One of the single most surreal, amazing days of my life. Words and images to come.
Peru, thank you.
I was walking with purpose down the street yesterday evening, hoping that I’d reach my dodgeball venue before I needed to bother opening my umbrella.
The stoplights and walk signs at the one busy intersection on my route weren’t cooperating in as timely a manner as I’d hoped. As I waited to cross the street, a car—windows open, one arm visible in the backseat—crawled to join its place in the queue. I could hear the sound of chatter inside.
“Hey, look, it’s that girl.”
The car sped up and crossed the way en route to our shared destination, and I followed shortly thereafter, with a smile on my face.
That girl? What’s the that? What girl am I?
List #1: Things I Love
“Hey, Mom, I’m going to have to call you back a little later. Is that OK?” I looked to my left and smiled as a brunette woman, about my age, tried to hold back laughter. “I don’t know if you want to know where I am, actually … OK, fine. I’m ducked behind a car across the street from a SWAT team about to raid a house … No, I’m just fine! It’s a Jeep Cherokee. Plenty of coverage. Let me just call you back. Love you. Bye!”
True story. It dates back to about about six years ago, when I was a reporter for The Burlington Free Press, a daily newspaper in Vermont. The brunette was a reporter from one of the local television stations, and we’d been standing around waiting for our story to materialize when SWAT showed up and we ducked for cover. And we were just fine. No shots were fired, the suspect was cuffed and escorted out of the house, we got our police statement, and TV Girl and I parted with a, “Well, that was interesting. Nice to meet you. See you around sometime soon!”
At no point was I freaked out. Surprised a little, but if anything, I was just psyched that the Jeep was located near enough for me to stay close to the action. Otherwise, the moment unfolded, I observed, and I later wrote about what I saw.
I spoke with a number of colleagues at the time about the strange sensation that can come over a journalist when breaking news is unfolding.
It’s a sense of detachment … of sorts. Your senses are as a sharp as ever—they’re essential for the job—but the brain manages to take some emotions out of the equation. Fear or horror that I might have had as a passerby is dulled, because you’re doing your job and you need a way to cope. Otherwise, how are you going to hop into your car and head to a big fire? How do you deal with the fact that you’re standing outside a house, waiting for the police to take the bodies of the homicide victims to the ambulance?
This is a strange way to segue into volunteering for the Special Olympics. But trust me on this one—I’m going to create the connection.
Late this morning, I walked up to the Hyatt Regency Boston in Downtown Crossing. Shielding my eyes, I looked up … then higher … up to the top of the 24-story building.
I took a deep breath and pulled out my phone to post a quick thought and photo to Twitter.
A little over an hour later, I was slated to climb over the edge of the roof and rappel my way down the side.
I would never say that I’m an adrenaline junkie—although I know that anyone who knows me well would be quick to affix such a label to me. I’ve jumped out of a plane, I’ll ride rollercoasters all day long, I’ve tried to outrun zombies through muddy forest trails (no, seriously), and I spend a night every week playing league dodgeball.
But it’s more than just a need for adrenaline. I have a fondness for the random. I’ve been in a bowling league and a skeeball league. I’ve run a half marathon, a full marathon. I ran a 5k dressed as Supergirl. I’ve taken batting practice at Fenway Park, I’ve skated on the Garden ice, and I’ve raced a friend in a 50-yard dash across the field at Gillette (I need to do a layup on the parquet to complete the set—if anyone has a Celtics connection, feel free to hook me up). When I hear about something a little wacky, I’m likely to say, “Of course I’m going to do that. Who’s with me?”
Over the Edge hit just the right notes: Rappelling 22 stories down a building in a scene that should come with its own Mission: Impossible theme song remix. Adrenaline, absurdity, and a fundraiser benefitting the Massachusetts chapter of Special Olympics, an organization that I’ve supported in the past (a different story altogether: “The Time I Drank Tequila Shots and Decided to Jump Into a Frozen Lake Champlain”) and which my father supported as a volunteer when he was my age.
