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The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Runner: Who Needs Triceps?

Copyright Hal Higdon Training

Every year, one of my New Years' Goals is that I'm finally going to start cross training. Those lackluster lats and crappy core would have to say goodbye-- 2011 is the year I'm finally going to fill those Hal Higdon Half Marathon Training "X" days with actual, real cross training. You know, beyond walking out to my car in the parking lot and elbowing Wal-Mart moms out of the way from the last case of Coke Zero. And then it was 2012. And 2013. When 2014 rolled around, I had my 30th birthday in my sights, and it wasn't pretty. Over the winter, the Portland Drinking Months had caught up to me with their scrumptious totchos and lagers. All my clothes still fit, technically. Technically.

I sat down sometime in the first week of 2014 with the notes app open on my iPhone and began to wonder what I would do this year, where I would go, what new thing the year would hold for me. The year before was a doozy– a 2,700 mile move with a screaming house cat, a lost job, a new job, unemployment, an engagement, a minor outpatient surgery– you name it, I’d had it with 2013. It was time for a new year of old, unfulfilled goals. I wouldn’t be going to the Grand Canyon or even California this year, but damn if I wasn’t going to finally lift myself out of the bathtub without feeling like I was going to dislocate my shoulder.

To be frank, my upper body was the opposite of my strong suit. I got tired shopping and wanted to die every time I loaded up on groceries at the Trader Joe’s a four block walk from my home. A few years ago I read a description of the Tour de France cyclists in a major daily newspaper– that the men had gorilla legs and ballerina arms. Since then, I’d always thought of that description as the narrative of my life and my body: a bizarre blend of unexpected strength and inconvenient weakness. And of course, even the strong parts of my body didn’t look all that strong to the untrained eye– it was strong covered in a layer of three-cheese macaroni and low-cal ice cream sandwiches.

Copyright NPR.org

It was 2014, and I was feeling a little sad that I’d promised myself improvement so many times and had ultimately ignored one goal– a goal, mind you, not a resolution– so consistently every year. I was so sad, in fact, that I never wrote it down on my list for the year. If I’d failed to cross train three years running (no pun intended), it probably just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I’d go to the John Fossil Beds or whatever they were called instead. Crater Lake seemed doable. Who needs triceps? I could stick to showers. Maybe I would start ordering groceries on Safeway.com and have them delivered to my house every week. Both of these things would also save me time– but of course, with an extra five minutes here and there, all I was going to do was further rationalize the path of least resistance.

A couple months later, still avoiding bubble baths like the plague they aren’t, I finally purchased the plane ticket and paid the deposit on my amazing, professional wedding photographer, Heather Canterbury. It was just enough money to send me traipsing in front of a poorly lit bathroom window in my studio apartment to take a hard look at my body. Of course, in my early twenties I’d been over 205 lb. I was much smaller than that at this point, but as anyone formerly larger-than-life well knows, the fat kid fear never leaves you. You are your greatest critic, and I had a daily internal debate that tried to reconcile my feminist underpinnings that said I should accept myself unconditionally and know that how I look is not who I am or what I am worth with the fact that I’d been big and I’d been small, and I knew from experience that the smaller you are the more privileges you have as a citizen of this country.

Copyright TheOatmeal.com

I looked in the mirror, and while I didn’t hate what I saw, it was so routine and unsatisfying that it almost hurt. Welcome to thirty– the age where you simply accept the fact that while you do actually care what you look like, you don’t care enough to give up pizza and pinot. I thought about two of my co-workers– K. and J. They were so tall, so svelte, with such tone arms and fabulous posture. In my job interview, one of them had mentioned that she’d tried running but it wasn’t for her– barre3 was her primary choice of exercise. I’d heard about barre3 before– the legal acquaintance that took me to my first Hash House Harriers run the night before the 2013 Fourth of July said she’d tried barre3 once or twice before but that it was “too hardcore” to keep going. I was intrigued. What was this wild creature of a sport that was “too hardcore” for my hungover, marathon-PR-earning friend but that earned a woman working long hours in Big Law the body of a West Hills, ladies-who-lunch yoga mom?

I decided to go for a short run and try to find the closest studio– it was supposed to be at the corner of NW 10th and Marshall in the Pearl, just over a mile away. I jogged over to the studio slowly, looking in all the windows and perusing the shops. I was so unfamiliar with the neighborhood– it seemed like so much money and fuss, but it was so clean, crisp, and green. I came to a walk and tried to casually walk past the floor-to-ceiling window of the exercise studio where a ballet barre divided the horizontal line of the room at the one-fourth mark. The white, vinyl script on the tall window read that this was where “ballet barre meets yoga and pilates.” Every woman in the room was in plank on the birch wood floor except for one larger woman pushing up against the window barre at a 45-degree angle, sweating bullets. The women were making tiny, one-inch movements. It looked so easy. What was all the fuss about?

