gym hoping to enjoy a leisurely trot around the indoor track. Little did you know, the trackies were planning to sabotage your joggy-jog with a battery of sprint intervals. You cower in the corner, wondering why they can’t just work out in their own facility. The truth is, their athletic department is too cheap to spend money on sports other than football, so they don’t actually have a team facility. Come to think of it, you didn’t even know there was an indoor track team. Other key defining traits: speed suits, gold chains, short shorts.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

GTL: Gym, Tan, Loofah

According to recent reports, actress (if you can even call her that anymore) Lindsay Lohan is being sued by a Nevada-based spray-tan company over an alleged unpaid tab of some $41,000.

When I heard this story, I was dumbfounded for two reasons:

(1) Who in their right mind allows Lindsay Lohan to purchase something on credit?

(2) Who in their right mind pays $41,000 to look like they OD’ed on beta-carotene?

Granted, I’m sure no one, other than LiLo’s busy legal team, would take on the challenge of defending her sanity. But regardless of whether she is sober or mentally stable, I’m pretty sure she’s not blind.

I do have to admit, I kind of feel for poor Lindsay—when it comes to her skin tone, that is. (I don’t want to be accused of condoning cleptomania, alcoholism, or Labor Pains.)

You see, I too suffer from extreme epidermal pallidity due to the misfortune of inheriting 50 percent of my genes from a redhead. After years of denial, I have finally accepted that my skin rejects any and all shades between “almost transparent” and “so burnt it hurts to stand in a stiff breeze.”

On a recent trip to Phoenix, my mom and I spent the afternoon sitting by the pool—under umbrellas. As the sun moved across the cloudless sky, we chased the shade around the pool while other hotel patrons oiled and rotated their way to perfectly sun-kissed skin.

But I wasn’t always so at peace with my pastiness. Like Lindsay, I did some pretty stupid things in an attempt to cheat nature—though to be fair, none of them resulted in a debt of forty grand.

During my freshman year of college, I had my first experience with indoor tanning. With the encouragement of my roommate—who spent her summers working as a lifeguard—I marched over to the campus salon and purchased a tanning package. For years, my self-confidence—on the track and off—had been compromised by my blinding whiteness.

Whenever I lined up at the start of a race, I couldn’t help but feel athletically inferior to the girls whose golden complexions exuded an aura of physical fitness. Of course, my theory on the relationship between tanness and athletic ability was rarely supported by actual race results.

Still, there was no changing my mind. While other UM co-eds flocked to the tanning salon in preparation for their spring break trips to Cabo, it wasn’t the allure of a bikini-ready glow that drew me in to the tanning bed. I just wanted to look fast in my track uniform.

Around the time that my tanning punch card was nearly full, we had our first 70-degree day of the spring. I went to practice in shorts and a tank top, feeling bronzed and confident. When nobody commented on my beach-worthy tan, I grew concerned. Finally, I approached one of my friends on the team.

Me: Hey, do I look tanner to you?


Me: [glaring silently and looking generally unamused]

Friend: Oh, you’re serious?

Apparently, in spite of all the time, money and dangerous UV exposure I had invested in my pursuit of the perfect artificial tan, I ended up looking only slightly “less white” than before and increasing my risk of developing skin cancer by 75 percent.

In short, it wasn’t worth it, and in a few weeks I was back to looking like this:

By my junior year, I had pretty much accepted the fact that I was destined to be pale. I wore sunscreen regularly and quelled my envy of tan competitors by imagining them in 25 years, once all that sun damage had turned their skin into a leathery, wrinkly mess.

Then one day, after the weather had taken a turn for the warmer, one of my teammates suggested that we get spray tans together. I was reluctant at first. All I could think about was that episode of Friends—you know, “The One with Ross’s Tan.” With the conference championships coming up, I didn’t want to look ridiculous.

Over the next few days, we somehow convinced ourselves that we’d be alright as long as we followed all of the precautions and stuck to the lightest shade. So, with only a few days to spare before the championship meet, we booked our appointments, exfoliated our entire bodies, and set out to get our skin dyed.

