It's been almost 10 months since I taught my last group fitness class. My last class was my Wednesday night spin class - my one true fitness love. I didn't have a bike that night because class was full (with decorated bikes and balloons no less) but I got just as much out of spending time with the people in my class that night as I would have had I worked out, except I didn't even have to wear a sports bra.
Thinking about my regulars, a couple in particular, helped me "get back on the horse", so to speak, this week. 8 weeks without getting on a spin bike. I think that's the longest I've gone in 5 years. I've missed that bike more than I realized and I'm glad I'm getting back to it. However, my crotch is not happy about the reunion. 'Taint happy at all.
I remember my first spin class like it was yesterday. I had been working my way up to surviving 45-50 minutes on a bike after being humbled by my personal trainer. He had put me on a spin bike, cranked the resistance and proceeded to kick my ass. I wanted to die about 2 minutes in. I was so mad - I thought after losing 70 lbs on my own I should be able to handle getting on a bike. I took that anger and did 10 minutes the next day. Then 15. Then 20 and so on. I finally got the balls to show up to class which was completely out of my comfort zone. Working out with a group? Talking to people? Being the only fat girl in a group fitness studio? Sweating AND being social? What? (Ok, so anyone who has seen me dancing knows that I'm no stranger to that one.)
I showed up for class and didn't really speak to anyone at first. The instructor at the time was one of those crazy ladies that remembers half way through class that, oh, there are other people in the room with her and they, in fact, do not have the same death wish that she has. Super fit, make up on, zero body fat - uber intimidating for someone only half-way through her journey.
I parked my bike next to a very friendly guy named Mike. It was obvious that he and his wife, Kim, had been attending class for awhile. They knew what they were doing and were comfortable enough to give the instructor shit - a true mark of feeling at home at the gym. Mike was very friendly to me without seeming obnoxiously experienced - in fact he was much nicer and more welcoming than the instructor. I don't know that I would have gone back to class if it wasn't for Mike, let alone became an instructor.
In the coming months we started a major battle of WWIII proportions. The fan. You see, I'm a sweaty bastard. No way around it. I was embarrassed by just how sweaty I really was. I asked my trainer once if I was his sweatiest client. He smiled and started to give me what I thought was going to be a charming and polite answer to make me feel better. Instead he said, "No, you're my 2nd sweatiest client. See Big John over there? He's the sweatiest." The only way to combat sweaty-ness of Big John proportions was to slide my bike under one of the only two fans in the whole studio, the one that actually worked well. Turns out, Mike liked a good fan as well. It was a race to see who could get under it first. Sometimes we'd pull into the parking lot at the same time and eye each other from a few stalls away and I could swear I heard the theme song from Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" trilogy. Game on, Mike. Game on.
Mike did little odd jobs around the gym all the time. Hung stuff. Fixed bikes. Drilled things. Too my knowledge he was never compensated. This is just who he was. He and Kim were why small gyms are successful. It's about family and friends and community and the people that care about that small business.
Almost a year to the date from the first time I got on a spin bike I was certified to teach. On the other side of the room facing the members. Where there was no fan. You win, Mike.
I was not the best group fitness instructor there ever was. Not by half. I didn't look like an instructor (which I was reminded of by a few disbelieving new members when they showed up to my class for the first time and took a gander at me). And if you ask me to keep any 4, 8 or 16 count you are out of luck. Just ask my kickboxing regulars about my warm-ups. My method when I taught and when I trained was to make sure everyone was having fun. Because it's not so bad to get your ass kicked if you're having fun, in my opinion. I did this by making inappropriate jokes, by telling stories about my boys and by getting to know my class regulars really well. Sometimes too well. Professional boundaries are not my strong suit and your group fitness instructor should probably not be meeting you for happy hour or ladies nights or dinner out. She should probably also not host a Pure Romance party and invite all gym members while she is a manager. But I did. Because these were my extended family. My naughty, dirty extended family.
The other way I tried to make class fun was by putting a lot of time and energy into my music. If I was known for anything as an instructor it was probably my music. I had themes. I had remixes. I had genres. And, by God, I had 8 1/2 minutes of Beyonce - their favorite. Every song was carefully chosen and choreographed to what I had planned. You may even say I was anal retentive about it. I won't argue with you.
If you'd been attending my class long enough you may even have earned a special song by request. I played a Justin Bieber song once for Tracy that left me watching the studio door, terrified someone in the main gym could hear it. Christ, I think I even played the Electric Slide for Tracy once as a warm-up. And let's not forget the time I tried to use Bon Iver in class for Karen. Talk about a challenge. Guess what we stretched to?
Mike heckled my music all the time. I teased him about secretly loving Beyonce and Rihanna and said I would gladly burn him some cds but he was a classic rock guy through and through. His favorite was Rush. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to use Tom Sawyer in class for him but when all else fails in spin class, what do you do? Seated climb. He probably didn't realize it but I actually have 4 or 5 spin playlists created with him in mind. He was always there, every Monday, and he deserved to get a break from girly pop music once in awhile.
When I taught spin class I would always remind people that this was their class and they had choices to accommodate their needs or fitness levels. I reminded them of their options repeatedly and every time I said the word "options" I got a huge "Whooo-hooo!" from Mike, to whom I promptly told the options didn't apply. Every single time, without fail. I don't think he missed it one time.
A year ago Mike was diagnosed with cancer. Way, way too young for that shit. They began aggressively treating his cancer and because of that he took a leave of absence from the gym. Every time I said the word "options" Kim was right there to take up the slack. "Whooo-hooo!" It made me smile every time.
I had the pleasure of having Mike come back to take a few more classes when he was feeling good enough before I quit the gym. Mike wasn't there often after being diagnosed but when he was there it was because he wanted to get back to his routine. He certainly wasn't trying to lose weight. He was there because that was what you did on Monday at 4:30pm. He did it because it was good for him. He did it for the love of it. (Ok, so maybe I exaggerate his love for my classes but something brought him back.) Coming back to spin class while undergoing treatment for a very aggressive kind of cancer? That's badass. And if he held back I couldn't tell. Mike was a warrior.
I've spent a lot of the last 10 months recovering emotionally from my resignation at the gym. I've been hurt and angry. I felt used and unappreciated. I felt unrewarded by management for all the hard work, heart and soul that I put in there and I've ultimately felt forgotten by those who said they would always be there for me even though we no longer worked together. Sometimes I have felt that I wasted 4 years of my life and my energy to have it wind up so thankless. What I have forgotten is that I was already rewarded ten-fold for the work I did there and the relationships I built. It was not appreciation from management that was my compensation. I was rewarded each and every time a member decided to spend an hour of their time with me. You know they had options (whoo-hoo!) and they still showed up for my class. They appreciated what I gave to them and they had no idea that what they were giving to me was of much greater importance that the sweaty butt crack I gave them.
I am privileged to have known each and every person who attended one of my classes and blessed me with their time. I want to make sure they know how much it meant to me to see their faces every week, knowing that even when I didn't feel like going to work I would be so glad I was there by the time class ended. I want to say thank you for what they gave to me before I don't have a chance to say it again. Thank you.
Mike passed away today in his home surrounded by his family. This world has lost one of the nicest men I have ever met in my life and the only consolation that I can see is that he's left behind two young men who are sure to follow in his footsteps of kindness. Please save any condolences you may have for me and instead send out as much love and peace to Mike's wife, Kim, and their two sons, Josh and Tyler. Their loss is great.
This song is for you, Mike. The fan is yours. Fly By Night, my friend.