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Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Life in the Day of Tae Kwon Do Red Belt

Ever since I was given a kung fu costume, aged about 11, I had wanted to emulate Bruce. But it was not until a couple of decades later that I finally joined Errol Williams’ Tae Kwon Do club, which convenes at various venues on the east side of London. This twenty year period of procrastination has cost me a lot of agony - mostly in the hip area - and the benefit of many years of track and field training does not seem to have helped much.

We, at the club, like to think of tae kwon do as the more artful but no less martial version of karate - none of yer poncey, modern, Olympic-style fencing-with-feet; we do it the proper, traditional way, which of course involves more pain, but also, more gain. My seven years of training has brought me to the less comfortable end of my thirties and I wish so badly that I had been wise enough to start earlier – at least, the stretching. Four of us had been due to do our first dan black belt grading at the end of January, but through illness, we had all lost fitness as well as focus and were glad when venue problems caused the ordeal to be postponed. In the meantime, one of our number had to drop out of training due to a chronic kidney problem.

A few weeks ago, we were told that the big day would be Saturday 27th April from 11 a.m. – 2p.m. and we duly began to intensify our training regime as we worked towards that date. As someone who doesn’t sleep enough, I tried to squeeze in a few extra hours of sleep during the week before, as well as being extra-good with my food. Dieticians, assorted alternative types and my body have helped me establish over the years that the mythical benefits of carbo-loading are, well, mythical. In fact, carbs can really screw me up if I’m not careful. I also have a couple of marathons under my belt – slow but completed - so I should by now know how to prepare for endurance events: no bread or sweet stuff for the last few days and as many bananas and as much water as a man can reasonably consume. Well, it kinda works for me anyway. Due to an emergency business trip, I had also missed my monthly shiatsu massage session, so I took the precaution of booking myself into Heartstone in Camden for a hot stones and eucalyptus oil session – heavenly - just to relax and loosen up the muscles, which were already tensing up in anticipation.

When I woke on The Day and realised that I’d managed seven and a half hours of quality sleep, I reminded myself that I ran my last marathon on four hours of sleep and a bad cold. This was reassuring, but I was still nursing more butterflies than I’d expected. Before I knew it, I was lapsing into D.A.D. (displacement activity disorder), an occasional tendency to do stuff that is not at all important, when something else should be the priority. Neurosis is not normally one of my major worries in life, but it did take me about ten minutes to realise that those pictures didn’t really need to be hung immediately and that I hadn’t even had breakfast, rubbed my legs (with a magic silver birch, arnica and eucaplyptus oil blend) or done a light stretch. I went for my usual fuel, taken on such days demanding high performance: oats with semi-skimmed milk, banana and a touch of honey. However, the adrenaline coursing through my veins did not allow me to finish the large bowlful, but I figured that the tank was full enough – no point carrying unnecessary ballast and later having to dump fuel before preparing for crash-landing in a crisis.

The major fear on these big days, involving sustained physical effort and/or concentration, is that you might just ‘lose it’ completely: anything from just blanking out and being totally lost in one of the ritual, fighting forms or simply feeling that irresistible urge to cry for your Mummy when you’re being pummelled by three second or third dans at once. Thankfully, one of the few, physical advantages of getting older for me, has been my significantly improved ability to focus when really necessary. Our housemaster at school always used the word ‘’concentrate!’’ in a disembodied voice and I never quite understood how this could be so relevant on the sports field – we just thought he was being a bit of a cyborg. It is partly for this reason that I don’t really crave support through the physical presence of friends and family on these days. I just need to go deep into myself and do what I have to do, without distraction. My brother, bless him, has been present at many of my big days from speech days at prep school to university graduation. He has also seen me pull a hamstring on my first jump at the Oxford v. Cambridge Varsity Athletics match (for the second year running), thereby forfeiting the coveted Cambridge Blue, as well as witnessing my worst day ever in Court – that revered shrine of justice, Willesden County Court – where the cantankerous, old Judge decided to give me (‘counsel for the plaintiff’, I tell you) a gratuitous roasting for no apparent reason. To paraphrase graffiti seen in the gents at the Inns of Court, he must have thought I was the defendant, as I was ‘the black man in a suit’! On this particular, ‘big day’, I didn’t need to put anybody else through that sort of ordeal: my own humiliation and destruction.

