Reboot Camp: Finding Strength in Unusual Places After a Year of Highs and Lows [Essay]

Illustration by Pete Ryan

Three weeks after my 49th birthday, I broke my record at the gym by deadlifting 220 pounds (roughly 100 pounds more than my body weight). My workout partner, Abbey—a 37-year-old spin instructor who’s hip and hilarious, energetic in ways I could never be—commemorated it with an Instagram video that blasted an A$AP Mob song, punctuated with a lot of emojis. It was a goal we’d been working toward for six months, and we achieved it together.

That was Feb. 27, 2020, around the time the country woke to the realization that a global pandemic was spreading. Caught between hopeful optimism that the disease could still be contained and growing fears that it might unfold like some Stephen King novel, we held our collective breath. Twelve days later, the morning of March 10, I stepped inside my gym for the last time.

I didn’t discover fitness until my 40s. I’m not a natural athlete or even an adequate one. I once slingshotted myself into a squat rack with a resistance band. A few years ago, I missed a lift with a weighted Olympic bar and stuck out my leg to “catch” it. I’ve skidded off rowing machines more times than I care to count. Coordination isn’t my strong suit. But at 41, I decided to get serious about my health and enter the second half of life strong.

On the plus side, my body was like an antique car kept covered in the garage. Left at rest for decades, I had no preexisting injuries or chronic conditions. While lots of folks my age worked around old wounds, I had the ligaments of a newborn.

Progress came fast, if not easy, at the beginning. I went from a few pushups on my knees to 30 military style reps. One assisted chin-up eventually strung into a set of 19 on my own. Every few weeks, I added weight to the bar for heavier squats, deadlifts, power cleans, and presses. My confidence grew stronger than my muscles.

Though working out changed my life in physical and psychological ways, nine years later, it still doesn’t come naturally. I search for excuses to quit. Most days, I feel trapped in some health-crazed “Groundhog Day.” Resistance is real. The gym became akin to an AA meeting for my psyche. It kept me accountable, and meeting that 220-pound deadlift goal was a big deal.

But the pandemic gave even committed gym rats a reason to resign. For those first months, we couldn’t leave home. Fitness studios shut down. Beaches and trails closed. Even walks around the hilly streets of our Laguna Beach home became fraught with mask rage. Why work out when the world seemed to be ending? No one saw our bodies anyway, and sweatpants hid dozens of doughnuts. Social media swarmed with once-motivated athletes who confessed they’d thrown in the towel. Or maybe those were just my algorithms.

For me, the gym offered more than a workout. It gave my day structure and routine. It imposed a discipline I couldn’t muster on my own. It was the place where I set down my mental loads in favor of physical ones. Lifting requires concentration and leaves little room for rumination. Plus, the gym represented a part of my personality I kept walled off from family and other friends. There, I wasn’t a middle-aged mom or book nerd, the writer who geeked out over grammar, or a former lawyer. I was only the badass who lifted 220 pounds, told off-color jokes, and swore without provocation. Even my hairstyle and clothing were wholly different at the gym. I was neon green Lycra instead of charcoal gray cashmere. People from one world often didn’t recognize me in the other. I was an alternate version of me—me in a different life. And I liked that woman, even if I couldn’t be her full time.

What would happen to her, I wondered in the early days of the pandemic. Where would she go? I pictured part of myself released like a helium balloon. A piece of me drifting away like the carefree college girl, the serious law student, the young attorney, the anxious mom, and all the other possible identities—both taken and forsaken—that I’d already let go.

By the end of April 2020, I hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a cast-iron skillet. It was time to reimagine something else for myself, even if it wouldn’t look or feel the same.

I found a deflated physio ball in the back of our yard, soil-stained and sticky. My husband had a dusty pair of 35-pound iron dumbbells in the closet. We kept a retractable pole to change light bulbs in our laundry room, perfect for practicing overhead squats and stretches. My trainer agreed to Zoom into my alley three times a week, bark out exercises, and keep me on task.

I started collecting equipment like a kid collects toys, scouring sporting goods stores in search of an elusive pair of 20-pound dumbbells. No luck. By July, I invested in a Power Tower where I could do pullups and dips, leg raises and pushups. I put it in our carport, next to a TRX I attached to a tree. Soon my car, which I never drove anymore, became an equipment shed to store kettlebells and weight plates, a yoga mat, a plyo box, resistance bands, and an AbMat. I put 96,000 miles on that car in six years and less than 1,000 in the past two. I now affectionately call it “The Hurt Locker.”

This isn’t a hero’s journey. I’m still 40 pounds away from that celebrated deadlift day, 45 pounds off my squat record, and multiple reps away from other goals. I’ve also put on some pounds and do daily battle with low-grade depression. Hiking the hills behind my house is harder. I huff more than before. But two old gym rules—meet yourself where you are, and celebrate success against your present circumstances, not your past accomplishments—serve me well whenever I remember to apply them.

Abbey sent a text this past March: “Special delivery at your front door.” The elusive pair of 20-pound dumbbells. “Be careful because one is loose, so watch your face.” She hadn’t forgotten about me, or my klutzy proclivities.

Turns out, 15 months later, badass me is still around. Even if she’s a little less bad and has a little more …

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