Sunday, May 31, 2009

An Old Familiar Feeling

There's good news and bad news today.

The good news is that I feel my conditioning and grappling are getting better and better, even after my successful completion of the black belt test two weeks ago.

The bad news is that my right knee--the "good" one--is giving me pain and stiffness with normal bending. It's definitely not an ACL tear, thank goodness, because the knee is strong and stable.

But when I tore my ACL two and a half years ago, I also tore my meniscus, which gave me pain and stiffness when bending my leg--similar to what I'm feeling now. In recovery terms, it was a sideshow to the ACL.

I'm probably going to call the doctor who did my ACL surgery to have him look at it.

I don't recall a moment when I hurt my knee recently. I figure it was in the run-up to the test or the test itself. I recall telling my friend Larry that my knee was hurting a bit the week after the test, and he said, yeah, sometimes you get hurt at the test but don't realize it because of all the adrenaline.

The running, specifically sprinting, I've been doing has been good for my cardio. On Saturday, I sprinted early in the morning, then took two hours of classes beginning at noon. My quads were sore, and my right knee; but I held up fine through the classes. In grappling I twice got the back of Warren, one of the sampais my age, who was exhausted, and I got him to tap out once. Usually Warren gives me a really hard time in grappling.

But today, Sunday, I changed my plans and I'm not sprinting. I'm worried that it will make my knee worse.

There does seem to be a cycle, particularly in middle age, where you get near the peak of your condition, and some injury forces you to start over again.

We'll see what happens this time. At the least, a meniscus tear (if that's what it is) isn't nearly as big a problem as an ACL.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Unexpected Responses from Sensei

Last night, I talked with my sensei about what's next after getting my black belt.

I started off by telling him I wished he had seen me grappling at the black belt test (he was judging students in a different ring). I wanted him to see because I enjoyed it and did well... and because I had a feeling he wasn't very confident in my grappling abilities before the test.

His response: He had been more confident in my grappling skill than I was.

I was very surprised. But given how hard I can be on myself--and how nervous I was about grappling before the test--it made sense. After all, he wouldn't have sent me to the test if he didn't expect me to pass.

I told him I want to cut back a bit on training for a stretch to give more time to my family, and he said, that's fine, I earned it.

But I want to continue to learn. What's next?

Next is the second degree. But he said not to rush. In our school, there is a deliberate process that has to be followed to earn higher degrees to the black belt, and it can easily take two or three years. I expressed concern at how tough the ring is where candidates for higher degrees compete at the test; he said I would have the skills for it by the time I went.

We talked about my interest in sprinting for conditioning and leg strength. He said it's a great idea, but I should ideally do it at least a couple of times a week.

I said I could only picture one day a week to sprint, Sunday, because during the week I rise at 5:45 AM for work, and return home about 7 PM. And on Saturday, I take a couple of hours of martial arts classes, so I clearly can't sprint that day.

His response: Why not sprint early on Saturday? Just leave several hours between sprinting and martial arts class.

He said that in preparation for tournaments, he would work out, run or train three times daily, day after day.

Hmm, I thought. Well, I'm 52 and he's not.

But I won't be doing it every day, and I won't be doing three workouts in a day. I can try a double workout once a week and see how it goes. As Hack Shaft says, eventually the muscles adjust.

Tomorrow is Saturday, the first Saturday of the rest of my life, and I'll give it a try.

One sign that I've taken the black belt as a beginning, not an end: I expected that after the test, my weight would rise somewhat. Instead, it's continuing a slow decline.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Running and Legs

My sensei has been talking about the benefits of running and, specifically, sprinting, for conditioning and to build leg strength. On the Memorial Day weekend, after doing some sprints following a warmup run on Saturday, my hamstrings were very tight. On Monday, instead of sprinting, I went for a somewhat leisurely run, with the idea that this would loosen the muscles and be better for my legs.

Man, are my legs sore today.

Blogger Black Belt Mama has a funny set of guidelines for how you know you've overdone it at the gym on leg exercises: It is completely appropriate for me today.

The leg pain (muscular--my knee is okay) is a surprise to me because, at various times in recent years, I've gone to gyms and done elliptical work for an equivalent distance without my legs being so sore. It may be that the sprinting is what did it.

I can't for now figure out how I could do a couple of sprinting sessions each week; my only time available is Sunday (I'm not sprinting on Saturday, when I have two martial arts classes). But I still figure--rightly?--that it's good cross training even if I do it once a week. With time, I hope, my legs will adapt.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What's Next

Last week, I took it a bit easy. On Monday and Wednesday nights, my wife was working, so I stayed home to do chores that hadn't gotten done in the busy run-up to the test, and to keep my daughter company.

I missed class those nights.

Instead, I was doing things like mowing the lawn and going shopping. There wasn't time for anything last week except training and working. I do want to cut back on training for a stretch so my family and I can reconnect.

On Thursday, I took two classes, which meant I didn't get enough sleep for Friday. But I knew there wouldn't be classes Friday or over the weekend. It was great walking into the school--everybody greeted me with a smile and a cheer, it felt like I got the belt for everybody, not just myself.

Yesterday, with no class, I went to the high school track (softer than the pavement on my knees and feet), and after a warm-up jog did some 50-yard sprints for conditioning.

Next week, I'm hoping to have a chat with my sensei to talk about what's next. I want to continue training and learning; I want to start bringing a notebook (I just bought a little one today) to take notes after class on things I learned I want to retain.

I don't know whether that means going eventually for a second degree or not at age 53 or 54. But I do want to keep growing.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sempai BobSpar

I'm sore, I'm tired, but I'm elated--I got my black belt today.