From the moment I was led to the misting chamber by an orange-hued, bleach-blonde 16-year-old, I knew I was in trouble. When I asked her to take the wad of gum out of her mouth and repeat the instructions, she looked at me like I was the idiot. These are the actual words she said to me:

“Just, like, stand there for a little bit so it can, like, spray you, and when it, um, beeps or something, turn around so it can spray you some more.”

My gut told me to ditch my plastic hairnet and get out of there immediately. But before I could grab my towel and open the door, the lights started flashing and the misting jets started spraying. Bailing was no longer an option—my front side had already been exposed to the mist, and I certainly didn’t want to pull a Ross Geller.

I was under the impression that the tanning chemicals would take effect immediately. This was not the case. I left the facility looking pretty much the same as I did when I went in. I was told it would take a few hours for the color to fully develop.

About an hour later, my tanning partner-in-crime texted me: R U tan yet?

I replied: Nope. Still white.

She responded: Me 2.

I sprawled out on the couch for an afternoon nap. When I woke up, the situation had changed dramatically.

I staggered to my bedroom, my eyes still heavy with sleep, and turned on the light. When I looked in the mirror, I was instantly wide awake. And I was tan. Really tan.

I grabbed my phone and texted my friend again: Update: I’m tan.

She responded: So am I!!!

Somewhere in the lowest depths of my soul, I had a feeling that this was too good to be true. Still, feelings of happiness and confidence overshadowed any sense of foreboding, because dang, I looked good.

When I woke up the next day, I noticed that my tan had taken on more of an orange tint, but I was still mostly satisfied with it, and I was excited to show it off at practice.

By 3 p.m. both my friend and I were growing increasingly concerned about our new tans. I was trying to convince myself that it only looked orange in certain lights, and that everything would be okay in the natural light of the sun.

I have created the following photo illustration to demonstrate what I looked like approximately 30 hours post-tan:

Right before practice, my friend sent me the following text: Uh oh, I’m kinda orange.

With my worst fears confirmed, panic set in.

I bolted to the shower, grabbed the most abrasive loofah I could find, and started scrubbing feverishly. Twenty minutes later, I dried myself off, looked in the bathroom mirror, and started weighing the threat of punishment for skipping practice against the embarrassment and ridicule I would surely endure if I showed up.

My skin was a splotchy mess of white and orange. I looked like an Oompa Loompa with a botched chemical peel:

With no time to think, I threw on a pair of half-tights and a long-sleeved t-shirt, even though it was at least 75 degrees outside. I prayed no one would notice the orange blotches on my calves.

I spent an hour scrubbing my skin in the shower that night. By the time I gave up, I had all but removed my top dermal layer. The orange patches, though faded, were definitely still visible.

Tired and humiliated, I dragged myself to the kitchen to get something to drink. When I opened the fridge, a certain yellow fruit caught my eye—the same sour, citric fruit whose natural bleaching powers have been exploited by humankind for centuries.

I sliced the lemon in half and squeezed as much juice as possible into a bowl. Then, using a basting brush, I began painting my legs with citrus. I’m not sure why we had a basting brush or how I was able to find it in the kitchen when the most complicated meal I’d ever prepared was a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but I do know that I immediately regretted my decision to cover my skin in lemon juice.

You know how acidic foods sting your tongue if you’ve recently burned it on hot coffee or soup? Well, after my extensive loofah-scrubbing session, my entire body was basically one big raw tongue, and that lemon juice hurt. Like. The. Dickens. I gritted my teeth and kept slathering on the juice. I apologized to my skin for the hell I’d put it through and promised to never do it again.

I finished with a coat of Jergens and crawled into bed.

The next morning—T-minus two days until the conference meet—I awoke to find that the orange blotches had lightened considerably. After scrutinizing myself in the mirror for several minutes, I finally decided that nobody would notice the slight discoloration if they weren’t specifically looking for it.

So, what can we all learn from this story? First, it’s better to just be who you are than to waste time trying to be something you’re not. Second, never purchase products from a business whose employee dress code allows for tube tops and platform flip flops. And finally, if you’re going to buy a spray tan, pay with real money so you don’t find yourself in the middle of an embarrassing lawsuit.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

No bra? Faux pas!

I really thought I’d seen it all.

I have worked out at various indoor fitness facilities for close to a decade now, and when it comes to gym clientele, nothing really surprises me anymore.

