Birthday Push Ups
John Post, MD
As I hung up the phone, and my wife saw that dreamy, days of yesterday look in my eyes, she said, “You didn’t say ‘yes’ this time, did you?” For the last six months, a younger friend, in great shape and finisher of three Ironman Triathlons, had been after me to join a morning workout group called SEAL Team Physical Training. Once a month they had Bring a Friend Day. I would later learn they say, only half jokingly, “Bring a friend on Thursday, lose a friend on Friday.” And then they all laugh. All except the new people like me that is.
They won’t talk to you unless you’re in push-up position. I looked around and saw several guys who could have been football players in college, or high level runners who may have lost a step, but not two, since then. About half the group did not look like they were the a.m. exercise type, a look I would very soon find was deceiving when we went for our warm up run. STPT was started in Richmond, VA several years back by a former Navy SEAL who had ideas on making those around him stronger and fitter. And he needed a job. It worked well enough that there are branches in Charlottesville and in multiple mid Atlantic locations so far. They meet outdoors every weekday morning at 6:00 a.m., come rain, come shine, come whatever, and heaven forbid someone’s late. It becomes an “opportunity to get stronger.” The group pays for individual shortcomings - we get to do push-ups. Only 10 or 20 if the instructor is in a chipper mood, 30 or more if not.
There’s also a curious little ritual I would learn about called birthday push ups as today was the birthday of a bouncy young woman named Rachel. After hearing this, knowingly the members all went back into push up position (anybody getting tired of push ups yet?) as Rachel jogged to the front. “Everybody ready?” she bellowed in her sweet, young voice. “And…down one, down two, down three…” until we got to twenty four. “And one for good luck.” A whispered voice from behind let us know that this is how the group celebrates birthdays. By doing push ups, naturally. Don’t you? One for each year of the birthday celebrant. But by now, with the work out only 5 minutes old, I was push up-ed out. So to keep up, I went to my knees and did “girl push ups.” I’d shortly be informed that, no, sir, they’re not girl push ups but members simply going to their knees regardless of sex. Got it? As it turned out we were lucky that the birthday girl was young. It can be a real bear when one of the older members age up.
Then they go for a warm up run. Often times it’s the old indian file which I hadn’t done since high school. And that was a long time ago. The instructor, looking like he could do 1000 push ups, or looking like he’d just done 1000 push ups, had us line up according to running speed. Everyone made for the middle, except the high level boys as they loped like Usain Bolt to the head of the line. Although I’ve lived here for 30 years, and been to this particular park many times for kid’s soccer games, I’d never really given much thought to the neighborhood across the street. It seems now that maybe I should have been more curious.
If you haven’t run it recently, indian file is supposed to group runners of near similar ability running in a line one behind the other. The tail end runner sprints to the head of the line, tucks in front, then says “Go” to the new tail end guy or gal and they then sprint to the front. I was familiar with the concept but the pace was just a tad faster than I could tolerate. Oh, and it was slightly up hill.
Preparing to cross the road at the park gate, and enter the opposite neighborhood, very fortunately for me we stopped momentarily at the red light. Long enough for me to catch my breath, sort of, and focus on our intended route. It was up hill as far as I could see. “Dear God, we’re not going indian file up there are we?” I thought as the light turned green. Yes was the answer.
But the Olympics were coming, and I had this image of Roger Bannister rounding the Iffley Road Track at Oxford, head held back, flying over the cinders, as he headed for destiny with Chataway and Brashers falling back out of camera focus, spent, their pacing duties complete. I put my head down, realized the group had pity on the new guy, and the pace eased just a little as we continued the run.
As it would later turn out, this would be the only time I would nearly drop out of an exercise. We approached the half way point on the hill as the climb steadily and quickly increased. Audible breathing spread group wide as my 5 file-mates worked under the strain of the ever increasing effort. And they were used to this while I was aching for a full breath. Think iron lung short of breath. Or as Gilda Radner on SNL playing Roseanne Rosenannadanna frequently uttered, “I thought I was gonna die!” Ah, I see you’ve been there.
I was literally this close to my last step, forming the words, “I have to stop,” prior to actually speaking them, when the person behind me said, “I have to stop, you all go ahead.” But we didn’t go ahead. In what I would soon learn is a signature move at STPT, we all stopped and walked. A guy named Steve said, “We’re not leaving anyone behind,” as if it were a daily occurrence. Indeed it is a daily, or at least weekly, occurrence. They never leave anyone behind, even new guys like me. If the exhausted teammate had waited one-half second longer before confessing his exhaustion, he’d have been encouraging me instead of the other way around.
