Picture the scene. My son is at nursery and I’ve spent the morning writing. I’ve earned an hour to myself. So what do I do?
And that’s the choice. Is it off to the coffee shop for a cappuccino and slice of cake? Or is it a trip to the gym? (Yes I know it’s the coffee and cake but play along, otherwise this will be a very short post).
The truth is I’m getting to that age where things are starting to happen to my body.
There’s hair growing out of my ears. My previously flat stomach now swells like a balloon being filled with water.
My days of being able to eat lard sandwiches without worrying about the consequences are long gone.
And that’s why I’ve joined the gym.
The first thing to consider is the attire. My old white cotton t-shirt just doesn’t fit anymore (both literally and stylistically).
This brings me to the horror that is Lycra. Tops which seem to attach themselves to my body as if they are an extra layer of skin, revealing my stomach like a bowling ball and threatening to cut off air circulation to my lungs.
Shorts seem to have been replaced by leggings. Leggings for men? Meggings?
When I go to the gym I want to keep a low profile. Not to attract any attention. Thoughtfully the people who make the clothes have attempted to assist this by making all the gear fluorescent orange, pink or bright yellow.
So now I’m nervously finding my bearings in the gym.
There’s a group of large, muscular men in the corner lifting heavy weights and grunting encouragement at each other.
The stench of males confusing strength with being able to lift heavy weights is in the air.
I tentatively try to lift one of the bars. I can’t get it off the ground. I decide to take some weight off it. I realise there are no weights on the bar.
Perhaps weight-lifting isn’t for me. I head for the studio.
It’s spin class. There are 30 bikes. That’s 29 women. And me.
Nothing strange about that at all.
That’s 29 fit women sweating profusely in tight clothes. And me.
Totally normal. Move on, move on.
The instructor arrives. Lean, muscular and loud. She keeps yelling ‘Wooooo!’ Her legs move in the pedals like machines. You could grind coal between her thighs.
I’m turning up the resistance on the bike. Climbing out of the saddle and beginning to work. There’s sweat stinging my eyes and a river running down my spine.
I’m visualising a steep mountain and I’m getting near the top. There’s pain all over my body. My calves and thighs are on fire. I start to lose control of my functions.
A large line of snot drops from my nose and attaches itself to the handlebars, swaying there for a few seconds between my nose and the bike like a tightrope before it snaps.
I’m not going to give up. I fight through the pain. I’m going to do this.
Finally, mercifully, the instructor tells us to relax. I sit up gasping and wailing. Then my head sinks down to rest on the bike.
And she says.
‘OK guys, that’s the warm up done. Let’s start some work now?’
The rest of the class passes in a blur of pain and panic. I stumble out of the studio like a marathon runner who’s hit the wall.
I want to go home. I want to lie down. I want to die.
Unfortunately, in my prior enthusiasm, I’ve also signed up for a body pump class. Unseen hands are guiding me into another room.
I’ve got my own bench, and a bar with weights. Again I’m the only man.
Most of the woman have heavier weights on their bar than I’ve been advised to try. It’s my first time.
But my pathetic male pride kicks in. The bar doesn’t seem so heavy so I add on extra weight.
The instructor gets us to lie back and soon I’m bench pressing the bar above my chest.
It’s fine at first. At first.
Then the pain begins. In my chest, my back, my biceps.
The bar gets heavier and heavier until it feels like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks are attached to either end.
My arms are shaking uncontrollably. I try to keep going but it’s no good. I have to sit up.
And right there, in the middle of the class with all the women merrily bench-pressing, I start to reduce the weights on my bar. That’s where male pride gets you.
But if I thought bench-presses were painful I’m horribly unprepared for the sheer naked cruelty of lunges and squats.
Up and down. Up and down. Up and down with the bar on the back of my neck until it feels like a million tiny silver swords are being stuck into my legs. There’s a fierce cramp crippling my hip.
The instructor sees that I’m struggling, starting to waver, and begins to talk directly to me. To motivate me. To wind me up.
‘Come on Jonny! Keep it going!’ Stick that butt out! Stick that butt out!’
‘Uggghh! Arrrrrgh! Uggghh! Ummmm!’ I respond, impressed at my own eloquence.
‘Nearly there Jonny! Keep it up! Think about getting that butt you’ve always wanted! Think about that perfect butt!’
In truth I don’t really think often about my own butt. I can’t see it and I’m flaky like that. My stomach worries me more because it’s right there in front of me.
Generally when I think about a perfect butt it belongs to someone else.
But it doesn’t seem like the right moment to mention this.
And then it’s over.
Some of the women console me and tell me I ‘did great’ but I can see the pity in their eyes.
The reality is, I’m thinking about cake.
I stumble, waddle and drag myself back to the changing room. Sweat is dropping off my body.
I’m thinking that I might need a crowbar and blowtorch to remove the Lycra.