I’ve seen people sweat it out in jeans, button-up flannels, suede loafers, turtlenecks, khakis, denim cut-offs, turbans, Christmas sweaters—you name it. If someone were to hop on the elliptical next to mine in a pair of footie pajamas, I probably wouldn’t bat an eye.

For a long time, I considered such “unconventional” exercisers as inferior to those of us donning normal workout apparel like gym shorts and t-shirts.

Then I met people—most of whom fell under the previously discussed Longwinded Techy category—who lambasted me for my own clothing choices, including my extensive collection of Gildan 100% cotton t-shirts.

“Oh man, you’ve gotta get yourself some Under Armour heat gear. You’ll never wear cotton again,” they would tell me. Well guess what? I like cotton. I like the way it looks. I like the way it feels. I like the way it washes up. And I think there is a reason that cotton, not segmented polyurethane, is advertised as “the fabric of our lives.”

And so, gradually, I adopted a more forgiving attitude toward exercisers with eccentric gym wardrobes.

What I saw today, however, was utterly unforgivable. No pun intended. Well, you probably wouldn’t understand the pun yet anyway, but you will in a minute.

I was cruising along on the elliptical, watching the Harlem Globetrotters on ESPN2 and minding my own business. The Trotters were performing all sorts of amazing tricks, but when a flash of red diverted my attention from the bouncing basketballs on my TV screen to the running track that circles the cardio area, I fixed my eyes on another set of bouncing spheres.

The jogger on the track—a woman in her mid-40s or 50s—was decked out in red running gear, from the shoelaces on her training flats to the moisture-wicking fabric of her fitted shirt. It was what she wasn’t wearing that was so horrifying.

If she was trying to make a feminist statement, it definitely wasn’t working. I get it—bras are uncomfortable, and we as women must free ourselves from the social expectation to bind our bodies under layers of mesh and underwire.

While that argument might apply to women in non-exercise settings, I simply cannot accept it as a logical line of reasoning when it comes to women who jog. Today, I witnessed the effects of running braless, and even the most eloquent defense attorney could not convince me, beyond a reasonable doubt, that this woman was more comfortable sans support.

So, if you are a woman who is considering pulling a stunt like this, please consider the following points:

1.) Sports bras are made to be comfortable—so comfortable, in fact, that you might forget you are even wearing a bra.

2.) This does not mean that you should actually forget to wear a bra.

3.) There are two things in this world you don’t mess with: Texas and gravity.

4.) Some things cannot be unseen. Have some respect for your fellow exercisers.

And if you really must go braless, I would advise you to, at the very least, invest in some nipple guards.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Okay, I promised I would reveal my next big idea in this post, but first I must recount the series of events leading up to its inception. Stay with me—it’s worth it.

First: I sweat. A lot. It is essential that you understand the magnitude of my sweating problem, so I have furnished examples of visual evidence to illustrate what I’m talking about:

This photo was probably taken around mile 1 in a five-kilometer race. There are a few things I would like to point out with regards to this image:

First, as you might surmise from the background, this was an outdoor race. Second, it was an October morning in Montana, so the temperature was right around 30 degrees Fahrenheit (that's -1.1 degrees Celsius for all you crazy Canadians). Finally, I am, in fact, wearing two layers of clothing. Now take a moment to imagine what “could have been” in the absence of cold air, wind resistance, and double layers of moisture absorption.

The following video clip was recorded after a six-kilometer (3.7 miles) race in Indiana last October. As I recall, the race-day temperature was in the high 50 to low 60-degree range.

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to post a photo of myself after completing an indoor workout. It is simply too graphic in nature. Just know that there is even more sweat. A lot more.

I sweat so much, in fact, that I usually leave a puddle on or around the cardio machine I use at the gym. I once overheard a fellow gym-goer complaining to one of the trainers that the sweat on the floor was “really disgusting.” She was standing right next to me. I was like, “Hello! My ears might be soaked in my own perspiration, but I can still hear you!”

A few days ago, after I completed a particularly sweaty treadmill run, my dad casually joked that I should use a ShamWow as a sweat towel. “Actually,” he said, growing even more animated, “You should just work out in an outfit made entirely out of ShamWow material!”

