Ugly Face

“Imagine how fat we would get, if we could get fat,” Nick says, through a mouthful of late-night PB&J and vegan sausage pizza.  

I laugh, spewing crumbs.  “So fat.”

But we can’t.  

We turn out the light and settle our distended tummies into some kind of comfort against each other, belching and farting.  

At around 3 a.m., I’m assaulted by a trifecta of sensational demands: sleep, pee, and hunger.  Each of them is so urgent, it feels like life or death.  Believe it or not, hunger trumps the other two.  

My body is one big, stiff, grimace as I agonize down the stairs, in the dark, and piss gloriously for nearly a minute.  

My protein shake is in the fridge.  The first few swallows feel like a fire being put out.  My body is ravenous and this is exactly what it wants.  

I glug the rest from the bedsheets, in a blind, Grecian half-recline.  The lid locks closed with a snap and I settle back into a horizontal plane.  I can see Nick’s empty shaker bottle on the night stand — I didn’t even hear him get up.

No insomnia for us.  Our bodies pull us down to some kind of sleep I can barely describe.  Like the good drugs, at the hospital — a physical stillness I can’t fight, a pillowy soft mental sensation.  My body has work to do, serious work, and it doesn’t want me in the way.  

Nick’s alarm is so persistent, and so way over there.  From a pleasant state of paralysis that doesn’t have to end quite yet, and through narrow, sleepy eyes, I watch him climb out of bed.  He looks like a god, all rounded flexations and sun-limned planes, and moves like a wounded geriatric.  He’s thirty years old.

I heave myself into a seated position, eventually, and begin fussing with some low-grade bed-making.  The mirror catches me, as I scuttle around tiredly, pulling at the sheet and stacking the pillows where they belong, as Nick tosses them my way.  My belly is flat, rippled with easy muscle.  My limbs are long, strong, and firm.  I look fantastic, and it’s old news to me — nothing I think much about.  I don’t have to.  I’m forty three. 

The more we move, the looser we get.  It’s not soreness so much as simple stiffness.  It’s just something you live with, when you start lifting heavy, and frankly begin to enjoy.  Nick puts it best: “Imagine how strong and graceful we’d be, if we ever actually stopped lifting.”     

********

Like most, my perception of truly, obviously fit individuals was always that they must be doing the same bullshit everyone else is doing — but just more.  Harder.  For longer.  More treadmill and less food or something.  But if you want to have a 1% body, you can’t get there through the 99% fitness mindset.

People ask us our secret, and we tell them.  They’re curious and open minded, right up until we say: plant-based diet and heavy barbell lifting.  Plant-based diet and heavy barbell lifting.  Yep.  

Nope.  

Nobody’s trying to hear that.  They do like to tell us about their improvements upon this scheme, though.  How they don’t eat that much meat; how they’ve really cut back on carbs; how they would lift but they can’t because of x y z injury, how their doctor advised low weights / high reps; how they don’t like vegetables but they take a vitamin supplement; how they found ways to make more cardio more fun; how they’d do barbell but they don’t want to hurt themselves; how their bodies need a lot of protein so they can’t be plant-based; how they like to go to the gym and then just feel it out with an instinctual workout; how they’ve found that setting their NordicTrack to a high incline is just as good as squatting; how we’re really missing out if we don’t do kettlebells; how much they love Cross Fit; how they just need to lose fifteen more pounds and then they’ll work on adding muscle; how they don’t want to get bulky; how they’re really more interested in functional exercises; how they’re too old to build muscle; how their trainer told them squatting is bad for their knees; how they don’t have to have a program because their trainer does all that; blah blah blah keto keto keto.  

Nothing against any of that but these people come to US, asking US how we look the way we do.  We’re not going up to them.  So.  

Did either of us drift, balletically, into our current, smug, fitness lifestyle success?  Not really. 

Nick was a real fat, soft, sweet kid.  Life hit him so hard that substance abuse felt better, from an early age.  He hated his body — he was a chonk, with an enraging muffin-top and a frankly fat face, who grew up in a surf town that idealized the shredded male body.  He would flail himself through a workout at the local Gold’s gym and then drink a 40 oz. after, behind the building.  The doughier he looked, the harder he worked out, using the same techniques everyone else did — trying to “sculpt” some kind of shape in, with the machines etc.  Anorexia and a low grade eating disorder arose, mere snow cones in the volcano of his evolving heroin addiction.  At some point his little sister declared veganism and Nick harshly criticized her, when he was sober enough to track reality.  Nick did jail time, accrued felonies, wrecked cars, was hospitalized, fled the hospital, set shit on fire, clinically died a handful of times, was resuscitated by paramedics, continued to stick needles in his arm.  He was ambushed, robbed, nearly killed in a roadside hotel, sent to expensive treatment centers that his parents paid for, but sobriety never worked.  He maintained employment through most of this, in food service of course, and a cell phone.  He just didn’t have a house or an expectation of physically surviving much longer.  He wasn’t scared of death, but his family’s pain, and his sense of their disappointment, was excruciating.  

