Chin up

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.

The summit of Mount Washington, from

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.

17 people are having a conversation about “Chin up

  1. Good for you! I’m glad that you had dry clothes and someone to go get you something hot to drink. I’ve actually read about Mt. Washington and its treachery.

    Maybe you’re the right person to talk to about this. I find myself getting weaker and weaker, and I hate it. I can’t even hammer for awhile anymore; my 16 ounce hammer feels like 16 pounds. I have given up walking because the slightest hills that all my neighborhood seems to be made of kick my ass every time I try. (Well, actually, they kick my lungs- I get really winded.) When I was working, I could barely get up the hill to the bus stop; nine minutes of hard walking, and all uphill, with the last little bit the steepest. Chasing raccoons off the back fence made my heart feel like it was going to pop out of my chest, but I really think that the adrenaline response had a lot to do with that- raccoons will stay their ground and fight and I wasn’t always sure I would win, even though I was brandishing a spading fork.

    So I went to the cardiologist and had the echo, trans-esophageal echo, and a stress echo. The cardiologist said that my mitral valve leak was mild to moderate and that I was tolerating exercise well and there’s nothing to do but come see her once a year. I think the issue is that I don’t have a serious enough case to warrant surgery yet. It dawned on later that the walk up the hill to the bus stop was exactly like the stress echo- nine minutes of hard walking, mostly uphill, with the hardest part at the end.

    So what do you think? You think I’m being a baby and I need to get off my fat ass and start walking up some hills? You think I should start doing push ups anyway, even though I can hardly do three (girl push ups, I’m ashamed to say)?

    I may never be in the chin up club, but I hate to think about what if I needed to pull myself up onto to something to save my own life? There are lots of good reasons for being fit, but just being able to do something for yourself and not be so fucking helpless would be really nice.

    You have a bum ticker, too. You think I should just do it?

  2. Happy Birthday! Still in your 40s? You’re a spring chicken still.
    Fractured my foot a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t walk or cycle for over a week. Aaargh. It was horrible. I felt like a lump o’ lard.

  3. Tamar,

    Consider a class in beginning Yoga (not the Jane Fonda hollywood video). The basic class is often recommended for older folk, and for those with chronic pain as well as the younger, the warriors. My instructor claimed yoga is often recommended by family doctors for improving strength, flexibility – and to manage pain.

    A weekly or twice weekly class can be fun and useful. You may recognize that some of the movements were adopted years ago by military and school fitness programs; now you will know where the jumping jack and other things came from, and the parts that got left out.

    In Navy boot camp they claimed if your bedroom has a space as big as your bed, you can do calisthenics, daily. Yoga doesn’t take up much more room, and can be either a quick warm up or thorough workout, as you wish.

    Beginning yoga, Hatha Yoga, is a prelude to the yoga religion. The teaching goes that the student must be sound and strong in body and mind, to be ready to begin the study of the faith. Thus beginning yoga is entirely physical, focused on connection of the mind to body, and awareness of the body. At the same time you are gaining strength (and balance!) you work at improving your awareness of yourself, your balance, strengths, and motions.

    Outside in the sunshine is wonderful. Stretching and exercising inside is just as effective physically, and as important mentally.

    I think you should learn Yoga in a good, local class rather than a book or video; the instructor is invaluable for teaching and for safety. What you learn is a solitary activity you can share with family and friends, and use to keep body and soul together and well.

    Then there is a workbook on Stretching, that can be good for developing strength and flexibility, and for managing discomfort. My library has a copy, yours might, too.

    Then there is a use for weight lifting. 2, 3, 5, and 10 pound pairs of hand weights, done with lots of repetitions, can help a lot with simple strength and endurance. It may not sound like much, but 20 repetitions each of a few movements can add up to actual development. Lots of reps of small weights won’t put on much muscle mass or shape, but will work on elasticity of muscle and joint, and contribute to a stronger metabolism. When you get to 20 reps each of four movements, add five of the next weight, and work up to 20 there, then add five of the next weight. Drop the two’s when you start the ten pound weights, if you want.

  4. Happy Birthday Tamar, and many happy and healthy returns of the day.

    I try and stay as fit as possible – the garden provides loads of exercise, even in the winter – dealing with leaves, turning compost etc. I usually get in about an hour a day which obviously hots up to a few hours a day in spring and summer.

