Sweat & Chalk
by Ray Leso
The weight room was hot that day as I sat on the bench cooling down from a hard workout. Beads of sweat formed on my skin and dripped to the floor. My clothes were soaked and my hands were caked with chalk and sweat, giving them a damp plaster-like appearance. My hair was drenched and matted as I wiped my chalky fingers through the tangles. The flies were out en masse that day and they showed their disrespect by landing at will on my drenched skin, eyes and mouth.
I remember looking around the room, which was empty except for the barbells and basic gym equipment. The building was old, yet this room had retained its vitality, a result I’m sure, of the reflected energy of those who entered. To me, there was always something spiritual or ritualistic that took place as I passed through the door marked “Weight Room”.
I began to reflect on the years (adolescent, competitive and post-competitive) that I had spent training my body with bars and plates of steel. At times, the rattle of those plates had been like music to me. Even now, their subtle clinks and clanks can jolt my adrenals.
I can remember when I traveled; I would always ask if the town had a gym or weight room. Sometimes, I wouldn’t go anywhere if it meant missing a training session. I’m still amazed at how this obsession had, in fact, become like a prison to me…and I had no desire to break out.
The weight room. How many problems, crises and vendettas had I conquered while dreaming along? The clank of the plates served me well, as I knew the answer was (and is), to keep training.
That silent weight room never gave me answers, but it allowed me to come up with my own. The barbells were never considerate of my feelings, only my actions, as they were dead weight that required a certain amount of focused concentration to move them. That room allowed me to be ME. I could scream and curse (and did), be rude and punch at things, my own mindless abandon broke inhibitions that allowed me to gain strength – mental and physical – that I would never have tapped any other way.
That echoless pit was also a place of refuge and repose for me. I could have silence, I could dream, I could confess. It was there that I learned to face myself, pass judgment and draw conclusions. I learned how to push myself to exhaustion, flick a little switch, muster strength, and keep going. I learned self-discipline through each rep, set, day, month and year.
These days I train in the morning. I don’t compete anymore, but I still go to that room regularly. It’s quieter now, but the heat, sweat and chalk are still there. I look forward to the conversations with myself. I know the walls don’t answer me, but the atmosphere of the room does. It tells me I am exactly where I want to be and doing, at that time, exactly what I want to do. Here, inner strength becomes my magic power and my mind is my only friend. The end result is clarity of thought, and answers.
Is this psychotherapy? I’m not sure; I look around the weight room, at barbells, squat stands, power racks and platforms. All are crucifixes to me, encased in dim silence. I look at my hands. As always, they are calloused, bathed in sweat and caked with chalk. I know now that this…is my religion.