I immediately recognized this as my next big idea. (Okay, so it was actually my dad’s idea. Details, mere details.) But since I have a poor track record with following through on my inventions, I have decided to offer this idea to you, my loyal reader(s). All I ask is that you prominently display my name in all advertisements and give me a 55% share in the company.

Here is a rough pictographic representation of the business plan I’ve developed for my new line of SweatWow workout gear:

Feel free to use this graphic as a visual aid when you’re presenting our idea to the folks at Nike Headquarters. You’re welcome.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Spy Mall

Wishing you had invented something is one thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve kicked myself for failing to invent the Snuggie—I mean, it’s really just an oversized backwards robe. Genius!

But actually inventing something and then watching in horror as some other schmuck totally hijacks your idea—that’s a whole different animal. It pains me to admit that I have not once, but twice been the victim of such intellectual thievery.

It all started a few summers ago when we took a family shopping trip to Spokane. My mom insisted that we stay downtown, so we booked a hotel room in the heart of the city. The problem was, we had brought the family dog along (because she was much too needy and spoiled to spend three days in a boarding kennel) and the nearest grass was several blocks away.

Of course, my dad and I were charged with the responsibility of escorting the dog to said grass multiple times a day. After our fifth or sixth trip, we decided there had to be a better solution to our predicament.

Me: Seriously, I can’t believe we have to walk half a mile just to get to a stupid four foot by four foot patch of grass.

Dad: I know. I’m considering ripping up that piece of sod and carrying it back to the room.

Me: Hmmmm. That’s actually a pretty good idea. Maybe we should invent something like that.

Dad: I doubt very many people with dogs stay at overpriced downtown hotels.

That was the extent of our conversation. The idea always stayed in the back of my mind, but I never acted on it. Big mistake.

A few years later, I was flying to California for a race when I came across the following ad in Sky Mall:

I almost spewed my tomato juice all over the page. Someone who had more business sense and initiative than I did had taken my idea (MY idea!) and turned it into a wildly successful enterprise. How dare they!

I promised myself that I would never again ignore my entrepreneurial instincts. Clearly, I had a gift, and I needed to sit back and allow my mind to develop its next million-dollar idea.

A few years later, I was training for cross country season when I came down with a serious case of plantar fasciitis. I was confined to the elliptical machine for six weeks—during the summer. For a runner who lives in a state where summer lasts three months and winter takes up the remaining nine, indoor workouts throughout July and August were a veritable form of torture.

Day after day, I powered through the monotony that is the elliptical. My mind grew numb. The summer sun taunted me through the window. I imagined being outside, felt the warm breeze against my face as I glided down the street. Then, like a shoe to Dubya’s head, it hit me.

There had to be a way to adapt the technology of the elliptical machine to a road-friendly piece of exercise equipment. I mean, there are stationary bikes and mobile bikes, right?

As the wheels started turning (no pun intended) I realized that this could be the beginning of the next fitness empire. Forget Suzanne Somers and Chuck Norris—that is, of course, unless they wanted to sign on as official spokespeople for the GliderRider. That’s right, I even named it.

There was no way I was going to let this one slip through the cracks like that stupid dog toilet idea. I couldn’t wait to get started. All I needed was a large financial investment, a mechanical engineer, and a TV spot on HSN.

Well, I got kind of hung up on the investment part, which made the engineer part pretty much impossible. The whole operation was stalled by mid-August. Then my foot healed up, which meant I was spending considerably less time on the elliptical at the gym.

Just when my big plan had been pushed passed the backburner and almost completely off of the stove, I browsed another issue of Sky Mall during a recent flight to New Jersey to visit my boyfriend’s family. As if a trip to New Jersey weren’t enough to ruin my day, imagine the outrage I felt when I turned the page and saw this:

My eyes bulged in disbelief. Once again, I had failed to follow through on a brilliant invention that undoubtedly would have brought me immense fame and fortune.

I cast my eyes downward in shame. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t be trusted with my own genius, but deep down I knew it was true.

I’m happy to report that with the loving support of friends and family, I was able to move past this dark time in my life. I’ve got my next big idea on the stove, and this time I’ve decided to seek out help to ensure that it’s brought to a full boil. More to come in my next post.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The things I think while working out: Britney edition

Believe it or not, there was a time when Britney Spears was actually kind of good—before K-Fed, before the umbrella incident, before she stopped wearing underwear.