He asked his family for six months at one last rehab, out West, and privately resolved to kill himself once and for all if it didn’t take.  His AA sponsor in Flagstaff, Steve, was an honest-to-god powerlifter, who adhered to the Starting Strength paradigm.  Developed by Mark Rippetoe, Starting Strength is the ultimate no-frills approach to growing strength — not toning, not weight loss, not sculpting, not shredding — just actual fucking strength, in an objectively measurable way through time, using barbell: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, power clean and snatch.  Steve was a monster — squatting 535 pounds at the age of 62; a mentally and physically unconquerable man, connected to his own Higher Power, sober for 28 years and counting.  He took all of Nick’s pain and fear and doubt and self-loathing and gave him something more immediate to worry about: standing up beneath a loaded bar.

Barbell saved Nick’s life, in a very real sense.  Nick is the first to admit, he replaced one addiction with another, and doesn’t regret it one bit.  

When I first met Nick, I was struggling to bench press not very much weight.  I had joined the gym and was trying to figure out barbell on my own, after having read a book called “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” by Michael Matthews.  An offer to spot me gave way to some conversation, which gave way to dinner.  

I led with my age, greater than his by 13 years as it turns out, just to get that out of the way.  I didn’t understand why he was flirting with me in the first place.  I’m pretty, in my own way, tall and lanky, but by no means the type of airbrushed gym bunny he’d look good on a postcard with.  My eyes look like I’ve seen some shit.  He looked firmly out of place in ragtag, Chakos-with-sock’os Flagstaff — boyish, hunky, rich, like he just stepped off a yacht and hadn’t ever had a bigger problem than a slow drip trust fund.  Top Gun Tom Cruise meets 40 Year Old Virgin Catherine Keener: what were we both doing?  

Nick seemed extra surprised, and even a little chagrined, when I ordered vegan sushi.  Turns out he’d gone veg for the environment, several years before, but had meatlapsed pretty hard once he started lifting in earnest.  Internally, I shrugged.  Finding a mate who could put his money where his mouth was, on the subject of everyone’s defensive claim — “I love animals!” — was just one more item on a long list of preferable, but unattainable, hopes.  After a trend of serial monogamy in my 20’s and a brief marriage in my 30’s, I had long since arrived at a seemingly permanent solo state, punctuated now and then by radar blips even I couldn’t take seriously.  I was a truck driver, of all things, and spent about half the year servicing wildland fire camps with fuel, and the other half delivering trucks and buses around the country freelance.  I trend towards skinny anyway, but had begun managing my minor weight fluctuations more aggressively, through intermittent fasting and sprint workouts.  My trucking gigs made control over diet and fitness nearly impossible, but I didn’t have any other way to make reasonably good money, or to meet someone I could legitimately date.  I was sort of happy, but sort of stuck.     

“We should lift together sometime,” he suggested.  

“Sure!”

Bemusedly, I joined him for what turned out to be deadlift day, that week.  He ripped 415 lbs off the floor a couple times, and then turned to get me started.  I balked.  Not only am I a human string bean, but I have scoliosis, which I now must admit to this shining example of masculine perfection, interested in me…?…for god knows what reason.  It’s not something I like to lead with, let’s say.  My scoliosis is not particularly obvious, but compounded by years of commercial driving, I’d become accustomed to my back “going out”, and staying out, for increasingly minor reasons.  Doing a lot of cooking one day, or stepping off the curb without enough care.  

“Well, sounds like the best thing for it is bilateral muscle growth on both sides of your spine,” he chirped, relentlessly.

“O…kay.”  I just surrendered to the process, fearful but curious.  Bumper plates on, feet just so, hands like thus, neutral neck, drag the bar up my shins, don’t let it drift out, stand up…it felt pretty good.  I added more weights, deeply self conscious of my facial strain, repping in front of this dude.  To this day, I wonder if women’s reluctance to lift heavy is partially because we don’t want to have ugly face in front of everyone.  And it is ugly face, make no mistake.  Anyway, I made ugly faces and pulled the bar up until I got to a weight that felt like a bad idea.  I think it was 80 pounds or something.

That night, my back felt slightly out, which wasn’t surprising; but it was fine in the morning, which was.  

We spent our brief courtship and ensuing relationship, largely, in the gym.  I learned how to barbell.  It was fractal in its apparent simplicity but actual complexity.  The more I worked at it, the more nuanced it became, and the more nuanced it became, the more interesting it got.  Nick’s heroin-turned-barbell addiction drove the pace, initially, with a beleaguered Hannah lagging firmly behind, but there came some esoteric turning point, maybe three months in, where I got the fever.  I got the fever!  I didn’t think about my body or my weight or my looks or my ass very much at all anymore.  I laid awake marveling that I might actually squat with plates someday.  45 pound plates, real weight.  Nick always told me I could, and I always scoffed.  Sqatting with 25’s was a shit show — major ugly face, minor gains.  I would get angry, some days, literally angry at the equipment, at myself.  Especially with overhead press, especially around my period.  I’m slightly less coordinated when I’m about to menstruate, and I’d hit myself in the chin, or bang my own chest too hard, or just mentally project the form, the bar path I wanted, and watch it do exactly not that.  

