6 min read
Work-outs, push-ups and running
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the short take on Living with a SEAL*, 31 Days Training With the Toughest Man on the Planet. Jesse Itzler, the author, is fit by most standards. He’s run marathons and keeps to a regular exercise regimen. During his first ultra, a 24-hour relay race, he was awe-struck by a 260-pound black man who ran the race solo. Itzler was on a six-man team, calculating food intake and 20-minute rotations with precision. Most runners had a build of 140 to 165 pounds. This guy sat alone in a chair; his supplies were water and one box of crackers. When Itzler and his teammates were through he was beat, his thighs so tight he could barely walk a yard. This other guy though, just checked his splits on his watch, and ran for a 100 miles straight.* The guy walked away afterwards, looking like he just survived a plane crash. Itzler asked around and found out he was a former U.S. Navy SEAL and called him out of the blue. He flew to California to meet in person and make an offer to hire him for a 30 day workout program. Itzler calls him SEAL throughout the book. SEAL had one requirement: You do everything I say. SEAL informs him that by the time he’s done, Itzler will be able to do 1000 pushups in a day.
The Army taught me how to run and how to do pushups. My classmate had sent me a 22-pushup challenge—laughable in comparison to Itzler’s mission—to remember the number of daily veteran suicides. The more-than-slightly out-of-shape body of mine met the challenge. I didn’t post video as peers had. I’ve long arms and doing 22 was shaky at first. Now, at 53 years old, age is my excuse. I have been doing yoga, for stretching, strength and balance, breathing. It’s wonderful and I finish with a set of 10 pushups. Not intentionally, but in the back of my mind I am thinking, how many women my age do push-ups? Turns out, that’s the wrong question.
Itzler’s program was a grueling and mind-blowing experience. The outright laughs throughout this book are enough reason to read it. I need to laugh. I love to laugh. Laughter is the cure-all for life. And, for Pain with a capital P. Itzler has something in his voice and his writing, that Seinfeld-like quality of observation and wonder and cynicism. What could a dude who’s run companies, from a music label to private jet sharing, have to learn about fitness regimens when he’s run 18 marathons and an ultra? Novelty. And let’s face it, the public relations aspect which Itzler doesn’t mention is the byproduct of having such a specimen in his life and in his house, “who looked like someone sprayed muscle paint all over his body. Ripped. Flawless.” And, of course this book, which was the outgrowth of the scheme Itzler blogged about. SEAL, as it turned out, was good for business. The desire for Itzler to push himself and the desire to get better, to see the upside in all of it, was a stated goal. And Itzler had something in common with SEAL and with my own goals. Getting better.
What does getting better look like at fifty-something for a woman? A classmate’s funeral, friends who struggle with injury or illness are realities which make it painfully clear: of the things to worry about, my health is among the top. I want to get better though I’m not sure about running 17-miles in a day. But, I can do more push-ups. I use short breaks and repeat sets of 10. I do five sets, 50 pushups. My left arm is sore. I push through it and maybe I don’t have the best form. SEAL is a stickler for form.
SPOILER ALERT! Itzler gets in the best shape of his life, knocking minutes off his average run time of 6.1 miles around Central Park. He busts out 1000 pushups near the end of the month of training; he does the most insane workouts imaginable and wakes up for more, several in the same day, middle of the night, at any time in any place. That’s the deal: do everything SEAL says. Itzler never sees SEAL eat the first 15 days. He’s carrying what he needs in his pack when he shows up at Itzler’s shi shi Central Park West apartment. He does not talk. He never utters a word during runs. Not a word. Bleeding “nuts”, pulled groin, swollen ankle, shoulder strain. Itzler might complain but he sucks it up. Midway through the book, Day 15. Itzler writes. “SEAL believes that push-ups are the single best exercise for strength. He also believes proper form is key. You get more out of ten push-ups the right way than thirty done improperly.”
