Column: Battling the sloth goblin


In college I didn’t give a hoot about exercise.

Hardly anybody in my social stratum did in the late 1960s. And so I arrived at Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, as a cigarette-bumming, beer-chugging kid with the muscle tone of a dish rag.

Within a couple of days I found myself in a running competition as part of my company’s relay team. I shot off like a cheetah on the first leg — 25 yards, 50 yards? — tagged the turnaround point and was racing back when my body, in an instant, ran completely out of gas and I was barely able to stagger back to my teammates. My lungs were on fire and my legs were jelly.

I was too broken to think of anything other than catching my breath.

Over the years, that running abomination came to mark a turning point. I never became a running or exercise zealot, but I have hewed to an active physical regimen ever since. Until last year. I just kissed the whole year off. No particular reason, just sloth, which is a very powerful force. Weeks turned into months into a year.

I used to be a steady recreational runner but have totally lost my taste for that activity. I now prefer the stationary bike at the health club and a vigorous 40-to-60-minute set of “random hills” to work up a good sweat. During my sloth year I never even thought of going there.

Those of you who have fought to get back to exercising after a long layoff may know how the experience unfolds. For no reason, your eyes see you putting on workout clothes with zero input from your brain.

Then lacing up your running shoes. No brain activity of any kind, just your hands running the show. Then you are out the door and heading to the club, zombie-like. Then you are sweating, as if in a dream. This is a certified miracle.

But the bigger miracle is that it happens the next day and several consecutive days after that.

You’ve broken through! But there is no allowance for congratulation, for in truth the sloth year was major guilty fun and you miss it dearly. Yes, you have re-grooved a familiar routine. But the sloth goblin is not worried in the least. He knows you, and has a long-term plan that almost certainly will pay off. So you slog to the club, joylessly, like a robot.

It’s the only alternative. Luckily, I am one of those people who, when performing mind-numbing repetitive exercise, drifts into a Zen-like state and becomes desensitized to the passage of time. Every once in a while, time starts creeping in and I have to elbow it aside by counting to 100 in sync with my pedaling. Works like a charm.

The health club, given its location, skews toward an elder demographic. The nest of stationary bikes is usually populated by ancient men and women on the so-called recumbent bikes that let you lie back in comfort. (I rigidly adhere to the normal upright version.) Almost without exception, these riders pedal so slowly that no exercise benefit can possibly be imparted. Then there are the occasional younger riders who pedal furiously, but only for several minutes.

Both groups get anti-sloth credit. As a creature of habit, I try to ride the same bike every time.

It’s near the personal training desk so I observe the interactions of trainers and trainees. I find myself wondering if these sessions are not so much about muscle tone and more about hanging out and talking. In the back room, where the weight machines are, I overheard a conversation between a young male trainer and his woman trainee.

The topic was the recent spate of men caught harassing women. He was of the opinion that some of them were being “railroaded” without due process (my words not his). She not so much.

I usually wear a Shelter Island 5K or 10K T-shirt when astride my bike. On one of my 10K shirt days a jolly man, a South Forker, came up and said he had run the event every year except a couple of times when business took him out of state.

He was also a marathoner, although you would never guess it from his body type. I ran the New York City Marathon once and he had done several. As marathoners do, we talked about times.

He said once, to his great surprise, he came in just under four hours, the holy grail of recreational runners. I ‘fessed up to my 4:41. He’d had several in that territory, he said.
“If I were you, I would tell people you broke four hours,” he said. “Who’d know the difference? Trust me, it’s well worth the lie. In time, you’ll probably come to believe it yourself and it’s such a great feeling!”

The guy’s a genius.