  5. Tamar, hats off to you! I find now, @ 32, with a baby, and having completed some school I am not as strong as I once was. As a personal trainer (some 6 or 7 years ago), I always was amazed by my older (I actually had an 85 year old, and a couple others) who were in good shape. As a student nurse now it scares me to see people my age and not much older in such terrible shape. It has delivered a new sense of profound appreciation for my body and has driven me to get myself back in gear. I set a goal of a 5K for my community service hours for school, and I run that next week. I will not be as fast, or breathe with the ease I used to, but dammit I’m going to do it.

    I agree with Brad about the yoga and the light weights as well. Yoga (I have little patience for it, but love the way I feel when I’m done), has been gaining some serious steam when it comes to its benefits.

    I hope you always feel this way about keeping yourself healthy and active, and I hope your chin meets the bar well into the years to come. You inspire me to try the things I’ve thought about for a long time. Thank you for that!

    Happy Birthday!

    PS: I’m making the loaf pan chicken tonight! Using a homemade Jamaican jerk rub.

  6. Margaret Fisher says:

    Happy Birthday, Tamar! I took an old friend to breakfast this a.m.; he is 78 today. What a world of change can be found in traveling from your 4 to his 7. Enjoy the journey. And btw, I never, never, never could do a chin up. I’m jealous.


  7. Paula — I do have a bum heart, but my problem is different from yours. If I were in your shoes, I’d first check to make sure there was no danger with strenuous exercise, and then I’d start exercising. The key, I think, is to begin at a pace you can sustain — even if that pace is just a stroll. Figure out what you can do for at least half an hour at a clip, maybe an hour on weekends, and do it — every day, if you can. It should be a level that makes you breathe hard, and that brings your pulse up, but it shouldn’t be so hard that you couldn’t sustain a conversation. Soon, you’ll be going farther, faster. (Audiobooks are excellent for this.)

    And I happen to think that push-ups may be the best strength-training exercise ever. They engage your arms, chest, core, and even legs. When I started doing them regularly, I could barely eke out one (from the toes, not from the knees). I worked my way up, and I’ve been doing twenty several times a week, probably for 15 years. Start by trying to do one from your toes. If you can, try another. Do as many as you can do, and then drop down to your knees and do as many as you can do from there. Do it every third day. You’ll get stronger.

    There’s nothing like the feeling that you’re getting stronger at a time of life when a lot of people are getting weaker. I always think that there are so many things outside our control that can make life difficult. Your body is one thing that’s in your control. Controlling it not only empowers you physically, it think it also gives you a sense that you’re in charge of your life.

    If I were closer, I’d come knock on your door and bring you out with me.

    Kristen — Ouch! I hope you’re up and about again. Injuries suck.

    Brad — I think we’re on the same page. I’ve done some yoga, although not for a while — I always seemed to prefer Pilates, which applies some of the same principles with less of what I think of as the mumbo-jumbo. But there’s plenty of evidence that yoga (and other yoga-like disciplines) do promote health in a variety of ways. I think your suggestion is good — maybe I should tackle it again.

    I’ve been doing weight work for many years, and I see the benefits. I use 10-15 pounds, and do 12-20 reps of several differen upper-body exercises. It’s validating to have you suggest a similar regimen.

    My exercising has been mostly of the brute-force variety. Running, rowing, weights. Things like balance and stretching haven’t been part of the line-up, and I think there may be a place for them as I get older. Thanks for the run-down. I very much appreciate that you would take the time to leave such a thoughtful and constructive comment.

    CS — Thanks! One of the grand things about working the land is that it keeps you active. Exercise *and* vegetables! It’s part of the reason I’m so very glad it’s spring.

    Brooke — You’re right. People ten or twenty years older than I am are an object lesson, one way or the other. My parents are in their early seventies, and they’re both in excellent shape (my Dad can kick my ass at the gym). They’re not restricted in any way, and they enjoy their life immensely. I want that for myself.

    Good luck on your 5K. And tell me how your loaf pan chicken comes out!

    Margaret — I sure hope to make it to 78, even if I can’t do a chin-up any more.

