Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Return of the Zing?

When I first moved to Wellington, I lived in Karepa St in Brooklyn, high up on the way towards the wind turbine, though still in the older part of established trees and tasteful houses, below the windswept pastel mansions of Ashton Fitchett Drive.

From the bottom end of Karepa St, about five minutes from where I lived, there's a pathway that runs directly down to Aro St. (That's the start of the pathway next to where Noam and his girlfriend Rachel are standing in the picture). I used to go by this route to get to and from the city, and from spring through to autumn would often make it my way home from work

The walk was about thirty to fifty minutes one way, depending on which end of town I was heading to, and it took a few minutes more on the uphill than the downhill leg. People thought I was crazy to trudge so far all the time, but I preferred it.

One of the reasons was the quality of the bus service: the southwestern suburbs are served even more poorly by public transport than elsewhere in Wellington. The No.7 Kowhai Park bus that ran directly past my place was infrequent, and non-existent in the weekends. To get to the bus stop at the Brooklyn shops took only a few minutes less than walking to Aro St. The buses that ran from there between 8 and 9 am were often obscenely crowded, and the bus company just lapped it up rather than put on an extra vehicle. When the bus got to the bottom of Brooklyn Rd, it spent several minutes more crawling through the series of intersections at Webb, Aro, Abel Smith, Vivian and Ghuznee St, each of which siphoned out impatient streams of passenger vehicles. A rainy morning enduring this would be enough to put anyone off public transport permanently.

But I also just enjoyed the experience of walking. For the first few months after moving to Wellington I was still enchanted by its verticality, the ability to drop down little pathways through stands of bush, and come out in another place with a different view, different surroundings, even different weather.

Up on Karepa St where I lived, our front window looked out over the Tararuas, and from the back garden you could see both the harbour and Cook Strait. You could even watch the interislander ferry coming into the harbour and a plane taking off from the airport at the same time. The area was sheltered from the south, but the northerly was remorseless. At times it felt like being in Wuthering Heights, as the wind shrieked through the pines and hammered at the windows.

As I walked down the route to Aro Valley, the wind would lessen. Sometimes it would have dropped significantly even by the end of Karepa St. By the time I got to Mortimer Terrace, from where there are views like in this picture, a gale would have turned into a gentle zephyr, and it would be almost calm in Epuni St, which runs in a narrow little north-facing canyon the final couple of blocks to Aro St. With the lush vegetation that clambers down its sides, Epuni St seems to have its own microclimate, and I've often thought that it's probably one of the warmest places in central Wellington.

Of course, the process would be reversed when I walked back up the hill. But the steep climb would turn a cool or mild day into a warm, humid one. By the time I climbed the last twenty steps to the house I would be soaked with sweat.

I enjoyed watching the seasonal changes. In spring and early summer, riots of wildflowers tumbled down the front yards and pathways of the houses on my route, terrain too step to be tamed by the suburban gardener. There were also quite a few southern rata trees in the area, and during December they would throw splashes of red over the landscape. From about the middle of January, the cicadas would start up, spreading themselves out on the concrete power poles and chattering madly through to the end of April. In the La NiƱa summers of the early 2000s, we would occasionally get a warm northeast flow over the Rimutakas. The clouds would be high and slow-moving; the harbour glassy.

Memory favours the pleasant bits: a more common experience was probably being assaulted by an intense rain shower blown horizontal by sudden wind gusts that sprang from a cloudy but quiet-looking sky, five minutes after leaving home.

The point of recounting this is that I've since concluded that all the walking up and down hills was excellent fitness conditioning. After about a year in Wellington, some work colleagues convinced me to enter into a half marathon. I had never really done any running, and had barely six weeks to prepare, but found that I was gradually able to extend my training runs to longer distances. And when the race came around, I managed 1:34 -- a good result for a first timer.

I never really persisted with the training, and far too many weekends were buried in a haze of beer and cigarettes to make much real progress with fitness. But I did start to run the 5km races organised on Tuesday evenings by a couple of the Wellington running clubs. On the days when recovery from Friday night had been smoother, I usually ran under 20 minutes, and managed a best time of 18:56 on a rather uneven Old Hutt Rd course. I also bettered my half marathon time, running 1:31 in the 2003 Harbour Capital race, with the Welsh winner, who finished in around 1:09, reported as saying it was the windiest conditions he'd ever run in.

