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This time last year, I was far from awesome.
In late July, I’d flown over the handlebars of a bicycle, smashing into the pavement, chipping a tooth, snapping my right arm, and cracking a knuckle on my left hand. After a surgery — in which a titanium plate and a row of crude screws fused the fracture (fun fact: Guns N’ Roses was blasting in the operating room) – I was fed a few crackers, supplied a whole bunch of pills, and sent on my way to sit on the couch and mend.
And there I sat, trapped between a pair of heavy casts, adrift in a haze of Percocets and “What Not to Wear,” replaying the crash in my head over and over. When things got bad, I summoned up a little mantra offered in a get-well card by a colleague who herself had taken a nasty spill the year prior: “Back to normal.”
Those three simple words carried me through weeks of healing, squeezing various putties, stretching elastic bands, bending my stiff wrist over the edge of a tabletop, and, after a few months, finally making it back into the gym. Before long, I was back to normal.
While the restoration of my old gym routine brought a sense of accomplishment, it was also hobbled with an odd ache of disappointment. After months of climbing back, the view at the top felt awfully familiar. “Normal” wasn’t much of a climax. Part of me just wanted my recovery to continue indefinitely; I didn’t just want to get well, I wanted to get better.
I learned early on, growing up with two older brothers, that it’s a good idea to make big friends. And as a street-smart (and theatrically inclined) string bean of a grade-schooler, making nice with the heavies was a no-brainer. This trend continued through my life, though the bullies had less and less to do with it. There’s just an appealing swagger to the very large. You can see it: The ease and assurance that comes from knowing you will not be messed with. (Not to put too fine a point on this, but gay men don’t grow up with that, we have to get there somehow.)
Hearing me whine about my post-traumatic plateau, a faction of my bigger friends – some powerlifter and highland gamer types – pointed me toward Total Performance Sports (or “TPS”), a sprawling 40,000-square-foot gym in an Everett warehouse that specializes in intensive strength training – from strongman competitions to Olympic lifting to boxing to powerlifting to classes with titles like “Not Cross Fit.”
TPS owner C.J. Murphy started lifting weights when he was 13, after some trouble he got into resulted in the yanking of all his afterschool sports. He’s 44 now, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking anything away from him. Dude is big. Goatee is long. Murph’s desk chair groans when he swivels to see who has entered his office. (Note: Sitting with your back to the door = swagger.)
After a quick consultation, in which Murph pinches various particularly fatty sites on my body with calipers, I answered a few questions about my crappy diet, a plan was printed out, and I was on my way. Over eight weeks, I’d be overhauling my diet completely, lifting weights four nights a week, and sleeping like a dead champ. I’d be testing my strength (and my new arm) with Director of Strength and Conditioning Steve DiLello twice weekly at Awesome Camp (upper body on Tuesdays, lower body on Thursdays) and training by myself on the off nights.
The idea wasn’t to get “jacked” or “ripped” or “freaky huge” or any of the other descriptors plastered across the giant tubs of protein I had to buy; my goal was an abstraction: “awesomeness.” I would determine its meaning as I went. I was assured that my body would change drastically – fat would drop, muscle would emerge – and instructed not to buy any new clothes for the time being.
The biggest changes, however, would happen where no one could see them. After years of denial, I discovered my inner meathead, and we’ve since become super tight bros. In the parlance of a certain highly judgmental ad, “I lift things up and put zem down.”
For 10 days, I’ve eaten nothing but chicken, lettuce, coconut milk, eggs, whey isolate, water, air, and bitter, bitter envy. Every day at work seems to have some cakeworthy occasion at its center, and my insides howl at the icing and injustice all over everything. It’s a temporary carbless prep phase for my diet, and I can’t complain: I’ve already lost 10 lbs. just by bunnying out.
The gym is vast, hot, and loud. The clang of iron cuts through a dense din of Motörhead, AC/DC, and (my old friends from surgery) Guns N’ Roses. A line of girls lean against a wall catching their breath, awaiting the return of a classmate pushing a Prowler — a heavy training sled that can be loaded with weights — down a long strip of Astroturf. One dude is doing heavy squats at the Monolift, the bar straining into an arc across his back as he drops down low. A few young men take turns wailing on a tractor tire with a sledgehammer in the corner; another guy is benching a weight I can’t immediately calculate, coils of thick chains hung from each end rattling as they rise from the floor. It occurs to me that I may be in trouble.Continued...