Now is the winter of my content

This blog has had radio silence for a while because I’m taking winter off from hockey. It’s going mostly ok. I had a consultation with a personal trainer who remarked that I was in great shape ‘for my age’, and then had the awkward moment of hoping he didn’t notice the one-third empty bottle of single malt whisky in my sporting backpack. At 11 am on a Saturday.

I’m having a break because I felt flat after the mighty Cherokees fell out of the finals, and realised I’d been busting my arse, on this crazy adventure, for more than five years, without a meaningful break.

I’m a big believer that rest can be as important as training, so it won’t hurt me to step away from those late night Wednesday training sessions and the endless quest to improve, to be hopefully competitive, for a while. I miss the social aspect of Icehouse life, hooning with the coaches and Wednesday regulars, and I miss my teammates, but I haven’t stood on skates now for a couple of months and it’s been kind of nice. I guess I’ll see how much I miss the whole thing before deciding to prepare for another summer season campaign. If I happen to decide to hang up the skates, my last official action in an IHV game was an under-pressure backhand thread out of our defensive zone to Big Cat, launching an attack. Which would sum up my career, such as it is or was, nicely.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

Uzes, France. A place where you need to watch your head if you try to run through the town.

After five years, a change of gear has been welcome. I completed my first official fun run in a long time – even if world landspeed experts did not sit up straighter in their chairs as the timing stats came in, plus I spent some weeks in France, even going for a jog in the countryside outside the walled city of Uzes. I have had time to see a few films (Captain America: Civil War was fun, Chasing Asylum a lot less fun but vital to see) and have also launched into some time-intensive work projects, one of which has involved spending a lot of time in the Emergency Trauma departments of major hospitals, which is a really, really effective way to make you appreciate your general health.

And I’ve been enjoying trying to work on my fitness in non-hockey-related ways. I’ve joined a new gym and started boxing again; a love that fell by the wayside because of hockey training. I’ve been trying to get back into the Bang, my footy life, but have been called into the front office immediately by my left hamstring to discuss my attempts to sprint and kick a Sherrin, after six months out of that world. The hamstring hasn’t torn but it certainly hasn’t been thrilled by the footy revival.

That’s the problem with getting older or playing different sports or maybe both: you stop for a while and it’s so hard to regain your sport-specific fitness and mojo. I’m actually in decent shape at the moment, various hockey ailments like my strained medial being unusually rested, but to then build my hammies back up to running/kicking strength? Difficult.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

Nicko, Bang footy version. Trying to get back to this, hammies permitting.

I’ll just keep taking baby steps; do hamstring strengthening curls in the gym and try to ease back into full Bang training. Wear a name tag to remind everybody who I am after so long away from the kick.

As this has been going on, a couple of my hockey mates have suffered nasty injuries over the past week. Todd slid awkwardly into the boards during a stick and puck session, and smashed his humerus, which sucks on many levels, not least because he took a year or so to get over a serious knee injury not so long ago.

Meanwhile, another friend has a big knee, after a nasty collision in a game, and looks like he’s up for a full reconstruction.

I’m sure everybody who plays hockey fields questions about how dangerous it must be, from people outside our little world. I always explain that the sliding motion gives you a lot less jarring than running, and certainly footy-running-and-kicking, but yes, there is the ever-present danger of ‘collision’ injuries.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

Unhappy humerus. Poor Todd.

It’s so unlucky for those two guys and others who are off the ice because of similar incidents. Hopefully, recovery is smooth and quick – well, as fast as can be expected. To play well, you have to push the thought of major injury out of your mind, and I’ve been lucky – the Year of the Knee, notwithstanding, but that was bad diagnosis, more than a major injury. I hope all my other hockey friends currently contesting winter or AIHL seasons, or skating in preparation for summer, are safe out there.

Me? I’m going to keep hitting heavy bags that don’t punch back, get some more land-miles into my legs and try to convince my left hamstring that the beauty of drilling a perfect pass, lace-out, to a huffing and puffing old man on the lead further down the field is totally worth the pain and suffering of a sporting re-boot. What could possibly go wrong?


Kettlebells, rubber bands, Icelandic horse sex and me.

I’ve been going to a lot of Melbourne International Film Festival screenings over the past week. French films about relationships, relationships or, maybe, relationships. A strange Icelandic film about horse sex and people who are slightly mad. A beautiful but strangely emotionless Japanese animation. Robert Connolly’s fantastic new live-action kids film, Paper Planes. Between sessions, we walk from the Forum to the Capitol or maybe Hoyts at Melbourne Central, rugged up in puffy jackets and beanies, huddled against the biting breeze.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of 'Paper Planes'.

The Podium Line does the red carpet, at the world premiere of ‘Paper Planes’.

But then, on Facebook yesterday, somebody posted: ‘Only six weeks until daylight savings.’ I blinked. Really?

Meanwhile, in the AFL, it’s coming down to the wire with less than a month to the finals, which means two things: Richmond will finish ninth and the sun will start to shine and the grounds will become less muddy.

At the Bang, my footy brothers and I will stop and sniff the Spring in the air and start to lairize even more than we do now, with one handed marks, drop-kick attempts and other shenanigans we’re too old and only occasionally skilled enough to attempt.

