While recovering from a foot injury, powerlifter N.C. Harrison decides to dedicate himself to the kind of exercise that will ensure he leads a long, happy life.
After smashing my foot into a bunch of tiny, little pieces right before Thanksgiving, this year, I have not been able to hold to my usual routine of power lifting and strongman exercises. I have also not been able to walk with a normal gait, sit comfortably in a chair that does not have an Ottoman in front of it or look at the large toe on my left foot without grimacing and turning a shade of pale green. The notion of doing a deadlift or squat in this condition would be amusing to me and inspire a chortle if it did not, in fact, hurt so much to laugh.
I hate sitting still, however, and decided–after doing some light and medium housework without the aid of a cane or crutches–that it was time to “get back into the game” so to speak by training with the kettlebells that I used to use religiously but have neglected for some time. It would be easy, I said to myself, just a good way to keep my joints loose so that I don’t develop a huge case of barbell rust when I get back into things in a week or two. Things like this always seem like such a brilliant idea, when first we discern their glimmer at the edges of our vision.
The ‘bells I used to use, back during my undergraduate days, were a pair of thirty-five pound cannonballs. I enjoyed them a great deal and was much healthier for their use, when chemical pneumonia and knee injuries put an end to my running career, back before I got into lifting heavy weights seriously. They would surely be too light for me now, right? This made sense. I pick up gigantic things, far above my bodyweight, almost every day… seventy pounds total couldn’t possibly give me a training effect!
Luckily for me, however, I had the chance to get my feet wet, so to speak, with a pair of seventy pound CAP barbell kettlebells. These aren’t the red ones, made famous by the Mad Russian Pavel Tatsouline, or the pretty, multi-colored ones that the girevoy sport champion, Valery Fedorenko, uses with his World Kettlebell Club. No, no, these were just a pair of beat up, economy kettlebells which I could test myself with. They were, regardless their ugly appearance, still one hundred and forty pounds of iron with thick, rugged handles. Just enough to feel a little heavy.I stepped up to the plate, swung back between my legs, racked them on my shoulders for the first rep. Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl” thumped in the background, Carrie’s growling lilt a good background for the session. It wouldn’t be any problem to bang out fifty or so reps of the clean and jerks–long cycle–that I’d seen on videos, right?
Wrong. After six reps I realized that one hundred and forty pounds was a LOT heavier than I remember, almost as heavy as it had been when I was a thirteen year old first learning how to power clean a barbell. At nine reps I realized that I was in terrible cardiovascular condition, huffing, puffing and blowing like a steam engine. At twelve reps I realized that I had better put the bloody things down before I dropped them and destroyed my other foot and what remained of the one already injured. In the background, Carrie had barely finished the first chorus.
This second point, I must admit, was the main take-away for me. I could pull huge amounts of weight on the deadlift and bench press almost as much (short little T-Rex arms being good for something, after all), but if I couldn’t throw these ‘bells around for more than twelve reps, couldn’t go for the long haul as it were, then what did it say about the condition of my heart? The world record for kettlebell long cycle, set by a Russian dude half my size, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 reps in a ten minute period with no breaks, using the seventy pound instruments. I couldn’t match a tenth of his work. This disturbed me, as so many in my family have struggled with heart disease and I like to tell myself, at least, that I exercise in part as a response to that… I decided on the spot to work some of these newfangled/oldfangled kettlebell moves into my routine, at least a few times a week, even if it slowed my powerlifting progress down.
The race does not go to the swiftest, nor the battle to the strongest, after all, as the sage writes in Ecclesiastes 9:11, but in the end goes to the man who is the one who is able to cross the finish line or to just remain standing when all others have fallen into the dust. It does not matter if you are the man who punches the hardest but only that you are able to throw the last punch, even if it is feather light from exhaustion and carried by an arm that feels like it weighs a million tons. I may not ever run a marathon–although Kelly Gneiting, the American sumo wrestling champion, did manage to do it–but as a favor to those who love me and to myself I am going to start training for the long haul. It is my fervent hope, given that we tend to die five years sooner than women, that all you other guys out there will too.
“Bricks and Barbell” image by Orin Zebest