Books: Even As We Speak — Running Beside Ron Clarke |
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Running Beside Ron Clarke

One tries not to fall for the lure of the freebie, but when an Australian national hero offers membership of his gymnasium in return for a preface to its prospectus, it would be a churl who turned him down.

Having run 5,000 metres against Ron Clarke on several occasions and matched him shoulder to shoulder in the home stretch, I can give other distance runners of our calibre the following tip for defeating him tactically: start ten minutes earlier. If you and he are both running on adjacent treadmills at Cannons gym, it can be done. A lot of things can be done for the human body at Cannons. Things have been done even for my body, which was probably the nearest to a total wreck that ever stumbled out of the locker room in baggy shorts and a too-tight T-shirt. I didn’t get back my youth. I didn’t get back the full splendour of that original V-shaped figure that stunned the beach so long ago. But I got my weight reasonably under control, regained the habit of exercise, and above all rediscovered the pleasure of a healthy sweat.

* * *

When I was young in Australia I swung upside down from trees, half-killed myself clown-diving at the baths, and rode my three-speed bike for twenty miles at a time through the storm-water channels of the Sydney suburbs. I burned energy as fast as I generated it. Then about thirty years went by when I burned no energy at all, with results that most of you can guess at and some of you know all too well. It is this latter group that I address now: we of a Certain Age, victims of Time’s depredations, the invasion of the body-snatcher. The greatest danger we face, when we try to get our bodies back, is of overdoing it. The great virtue of a properly run gymnasium like Cannons is that we aren’t allowed to. The staff are on the alert, making sure that no new member with one foot in the grave will try to pull it out so fast he sprains a thigh. The watchful dedication of these young guardians is eloquent testimony to how the health movement has calmed down from its initial wild enthusiasm and become part of the landscape instead of just a craze like the hula-hoop or Rubik’s cube.

* * *

A craze was what it used to be. It all started with jogging. The so-called health editors of the Sunday newspapers filled pages with copy advising out-of-condition executives about where, when and how often to jog. One health editor was so impressed at his own easy breathing after a six-mile jog that he went off to do the same course again. Before he was halfway around he wasn’t breathing at all. The following week there was a new health editor. Like his predecessor he was really an out-of-condition executive himself. Jogging shattered many a calcified Achilles tendon before the general realization dawned that it had to be done under controlled conditions.

By the time that was grasped, the more trend-conscious out-of-condition executives had given up jogging and moved on to lifting weights. Men barely capable of lifting a double brandy were pounding themselves into the carpet lifting weights at home. They were the wrong weight. There was nothing wrong with the principle. There was just a lot wrong with the practice. People who had spent thirty years getting out of shape weren’t going to get back into it in thirty minutes. Luckily the gymnasium movement arrived before they all ended up in traction.

The great majority of Cannons members, of course, are young executive types who have never been very far out of condition in the first place and consequently have little trouble either getting back into it or else simply maintaining an impeccable physique. I try not to hate them. Some of the women look very cute in leotards and I try not to ogle them, an activity reprehensible at my age, and no longer tolerated even amongst the young. But I can’t help sneaking a sideways look at the aerobics classes. It must be fun to bounce around like that. Certainly it seems to induce an intense camaraderie. In the snack bar afterwards you can see the aerobics experts describing their moments of glory to each other like fighter pilots after a dog-fight. The après-sweat social facilities at Cannons improve after each rebuild of the premises. If I had my life over again I would spend most of it in the gym, staying in my magnificent original trim as I strode manfully between the Nautilus machines and the punching bags, writing my books at a cafeteria table with nothing to drink except a can of Dexter’s, buffing up my immortality.

* * *

Life didn’t work out that way. An old buffer has nothing left to buff up. But he can put the brakes on his decline, and feel hale again if not hearty. Like the other older senatorial figures who come to the gym I enjoy my solitude, the only hour in the day when nobody wants anything from me. You can see us in the sauna, each alone with his head in his hands, getting back in touch with the physical life, re-establishing the almost but not quite lost connection between the sound mind and sound body. There’s something Roman about it. A thousand years from now, when they dig up the railway station, find a gymnasium underneath it, and decide that ours must have been an advanced civilization after all, they won’t be far wrong. I can recommend without reservation that anyone worried about the deceptive comfort of his or her swivel chair should follow my lead and rekindle that old flame immediately: don’t let even a single decade go by.

(An introduction to Total Living by Ron Clarke and others, 1995)