Aside from Ricky’s injury, the winter break passed without much fanfare. Pete and I trained, often joined by Libby and a few others, and we otherwise whiled away our free hours in diners or watching movies or lifting videos. Occasionally one of us would get an invite to do something—an evening out with non-lifting friends, for example—but more often than not we passed these up. For one thing there was an extreme torpor that followed many of our heavier training sessions, and at this point more and more of them were heavy, thanks to the restoratives. We’d get back from lifting, shower, eat something, and then the gravity holding us to our living room couches would become planetary in its strength. As though our living room were the nexus of some great black hole into which all motivation, save that for lifting and eating, was drained away.
“You ready?” one would ask, usually from a supine position on the couch, and usually in nothing more than boxers. I.e., nowhere near ready for going out.
“I can be,” the other would say, and then settle even deeper into the couch.
“We could always bail.”
Soon we’d both be lounging around like a pair of Greek symposiasts, content to do nothing more than relax and shuffle from the living room to the refrigerator when the inevitable hunger returned. A text of apology would be sent to whoever’d invited us out, we’d feel a fleeting moment of guilt, and then we’d be back to enjoying our evening in.
Between training, eating, and working there was simply not much energy left for much else.
There was also the continual worry of how anything outside the norm would impact our lifting, be it a night out or a few hours of missed meals or an evening standing in a bar. How to explain to our non-lifting friends during the middle of an outing that we needed to eat every two or three hours, max? I’d already had firsthand experience with what those evenings could do to the next day’s training, or to an entire training cycle. Long hours standing in crowded bars, buying drink after drink, taking regular trips to the bathroom to do lines of cocaine—it all seemed like another era, or another life entire, although admittedly my relationship to such activities was ambivalent. There was always that background pull, a tiny voice not far below the surface calling me back to clubs and bathroom stalls and random house parties… But the fear of what this had already done to my training, and what it would do now, was a powerful slap of clarity. Going out with people outside the sport was simply too unpredictable; there were too many variables, and as Ricky and Nikos and Russ had long noted, lifting heavy weights always depended on controlling your variables.
It was for this very reason—controlling as much of life outside the gym as possible—that I told my boss at the carwash where I worked I had to reduce my hours to, at most, one day a week. Ricky was a great fan of this idea; indeed, he was the one who’d first suggested it. I spoke with the manager on the Sunday before the spring semester started. The accumulated snow and salt of the winter meant the carwash was busy almost every day, and this day was no different. A line stretched out the parking lot and onto Route 1. The manager and I stood by the entrance bay amid the sounds of machinery and the spray of power washers. Our bodies and bits of our surroundings were reflected in the thin film of soapy water puddling around our feet. I waved cars forward onto the track and shouted at their drivers to put their cars in neutral and not use their brakes, directions which very few people seemed able to follow with any accuracy. Many of them looked at me as though “neutral” and “no brakes” were strange commands spoken in an alien tongue and having nothing to do with their current situation.
In between cars I explained my situation to the manager, telling him that I was in the preparatory stages of a training cycle for our national competition, and that my coach and I were focusing on a medal and a spot on an international team, and that this was necessary to give myself the best chance.
He listened to me as I spoke over the din that filled the air. He was a lifelong New Jersey resident who’d grown up in Newark and then moved to Edison.
“You know I used to do a little liftin’ myself,” he said, puffing his chest up ever so slightly. “Just for fun,” he added. “And to look good for the girls.” He winked and smiled and I smiled back in a show of camaraderie. “How long you need to cut back?”
“Nationals are in July,” I said, waving another car forward and guiding it onto the track with small motions of my hand to indicate steering corrections to the left or right. “So until then.”
He whistled. “July? You’re talkin’ about six months.”
I nodded. In a worst case scenario I was prepared to just quit.
My boss waved and grinned at the customer about to pass through the tunnel. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll figure it out. Shouldn’t be too hard gettin’ one of the guys to cover. They all want the money. Can’t guarantee I’m gonna have hours for you, though. But I’ll put you on when I can.”
Though initially skeptical the more we talked the more he was sympathetic to my cause, as nearly anything suggestive of athletic glory was a thing of value in our shared culture. Had I said I was training for a math league competition he probably would have fired me on the spot; the lifting of iron, on the other hand, had the right ring of masculinity to it.
“So what happens if you get a medal?” he asked. “You get to go to the Olympics?”
“Not quite,” I said. “That’s a whole different qualification system.”
“Hm,” he said, nodding in agreement, as though it made perfect sense to him. He then asked the inevitable question: “So how much you bench?”
For the briefest of moments I contemplated a long, drawn out explanation of why we rarely benched heavy in training, along with a discussion of why the squat was a far greater metric of strength, regardless of which iron sport you subscribed to. But in considering my audience I recognized that this was probably not the response he wanted to hear. I could just imagine his eyes glazing over as I went into the details of my sport, so instead I told him what I’d done in my last real bench workout, years ago, which no doubt satisfied and impressed him far more than any discussion of squats or snatches or cleans. Also any mention of “snatch” or “clean and jerk” was bound to elicit snickers and jokes which I’d heard countless times before, and my patience—thanks in large part to the combination of Sustanon and Dianabol—was thin for those sorts of jibes.
The following morning I went to the bank, looked at my accounts, and transferred a pile of money from my savings to my checking. I was committed to a course of action, and I felt that these sacrifices—as with my weekly injections and daily pills—were a necessary part of being great. I’d lost time in weightlifting when I was younger, and was convinced that only through a certain amount of suffering and hardship would there be any hope of redemption. Apparently the risk of financial ruin was part of this hardship. Between savings, extra hours worked over the winter break, anticipated gifts for my (theoretical) graduation that spring, and the generosity of my parents I hoped to be able to squeak by until Nationals. If I needed to last further—if, e.g., I qualified for a World Team—I would figure something else out…
More importantly, the following Saturday the gym at FDU reopened, and our workout that morning felt like a homecoming, even though we’d only been away for little more than a month. The regulars among us caught up on our holidays, shared training stories, and generally felt good to be back in our rightful Saturday morning place. I also had a chance to show off a Christmas gift from my parents: the 2004 Adidas Adistars. I pulled the shoes from my bag and presented them for Nikos and Russ’s examination like a proud parent showing off a child made of silver kangaroo leather and black carbon fiber.
Russ and Nikos smiled appreciatively. “Very nice,” said Russ. “How do you like them?”
“I love them. Super light. Very flexible in the front. Only took a week or so to adjust to them. They’re an amazing shoe.”
Nikos took one shoe and considered it, turning it over in his hands and raising it up for a better look. “Is beautiful shoe.” He held it in one hand and weighed it. “Wow.”
“They’ve come a long way since our day, isn’t that right?” said Russ.
Nikos nodded. “I have this shoe, maybe I snatch 200 kilos,” he joked.
Ricky walked in at this point and shouted his greeting and then pointed to the shoes. “If those were my size I’d put them on and snatch 200 right now,” he said, smiling.
“You training?” asked Joe with some skepticism.
“Hell yes,” said Ricky.
“Thought you blew a disc or something,” Joe said.
Ricky motioned with his hands in a manner suggestive of the passing of time or the occurrence of events long over. I knew that in the three weeks since Christmas he’d been on a steady regimen of anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, and restoratives. But I wasn’t sure if he’d actually healed up enough to move a barbell. “Just a little back thing,” he said.
“Gonna ease into it today?”
“Ease in?” Ricky laughed. “Hell no! Who wants to max out with me?”