  8. Happy birthday, you hale and hearty girl! I’d like to say you’ve inspired me, but I’ve always hated exercise. Unless it’s something that passes for fun, such as gardening or dance, or it doesn’t make me sweat much (water exercise, yoga, weight training), I generally hate it. Still, I’m not so many years behind you, and I know I should do something to maintain what strength and endurance I’ve got. I feel a reluctance much akin to what I felt before I knuckled down and started flossing daily. I know I should do it, and that it’s good for me. I’m just too obdurate for my own good sometimes.

  9. I can see Mt Washington out my window. I’ve climbed it a few times and driven up a few times. People die up there every year. An ice climber just had a very bad fall and is lucky to be alive. You were right to be hiking with extra clothes, I’ve seen people heading to the summit in tee shirts and shorts. As you experienced, the weather can change in a flash. I always had winter clothes in my pack, even in August.

  10. I remember that chin-up under the scaffolding. Was never more proud or exhilarated to see a friend display such physical strength and emotional grit. Keep trying, keep climbing. Your body may fail you some day, but not yet — it was your base layer getting wet. Blame the base layer and keep training. What are you training for? Life.

  11. Thanks for the pep talk Tamar. Yesterday, I took the short walk version with Steve, and today I did the long walk version with Steve. I can’t talk on the hills, but managed conversation otherwise. I don’t feel physically fantastic, but I do feel better mentally for making myself go. I’ll start the pushups.

    And if you were closer, I’d go.

  12. Tamar, I think you’re being too hard on yourself regarding your hypodermic experience on Washington. That was not a failure of your physical fitness – just the opposite. You were able to get yourself up and to safety despite your hypothermia. Rather it was a failure of your clothing system that allowed you to get wet and therefore cold. The rule-of-thumb is wear no natural fibers – especially cotton. But even wool absorbs water. Synthetics are best.

    In terms of staying “in shape” as we age, there are too concerns: the loss of bone mass (osteoporosis – which we’ve all heard of) and loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia). The two go hand in hand. The problem for women in particular is that after about age 14 they don’t have enough testosterone to make more muscle (or not much of it). The loss of muscle mass causes osteoporosis. The only way to prevent sarcopenia is with resistance exercise (weight lifting) – cardio won’t do it. Everyone should lift weights, but especially women. And contrary to popular mythology, since there is no danger for women to “get big” you can and should lift heavy with limited reps. What your after is muscle recruitment (which in neurological training) making you very strong. The stronger you are the stronger your bones will be to support the workload.

    The impossible (no difficult) task is to learn how to lift weights: free weight not machines. Only free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells) exercise all the stabilization muscles that keep you from injury. I could go on (as I tend to do), but let me leave you with two sources: 1) The Kettlebell Boomer ( 2) Starting Strength ( The advantage of kettlebells is that you can do it at home (no gym membership required) and it’s cheap to start.

  13. Thanks for the encouragement, all. Kate, I know from obdurate and I understand. I think what it takes is for you to get to the point where your belief that exercise should be done is stronger than your aversion to it. If you get there, you’ll do it.

    Kim, thanks for the kettlebell links. I do work with free weights, and I’ve never been afraid of the heavy ones. (Push-ups and pull-ups are essentially making your body the free weight.) I’m a believer in exercise for bones (Walter Willett, speaking of the idea that calcium intake builds bones in adults, said, “You should take the cow for a walk.”) I could use some new strategies, so I’ll take a look at what you suggested.

    As for Mt. Washington — yes, there was certainly a clothing problem. I don’t remember exactly what I was wearing, but I think it was a layer that was supposed to be waterproof (or which I thought was waterproof), but wasn’t. Kevin wouldn’t have let me wear cotton — “Cotton kills” is what they say at hte mountain.

  14. A little late, but happy birthday! And, thanks for putting into words the kind of fitness philosophy I’ve been trying to articulate. I’m currently in the worst shape of my life, but don’t have good ways to motivate. I live in town, have a desk job, drive the mom circuit. I am transitioning to a weekend homesteading plan, and I need to be fit to handle that. But! The idea that I also need to be fit enough to handle an emergency where I or someone else needs help; that really helps. That, and hauling chicken feed. Thanks!

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