Back to Fitness: An Ode to 04:30

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John Andersen

4:30 a.m. is bittersweet. Some would say it is crazy or obsessive. But those who know 4:30 a.m. know what I mean.

On one hand, it never comes easy. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Sure, I could go to bed at 8:30 p.m., but when does that ever happen? Never! There is simply too much to do before we throw in the towel to finish a day. And with so many things left undone, how can you even begin to think of 4:30 a.m.? 

On the other hand, 04:30 is the only time in the day that I can truly call my time. If I can get up, I have given myself a gift of about two hours where nobody needs me. I can wake up, drink my coffee, get some clothes and a headlamp on, and head outside into the quiet, dark world that hasn’t woken up yet. If I can wake up. 

In regard to my own personal fitness, 4:30 a.m. is both the most important tool I have at my disposal, as well as the most challenging. If I can do this a few times a week, I can keep myself fit. I can start something new and make some real change. And for many of us, it’s either this early, or nothing. So I choose this early. As often as I can. 

However, I do wonder how many more 4:30 a.m. wake ups I have in me. Surely I can’t keep this up forever? Am I still this motivated? Do I really need to do this today? What is the point of all of this? These are the hard questions that get asked as soon as that alarm goes off. 

When I am fired up about a goal, or just life in general, the wake up is easy. A wave of optimism and motivation can pop you right out of bed and keep you rolling out the door. More often, however, it is very, very hard to answer that alarm. I am so tired physically and metaphorically. Physically, because six hours of sleep is just not enough. But there was stuff to do! Metaphorically, because there are just too many things to do, and sometimes the simplest answer is to turn off that alarm and go back to bed.

But when I get out of bed, which is almost always (but not always), I start my day and things get better. 

First, I use the bathroom and continue to argue with myself why I should just hop right back in that warm bed. There is nothing more immediately tempting in life ever than going back to bed. When I leave that bedroom, I have just made myself a tougher, better person. Yes! 

Then I zombie-shuffle into the kitchen where I get my coffee and sit down at the table to let my mind and body wake up a bit. As the coffee starts to heat, I read the news or catch up on other parts of life. No one is waiting on me. It is dark and quiet, just me, my coffee, and true peace. 

But I’m on a schedule. I have just 15 minutes to sit and drink my coffee before I have to do things. Get running or biking clothes on. Struggle with puffy eyelids to get contact lenses in. Get gear together and grab my headlamp. All a remarkably well-timed and well-executed orchestra to get me out the door by 05:00. 

When I wake up early, and when I get out the door, things get better. Starting to exercise at 5:00 a.m. teaches you patience. You learn that it’s okay not to be into it for the first 15 minutes, because you are confident that you will be later on. You learn that your body is like an old car that needs to be warmed up for a while, and so you let it. You start slow, you mind and body still half asleep, but moving forward. This is quite literally the experience of commitment. You have told your body what it’s going to do and you are almost experiencing why that is a good idea. 

As you wake up, and start to move better, and you start to realize this was a good idea. You also start to realize how great it is to be outside so early. The moon, stars, planets, and sky all put on quite the show at 05:00, and it’s never the same show. Throw in some clouds and wind and you can really feel that you live on planet earth. So many people never experience this! And, while most of the human homes are still asleep, the natural world is starting to wake up. Foxes, opossum, deer, mice, birds—all watching the humans with headlamps running, walking, or biking by. Sometimes, when I run by a fox early in the morning, I think “Morning, Jim!” and half expect a “Mornin’, John!” in reply.

Do you feel unsafe at 5:00 a.m.? No, I don’t think so. But it takes some getting used to. If you’re not currently used to the flow of things outside in those early dark hours, they can seem strange and intimidating, especially if you’re by yourself. But the more time you spend in those hours, they quickly turn familiar and intimate, leaving you longing for more and yes, feeling quite safe, so long as you’re not running on Rt. 250.

And finally, if you’re out long enough or in those long summer months, the sky starts to streak with light as the sun comes up and completely changes the world you left your home in. Whatever you did, you did something and now you are awake with an energy that coffee just can’t bring. As you head back to that driveway, there is something special about knowing you started in the dark. Almost every return trip, I ask myself, “Was it worth it?” and without a doubt, every single time, always, it was. 

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