It takes talent to join the Y.

I wouldn't have said this before I did join and found myself scrambling for footholds at every juncture.

You're thinking I'm talking about equipment, but I've scarcely touched any equipment thus far. What I'm scrambling -- flailing, really -- for is much more nuanced than aerobic machinery. I'm just trying not to look like a numskull.

Earlier, I'd made my plans while still lying in bed. I'll go to the gym, I thought. I'll pack this bag, and wear these clothes, and I'll remember to take that little waterproof pouch in which I seem to be collecting dozens of hotel-sized shampoo and conditioner bottles. I might have fallen asleep again after working this out, but in due time, bag packed and ready to go, I arrived at the Y.

Until now, my fitness life had been conducted on a treadmill, in the privacy of my grown daughter's childhood bedroom. Most people think treadmill running is the definition of death by boredom, but listen: I ran on my driveway every pre-dawn for more than 12 years, and I understand boredom. Boredom is running 500 feet to the road, another 500 feet back again, then repeating the process 24 times. In the dark. In the cold. Sometimes on the ice.

The difference between that and a treadmill is like the difference between picking threads off a sweater and spending the day riding roller coasters. On the treadmill, at least, my mind could wander. It's extremely good at wandering. I did a lot of running too, almost as an afterthought, and it's fair to say that when it stopped working, the treadmill thoroughly was used up. After replacing the belt, the motor and a part here and a part there, my husband declared the machine dead.

Meanwhile, I'd returned to the driveway. Far from greeting it like an old lover for whom absence had made my heart grow fonder, I was as bored as ever. I can't let my mind wander, since the surface is a minefield of loose rocks and trippy places, and living in the moment when the moments I'm in are extremely monotonous is difficult.

Let me tell you something about today's treadmills: They cost a lot. For the money necessary to buy a treadmill today, a person can fly first class, get the heated seats or go with real wood and not just a "wood look." While I certainly wrung every drop of use out of the treadmill sitting in pieces upstairs, I doubt I'd outlive another one. I'm not being morbid here -- just realistic.

With mortality in mind, I went to the YMCA and secured a keyring card. I had that card in hand when I reported to my first industrial-strength treadmill two days ago.

The treadmill part of my visit was fine. I came, I ran, I departed the area in my usual post-run state.

Only then did everything fall apart. First, I realized that for all my half-sleep mental envisioning, I'd forgotten to pack my bag of tiny shampoos and conditioners. But I'm not dependent on fancy washes and gels; the showers had soap dispensers, and that was good enough for me.

What I did miss, and sorely, was the towel I'd forgotten to pack. My first solution, developed under a full warm shower spray, was paper towels. I'd dart out from the shower stall, grab a handful and pat myself dry -- or dry-ish.

This plan fell apart almost immediately when it turned out the nearest towel dispenser was empty, unless, in my panic to get back to my stall, I didn't operate it right.

I was compelled to work up a Plan B: Find something, anything, not drenched with sweat and lying in a sodden heap on top of my bag. Plan B, it developed, was my running pants, three-quarter-length leggings that were one-quarter dry. I used each pant leg from the knee down to pat down my hair, my arms, my legs and, flinging around each leg like the ends of a feather boa, my back.

Mostly, the pant legs worked, which goes to show that humans can live without terry cloth if they have to. They also can live without shampoo or a personal treadmill. Looking back, it was a validating experience.

The next day, I forgot my water. Now, that was hideous.

Write to Margo Bartlett at