Today’s post concerns exercise. I spent much of yesterday observing sections of the London Marathon from Jo’s Whitechapel balcony, where, cup of tea in hand, I was humbled and inspired by the sight of the nation’s top athletes and their more wobbly amateur counterparts variously thundering, jogging and waddling past. I seriously entertained the idea of running next year for, oh, at least fifteen seconds, until I realised that any serious attempt would necessarily entail the rapid loss of around a quarter of my bodyweight. More importantly, when you really scrutinise my motives, all I’m really interested in is dressing up and being cheered by strangers.
Strenuous physical activity did not feature prominently in my life – at least on a voluntary basis – until January 2009, apart from a brief period in 1992 when it was of paramount importance to be able to run faster than Anna Firstbrook in the playground. At school, I enjoyed rounders (king of ball games!) but spent winter PE lessons from 1997 to 2002 dragging my almost circular adolescent form around the edge of the hockey pitch due to my sullen refusal to purchase a mouthguard. (Any sport that routinely requires players to protect their faces from an opposition side wielding sticks is clearly not worth the effort.) At university I enjoyed a brief period of slenderness due to heartbreak, but as my self-confidence returned, so did the delicious pounds and, brief flirtations with the university gym aside, I was committed to a life of blissful sedentariness.
This all changed in early 2009 after a disastrous New Years Day walk in Wales. Tom suggested that we should take a gentle stroll to England, ending with a lovely pub lunch; naturally, the gentle stroll turned out to resemble a hellish route march. On reaching the crests of the various mountains, I was embarrassed to find not only that my face matched my raspberry pink woolly hat, but that my companions were almost entirely unaffected by the exertion. Perhaps walking with Anita – who thinks nothing of scampering barefoot over hot gravel carrying twice her own bodyweight – was not the best basis for comparison. Nevertheless, my embarrassment was complete. It was time to go back to the gym.
On returning to civilisation, I signed up to my local Virgin Active and averaged two to three visits per week over 2009. The results were palpable; not so much in terms of weight-loss, but I became fitter, and felt better in myself than I had for a while. Sadly, the gym proved (and continues to be) a source of pain and anxiety. Before starting, I had been impressed by articles in newspapers and women’s magazines suggesting that exercise would create a rush of endorphins and provoke a sense of euphoria and wellbeing. Well, I feel those things every time I step down from the cross-trainer at the end of an hour of cardio, but am fairly sure that it’s down to sheer relief rather than endorphins.
The worst part of the gym is other people. I particularly dislike how the building’s interior seems to have been designed with the intention of enabling you to peer into the eyes and crevices not only of yourself, but of strangers, from every conceivable angle. When navigating the gym floor I try to avoid making eye contact with others but especially with my own sweaty, flushed reflection. Others make no such effort. It’s hard to concentrate on maintaining a pace when the oiled muscle-man three feet away is grunting bestially, intent on making intense, bloodshot eye contact with his mirrored counterpart. Worse still are the changing rooms.While at the beginning of my gym career I was nervous around the idea of public nudity (weird? revolting? sexy?) I’m now quite happy to nip through unclothed save for a towel – which, happily, now fits around my hips. What I do still find disturbing is the bronzed, naked Amazons who, with one leg propped up on a bench, conduct loud conversations with their similarly burnished friends while slathering their inner thighs with unguent.
Anyway. One year on from my raspberry-coloured failure, a New Years Day walk in the snowbound Roaches proved so enjoyable that I bought myself some boots. My first pair of proper walking shoes were a revelation and with their purchase came the realisation that it is possible for feet to be dry, warm and comfortable – all at once! Prior to this point, I had thought it possible to experience only one, or perhaps two of these states at any one time. Then came thermal trousers, a proper compass, fleeces. Overnight I had morphed into something I never thought I could be: a Walker.
When I say Walker, I don’t mean your average moocher, one of your pedestrian pedestrians who relies on the alternate forward motion of their feet to get from A to B. No, I mean a Walker, with the mentality and accoutrements that such a title entails. I recognised the warning signs (in my case, the acquisition of equipment and a certain unhinged enthusiasm for uphill treadmills) from Bill Bryson‘s description of Walkers in Notes From A Small Island. Bill – for I feel sufficiently close to him to call him by his first name – writes brilliantly about the phenomenon of the British Walker and of the strange community to which he or she belongs. He, like me, was initiated into Walking by friends who dramatically underplayed the lung-busting, leg-burning, head-pounding strenuousness of a really steep uphill climb, but was brought around by the camaraderie of the converted and by the sheer beauty of the views that invariably await at the top.
Bill’s memories (like mine) of first expeditions aren’t distorted by subsequent walking triumphs. One of my favourite parts of Notes is the description of Walking companions, who ‘toyed with my will to live in the cruellest possible way; seeing me fall behind, they would lounge around on boulders, smoking and chatting and resting, but the instant I caught up with them with a view to falling at their feet, they would bound up refreshed and, with a few encouraging words, set off anew with large, manly strides’ (Bryson 1995, p. 282. I note this because I want to make it VERY CLEAR that the genius Bill Bryson, and not me, wrote the above).
All Walkers are like this. I know, because I’ve become one, and I do it too. Walking, no matter how it’s capitalised, isn’t the most athletic of pastimes. You have to be fairly fit for the scrambling parts and full of stamina for sustained climbs and descents, but compared to running, cycling, or cage fighting, it’s fairly tame. You wouldn’t know it to talk to Walkers, who have a peculiar ability to sense weakness in a novice and a universal desire to profit by their pain. For all their downplaying of tough climbs, Walkers are show-offs and delight in heaping subtle misery on those outsiders foolish enough to attempt joining the pack.
Let’s take my dad as an (by no means isolated) example. Daddy Kenny’s nickname on family holidays is ‘Man Mountain’ due to his tendency to STRIDE IN and TAKE CONTROL of any given situation. Even so, during the opening days of our recent amble along the West Highland Way he had quite a bit of trouble with his feet. There was even the suggestion that he might have to drop out for the longest section of our walk on the third day. By the close of the day two, however, it was clear that Dad’s feet were as nothing compared to Uncle Jim’s feet, knees, hips and left eyebrow – all of which he had hitherto managed, manfully, to conceal.
On day three, Dad miraculously perked up and fairly jogged the 19 miles to Kingshead. He says he has no idea what occasioned this rapid turnaround in foot health, but I know. It was Walkers’ one-upmanship. Every few miles, I would stop and wait for the grown-ups to catch up (there’s nothing so good for self-esteem as walking with the over-55s). Dad would be first over the crest of the hill; wheezing, cursing, and plonking himself down on the nearest dry-stone wall. Minutes later, when Uncle Jim limped into view, Dad would be on his feet again, ready to go, a cheery ‘bit of a steep one, wasn’t it, eh, Jim?’ on his lips as he bounded off over the next hill.
My dad is by no means alone in this behaviour. He simply can’t help it, and Walking with young folk is no different. They toil up using the steepest gradient possible, taking unnecessary detours to climb over enormous boulders, breathing stertorously through blocked noses while trying not to betray the slightest hint of being out of breath, and surreptitiously mopping brows in anticipation of group photos. I tried this approach for a while in New Zealand but realised, while climbing the Tongariro Crossing Devil’s Staircase, that the only way I would make it to the top in one go would be to pant as openly and unashamedly as an obese, asthmatic inner-city eight-year-old. Perhaps, in this respect, I’ll never be a true Walker. Still, I’ve got my compass.