The running man

A few years ago I bumped into a guy who I had last seen when he was a super-heavyweight weightlifter for Australia. He was one of the big boy lifters. I worked for a while as a reporter, covering weightlifting for newspapers, so had been there, notebook in hand, as this bloke waddled out in competition to try and lift a couple of fridges.

But that was then and this was now. This time, long retired, he was a shadow of his former self. Thin face, lanky and lean. In fact, no meat at all under the clothes that were hanging off him.

What I'm trying to avoid.

What I’m trying to avoid.

I was reminded instantly of one of my favourite Damon Runyon stories, ‘A Piece of Pie’, about an eating contest. Do you know it? Runyon was a brilliant, brilliant New York writer, who made his name writing short comedies about the cons and babes who worked rackets and angles and hustles on Broadway, back in the 1930s. Yep, the musical, ‘Guys & Dolls’, is based on his work.

(Runyon was also a newspaper man, I discovered later. Before he started writing about the wiseguys, Runyon was one of the better boxing reporters I ever read. As somebody who made a less notable career in that field for a while, I was in awe of his ability to take you to big prize fights of the time, and through the streets of New York.)

Anyway, in ‘A Piece of Pie’, our narrator hero and a friend, Horsey, engage with some Boston hoods to hold an eating contest, with the champion eater of their choice to battle it out for high stakes, and so they seek to track down the universally-agreed greatest eater of the New York area, a guy called Quentin ‘Nicely-Nicely’ Jones, who they haven’t seen for a while.

The narrator (possibly one of the greatest narrators in fictional history, IMHO) takes up the story as they are led by a woman (‘so skinny that we had to look twice to see her’) through the front door.

‘So we step into an apartment, and as we do so a thin, sickly-looking character gets up out of a chair by the window, and in a weak voice says good evening. It is a good evening, at that, so Horsey and I say good evening right back at him, very polite, and then we stand there waiting for Nicely-Nicely to appear, when the beautiful skinny young Judy says:

“Well,” she says, “this is Mr. Quentin Jones.”

Then Horsey and I take another swivel at the thin character, and we can see that it is nobody but Nicely-Nicely, at that, but the way he changes since we last observe him is practically shocking to us both, because he is undoubtedly all shrunk up. In fact, he looks as if he is about half what he is in his prime, and his face is pale and thin, and his eyes are away back in his head, and while we both shake hands with him it is some time before either of us is able to speak.’

It turns out that Nicely-Nicely is not dying from some terrible illness, as they fear, but has been enthusiastically dieting, encouraged by his new love. Lean and happy, he can no longer attempt the massive eating contest required and so the story continues without him. (Read it here. Oh, it’s good. – In fact, even better, go to your local bookshop, wander over to the Classics section, and buy some Runyon. You won’t regret it. I usually try to read his stories before I travel to New York, to carry his voice with me when I’m on Broadway. For real. He’s that good.)

Dusk at the Brunswick Street Oval as I ran.

Dusk at the Brunswick Street Oval as I ran.

So, anyway, on this day in Melbourne, a long way from Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway, I bump into the gangly shadow of a former weightlifter and, much like Horsey and the narrator, ask delicately about his health? Turns out that once he stopped weightlifting, he no longer needed to do things like eat six eggs and seven loaves of bread and 900 Weetbix and whatever else your standard super-heavy eats for breakfast to make sure he stays huge. And the weight started to come off.

Plus he took up running. In fact, he told me that the day he decided he needed to run, instead of lift fridges on barbells, he staggered down to the local athletics track. Weighing upward of 120 kg and most of it blubber, with giant squat-happy legs.

He said he started to jog and made it half a lap. Thought he was genuinely going to have a heart attack right there. He’d made it maybe 200 metres. And he was done.

But the next time, he made it 250 or 300 metres and so it went. Now he was a gazelle, running half marathons or whatever.

The point of all this? Last week, in a beautiful, cold dusk, a hockey player called Nicko Place self-consciously walked laps of the Brunswick Street Oval, as the Fitzroy Reds trained noisily and enthusiastically on the oval itself. In a beanie and my Melbourne Ice hoodie, plus skins, with headphones playing my French language classes, I walked briskly for four minutes at a time, mumbling phrases that must have startled dog-walkers, and then ran, actually lifted the pace, and pumped my legs and ran! For one whole minute. Then walked for four minutes, and ran for another one. And did that five times.

Finally cleared by the physio to begin baby-steps running, and there I was, running for the first time since early-to-mid-December last year.

It was glorious, even for one minute bursts. Next, after a few tries at one minute, I can step it up to three minutes of walking and two minutes of running, then maybe three minutes of running and so on. As well as doing a bunch of daily squat exercises, to make the muscles around the knee work hard, plus leg-work at the gym, which I’d held off until now because of the knee. And finally I’ll get into some zig-zagging, changing direction while running, and after that, maybe, just maybe I can finally join my brothers at The Bang to kick a Sherrin once more.

I can’t believe it’s now six months since I hurt my knee and I’m only just starting to run for one minute at a time. I may as well have had a full knee reconstruction. It’s crazy. But at least I am running. I actually ran. And it didn’t hurt, which is a first – every other attempt to run has hurt almost immediately. Repair is happening. I can feel it. And it feels good.

Darren Helm in full flight. Hopefully he'll be back to that from Day One, next season.

Darren Helm in full flight. Hopefully he’ll be back to that from Day One, next season.

In the meantime, I just have to keep working hard not to eat as much pumpkin pie as Nicely-Nicely in his prime. When you can’t run off the food, at my age, it can be lethal. And I have enough trouble skating fast now, without letting my weight balloon.

I’m taking rehab inspiration from poor Darren Helm, at the Wings. One of our fastest, best young talents, but completely dismantled in the lock-out shortened season just gone by a mysterious pulled muscle in his back. Now putting everything he has into being ready for the start of 2013-14 training camp in a few months – the Wings, alas, having fallen in Overtime of Game Seven to the Blackhawks last week.

I’ll do the same. Do the work. Do my exercises. Hit the gym. Run gently then more, then with purpose. Hopefully leave the pain behind. And be kicking a footy with the Bang boys by September, and ready to skate like a motherfucker come the next summer league of hockey, which is my first real deadline to be pain free and strong-legged.

It’s a good plan. See me run.

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