Some time before I reached the crisis point - where I could hardly walk 100 metres at relaxed pace without feeling as though my chest was caving in - I resolved to become fit.
With noble intentions I joined a gym - the Tepid Baths - a facility run by the YMCA just a hundred metres from my office in Auckland's Viaduct precinct. I attended several times and was able to build up to running 10 kilometres in about 45 minutes. But that is where I plateaued. I found that I took me a long time to recover from running on the treadmill. My heart rate didn't return to a modest resting pace. It felt as though I was in fight or flight mode for nearly 15 minutes, causing me alarm and anxiety which, no doubt, kept the blood pumping like a perpetual motion machine.
Even swimming, which I can manage easily thanks to a lazy-but efficient- stroke and webbed toes, began to prove more challenging than it had ever been. So I gave in. For months my bank account fed the gym's coffers without any benefit to me. I felt frustrated every time I wheezed past the building on foot. It seemed a cruel irony that I was sliding backwards and couldn't grasp a lifeline.
Two and a half weeks after my surgery I am thinking about exercises and activity again. I will return to the gym. I am keen to build some aerobic fitness and enjoy swimming again.
I have loved swimming since I was forced to learn in the early 1980's. A client of the advertising agency I worked for sponsored the first short course Triathlons held in Auckland. The general manager of the agency, an affable sadist, firmly suggested that, because I was young and fit, I should sign up for the event to show solidarity with the client's budget.
Why not? I thought to myself; and I did. Not the first 'ready, fire!, aim' moment of my life and certainly not the last.
Having agreed I asked 'What is a Triathlon?'. It was a new sport after all and my youthful braggadocio was finely balanced by my ignorance. I was informed I had to run, cycle and swim. Running wasn't an issue. I grew up in the era of John Walker, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon's inspirational successes at Olympic and Commonwealth Games. I was wiry and fit from many years of delivering milk and participating in Harriers club events. My family never owned a car so walking and running were pretty much how I got around.
Cycling? Well, how hard could that be - though I confess an aversion to bicycles born of traumatic memories - delivering the grotesquely bloated Saturday edition of the NZ Herald newspaper on freezing mornings; lashed by wind and rain; dispensing from awkward saddle bags on my trusty Raleigh 10-speed.
Swimming was another matter altogether. I could not swim a stroke to save my life. In primary school I had managed to participate at the minimum level required by thrashing across the width of the school pool with my eyes as firmly shut as my mouth; surviving the traverse on a single gasp of precious air.
I would need lessons.
I found the tuition I needed at the Takapuna Municipal Swimming Pool on Auckland's North Shore. My instructor, whom I shared with a half dozen women, two of them pregnant, was none other than the New Zealand swimming legend Lincoln Hurring. He was a patient and methodical teacher. For half an hour, over six weeks he handed me pieces of the swimming puzzle. Floating, breathing, propelling and combining each into an efficient, systematic form. By week five (and endless hours in between, fluttering, learning to empty my lungs while kicking and clinging to the side of the pool and all of the other fundamentals…however ridiculous I looked to other pool users) I was proficient. I was very proud when the master told me I was good and should get some competition.
For all the training I did in the pool, mesmerised by the black line on the bottom, waiting for it to end to begin my turn (I never learned to tumble-turn) nothing prepared me for the start of a triathlon itself. I was terrified before the event. On the tiny shelly beach, just past Devonport's boat club, a crowd of competitors was squeezed together tighter than the swim caps and speedos we all wore.
When the gun went off it was little short of a frenzy. Into the the water, leaping at first, high leg lifts like lifeguards before finding a swimmable depth - then into the fray. I found myself in the middle of the school. The water was churned to an oxygenated froth. Finding clear space to actually swim in was a mission in itself.
I had never experienced such aggression before. People in front seemed determined to kick me in the face, while people behind (men and women) tried to swim over the top. I had learned to swim with genteel hydrodynamically efficient cupped hands. My rivals were flailing with closed fists. Worse still, I couldn't find the black lines, let alone see the bottom. In the end I went wide, looking for clear ocean. I figured, at best, I could overtake at least some of the pack by being smarter and, at worst I would avoid the prospect of a fractured skull. Drowning on my first outing was a very real possibility, but it was nothing compared to the risk of being pulverised by an aquatic mob.
I finished in somewhere in the middle of the pack. Without my glasses I am a blind as a rhinoceros. Finding my bike amongst the hundreds lined up and amidst the first half of the field already making their transition from one discipline to the next proved nigh on impossible. I told my girlfriend - who photographed my misery - the event should have been renamed The Helen Keller Challenge.
Oddly enough I enjoyed the experience and completed several more Triathlons before someone stole my bicycle from the stairwell of my apartment building in the city (the charming Art Deco Brooklyn apartments in Emily Place - recently gentrified and cleared of hookers and addicts, but not petty thieves). I took the removal of the bike as a sign, it coincided with having a terrible inflammation of my arm sockets from spending too much time swimming up and down the wonderful Parnell Baths. I had developed an obsessive compulsion with swimming and took advantage of the liberal terms of my employment, spending hours each day there (and sometimes the Newmarket Olympic Pool when it was an outdoor amphitheatre, before it was shut in by developers and incorporated into Auckland's dreariest multiplex cinema).
I like running less and less and the sight of middle aged men in Lycra on vastly overpriced bicycles makes me determined never to adopt cycling as a pastime. I still like swimming and I am dead-set on getting into shape to complete at least one of the Auckland Harbour Swims which are usually held in November. That gives me 3 months and a goal.
Tomorrow I'll have a chat to my Doctor and a personal trainer at the gym to figure out a plan.
Activity and fitness are obviously components of Pimp My Pump™. I am very object oriented. I find it hard to do things for the sake of doing them. Years ago my first wife suggested I learn to ride horses (she was an outstanding equestrian), 'What for?' I asked. So she bought me some riding boots and gave me a voucher for polo lessons for my birthday. It all made sense after that.
I still have the boots, but I haven't ridden since.
So. I have a goal. The by-product should be to tone up, be fitter, lower my blood pressure (hopefully so I can reduce the doses of meds I take) and give me something to look forward to.
Though, if the start is anything like a triathlon mêlée, excuse me if I enter the water a genteel last.