Okay, so maybe she wasn’t really ever that good. But I was on the brink of entering middle school the year …Baby One More Time was released, so I pretty much had to be a fan in order to fit in.

So today at the gym, I was powering through a moderately difficult elliptical workout when an elderly gentleman jumped—err, stepped gingerly—onto the machine next to mine. He scrolled through the TV channels, finally settling on a M.A.S.H. rerun as he glided along at a leisurely pace.

In the past, I wouldn’t have thought twice about the disparities in speed and difficulty between his workout and mine. I was, after all, a college track and field athlete.

But now that I’m a has-been, I realized that there is really nothing—besides, oh, say, 50 years—separating this man and myself. It’s no longer, “I’m an athlete” and “You’re just a regular guy who likes to stay in shape.” Now we’re both nothing more than recreational exercisers!

Which brings me to my Britney Spears connection (no, I didn’t pull a TMZ and drop Britney’s name just to sucker you into reading this entire post). There’s a Britney song that goes something like, “I’m not a giiiiirl, not yet a woman…[some other nasally pop lyrics that I don’t remember]…all I neeeeeeeed is time, a moment that is mine, whiiiiiile I’m in betweeeeeeeennnn…”

For some reason, that song popped into my head as I gritted my teeth and kicked it into high gear for my final mile. (Okay, I had my iPod playlist set to “Most Played” and that song came on. So what?)

That’s when it hit me. Like Britney, I too am caught in between two stages of life. Last November, I ran the last race of my decade-long career in organized school sports. Unwilling to give up my Oreo habit or my sweet biceps, I kept working out like I had a season to train for even though I knew I would never again don a team uniform.

Admittedly, I do take a day off from exercising now and then—a luxury I allowed myself once a week, max, when I was training seriously. These days, if I want to 86 my run to watch animal fight videos on YouTube or browse the archives for my area code on Texts From Last Night, I do it.

Still, I’m a long ways off from lifting soup cans and joining the local mall-walking club. I’m not a Division I runner, not yet an AARP Fitness & Wellness Program member. All I need is time, a moment that is mine, while I’m in between.

But don’t worry—I plan to steer clear of trucker hats and back-up dancers who think they can rap.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The things I think while working out: gym stereotypes

With every gym comes a certain cast of characters. If you’ve spent a considerable amount of time at your local athletic club, you know exactly what I am talking about. Actual gym population make-up may vary by region, but here are the main profiles I’ve identified so far:

The Rocky Balboas: These are the guys who show up in head-to-toe gray cotton to sweat it out on the stair-stepper like they’re cutting weight for the high school wrestling championships. Other key defining traits: grunting, snarling, teeth-gritting, spitting.

The Biggest Losers: Inspired by NBC’s popular weight loss series, these newbies purchased a gym membership in hopes of shedding pounds without being harassed and demoralized by Jillian Michaels. Other key defining traits: pedometers, Sketchers Shape-Ups, hyperventilation.

The Has-Beens: These former high school sports stars haven’t quite accepted the fact that their athletic careers ended 17 years ago, and they’re here to relive their glory days. Often taking the form of 40-year-old men playing pick-up basketball, they can be heard saying things like, “If only Coach could see my jump shot now. I’d be in the starting five, fo sho!” Other key defining traits: thinning hair, visceral fat, beards, high-fives.

(Note: Has-Beens may also take the form of washed-up ex-college track and field athletes.)

The Trainers: They got into the business with glamorous visions of training Olympic weightlifters and pro football players. Now they’re stuck helping thirty-something women tone their thighs and lose pregnancy pounds. Other key defining traits: abs, clipboards, forced enthusiasm.

The Overbearing Sports Parents: They can be seen spotting their seven-year-old on the bench press and screaming, “Up! Up! Uuuuuuuppppp!” each time junior struggles to punch a rep. They are convinced their kid is the next Peyton Manning, so they’ll make sure he does everything he can to propel himself to NFL stardom—be it power cleans or MasterCard commercial auditions. Other key defining traits: stopwatches, windbreakers, chewing gum.

