One Year On: A kettlebell and a mission

I won’t talk about the history of my relationship with exercise — or mind sports. If you are interested in those you can read my books Lift (on the former) and Our Dreams Make Different Shapes (on the latter).

A year ago today I picked up a kettlebell. And I set myself a challenge. And while I’ve shared that challenge (mainly, at this stage, so I can start raising funds for the fabulous work of Project Seagrass — do take a look here), I’ve talked very little about what I’ve been up to. I’ve learned over time that talking too much too early isn’t good when things might not work out, so I like to make sure I’m likely to follow through in the long run.

That has made it feel like I’ve been building something covertly in a shed for a year — only that something is me.

A year in, I’ve come far enough and through enough to be fairly sure I’ll see this through, so expect more musings — and more specifics about my training, though until we are fully returned to a more familiar world, everything around training comes with the caveat that most of my workouts are more like workarounds — making, as the Wombles might say, good use of the things that I find.

figure in a t shirt holding a kettlebell
April 26 2020

For the first month of lockdown, I struggled with everything. I have struggled throughout with my mental health, but in that first month my body fell apart. By the end of it I was 19 stone. Despite the fact I was relatively active before then my legs got injured frequently, and I went into late March 2020 barely able to walk. I knew I was struggling so much that I had to let myself do whatever I needed in order to survive. One thing nearly five decades of poor mental health has taught me is that sometimes everything else goes on hold and you just focus on surviving. With every fibre of your being.

April 26 2021

I was lucky. I did survive. But my body was broken.

And then came the day that would have been London Marathon day. A year previously, I had crewed my spouse around the real thing. A year on, and people were talking about the 262 challenge, reflecting the 26.2 miles of the marathon. As I made my first coffee, I looked at the 12kg kettlebell in the kitchen. (One of the last things we’d done before everything shut was head to Decathlon and get a 12kg and a 20kg kettlebell and the heaviest resistance band they had — they were the best things I’ve ever bought). I wondered, if I broke it into chunks through the day, could I do 262 upright rows with it?

It turned out I could. And that was where it started.

Very soon after that I came up with the “One Day Like This” challenge (my spouse and I are both massive Elbow fans, yes). You can read more about it here, but in short it has six elements, each designed to test me in a different way, and intended to be undertaken in a single day:

  • 100 kilometre run to test my endurance
  • 3 classic powerlifts — deadlift, bench press, squat — to test strength
  • A 2km row for speed and overall fitness
  • Memorising a deck of cards for memory
  • A Torrance Test for creativity
  • Speed reading a novel

Challenges aren’t for everyone. But for me they are important. They mark a point on the horizon. Something to aim for that I don’t know if I can achieve, and that is tremendously important. In my day to day life as a disabled person in a job they have been forced into by disability, everything I do is either something I know I can do, something whose straightforwardness frustrates me. Or it’s something so hard for me because of my neurodivergence and my poor mental health — and how society responds to that — that, again, I am incredibly frustrated.

Being disabled in society means, for me, that nothing about daily life is a challenge in the positive sense — the challenge is about coping in a neurotypical world. It is not about finding the limits of what I am capable of in a sense that makes me feel good about myself. The way the world is set up means that can never happen. It’s one reason I spend so much of my time involved in activism — one day I would like the world to be a place I can explore to my fullest limit. In the meanwhile, much of regular life is about finding the limits of what I can manage in a way that makes me feel like shit. I never get to set the terms.

So having challenges like this is something I can do that gives me a way to feel good about myself, and to explore the limits it feels meaningful to explore.

For all those reasons, I don’t just want to do those things. I want to do them really well. I want to better my personal bests in lifting and rowing — all set before I was 30 — when I’m 50: the other reason for choosing this challenge at this time. I want to see what a 50 year old body and mind can do (it’s also the start of a new age bracket for record purposes!!). My bests stand at 6.53.7 for rowing 2k and for the deadlift, bench, and square respectively 190, 92.5, and 200kg. And I’d love to break the iconic 1 minute mark for memorizing a pack of cards. At the moment, I clock in around 4 minutes. I know the one I’ll struggle with most is 100k. I’ve run the distance 3 times before, at Race to the Stones, but never managed quicker than 19 hours. I would like to be at least respectable and manage it in 15. Not least because I need time to do everything else!!

And to finish off the day — which I’ve pencilled in for 22nd June (to maximise daylight), I intend to give a talk about what I’ve done and how it’s gone.

Reflections on a year of training

Let me start with the confession. I have found training my body much easier than training my mind. Poor mental health owing to the pandemic has meant mental flourishing has had to take a back seat to simply getting through. I’ve done bits and pieces for my memory. Early on I wrote and published a book on creativity. But I have made no great strides. My card memorization is around 4 minutes, half a minute better than when I started.

Fortunately, my body has withstood everything I’ve thrown at it. I am in what I would call a better starting place than I was a year ago rather than anything approaching a finished, or even middling specimen.

I want to reflect a little on how I’ve trained, because training has been, as I mentioned, a matter of doing what’s possible without access to a gym for more than a year, and for much of the time not really being able to go far in my walks and runs.