People’s reactions were entertaining. Half of the people who remarked on my plans told me I was insane. The other half told me I was insane, but remarked that this was right up my alley. And as I heard these reactions and prepared for the day itself, I kept wondering when I was going to realize how absolutely crazy I was for even thinking about doing this.
And there was a moment. It came after our little band of five (my friend Nicole and I were tackling the feat as a pair; and my dodgeball friends Corey, Michelle, and Kate were scheduled to rappel in the wave after us) had donned our harnesses, helmets, and gloves. As we approached the open roof door, I saw that the doorway framed a stunning view of the city, with the State House out below us in the distance, small sailboats dotting the Charles visible to the left.
Shit. We were up high. I felt the adrenaline wave travel through my body—shooting up and down from my stomach, coursing through to tingle my fingers and toes. For about a minute, I thought long and hard about what I was preparing to do, before I realized that I’d dipped back into my journalistic toolkit. The apprehension melted away and I knew that I was going to appreciate every second of the experience, knowing that I was going to be completely fine.
By the time I’d learned how to operate the rappel grip, transfer my weight to the harness, and walk down 22 stories of wall, I was chatting up the Boston firefighters, talking about work and travel as we leaned over the edge to check out the view directly below.
As they secured me into the series of ropes, grips, and caribeeners, I think they were waiting for me to freak out.
Are you nervous?
I’m psyched. Let’s do this.
Going to go hands-free for the photographers?
You bet your ass I am.
Ready to go?
I climbed under the railing, stood up, and started to lean back. And at the moment that I should have been frightened—the moment of stepping off of something solid and out into air—I wasn’t. I let go so that I could hold onto ropes and grips secured by men I’d only met minutes before. I started to descend, straightening my legs as my feet pressed into the wall now in front of me. And I grinned, turned to the photographer to my left, and then completely let go.
I spread my arms out wide as the shutter clicked, turned to my right and smile at the photographer stationed there. And then I shouted, “Hi!” and waved at the photographer off in the distance to my right, who laughed and gave me a thumbs up after he got his shot.
Grabbing the rope under me with my right hand, I wrapped my left hand around the grip, and began to squeeze the red lever to lower myself, rappelling in earnest. The firefighters leaned over, cheered me on, and wished me fun on my upcoming trip to Peru.
Like I said, I’d been feeling chatty.
The wall was slicker than I’d anticipated, so it would have been difficult to really push off—we’d been explicitly instructed not to do so anyway. It did offer steady resistance, though, and I used it to lightly push as I walked, then made little jumps down. I was most aware of my body pressing into the straps supporting me from beneath—how comforting it was to feel that discomfort. I was able to feel snug and secure whenever I stopped to look at the city spread out around and below me. I could close my eyes and feel the breeze in an entirely new way.
To my right, a superhero was performing an incredible feat. It was one thing for me to say that I was going to embrace my love of heights and adrenaline—but Nicole was descending the wall with a gritty determination to pull off the feat while dealing with a fear of heights. I had the opportunity to observe the way she took that fear on step by step, taking on the feat in a way that I couldn’t properly comprehend. And when she reached the point at which I had descended, we made our way down together.
Squeeze the grip … feet against the wall. Squeeze … feet. Squeeze …
Partway down, I heard a voice from below. “GO VICKIE!”
I laughed and leaned my head to the side to glance down. “THAAAAAAANK YOOOOOUUUU!”
Feeling a bit cocky, I jumped a bit more during the final portion of the descent, then touched my toes to the ground, grinned at the volunteer waiting for me, and exhaled as I looked up, was released from the ropes, high-fived Nicole, and cheered on my friends and they made their own way down.
Back in the viewing area, you could tell who had rappelled and who was there for support. The Edgers had bright eyes, flushed cheeks, and wide grins as we worked “awesome” into every other sentence. And as I listened to chatter around me as I sipped a bottle of Sam Summer, I looked up at the top of the building to see if it looked any shorter now.