I had toyed with the idea of inviting my cousin to watch, as I was the one who got

her into marathon-running (she’s now left me behind and retired after five completions), but I had thought better of it and learnt with relief that she would be at work anyway. The ‘phone rang as I was rushing to get myself together, convinced that I would forget something crucial like my belt or gumshield and I let it go to answer-machine mode, but couldn’t hear the voice from upstairs where I had Quincy Jones’ ‘’Back on The Block’’ album blasting away – inspiring but not very zen. Just as I was leaving home and treble-checking my bags, I flicked on the answer-machine to hear the dulcet and warming tones of my mother calling from The Gambia to wish me and my fellow red belts luck. My Mum’s ‘good luck’ is of a special kind. She’s got the Big Man’s mobile and prays off-the-cuff in a lyrical freestyle that is more angelic than evangelical. When I spoke to her later, she said that every time she thought of us, she held me up to ‘’His footstool of Grace’’ (‘’great place to be’’, I always tell her)! Her main concern was that I would get hurt and this would indeed have been quite possible, if not probable. But with the benefit of her prayers, you always feel that stuff has been taken care of – and I don’t mean in a ‘yeah-you’re-on-the-guestlist-just-ask-for-John’ kinda way. No, I’m talkin’ properly sorted with gold-embossed, V.V.I.P. invite. So I got into the car and made the journey across London (north-west to south-east) with boosted confidence that I might even leave the dojo on my own two feet, rather than a stretcher.

The black belts are normally queuing up on days like these to show the red belt upstarts that a) you don’t just get handed your black belt for turning up and b) it’s even better if you’ve got some scars or broken bones to show for your efforts. For various reasons, we had been told that a number of the seniors would be unable to make it and you would expect this to have been welcome news for those of us being lined up as prospective cannon-fodder. But strangely enough, I had been hoping that we would in fact get a decent turn-out of ass-kickin’ black belts, because having come this far, you really don’t want to be left with the nagging feeling that you actually went through a grading for a black belt-lite. Luckily (?), three seniors turned up, including the man who introduced me to the club, Mr. Keith Harris, third dan. Against his wife’s better judgment, he had risen from his ‘flu bed to be present on my big day and I shall be eternally grateful for this effort in a perverse kinda way. The other thing that was peculiar about this particular day was that there are normally others grading at more junior levels on the same day, which allows for short periods of recovery, while others are put through different paces. Not today. We were the main and only event, which meant three or four two-minute intervals for water and for ‘padding-up’ with body armour, during the three-hour ordeal.

My stretching on arrival at the dojo had gone well – you just know the days when the muscles and joints are (or are not) going to come out to play. I was only suffering that feebleness that you feel in your fibres when you’ve o.d’ed on adrenaline and need to get a better handle on the fight-or-flight mechanism. And I was really worried when I overheard our chief instructor declare that he himself was feeling nervous for us! But I was there now and had to make the best of it.

