Rant 29 December 2005: Survival of the fittest

Leaving work late one night, I spot the headlights of the approaching bus. If I sprint, I can catch it. No friggin way am I going to stand out in the dark at a freezing bus stop! Although I’m laden with full-length winter coat and a heavy knapsack and bags, and therefore run with the grace of a three-legged hippo (not to mention a strange rattling sound from deep within the bowels of my luggage), I go for it.

As I joggle and rattle, I have flashbacks of having to run through Charles de Gaulle airport in order to make a connecting flight to Barcelona, wheeled carryon luggage careening wildly as I knock little old grannies and greasy Euro-teens out of the way with the abandon felt by one for whom seven minutes stand between idyllic vacation and having to sleep on a cigarette-butt-encrusted airport floor.

I make it on the bus and plunk myself into a seat. I think I’m having a heart attack. My chest is tight and my left arm is numb. Do 32 year old fit women have heart attacks? Only if they’re all whacked on uppers. I did have two cups of coffee today. Maybe I should have done more cardio. Except that Jim Fixx dude did all the cardio in the world and he kicked off early. Why did I waste time eating all those damn vegetables if I’m going to have a heart attack now? 32 year old women with crazy heart conditions have heart attacks. Maybe I have some heretofore unknown crazy heart condition. Oh great, I’m going to die on the campus express bus, in a pile of dirty old newspapers. I regret nothing! Goodbye, cruel world! Feed my fish! They like twice a day and not too much each time. And give the pleco an algae pellet. That lazy bastard never eats any real algae.

I stay very still, trying not to breathe too hard. It dawns on me that the chest tightness is a combo of lung burn from running in the cold, and my tummy growling. The arm numbness mysteriously disappears when I remove my enormous knapsack that has been crushing my acromion into my kidneys. Another medical mystery, solved by my brilliant diagnostic powers! I will live to fight another day!

Even as a sedentary office worker, my day is full of mini-challenges. The morning of the day I ran to catch the bus, I had to tromp through several inches of snow to do a number of errands. Working on campus, I often find myself walking, climbing stairs, running to make appointments, and carrying loads of books.

At the gym it dawns on me how far our fitness practice has come from the demands of real life. Attentive gym staff hover over clients on machines, careful lest their unskilled charge make a wrong move. Everywhere, people are cradled by machines that do most of the work for them, and limit their range of mobility. But consider: when in reality do we perform such carefully constrained movements? Trainers that caution us not to squat have no comment on how the heck we are supposed to get off the toilet or out of the bathtub. Walking is essentially a one-sided controlled fall. Even turning over in bed is a full body activity. In daily life, we are constantly required to move in ways that far exceed the capacities of any machine. We are consistently off-balance, using one arm or leg, twisting, standing and reaching, squatting to pick items up, leaning over to grab groceries out of the trunk, trying not to wipe out on the ice. We need to integrate, not isolate.

Before we attempt to meet the demands of any other activity or sport, we must meet the demands of daily life.

This means that in our training we use exercises that are integrated, that focus on movement as movement rather than as something that “hits the biceps”. We must use exercises that challenge us (whatever that means to our specific fitness level), not keep us safe and warm and wrapped in a little padded blanky. The fear of damaging ourselves in the gym is an effect of the unnatural movements and postures that modern “fitness” and sedentary lifestyles promote, along with a lack of practice. Many of us have forgotten how to move properly, freely, and naturally. Our children can still do it-watch them squat perfectly-but we have gotten out of the habit. We cannot tell when we start out whether we are doing things “right” because we often have little concept of what “right” would be. We also forget to pay attention to when the body tells us we are moving improperly. But the more we move, and experiment with movement, the better and more confident we become.

Once we have met the challenges of day to day existence, we can consider how we might respond if reality asks a little more of us. The following comes from a friend in Mississippi who survived Hurrican Katrina.

Right after Katrina, I made semi-joking comment about sled dragging saving my life. “Sled dragging” per se only came in handy a time or two, but the overall syndrome of physical culture — the Dinosaur/Ironworker mindset — turned out to be incredibly useful when things got a little rough.

During the storm itself, a tree fell on the back of my house, bashing in the roof over the porch pretty badly. During the eye of the storm, I went out to see how bad it was, and found a big piece of porch roof (about 8’x10′ — sheet metal, plywood, and 2×6 rafters) barely attached to the house. I was afraid that when the eye passed, and the wind started blowing the other way, this section of roof would catch the wind and either take some of the house roof with it, or beat against the house.

So I finished detaching that roof section from the house by precision application of the 8-pound sledgehammer (which every Ironworker should have!) , and dragged it across the yard. I then rolled the 292-pound concrete tire on top of it to keep it from flying. Now, that’s not a huge feat of strength, but I don’t think a normal person (ie, someone who isn’t in the habit of lifting/dragging/playing with heavy junk) would have even thought of it.

After the storm… woohoo. Of course, electricity was out, meaning NO AIR CONDITIONING! And, of course, temperatures were in the high 90s for the first week or two. Two things saved my butt there. First, I had lost about 55 pounds of flab in the preceding 8 months. Heat has no mercy on fatasses. Second, inspired partly by an old Brooks Kubik article (dontcha miss the old Brooks?), I had been training outdoors for most of the summer, specifically to acclimate myself to the heat. I don’t know how well my previous obese, air-conditioning-addicted self would have handled those first weeks, but it would have been ugly.

Being in (more or less) good shape paid off bigtime. All the cars were drowned and the phones were dead, meaning that just looking for local news meant hiking a mile or two. No big deal. The fact that previous hiking (and training) had turned me into a fanatic about hydration probably helped out, too. Unloading supply trucks was almost fun — dude, it’s just another loading drill!

Is there a lesson in all this babbling? I think so. In an emergency, especially a long-term one, health and strength are more important that any equipment or supplies. The whole experience made me rethink some of my own training priorities: strength endurance proved much more useful than raw strength, and having a lot of muscle mass was almost a liability. Pavel suddenly seems a bit less insane to me now.

As much as I enjoy weightlifting in all its forms, I’m seeing more and more how valuable “real work” is. Dragging, carrying and so forth — like you say, it’s what our ancestors had to do. Same thing goes for hiking, especially in rough terrain. Great exercise, and it pays off if/when you HAVE to do it.

Day-to-day life is so easy that a lot of people end up incredibly spoiled. I saw a thread somewhere else some time back where the poster basically questioned the value of physical strength, since we have machines to do all the lifting and so forth. Of course, anybody who’s done manual labor knows that’s BS, but it’s a symptom of how people think now.

At any rate, when the infrastructure goes away, even temporarily, what’s left is strength of body and of mind and of will. I talked to people who literally swam out of their houses to get out of the flood. Two guys down the road from me found a bass boat and took turns, one swimming and towing the boat while the other lay in the boat and rested, until they got to high ground about a mile away. Another guy put his small children on a wooden table and floated them to safety. Heroics? Or simply the only reasonable response to the situation?