Chalk. Bananas. Superglue. Protein powder. Finger tape. Flapjacks. Music. Nail clippers. iPhone. Lucozade. Guns. Resolve?
On Saturday 11th December, a small number of hardened athletes from Parkour Generations gathered at a gymnasium in south east London to find out if something was possible: one thousand muscle ups. Each.
Staying for only the first 8 hours and completing a mere 300 muscle ups, I can’t pretend that I had much more than a brief a taste of what the guys went through that day, but what I experienced certainly had a distinct and lasting flavour. Blane talks of the dark places visited by those who took part. My recollection of the day is a little broken, and so are these words. If you take them and magnify them tenfold, it will perhaps give some indication of what happened.
“Do we start together and finish together?” asked Stephane as we gathered for a quick chat before our start. I think he was only half joking; whatever encouragement we could give each other, this was going to be a very lonely journey. The mood was light but, in the minutes before we got underway, we each went very quiet as we contemplated the task before us. Like the others, my smile disappeared and my eyes glazed as I turned to have a conversation with the only person who could get me through this: myself.
And we began. Each of us had different approaches; some had trained hard in preparation whilst others rested and as we got underway, every rhythm was unique. Methods varied; some counted up, others down. Some kept pen and paper tallies, others tapped their iPhones. Some movements were dynamic, others were grinding from the outset. Each of us had our fight.
I started with 2 muscle ups every 2 minutes, a countdown on my phone ringing a bell to make sure I was sticking to a rhythm. I mixed protein shake with Lucozade. Not the tastiest, but easily digested amongst the flapjacks and fruit. Despite our gradual progress, the task did not seem to become any less daunting and whilst on the surface the mood remained positive, my sense of what was happening was becoming slightly disjointed.
In our dark gym, time moved strangely. The usual markers of a day’s passing were absent: daylight and meals did not exist and the clock on the wall did not seem to make any sense. My stopwatch was marking the passing hours, each batch of ten prompting me to scribble down some record of my progress, but time’s progress felt warped and surreal. Minute by minute was counted, and whilst each muscle up became a fight, hours passed in the blink of an eye.
At one point, Naomi, there to lend moral support through smiles and cups of tea (a godsend), asked if I wanted anything from the shops. It took me a few moments to answer, my brain struggling to comprehend that, outside this cold, badly lit room, there was a world experiencing a normal Saturday in December. My world was my chosen section of scaffold, my iPhone’s countdown timer, the failing skin on the palm of each hand, and the knowledge that in less than a minute’s time I had to get back on the bar and hope that the next muscle up would be better than the one before.
Naomi came back with chocolate. I remember her leaving. I remember her returning. I have no idea how long she was gone for.
After one of my reps I remember dropping back to the floor and kneeling over my scrap of paper. I stared with confusion, trying to figure out whether I was trying to add a vertical stroke next to a block of three, or a horizontal stroke through a block of four.
Between every muscle up I asked myself what I could do, when I should rest, how much I needed to hold in reserve, and how hard I could push myself. The answers were far from clear. And even if an answer was close, it was too late; it was time to do another muscle up and then ask myself the same awkward questions all over again.
Looking back, I realise now that the isolation of our gymnasium combined with a need to remain so finely tuned in to what my body was telling me – constantly assessing its feedback, repeatedly focusing on the precision of my technique – created a strange detachment from reality. It was focus, a method of coping and making sure I had the means of doing what needed to be done. It was like the zone that your mind enters when preparing for something big, but less distinct and drawn out over many hours.
Because of commitments back in the real world, I had to finish early. I had pushed myself to reach 300 before leaving and perhaps if I had seen out the night, I could have reached 400, perhaps even 500. Maybe I was lucky to have escaped before my spirit was broken or my elbows destroyed, but a part of me was disappointed at losing this opportunity to find out where my limits lay. The others were committed in a way that I was not. Next time, perhaps.
I learnt a lot from my experience, about what it means to challenge myself and how hard I can push myself. I know now that what I have called “The One Thousand” was not about one thousand. There is no magical number, and there is no magical technique, rhythm or method. There is just the continual question of whether you can do one more.