Suffer Club

Like you, my relationship with exercise is complicated. Everyone wants to be fit. Very few want to do exercise. We’re not long term decision makers, humans. We pretty much grab for whatever’s in front of us. We think in short time frames and then regret. We’re very cute that way.

I am lucky that I have always been athletic. I played all the sports as a kid. I have always loved riding bikes. I ran and played soccer through high school. As an adult I more or less continued riding and running and soccer and I was pretty fit the whole time, but that is not the same as saying I liked to exercise.

In fact, I was never into fitness as a thing unto itself. Maybe I’m still not. I like what I can do with my fitness, but if I’m not doing anything with it, then I don’t see the point. There is a point. There are many points, but they are hard to see in the moment (see above, short term thinking).

Back in the ’90s I worked for a fitness equipment company for a few years. OK, not so much a fitness equipment company as a group of MIT entrepreneurs and misfits (me and my friends) trying to harness nascent virtual reality technologies to create a more immersive and engaging exercise experience. Think of it like the ancient ancestor of Peloton, but with pentium processors and klunky ’90s exercise bikes.

My role there was to produce the software, to help the engineers understand what exercisers liked and what they didn’t, what helped them succeed, and what discouraged them. And that required figuring out what motivates people to do work in gyms. I’d never belonged to one, so…

In essence, we ended up making video games you could control with exercise bikes and climbers. The games were networked, so you could compete with and against your friends, and despite the limits of the technology of the day, they were really fun. Where we missed the mark was in failing to see that the people already in the gym were not people who played video games, and with some exceptions they were turned off by the idea of playing while they exercised. They were serious. They were self-motivated. And maybe, as a result, I was doomed never to understand them fully.

The few lost souls who our products most appealed to were motivated by exercising with a group (networked gameplay) and achieving things while being distracted. They didn’t want to sweat and hurt for the sake of sweating and hurting. They wanted friends and entertainment to carry them along to fitness.

We sold that company. Twice. And I moved on and forgot about gyms and their basic racket, selling memberships to people’s guilt and self-loathing while catering to a small cadre of Type-A over-achievers. That’s a gross generalization, but…

Fast forward a lot of years. Now my wife and I run a local fitness group, Suffer Club, that meets in the park at the end of our street. We have a tight knit group of friends who show up Tuesdays and Thursdays at the break of dawn to do an hourlong workout.

My wife started this group. She’s the gym rat. She’s the one who taught step aerobics and then spinning and then outdoor bootcamps. She’s the one who gathered the group. I only started showing up when I had no other choice. That was five or six years ago.

I had put my fist through a pane of glass (long, dumb story) and torn two tendons in the back of my hand. Surgery followed, and a splint that kept my hand extended and my wrist still for six weeks.

I began. To lose. My mind.

The wife said, “Why don’t you come to the park with us, and I’ll give you some modified exercises you can do?” To make that work, I needed to do two things I hate. Exercise for the sake of exercise, and joining a group. Such was the level of my desperation.

But as it turned out, the lessons of my adventure in virtual reality exercise came back in the core experience of a group to distract from the fitness work I needed to do and the subtle peer pressure to keep coming. It turned me into a bootcamper more or less against my will.

After my hand healed, I kept showing up. Eventually, the wife got tired of planning two workouts a week (on top of the four or five other classes she was teaching), so she asked me to do it.

Somehow I became the coach, and because I’m a writer and a marketing guy, I dubbed the group Suffer Club. That’s something of a running joke. Our group likes to laugh. We go hard sometimes, but it’s not an overly competitive crew. We’re not CrossFit. We’re not pushing the edge of injury all the time. So we don’t suffer an awful lot, unless we want to.

As a cyclist and a runner, I can tell you that the benefits of varied exercise, of “cross-training” are pretty great, but you probably already know that. First and foremost, I’m all around stronger and more mobile/flexible now than I ever was when I was just running or riding bikes. That strength and mobility translates to fewer injuries, which is saying a lot in my case. I also feel more physically capable, more agile, springier, and more in tune with my body.

Blah, blah, blah. Everyone knows this stuff, but it’s still hard to find the motivation to do push ups and sit ups and burpees and planks.

When I was thirteen, peer pressure got me to smoke, drink and do drugs. Peer pressure is bad. Except that peer pressure can also drag you along on a fitness routine that saves your ass from being solely responsible for your own motivation. I don’t love to coach Suffer Club, in the sense that I don’t like being on the hook for designing a fresh workout all the time, but I love to coach Suffer Club because being on that hook keeps me coming and mandates a baseline fitness that keeps me from falling into dark pits of self-loathing and depression, the sort you find between the cushions on the couch or in the very bed you sleep in.

What we do is show up, day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year, and that’s been pretty transformative. The wife often reminds me, we’re not doing Suffer Club to optimize our physiques. We’re doing Suffer Club so we can keep getting down on the floor and then up again after, this year and next year and the one after.

The knock-on benefits for my running and riding are just the bonus. I could certainly do a lot of what I do without Suffer Club, but a little suffering with friends sure does help a lot.

I have toyed with the idea of posting the Suffer Club workouts here each week, but I’m wary of mixing the stoke/flow of running and riding with the more prosaic work of exercise routines. What do you think?