How Community Gives "Exercise" Beauty and Meaning

My mermaid posse. We celebrate December with a 100 x 100 swim.

My mermaid posse. We celebrate December with a 100 x 100 swim.

When my alarm goes off at 5:01 a.m., the last thing I want to do is get out of bed, put on a swimsuit and waddle on down to the Mercerwood Shore Club to do a Master's swim workout. Especially in winter. 

But most of the time I do. I put on a colorful workout suit then add some warm outerwear; strap on a bright apple-green backpack, fill up a water bottle and walk with my headlamp in the cool winter air, sometimes with the stars and a moon overhead, to my neighborhood pool. OK: the fact that I can walk there is off-the-hook great.

For the most part, I don't swim at zero-dark-thirty because "I'm trying to stick with a regular exercise regime" although I turn into a raving crankpot without it. I'm not pulling on a swimsuit in my chilly bathroom in order to burn calories, fit into my jeans or to eat more food (although they're all great bonuses); even though I know exercise is essential for my heart and aging process, I don't get out of bed motivated by the good I'm doing for my body.

It’s the people. (Yes, also to get my ya-ya's out but that’s another story). Mostly, I swim in order to cavort with my lane mates Tom and Jo and Tricia and Larry and Liz and Laura and Julie and a whole bunch of people who like me define fun as a challenging workout, some good laughs and then a lively locker room discussion while getting ready for work. This is my kind of morning; my kind of communion.

When you do sports with people, you know them. And they know you. The intimacy comes naturally, openly and honestly. If you run or walk with a partner or a group, you know how a sense of closeness arrives; how people open up and share themselves, how stories are swapped and conversations are rich and juicy. If you’re not a small-talk fan, and you like to move, this combination is heaven.

When I joined a Masters swim team 15 years ago it totally changed my life. I walked into the Greenlake pool on a random fall Saturday in 2002 fresh from a break up. I had a year stint with a running group, and a fabulous year training with my friend Jill for the Danskin triathlon, but for most of my life I exercised alone--running, or at the gym. And then one morning it was as if I put a key into a golden door, opened it up and there stood a smiling group of sporty people waving their hands at me, inviting me into their world, and arms. We swam and ran and coffee-clatched; we went on long leisurely country bike rides and urban runs; we trained for triathlons, travelled to Eastern Washington and Canada and spend Sundays running the trails of Cougar Mt. We wrote poems and sent them to race directors; carried those poems in our bike jerseys and read them out loud at coffee stops.

This was a group possessed, obsessed, motivated, playful, grateful, loyal and joyful. Life undulated with its regular ups and downs: successes, losses, new jobs, illnesses, we were all there for each other, swimming, running, biking, coffee-clatching, hugging. It was like permanent recess but on steroids--and with better equipment. I did things I never A) imagined or B) wanted to, but when my friend Jesse showed up with race forms and my name on them, I said yes and off we went. Thanks to this group I did a half ironman, a 50k trail run, and exactly one ironman. I stunned myself--who knew? 

This is an under-acknowledged truth: it's good to be known. I went from kicking around in anonymity to being known by a community and this was a salve that swabbed a few interior owies. 

Other things changed too. 

Eating turned into “fueling” and exercising became “training,” and I wasn’t trudging off to tick off the “must exercise” box as I once did. I even threw out my scale, which was a huge step and relief. I used to let those numbers tell me what kind of day I could have. No more!

Not-such-serious business. Crossing line at 2005 ironman, wearing a nighty from Ross Dress for Less. Jesse taught me how to dress for success.

Not-such-serious business. Crossing line at 2005 ironman, wearing a nighty from Ross Dress for Less. Jesse taught me how to dress for success.

When I became part of a sports community, it was like my exercise/workout/sports habit was connected to something larger than me: friendship, love, a sports family, others' achievements. After I burned out on racing I got excited about training for my friends' events. When Liz signed up for a 10k then an 11 mile swim, I'd join her halfway through a mondo swim around Mercer Island. I still ask her, "What are we training for this year?"

To be honest, I haven’t been rousing out of bed at 5:00 a.m. much this winter. It's a season of night sweats, tossing and turning and loving the cozy morning warmth of bed. Ah well. But I have been running more. So while I miss the frequency of swimming with Tom and Tricia and Laura and Jo, I get back the salon-talks of running with Nichole and most recently my visiting family of Erica and Dan and toddler Benji and Sean and Courtney and toddler Caden running the wilds of Mercer Island in December. Last weekend I went on a trail run with a new friend named Shannon and there it was: the beat of our feat against the dirt trail, mud splashes on our calves and cheeks as we told our stories, shared our philosophies and returned to the car full of life.

All of us--you, me, we, they them--we accomplish so much as a community and in groups. We go to work every day and yes there’s complaining and things don’t always go as we wish, but we make cool things in the company of others. The same happens in our physical life: call it exercise or working out or sports or movement or shaking a sassy tail.

I tell this story for a reason. It’s just my story. And this feels like just a tiny part of it! But it’s a lot of other people’s stories. I know hundreds of people who are impassioned sporty-spices; I know a lot of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are kicking some serious ass as athletes right now while being professionals and mothers and sometimes both. 

So much is possible!

Mermaids' vacay: 3 miles a day swimming in Brit Virg Island.

Mermaids' vacay: 3 miles a day swimming in Brit Virg Island.

If you are someone who would like to move that body of yours more—engage in some form of motion or exercise or outside activity, take a page from my story. Or write your own new way of getting out in the world and moving in a way that makes you feel free and powerful. Find a way to engage that has meaning. You might love the solitary nature of a run but I can’t help myself. I’m a community junky. I have my sports groups; my coaching groups; my writing groups. 

So much is possible in community. Marriage, too--I met my husband through a swim group!

This is my story—just part of the story. You have your story, it could be waiting for you. It is waiting for you.

A life in motion can have so much meaning and joy and connection. It's not just about exercising and burning calories. There are so many opportunities in the modern world. From meetup groups to holidays where you can do nothing but swim in the Virgin Islands or trail run in Chile.

Grab a piece of it. Create your own big beautiful motion adventure. Find a group, find one other person.

When you exercise in community, the chance that you will sustain it as well as rub up against your humanity in a world of others is immense. 

One day I rode my bike alone down Lake Washington Boulevard. Newly sober, training for my first triathlon. In a flash of a moment I announced to myself, the fir trees, the rhodedendron bushes and a passing eagle, "I'm done doing this alone. I want to do this with others." I had no idea how. That very week I went to my therapist's office who happened to be in the same building as a running store. That running store owner told me about a group swim at Seward Park. Then at my gym I ran into Jill who was training, and I joined her. 

Really it started with one pronouncement. Then I was off to the races, so to speak.

Here's to you finding beauty and meaning through moving your body with extraordinary people, having unusual experiences. 

This is our true nature: moving, alive, smiling, feet on the grass. You in?   

This is our true nature: moving, alive, smiling, feet on the grass. You in?


This year I'm offering COACHING IN MOTION. Get outside and run or walk and have our coaching conversations in the wildest and most human of spaces. Read more about it here.