I looked it up on my phone– the first month of unlimited classes was $99. What did I have to lose? I paid my fee and signed up for a whole week of 6 AM classes– something else I’d always promised I would do. I ran back up Glisan all the way home, excited to try something new and hoping that for $99, I’d like it and follow through for once. The website claimed that barre3 would make “exercise, nourishment and connection work in harmony” to help me “thrive both physically and mentally.” Having seen the long-term result for K. and J. at work, it seemed that was a promise that barre3 could keep.

Copyright exploretheepearl.com

The first morning I came to barre3, I was terrified that everyone would be prettier and more well put together than I had managed in the 30 minutes I’d stumbled around my pitch black apartment before running to the studio in the Pearl. One of the reasons I’m a runner and nothing else is that all it requires of me is to repeatedly put one foot in front of the other without falling flat on my face. Although I do occasionally eat it, running never requires me to lift anything with my arms, balance on one god-forsaken foot, or even look good while doing it– a visor and big sunglasses have successfully taken care of that. I can’t remember who was my first barre3 instructor that first 6 AM morning. She seemed like the type who probably raised chickens in her backyard and made yogurt in her kitchen. She was tiny, brutally soft-spoken and strong. No one in the class had makeup on, and although I could see a slew of orange, Lucy rectangles and lululemon logos around me, all the women were all wearing quiet, utilitarian clothing– matte black knickers and single-color tanks showing off firm calves and brilliant arms.

Working out in the back of the class was an advertisement for the barre3 practice: the dozen to twenty women in front of me, regardless of their height or weight, had obvious but not ostentatious upper body strength– the elusive if vain combination most women seek to eventually achieve in their life. Ten minutes in, my entire body was shaking as the instructor encouraged everyone to “find their shakes and quakes,” to bring one’s body to failure to level it and rebuild again. It was horrible, and I loved every minute of it. I loved it so much, in fact, that for six weeks through May and June, I completely forgot to run other than the short jaunts it took me to get to and from the studio in the mornings. You would think this would have spelled disaster for my mid-June half marathon, but other than feeling like I was on the brink of death, I actually got my best time for the season.

The Portland barre3 Pearl studio, Copyright stylehawk.com

May, June, and July have all passed, now. I kept with it, despite all past history to the contrary, and have gone to most all 6 AM weekday classes and Sunday morning sessions save for rest days for race weekends. I feel exactly as barre3 promised– more nourished, more well-rounded, thinner, stronger. I’m no longer reluctant to dip into that deep, clawfoot tub for post-long run soaks, and any reticience I have about going grocery shopping now is– let’s be real– mere laziness and not lack of upper arm strength. When I went for an 8-mile run with Run Oregon Blogger Bonnie Ingersoll two weekends ago, it was the first time we’d seen each other in awhile and she seemed a little shocked. “You’ve lost so much weight!” she exclaimed. “I think you’ve gotten faster!”

Flattery will get you far, Bonnie. Was this what all that cross training noise was about? Building a stronger, leaner, balanced body instead of tiny, useless T. Rex arms and quads so massive you spend all of training season– work or play– in spandex? I guess that makes sense. I’m now starting into my fourth month at barre3, and while I love it– it truly is my favorite exercise to date after running– my introductory trial period and bridal discount package ends the first of September and after that, it’s over $200/month without a contract or $150/month with a six month commitment that I’m worried I won’t keep in the rainy months to come. I’ve considered signing up for a month at Bar Method, Firebrand, or maybe even 24 or LA Fitness, as much as I hate the gym. What do you do to cross train, Run Oregon Readers?

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About Anne Milligan (34 Articles)
Anne Milligan lives and runs in North Portland.

1 Comment on The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Runner: Who Needs Triceps?

  1. Congratulations, Anne! No doubt cross-training has made you a better runner; pretty much all of the “how to” running books I have advocate some kind of resistance training, including upper body and core, for runners.

    Of course, you’re still young! (Adulthood begins at 30….) When you hit your 40s, the story is that you lose 1% of muscle mass a year unless you do something about it. I don’t particularly like lifting weights, but I do it 2-3 times a week.

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