For an examination that is such a big deal, it begins with relatively little ceremony – at least by our standards, because we’re used to bowing, saluting and the rest, even at the beginning of a regular session. I always felt the same with university finals, which you might have expected to begin with a serious lecture on the importance of the next three hours, followed by a cannon-blast at least. But perhaps this is a good thing, because you’re into the ordeal before you really know what’s happening. In our case, we began with our ‘forms’ – ritual, sequenced fighting manoeuvres, which you accumulate as you progress through the ranks, until you know over thirty of them by the time of your black belt grading. This is a relatively relaxed way to begin, as you can go into a sort of auto-pilot mode, tapping into years of physical programming and just letting your body do the driving. The forms allow you to get in some slightly more dynamic stretching without too much stress, assuming that the instructor doesn’t jump straight into any of the kicking forms. But there is a catch. At our level, a certain crispness is required in our moves – kicks and punches in particular – and the most desirable manifestation of this is the ‘snap’ of your dogot. To achieve this coveted sound-effect from your cotton, tae kwon do suit, requires a tricky combination of relaxation, flexibility and timing. The trickiness of this blend often encourages a tendency to compensate with raw power, which in turn accelerates fatigue. Moreover, the auto-pilot thing is all very well until the bod takes a wrong turn and the conscious brain is suddenly woken up, all bleary-eyed and being asked for urgent directions. This happened to me half-way through the forms, which had been going nice ‘n easy – I’d even managed to stay focused against all the odds, when my neighbour had got into troubled waters with the very first two forms. But then came my own black-out; I made a mistake I’ve never made before. One of our forms (teguk #6) requires a turning (‘roundhouse’ ) kick, striking the right jawbone of the imaginary, facing opponent with the ball of the left foot, followed by a 270 degrees, clockwise spin to face another imaginary opponent and for some reason (stress, no doubt), I kept doing a 180 degrees spin instead and then wondering how I came to be facing the wrong direction. After two attempts, the chief instructor put me out of my misery and allowed the exercises to continue. The pressure was on. I had to look forward and not be distracted by the confusion now hopefully behind me.

The forms must have taken about half an hour and apart from my one aberration, I was happy with my performance which, in truth, necessarily involved pacing myself a little. The most gruelling challenges were still well ahead of us and we’d only done a few miles of the marathon. What seemed like the next hour and a half was actually only three-quarters of an hour in real-time. This is when we were required to do our ‘’basics’’ – that is, our equivalent of doing the marching drills that are barked out by an army sergeant major. In our case, the word ‘’basics’’ is rather misleading and with all due respect to my instructors, a great lie, when the order is to do a crescent kick, followed by a jump-spinning kick and a low sweep! The drill is for the instructor to think up a combination of manoeuvres (often not previously experienced by us), which he demonstrates with scary precision (twice). He then makes an exclamation, like a vocal starting pistol and we have to repeat the manoeuvres after each exclamation. This always means up and down the dojo once, but if he isn’t happy with the collective technique of the first effort or maybe just isn’t happy with the commitment on display, he may and often will require an about-face turn for a second lap of the dojo. There was much, necessary encouragement from the Chief Instructor, judicially seated behind a desk, for us to ‘’stay focused, red belts!’’ and ‘’dig deep!’’ At some point, I remember hearing through a sweaty haze: ‘’keep going, red belts; you’re about half-way through…your basics’’. The addition of these two extra words was a devastating blow to the solar plexus. A combination of blind optimism and the will to survive had raised the hope that we were half-way through the grading itself – on the way to the finish – but then I knew that we were more like only a third of the way through the ordeal.

I could hear the little gremlins in my head starting their subversive patter. They invited me to think about: the hot, foam bath that I would not be seeing anytime soon; the sunny, alfresco brunch I could be having at that very moment; anything but the serious matter at hand and foot. But I knew that if I didn’t start drowning them out with my own noise - shouting to yourself, being perfectly acceptable, especially as evidence of ‘’digging deep’’- my seven years of training would in effect be washed down the plughole very quickly. I stopped pacing myself and began to give it everything. The explosive ‘snap’ of my dogot was a surprising reminder that I did have more strength in reserve and triggered the release of more adrenaline, which spurred me on to jump just a few more inches than were absolutely necessary, without feeling any additional fatigue. I believe that for a short period – five, ten, maybe even fifteen minutes – I might have been in what they call ‘’the zone’’.

