It’s not every day you see a grown man openly crying during a set of tricep extensions.
Then again, Wednesday was not a normal day, no matter how you look at it.
Don approached the tricep machine quickly, with his head down and shaking from side-to-side.
He grabbed the angled bar in front of him.
He began to rep out, 1…..2……3……4…….5……….slowly at first, but more quickly the further he got into his set.
I have no clue how many he did; I could only notice his shoulders heaving and his eyes not breaking the intense stare with the weight stack in front of his shins.
Don grunted and gasped, his forehead was blood red from pressure.
As he pushed through his final reps, evading muscular failure beyond what I thought was possible, he appeared to be a man possessed.
With a loud “clang”, the stack fell against the iron, and he released his grip of the bar.
And then he looked up.
Don’s eyes were every bit as red as his forehead, and the tears were obvious and visible.
He gathered his composure and lifted his shirt to wipe away the excess moisture from his eyes, and dry off his cheeks as well.
Don’s set was complete – he walked away from the machine and towards the drinking fountain.
From an outsider, it appeared he was in intense physical pain.
But I knew better. Just 10 minutes ago, I had fought through a set of bicep curls, all the while fighting my own urge to cry.
On that day – Wednesday – we found out that Zach, a regular at our gym, had committed suicide.
Just One Of The Guys
Don was Zach’s best friend and lifting partner.
The two buddies were inseparable.
Every day at 4 in the afternoon, they would roll through the front door of our commercial gym. Zach alone, and Don with his wife and newborn son.
They would put their belongings in the locker, and Don’s son would be dropped off in the childcare room, and the two of them would get to work.
And work they did.
They were true bring-your-pail-to-the-gym type guys. No Fuckarounditis with these two.
Deep squats, heavy deadlifts, and more bench presses than you could ever imagine were thrown around by the pair.
I didn’t know them closely – after all, who knows the regulars from their gym on a personal level?
At the same time, they are my gym buddies. I would see them, nod, say “What’s up, fellas? What are we training today?”
The answer was always the same thing:
Whole body, bro. What other way to train is there?
Zach was an upper body monster.
He was the kind of guy who would rep out with your 1RM for practice.
And that’s no exaggeration, either. I distinctly remember at least one time where I barely eeked out 285 for one rep on the bench.
Afterwards, Zach came over and said, “You done with that?”
I replied that I was finished, and he just said “Leave it,” and proceeded to rip off 15 reps – without a warm-up whatsoever.
He made you shake your damn head with his natural strength.
Zach would wear wrist straps his entire workout, even when he wasn’t deadlifting and was only going to be doing pushes on that day.
But he was allowed to do this without ridicule. After all, do you ridicule someone who can bench press 400 pounds?
I sure as hell don’t.
And although we didn’t know each other closely, in a strange sort of a way, he felt like family. Three days per week for the better part of 5 years, every time I entered the gym at 3:30, Zach was right behind – to lift with his friend, Don.
He was a gym-bro, through and through.
He seemed to be a happy guy. Always smiling, always friendly, and always helpful.
The way he showed up religiously to work on his body and add to his immensely thick upper body gave him the outward appearance that everything was solid in his personal life.
There’s a positive correlation between mental health and exercise. Lifting hard is a natural anti-depressant. Some of the most well adjusted people I know spend time under the bar on a regular basis.
But you never know exactly what is going on behind closed doors.
On Tuesday afternoon, Don showed up at the gym to lift.
His best friend, Zach, wasn’t there.
He had texted Don earlier in the day and told him he wasn’t feeling well and he was going to take the day off.
Not thinking anything of it, Don went about his life. He went to work and to the gym.
After leaving the gym, on Tuesday evening, Don got a phone call he will never forget for the rest of his life.
It was Zach’s wife. She had returned home after picking their daughter up from daycare, and found Zach in his room.
He had hung himself.
The rest of us got news at the gym when his wife called in order to cancel his membership.
Whenever I receive news like this, I get reflective and pensive.
I think about my own mortality and of the short time we spend here on earth.
I think about all of the time I spend at work.
I think about how I choose to spend my free time and how I interact with people.
And of course, I look back in retrospect and ask myself if I would have done anything differently.
If I could do it all over again, and I had seen Zach on Monday, I would have stopped him and asked him how his day was going.
Not in an “I-don’t-really-give-a-shit” kind of way just to make small talk, but in an actual, genuine way.
I would maybe ask him how his work was going and dig into his training a bit deeper. Ask him about his programming and how his lifts were progressing.
I would take a few minutes out of my busy training session – the session I eek in between working my own two jobs, being a husband, and fathering two little girls.
I would take the time to actually give a shit.
The fact that if I could rewind time, I would choose to go “give a shit” about a random “gym-bro” is unsettling.
Maybe after being extra nice to Zach and taking time out of my own day in order to speak to him, he would have held off a bit. Maybe that would have been a small catalyst and he would have waited an extra day – and changed his course of action.
Then again, maybe not.
But it wouldn’t have taken much for me to extend that small token of kindness towards someone else.
After this realization, there’s only one question that remains, burned permanently into my brain:
Why don’t I act like this towards everyone?
I still don’t have an answer for that question.
I received the news after my third set of incline bench press. I needed a spotter and grabbed one of the trainers. He filled me in before my set.
I finished up the set – and continued with my workout with a heavy heart.
I had finished up all of my compound movements and went onto the isolation moves – the “bro sets”, if you will.
It was then I saw the makeshift memorial the gym had set up in Zach’s honor.
I signed the card for his wife, whom I had never met. I can’t imagine what she is going through. She will have to raise her daughter from newborn to adulthood without her baby’s biological father.
No one should have to go through that.
After penning my name and a brief message, I went towards the cambered bar and loaded it up for bicep curls.
On my last set, I had my own moment for Zach.
I grabbed a few 25’s, put them on the bar, and began repping out. I told myself I wouldn’t stop until I could do no more.
As the numbers climbed into the teens, passed 20, and went towards 30, the bar grew heavy and slowed down its path.
On the last rep, I pushed as hard as I could, and let out a bit of a yell of my own.
The manager began walking towards me – presumably to quiet me down before I scared off the soccer moms.
When he saw my face, and my own tears welling up along with my chin quivering, he stopped in his tracks.
He nodded at me and whispered:
And walked away.
Shortly thereafter, Don came in with his wife. Zach and his wife double dated with Don and his wife regularly. Zach and Don were best friends, remember. This was surely a huge loss for Don’s family.
I offered my condolences.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” I said.
“Are you shitting me?” Don said, “Zach would have called me a total pussy for missing today. This workout’s for him.”
I smiled and watched Don walk towards the tricep machine, and begin the set which was described in the opening paragraph.
Even though Zach won’t be a regular at our gym any longer, he will always be there.
He’ll be there in spirit every time I set a new bench PR – and I am reminded of how much stronger Zach was than me.
I’ll be reminded every time I need a spot, and Zach’s not ready to run over and be sure I don’t kill myself.
But most of all, I’ll be reminded of Zach because of his absence. When a guy is lifting right next to you every other day for 5 years, you get used to their presence.
I’ll see Zach again, though – I’m sure of it.
When we meet again, he’ll have those damn wrist straps on for no reason whatsoever.
And the bench press will be wide open.
And he’ll be there, grinning ear to ear.
And he’ll say to me:
You’re up, bro. Let’s go.
Rest in peace, Zach.
You will be missed.
With a heavy heart,