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Gym Rats

You can’t teach people to be lazy; they either have it or they don’t. I cannot remember where I first heard that but it certainly tickled me.

It may come as a surprise to those who know me, given my history as a professional sportsman, but I am, by disposition and inclination, lazy. Why run when you can walk? Why walk when you can take the car? I would much rather sit down and read the paper than take a bracing walk on the nearby Malvern Hills. Ramblers abound hereabouts, on account of the scenic and well-signposted footpaths and bridleways. They are a strange breed, ramblers, usually in late middle age, with sturdy walking boots, shapeless anoraks, woolly hats, shepherd’s crook, ordnance survey maps and rucksacks of sandwiches and flasks of tea. In summer it is de rigueur to expose white calves and knobbly knees, generally not a good look on men and women of a certain age. But I shouldn’t mock (though you should hear what the local tea rooms and coffee shops say about their reputed meanness in preferring to unwrap their sandwiches than order from the menu) because they are harmless and they are keeping themselves fit. Doctors and health professionals applaud them. They keep surgeries free for the obese to clog up the NHS.

Yet I prize fitness and well-being. How can I explain this apparent paradox? You see, I make a distinction between a sportsman and a games player. Give me a ball and I shall chase it until the cows come home. Take the ball away and I’m not interested. For the most part, I reckoned that to get fit to play the game – cricket, football, tennis, squash, rackets, whatever – you played the game, frequently and at full tilt. Training used to bore the pants off me. I remember with amusement one pre-season training session at Hampshire before the nets were ready, this being early April on a miserable day. It always amused me that we were expected to report back to the club on April Fools Day. I mean, whoever believes playing cricket in England is a good idea while winter is still in its death throes? We were sent on a cross-country run across Southampton Common. I found myself well to the rear of the pack (straggle, more like) in the company of Butch White. Butch was Hampshire’s fast bowler and he resembled an ox. His legs were like tree trunks and his shoulders as broad as any coalman’s. He was built to charge in, arms flailing, shirt billowing, expression menacing, to hurl the ball down as fast as he could. He also had a rich lexicon in profanity, which he employed loudly and at length whenever one of his thunderbolts passed the edge of the bat. He was not happy. His opinion of this particular brainwave of our captain was brief and to the point; the furthest he ever had to run throughout the season was the 20 yards of his run-up. So why, dear, respected skipper, was he flogging his 16 stones around a bleedin’ common? I concurred. It was usually a good idea to concur with Butch. Incidentally, and not without relevance, Butch would bowl 1,000 overs a season regularly and rarely broke down.

So no, I do not enjoy training and I never have. Then why do I go to the gym every day followed by a walk with the dog? Is it vanity? Common sense? Self-preservation? As I glibly remark to the staff at the sports hall, “I’m not here to build muscle. I’m here desperately trying to hang on to the few muscles I have left.” However, it has become apparent to me that many of my fellow gym….. I nearly said ‘gymnasts’ but in point of fact nothing could be further from the truth. Gym attendees? Gym users? Gym rats? Anyway, they seem to have a completely different agenda from mine. In and out as quickly as possible is my preferred modus operandi; I do my routine and I swiftly make myself scarce. Half-an-hour maximum. Any longer and I lose the will to live. Others, by contrast, clearly regard it as a social occasion, spending time between ‘reps’ (you see, I’m up with jargon - I believe it’s short for ‘repetitions’) chatting about this or that or extolling the virtues of new workout or an innovative routine. It’s annoying when they sit down to rest whilst chatting on the very machine you want to use but there, the management could hardly provide armchairs for their use, could they?

A lot of the men are very vain, I find. They love looking at themselves in the mirror (thoughtfully the management have taken heed of their needs here and provided wall-to-wall mirrors) as they exercise. Having finished their ‘reps’, they then check that every muscle and tattoo is in place and correctly aligned. My word, what a lot of noise they make too. Sometimes, close your eyes and you might imagine you are in the middle of an orgy – grunting, groaning, gasping, panting, heaving…..the polyphony of dissonance is quite distracting. Furthermore, they drop the dumbbells with a thud that shakes the building as if to say, there you are, that was a serious piece of work and what’s more, I absolutely nailed it. By and large, they don’t do restraint.

There is a uniform too, with sweatshirts recording the marathons, triathlons, mountain runs, iron man events they have completed, and Lycra shorts that should be banned for middle-aged men. Isotonic drinks are laid out alongside equipment with all the obsessive care and attention that Rafael Nadal arranges his water bottles courtside. The mobile phone is regularly consulted to see what is next on the prescribed routine. They strut and preen between one apparatus and another rather like peacocks but they are more absorbed in their own profile than any possible admiring glance from elsewhere. It’s all a bit too narcissistic for my comfort. If I catch a glance of myself in the mirror (it’s difficult not to wherever you look), I realise I’m still wearing those old tee-shirts rescued from lost property all those years ago when I was teaching.

One last point. Why do they exit the sports hall with the obligatory cup of coffee clasped in hand? It’s bad manners to eat or drink in the street, my mother would say. Maybe yes, maybe no, but why not sit down indoors and enjoy that cup of coffee while reading the paper? Which is precisely what I intend to do right now.

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