Freedom Tower, New York City, photo by Phil Dolby.

Originally published at IronAge.us on September 11, 2002.

IronAge was a site devoted to, as its tagline read, “commemorating bodybuilding’s glory days” (roughly 1965-85). It was launched in 2002 by this article’s author, Shawn Perine, who was subsequently a senior writer at Flex magazine, editor-in-chief of Muscle & Fitness and editorial director of Muscle & Fitness, Flex, and Muscle & Fitness Hers. This essay is every bit as relevant and valuable in 2020 as it was 18 years ago, because it’s about personal growth—on the outside, yes, but, more importantly, on the inside.

As insular as the world of bodybuilding can seem at times, even we, the most dedicated of its practitioners, are not completely oblivious to the non-bodybuilding world about us.

In the days leading up to September 11th of last year, I was on a personal quest to reach my largest size ever. As I’ve stated on this site before, at 5’9″ I’m small-boned and the ultimate hard gainer. Yet, over the course of the previous six months I had managed to pack 20 solid pounds onto my body and, at 193, was bearing down hard on reaching an even 200 pounds for the first time in my life. And while my pursuit of mass was a relatively successful one in a physical sense, it was less so in other ways. I was eating constantly, and when I was not eating, I was training. I was not working at the time, so my days were consumed with thoughts and actions relating to growth. My girlfriend was beside herself with my compulsion, and I cut back on the creative pursuit of design (graphic, architectural, product, web) which had always kept me well-balanced. By 9/10, I was unquestionably a one-dimensional person despite my ever-expanding proportions.

But the following day, in the blink of an eye, I abandoned my quest completely. My self-serving goal seemed absolutely trivial in comparison with the magnitude of the events taking place around me (literally around me—I live in NYC). Not only did I forego the regimen of non-stop feedings throughout the day, I stopped going to the gym. Bodybuilding, nor much else in my personal life, felt quite so significant anymore.

I quickly shed my newfound bodyweight as meals were replaced by a protein bar and bottled water wolfed down en route from the Red Cross to Ground Zero. Workouts now consisted of regular walks or blades around the city as I tried to find a place where me meager services could aid the cause.

Now, I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent here; this is, after all, a bodybuilding-themed website, and there are many more significant places you can visit to read eyewitness accounts of that day. But the point I want to make here is well-illustrated by my experience. And it is this: Bodybuilding is great. It is great fun, a great physical activity, a great esteem-builder. But it is not everything.

I pray I don’t give the impression that I’m trivializing the events that transpired on that day by writing about the effect they had on my diet. But my dietary shift was an outward expression of a change that occurred within me. Suddenly, in addition to myriad realizations, it occurred to me that my quest to reach a bodyweight of 200 muscular pounds was, in the scheme of things, true triviality.

I suppose I always knew it, but I think it is human nature to take much of life for granted when times are good. And life is very good indeed when one’s primary concern is the addition of bodyweight. Conversely, tough times awaken us to the differences between the orders of significance in our daily activities.

Shawn Perine

Now, is all of this to say that I will never again make an assault on my goal of reaching that physical ideal which has been floating around in my noggin for so many years? No, not at all. It is still a goal of mine, no matter how trivial. But, it will never again supersede the rest of my life.

Bodybuilding is meant to enhance one’s life; make it better. By making it my ultimate, overriding priority I found that it was consuming my life and, ultimately, making me a selfish person. I only realized this after 9/11, when I was faced with the choice of either continuing with my bodybuilding regimen or attempting to help others and, in the end, denying myself.

But the choice was ultimately an easy one to make and one that I will never regret. Because, while I may never reach 200 pounds, I’ll forever respect the need for balance in my life, a legacy left to me by all those who will never again have the chance to practice it in theirs.

– Shawn Perine (1966-2017)