The pace then slowed down a bit with our formalised fighting exercises, offering us a bit of cardio-vascular respite and a chance for the lactic acid in our legs to drain away. The drill is that your partner feigns an attack with a punch and you are required to block-and-counter, demonstrating a variety of techniques. I was consciously less dynamic than my fellow red belts. This was definitely to be my rest period, because we all knew that the scariest section of the ordeal was just around the corner: free-sparring against each other, then against one black belt, then two black belts and finally, when you’re absolutely on your last legs, against all three black belts at once. I was even more nervous than I might normally have been because of a delicate big right toe - such a comical part of the body, but oh so critical for balance, when jumping or landing and in the precise application of bare-footed kicks to bony areas. The irony was that I had suffered the injury a few weeks before when I had inadvertently caught my partner on the eyebrow, just where the big toe joins the foot. He had barely been shaken by this, but the amount of blood which streamed from the boxer-style cut meant that I had to drive him to Homerton Hospital, where he had the wound sealed with medical glue. He, the victim, had recovered within a few hours, while I had been hobbling for weeks and had been training in martial arts shoes for additional protection. Shoes are not an option for gradings. By now the intense friction between the soles of my feet and the hard floor of the dojo had given me a large 2p-sized, blood blister in the middle of the ball of each foot and I just had to hope that they would not burst on me…

By the time you get to the free-sparring bouts, it’s all about trying to keep your shape and not lose the plot completely. Keeping your guard up is hard enough when your arms feel like lead weights, but the key is to keep moving and to remember the basics. I actually felt good fighting against my fellow red belts – tricky situation, because you need to show a bit of spark, but don’t want to undermine your grading-mate either. I had the sense (possibly an illusion) that I was less drained than the others at this point. Perhaps pacing myself during the formalised sparring had paid of. In theory, we should each have had two bouts of rest, while the other two red belts were fighting their bouts, but for some reason, I kept getting the call-up out of sequence, which meant that I was only getting one bout’s rest. Needless to say, a black-belt grading is not the time to be appealing to the referee – ‘’But sir…’’ – and not surprisingly, my grading mates were themselves far too polite and disciplined to object to an extra bout of rest! I kept telling myself that it was nearly over and that I just had to hang in there. The black belts were challenging, but not vicious, except that one of us took a bad kick to his side as he went down and was then severely restricted in his movement by a possible broken rib. I remember the very moment he came reeling back towards the wall of the dojo and seeing the foot strike around the side of his ancient chest guard. But my own bouts are a hazy dream, leaving me with more of a general feeling, rather than detailed pictures of what actually happened. The feeling is a good one and I don’t remember taking any bad hits, other than an axe-kick down onto my cranium, causing me no pain other than the indignation of a dislodged headguard (for which I was grateful).

I knew I was home and dry if I could get through the free-sparring, which I sometimes find difficult in a friendly, club situation. I was positively looking forward to the next phase – ‘’the breaks’’ - about two and a half hours through the grading. Outsiders might find it surprising that we never actually practise breaking things in training. Sure, we condition our hands by doing press-ups on our knuckles (the first two, strictly speaking), but the only time we break anything is at a grading. The unfamiliarity of the exercise heightens the thrill, no more so than on your first grading for a yellow belt, when you have to break a clay tile with a front-kick, striking with the ball of the foot. As you progress through the ranks, the thrill scarcely diminishes and strangely enough, you are never quite sure what type of breaks will be required of you. This time, we knew of one in particular, which I was hoping would be my piece de resistance, but before that, each of us had to break five sets of two tiles, each set held together by five different helpers encircled around you. These must be broken with five different kicking techniques, which in effect means: i) a front-kick (ball of foot); ii) a side-kick (heel); iii) a back-kick heel); iv) a turning/roundhouse kick (ball of foot); and v) a spinning-kick (heel) – three with one foot and two with the other. You are helpfully given time to arrange the helpers and the positions in which they hold the sets of double-tiles as you please, but the reason for this unlikely concession is that you have to complete the five breaks in five seconds. You are repeatedly told beforehand that if you don’t break one, keep going and come back to it ‘later’, but the temptation to have a second shot at a stubborn set of tiles is almost irresistible.

