By the Flames

By the Flames

The fire crackled and popped, dried pine logs giving way to coal and smoke. The campers shifted restelessly on their camp-chairs, peering into the flames.

“How did they make fire in the olden days?” Asked the youngest girl, swaying stubbornly against fatigue.

“How olden are we talking?” Her mother teased, tousling the girl’s braided hair.

“When great-gramma was my age,” the girl said, wide eyes misting momentarily. The memory of mourning loomed and passed. Grammie was in heaven with the spaghetti monster, after all, and that was good enough for her. “Before there were cell phones, even.”

“Well, matches mostly.” Her mother replied, twirling the long-snouted lighter like a sixgun.

The fire crackled and popped.

“Out of matches,” the younger man spat into the flames. Saliva sizzled over crisping pine boughs.

“I’ve a lighter in the car,” the older muttered, huddled down with palms flared toward the warmth. “But you can light your smoke with a cig, see?” He did so, puffing heartily into the wind.

“I quit smoking,” the younger man replied. “Didn’t like the way it made me breathe.”

“Ah, I can’t quit smoking,” his elder replied, “the doctor says so.”

The fire crackled and popped.

“This is a good fire,” the younger man said proudly. He rose from his crouched position, staring blithely at his unused bow. “Show me again the stones the Northmen gave you.”

The elder obliged with a wise smile, pulling two small rocks from his waistpouch, one black and one grey.

“The Northmen carry these two stones with them on travels,” he said, striking them together in a long sparking scrape. “They carry small bits of tinder and twig. So long as they can find more wood, they can make fire quickly with little effort.”

“This is amazing,” the younger man said, shaking his head in wonder.

The fire crackled and popped. Pine logs gave way to coal and smoke, and soon coal turned to ash.


Thaibox Tuesday

When it blizzards like it did tonight I always worry I’ll show up and the gym will be locked.

Absolutely not the case. The crowd was a bit thinner than usual, but the dedicated keep on truckin’.

Some real-life complications made me miss the massacre that is our Monday night circuit. Tonight I opted to arrive at a quarter past seven for Crossfit and Muay Thai. Crossfit is a school of hardcore conditioning that is growing evermore popular among high caliber athletes – from marathoners to gymnasts to MMA fighters, it’s a good program for anyone who wants to kick themselves in the ass – hard – and jump their fitness up a notch or three. Crossfit has their own gyms (called “boxes”) but the central theme that sets them apart from other crosstrainers is the much loved (or feared, depending on how new you are) Workout Of the Day, dubbed “WOD” for short.

I started on the treadmill running at 7.5 mph on a decent incline. After seven minutes of that, a quick breather and straight to Box Jumps and Kettlebell swings. Four sets of each at 40 then 30 then 20 then 10 reps. I barely made it out alive.

After pulling my heart out of cardiac arrest and convincing my mind to retreat from the bright, soft light in the distance, I grabbed some water and changed my shirt. Loyalist MMA is just a two-shirt kind of gym. I realized pretty quick that I had to decide between a little extra laundry or catching a chill every other night.

Since it was my first night in Muay Thai Jay set me to practicing leg-kick counters in the mirror. The knee raises with the shin facing outward while the same-side elbow comes down to create a seamless barrier. The opposite hand extends out in a push-punch to set the opponent up for a counter.

After two rounds of that my shoulders and hips ached. I have tight hip flexors (something to work on) and they don’t like blocking leg-kicks any more than my shoulders like holding the high Thai guard after a kettlebell workout. Luckily, we moved on to greater things.

Next we worked a teep-round kick combination. The teep (similar to a front push kick) is something I’ve worked on by myself in the past and comes out as naturally as a jab. Ideally it starts with a short stutter-step where the rear foot falls almost level with the front heel. The front leg then comes straight up and lashes out like a piston, the hard ball of the foot aimed for the opponent’s solar plexus.

