A few months ago I read a book titled, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. I hoped the book would’ve made me run more. It didn’t. However, it’s not just a book about running. It’s a memoir about life and writing. For Murakami, running seems to be a constant tributary that flows and informs other areas of life through the practice of reflection; a guide of sorts that points out important landmarks.
For example, Murakami writes, “Running is a great activity to do while memorizing a speech. As, almost unconsciously, I move my legs, I line the words up in order in my mind. I measure the rhythm of the sentences, the way they’ll sound. With my mind elsewhere I’m able to run for a long while, keeping up a natural speed that doesn’t tire me out. Sometimes I’m practicing a speech in my head, I catch myself making all kinds of gestures and facial expressions, and the people passing me from the opposite direction give me a weird look” (101). In another passage, he reflects on the importance of being near water. Murakami writes, “The river I’m talking about is the Charles River. People enjoy being around the river. As if pulled in by a magnet, people gather on the banks of the river. Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings. If I go for a time without seeing water, I feel like something’s slowly draining out of me. The fact that I was raised near the sea might have something to do with it” (90).
Reflection is something we all do while engaged in diverse activities. Some of us may not be reflecting on how best to deliver a speech during a run. Some of us may be reflecting on that meal we have to prepare tomorrow while we’re gardening today. Some of us may be reflecting on that phone call we need to make that we don’t want to make while we’re presently frustrated at how exactly to fold a fitted mattress sheet. Years ago I read the book Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood. After the death of her five-year old daughter, Hood learns how to knit and finds that it helps her cope with her daughter’s death.
I still run on occasion, mostly at the gym on the treadmill and at three to four miles at a time. Most of the time, I can’t get my mind off of the weight room nearby. To be honest, I’m an introvert so the reality is I can’t get my mind off of most everything. Nevertheless, it seems my runs are always cut short and threatened by the allure of the weight room. Which, to be honest, I’m quite okay with.
When I was a teenager, I asked my dad to buy me a copy of Muscle and Fitness. I’m not sure where this was. Later, I picked up a copy of Flex. Later on, I would buy more copies of these magazines. This is where I first was introduced to major icons in the world of weightlifting: Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Shawn Ray, Lee Labrada, Lee Priest, Rich Gaspari, Mike Matarrazo, Flex Wheeler and Ronnie Coleman. One day I got my first weight set. I don’t remember where it came from, a yard sale probably and my dad probably didn’t have the money for it but maybe he figured it would be good for me. Because the weightlifting magazines also had advertisements for supplements, I began buying them. The first supplements I bought were amino acids. I didn’t know then exactly how amino acids worked. All I knew was that one of my favorite weight lifters also took them so if I wanted to be strong like him, I needed to take them. And that’s how I started weightlifting with some ghetto weights in my room, muscle mags and a bottle of amino acids.
What I talk about when I talk about lifting is not all about the weights and exercises; although sometimes it is. For example, last week I met a goal that I had for myself. I wanted to straight bar curl 135 pounds twice. I set this goal because I knew it would be challenging. And, to be honest, I wanted to be able to lift that because I don’t see a lot of people in the gym curling 135 pounds. As strange as it may sound, a challenge like that is an adventure for me. Some may view adventure as escaping into the wilderness or climbing a mountain or working on a fishing boat. Adventure is the exploration of new territories whether geographical or mental. For me, the journey to 135 was a four-month, mental trek. The only way to get to curl 135 is to work your way up to that. I didn’t work on this goal everyday but it was important to me. I wish I could say I had it all laid out and systematized but I did not. The rough plan looked like this:
Straight Bar Barbell Curls: 3-5 Sets
1st Set: 10-12 reps @ 75 lbs.
2nd-3rd Set: 8-10 reps @ 95 lbs.
4th-5th Set: 2-6 reps @ 115 lbs.
This is the path I took, the sets, reps and weights. However, it wasn’t just that. When you are working on a goal such as this in the weight room, you are fixed to the area where you are doing the work. For this goal, I use a squat rack and adjust the bar rests. Typically, these are set high for squats. I remove them and attach them lower to a height where my hands rest naturally. I don’t wander much from this area. I stay close to the rack. I have the weights, water, music, a towel, I’m good. But my brain, oh my poor brain, it needs this time and work because it does wander. It reflects and wanders to worries, to things-to-do, to hurts, anxiety, to anger, to relationships, to the past, the present, the future, to losses as well as victories. If each of these was a ship, lifting is the anchor they are tied and fixed to. In between sets, where momentary recovery and deep breathing are found, I also find peace. Things sort themselves out with an artificial intelligence. Other things disappear completely. There is renewal and reorganization. I find lost confidence and strength and thank God for it. And after about 90 seconds of rest, the next set awaits.
Last Saturday, I went to the gym with my son Andres. I had not planned on attempting to curl 135 but as I got into my workout, I felt strong and energized. Slowly, the idea of 135 began to form. I stood there at the squat rack, watching Andres squat at the squat rack next to me. When he finished his set, I said, “I think I can curl 135.” I never tried it but I knew the work I put in and I felt strong.
“I’m just going to go for two but I want them to be good,” I told Andres. I took the 35s off of the bar and slapped a 45 on each side. I stepped up to the middle of the bar, centering myself as best I could and making sure my grips were even. I didn’t want one arm feeling like it was doing most of the work. I lifted the bar off the rack and took a step back. The bar just resting at my waist as I looked at myself in the mirror. I took a deep breath. Immediately, two things came to mind. One, I was going to be able to do this. Secondly, my inner voice told me, “You can absolutely do this!” I didn’t wait long. I curled the bar once and let it touch my chin slightly. I controlled the bar back down, bringing it to my waist and then curling it back up. This time, however, I got stuck once the bar came parallel with my chest. At that point, I had to swing my body a bit to curl the bar up to my chin. I brought the bar back down and racked it. It felt good to get at least one solid rep. It’s a good start.
About a week before curling 135, I walked into the weight room at my gym and noticed something very unique happening at the squat rack I usually use. There stood a man in blue shorts and a blue shirt, curling 135 for about 6-8 reps and absolutely having no problem with it. I noticed but not too much. That’s for another post. I went about my business. I wasn’t working arms, who knows what I was doing. About thirty minutes later, I went to refill my water bottle and the man in blue was there too. So I said.
“How long did you work to be able to curl 135 like that so easily? I’m trying to work up to that.”
“Oh, I’ve been lifting weights for a long time now. I’m 62 now, maybe it’s taking me about four years. You do it so long your muscles get used to it, muscle memory, you know how it is,” he said.
This man was 62 years old, salt and pepper short hair, handle-bar Hulk Hogan mustache and some jacked arms. And then he said, “It’s a lot of weight for curls. I could probably add twenty pounds to each side but I sometimes wonder why I need to lift such heavy weight. What’s the point?”