As with so many things in life and sports in particular, it is remarkable how easy it is to do the breaks when your technique and timing is bang-on and how strangely solid, not to say painful, materials seem to be when your technique is not sharp. In the latter case, the tiles seem almost to defy you with the obstinate weight of a bolted oak door or even if you do manage the break, you can be feeling the after-effects for weeks later, as a result of the poor application of a hand or foot. By contrast, the glorious sight of clay chippings spraying all over the place is one that is always difficult to take in, when you know that the destruction has been caused by your bare foot, without the use of any special effects. I managed four of the five breaks, which was a respectable tally, given that my partners only managed three each. For some reason, my back-kick, which should be one of the most powerful kicks with the full bodyweight behind it, had no effect on the double-tiles, so I indignantly and foolishly had another go, losing vital tenths of seconds. I was really pleased with my turning-/roundhouse-kick and often still revel in it, because to strike a side-facing double-set of tiles at head height (i.e. the imaginary adversary’s jawbone) under time pressure, requires flexibility (which I lack), speed and precision, if you are to avoid crunching your toes against the tiles

After the five sets of tiles, we had to do what I had been waiting to do ever since I saw my first blurred poster of Bruce Lee flying through the air. Four helpers are lined up, side-by-side, bending over leap-frog-style and about a metre beyond them are two dan grades holding up a breezeblock. The red belt then has to take a run at the line of helpers, jump over them and break the block in the air with a side-kick (heel), hopefully landing with grace on the other side. As I have always tried to compensate for my lack of flexibility with natural jumping ability, I could probably have done this break as soon as I properly knew how to do a side-kick, some six years back. It was, however, great to feel so comfortable doing one of the black belt tests, which others find so daunting, at a stage when extra energy was in very short supply. Less comfortable was the final break: a heel-of-the-hand strike to a red brick (yes, as in bricklaying), propped up just off the floor by two other bricks. The theory is that you crouch down and bring your hand down from behind your head, but with the forearm parallel to the floor and the more natural chopping action adjusted by what is almost like a downward push with the bodyweight coming through the hand: a death-blow, in short. I never quite got the bodyweight coming through and it seemed after my two attempts that I might have done my hand some serious damage if I’d been allowed to continue. Ironically enough, only our rib-damaged comrade-in-arms managed this break – on his first strike too.

 

The ordeal finishes with an ordeal: ‘’fitness’’. At a black belt grading, this means 90 press-ups (on the knuckles) and 90 sit-ups – no joke after three hours. Each of us has a dan grade handler to monitor progress as well as to encourage you in not-so-dulcet tones. For some weeks, we had all been doing ‘’a hundred of each’’ at the end of training sessions to build up for this, but today was a different ball-game altogether. Out of the blue, my right arm just gave way after only my eighth press-up and when I was invited to start again (from ground zero), I couldn’t see how I was ever going to climb the mountain. I had to give it a shot (‘’dig deep’’ ) and before I knew it, I was at ‘’55’’ when my arms seized up. I struggled to ‘’60’’ and then, with the vocal push of my handler, managed to fool the brain with three bursts of ‘’10’’. I am always happy once the press-ups are done, as I’ve never really had to work hard on my abdominals. I had taken the precaution of stuffing a folded t-shirt in the waistband of my trousers, because regular sets of 100 sit-ups on hard floors had caused the skin at the base of my spine to become raw. With the t-shirt in place, what was not exactly a picnic, felt relatively relaxed, although I did need some help tricking the brain again with three sets of ‘’10’’ between ‘’60’’ and ‘’90’’. ‘’Noooooooooooooooooor!!’’ was my triumphant and cathartic roar.

I don’t remember much else after that. The exam was over, but for the closing formalities and I must have been drunk with relief. I knew I hadn’t messed up completely and my body was in one sweaty piece. I do remember walking out into the bright afternoon sunshine and being surprised to see that real life had been continuing along its inexorable path - people had probably been enjoying the alfresco brunch, of which I had been dreaming a couple of hours earlier. I started to anticipate the luxury of the hot, foam bath that would soon be a reality, as I relished the auto-erotic retraction of my car’s soft-top. I had already left the pain of the dojo way, way behind me…until another day.

© Ayodeji C. R. Mahoney MMII

 

Posted by Dej on 03 Aug around 2pm

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