Round kicks are a little counter-intuitive to me, coming from a history of contact Karate. In karate almost all kicks are thrown with the ball of the foot or heel, and aimed either at soft parts of the torso or the head and neck. There are no leg kicks in Karate competition. Thai round kicks are quite different. I need to remember to step closer than I feel like I need to, so I don’t break my foot, and point my toe slightly, so that the sharpest part of my shin slams into the target.

Next we practiced countering punches with kicks. The opponent throws a jab, countered by a teep to the midsection and followed by a right leg kick. The opponent throws a straight right which is parried and trapped, drawing them in for two knee strikes and a shin aimed for the skull.

As we ran through this combo I found myself explaining some of the finer points to my partner. He kept trying to trap my straight right with an outward parry rather than inward – using a variation on the technique that is often seen in action movies, but that has very little use in any kind of real fight. I showed him how the inward parry leads directly to head-and-arm control with the arm hyper extended – a control position I use sometimes in grappling, and see often in the UFC.

For the last couple rounds we got in the ring and Jay showed us a basic method for trapping kicks and…


Heh, sorry about that. Jay’s eyes light up when he explains the nastier fighting techniques, and Thai legsweeps are plenty nasty. It’s the kind of energy that makes me feel really at home, because I know every time I think about fighting I get the same crazy grin.

My workout buddy had to leave a bit early for a night shift, so Jay stepped in for the last few rounds and showed me some serious clinchwork. The Thai clinch is probably the part of the sport I’m most familiar with – as a No-Gi Jiu Jitsu practitioner, I use head control often to set up control positions. Even so, I felt like I’d never even attempted it before. Jay is strong as a Minotaur, forcing you to hit the technique just right or feel like a silly fool. I was familiar with the first two (crossface and chest push) but the third was a thing of beauty I’m not sure I can even describe right now.

I finished the night by hitting the heaviest bag until my arms got heavy, working round kicks and teeps into the combinations. When I didn’t have the energy to hit the heavy bag anymore I switched to a bungee-rope speedbag and kept pace until it became a blur.

A good night at the gym, and a safe drive home through driven snow. I must return tomorrow night. I will. I must. I will.

Bob and Weave

Wednesday night at Loyalist MMA follows the same setup as Monday. I arrived a bit early and spent some quality time skipping and stretching. I always hated skipping as a kid (it was the most boring unit in Phys Ed, hands down) but it’s a good way to get your head in the game.

The circuit ran a bit differently. We did four four-minute rounds working 30s on 10s off, with one minute breaks in between. Heavy kettlebell swings, burpies, box jumps, ladder climbers. I actually almost made it through the burpies without gassing. The good news is I’m getting stronger. The bad news is… slowly. And it still hurts.

After the workout we wrapped up and did a few warm-up rounds. I chose to also put some gloves on and work the heavy bag, practicing my combinations from Monday. The one-two-duck-right to the body-left uppercut-roll out is becoming a thing of beauty. It’s all bobbing and weaving, so my weight ends up flying into every punch. Like swinging a rock in a sock.

I partnered with the only woman who regularly trains there these days. As usual the combinations felt awkward at first but by the end of the first minute I could throw them as easy as a jab-cross.

Drill 1: Jab-jab-slip-hook-rollout. This felt absolutely wrong until Jay came over and showed me how to slip properly. I need to remember to pivot on the ball of my back foot, much like throwing a right cross, so that the slip happens naturally and auto-loads the counter hook.
For the second drill we added body armor, and this combo just clicked with me. Jab-block-liver hook-uppercut-rollout. All left handed punches while the right sits in the pocket and defends. At the end of the drill I noticed Jay watching me and expected another pointer or two, but all he said was.

“Good work. That’s great in-fighting.” Jay isn’t exactly liberal with praise. He tells you when you’re doing something wrong, so you can change it, and tells you when you’re doing something right, so you keep it the same. I grinned like an idiot through the punch out, and probably could have gone a few extra rounds if necessary.

I’m becoming comfortable with the fact that I’m abnormally good at punching. I learned to hit hard in Karate at a young age. No wraps for wrist protection, no cushy 12oz gloves covering the knuckles. And I’ve been practicing Wing Chun chain-punching on and off for about eight years now. Despite the fact I’m easily the least fit “young guy” at the gym right now, I have an easier time keeping my hands up and throwing punches at the end of the night than most of the others.

