Self Discovery While Locked In a Room With Sweaty Wrestlers and Shirtless Children

VICE Sports writer Aaron Gordon participated in Lock In, a 24-hour workout inside a gym in New Jersey. Through the sweat and tears, Aaron found out a little bit about himself.

Jul 2 2015, 12:10pm

Photos by Aaron Gordon and Christine de la Rosa

We were in a basement in Flemington, New Jersey at 7:05 p.m. Maybe it was much later than that, or maybe no time had passed at all. We'd been working out for 10 hours. The stink of stale sweat wafted around the trapped air, pushed around by electric fans. I was on all fours, sweating from every exposed inch of skin, gasping for more air than my lungs could hold.

In that moment, I was glad to be sweating so much, because nobody could see that I was also crying.

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Not the sobbing-and-begging-for-my-mother kind of crying, but involuntary salty discharges from my eyes because I was in such profound discomfort. As my tears met my sweat and dripped down the bridge of my nose, I realized there was no actual difference between the two. My entire body reached a singular purpose. This was why I had come to this basement in New Jersey. This was my moment of clarity, only it felt more like a muscle spasm.

About a dozen of us were almost halfway through a 24-hour workout called a Lock In, trademarked by Mike Malinconico, a 37-year-old wrestling coach and owner of Rhino Wrestling in New Jersey. The idea is simple: a new workout every hour on the hour. Eat and drink all you want, but no sleep allowed.

As Malinconico tells it, he got the idea after competing in the Death Race, a 70-hour competition in northern Vermont that is a thinly disguised exercise in voluntary torture. There, he spoke to the World's Fittest Man as determined by the Guinness World Records, Joe Decker, who told Malinconico how he completed Death Valley's 135-mile Badwater race: run a mile every hour on the hour. Malinconico, as crazed athletic coaches sometimes do, thought the man who ran through 135 miles of desert was on to something. He thought he could apply this technique to train his wrestlers' minds and bodies.

Against my better judgment and the advice of my friends, family, and coworkers, I wanted to find out why in the hell anyone would do this to themselves. So I signed up for a lock in and my coworker, Christine, decided to come along for the hell of it. The morning of June 20, we went to Rhino Wrestling's Flemington location, an abandoned driving range repurposed as a wrestling/boxing/gymnastics gym. Loose, rusted screws and a broken bench press apparatus littered the walkway to the decrepit driving range. A defunct mini-golf course weaved behind some reeds into the marshy area that was even creepier than it sounds.

Christine and I were joined by a few high school wrestlers, one recent high school graduate who had just enlisted in the Marines, and five small sub-80 pound children, who spent most of the 24 hours shirtless. I asked Malinconico if many parents agree to let their children be locked in. He said the occasional parent will refuse but, more often than not, it goes the other way. "I'll tell the parents, 'You don't understand, I'm going to torture these fuckers.' And they nod along, like, 'Yes! Do that!'"

Malinconico estimates he's run 80 to 100 lock ins around the country, but he doesn't know for sure. In the old days, he would participate in each one, but has since abandoned the practice on the advice of former Navy SEALs. He's also a bit more strategic about when and how the lock ins are held. For example, he no longer experiments with the start time. One lock in began at 12 a.m. on December 31 so the final workout would take place as the ball dropped, but even he acknowledged it was a "terrible idea." Another time, they accidentally held a 25-hour lock in during Daylight Savings Time. Malinconico called two 2 a.m. workouts "demoralizing."

His strategy for designing the workouts, he tells me a few hours in, is to take the legs out from under you early.

First hour: seven-minute wrestling match/burpees. Second hour: toss 12-pound medicine balls 15 feet into the air 60 times. Third hour: 300 air squats. Fourth hour: 150 kettle swings.

In between workouts—which usually took from five to fifteen minutes—Malinconico regaled us with playful banter and stories of this and that while we leaned against the blue padded walls until we no longer had the energy to listen. Like the time one of his wrestlers called his mom a cunt. As punishment, the kid's dad paid Malinconico $200 to give his son a "private lesson," which mostly involved beating the shit out of him.

Malinconico, a rock-solid man with plenty of tattoos and thick beard, is one of those instantly-likeable types who makes you feel welcome with the first sentence he says to you. This, of course, makes you want to not disappoint him, which makes you work harder, which leads to sweat dripping from parts of your body you didn't know could drip with sweat, like the backs of your ears.

Fifth hour: hit a giant tire with a sledgehammer 100 times with each arm. Sixth hour: 100 box jumps.

The Rhino Wrestling gym before the craziness ensues. Photo by Aaron Gordon.

To my surprise, not only do hundreds of people cram Malinconico's marathon workouts during the course of a year, but many come back. Dylan, a rail-thin 15-year-old who liked to spend his time between workouts lying on the lone couch wearing a pink Snuggie, was on his second lock in because he "forgot why he did it" the first time. Nester, the future Marine, was on his seventh.

Since he's also crazy, I asked Malinconico why other crazy people do this. "We as a culture have become so comfortable," he says, easing seamlessly into philosopher mode, which works well with his long, unkempt beard. "There are no more rites of passage."

Seventh hour: hold giant tubes filled with water while doing squats and being sprayed in the face with a hose. Eighth hour: four inchworm laps around the gym.