The Longwinded Techies: These are the guys who hop on the treadmill next to yours, GU packet in hand, and tell you how awesome their new GPS watch is. When you don’t respond (because, hello, you’re in the middle of a workout!) they ask you if you have one. You (sort of) politely answer no and hope that will be the end of the conversation. Just as they prepare to deliver a 20-minute expository speech on the merits of GPS devices, you put in your headphones and pretend to listen to your iPod, which died half an hour ago. Other key defining traits: hydration belts, Dri-FIT apparel, bad breath.

The Schwarzenegger Wannabes: These roid-raging beefcakes will hog the platform for upwards of 30 minutes per lift, as they will spend several minutes flexing in the mirror between sets. They show up in waves and speak only with each other, presumably to share protein shake recipes and compare cut-off t-shirts. Other key defining traits: spray tans, weightlifting belts, acne, anger.

Monday, February 14, 2011

BEA: Bagel Eaters Anonymous

You know the last paragraph of Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It? It’s the one that’s like, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut…blah, blah, blah…basement of time…yadda, yadda, yadda…timeless raindrops….” It ends with this little nugget: “I am haunted by waters.”

If I could rewrite that last line to apply to my life, it would look like this:

“I am haunted by bagels.”

Why bagels, you might wonder. How could a chewy, baked ring of dough possibly cause such spiritual torment?

I’ll tell you how.

It starts innocently enough. You are a time-pressed college student with a limited food budget (because geeze, beer is expensive and you can’t drink Keystone all the time). You need a quick, cheap, satisfying lunch. You are also a long-distance runner with a sensitive stomach and a punishing afternoon workout to complete.

As you peruse the aisles of the market in the student union, you grow frustrated with the lack of options. Unless you want to spend $6.50 on an organic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’re pretty much S.O.L. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you spot it: the bagel tower.

You marvel at the sheer quantity and variety of bagels. You get even more excited when you realize that you can purchase a bagel and cream cheese for just over one dollar. It seems too good to be true. I don’t want to burst your bubble—scratch that, I actually do want to burst your bubble, obliterate your bubble, in fact, into tiny pink bubble smithereens—but hear me now: it is too good to be true.

After consuming that first bagel—the gateway bagel, as I like to call it—you feel full and energized. Your stomach has accepted the task of digesting the bagel with little protest. At practice, you feel fit, fast and light on your feet, plagued by neither the pangs of hunger nor the bloat of overindulgence.

You have a bagel for lunch the next day, and the day after that. Three weeks later, you can’t remember the last time you didn’t have a bagel for lunch. So what, you think. It’s not like I couldn’t stop if I wanted to. I could stop eating bagels any day of the week.

You don’t know why you’ve suddenly become so defensive about your bagel habit. A few weeks later, on your way to the market to buy a bagel, you pass by a pizza fundraiser. Three dollars for two slices. By this time, you’ve become a little bored with your usual lunchtime fare, and hey, you don’t have practice today, so why not? You scarf your slices of meat lover’s with gusto.

Your stomach totally rejects the cheesy, saucy, meaty meal you’ve offered it. As your stomach churns, you swear you hear it mutter the word “bagel” amidst the bubbling and gurgling. All you can manage to keep down for the rest of the day is a bottle of apple juice and 12 Rolaids. You go to bed hoping the worst is over, but your sleep is constantly interrupted by night sweats and involuntary muscle spasms.

Concerned for your health, you log on to WebMD to research your symptoms. You scroll through the list of possible causes: menopause, AIDS, cancer…withdrawal. Bingo. This is your moment of revelation. Suddenly, it’s as if the clouds have parted and the sun has risen from the depths of eternal darkness. You realize that you, a perfectly sane and rational person, are an addict. A bagel addict.

Okay, it is possible that this story contains traces of embellishment for dramatic effect, but the take-home message is 100% true. Runners tend to be creatures of habit. Once we find something that works, we stick with it. That’s why I’ve owned 47 pairs of Asics Cumulus(es?). That’s why I’ve worn my lucky underwear for every race since ninth grade. And that’s why I’ve eaten a bagel for lunch almost every day since the beginning of my college running career.

