Hitting middle age can take you by surprise. One day you’re eighteen and galloping about like a whippet, then suddenly you’re twenty years older and getting winded just walking to the toilet each morning.
In 2007 some of the Observer staff were going through an exercise challenge, and, inspired by their progress, I decided to get fit.
After having a medical check up, I dug out my old Army Reserves manual and devised a training plan.
Twenty years ago when I was in the Reserves it was the fittest I had ever been; before or since. Under the watchful eyes of Corporal Bastard and Sergeant Screamalot, we raw recruits were turned into lean, mean fighting machines.
They had a gift for keeping us running long after our brains had died. Old Cookie looked after our diet by serving week old mashed potatoes which we refused to eat. And Doctor Diptheria worked on the premise that if you could walk, or crawl, to the sick bay, then you really weren’t all that sick. The system worked, because the few of us who didn’t die, got fit.
But the trouble with most men is that while we are externally aging, our brains are locked at 18 – 20 years old and it comes as quite a shock to learn that you’re nowhere near as fit as you think you are. As my exercise diary from Summer ’07 reveals:
Day One: Lobbed into the backyard, did a few quick stretches. Popped both knees. Limped slowly back inside. Drank some beer.
Day Eight: Knees still a bit dodgy. Cleaned up the old pushbike and hit the road. Discovered that every big dog between home and town wanted to kill me. Pedalled thirteen frantic kilometres while screaming, “Down Dog! Down!” Threw bike back in shed. Drank some rum.
Day Nine: Hit the fitness trail behind Western Suburbs Pool. The plan: go for a run, then have a refreshing swim afterwards. The result? My running style made me look and sound like Frankenstein on a rampage. My pace increased markedly on one steep downhill section, and as my feet started to whiz past my ears I desperately tried to think of how I was going to stop. A sharp turn on the track and a clump of bushes provided the answer to that problem.
They wouldn’t let me into the pool because of the bleeding.
Day Fifteen: Giving running, cycling and swimming a miss for the time being. Think I’ll concentrate on some strength training. Laying out a towel in the lounge room I dropped to the ground and ripped out some pushups and situps. My family went into hysterics as I flopped around, not unlike a beached whale, on the floor in front of them.
Day Sixteen: Snuck into the shed and did another set of pushups and situps. Felt something ‘go’ in my left shoulder. Struggled to open bottle of port.
Day 30: In desperation I contacted the Reserves and learned that Sergeant Screamalot hadn’t been seen since he accidently ate a plate of Cookies’ mashed potatoes. And Corporal Bastard got out of the game when he was told to tone down his swearing and threats of bodily violence. Apparently potential recruits don’t like being yelled at these days.
Day 40: February 13th, 2008, joined a gym. They gave me a programme, some diet tips, and showed me how to use the wide variety of equipment scattered around the room.
A nice lady, with a body made of some kind of spring steel, put me through my paces, and even though she was smiling a lot, I could tell she was enjoying watching me strain to lift those dinky little weights. As spots filled my vision, and my heartbeat thundered in my ears, I wondered if she was related to my old Corporal…