No Sandman Left Behind

We will resume our series “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline” shortly.

For today’s game, I trudged up the Rock of Faeries carrying “the Sandman,” a person-sized bag of sand. I feared I might get stuck and abandon it in the field, which would be an unprecedented dishonor. But here at Lean, Solid Dogs we leave no (wo)man behind, not even an anthropomorphized duffle bag of loose, shifting sand!

The omens were bad, with me accidentally tearing the bag as I wrenched it from the car. A lesser blogger might have quit then and there, but inspired by your lofty expectations, dear reader, I patched it up and started trekking.

This is how it feels to lift the sandbag from the middle. It’s floppy, uncooperative, and wriggling, like a huge, rebellious slinky.

The real nightmare was simply to shoulder the bag. There is no easy way to hoist a load that size off the ground and up to head height when it’s so loose that it can flop and flow. If you bend down and clasp hands around the middle of the bag, once you lift, the sand shifts to the ends of the bag and stays on the floor. If you grab the ends and stand upright, it flows to the middle and pins it to the ground. You can reach down and grab handfuls of canvas with the 120# of sand sagging between them, but you now have two problems. Your finger strength is one of them, and even worse is how to lift the bag more than a couple inches from the ground.

I tried putting my feet together and squatting down so that I could wrestle the blob of sand inch by inch up my shins and rest it on my knees. That works, but it takes most of the fight out of your arms, which after all are small, weak limbs made for mobility, not strength and endurance. At this point I was stuck in a full, ass-to-ground-and-heels-together squat and, though I could rest there and gather my strength with the bag balanced on my legs, I had zero leverage for moving all that still-shifting sand onto my shoulder. So I spent a few minutes trying to squeeze my shoulder down to knee level and then shake and jerk the bag around until I’d “poured” half the sand, still in the loose bag, over my shoulder and down my back. The final step, standing up under the bag, turned out to be one of the hardest lifts I’ve ever made: a sort of round-backed front squat that took such a hard ab contraction and Valsalva maneuver (the thing where you close your throat and let the air hiss out at high pressure) that it gave me a sore throat. 

And that was before I’d taken my first step! Thankfully, once you get the bag to your shoulder, it’s not so hard to carry. In fact, you can heave and flop the Sandman in different ways around your neck and shoulders to milk more endurance from your muscles. When your low back tires, you can shift the work to your upper back and obliques and abs, neck, quads, and arms in different combinations. And luckily I wore a tough cotton jacket, so in some positions I could grab my own sleeve or lapel, like a jiu-jitsu player, and relax my biceps and shoulders for a while.

The sandbag is the blue wrestler, only without arms and legs and that bored, “devil may care” expression. You’re the woman in red. Be sure to wear an 80s sweatband, as it will double your strength.

You can always drop the bag and rest, but after every rest you have to shoulder the bag all over again, which almost negates the rest. Eventually I found a good technique that’s a type of Turkish getup. (I hope to post photos shortly. Briefly, the trick is to lie down and roll yourself like a Greco-Roman wrestler under the middle of bag so that half of the sand lies on your chest and half on the ground by your head. From there you get the best leverage possible for sitting up with it.) 

You know you’ve exerted yourself just the right amount if you feel stronger and zestier after your workout, and today was perfect. Despite the wretched beginning, I settled into my favorite state, what I think of as “Buddhist muscular hedonism.” You exert yourself just hard enough to withdraw your awareness into a narrow focus, with enough attention to calmly notice each step and each breath but not enough to think ahead or even lift your gaze very far forward. You have to concentrate to keep your footsteps smooth and efficient and your breaths deep and gentle, because as soon as you start breathing raggedly or through your mouth during exercise, you start draining your emergency reserves of energy, whereas with rich nose breathing in an even rhythm, you’ll feel like a million bucks, like you could go all day. That’s how I felt today, so enraptured that I decided to stay in the Happy Zone and do double the mileage. Even now I’d like to go back out again for light jog. (But I won’t—I’ve learned the lesson the hard way that if I abuse my second wind, I’ll pay.)

Speaking of lessons, for stuff like this I’ve decided I should wear a hockey helmet. It’s just hiking, but there are boulders and rocks around, and if I ever hit one with my head, I’d have to quit the professor business and become a stripper again.

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