It didn’t. Still tall. Still crazy. But when I was asked if I planned to repeat the feat next year, I responded without hesitation.
Yes. Especially if there’s a chance that next year’s building might be even taller.
A very heartfelt thank you to those who donated to my Over the Edge efforts and cheered me on throughout the process. I appreciate the support greatly and thank you for helping me while also helping Special Olympics Massachusetts continue to offer thousands of children and adults the opportunity to excel and inspire with their athletic feats! Donations for OTE can be made for another 30 days—to view my fundraising page, click here.
If you’re at all intimidated by the prospect of walking into my boxing club—as I was the first few times I weighed the pros and cons of subjecting myself to classes—there’s little to allay your concerns right away.
The club is tucked into the second story of a multi-use building on Commonwealth Avenue, marked by a single glass door with a boxing glove detailed on the glass. Above a pub and next door to a rock club I used to frequently constantly in my early- to mid-twenties, the boxing space is accessible via a small, narrow stairwell. And whenever I walk up the stairs, I feel smaller each time I hear the popping sound coming from upstairs—a rhythm that takes on a louder, heavier tone with each step up. Leather on leather, the sound of force meeting resistance.
When I walk through the door, I’m always surprised by how open and, I daresay, light the space actually is. My view of the large room is dominated at first by the ring immediately in front of me upon opening the door—it’s one of two actually boxing rings in the space (the second is to my far right, tucked away into a corner). A pair of boxers are typically in the ring when I walk in, and their sparring provides some of that sound I heard during my ascent.
The rest of that rhythm comes from people at the bags—whether at my left, where two rows of suspended bags take up the length of the room; or to the right, in the open space where most of my classes take place. Between the two, I can note a row of bikes; weight machines and treadmills by the windows at the back; and a row of gazelles. People walk about, their hands and wrists covered with black, blue, yellow, or red handwraps, everyone glistening with sweat and looking focused on the tasks at hand. Invariably, there will be a new student trying things out—he or she will look at a friend, laugh nervously, and say, “Am I going to die?”
It’s precisely what I said during my first full class. I was only 70 percent joking.
There are two types of classes I will take here. There are actually three types of classes overall, but I have absolutely no intentions of getting into an actual ring and sparring—bravery is one thing, asking to be broken is something else entirely. For my purposes, I’m going to get to the technique class after I’ve established a strong foundation with the 12-Round Workout.
I’ve taken the 12-Round twice and will be taking it for a third time tonight. All I knew going into my first session was that my instructor trains Shawn Thornton during his off-season—which was largely why that 30 percent of legitimate fear had made an appearance.
Shawn Thornton is one of those people you can easily imagine in the boxing ring. He’s not just a member of the Boston Bruins—something that’s enough to intimidate anyone, even my Bruins season ticket holder self. He’s widely recognized as one of the toughest, grittiest enforcers* in the NHL.
Shawn has been singing the praises of his off-season boxing regimen for the past several years, taking care to call out the hard word and great results that go into the program. It was one of the things that first encouraged me to consider giving boxing a shot at some point. But reading a quote about how he lost seven pounds in a single session with Tommy—again, the guy who would be leading my not-ready-for-pro-hockey body through a workout—was more than a little intimidating. Hence the need to psych myself up at Nickerson Field before each session.
I’m all about a challenge, and I’m stubborn as hell. I also have a tendency to adopt the “go big or go home” philosophy. When I moved to Boston, I wanted to take advantage of the proximity to Fenway Park. I could have just gone to a bunch of games, but I decided instead to work for the organization as a Fenway Park tour guide … for four years. When I started running several years ago, I was pretty quick to commit to training for a half marathon—and a full marathon after that. And during each of those long runs, when I hit the wall**, I pushed through because failure wasn’t an option for me. Anything other than crossing the finish line—even if it I had to walk or crawl to do it—was unacceptable.
That said, such an approach has largely been confined to places or concepts that feel relatively safe or comfortable to me. I had a background in baseball and experience in tourguiding; I knew from my high school soccer days that running distances was a skillset just waiting to be accessed.