Later, after enough bear crawls to have you wondering if that Icy Hot pad was still in the drawer at home, sit ups, more push ups, crab soccer tag, sprints, and, oh yeah, some more push ups, the hour workout mercifully came to a close. Your suffering is complete for today. You have the mental image of your hot tub at home and a glass of cold iced tea. That is if you can walk erect long enough to make it to your car. The group of 50 or so has had a great work out, smiles all around, and my friend asks, “So, did you have fun? Are you coming back?” It’s one of those instant decisions that change the path of your life. “Uh, sure, why not?”
Fellowship among adults is not often easy. Easier when you’re part of a big company I suppose, or perhaps a member of a Navy helo squadron with lots of other pilots your age. There’s always a softball game or touch football on Sunday afternoons. But on the outside, friendship is not guaranteed. In fact, it can be quite a surprise to those used to, for example, the camaraderie of the hospital doctors lounge or the frat house. I remember quite clearly the comments of a friend who was quite comfortable with his senior medical position at the hospital carrying over to his community life, easy recognition and great service at the establishments in town. But when he retired and moved to a new community, he was most dismayed to report that at the barber shop, “I was just the next retiree in line.”
But Seal Team mitigates that. There are faster and slower runners, faster and slower paddlers on boat days. I forgot. They have those rubber zodiac boats you see in the war movies as John Wayne lands at Anzio in search of the enemy, his shirt still starched nicely thank you. We race. Most of the time it looks like Wrong Way Peach Fuzz from Rocky and Bullwinkle fame is steering the boat or that the helmsman is way over the legal limit of .08 as we careen across the lake counting stokes as a group. “One, two, three, one two, three.” With just a little practice, however, we learn quickly how to work as a group. The races can be very close, competitive and exceptionally exciting. They’re usually best two out of three, for the Championship of the Free World level importance, as you might expect. Both the victors and the vanquished take enormous pleasure from the effort. But, as the real Navy SEALs say, “It pays to be a winner.”
Everybody’s friendly. As a physician, I see people from all walks of life in my office, many who’ve discarded any sense of commitment to exercise. Here at Seal Team, for an hour a day anyway, is a group of folks, 16 – 65 years old, white, black, you name it, who vote with their feet, and paddles, and show up at this always outdoor exercise class regardless of the weather. Quarterly, we do the Navy Physical Strength Test to get some idea of where we stand. It’s pull ups, push ups, sit ups, and a mile and a half run for time. What’s really encouraging in this self-paced work out is that there are all sizes and shapes of “former athletes” some of whom can still run a sub 7 minute/mile pace and others, who, when they start the class, are unable to do even a single sit up. On the days we do the PST, virtually everyone can see personal improvement. A sincere effort is made to recognize this improvement in each individual, identifying them by name and accomplishment. And boy do they improve! And boy do they smile!
I’ve been with these people, people who have now become friends, for over a year now and even my fitness has improved. But my birthday’s just over the horizon. Celebrating it Seal Team PT style would prove to be a tall order for certain given the fact that I was already practicing surgery before a good percentage of the others were even born. Inside, I was pretty sure that I just couldn’t do it. I hadn’t in many years. I couldn’t equal my age in push ups and that it would prove a bit of an embarrassment. The old man can’t keep up, can’t “chew the leather” as Al Pacino would so famously point out in his Academy Award winning performance in Scent of a Woman.
But I practiced, worked on it, until B-Day arrived, the anniversary of my birth, and they knew it was coming even though I didn’t mention it. Blame Facebook I guess. I was called to the front of the group. More than one smile along the way. “Everybody ready?” OK, here goes nothing, I thought. “And….down one, down two, down...” We easily passed through twenty, and thirty but by 40 I was beginning to tire. “Let’s pause and shake it out,” got us, well me actually, a ten second break. As we got to 50, a voice from the back yelled out in not a little pain, “So how old are you anyway?”
That voice did 15 more push ups, and one for good luck. And so did I.
These days, when my wife does the laundry, washing the work out clothes, she says, “I put a little vinegar in to get out the stench. And you better hurry up. I’ve got a big salad and fresh fish on the stove. Gotta get you ready, you’ll be having another birthday before you know it.”