I want to tell you a story about a very overweight, unfit smoker called Paul:
The French have an expression: “Metro-Boulot-Dodo’” literally meaning “Tube-Work-Sleep,” to describe the life of millions of Parisiens who get up, go to work on the Metro , the French Underground, come home late, go to bed, get up, go to work, come home late, I think you’ve got my drift. Whilst I’m unaware of an equivalent English phrase, for once I think the French have hit the nail on the head.
I didn’t used to feel like this 20 years ago, as a fresh faced 22 year old. Having been through University and spending a year abroad I was ready to venture into London to make my fortune. Now, I understand more than fully what they mean by the “Rat-Race” (oh yes, the equivalent English phrase!). I just seemed to go to work to pay for my flat to go to work to pay for my flat to….. hang on there must be more to life than this?!
It was the good old London Underground that contributed hugely to this sentiment. Not that I am criticising the service, after all where else in any transport network does a “delay” mean you have to wait 2 minutes instead of 1. It certainly can’t be at fault for not having enough stations; on the Docklands light railway if you look out of the front of the train at West India Quay you can actually see both Canary Wharf andHeron Quays stations in front of you. I’m sure I’ve been on that train whilst it has been at 2 stations at the same time. If you have ever tried walking between any 2 stations you’ll find that 9 times out of 10 it’s quicker than getting on the tube, yet few us have ever tried. That is the problem I’m afraid, too many passengers. Not enough carriages we complain but if they run every minute and there’s about 12 feet between stations then we’ll struggle to fit much more in. So we’re stuck. We are stuck with tubes that are crammed full of commuters and stuck with the knowledge that the population is growing quicker than we are able to do anything about it. So it is only going to get worse. Cycling in London has increased significantly but shower facilities haven’t, so, as much as I consider myself to be hygienic, I wouldn’t suggest to anyone that they sit next to me all day if I’ve just been cycling for 45 minutes. As much as taxis seem like a good idea you always regret the decision the moment you get in one as you normally pay 5 pounds a minute to sit still in traffic. I can sit still outside the cab for free. The river bus is great but of course inland they get a bit tricky, so we’ll just have to wait for a hovercraft version to come out. Walking between stops is fine but walking the entire length of your journey brings a whole load of factors into play including sweating, arriving at work too late and having to replace your shoes once a week to name a few. Lastly I suppose I could have driven. That only relies on paying the congestion charge, paying for the petrol, finding somewhere to park, paying for somewhere to park, never drinking (a BIG ask in an office job) and of course the small matter of being stuck in traffic with a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour twice a day for the rest of your life which frankly makes me shudder at the thought. When I see all the Porsches, Mercedes and Ferraris practically at standstill during their whole journey it must be the mechanical equivalent of buying a greyhound and then only letting it walk around the living room.
So I took the tube.
Every day I left my home with precisely the right number of minutes available to get from my front door to logging on at the office and I was stuck with this scenario for as long as I worked in London.
The rest of the day wasn’t much better. At least I could look forward to a large latte with 2 (or 3 sugars) when I got off the tube. At least I could look forward to the numerous smoke breaks (although places to smoke were getting few and far between). At least I could look forward to a cheese and pickle sandwich on white bread for lunch. If all else failed and the day was seriously stressful (which it usually did and it usually was) at least I could go out and get really really drunk after work and have a kebab on the way home. The hangover then required the obligatory bacon sarnie. What did I do to compensate for the aforementioned less than healthy lifestyle then? Surely I went to the gym at least 3 times a week or went running during my lunch hour? No, I sat at a desk all day, sat in a bar after work and then sat in a cab after a night out (needless to say the only standing was on the tube).
I was killing myself.
I guess the money was worth being a stressed out, 21 stone, 40 a day smoker for? Don’t get me wrong, I earned a fair wage but the bars, restaurants, clubs, cabs, dry cleaners, cleaners and car washes of London soon took care of anything I had left after the mortgage and bills. Don’t you worry, there was no fear of this rat race ending for me unless I died (likely) or won the lottery (unlikely, I don’t buy a ticket). So I was a ballooning, tar-lunged big shot businessman. I knew that when I had made my fortune I would have a driver and a limo so big that I would be able to do my workouts in the back of the limo on the way to work in the morning – yeah right!
