The Joys of Spite Exercising

Every Tuesday and Friday morning I have a new nemesis. I never know this person’s name and I barely look at their face. I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup. But I have my eyes fixed on their treadmill to make sure they’re not going faster than I am. If the pace is 7.3 miles per hour, I’ll kick my speed up to 7.4. If they’re going so fast I can’t possibly get there, I’m furious. If they’re going much slower than I am, that’s irritating too — I want a realistic competitor.

The setting for this completely one-sided, fleeting enmity is Orangetheory Fitness, a program of high-intensity interval training classes I’ve been taking regularly for three years. It’s a combination of running, rowing and floor exercises. I love Orangetheory, in part because it satiates my ugliest and most powerful competitive urges in a fairly harmless way.

The “theory” of the moniker is about heart rate: The classes are structured around five heart rate levels, and the highest are orange and red. Per Orangetheory, “The goal is to spend 12 minutes or more with your heart rate elevated in ‘The Orange Zone’ to boost your metabolism, burn fat and burn more calories.” Every minute spent with an extra-elevated heart rate translates into what’s called a Splat Point, and I go after those (ultimately meaningless!) Splat Points with every fiber of my achievement-grubbing being. In addition to being able to peer over at other people’s treadmills, I can also see everyone’s Splat Points, calories burned and rate levels projected on TV screens during the workout, so I can monitor my progress as I go through the different parts of class.

The level of pride I’ve taken in my improvement over the years is frankly embarrassing, and yet here I am, bragging about it to you. When I started, my base running pace was six miles an hour, and now, if I’ve had a good night sleep before a class, my base is seven. My resting heart rate is a cool 55 beats per minute. Though I have no desire to enter any kind of real athletic competition, I’m in the best shape of my life — better than when I was a three-sport high school athlete.

I like to joke that my current fitness level has been achieved through spite. The antisemitic stereotype of Jews as unfit nebbishes has always bothered me. I come from Alpine Jews; we love exercise, and if you don’t believe me, I might whack you with my cross country ski. After I had kids, I also resented any notion that I couldn’t possibly attain the fitness level I had before pushing out two nine-pound monsters. I’m driven, in other words, by a wellspring of: You think you’re better than me???

I wanted to understand, on a deeper level, why I found this spite exercising so satisfying, beyond the oft-reported mood-enhancing benefits of running. So I called Alyssa Ages, the author of a new book, “Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength.” Like me, Ages has two kids and is in her 40s. Unlike me, she participates in strongman competitions and pulls trucks with her body, which makes my little Splat Points seem a bit piddling.

I asked her if I was a freak for being motivated by minor loathing and barely suppressed rage. She said that while she doesn’t know of any studies about it, everyone needs something to motivate them in athletics, and that she did the same thing — pick a random nemesis — when she was running marathons and doing triathlons: “The person in front of me was the worst person I’d ever met in my whole life.”

I also floated the idea to her that part of why I find Orangetheory to be such a release is that for women, being outwardly competitive is often still frowned upon in many areas of life (and there are studies that show this), and the workouts allow me a space to be unapologetically aggressive. Ages noted that women in weight lifting are pushing against a stereotype that women “are not supposed to be muscular, strong, bulky” — and that it can be exhilarating to throw that expectation out the window.

But on a much more serious note, part of why I wanted to talk to Ages was that she found solace in exercise after going through a miscarriage. Nine years ago, I experienced the same thing, with almost the identical emotional beats that she recounts in her book, and I had never heard anyone describe that specific head space before. I had felt a total lack of control over my body and felt that running as fast as I could along the East River, breathing in the sea air, was one of the few things that made me feel any better. In “Secrets of Giants,” Ages writes:

While lifting couldn’t erase her pain, Ages said, it did remind her that she could get through hard things, and I do think that’s part of the appeal for me, underneath — or perhaps existing alongside — the spite: reminding myself that other people’s expectations aren’t so relevant, and that I can endure a lot. Whenever I’m struggling to get through a particularly tough O.T.F. block, I have a little mantra that I repeat in my head: You can do anything for five minutes. It reminds me that even the most difficult moments are fleeting, and there’s an overwhelming sense of triumph on the other side.

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