This summer I was driving into the city when I saw a moderate green and white sign: Belmont Plateau. Belmont Plateau is a green area with fields and some picnic areas. If you were going to a picnic at the plateau you would be happy to see this sign and its helpful little arrow. If you weren’t looking for the plateau there’s a good chance you would miss it altogether.

I did neither. I lost my breath, my train of thought derailed and, just like in a movie, I stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence. My companion asked what was going on and I told her in a faraway voice that this was where I used to practice football in high school. In said movie, we might cue an eighty minute flashback. It would show a younger me about to go through something trying, something I wasn’t suited for, but in the end gaining something important from the experience.

If you’re worried now that this is going to be a post about past glories on the football field, then we obviously have never met in person. In the first place, there were exactly zero glories on the football field with which to regale you. There were, in fact, two debacles. Second, even if there were some glories, I wouldn’t want to be that middle aged male caricature, whose [enter sport here] career as a young man somehow gets more and more glorious with each passing year and each inch added to the waistline.

The fact is that while many I knew look back with great warmth and nostalgia at their high school career, I do not. Rather, high school football was the first time I remember hating being active. It was when exercise stopped being fun and became work.

Up until then, my organized activity of choice was baseball, a sport I adore. From the age of five to thirteen, I didn’t worry about being in shape. Like a lot of other kids, I spent my free time running around like an idiot playing games we had invented for the sake of running around like idiots. Tag. Freedom. Suicide. Football but with kickball rules. Catch the guy with the infected ball. On skates.

So when I decided, for a reason I do not remember, that I was going out for the high school football team, I did not know what I was in for. Despite the fact that I was about five feet tall and about a hundred and ten pounds, I was not the physical menace you may imagine. We were told to be in the weight room all summer for lifting and training. I eschewed these advice bits, but found time each day for a jog that would end at our community pool. And I’d be back in time to watch my afternoon cartoons. Life was great.

But at the end of that summer, I had to go to football camp. This was a sort of sleepaway bootcamp football training program in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Days started at 6 a.m. with a 3 mile run, and there were three practices a day in the steamy August heat of Godhelpme Pennsylvania.

For the second part of August, we enjoyed two-a-day practices in the intense August heat at Belmont Plateau. And I have never ever before understood what it was to want to be dead. I did not take to football, certainly not like many of the others did. I wasn’t good at it. I had no instinct. Hitting other people was not a fun concept and even less fun in practice. I hated our after school practice, spent the whole day grumbly about it. Still, I always went. Did my time. Took my lumps. Our coach was a deep, evidently cultish believer in conditioning and each practice involved not only getting walloped by guys whose bodies had had the decency to develop earlier than mine had, but also laps. Lots and lots of laps. Over and over again. And I did them.

It was usually during these laps or while being smashed that I wondered why I was putting so much effort into a team sport when my contribution to said team was my eager cheering from the sidelines on a Saturday afternoon. That and praying to any deity who was on duty that I not get put in the game for any reason whatsoever. But we got orange slices and Gatorade.

High school football was when I was introduced to the concept of being in shape. This introduction also coincided with the realization that I hated this concept. Or at the very least, football beat it out of me. And so, for two years after my football career ended, I remained mostly sedentary.

Still, I was eighteen, nineteen, and twenty years old. I could lie around for three months and then hop up on a whim and go for a five mile jog with little problem. My body developed, I became stocky, a bit broader in the shoulders. After two years of not doing much except the occasional run, I took up rugby.

While I enjoyed rugby more, I still don’t have a whole lot of glory tales to relate. I was a profoundly poor kicker and was threatened with physical violence more than once by my own teammates should I decide to kick rather than pass the ball to someone else who actually could. But rugby was more physically intensive than football. It was, as one coach described it, “ninety minutes of wrestling combined with wind sprints.” And he was right. After two years of rugby, I was most definitely “in shape.”

