It Will All Work Out in the End


By Phillip Ratliff

When I walked into my first day at Iron Tribe Fitness, the gym seemed like its own sort of prison yard, with barbells clanging and BO wafting from the massive bodies of alpha males toward the gym’s stratosphere. My face was tensed into the same sort of expression Tim Robbins wore his first night in Shawshank Prison. Eventually, the nervousness and sense of inadequacy melted away, along with 15 pounds. I learned pull-ups, first with fat rubber bands, then skinnier ones, then au naturel, along with such moves as Russian Twists, American Kettle Bell Swings, Turkish Get-Ups, and dumbbell snatches. In this multicultural land, where Turks, Americans, Russians, and dumbbells peacefully coexist, I was finding my niche.

Iron Tribe is indeed a tribe, and the coaches make much of this dynamic. The commitment and self-oblation of athletics naturally bring people together, if only to find empathy in struggle. There are t-shirts, competitions, and beer at Red Hills Brewery. Each workout ends with what amounts to a group hug.

I have run with other packs and observed the same dynamic. I gleefully planked and twiddled Indian Clubs at Dave Hall’s alt-ITF gym, Agoge. I logged in a few miles with the Trak Shak’s Wednesday night road runners and Alabama Outdoors’ Thursday night trail runners. I’ve met up with mountain bikers from Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers to brush up on technical skills along Oak Mountain’s more jagged trails. It’s the same thing. At the core of each of these endeavors are true believers.

My status within these groups was decidedly more fringe. But this position provided a useful vantage point for observing how the group’s values worked. Whether focused on cross training, cycling, or running, each group possessed its own sense of what it takes to gain entrance into the group, and, if we’re being honest, what it takes to rise up in the group’s hierarchy. Mountain bikers stress fearless downhill runs and technical skills, like making hairpin turns keeping your balance when pedaling over rocks and roots. Trail runners define themselves in their sport’s difficult, unpredictable terrain. “Running five miles on a trail isn’t the same thing as running the same on a road,” trail runners like to point out.

I’ll pause to point out that trail runners are absolutely correct on this matter. Fresh off the asphalt paths of the Mercedes Half Marathon, I attempted a 13-mile X-terra run at Oak Mountain. Five miles into my first and only X-terra run and I was skinned and bruised. Ten miles in, my running shorts were besieged by a barrage of Hershey squirts. But it’s just  that sort of brutality and self-abasement that trail runners and all athletes crave. Cross training at ITF carries with it its own perils, most often in the intricate exercises that we’re expected to perform: double-unders, handstand pushups, chest to bars pull-ups, and snatches. These all require an elusive mix of technique, strength, and explosive power. The ranks of all who can knock those out include the coaches and a few elites. Remember how great Rocky Balboa looked when he wailed on that side of beef? Well, these people look like the side of beef.

Surrounding this royal priesthood—and the mere supplicants like me—is an elaborate liturgy, underscored by a heroic, almost gladiatorial musical playlist. In the exercise world, music is an inescapable component of the exercise ethos. This is true across the board. At the starting gate at the Mercedes Half Marathon or the Bump and Grind mountain bike race, the music swells minutes before the starting pistol. Mentally, you slip into thinking about your personal highlights reel.

Under these conditions, many a novice athlete will succumb to the surge of adrenaline, burst out of the gate at a pace at which he or she had never trained, only to be snuffed out like a moth in a campfire. Getting emotional over “For Those About to Rock” is folly, indeed, for most in the starting gates of those races. Ninety percent of those runners and cyclists didn’t come to rock. They came with the merest of hopes that they might finish.

One can, however, learn to direct this playlist to one’s advantage—to keep up a pace or to create a distraction from grueling repetition, and yes, even to bolster one’s confidence in how impressive this must all look to all those watching at home. My playlist has evolved over the years to accept a lot of thrashy fare from the 1980s and ’90s: Green Day’s “Know Your Enemy,” Foo Fighter’s “Monkey Wrench,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge”—maybe you get the idea. At the heart of these choices is an assumption about myself, that I’m a scrappy, determined guy. It’s the sort of self-talk that has served me well on the rowing machine and on the bike trail.

I should say it has served us well. Working out is a communal ritual, so it seems appropriate that it should be undertaken under an umbrella of music. The athletes may squat, clean, and jerk instead of genuflect, and our communion may be around a shaker of water and whey protein. But what we’re nevertheless working toward is a perfection we’ll never attain. The yoke is not easy on this journey, I’m finding. The burden is not light. Sometimes it can weigh upward of 200 pounds. We struggle together, seeking a glorious rapture to carry us through the clouds of BO. Tribe mates, who also serve as occasional competitors, make the farmer’s carry up the road of life a lot easier.

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