All Eyes at the Gym

There’s an interesting kind of social dynamic at the gym. Even from the first trip, when the clank of weights and the whir of spinning treadmills is still unfamiliar, you can sense a sort of social psychology experiment going on. Are you watching?

I guess I’ve always been aware of it, ever since I was a seven year old trying not to make a fool of myself on the rowing machine while my dad lifted weights a few yards away. The glances. The quick half smiles. The averted eyes that say, “I’m completely focused, don’t interrupt me.” The grunts. All part of this underlying conversation that is rarely about words. This is, as Plato put it, the “crowd mind,” the vernacular that only comes with the sounds and sights of physicality.

At that age, though, I most likely wasn’t completely aware of every subliminal message that came my way. Sure, I could tell what that overweight woman in the purple tights was trying to say when she averted her eyes from everyone: “Don’t try to socialize with me, I’m getting in shape.” Or just how cocky the two teenage Mexican guys who looked around every time they did twenty pull ups could be. Back when I was jejune, I didn’t wonder if these people were promiscuous and on the prowl, fed up with their sedentary lifestyle, or just hungry for attention. Now I see those furtive glances and know that some are looking for a training partner or recognition for their struggles. We classify, codify, and make a choice to ignore or approach our partners in training.

We come in many forms. The aerobic enthusiasts, the body builders hyped up on creatine, the loners with outrageously good physiques. Though we vary in level of determination and appearance, we are linked by a desire to push our limits. It’s the kind of limit that you don’t realize exists until you dive into a new unknown. Waking  up at 4:30 in the morning and riding your bike alongside seventeen other triathletes with the open water swim on your mind. Easing into mile sixteen of your first full marathon, aware of every single tissue in your legs and stomach screaming for you to stop and lie down. Picking yourself up after a nasty spill on the bike at 27 miles an hour leaves you with skinless palms and knees. Yeah, it takes a very unhinged kind of dedication to pursue another workout after all those leaps.

Observing my companions in training as they row, stride, and cycle, I find myself wondering about our connections. Do we only share a bond if we race together, or are we linked the moment we start to sweat side by side? Can a simple glance of encouragement help a stranger bench press twenty pounds more than she thought she could? It depends largely on how our experiences are going – our attitudes come from our mindset and goals for that day. Feeling like you’d rather jump off a moving truck than dive into the ocean for an open water swim? Then that sense of rewarding camaraderie is likely to ebb faster than the tide. Irked by the guy blaring music through his Dr. Dre Beats? Cue negative attribute about his ego (and possible the size of his below-the-belt-ego, too.)

There will be times of disparaging attitudes and moments when the magic of this microcosm falls flat. Commensurate to the lows of our training, we recede into our own workouts and push others away, denying them the chance to share those moments of necessary duress. Sometimes we just can’t stand even the friendly smiles of the person on the indoor bike next to us. In these times, it’s better to embrace our aloofness, focusing instead on the mental roadblock that we’ve hit. As Eric Liddell put it, “In the dust of defeat as well as the laurels of victory, there is a glory to be found if one has done his best.” We must stare through the dust until we catch a glimpse of the laurels.

Yes, there is a social dynamic here that is better recognized than ignored. In the weight room, in the lap pool, out on the track. The people we deemed irrelevant or detrimental one day may become our training buddy, our romantic partner, or both the next day. These are the forces of choice that shape the outcome of our training. Return for more pain the next day, knowing that it is in your hands. And for those encounters that aren’t within our control, embrace them in all their unfamiliar glory.

After Nationals in Tuscaloosa.

After Nationals in Tuscaloosa.

If you find yourself training alone, running low on fumes, then  look around at all those determined faces. Sometimes all it takes is one glance to find your second wind.

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