The smell of sweat and cologne permeated the air as I headed to the fountain for a drink between sets. It was relatively quiet, but in less than an hour the gym would be packed with people (mostly women) running on the endless rows of treadmills and machines, and the free weight section filled with guys grunting and shrugging and laughing and watching. Always watching. Looking for the women. Looking to see who was bigger. Looking to see if they were bigger. In fact, the only people who didn’t watch were the ones being watched: the guys who were really big, and the women who topped out on the ‘hot’ meter.
I headed back to my bench and did a quick second set. I added more weight and did some quick crunches.
I usually tried to avoid the rush, although some days it was fascinating to watch the watchers. Today I was working on my chest however, and the competition for the three benches was always tight during the rush hour. So I’d come early. Only now I had a problem.
I looked at the weight on the bar and started scoping who was there, only I wasn’t looking at the girls. If you wanted to push yourself in the weight room, you needed a spotter for the heavy weights. I wasn’t huge, by any measure, but the weight on the bar was enough that I needed a big guy to help me. The only problem was that there was only one guy big enough to help and he WAS huge. And mean looking. For a second my mind drifted back to when I was a kid. Back then I was a skinny thing, and my favourite thing to do, aside from sports, happened every day after school…
“Hey, Dave! Ready!” I said, eager to start.
“On your mark, get set, go!”
I took off from the line, running as fast as I could. Dave started better than I did, but I caught him at the seventy metre mark and than passed him. I beat him by five yards.
“Let’s go again!”
“Steve, man, I’m pooped. We ran ten of them. I’m going home.”
My blond friend popped me a quick high five and I stood at the start line, listening to the sounds of some of the older kids playing basketball on the court behind the school. Well, I’ll run a couple more myself, I thought.
I ran two more sprints and finally called it a day. Mom would be waiting. I walked to the store next to the school to pick up a Mr. Freeze. On the way back I noticed two squirrels chasing each other, and I watched them for a while until the brown one finally got away. I’d always liked team sports, but there was a part of me that never minded spending time alone. I especially liked running. It was fun for one thing, and you never needed to ask anyone for help either. Everybody knew how to run. I liked the team sports though. All you had to do was what the coaches told you to do, and for me at least, all the sports stuff seemed pretty easy.
“Hey, mom!” I yelled as I banged into the house. I gave her a kiss and headed to my room.
“What you do today?” She asked when I came back into the kitchen.
“Ran sprints with Dave. Brandon couldn’t make it. Won seven of the ten races.”
“I’m glad you think running is fun.”
“Mom, running’s easy! Nobody tells you anything and you can do it all by yourself. Of course it’s fun!”
I smiled at the recollection, as I thought back to the arduous five kilometres I’d ran the day before. Yeah, running is a real joy. I stretched my arms and looked to see if anyone else had come in the gym who could give me a spot. Nope.
I stood and slowly headed over to the shoulder press. Most people didn’t realize it, but there was a hierarchy in the weight room. When I’d first started lifting seventeen years ago, I’d learned to be deferential around the guys pulling the most weight. And while it was true that some guys ignored the hierarchy of respect, most of us looked at them like they were idiots and intruders anyway.
The big guy had just finishing putting 250lbs over his head on the shoulder press. Man, he just looks mean, I thought.
“Hey, man, can I get spot?”
He pulled the earphones from his ears.
“Can I get a spot?”
He followed me over to the bench.
“How many do you want?”
“Four or five, but I die pretty quick.”
It was the reason I needed such a strong guy for a spot. My muscles tended to seize and collapse quickly.
I pushed the weight up, and he kept his hands just below the bar, encouraging me. I got to five, was about to die when he took the bar and easily lifted it into the rack.
He smiled and went back to the other side of the gym. I wasn’t sure why I’d made such a big deal of the whole thing. I shook my head and removed twenty pounds from the bar. I hadn’t thought of it before, but in thinking about my younger years, I realized that I wasn’t really great about asking for help or how difficult that could be.
After a couple of minutes I laid back down to do another set. I lifted the bar off the rack, and suddenly the big guy was looming over me, his hands beneath the bar.
“C’mon, pal. You can do it.”
With his help I managed to squeeze out an extra couple of reps.
“That was great, thanks.”
He nodded and left. I sat there for a while and as I finished my workout, I couldn’t help but think I complicated I made things sometimes. And how I judged people simply because I refused to connect with them. Here I’d been afraid to approach someone because of my perception – he was mean looking – and yet he’d turned out to be both encouraging and helpful. It also struck me that asking for help, as difficult as it could be, could be pretty liberating.
I finally finished my workout. On the way out, I noticed the big guy headed to the fountain. I stopped and introduced myself.
“I’m Steve, thanks for the spot.”
“Junior. No problem, bro.”
I was still smiling when I got to my car. Yeah, I thought. No problem at all.