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Summer in the City: November Project in New Orleans

Summer Suleiman

Summer Suleiman

I’m an unpleasant person in the morning, and I’ll be the first to admit it. My mother can tell you better than anyone else. I can clearly remember when she would wake me up for school in the mornings. With her sweet, gentle voice, she’d say, "Good morning, my sunshine." I was unmoved by her love and affection bright and early.

So why would I, after overhearing my siblings say they were meeting for a 6 a.m. boot camp-style work out at the Superdome, agree to join them? My sister didn’t bother inviting me, assuming I would be completely uninterested in an early morning workout. And even though she was right, good ol’ sibling rivalry kicked in. I’m the youngest of four, so I’ve always felt the need to try to keep up with the big kids. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than wake up at 5 a.m. for a workout. But if they could do it, so could I.

“I can do it,” I said, in that little sister, matter of fact way.

When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. the next day, I was horrified. I’ve heard some people say that waking super early to exercise feels good. It felt like doomsday to me. I thought about reneging while I lay in bed a little while longer, but I knew I’d hear it later from them. So, I mustered all of the will power I could, and dragged myself out of bed.

I think I’m generally a friendly person, but people who are chipper in the morning really annoy the hell out me. That’s terrible, I know. I’m working on it.

My sister, Nina, is one of those people. On this particular morning, she was her usual talkative and energetic self. After all of these years, most of which we have lived together, you’d think she would know by now that I do not like talking when I first wake up in the morning.

So, I volunteered her to drive. As we approached downtown, the sun was yet to rise. I was still wondering why I agreed to this. And she was carrying on about a Caribbean vacation that one of her friends was planning. I sat in silence and gave her a death stare. But she didn’t take the subtle hint. Sometimes I imagine reaching out and popping her when she talks to me in the morning. I’m working on that, too.

At any rate, we arrived, quickly parked and joined all the people at Champions Square who had actually arrived on time. On the walk over, we ran into my brother and his best friend. They were all smiles and jokes. Again: How can these people be so damn cheery in the morning, I thought and tried to shake off my Grinch mode.

We caught up with the rest of the group who had started the workout with a lap around the Superdome. Just a few steps in, I lagged behind them. That’s okay though. I like to do my own thing anyway.

The first lap was a breeze, and I was starting to feel warmed up. Then it was time to run the stairs for repetitions. Ten minutes timed. I was all for it, until about halfway through, when my legs started feeling like bags of bricks and my breathing steadily got heavier. (Luckily, I was able to take little breaks in between to take the photos for this post. Cheater.)

Then it was time to work our core with leg lifts. Those were fun. We followed that up by jogging up and down Champions Square with burpees at the end of each lap. I somehow managed to finish them all the way through. My sister and brother checked on me a few times.

I usually stay away from intense cardio because my thing, as I call it, is an inflammatory disease, and intense exercise can trigger the inflammation.

I’m not a hard-core, go-hard-until-you-can’t-anymore kind of workout girl. I’m a go-at-your-own-pace, and lay in Shavasnana a little longer, kind of girl. Did I mention that my favorite kinds of workout are the ones that involve lying down? Yoga is my first love.

I am usually a little intimidated by group exercises, and I’m not a competitive person, especially when it comes to exercising. But everyone there was supportive, and no one was there to compete. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding among everyone, that you’ve already accomplished something simply by showing up. You’re in it together. And that’s what I loved about it.

We finished with some stretches, and by the end of the workout, I felt fantastic. Sometimes I battle with the thought that I am limited by this illness and I’m not as physically capable as others are. But I don’t want this disease to define me, or limit me in any way. I like to believe that there is nothing that I cannot do, because of my health. That day, I believed it.

I pushed myself and achieved something that I never thought I would be able to do. It was exhilarating after all. I quietly celebrated with myself. For a moment, I forgot about this illness that has carved out a constant presence in my mind and changed my life in so many ways. For once, it felt good just to be like everybody else.

Now, have I been back since then? To be perfectly honest with you, no, I haven’t. But I hope to. And I know now that it’s possible. Trust me when I say that if I can do it, anyone can do it. All you have to do is show up. And that’s the hardest part.

Here’s the back story. November Project is a free, community workout group that started in Boston as a way to help people stay fit during the brutal New England winter. It now spans 17 cities, including New Orleans, and welcomes people of all ages and fitness levels.

Summer Suleiman is a health writer and blogger who writes about her experience living healthy (or trying to) in a city best known for its fabulous (unhealthy) food and debauchery. You can read about her journey saying no to po’boys and Sazeracs, and yes to kale and juicing, at www.HealthySummer.me or on Twitter @summersuleiman.