Three of us share a hotel room, my husband, my daughter and I. I’m doing 10 push-ups in between the beds, then stop. Wait till the next minute, 10 more. I hit 50. My husband asks if I remember the service academy push-up challenge. Vaguely. He did hundreds and hundreds, but a 1000? I was a sprinter so I spent a lot of my time running in circles. Fast. I ran miles outside as warm-up. I ran flights, intervals, pyramids. I ran distance for stamina. Quarter-milers had the hardest training. Ask the short distance sprinters who would have to go up in distance or the long distance runners who would have to speed up in time. Runners threw up. Football players trained with the track team. I was no stranger to pain. I increase my reps because pushups are the single best exercise for strength.
There is no destination. It’s all journey. Get better. SEAL doesn’t celebrate victories. He learns from failures. The time of year is approaching the holidays and towards the end of the 30-day program, Itzler’s long-time, jet-set friends gather to celebrate the New Year and make resolutions. Everyone is curious about SEAL, who sits at the table. He says that he doesn’t want what they have. Wealth, status, fame, things not spoken but obvious. SEAL leaves the 30 day program as he came, stealth, no pleasantries, just a note with three words, Hey Man, Thanks. He had a glimpse of Itzler’s world and that affirmed who he was. He left an indelible imprint on the author. And on me.
I loved the humor and laughter. I felt a distant kinship with SEAL, a strain of a past life in the Army. It shaped much of who I am. I want to push my body, my mind. Because, the mind is inseparable from the body. The reader meets SEAL by name in the final two words of the book, learns more about his athletic feats. Not often does a book make me laugh and inspire me and make me want to get up and go start training for an ultra, but this is about as close as I’ve been to doing so. The exercise plan is included at the end of the book. I start my pushups with a set of 20, repeat on the minute. I do 100 a day, half in the morning and half at bedtime. The soreness is gone in my arm and I’m thinking 500 is doable, not on a regular basis, but as a I kind of peak and proof that I can.
Iztler comes away with life-changing lessons. I’ll leave those to the reader to discover. I ordered his book from a list of memoirs with a disclaimer about the writing, how it’s not literary. The writing may not be like that of Sedaris; the difference is that Itzler has run lots of businesses and run lots of races. And, he made me laugh. I’ve done 100 pushups each day over the last few days. No soreness. Maybe my form needs work. Maybe I’m not pushing hard enough. Maybe my soft bed, fancy house, and sedentary job mean one thing. I’m too comfortable.
Among those whom I like I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh. W.H. Auden
Footnotes – Excerpts
* Navy SEALs are named after the environment for which they operate, the SEa, Air, and Land (SEAL), and are the foundation for Naval Special Warfare combat forces. Background and Brief History, military.com.
*Day 1, The Arrival, pp 5-7. First sees SEAL in 24 relay race in San Diego.
*Day 3, My Nuts, p. 33. When traveling on an unexpected trip to Boston, Jesse’s only workout clothes were soaking wet from running 12 miles in the freezing rain. SEAL calls at 0500 and Jesse picks up the phone, “It’s go time” is the first thing [he] hears. SEAL travels with Jesse to keep up training.
He meets him in the hallway between their hotel rooms.
“SEAL, I have a problem,” I say to him. “I didn’t bring any extra underwear.”
“I can’t run without underwear.”
“Nah, bro, you can’t run without legs. It’s on.”
So I throw on my freezing wet clothes from last night. I’m cold and miserable before I even head out. My underwear is so wet that I can’t put it on, so I go “commando style.”
*Day 11-12, Enjoy the Pain, p. 121. SEAL had to leave Jesse to complete a 75 mile race. Jesse asks:
“How was it?”
“Hard,” he says.
“Really? Seventy-five miles was hard?”
“It had a climb,” he says. “The terrain was tough.”
I know SEAL well enough by now to know that if he says a race was “hard,” had a “climb,” and the terrain was “tough” . . . then it was TOUGH!
“And . . . I broke all the metatarsals in both feet.”
Huh? Check that. Tough times twenty.
“But I finished strong,” he says.
“You going to get them looked at?”
“Get what looked at?”
“Why would I get them looked at?”