Which is why, after turning in my uniform and sweats for the last time, I marched straight to the market to buy…a cinnamon-nut croissant. Yes, I realize that a croissant is basically a French bagel. But it had cinnamon. And nuts.

Since then, I’ve slowly integrated more food groups into my lunchtime diet. Fruits. Vegetables. Poultry. As I check off more and more bricks in the food pyramid, I feel, for the first time in a long time, hopeful that I can free myself from my bagel dependency once and for all.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Food Zoo part two: chickening out

I began my cross-campus walk to practice at approximately 3 p.m. MST. The unignorable sound track of gurgles and rumbles emanating from my abdominal region left me with a great sense of foreboding. My feelings of uncertainty quickly snowballed into full-on panic. What had I gotten myself into? How could I be so stupid as to think that I could ever achieve the ungodly intestinal fortitude of the great Steve?

I ducked into the locker room and tried to formulate a plan. Using my rudimentary skills in logic and human biology (remember, I majored in journalism), I surmised that: A.) The chili was not fully digested, B.) Intense physical exertion diverts blood away from intestinal activity, C.) I was about to engage in some intense physical exertion, and D.) I was screwed.

I could only hope for a relatively mild workout. Perhaps I could persuade my coach to adjust his plans based on the potential for semi-inclement weather that afternoon. I was pretty sure I had seen some ominous clouds in the distance earlier that day. How could we possibly complete a full workout with the impending threat of a dangerous electrical storm?

I knew I had to act quickly if I was going to convince my coach to stray from the scheduled workout. He planned our training schedule for the entire semester months in advance, and talking him into changing it would be like talking Flavor Flav into ditching that huge, ridiculous clock.

I put on my best salesgirl face and tried not to think about the fact that I sucked at selling stuff. Case in point: I was the lowest-selling member of Brownie Troop No. 227 during Girl Scout cookie season. I’ve never really gotten over that. Tagalongs still taste like failure to me.

Anyway, I approached the practice meeting area as nonchalantly as possible. I kept an eye on my coach as he chatted with the team and went through his stretching routine. Just as he stood up and prepared to address the team, I moved in for the kill. Here’s a rough sketch of my sales pitch:

Me: Hey coach, what’s on the docket for practice today?

Coach: A seven-part uphill interval ladder on the Rattlesnake main trail. Didn’t you look at the schedule?

Crap, I thought. Of course he would expect that I had looked at the schedule. I launched into a recovery effort, hoping I hadn’t fudged up too bad with my stupid opener.

Me: Oh yeah, I was…um…adjusting my times from Monday’s workout for altitude, and I was so preoccupied that I totally forgot to check the schedule.

Coach: Okay, well, it’s about time to get everybody loaded up and ready to go.

As he waved to the assistant coach, indicating that it was time to get going, I realized that I was on the brink of losing this battle and thus being subjected to excruciating intestinal agony. The failed Girl Scout inside me was suddenly awakened, and there was a fire in her eyes.

Me: Wait, wait…I’m just, um, a little concerned about running up in the Rattlesnake today.

Coach: Why is that?

Me: Well, I heard that there could be some really nasty thunderstorms this afternoon, and seeing as the Rattlesnake is a hilly, heavily wooded area, I don’t think it would be safe for us to go up there.

The look he gave me made me realize that there was, indeed, a reason that nobody had ever asked Flavor Flav to get rid of his clock.

Coach: I just checked the weather report before I came down here, and it said there should be a high of 62 degrees this afternoon, with a 20 percent chance of precipitation and a UV index of three. So we’re probably best off to just stick to the schedule.

Damn. Of course he had memorized the afternoon forecast. What was I, an amateur? Coach would stop at nothing to adhere to a plan. His travel itineraries typically included multiple pages covering even the most minute details of the trip. God save your soul if you decided to eat breakfast at 7:38 instead of 7:41.

So, in a last-ditch effort to save my stomach and my pride from the anguish both would endure if I attempted the workout, I quickly devised a sound, fail-safe solution: faked injury.

I rejoined my teammates and we moseyed on over to the vehicles. One by one, they climbed in. Coach scurried around to the driver’s side and opened the door. I prepared to step up, and, with impeccable timing, purposely slipped and lost my balance, taking a dramatic tumble to the ground. Everyone looked down at me, a pathetic mess of spandex and clumsiness, as I feigned a struggle to stand.