And, most importantly of all, Ice Hockey Victoria’s summer season will loom and my team, the Cherokees, will again continue our quest to be competitive in Division 3.

Just like all the other summer players, we’re busy getting ready, doing the training, hoping we’re better than last season.

I can hardly wait for the competition to start. Last summer was pretty much blown out for me by the much-chronicled Year of the Knee, as I could hardly skate or, when the knee finally repaired, didn’t have enough legs to feel like I was at my best.

Even, so, I unfortunately did better than Big Cat Place who broke his ankle before the season had found full stride and barely played from that point until the last few games months later.

Big Cat and I committed there and then to play at least one more summer together, both fit, both able to be true teammates, before the inevitable happens and he gets too good to play on the same team as me, and so the summer of 2014/15 is shaping as a critical time of my hockey life.

I haven’t written much here lately because, as always, I don’t want the blog to just repeat the same old stuff and I would get as bored writing it as you would reading about every development league game or Red Wings playoff blowout.

Plus I had a manuscript to finish, which I just have, and so all my writing hours were taken up with that 135,000 word-mountain.

But between my real job and the novel draft, I have been training hard, getting ready for summer. I’m currently heavier on the scales than I have been for a while but feel fitter than I have been for a long time, which either means I’m delusional or I’ve gained extra (heavier than fat) muscle where I need it. Maybe those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

Fluid Health: just a few of the tools of happy torture.

All I can do is the work. Twice a week I trek to Port Melbourne to meet with the bearded one, Melbourne Ice and Australian captain Lliam Webster, to toil on improving my functional body movement, core strength and explosive power. This training remains the best and most entertaining I have done after years in gyms, lugging weights. It involves everything from Spiderman crawling along the floor to carrying barbells as far and as fast as I can while a giant rubber band threatens to twang me through the opposite wall. Some days I’m pushing a sled loaded with weights across the room, or deadlifting a barbell, other days I’m sliding on the slide board while Lliam has fun frisbeeing plastic cones at me to swat away as I glide.

The muscles being worked are all core hockey muscles and I can feel the extra balance and strength through my deep stomach muscles, glutes and hamstrings. As a happy aside, my dodgy lower back is better than it’s ever been, I have shaken off a shoulder that was hurting me for months and The Knee is now strong enough that I’m hopping onto platforms or over distances and landing on the same left leg.

In other words, for the first time in at least 18 months, I am pain free. Amen.

This has all been a long process involving Fluid Health, acupuncture needles, Enzo the magic osteo and a lot of damage to my credit card, but it feels fine to sit here and be able to write that I am pain free and feeling fit, with a couple of months to go before I skate out in the Braves jersey for a new season.

On days I’m not at Fluid, I hit the gym near my work in Richmond, lifting weights and building upper body strength.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

The weights room at my local gym. Every now and then, I actually turn up there.

On Wednesday nights, I have signed up for power skating, which is an hour of pure Hell – well, actually, that’s not strictly true: the bag skating and explosive speed stuff I quite like. The outside edge work, not so much, because I remain so shit at it.

But I made a conscious decision – with much support from hockey friends: ‘Do power skating. You need to. You NEED to.’ – to spend at least one term of Wednesday nights working specifically on my still dubious skating, instead of playing dev league.

Getting better on skates is such a slow, gradual thing that it is difficult to chart progression. Some games, friends/opponents vow that they were astonished at how much faster I have become. Other times I know that I sucked dogs balls, as an old girlfriend used to say. Wobbling around like an Intro Class rookie.

One thing, though: I’ve actually reached a significant point in my skating, where I don’t mostly think about it during games. I see the puck and go to get the puck, or make position. I don’t have to think abut my legs or where my feet are moving.

It’s like learning a language where they say you have truly made progress when you think in that language. At some point, skating stopped being something I had to concentrate on and became something happening while I was playing hockey, so that’s an improvement.

But then come those moments where I get run down from behind on a breakaway because I’m not fast enough, or I have to turn fast, clockwise (my “bad side”) and I curse that I’m less nimble. Or I just watch others who I started with, several years ago, who now skate like a dream. Or I realize that there are entire moves, like backward crossovers, that I simply don’t ever attempt under pressure in a game.

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

The beauty and balance of an Icehouse power-skating class. (Ten bucks says one of us, probably me, was on his arse within 30 seconds of this being taken.) Pic: Macklin Place

And so I trudge off to the Bradbury Rink for skating lessons with Zac, not the Henke Rink for the fun of playing actual games.

Today, I’m hitting the gym at lunchtime for some weights. Tonight I have power skating. Tomorrow, Fluid with Lliam. Friday? Maybe the gym again, if I don’t have a social game of hockey with or against the IBM team. Sunday: the Bang.

This is not to brag. I need to do this to even attempt to keep up with those young’uns I’ll be skating with and against this summer.

I need to do this anyway. I long ago realised how important regular exercise is to maintaining my potentially fragile mental health. I also long ago realised how draining on my emotional and mental health writing fiction can be. So it’s no coincidence that I’m on a big fitness campaign while driving a draft to the line.

Anyway you look at it, I believe that’s known as win-win. My body is coping. I have miles in my legs. Spring is in the air. My book first draft is done. The Cherokees are starting to get excited.

Bring on the summer.

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.