It's been almost two and a half years since I last tested. That was when my ACL got snapped in two.

I felt like my mind was somewhat calm (if worried) coming into the test, but my body was very anxious. And while my mind was worried about things like failing in front of people, my body was anxious about my knee. My left knee was hurting walking down the steps of the terraced parking lot to the test site, at a college in suburban New Jersey.

I was in what we called the "geriatric ring," a station for people 35 and older. I'm not entirely certain, but I believe that, at 52, I was the oldest candidate in the group. Most of the candidates seemed to be in their 40s, and maybe a few were late 30s.

I flew through the pushups; the situps were tougher because I was told I needed to get down lower, touching more of my lower back to the mat.

Then I waited, and waited, and waited. All the other candidates had to go through all the parts of the test I passed before. While waiting, I struggled with the "fight or flight" reaction--I had to keep telling myself, you've done this before, you've been grappling hard, you've learned a lot, go in there when it's time and go for it.

The following is very technical about grappling, sorry! If you wish to skip the detail, please go to the final two paragraphs.

When it was time for grappling--before which I stretched and did pushups to get my body warm--I was initially paired with the person I thought was the weakest opponent. I told myself, don't assume he's not tough. But I did feel that if I didn't do well against him, it would be troubling to me and the judges.

All the work in recent weeks I've put into grappling paid off. There were so many things I did that I only learned while in my training for this test in the past two or three months. I went in, as Steve suggested, with a plan for what to do in each position, and I executed it. With this first opponent, I ended up getting him to tap out twice--once in a chicken wing from when I had him in my guard, and once with an L-lock when I had swept him and mounted him. (Addendum: In retrospect, I think I tapped him out a third time in a guillotine.)

My confidence soared--I was off to a good start.

Then came the second four-minute match. This opponent, another brown belt, was much tougher--very strong in the standup part. I got a bruise below my left eye that I didn't notice until someone pointed out afterward, but I'm sure it was from his head.

But I did pull him into my guard, and got him in a chicken wing. He fought it pretty well, but finally had to tap out. I felt terrific.

We stood up, went at it again. He started to grab my leg, and I pulled him into the guard again. I think what happened (amazing how much you can forget) is that I swept him, got him in a mount, and when he turned to his side to protect his arm, I went for an arm bar.

Unfortunately, I gave him enough room to slip out of it and go for an arm bar against me, which he got. I tapped quickly once he got it in tight--I had no interest in dropping out because my arm was broken.

Once more, standing up, he was more wary about me, but I pulled him into the guard again, and got him in a kimura lock again (which can lead to the chicken wing). He fought it well, and we ran out of time.

I was elated to hear that I (and everyone who had made it that far) got our belts. There were a few people from my local school there who congratulated me. I called my wife and daughter (my wife was too traumatized from seeing me hurt the last time to attend this one, though she provided ample moral support).

I was far from perfect. Sempai Chance, who had given me a lesson Friday, said I was trying to sit straight up from my guard to do the sweep, rather than turning to my side first. I lost putting my second opponent into an arm bar because I gave him room to get out.

I have so much left to learn. And that's one definition of a black belt--a serious martial arts student.

But I attacked and defended well enough to show that I knew what I was doing well enough to pass.

I'm grateful to all the people (including readers of this blog) who encouraged me on the way. I am grateful to my sensei; at the end of the day, I asked him to honor me by putting my belt on for the first time, which he was happy to do.

It's been a long road since that awful moment when my ACL ripped on the grappling mat. I wouldn't say that the black belt or ACL recovery are the most difficult things I've ever done, tough as they are. Trying to be a good father and husband in this imperfect and disruptive world is harder and far more important. But it's encouraging and thrilling to be able to say that, just days short of my 53rd birthday, having recovered from ACL surgery two years earlier, I got my black belt.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tomorrow Is The Day

I'm resting on this rainy Saturday. For the first time in what feels like months, I'm not taking two hours of classes. I need the rest; Last Saturday I had two classes, Sunday I ran 2.5 miles on the track (and I'm not a runner), Monday through Wednesday I had an hour of class each evening, Thursday I had two hours, Friday I got up for work without enough sleep and then had an hour-long session with Sempai Chance working on my grappling plan.

I'm a little nervous, but feel like I've done what I wanted to do in terms of training. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Black Belt Worries

My black belt test is less than two weeks away, and I'm concerned.

I basically have to do three things: 1) 50 pushups in excellent form. 2) 50 situps in a minute. 3) Show I can attack and defend in two 4-minute grappling matches.

I'm worried about the standards I will face for pushups and grappling.

I can do 50 pushups. But I do them with my hands wider than my shoulders. If the standard is to get my chest down to the floor--some judges want that, some don't--I probably won't pass. My shoulders don't move that way. If I had spent several years doing pushups with my hands right next to my torso, it would be easier to get my chest down to the floor, but that's not how I've been training.

I am not a natural grappler. I can't bend my knees as much as I need to really sit on my heels in the guard; I have difficulty remembering and instantly putting into action all the various moves, or even enough of the various moves. I just don't think like a grappler. I'm a much better grappler, I believe, than when I tested two and a half years ago. But again, it depends on the standard of the judges I'll be with.

Tonight, my sensei was telling me many things I need to do better at grappling--sit up in the guard, get out of the guard quickly, move back and push the legs to the side if his feet are in my hips, etc., etc.

The other thing looming over me is that I don't know when I'll be able to test again. I can't keep this pace up. I have, at 52, the most demanding job I've ever had. I am missing classes taking my daughter to visit colleges. I have another child generating a lot of worries for me. My wife misses seeing me because I'm either working or training.

So this feels a bit like a last chance to try for the black belt, for now at least.