Photos by Alison Leigh
When you are in your twenties, 40 seems like a lifetime away. It’s some impossibly distant place that you never dream of actually reaching. It might as well be the moon or the top of Mount Everest. It’s an impossible journey that you don’t ever plan to take.
But unlike the moon or Mount Everest, you don’t have to work hard or plan to get there. One day, you just wake up, and BAM! You are in your 40s. It hits you like putting too much wasabi on your sushi. It’s a fast eye-watering smack, a two-by-four to the head. Pow! You are not a kid anymore.
And if you’ve been mindlessly plodding through life like a lot of people, you might also wake up and look at the mirror and think: Christ, what the fuck happened? You might remember the days long ago when you were worried about what your body looked like. And it was so much better then! Thinner, leaner.
You never appreciated it then, but being thin and fit used to be a relatively easy thing. Reese pieces Sundays for breakfast? No problem. Midnight pizza and beer? Bring it! Helping friends haul sofas up three flights of stairs? Easy.
But those days are gone. Exercise is walking up the steps at work, where you now sit most of the day. You’ve managed to pack on a few extra pounds every year until now, let’s face it, you are supersized. And there are mysterious aches and pains you’ve never had before. You can hurt your back just picking up child. You can no longer skate by on youthful energy and good genes. You start to think about what you can’t do, instead of what you can do.
Which is OK. You still like yourself, this body you’re in. It gets the job done. You’re not in bad shape for “your age,” you think. You have a choice now: accept this new reality, keep buying the bigger clothes and stop moving heavy things. Act your age.
So you go to a cheap gym, and you do the workout they show you. It’s the same thing, over and over, three or four days a week on different medieval-looking machines. Sometimes you take a class. You feel better, you know you are more fit than before, the truth is: you don’t really look that much different.
Then, lightning strikes. CrossFit. It’s the hardest workout you’ve ever done, but it’s fun. It’s addicting. It’s life changing.
And it’s terrifying.
Sometimes the workout, which is written every day on the white board, seems as impossible as really reaching the moon or the summit of Everest. Hand stand push ups? Swinging a rope under your feet twice for every jump? 150 squats? Is this some kind of sadistic joke? What human can actually manage to do these things?
But you try. It is a struggle, but you show up, and you try to do whatever is on the board. Olympic weight lifting. High intensity interval training. Military-style weight bearing exercises, like push ups and pull ups. And some gymnastic moves that seem to have the main purpose of keeping you humble.
You have days when your legs are so sore that you use the handicapped bathroom at work, so you can hang onto those rails to sit down. You have days when washing your hair is painful, because you have ripped your hands doing pull-ups and the shampoo stings. You have days when you realize your skin is marked my mysterious bruises and scratches and abrasions from some part of the workout. You carry these marks like a badge of honor.
If you can’t do the workout as prescribed, you can do it modified. And it’s OK, a lot of other people are with you, doing it modified. And after awhile, you find you can do more and more. Some of those insanely mythical workouts don’t seem as crazy, they actually seem reasonable. Doable. Reachable.
You think: yes, I can do this!
Along the way, you make new friends. They cheer you on, and you do the same for them. You share the incredible bond of doing the impossible together. It’s not like a typical gym. It’s not just the cheering, it’s that the last person to finish gets the biggest cheers.
You also change your diet, start eating better. Then, one day, you realize it: You wake up, and you feel great.
You have a new overall sense of accomplishment, of pride, of feeling pretty damn great about you, your life and where you are going.
You have more energy than you ever remember having, like there’s a liquid fire flowing through your body. You’ve found some kind of personal electrical source, and your skin hums with it, this spark, this power. You are more confident. More optimistic. You say, “yes,” a lot now, to all kinds of physical challenges. Mud run with military obstacles? Yes, can do that. Triathlon? Yes, I can do that.
You think about what you can do, not what you can’t.
And you notice your body has changed. It’s better today than it was in your 20s. You are leaner. Stronger. Your favorite clothes hang of your body now, it’s time to buy new clothes, two, or three or four sizes smaller. All that hard work is paying off! You look great, period, never mind that “for your age,” caveat. Someone even comments on your “six pack” and it’s not the one in the fridge!
So when your new CrossFit friends suggest doing a pin-up shoot, you say: Hell, yes! Bring it!
And is it terrifying? Yes, enough so that you make sure there is some liquid courage on hand before the shoot. You agonize over what to wear, can’t make up your mind, panic and bring too many outfits.
But it’s OK. Your CrossFit friends are there, they help you pick out what to wear. And they cheer you on, just like it’s a workout.
Alison comes, does your hair and make-up, and you feel like a rockstar. Posing is awkward. It’s embarrassing to be the center of attention, look this way, chin up, eyes down. But the results are worth it.
At first glance, you fail to recognize yourself in the photos. Wait, your brain freezes: That’s me? BAM! It’s like the wasabi all over again.
This is what your 40s can look like. This is what happens when you say, Yes, I can do that.
You’re on top of Everest. You’re over the moon. And you wonder what the next workout is going to be.