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Last year I realized that just carrying my groceries and chasing my dog around the park were leaving me winded. What happened to being able to crank out 20 push-ups or run two miles without much effort? I didn't need to do an Ironman, but I at least wanted to be as fit as I was in high school. Back then competition was built in to my exercise routine because I ran track and played lacrosse. The head-to-head nature of racing another girl to the finish line or fighting for a loose ball pushed me to sprint faster than I ever would have solo, shouting in my head, Suck it, Judith Bergerstrom! the whole time. Though I was no Tonya Harding, I did want to win, and I was happy to have a place where I could ditch the drama of being a teenage girl and just compete.
But with the playing field a dozen years behind me and endless rows of cardio machines ahead of me, I felt the weight of not just the extra 15 pounds I was carrying but also of my insecurities. What if my "fast" mile time never again dipped below 10 minutes? What if I was the only one out of sync during Zumba? What if four days a week at the gym weren't enough to make a dent in the excess weight?
To regain my killer instinct, I relied on my high school sports trick of using the girl next to me as a means of squeezing out my best performance. I thought of it as being more competitive than sinister, but it went like this: Pick the treadmill next to the woman who has my ideal body, subtly peer over her shoulder to check out her pace, set my machine's speed one notch faster, and run like hell. When sweat drips into my eyes and my thighs start to feel like fiery Jell-O, I look sideways, and if that jackrabbit of a woman is still running, you can bet I will be too. When she increases her incline to 10, I follow suit, silently swearing, I will chase your skinny ass all the way up this imaginary mountain!
Never mind that the second time I tried this on the treadmill, I had to hit the emergency stop button. While I gasped for air and looked like a tomato, my neighbor's effort seemed to be at a leisurely stroll level. But even though I didn't "win," I didn't beat myself up; my shirt was soaked through, and I had run my hardest. I used the same tactic in boot camp class. Though my biceps were screaming to stop, I wouldn't drop my dumbbells until the sculpted blonde next to me did, all the while thinking, If Lululemon over here thinks she is tougher than me in my Target sweatpants, she can think again!
Mentally challenging a rotating group of rivals to a fitness duel every time I hit the gym was getting me great results. In two months I had lost seven pounds, and I was keeping up with the kind of women who could rock a bikini, so a two-piece couldn't be too far off for me. I was so pleased with my gym-enemy strategy that when a friend said she wasn't feeling motivated to attempt anything more than a slow jog, I shared it with her. "That's totally aggressive behavior," she chided. "Why do you have to try to beat someone else in order to feel like you did enough? No one 'wins' at Zumba. You're just being a hater." She called in a mutual friend as backup, and she too seemed horrified. They suggested joining a sports league if I craved competition, but I knew softball or kickball one night a week wouldn't do the trick.
And yet I understood what my friends were saying: I was turning a feel-good activity into something contentious bordering on mean-spirited. Shamed into silencing my trash talk, I began running by myself in the park. But after several pokey loops, I hadn't shaved more than a few seconds off my mile time. I switched activities, taking kickboxing and dance classes with friends, who I sandwiched myself between so I wouldn't focus on anyone else in the class. We laughed, and when things got tough, we rolled our eyes at one another and sighed dramatically. I had a great time, but I didn't have a great workout. I was leaving the gym with my shirt dry, feeling as if I had earned an A for attendance but only a C for effort. Without an opponent to beat, I just couldn't make myself work as hard, and the pounds stubbornly stayed put.
So even though my friends don't approve of my strategy, I'm not going to feel bad about my competitive streak anymore. Embracing my inner high school jock is a victimless crime; it's not as if I haze my rivals in the locker room or let the door smack them on my way out to the parking lot. And other than the calendar I won from my favorite stationery store in a raffle a few years ago, I rarely get to experience the thrill of victory. There are plenty of other areas of my life where I'm a nice girl (I tutor kids; I donate to the Humane Society; I always remember to send birthday cards), but from now on, exercise just ain't one of them. Hating on fit chicks may not win me any Ms. Congeniality awards, but it propels me to a level of success -- and sweat -- that I just can't reach otherwise. Call me a mean girl if you want. In a few more months you may be calling me a fit chick.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November/December 2013.