Friday, August 12, 2011

Physical Misperceptions

I've learned a lot my last 10 years or so of participating in various athletic events, but one lesson of great importance came during the one triathlon I've done. Don't stop reading at the mention of a triathlon, because that's not the point. The point is what I learned about my perception of others' physical fitness.

I was 25 and in pretty great shape. I was real into lifting weights at the time and had bulked up to a point I've never again attained, or really plan to. And that's not to say I was a big guy, just that it was the first time I really developed muscle definition: I had a V to my torso, you couldn't see my ribs through my pecs, and my shoulders and arms were defined. I was bulkier than I am now, muscle-wise. I was well-conditioned, and although I decided to attempt this tri a bit too late to allow myself truly adequate training (especially the swimming, because I wasn't a swimmer), I was pretty confident going in--not confident that I'd win, but confident I'd finish, and that SURELY I'd be beating a lot of the people around me.

Of course, there were those we typically think of as super-fit: the magazine cover models with 6% body fat and muscle striations you could count from 20 feet away; abs you could wash your clothes on. Those people I was in awe of. Now THAT's fit, I thought to myself. And I looked around at some of the others surrounding me before the start of the race and, in my head, would scoff. That guy doesn't look like he has stood up from the couch in a month. Hey lady, how was that double cheeseburger you ate for breakfast? How on Earth could these squishy people ever think they're going to do this? 

It was an off-road triathlon: a 0.6-mile lake swim, 19-mile trail ride, and 5-mile trail run. I did complete it, it took me 3 hours and 12 minutes, and it kicked my ass. But what surprised me: so did a lot of those "unfit, squishy" people I'd been scoffing at before the race. If you had lined us all up side-by-side and been tasked to rank our fitness based on appearance alone, I may have ranked in the top 15. The reality, though, is that I finished down around the 50s overall, out of about 80 people that actually finished the race, those people ranging in age from 13 to 55 years old. (I've been looking at a website that shows the results; my memory isn't that great.) The average time of those that finished, including both men and women, was about 2 hours and 52 minutes. That's right: I was below average. Notably below average.

But I didn't even have to wait to see the numbers to have a major epiphany: you can't judge how fit someone is by how they look. There I was, this very fit looking young man, bent over, feeling completely depleted and, except for surprisingly subtle adrenaline and endorphin boost from having finished, nearly dead. Sure, everyone was beat. It's no easy feat, and everyone pushes themselves as much as they can in an event like that. But I was looking around at all these other people as I was trying to regain some sort of composure, and so many were way better off than me. Many of those squishy folks had finished before me, or very close to me. They were smiling and laughing, jumping around a bit, enjoying the post-race rush. They looked good; happy. They didn't look like I felt: mostly dead.

I hung around for the awards ceremony, mostly because I couldn't really get myself to walk to my truck, load up my bike, and drive home. (And I did end up randomly winning a pair of athletic shoe inserts, which changed my running life.) When I finally got around to loading up and trying to head home, I couldn't get in my truck: my right hamstring was cramping worse than any cramp I'd ever experienced to that point. It was cramped with my leg straight, and it was worse with my leg bent. At one point, audibly crying out in pain, I feared I might not even be able to straighten my leg out again (silly, I know). The pain was intense. I sat and drank water. I drank sports drinks. I snacked. I'd been doing so since the race was over, but obviously my body still hadn't gotten all it needed. It was intense. I was one of the last people to leave the parking lot, and I still hurt the entire 1.5-hour drive home. There are some cramps I'll simply never forget, and that was the first one of that nature.

I re-read that and realize it may sound like I didn't enjoy the experience overall. I did. It was great. While sitting there, recovering, trying to get past the pain, I was also basking in the glory of the accomplishment. I'm incredibly proud of myself for having achieved that goal and having pushed through so much pain and, during the race itself, self-doubt. But my memories of those harsh judgments on others' physical appearance: those stick with me to this day.

And still, I'm fully guilty of judging people's fitness on appearance. I'd argue it's impossible not to. At the same time, every time I make one of those snap judgments, I'm quick to remind myself that my perception of that person may be totally wrong. Sure, maybe they're not going to be on the cover of Men's Health, or Muscle Magazine, or Women's Health (and neither will I), but they may also have a resting heart rate of 45 beats per minute and be able to swim circles around me, or shift a gear on their bike and leave me behind like I just hit a wall. They may be just as healthy as me or even more-so, they just don't fit that mold we've all come to think of as "fit."

It's that mental picture we all have of the truly fit person, I think, that can keep people on the couch instead of even standing there at the gate, let alone pushing through the start. Fitness isn't necessarily how much muscle or fat you have on your body, it's an all-around measure of your health, both physical and mental. No one started out tremendously fit. We all started off as little babies, squishy and barely moving, spending most of our time sleeping, and slowly working to build the muscles to lift our heads, sit up, stand up, and walk. There's always a starting point; a baseline. Sure, you're not a baby anymore. But maybe you're sitting there at your new baseline--you're new starting point--and you're ready to get going. So get going. Take a step forward and move on from that baseline. The progress doesn't have to be fast. In fact, we all know the truth: it won't be. There will, however, BE progress when you start to make that effort. That's something you can rest assured of.

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