During one of the breaks, a few of the guys talked about their experiences in sensory deprivation chambers. They got metaphysical, debating whether or not what they heard or saw inside the tank was real. It may seem weird that a bunch of wrestlers were discussing the philosophy behind a new-age mental health contraption, but it fit in well with the lock in's theme.

At its core, the lock in harkens back to Cartesian mind-body dualism: the idea that the mind is nonphysical, that there is a break between our bodies and our thoughts. Or as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, "the theory that the mental and the physical...are, in some sense, radically different kinds of thing." A theory that is being slowly disproven by modern neuroscience.

This debate is thousands of years old and Malinconico has no intentions of settling it 24 hours at a time, but he does talk a lot about the mind and body. More specifically, there's a lot of talk about "the wall," a metaphorical boundary at which the body would normally stop functioning—but which can be surpassed through sheer mental toughness, revealing the body to be more resilient than it realizes.

On the one hand, this is a starkly dualist concept, in which the body and mind are two separate entities. Yet, the very idea that the mind can have such power, influence, and control over the body in times of great distress suggests a fundamental link that dualism cannot explain.

Ninth hour: outside to do slip n' slides through a tarp covered in dishwashing soap—oh, how Dawn stings the eyes—followed by 20 burpees. 10th hour: six laps of gorilla jumps.

Gorilla jumps are a simple exercise—they're a bit like frog jumps except while holding a 25-pound plate—perfectly tailored to exploit my weaknesses. Everyone had the one workout that did them in, which is the point, of course. Everyone else finishes their six laps, but I lay on the ground, panting for air, having completed only two.

This was when Malinconico came over. He didn't shout at me like a drill sergeant might, but spoke to me quietly. He looked down at my bright red face and sweat-soaked, shaking body. He didn't order me to get up or call me a lowly maggot. Instead, he told me that if I got up and kept going, I would be a better person. I distinctly remember thinking that he was serving me from a crockpot full of slow-cooking shit, but I didn't say that, mostly because I didn't have the energy to do so.

11th hour: 30 wall walks. 12th hour: seven minute farmer's walk. 13th hour: seven-minute wrestling match. 14th hour: ¼ mile sprints.

I didn't complete the lock in. As I am prone to do in times of stress and sleep deprivation, I got a devastating migraine 13 hours in, around 11:30 p.m. When I lost the ability to keep my eyes open because of the fluorescent light burning a hole in my temples, I went to my car to lie down in the dark. I woke up at 5 a.m. I rejoined the group for the rest of the lock in.

15th hour: 100 boxer sit ups. 16th hour: 50 renegade rows. 17th hour: handstand hold. 18th hour: seven-minute wrestling match. 19th hour: stress test. 20th hour: death by ten meter dashes.

Some of the workout took place in an abandoned driving range. Photo by Aaron Gordon.

I don't quite know how to reconcile my surrender with the lock in's dualist, wall-breaking spirit. Perhaps my mind is not strong enough to conquer my body, or maybe my body is inadequately equipped for such physical stress. Maybe it's far simpler: I'm a wimp, just like my older brother always said. I also don't know how to compare my lock in experience to that of, say, Nester's, the future Marine, who powered through the 24 hours without showing the slightest discomfort, or my colleague Christine, who thoroughly kicked my ass.

21st hour: 100 deck squats. 22nd hour: Run a mile holding a weight. 23rd hour: Jump rope ladder sets (100, 90, 70, 60, etc.) 24th hour: last-man-standing wrestling match.

Everyone has a different wall. Some people hit it in hour seven, hour nine, others in hour 13, or around 3 a.m., and others don't seem to have one at all. I know precisely where mine was. I hit my wall on the floor at 7:05 p.m., sweating-crying, trying to do those fucking gorilla jumps.

Eventually, I got up. It may have taken me 15 minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. I may have texted several people "I want to die" afterwards, but I got my hands to lift the weight, my feet to move towards my hands. After a few repetitions, it didn't really hurt anymore, at least not in the way I had been accustomed to experiencing pain. I lost myself in the rhythm and everything else faded away. For the first time in my life I felt like my body was truly mine.

"You made a decision," Malinconico told me as I powered through the third lap. "And that's what matters." My mind won.

It was addictive. To liken the feeling to a high would be too simplistic, it would cheapen the memory. It was deep and spiritual.

Now there's a new wall, somewhere further in the distance. I don't know precisely where—perhaps somewhere around that 11:30 p.m. migraine—but it looms. I want to break it, smash it with the sledgehammer we used to beat those tires, toss it like those 12-pound medicine balls, wrestle it to the ground and pin it.

About a third of the way through the lock in, around the time I first began cursing his name, Malinconico smugly predicted this wouldn't be my last lock in. He shrugged off my curt, vulgar dismissal like a man who has heard and seen and done this all before. Like a man who has broken through a few walls himself.

I watched this quasi-spiritual awakening happen to someone else: one of the children, whose 22 hours of mainlining Red Bull caught up with him around 6:30 a.m. I watched him fall asleep while doing deck squats. But he didn't collapse or go limp. He kept doing the squats. His body, floppy yet supportive, kept going while his mind floated away. His rhythmic repetition was like that of a pendulum on an old grandfather clock, oscillating back and forth under its own, rejuvenating power. I have no worldly explanation for what was going on inside that kid as he banged out 30 deck squats at 6:30 a.m. on no sleep and too much Red Bull. I certainly can't explain it to anyone else. And I'm OK with that. I don't need to know because it doesn't matter how. What matters is that he did them.