With activity dropping off on the ball fields, things start to heat up in the weight room.

By Susan Anspach. Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Feels like, Northern Virginia, I’ve been seeing more of you lately. More accurately, I’ve been seeing you in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, flailing like flipped specimens under variously weighted balls, and sneaking looks at the pace on my treadmill to see if it’s on the greater than or less than side of yours. (Down, boy. I mean it—you can slow down. My jogging pace is akin to what other people refer to colloquially as a mosey, and it’s not budging a hair.)

Welcome back, gym rats! I hope this past summer’s dodgeball season was the best, the absolute dodgiest, to date. That each of your Ultimate Frisbee games went as well as could be hoped for: just the right degree—not too high, not too low—of ultimate. That you pulverized every strain of competition in your tri/-bi-/octo-athalon, and rocked every red blood cell in your body doing it.

Now, with the last rays of summer sun glinting off your showcase of participation medals, with winter darkness sweeping the region’s tracks and playing fields, you’re trickling back onto rows of treadmills and ellipticals, bringing the room temperature in Pilates class back up to a low broil, and regrouping in small huddles around the women’s lockers to discuss the benefits of red sports drinks versus blue.

Well, howdy. I’ve been waiting for you! For me, fall’s only really arrived when I can feel your endorphins panting on my personal space.

To be clear: I like the gym! Once I get past having to wait to eat dinner and what always feels like an authentically unhealthy amount of perspiration, a good night for me is flopping around on a cardio machine topped off  with a hearty dose of celebrity gossip. (House rules: If there’s a drop of sweat on you, you read your copy of US Weekly judgment-free.)

You’d like me at the gym, too. I don’t grunt, or listen to headphones. I always wipe my machine. In the weight room, my weight levels are so light that no one who comes after me has ever felt like anything less than Superman on steroids. The closest thing I have going to community service right now is letting you guys heap 60 more pounds onto the bicep-curl machine and look like Optimus Prime doing it.

Stacked against the alternatives, the gym is my jam. Berber carpet, bright lights, C-grade techno? I’ll take it any day over team sports and running on pavement. I ran one half-marathon two summers ago in apocalyptic heat along the only trail in America that didn’t have trees before promising myself: never again. And before you start talking dirt, Mud Warriors, I’ll have you know I’m no quitter. I ran the same four-mile loop of broken concrete for two-and-a-half hours—that right there is top mosey speed! But by midmorning the heat had driven off whatever crowds there were to begin with, and the runners were stuck with having to cheer on their own selves. When I did it, one of them yelled back at me to shut up. Another jogged past, I think, crying a little. For the time being, at least, I’ve seen everything I need to know about outdoor health and group effort.

Anyway, now that we’re all gathered together back in one place, it wouldn’t kill us to reacquaint ourselves, to get to know one another past what incline we’re at and how many calories we’ve each burned (hey, neighbor—I’m up here). The gym gets tight this time of year. It gets sticky. In a post-Jillian Michaels world, are we really going to count on peptides to get us through the next six months without so much as a single flare-up of seasonal depression? Keep in mind we’ll be baking under fluorescent lights and airwaves pumping out work by artists named for dog breeds. Keep in mind this is an election year.

Hi, my name’s Susan. I’m a Gemini, and I like long walks on the indoor track. My favorite flavor of sports drink is purple but I can make do with orange in a pinch.

That brings us to the question of who you are, which is trickier, but let’s see if we can’t make an educated guess.

Since you can’t spit in this region without hitting someone who just did their third desert marathon or someone who’s just about to, we can dispense with the obvious straight off: At least one in three of you is In the Zone. Here for a purpose. Resolute. It doesn’t matter if that purpose is taking the title of next Ironman, rock-climbing an erupting volcano, or racing piranhas the length of the Nile, even though I know you’re dying to tell me all the ways why they’re not the same thing, not at all, because muscle groups and complex carbs.

Respect. No one’s saying you and your three-percent body fat don’t rule.

If you’re In the Zone, the rest of us see you coming with your 12 abs and Bose headphones and clear the hell out of your way. You’re not here to make friends. You’re here to make protein filament. Also you don’t see what’s funny in Chuck Norris jokes, you don’t listen to music with a beat slower than 90 BPMs, and you don’t get why the gym bothers wasting perfectly good square footage on something as vapid as yoga because what is this, a resort spa?

Not that you’d ever say that aloud. Not if you know what’s good for you. If we’re talking majorities, the Yogis are right on the heels of the Zone, and I’m not saying it’s because running for three straight hours sounds worse than a branch of exercise that celebrates something called Happy Baby Pose. I’m not calling anyone worse. At the same time, have you tried Happy Baby? Because it’s not only a surprise, it’s a delight, and I don’t say that from a place of privilege. I Happy-Babied all through last July on a polythene mat in an unairconditioned room that brought to mind a converted dungeon and it cost me a month of rent. Still, no regrets—regrets cramp my zen. Yogis, I salute you from my back with this mild rocking motion, knees spread and feet arced to the sky.

Finally, a fistful of Zumba picaras notwithstanding, there’s the rest of us, your Everymans, your Winston Smiths, just trying to make it through another week without giving in to the onset of inertia and that one dessert at Applebee’s that literally erupts fudge (what do they want us to do, go on hunger strike?).

General masses, I welcome you back most of all. Here, have a weight machine—I got this one ready for you.

Because I love the gym’s common man. We know we’re no Olympiads. We can tell with one look in the mirror that we will never body-build. And I know you’d rather be out scoring goals and spiking balls in the spirit of sun and teamwork and the flip-cup tournament after the game—if I’m being honest, it’s what I’d rather do, too, if I didn’t have the muscle tone of a noodle and hand-eye coordination of a blind hamster, so now you know me.

There’s always next summer.

Until then, keep your eyes looking forward. Buy someone a sports drink—purple if they have it.

We’ll make it through.

@CitySprawlNVMag is not paid to promote any gym franchises or locations.


(November 2012)