My body was twenty one and twenty two years old. I could drink prodigious amounts of beer and get up at 7 a.m. for a game. I could (and did) eat pizza and sandwiches with almost no physical repercussions. In the off-season my habits might lead to ten pounds of a spare tire, but by the first game the next season it would have been sliced off by jogging and three practices a week.

And then around twenty five, it stopped. My metabolism, that is. It stopped right along with my activity level. I was done with rugby and had taken up watching TV and going to bars and watching TV in bars. The only thing that hadn’t stopped was my unhealthy intake. My body was a personal shrine to beer and food that travelled to my mouth wrapped in carbohydrates.

My weight ballooned. Pants no longer fit by a depressing longshot. And for about fifteen years, I was proudly out of shape. You know what I mean. Proudly. The guy who is overweight but makes fun of himself so as to suggest that it’s really his preference. I actively avoided activity. Walking up a hill left me a sweaty, wheezing mess. On the one or two occasions a year where I got a bug up my butt and decided to take a jog or crank out thirteen pushups, I was left almost immobile the following day out of soreness.

Prague helped, simply because of the amount of walking one does here as opposed to in Pittsburgh, where we mostly got around by car or the three taxi cabs that service the city’s million people. My walking shape improved, but my gut was still evident, a thing which would expand and decrease in fluctuation. When I caught a glimpse of it in the mirror or in a photograph in which I hadn’t had time to hold my breath or to hide my belly beneath a baggy shirt I would moan. But I stingily clung to my status of proud non-activator.

I guess I had had enough by the time I was thirty nine. The straw that broke the camel’s spine was listening to the waistline of my 40 inch waist pants groan and creak like Magicienne class frigate. I made no grand plan, but found an online workout that took 7 minutes, three times a week. I figured I could find 21 minutes in my week. Also, I was forced to cut out bread and relegate its intake to a cheat day. A cheat day? As in one? Oof. That one hurt. Bread was my brother, my friend, my constant house companion since I was old enough to ask for peanut butter and jelly served between it. Anyway, I tried.

What happened then was relatively amazing. The workouts worked, and sure, I got into shape and lost weight. My pants were looser, previously snug T shirts were now baggy. In three months, I had to buy a new belt. This was the best visit to a store I made since the first time I bought condoms I would actually use. But I am not talking about the change in physiology, I mean the change in attitude.

I drank the workout Kool-Aid. Like Jonestown quantities of it. I developed a workout. A plan. I organized my day in terms of three things: When did I have to teach? When would I write? And when could I work out? I wrote out lists of exercises in my free time. I engaged in online forums. It had become my hobby. High intensity interval training became my religion. I became that guy. The guy who tells you without being asked how many lunges and squats he did that morning, or about a neat new workout activity that, like, absolutely killed his glutes.

I promised myself that I would never ever judge or lecture out of shape or overweight people. I would see it as the ultimate act of hypocrisy to have spent the better part of twenty years fat only to lose weight and then tell people that they had to not be fat. I have stuck to my word, but it is sometimes difficult. Working out had improved my life immensely, why wouldn’t I want to get others to make the same positive change? I knew I had a problem when I commiserated on this exact point with a family friend at a Christmas party. He’s a CrossFit guy. Good God, I thought, what have I become?

I was obsessed. Got to work out, can’t get fat again. Even when travelling I’d make lists of basic workouts that could be done in the tight hotel rooms of Japan and London and Ethiopia. I did pushups and lunges and crunches in a T shirt and boxer shorts. I exercised with the flu and at 5 a.m. if I wasn’t going to be able to do it later. The downstairs neighbor hasn’t spoken to me in four years.

When we flashback from Belmont Plateau, we find a forty four year old who is in the best shape of his life. We find a forty four year old who can also pull out a shoulder by aggressively hitting a button on the remote. He might reflect on the years spent fat and out of shape, might be pissed about those wasted years. But this is metered by the fact that he has never felt physically better in his life. Still, he ain’t doing laps ever again and he got the hell away from Belmont Plateau as quickly as his car allowed.

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