Meanwhile, Nick experienced a quantum leap with his diet.  We’d moved in together two months after we met, in a new city where I took a new job so I could actually have a boyfriend and work out.  I made major, sweeping lifestyle changes to accommodate this amazing new person in my life.  I’m so vegan it doesn’t even occur to me that I’m vegan, unless someone else brings it up, and so we hit our first diet crisis several weeks in.  Nick knew I wouldn’t want dead animals in the fridge, and even more-so, he knew that eating dead animals was the wrong way to go, ethically.  He hadn’t yet resolved his own inner dichotomy — loving animals, but loving gains.  Right now, he loved gains more.  And he felt conflicted about that.  So he’d sneak fast food.  Finally he got angry.  Not angry with me, but just angry.  He had to live here, too, and when someone has a musculature that literally represents his climb out of a sure-death heroin addiction, he’s not likely to give that up without a fight.  

I didn’t realize any of this was going on.  I’m so vegan that I think it’s retarded not to be vegan.  I also don’t know shit about gains, bodybuilding, or putting on lean muscle mass.  “I’m sure there’s, like, some vegan bodybuilders or whatever,” I vaguely guessed.

Nick huffed and rolled his eyes, and regurgitated some dietary bro-science at me, which I responded to by staring at him dully.  We sat down to internet about it.

Enter Nimai Delgado, vegan bodybuilder extraordinaire.  There are lots and lots of vegan bodybuilders and athletes, as it turns out, but Nimai is a leader among leaders.  As a lifelong veg raised by Hindus, he’s literally never eaten meat.  Amateur bodybuilding turned to professional bodybuilding easily and early, for him, and he quit his oil field day job.  Amid a storm of meat-centric bro-science, Nimai simply carved his own path.  

I watched Nick’s face, all rapt attention, as online Nimai explained that eating dairy spikes estrogen in men by up to 21%.  Nick pressed the space bar to pause the video and turned to me.  “Fuck that…!” he breathed.  Nick hasn’t eaten meat or dairy since that day.  

Long story short, and despite a shit storm of overt and covert scorn and criticism from his friends, guys at the gym, wanna-be bodybuilders on reddit, etc., Nick’s strength-to-weight ratio was the first sign of change.  At first, he lost weight but his numbers at the gym either held steady or went up.  Then his weight went up, and his numbers went nuclear, as we figured out together how to supply him with 200 grams of high quality vegan protein every day.  We got on Amazon and ordered bean flour pastas, Butler brand soy curls, high protein soy milk, Red Mill pea protein, endless tubs of plant-based protein shake powder, dense blocks of tofu, huge industrial sacks of beans and quinoa, baggies of nutritional yeast, jars of spirulina, tubes of tahini, tubs of miso, strips of tempeh, and lots of dried sea veggies like arame and wakame to supplement our steady intake of fresh fruits and veggies.

He won his first-ever bodybuilding competition at 5’6” and 167 pounds at 5% body fat.  He’s become, far and away, a stronger advocate and expert on plant-based fitness than me, and is eager to take the reins with any conversation that drifts that way.  He loves being vegan, and he loves being huge.  Most of all, and he’s one of the rare people who get to say this with zero irony, he loves animals.  

I’m squatting plates and some change, now, of course.  I’m deadlifting 190 and benching more than I used to deadlift.  Nick had his work cut out for him, trying to get me to eat.  I’d been low-grade dieting for so long, as a mitigation for all the gas station food and fire camp food and out of control lifestyle factors.  I never dieted, like counting calories, but I truly do love salads, fruit, smoothies, and raw foods, so I stuck with those.  I don’t like to feel hungry but I don’t like to eat against my own goals.  

That all had to change, with heavy barbell lifting.  “Eat!,” Nick commanded, and I’d try.  We’d hit the gym and my lifts would stagnate, or even regress.  “Eat!  You have to eat.  You have to eat a lot, Hannah.  Eat.”  I ate.  First thing in the morning, all day long, last thing before bed, and a protein shake in the middle of the night.  My lifts began to hold steady, to increase, to even make jumps sometimes.  My body puffed out, my clothes grew tight; then I shrank, hardened, grew sculpted, rippled, lean, effortlessly sexy.  Every day, we eat, sleep, and plan our workout.  The rest is gravy — my job, the business he started, our walks and jogs and whatever else we feel like doing.  Our whole first year in Albuquerque, people would ask us what we do for fun.  “Just work out and recover, really,” we’d say.  “That’s it?”  We’d look at each other.  “Yeah?  I guess so.”

So yeah, people come up to us and ask, point blank, what we do to look this way.  Plant based diet and heavy barbell lifting.  Nobody wants to hear that, but there’s nothing else to say.                      

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