It must have been five or six years ago that I was on my way to Central Park for a run with my friend Katie, and we got caught in the rain. It was one of those summer showers that blows in quickly, dumps on you for about seven seconds, and then blows out again.
We took shelter under scaffolding on the Beresford building, on 81st Street, where we were joined by a bunch of other people with the same idea. As we waited out the rain, Katie and I talked about running, and how satisfying it is to feel fit and able.
I don’t remember how it came up but somehow, as we were talking about the things we could do, I mentioned that I’d never been able to do a pull-up. I have vivid memories of putting my hands on the bar above my head, straining with all my might, maybe getting halfway up, and then falling back again.
“When was the last time you tried?” Katie asked me.
I had to think. Seventh grade?
Katie motioned to the scaffolding. “Try,” was what she said.
Well okay then. I found a bar at the right height and reached up for it. I took a breath, and pulled.
Wonder of wonders, I got my chin over that bar.
I’ve always found it difficult to trust memories of feelings. In retrospect, absent their cause, they seem a little silly. We can’t remember fear, or fury, or infatuation the way we can remember what we ate for dinner or the date of the Battle of Hastings – we can only remember the fact of being scared, or angry, or smitten. The memory doesn’t summon the feeling.
What I remember feeling when my chin went over that bar was actual, genuine euphoria. That I could call on my (then) fortyish-year-old body to do something I had assumed for almost thirty years that it couldn’t do, and that it could deliver! It was disproportionately, unreasonably thrilling.
Fitness has always felt like empowerment to me. I like knowing that, when a lobster pot has to be hauled up, or a fifty-pound sack of chicken feed has to be carried, or a hole has to be dug, a log to be split, a driveway to be shoveled, I can rely on my body to get the job done. And if there’s ever a terrible emergency, if someone’s life should some day depend on my ability to lift or pull or run, I want to know that I’m ready.
I’ve made it a point to stay fit and strong for most of my adult life, but it was only when my body didn’t deliver that I realized how important it was to me.
Kevin and I have climbed Mount Washington twice. Both times, we were prepared. We had appropriate clothing, food and water, and emergency equipment. We did it in summer, but we knew full well that it could be seventy degrees and sunny at the base, but twenty and snowing at the summit – and that you couldn’t know in advance what you’d encounter. The mountain is said to have the fastest-changing weather in the country.
The first time, it was a breeze. It’s not a technical climb; it’s just 6288 feet of up. We didn’t hit any bad weather, and it was a nice, long, strenuous hike.
The second time, the weather held for most of the ascent, and then turned dirty for the last leg of the hike, which is the climb up the rockpile at the top of the mountain. It’s a big rockpile, but it’s only about 45 minutes from the beginning of it to the summit under normal circumstances.
Just as we got to it, the temperature dropped about twenty degrees, and a sideways rain came out of nowhere. Somehow, my base layer got wet, and then I started to get cold. I began to shiver, and I was suddenly very tired. It became hard to move. I know what hypothermia is, and I know that it’s dangerous.
I knew that we were close enough to the top (where there’s a big tourist center, reachable by road), so that if I were really in trouble Kevin could get help, so I wasn’t worried about anything as dramatic as dying on the mountain. But I knew I needed to force my body up that slope, and get warm.
The trail is marked by cairns, set about ten yards apart. I willed myself to do ten, and then counted them down. And then another ten. And another. Kevin was right with me, every step, every cairn.
And then we were over the ridge, into the parking lot. The hundred yards to the door of the tourist center was the longest I’ve ever walked. Then, finally, in.
We got a table, and Kevin went to get me something hot to drink. I remember digging dry clothes out of my pack, and ripping the wet ones off, stripping down to my underwear in the middle of the room. I pulled on everything I had that was dry, and huddled over the hot chocolate Kevin brought me, still shivering.
I remember making a concerted effort not to cry because I didn’t want to do it in front of the tourists buying the “My Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers. I was mortified that my body had failed me, that I had come perilously close to being somebody else’s emergency.
I know that fitness won’t protect me from every physical failure. I can get injured, I can get sick, I can come up against a task that is simply beyond my capabilities. But I think I owe the people who will have to care for me if I’m ill or hurt, or do the work I’m not able to do, to stay as able as I reasonably can.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ready for the Ironman, and nobody’s inviting me to the Olympic trials. I’m talking about the ordinary kind of fitness, the kind that keeps you well-oiled and fully functional, able to expect that you can do what needs doing.
One of the problems I’ve run into, tethering my life to the seasons, is staying fit in the winter. Most of our activities go dormant, and I don’t spend my days doing physical work. The trails I like to run are often covered in snow and ice. There’s no rowing, no swimming, no biking, and I can’t bring myself to join a gym.
The weather has finally started to warm, and yesterday I went for my first run in quite a while. Three plodding miles and I was panting like a racehorse, but it felt so very good to be outdoors, pushing myself, breathing hard.
When I got home, I went out to the metal bar Kevin attached to a couple of trees last year. I reached up. I took a breath, and pulled.
Yesterday, I turned 48. And my chin’s still up.