Boxing? Everything involved with it was outside my comfort zone. Strength, arms, punches, medicine balls … even the simple act of committing to spending time in a part of the city I rarely traverse. The only thing even remotely familiar would be jumping rope—and even that was a skill that I hadn’t tapped into since grade school.
So I considered it a victory even showing up for my first class with Tommy. And as I started to go through the session, I hushed the “I can’t do this” whispers in my head with expletives and stubbornness. Before long, I was so busy gritting my teeth—and waiting for the sound of the buzzer that marks the end of a three-minute round—to feel intimidated.
The class was broken up into four key pieces:
And then, just like that, Tommy said, “You’re done.” And I sat up, looked around, and saw sweat-soaked people stand up, put their mats away, and start unwrapping their hands.
That was it? That was an hour?
I looked down at my own soaked gear and felt my muscles ache as I started to stand up.
Oh yeah. That was an hour. I didn’t even want to look into a mirror. Hot mess walking.
I unwrapped my hands, said goodbye to the boxing buddy I’d made during the class, and carefully descended the stairs and exited onto Commonwealth. I looked across the street at the T stop, then down at myself.
Walking part of the way home felt like the right idea.
* For those who aren’t as obsessed with hockey or the Bruins as I am—in other words, many of you—an enforcer is, in layman’s terms, the guy on a hockey team who makes sure that opposing players aren’t playing dirty. If dirty play is happening, or if the team needs a jolt of adrenaline to shift the momentum of a game, the enforcer takes it upon himself to respond accordingly. Most often by dropping the gloves and fighting an opposing player. Shawn Thornton has endeared himself to the Bruins and their fanbase by being one hell of an enforcer who also can bring other skills to the ice. He also happens to play on the Fourth Line, my favorite line on the team.)
** Hitting the wall is the physical and psychological experience that impacts many runners during long-distance runs. You’re riding on adrenaline, you’re in the rhythm, you’re thinking about how all of your training is totally paying off, and then BAM! The body reaches a point of exhaustion and self-doubt roars into your head. The concept of mind over matter becomes such a mockery—you’re trying to do something that you KNOW you can do, but your mind has forgotten that whole “you’ve trained months for this moment” part.
List #2: Things That Scare Me
I am about to paint a stunning self-portrait, circa last night around 7:45pm.
Walking down Comm Ave toward Kenmore Square felt like the right idea. Those riding the B Line have it rough enough as is. The last thing they needed was to share a train with a mess of wet hair plastered against a red face above sweat-soaked cotton—a woman with bright, slightly wild eyes and a grin more deranged than charming. And the odds would have been good that they’d witness my realization that my muscles, when finally given an opportunity to rest, would refuse to start moving again when the time came to switch lines at Park Street.
All of this can be traced back to a running armband.
About a week and a half ago, I zoomed into a store to snag myself an iPhone armband to replace the one that had gone missing in action after the BAA 10K. I was en route to a monthly 5K along the Charles, so I bought the gear, continued on my way, slipped the band onto my arm as I was approaching the start line, and promptly began to curse myself.
Even at the smallest setting, the band was threatening to slide down my slender—actually, no, let’s be honest and call it scrawny—excuse for an arm. Children could wear these things, and it didn’t fit me? Completely unacceptable. After nearly 32 years of no upper body strength to my name, it was time to make a change.
I kicked off the process a few days later. I’d noticed a Groupon, one that touted intensity, results … and the last place anyone who knows me would actually expect to find me.
One month of unlimited access, training, and classes at a boxing club.
After purchasing the Groupon and calling to set up my introductory lesson, I laughed with friends—“Look at me, I’m going to BOX!”—I took a deep breath, realized what I’d done, and promptly berated myself again.
Really? REALLY, VICKIE? This was the WORST POSSIBLE IDEA. I was absolutely terrified.
There are some people who are suited for something like boxing. They have brassy personalities. Loud voices. Muscles.