The base level of fitness also stood me in good stead when I ended up trying to climb mountains in South America. I didn't prepare well for the attempt to scale either 6,075-metre Nevado Chachani or 5,825-metre El Misti, but in both climbs I managed to carry on to the top, while less than half of those at base camp made it to the summit.

Since returning to Wellington I've been living near sea level, and despite gradually reducing my intake of all manner of toxic substances, fitness levels have never been the same. The sedentary nature of work and study hardly helps, and despite repeated resolutions, it's been mostly downhill.

Whenever I 've tried to go for a run I've been beset by screaming calves and jarring sinews. At no stage have I achieved the famed 'runner's high', which seems to only cut in after about 45 minutes, and not at all if you don't last that long.

I've tried to compensate in the gym, but There have been minor sucesses: at different points I got up to rowing 4,850 metres in 20 minutes, bench pressing 85kg, squatting 110kg (my body weight averages around 78kg) , and doing 12 supine chin ups in a single set. But when I don't obsessively stick with the same exercise multiple times per week, I immediately go backwards.

Athletic endeavour in the last couple of years is better characterised by the outcome of my attendance at yoga classes. I went weekly for about six months, hoping to improve my lamentable flexibility and strengthen core muscles. At some stage, I pushed a backward bend a little too far, urged on by the instructor's quiet incredulity that I couldn’t take it any further. The bit of me that had to bend objected strongly, and that was the end of yoga. Before I had fully recovered, I aggravated the injury playing indoor football; then I made it worse by returning too quickly to football. I think there was a premature attempt to do deadlifts mixed in there somewhere too. By the middle of last year I was reduced to a hobbling wreck.

The way the stiffness and discomfort migrated from the lower back down through the butt and leg, I figured it had to be a tendon or ligament in the hip. For about a month, any rapid vertical or lateral movement was painful. I would have to carefully raise and lower myself out of chairs, and getting out of bed was a challenge -- even rolling over during the night had to be done in stages. In the morning it was a triumph if I could get my socks on in less than a minute.

I've tended to blame it on the encroachments of age and decrepitude. Yet I've noticed that many people around my age are actually in reasonable shape. Before last year’s Olympics, I recall reading about two brothers aged 34 and 32 who were to represent New Zealand and the United States respectively at triathlon. In the 2006 World Cup, 34-year old Zinedine Zidane was probably the best, if not the quickest or the best-behaved, player. Sure, age will catch up with us all in the end, but I probably shouldn't be using that excuse just yet.

It's only recently that I think I've hit on the missing ingredient: discipline and motivation. Ironically, all those long treks up Brooklyn Hill meant that in the past, it all came too easily. Age and a sedentary job are formidable adversaries, and past a certain point vanity doesn't cut it. You've got to have a mission.

I've always meant to climb some more mountains, and with a long awaited trip back to South America planned for the middle of the year, my thoughts have turned to the highest peaks in the Arequipa region: Ampato and Coropuna. The goal has been put into sharper focus by my older sister Terri's recent outstanding achievement of scaling Argentina's 7,000-metre Aconcagua – the highest peak outside the Himalayas.

But I'm definitely not going to be able to tackle the Andes if I get short of breath walking up to the Kelburn campus. It's by telling myself this I've been able to push myself to go from two gym trips weekly, to three or four, and to turn a craven 35 minutes into 50. I strain at the weights. I sit at the rower, sweating, puffing and cursing. Slowly but surely, I've felt something of the old physical condition return.

The other night I went for a run in the evening after work. It was cool with a bit of a drizzle but almost no wind: near perfect conditions for running. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I was moving easily, the calves weren't complaining, and that I might just keep on going (I didn't; I decided not to spoil the experience by pushing too hard). That was a run of around 6km; the next time I'll make it 8, then 10, and then, who knows, that 'runner's high' might cut in.

Now, I'd better finish this post before the steadily increasing number of days since my last serious exercise begin to falsify everything I've just written.

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