Coach: Are you okay?

Me: [rising slowly for maximum dramatic effect] Uh, yeah, I should be just…[grimacing as I take a step]…oh man, my knee…I think I might have tweaked that darn IT band again.

Coach: Oh, well then I guess you should probably stay here and cross train.

Me: Really? You’re sure I shouldn’t try to do the workout?

Coach: You better not—it’s a lot of uphill running, and your next race is only four days, 18 hours and 32 minutes away.

Me: Okay, I guess you’re right. Better safe than sorry. You guys have a good run.

Wow. To my complete amazement and disbelief, I had successfully averted a potential crisis situation. I also learned a valuable lesson about the consequences of impulsive decision-making. Which is why, with the exception of one relapse episode involving a ham and cheese omelette, I remained steadfastly faithful to the bagel-before-practice diet plan.

Friday, February 11, 2011

OK, today this blog really is about chicken

Ahh, chicken strip day at the Food Zoo. Every UM freshman’s favorite day of the week—except, of course, for the freshmen who happened to be on the cross country team.

Yep, we were the kids who, in addition to being skinny and socially awkward, could be spotted in the cafeteria eating bagels and saltines on the day that everyone else ate luscious strips of farm fowl. I remember chewing my dry, flavorless bagel with rancorous deliberation as I watched the chicken strip line grow and snake around more and more tables. Each breath I took reeked of fried heaven. I couldn’t help but hate the other kids, just a little, for their freedom to chow down on crispy yard bird and hot, tasty French fries while I was stuck with a cold lump of refined carbohydrates.

But, alas, it was usually a workout day and I was not willing to risk suffering a nasty bout of mid-interval diarrhea. I had been there, done that when I indulged on Cajun catfish day after convincing myself that I would probably be fine, as it was “just a tempo run.”

There were, of course, freaks with freaky stomachs who could eat whatever they wanted without consequence—freaks like Steve. He was a tall, ringlet-headed waif with a stomach of steel and a taste for variety. That kid would eat his way around the Zoo on a daily basis, beginning with the main line and continuing in a rectangular path that hit the vegetarian line, the burger and sandwich bar, the pizza line and the pasta bar. Sometimes he even had room for a bowl of Marshmallow Mateys to top everything off. (FYI: Contrary to what the folks at Malt-o-Meal would have you believe, Marshmallow Mateys are not in any way comparable to Lucky Charms. Period.)

I wanted so badly to be like Steve—to be able to eat whatever my little tummy desired and still kick ass in workouts. How did he do it? I had to know his secrets. One day, when there was a lull in normal lunchtime chatter, I casually brought it up. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey Steve, I couldn’t help but notice that you tend to consume massive quantities of food prior to workouts, yet suffer virtually no gastrointestinal repercussions. How is this possible?

Steve: Well, [pauses to finish chicken wing and lick barbecue sauce from fingers] I just tried to get myself used to it over the summer. I would, like, eat a bunch of hotdogs and then go out for a long run.

Me: Didn’t that make you barf?

Steve: Sometimes. But eventually, my stomach got used to it and now I can eat pretty much anything before I run.

Me: So it was worth it?

Steve: Do you like eating bagels for lunch every day?

He had me there. No, I did not like eating bagels for lunch every day. In fact, I had come to hate everything about bagels except for the fact that they provided me fuel with no stomach cramps. I decided to be an adventurer and give Steve’s methods a try.

Without a word, I got up and marched to the soup section. If I was going to do this, I was going to really do it. I was making a serious commitment, which is why I ladled myself a sizeable bowl of spicy Food Zoo chili. With sour cream. And cheese.

I returned to the table and sat down slowly, staring at the giant gut bomb in front of me. I immediately felt substantially less bold than I had been during my confident stride to the chili pot. Everyone else at the table went on discussing the day’s events like nothing had happened. They hadn’t even noticed my potentially groundbreaking foray into the study of pre-workout nutrition. I resisted the urge to announce my intentions. Instead, I quietly finished my bowl of chili, cleared my dishes from the table, and returned to my dorm room to wait.

Tomorrow: the thrilling conclusion to this story and free popsicles for everyone! Just kidding about the popsicles.