I had to turn my health around.
I joined a gym and decided that the only way I was going to go to it was to go before work. That way if I was tied up, blindfolded, bundled into a van and taken to a bar against my will after work at least I would have got my workout done for the day. So I started getting up at 4.30am, shaving and leaving home, gym clothes and box of cornflakes in my sports bag. I’d sleep on the tube, as there were, after all, seats available at that time of day as IT WAS A RIDICULOUS HOUR and I’m sure it must have been sleep of the highest quality. I found a machine at the gym called a recliner bike, you know the one where all the fat City workers are almost lying down, cycling and reading the broadsheets. Well, they’re reading their broadsheets and getting rid of a bit of guilt at least. I found that these bikes were great for sleeping. After the bike I started to wake up and would either jog for a while or use some of the weights machines before showering and getting outside for a cigarette as quick as I could.
It was too early and it wasn’t working.
I tried going after work as I felt so much more awake after clients had been asking me to meet unrealistic deadlines all day long but the pub was inconveniently placed between the office and the gym. “I’ll come for a soft drink” I’d promise my colleagues/myself and then I’d have a lager after the soft drink. It would have been far too dangerous for my health to step on a running machine after one pint of lager so I stayed for a further 6 and a washed them down with 10 cigarettes instead.
Then I moved to a flat in Canary Wharf which had its own gym underneath it. This was my big chance to get my first six pack that they didn’t sell in an off licence. I planned on going regularly.
One year on I was still planning on going regularly but work was just too important (the entire company would of course collapse if I had an hour off). I was going to retire early and then quit smoking and then get fit. Work was so stressful that I needed those couple of bevvies just to de-stress each night. Even so, I ventured into the lion’s den, I mean gym, once or twice the following year and I picked up a business card for a local Personal Trainer, a chap called Mark.
I called Mark and we agreed to meet around the end of 2005 in the smoking area of a coffee shop where I bought a latte, put 2 sugars in it and puffed away whilst lying to Mark about how much I drank and smoked until we agreed a time, a couple of weeks from now, to meet at the gym where I lived for my first workout.
This couple of weeks was fantastic. It was my opportunity to eat, drink and smoke as much as I could, with the knowledge that Mark would single-handedly get it all out of my system and off my waist within a matter of weeks and I would have to do no more than turn up twice a week. I could pay someone to have all my problems taken away and I wouldn’t have to take any responsibility for my own health or weight. That immediately proved harder than I thought. We agreed to train at 8.00pm so I needed to leave my desk by 7.00pm. I wasn’t used to this however so fortunately a lot of my 1 hour torture sessions only lasted 45 minutes. I was the paying client so it was up to me if I wanted to squander my money whilst getting less fit than I could have.
After a few months I was still smoking and drinking, in fact on several occasions I even found myself admitting to Mark (to his despair) after some vomit-inducing intervals on the exercise bike that I was “gasping for a cigarette!”. How could this be possible? I was paying Mark to make all this go away so that I didn’t have to do it myself. By seeing him for 2 hours a week surely, for the remaining 166 hours, I could carry on as normal yet watch my waist tighten and my shoulders widen, earning comments like “have you been working out?” wherever I went?
Eventually, after about a year of training either with a hangover or just before a heavy drinking session, it started to dawn on me that maybe I needed to change my eating and drinking habits and maybe there were benefits to quitting smoking.
I was definitely getting stronger and fitter and I had even got out my old mountain bike and bought a new road bike, with a cycling jersey that had pockets in the back that were coincidentally just wider than a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. Cycling was great as I could come back and have 2 pints and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps guilt free, before tucking into a Sunday roast and a dustbin of a well-known brand of ice-cream; I even had my favourite flavour.
If you had told me that, 10 years later, this weekend just gone in fact, I was going to compete in the National Road Race Championships, a cycling event for the best riders in the UK in my age group, I’d have told you that you were even more stupid than I was back then. Please read about my weekend’s experience here and if I manage to inspire just one of you then I’ve done my job 🙂