I have got VERY familiar with those two kettlebells and the resistance band. I have discovered exercises with them I had never imagined. And I have focused my efforts on spending as much time on feet as possible — not really running too much until my weight has started to dip to levels where I am putting less force through my joints.

The thing that has surprised me most has been discovering how many green spaces, some of them really wild, Oxford has. And, after living here for 30 years I have realised there are actually several really steep, sustained hilly trails. I have been able to knit together routes connecting every one of them, forming a lattice far more than 100 kilometres of public wild spaces.

Constantly discovering new places (I’ve been to more than 20 separate nature reserves and parks I never even knew existed, not to mention discovering wild monuments like Jarn’s Mound and Physic Well, the woven wood dragon of Spindleberry and the lake by C S Lewis’ house) has made training into an adventure.

And linking up new routes has helped me connect mind and body to some extent. It started with using wild Oxford as the template for a grand mindmap, and has morphed into a new discipline — creative cross, a way of combining orienteering with creative thinking by setting puzzles across landmarks, mulling them over on the run, and solving them later on. And I’ve discovered that solving the Rubik’s cube while running is quite a widely done thing, complete with its own records!

One of the things I would like to do once the world is open again is to hold an event that combines creativity and physical challenge as a way of providing others with an opportunity to experience this kind of mind to body connection. My mind and my body both improve more when I am working time together than they do when I’m working them separately. And, more importantly, my ability to form connections, to innovate, to think more fluidly and move more fluidly not just through the world but through life all benefit. I would like to teach others how to do that and maybe build a community around events that bring these things together.

In the past few weeks, the University’s outdoor gym has reopened. It has provided a place to go safely and use equipment I haven’t had access to for a year. The experience of going back to using free weights has been instructive.

First, it was noticeable how much raw strength I seemed to have lost. The first time back, my weights were through the floor compared to what I’d expect from a year of lifting. And there were other things. My hands were rubbed raw the first few workouts. A kettlebell just doesn’t callous your hands like the knurled bit of an Olympic bar. But the gains have been fast. My body remembers how to lift. It remembers good form.

It’s also clear how much I have built a base this past year. Being limited has focused me on building a base of high volume lifting and high mileage run/walking. And that has given me a platform that is now enabling me to build up solidly and safely. My ligaments and tendons have become hardened by a year of steady and consistent training that hasn’t endangered them or pushed them beyond what they can do. My core has hardened until now it can support the instability that’s one of the things that makes working our with a large barbell so rewarding and effective.

My long term has benefitted from severe restriction — just as, in another part of my life, my writing often benefits from restriction, a method famously celebrated by the Oulipo movement. And in exactly the same way, restriction has helped me build a better toolkit than I would have had without it.

I’ve also learned from training so many different disciplines. Like a decathlete or a crossfitter, I know that to be the best I can overall, eventually I’ll have to leave something untapped at each individual discipline. It may be a while before I get to that stage, though. After all, I started this journey as a chronically unfit, morbidly obese 48 year-old who by all accounts should have left their best days long behind them. Add to that the fact I’m 49 already, and the most important single element of my training is rest.

That’s combined to mean I have to be both smart and inventive. And for that, being nearly 50 with all the experience that brings, has been essential. Throw in a spouse who is one of the most intuitive, thoughtful, reflective, and wise trainers I know, and I have been able to start putting together a programme that so far has seen me sustain it for a year without injury.

To put that in context, I’ve never trained for more than 7 weeks before without incurring a major injury. I have always pushed too hard, not known when to back off, failed on form, not given enough attention to recovery.

This time I have been able to put things together to get rid of those gremlins. So far, and touch all the wood I can find. I’ll go into a lot more detail about my individual workouts and my schedule in the coming year as I build up to the big day. But the key to it has been breaking training down into three month blocks. For the first three months I just focused on everything, on building a base but very gently. And then I eased totally back for a month, focusing on everything but even more gently. Then there was another three months focusing on fitness, while still doing endurance and strength work, but less of it, and at a less intense level. After that my body felt like it needed two months where I was back to gentle everything. Then I embarked on an endurance block. Two months into that the outdoor gym opened so I have switched over to strength — because I’m not taking my access to free weights for granted at all.

In each block, I have followed the red-green principle you’ll hear athletes talk about. A limited amount of training takes place in the red intensity zone. Everything else happens in the green zone. And red zone training is limited to whatever is the focus of each block.

The result has been continuous progress without injury. And my weight down to 14 stone 13. Under 2 stone until I’m at 13 stone. Which is the weight I think will combine everything the best.

Much more detail I hope in the weeks ahead, sharing the journey now I’m confident it’s something that’s going to stick. And workout programmes that span mind and body, and jumble up disciplines in case you feel like joining me.

And I’m always keen to hear from potential businesses interested in sponsoring the challenge — especially ones that can provide food or kit (running shoes in particular)! I get through a lot of both. Email me at rogueinterrobang@gmail.com !

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.