Ski season annually presents an awkward limbo of identity for me.
I am an outdoors person. I am a huge fan of winter.
And I am not an athlete. At all.
It goes beyond a simple lack of ability. Sports have nothing to do with who I am. I like experiencing the mountains. But I don’t feel any special pride in “pushing my body.” I don’t care about getting stronger or faster, and trying to make myself care is almost as exhausting as the exercise itself. Whenever I’ve found myself in decent shape, it’s been a happy accident of some other fun, like hiking.
But skiing has a relatively high fitness barrier to entry. Unless you have a lot of free time to hike or bike rigorously for hours every week (I don’t), dedicated workouts might be the only way to get in shape for winter.
So last week I bit the bullet and tried a ski fitness class. Burn, a gym in Sugar House, has offered its popular snow conditioning courses for four years, with workouts designed by pro skiers. I signed up for a drop-in class and then went out to buy some gym clothes.
That’s how non-sporty I am. I didn’t own gym clothes.
Going to the gym usually is a beatdown for me. I’ll try a workout class, and everyone else looks happy and proud, like it’s easy for them. Meanwhile, I can barely make it through the exercises even though I’m trying my hardest, and I leave feeling ashamed and also pretty nauseated for a few hours.
The gym is not fun for me. There is no scenery, and it smells like rubber. I hate the gym.
But there I was, Thursday night, in spandex pants. At a gym. People around me stretched and brandished their water bottles. I self-consciously sipped at the crumpled Aquafina bottle I had fished out of the garbage on the floor of my car. The letters AMRAP (“as many reps as possible”) were written in erasable marker on the mirror.
My heart sank. Seriously, I played the horn in high school. I was on the debate team. I do not belong in a room with AMRAP.
The teachers, Sami and Brittany, came out cheering and warmed up the class with jumping jacks. What followed really should have been my personal hell.
There were kettlebells. There was sprinting. There was squatting and jumping again and again.
There were burpees.
So many burpees.
It turns out there are a lot of variations on burpees.
I began to fantasize about all the ways that death might claim me right there in Burn, when something magical happened.
We were on our backs, doing bicycle kicks with our feet dangling a few inches off the ground from the TRX suspension straps, our hips hovering in the air. It felt as though magma was being pumped into my hamstrings. Sami counted us down to a rest, and a student next to me gasped. We sat up, and three or four of us looked at each other, jaws dropped in disbelief at how hard the exercise was.
I looked around at the students at other stations in the circuit. One man looked at the floor with saucerlike eyes and shook his head before hunkering down for another pushup. A woman winced while hoisting her kettlebell. While stepping up onto a knee-high planter again and again, another student swore under her breath.
A warm feeling filled my heart, and it wasn’t schadenfreude.
It was the comforting realization that I had permission to think this class was hard.
Normally in gyms I get a vibe — probably part real and part imagined — that there’s an expectation to perform one’s fitness. You’re in a crowd of people, and you’ve got to do something astounding, more astounding than just executing the instructions of the teacher, to earn the right to betray that you’re struggling to go on. Otherwise you’re failing at Being At The Gym. I’ve visited a lot of gyms and a lot of exercise classes, and until last week I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone else who looks as worn out as I feel.
Truthfully, I’ve probably never been so far behind any class I’ve ever taken; some of the students at Burn are professional and sponsored skiers, world-class athletes, and I did a fraction of the work that everyone else there did. But I’ve also never felt more OK about being the non-athlete at the gym.
It occurs to me that nobody joins a ski conditioning class to get good at Being At The Gym. This exertion is only incidental to something that happens in December.
So it felt productive to leave a one-hour class feeling even more tired than I do at the end of a long day skiing. The fact that I struggled (then nearly threw up, then sat alone in the parking lot for like 20 minutes trying to summon the leg strength to operate my gas and brake pedals) didn’t take away from that.
I can't go to all of Burn’s remaining ski conditioning classes because of schedule conflicts (they run Tuesday and Thursday nights, ending Nov. 21), but there are a couple of others in Salt Lake City, and I plan to go to as many as I can. Now that I better understand the intensity of exercise required, I’m in a better position to work out at home, too.
Last winter I tried a lot of tools and tricks to improve ski technique, and I couldn't shake the instinct that leg and core strength would help more than anything else a novice could try. That’s enough reward to entice even a non-athlete like me.