“Finding Myself in a Prison Weight Pit (Antidote)”

Except for a brief period when I was 14-16, I’ve never regularly worked out. In fact, I’d estimate I’ve seriously exercised less than two dozen times in the decade prior to my incarceration. Although I’ve never been “fat”, I have been chubby and I have been weak. I’d suddenly develop a beer belly, which would disappear just as quickly because xannie bars don’t have many calories. However, I’m now following a rigorous weightlifting program–that is, after my morning 3 mile run–and the results couldn’t be more startling.

I’m in the best shape of my life, point blank. I’ve literally reversed the ordinary contours of my chest for most of my life: what was my ruler-flat upper chest is now firm pectorals, and my protruding gut has been replaced with the silhouette of a six-pack (i.e. not popping out, but there). My stick figure arms are beefed up by biceps rippling with veins. I left the county jail in the worst shape of my life, weighing 205 lbs; now I look the best I ever have at 172. 

All these aesthetic improvements are welcome and important, but they pale in comparison to the psychological gains of regularly getting money (that’s prison slang for working out, especially lifting weights; alternatively, “counting cash”). Despite the popular stereotype, not everyone in prison is shredded. In reality, less than half of the compound exercises in any way–be it lifting weights, doing calisthenics, jogging, or playing soccer or basketball. Even though the list of things we inmates can do is severely restricted, people are still incorrigibly lazy, even if relentlessly bored. I only started at the tail end of my first year locked up. 

Time passed quickly enough, I guess, rotating between watching TV, reading books, and playing cards, but I eventually found myself forming increasingly bad habits that were putting me into a negative headspace, despairing about my future as a new case popped up.

Furthermore, as an unaffiliated white guy with money, I was an automatic target for predators–not the sexual kind but of the pecuniary variety. Gangbangers and other lowlifes frequently tried to squeeze or press or run game on me–mostly unsuccessfully-like offering to protect me from some faceless thieves they had overheard plotting against me, when, in truth, the person offering help and the would-be thief were one and the same.

Prison has an endless supply of shitheads, so by the time I put the kibosh on the original threat, another arose. Whatever it was (and I’d like to solely blame the incredibly dorky glasses that the MDOC provides by default to inmates, aka the chomo 5000s, but I know that wasn’t all, even if it was a contributing factor), I resolved to change the vibe of weakness I was exuding inadvertently. I would not be a doormat, a bitch, a hoe.

So, after enduring months of good-natured ribbing from Donnie and Wojo (I was literally a fatboy at the time), I committed wholeheartedly to getting in shape. During my daily reading, I came across a quote from a bodybuilding coach that finally convinced me to and has stuck with me since, and it goes something like this: “If you take any man, no matter how happy or sad or successful he is, that same man, without exception, will be happier and more satisfied with life if he becomes stronger than he currently is.” Plus, I knew I couldn’t return home from prison in worse shape than that in which I left. I’m pretty shameless, but that would be particularly humiliating.       So I joined them in the weight pit, six days a week.

The first two weeks were the most difficult, obviously. After all, this was a strenuous “body-sculpting” regimen, not some basic bitch maintenance program. I could barely walk after legs days; holding or lifting things became a struggle on the other ones. Regardless, I was elated, enjoying some of its benefits immediately…immensely.

The influx of testosterone had me standing taller, handling the petty conflicts of day-to-day life in prison with aplomb and authority. Other inmates started looking at me differently, and our interactions were injected with a newfound friendliness. I commanded a degree of respect that had heretofore been withheld. Stuck in a place that was endlessly aggravating and existentially dreadful, I discovered in weightlifting the emotional relief and sense of purpose necessary for my sanity.

In order to cut up faster, my workout partners and I added a two-mile run, twice a week, to our routine. This soon morphed into what was almost equivalent to a 5k, five times a week.

If weightlifting generates some badly needed testosterone, running provides the more desirable endorphins. After a long, hard run, I’m euphoric and tranquil–a nice substitute for drugs.

I love the random places my mind wanders off to during a multiple mile run. In the beginning, during the first couple laps, all I can think about is how much I hate running. My knees creak, my ankles are stiff. After loosening up, I dwell on my problems but view them with a cool-headed clarity. As the first beads of sweat trickle down my face around the halfway point, my mind switches to more positive thoughts. I envision coming home–seeing all my friends, family, and loved ones. I imagine interacting with girls, whose absence has been most sorely felt (literally, prison has everything you could want, except a real woman). I wonder if I’ve become more or less attractive after a prison bit. A few laps later, I picture my ongoing case being resolved in the best possible way. Nearing the end, my brain deluged with endorphins, I already feel like I’m free, like any girl is attainable, like my major problems are merely minor obstacles.

During that first half, it’s as if I’m running away from my problems, and as I start the second half, I feel like I’m chasing my problems down, as a conqueror, like I’m facing my issues head-on, like a winner. Rounding the last lap, I begin sprinting, despite my fatigue, furiously pumping my arms, my lungs aching for oxygen, spit flying from my mouth. I finish, my momentum carrying me to my water bottle, and, barely catching my breath, leave from there directly to the weight pit.

The pit is less enjoyable than the track but perhaps more rewarding. Concentration is key. With every press, every fly, every curl, every squat and dead lift, I can sense my muscles growing, building up with each rep. With every set, I’m building a better me. I swell with pride when I reflect that I’m lifting almost double than what I had started out at. I could barely complete one pull up initially; now I can hit 25 straight if I’m fresh.

Post-workout, I mix up a protein shake and snack on a bag of peanuts to assist in muscle recovery. I’m sweaty, sore, and exhausted, but at the same time, I feel invigorated and accomplished, as if it were a payday.

I guess there’s good reason it’s called getting’ money.

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