‘ My gym’s walls are dec­o­rated with equip­ment you’ll last have seen in Jamie Dor­nan’s Red Room of Pain’

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS - JEN­NIFER O’CON­NELL jo­con­nell@ irish­times. com

It’s not that I mean to keep hav­ing short- term, mean­ing­less, blink- and- you’ll- miss- it flings. I’d ac­tu­ally like to be able to hold down a grown- up, long- term re­la­tion­ship. But I can never seem to com­mit. Ev­ery time I find my­self eye­ing up a new gym mem­ber­ship form, I think to my­self, ‘ This is it. This time will be dif­fer­ent. This is the one.’ Take last Jan­uary. Gym no. 5. I joined it, and wrote a col­umn about all the other Jan­uarys in which I’d joined a gym, gone once, and never been back. Hav­ing pub­licly outed my­self as se­rial one- work­out- stand mer­chant, I fig­ured the shame would force me to make a go of it.

Un­for­tu­nately, I’m not that eas­ily shamed. I went once, had a bit of a fum­ble with the row­ing ma­chine, a quick wham- bam on the tread­mill, left and never went back. I’m not even sure why. There was just no chem­istry.

But the months passed. Sum­mer rolled around, and I found my­self fan­ta­siz­ing again about the other me. The me who glugs pro­tein shakes in­stead of Pinot Noir and has ‘ glutes’ in­stead of a back­side like a dried tan­ger­ine. The me who re­ally is ca­pa­ble of main­tain­ing a long term re­la­tion­ship with a gym.

It was a Face­book ad that did it. “Com­plete be­gin­ners’, it said. ‘ Any fit­ness level’, it promised.

When I spoke the words aloud, two friends vol­un­teered to join me. I was sus­pi­cious that they did not meet the cri­te­ria, given that they are both very fit look­ing, as well as im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful and dis­gust­ingly high achiev­ing. “It said COM­PLETE be­gin­ner?” I said. They blinked in­no­cently.

The gym isn’t an or­di­nary gym. It is a Cross­fit stu­dio. I’ve been told the first rule of Cross­fit is that you have to talk about Cross­fit, so here goes: There are no fluffy tow­els, no minia­ture TV screens, and no messers. The walls are dec­o­rated with an ar­ray of equip­ment you’ll last have seen in Jamie Dor­nan’s Red Room of Pain. When I got there, I re­mem­bered why I don’t like gyms.

I walk in the door and I can lit­er­ally smell the hu­mil­i­a­tion ooz­ing out my pores – the legacy of all those cold af­ter­noons left stand­ing on pitches un­til there was no left to pick.

The gym­nas­tics class I did when I was eight, when I thought I was Na­dia Co­maneci, un­til I no­ticed the other girls in con­vul­sions of laugh­ter at my ap­prox­i­ma­tion of a for­ward roll. ( My life­time habit of go­ing once, and never go­ing back, can be traced back to un­der- 9s gym­nas­tics.)

The af­ter­noons in PE class when I could not make my body do the things ev­ery­one else’s body seemed to do ef­fort­lessly. The school sports days when I felt hu­mil­i­ated be­fore I even got out of bed. At the in­duc­tion class one of my ‘ com­plete be­gin­ner’ bud­dies re­vealed that she has been work­ing out twice a week with a pri­vate trainer since last year. The other reg­u­larly swims 3km “for fun.” The traitors. I was hope­lessly out­classed from the start. “There’s some­thing go­ing on there,” the in­struc­tor – a pocket- sized Lara Croft – said, as she quizzi­cally sized up my at­tempt at a squat, while all around me my class­mates lunged and stretched like the pro- swim­mers and lift­ing ma­chines it turns out they are. “I’m not sure what’s go­ing on with that squat, but we’ll get to the bot­tom of it.” The clue to how Cross­fit works, it turns out, is in the ti­tle – it will make you fit, but it will make you cross in the process. It will make you cross be­cause it is gut- churn­ingly hard. It makes you do things you didn’t know you could. It uses mus­cles that prob­a­bly your own doc­tor didn’t know you had. It hurts like a hot day in hell. No, it’s worse than that. It hurts like child­birth. It turns out this is a good thing. You’re so busy throw­ing things and lift­ing things and drag­ging things and swing­ing on things and jump­ing on things, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously try­ing to squeeze your glutes and push out your hips and not vomit -- and oc­ca­sion­ally mouthing ‘ never call me again’ across the room at the trai­tor­ous, but now grat­i­fy­ingly red- faced and sweaty pro- swim­mer and gym bunny -- that you for­get to worry about the fact that you’ve got as much nat­u­ral grace and agility as a three- toed sloth. When an hour has passed, and you’re pant­ing and in pain and ready to go home, but quite un­able to tra­verse the dis­tance of the carpark, some­thing odd hap­pens. You can feel it. A lift­ing of your mood. You and the pro swim­mer and the gym bunny limp to your cars. You’re all smil­ing. There it is – the fa­bled dopamine rush. It lasts a few hours, be­fore the ac­tual pain sets in. The ear­lier pain was only the starter pain. “You won’t want to come on Thurs­day,” Lara Croft says. “You’ll be in bits. You’d bet­ter come.” You don’t sleep for two days. You can barely move. The three steps from the kitchen to the hall are Mount Kil­i­man­jaro. When Thurs­day rolls around and your phone pings with the re­minder, some­thing even odder hap­pens. You find your­self reach­ing for your run­ners. It’s four weeks in. We’re tak­ing it slowly. We might just have a fu­ture this time.

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