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Keeping on keeping on

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

I’ve long been a mostly active person (how’s that for a hedge?). Sports Day at primary school, you’d find me in the over-and-under race: that, everyone knew, was the race they dumped you in if you hadn’t the cut for the real events. A form of inclusion through exclusion and silent though very public shaming. We were a ragtag bunch of also -ran runners self-selected by being unselectable.

Secondary school, I was a good sprinter and middle-distance runner. (1500 metres was the longest track event covered in summer PE lessons. It seemed an awesome distance to many of us, and we worked, week by week, from the one- and two- and four- and eight-hundred metres sprints to the 1500 metre run with a low-simmering dread.) Yes, I was a good runner; good but not great. Top 25% maybe; almost certainly top 50%. Fine, then, but not so good I’d be noticed as good. Football and cricket, forget it: none of the fine or gross motor skills you need for them. (My brother, Jez, author of the previous posts, and his sons all have excellent hand-eye coordination, and they refer to any fumbled catch as “a Classic Oli.”)

But from Year 9, I think it was, maybe Year 10, PE lessons included a block of old-school circuit training: once a year, for half a term, you’d do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, shuttle runs, and so on, as well as mobility and flexibility drills, all reps for time. At that, for a young teen, I was really good, straight out the gates: short levers, strong relative to bodyweight, decent engine (not fast, not slow, no quit – a Scrappy-Doo mentality). I didn’t realize I was good at basic strength and endurance training straight away. I just went in and did what I was told and enjoyed it. It was the PE teacher, Mr. Jones, fierce and kind in equal measure, who told me I was good. And that, as Jez reminded me when he reviewed an earlier version of this post, had a lasting effect.

I had an on-off relationship with exercise in my late teens and twenties; but even in the off periods the desire to be active was there. I’d do a bit of running, a bit of circuit training, a bit of weight training (though I knew nothing about form or technique; I just liked the idea of shifting some tin), a bit of yoga. Most of it unstructured, unsystematic. Not that that matters in and of itself – as Jez has suggested before, what really matters, at base, is to move often and to enjoy it – but my routines, such as they were, were always short- to mid-term.

Image depicts four varieties of sport and fitness. Left to right: Climbing, Weights, Crossfit, Boxing

My later twenties and thirties, I moved towards something that looked a bit like low-level crossfit (very much spurred by Jez). Several time I broke that relationship off for climbing (couple of years), a bit of boxing training (a year maybe), but always I’d go back to some kind of circuit training that pulled together strength and endurance. During this period, though I was all for strength and fitness, but dead against gyms. In my late thirties, thanks to my friend Eva telling me Yes, I know you don’t like gyms, but you’ll like this gym, I found my way to Commando Temple in Deptford, London, and to strongman – and on that, I’m hopelessly, hopelessly hooked – on the variety, the weirdness, the heaviness (I just have a thing for weights). I’ve come to love the permanent scrape marks on the insides of my forearms – the “stone kisses” one gets from lifting both atlas stones (fabricated, perfectly balanced and spherical) and natural stones (weight unevenly distributed, oddly shaped, non-Euclidian – just plain awkward). I love that I’ve found a sport in which picking up and running about with stones is a thing.

Why all this autobiography? A friend of mine, who I only see every couple of years because he lives in Canada, once joked on my arrival, So, what’s this year’s exercise obsession? There was a grain of truth in the question that embarrassed me a little. Every time I saw these friends, it seemed (to me and to them), I was on some new health-and-fitness kick, bouncing from one to the other, each time acting like No, seriously, this one’s The One. I’d get so far, jack it in, move on. I was embarrassed by what I thought of as my inconsistency. Actually, if anything, I was inconstant, not inconsistent: what was consistent was the need to move, and all the positives, mental and physical (outlined in previous posts), that, more often than not, came from moving rigorously and regularly. From the perspective of someone who, relatively late in life (in sporting terms), has found his way to a committed sporting relationship (it’s been me and strongman for four years now),I look back at all my exercise, movement, and fitness flings; and I think about Jez’s post on movement. What matters is the movement, the dance, the jog, the walk, the running jumping climbing trees; the keeping on keeping on. I hope to write about strongman at greater length in a future post. For now, though, I want to say this: with strongman, I’ve found, for the first time, a sport I want to train and compete in. That feeling’s taken nearly 42 years to bubble its way to the surface. But I still like training more than I do competing, and moving more than I do training (just). If push came to shove, and I was told I could either train in a gym (only and forever) or go walking, I’d choose being able to move outdoors. So long as the way were dotted with awkward-looking, non-Euclidian stones.


Oli Belas is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and English at the University of Bedfordshire. He is in the (very) early stages of a project on creativity, philosophy, writing, and bodily cultures. You can find more about his work here and follow him on Twitter.

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