I’m not that person. I’ve never thrown a punch or received a punch. There aren’t too many loud arguments to my name. Sure, I’ve got moxie, and I’ll speak my mind when I really, really need to. And yes, I’m willing to take on new things, just to see what they’re like, but … I mean, it’s not that I’m a pushover or anything, but …
I started thinking about all of the times I’ve bitten my tongue. Each instance in which I’ve said, “No, really, it’s fine” when it wasn’t. When I’ve second-guessed myself, when I’ve questioned someone’s intentions, when I’ve left a party early rather than break into and join a conversation, and when I’ve wound up apologizing for something that wasn’t even my fault.
Well, shit. I am a bit of a pushover.
The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I grew. With myself mostly, but the web of people who’ve been in and out of my life also had some attention thrown their way. How has no one called me out on this before? Sure, someone can say, “You’re almost too nice sometimes, Vickie,” but how did no one take me by the arms, give me a good shake, and bark “CUT IT OUT” into my face?
No, it wasn’t their job. It was mine. But still, it would have been nice.
I channeled this anger. I converted it into fuel. And whenever I got nervous about Thursday and the intro lesson, I tapped into the anger and strengthened my resolve. When people asked, I laughed and talked about how much I was looking forward to trying something so out of character—and I thought to myself about how this was going to be able to be a big confidence booster.
That propelled me through to Thursday, when I set off for my intro lesson. I got there early, approached a door marked by a huge boxing glove decal, saw a big burly man walk out …
… and kept right on walking up the street, around the corner, and to a patio area overlooking Nickerson Field. And I called my best friend.
“So … yeah. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m going to die.”
I made the call so that I could laugh at myself, distract myself, and put the fear back in its place in time for my lesson. I needed to. Did the thought cross my mind that I could skip the lesson, go home, and log a couple of miles on the treadmill at my normal gym instead? It absolutely did. Did I actually think that I was going to do that? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t completely sure.
Did I do that? No. When the lesson began, my new boxing gloves were ready, my handwraps* felt snug and secure, and there was an only slightly panicked grin on my face as I stood with the other newbies in one of the club’s two rings, started to learn about punches, and then had my first face-to-face with a bag.
One: Left jab. Two: Right jab. Three: Left hook. Four: Right uppercut. Five: Left uppercut. Feet apart. Use your legs and core for power. Hands up at the face. Snap the glove against the bag. Give me one-one-twos. One-two-two-five. Quick! One-two-three-four-five! Keep it going! Five pushups. One-twos for 20 seconds! OK, rest and take a drink.
First, pushups are difficult in any circumstance. But trying to do so wearing boxing gloves? I look ridiculous. Second, I felt drenched in sweat by the time we left the bags, picked up medicine balls, and started lunges, squats, duck walks, a sprint, and—this is where it gets good—chest and overhead passes to a partner.
I felt OK until I was back outside, picked up my phone to text people that I’d survived, and realized that my arms were jelly. But I felt such a rush of pride as I made a quick call to talk about how things had gone.
“I can’t believe I actually did that. I actually doubted myself. A lot. And it was fun! No, seriously, it was. In a perverse sort of way, it was cool to completely kick my own ass. I feel like a badass. The club’s super straightforward and tough. Oh, no, I’m a complete wuss. The medicine ball was only eight pounds. But whatever. It’s a first step.”
The words of the guy leading us through the strength training exercises popped back into my head. “Yeah, the medicine ball passes? We did one round. There are three rounds of that in your standard class. I’m going to die.”
My muscles—pretty much every one on my body—were sore the next day. Incredibly sore the day after that. They were still protesting last night, as I walked up Comm to my first standard class, approached the door, and made my way back to Nickerson to psych myself up again.
The confidence will come. Until it does, I’m building in 10 minutes for preparatory freakout time.
*Handwraps: Long strips of fabric, with a thumb loop on one end, Velcro on the other, and enough material to wrap around your wrist, hand, and lower knuckles approximately 97 times (give or take about 50).
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon…