Sometimes, I seem to have spent most of my adult life getting back in shape. Starting with my recovery from having my knee smack into a steeplechase hurdle – an injury that sidelined me for six months when I was 19 and ended my slim prospects of running in the Olympics – I must have got back into shape at least a dozen times. This time, I am recovering after a year of chronic knee problems that left me bloated and feeling out of sorts. I’m being especially careful this time, going slowly, and doing more cross-training than ever before, so I’m more aware of the process than usual. I’ve decided, half-seriously, that being in shape is an altered state of consciousness.
For me, it takes about six to eight weeks of heavy exercise before I get the first tentative sense of fitness. The first couple of weeks are pure will, full of endurance and aches. This is a time that I can only stagger through, driven by a hazy conviction that I need to keep going and that, if I do, things will get easier. My appetite increases, too, and I have to remind myself constantly not to give into it very much.
After a couple of weeks, I realize that I am no longer hurting. I seem to metabolize food quicker and more efficiently, so I no longer crave extra calories. My face looks thinner when I risk a glance in the mirror. Deep in my veins, I can feel my blood pressure subsiding. I no longer have to be so careful about getting eight hours of sleep every day. Continued life seems possible, at least in theory.
Suddenly, somewhere around the forty-fifth day of daily exercise, I burst into a new level of existence. My center of balance seems to subtly shift, and I find myself moving more lightly, with more of a bounce to my stride – the results, no doubt, of losing a few pounds, or of converting fat into muscle.
Mentally, I find myself noticing more. I become more inventive, coming up with projects and solutions almost effortlessly. I become more intense, more focused. I’m sure that, were I to test myself during the process, I’d find my intelligence increasing with my fitness, possibly because of an increased blood supply to the brain, or because of the adrenalin and endorphins swimming through me.
My biggest problem is making sure that I evaluate the soundness of my thoughts in this phase, because, at this point, I become so full of optimism – so downright cocky – that I could believe in my ability to do anything if I didn’t rein myself in. I could easily over-commit myself to projects, or do something unwise like trying to take on a mugger when walking at night. More directly, I could abruptly increase my exercise until I hurt myself and have to start the whole process of getting in shape all over again.
In many ways, the first awareness of being fit is like being drunk; it gives me what, logically-speaking, must be an exaggerated sense of my physical and mental capacities. Some of that feeling may be justified, since I do become more productive, but most is probably illusion. Yet the elevation of spirit and capacity seems very real when I experience it, even surmounting — to a certain extent — serious events in my personal life.
So far, no visions or spirit guides, though – although, the way that sweat pours off me that I might as well be spending my time in a sweat lodge.
This is the stage I am at now. This time, it seems especially intense because it’s happening in the middle of spring, so that my external and internal landscapes seem in sync. Fortunately, I know that the euphoria will diminish as I learn to take fitness for granted again. But, until then, I know from experience not to take myself too seriously (not that I ever do).