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The Audacity of Rope

My gym costs five dollars and travels with me everywhere.

Jeanann Pannasch

Jeanann Pannasch

Photo: Klubovy

"You wanna rope with us?"

That was the beginning. I don't remember her real name, but in my mind I called her Diesel. She had a shaved head and a compact muscular body—she was equal measures beautiful and no bullshit in her workouts. We shared an early morning gym schedule, and we were there to sweat, not chitchat. I was flattered that my workouts deemed me worthy of an invitation to join her in jumping rope.

And I was entirely intimidated.

I had last jumped rope as a young teen, during my Rocky IV phase of life. For different reasons, my brother, just a year older than me, and I were social underdogs, and Rocky's low-tech perseverance gave us something: it said transformation was attainable. Rocky's opponent, the evil Russian Ivan Drago, in his glistening, mechanical, cold, robotic perfection was the embodiment of the cool kids. My brother and I committed to our Rocky-esque workouts: nubby cotton sweats, bench press in the basement, jump rope and speed bag in the back shed. Those early days established my preference for workouts that were more grit than glitz—and jumping rope became imbued with determination, sweat, and vast possibility.

And so on that first morning, I showed up with ample heart, if not coordination. Diesel put some classic house music on the aerobic room sound system. As the room filled with base, she quickly took off within the fast swoosh of her rope on the hardwood floor. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.

I started to jump. Just keep the rope going, I told myself. In the years since my Rocky obsession, I had become a distance runner, so endurance wasn't an issue, technical know-how was. After a few minutes, I got tangled and had to start again. Jump, tangle, repeat. The treads on my sneakers would catch the rope, causing it to whip my legs and back. I'd lash the same spot repeatedly until it stung. My shower later revealed the red and purple bruises. I liked these temporary scars, this visible proof of the pain I'd endured in order to get strong. I kept at it, catching Diesel's reflection in the mirror. She was hypnotic: choreographed feet and a groove in her shoulders as she moved with the pulse of the music.

My spaz factor didn't last, and as I got the hang of it, I, too, added footwork: flexing my heels to the floor in front of me, jumping-jacking my feet, traveling forward and backward, side to side. The music pumped and inside the sphere of the rope, I felt a dance-floor high. Not an original idea. Way back in 1983, in "Double Dutch," his song about New York City girls skipping rope in the schoolyard, Malcolm McLaren declared, "When they do the Double Dutch, that's them dancing . . .". Yes indeed, Malcolm. How did you know?

Music, of course, is key. When I jump rope I am contained lightning, but the monotony of jumping up and down for, say, forty-five minutes to an hour can only become a dance party for one with the right soundtrack. As the managing editor at Spin magazine, I once posed a challenge to the editors: Whoever came up with the best jump-rope playlist could leave the office early that day. What I got was a smart and eclectic mix, including the Commodores, Debbie Deb, Frankie Smith, and Metric. It still moves me years later.  

After that morning with Diesel, jumping rope became a go-to sweatfest for me. It worked my shoulders and made my calves scream. It's portable—any slab of smooth ground is an instant gym—which eliminated my need to stare down iffy running routes when traveling.  Once, on a business trip to attend a Women's Sports Foundation event, I decided to jump rope in the early morning hours before the day's panels began. Swimming legend and world-record holder Diana Nyad walked outside to where I was jumping rope. She was a god to me, and we had met the day before. Don't mess up, Don't mess up, Don't mess up . . . filled my head. I wondered how my giddy jump-dancing appeared to one of the most determined athletes of our time.

When I started marathon training, I mixed jumping rope in with my running workouts. The repetitive and stationary aspects allowed me to enter a meditative state that was different from the grueling and seemingly endless runs. The rotating rope encapsulated me; it isolated and contained me. And that containment can be a good thing, medically speaking.

"Jumping rope versus running on a treadmill in terms of joint loading is probably pretty comparable. I think the real variable happens if you're running on trails because the most stress on you body is placed when your body doesn't have time to react and cushion that landing," says Miho Jean Tanaka, director of the Women's Sports Medicine Program at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. When I mention that my body seems less whiney after jumping rope than after a typical run, she points out the different muscle groups at work. "With jumping rope, you're using your foot and ankle muscles and firing those muscles more than your hip, your glutes, your quads, so it's just a different type of workout," she says.

Through the years, if I've lagged behind in my cardio, let's say due to a particularly gruesome winter, I find the rope my easiest reentry point. It allows me to stay in one place, unlike running where every step out requires another to return. And with diminished muscle strength from, ahem, hibernation, I know I'm more likely to lumber and slap my feet down during a run, increasing the likelihood of hurting myself.

Tanaka adds, "We say in injury-prevention class, land light like a feather. You don't want to hear people's feet landing on the floor, these loud thuds, because that means you're putting stress on your joints, you're not controlling things well. You're just being lazy and flopping around, essentially, but the muscle coordination is actually the thing that's the most important for things like performance enhancement and injury prevention." The weekend after we talk, I pass a road race with competitors making their way down a fairly steep decline. Nearly every one of them pounds their feet onto the slope in front of them. I wince imaging the internal impact.

Tanaka's insights make clear to me that having coordination, control, and strength are the best ways for me to prevent injury. And running the streets of Brooklyn—the up and down of curbs, dodging people on crowded thoroughfares, and trying to bound over questionable "litter"—makes my risk of injury greater than if I jump rope with excellent form and strong muscles.

This morning I headed to the schoolyard shortly after 8 am, the amber autumn leaves the only brightness beneath the cloud cover. I streamed a playlist and secured my phone. Surrounded by chain-link fence, I started to jump rope. After a few minutes, instinctively, my head started bobbing in time with the music. I crouched my body slightly, elbows in tight, head wagging from side to side as I shifted my weight between my feet. One foot to the other, I danced. I smiled toward the sky. And once again, within the swoosh, came the sweat and the feeling of possibility.