It doesn’t make up for my horrific cardio, but it does feel good.

I stayed late to stretch and unwind a bit again, and found a moment to talk to Jay one on one. We ended up chatting for a good twenty minutes, but there were only four words I really needed to say.

“I want to fight.”

We’re on the same page regarding my conditioning – it sucks, it needs to get better. But he looked a little like a kid on Xmas. Jay loves training fighters, and I’ve been showing up and then flaking out for years now. It feels pretty great to see someone else get as stoked as I am at the prospect of me becoming a competitive athlete.

Loyalist MMA… in a few weeks, it’s going to feel like home.

Thoughts on Food

Since it’s 1:35am and my brain won’t shut off, I figured I’d make notes on my current self-experimentation in nutrition. I’m considering starting a series of youtube videos that would be one part cooking show, one part nutritional seminar, and one part holistic life lessons. It will contain information and easily learned skills I wish I had when I went to University, and that I wish my parents had when I was growing up. Wisdom I wish we all had in Katimavik, eating plain (and on occasion, burned) rice five nights a week. Meals can be cheap and efficient without being dull, or tasteless, or lacking in calories.

I’m hesitant to call it a diet, but that’s such a popular word these days. This could be called the “Beans and Rice diet” or “the Zombie Apocalypse Diet”, or any number of things related to wilderness survival. The purpose was to come up with something that I not only could eat every day, but that I would eat every day. Something to make it easy to stay away from gluten, dairy, and sugar. Regardless of how poor I might be, or picky, or craving of new flavors. I went back all the way to Asia’s ancient staples. They certainly make for interesting breakfast.

Day 1: Lentils and rice, rinsed and cooked with a few drops of olive oil, salt and pepper, and a healthy dose of curry and cayenne pepper. I love spicy food and I’m a wild man when it comes to experimenting in the kitchen. This turned out delicious but might have blowtorched the throats of some. I ate it with a vegan protein shake and realized, if I’m going to share my ideas I’m going to have to measure.

Day 2: Lentils and rice. I’m using a white long grain basmati because I happen to have that on hand, but I’d prefer something brown with some fiber. It’s really a non-issue though, because of the fiber content in lentils. Incidentally, lentils are my favorite legume. They have a very neutral, appealing flavor, cook up much faster than other dried beans, and come highly recommended from a number of sources. Cooked a quarter cup of each with an approximate teaspoon of olive oil and an eyeballed tablespoon of curry powder. Remembering to measure is hard.

Day 3: Lentils and rice. I cut the rice serving to an eighth of a cup because I don’t need that much empty carbohydrate in my morning meal. Today I decided to go “non spicy”, since some people can’t handle the heat at all, and I may want to cook for or share this with them. A (approximate again!) teaspoon of olive oil, but I measured the spices, I swear! A teaspoon of rosemary, one and a half of turmeric. A half helping of cumin and a quarter of sage. A dash of cinnamon. Always salt and pepper. Ate it on a bed of spinach and red lettuce. Delicious.

Day 4: I’m becoming confident I won’t tire easily of this meal. A quarter cup lentils and an eighth cup of rice. I kept the same spices as yesterday but prepared something special. Frozen shrimp, rinsed just enough to get the ice off, and tossed in to cook and blend with the other flavors for the final 5-10 minutes of simmering.

Recommended Protein sources: Pre-cooked shrimp worked well, but I imagine tofu (or even marinated tofu) would work the same way. Pre-cooked chicken or lean cuts of pork would also be tasty, and hard-boiled eggs could be added easily at the end. Serving with nutrient-dense vegetables is ideal, but not necessary for overall effectiveness as they add considerable cost. I do love my spinach though. Generally I try to eat at least 25-30 grams of protein at breakfast, as recommended by my nutritionist and many modern diets.

Notes on cooking: Rinsing dried goods like rice and lentils prior to cooking is important to remove sulfites and other junk. The oil is not necessary but makes rice stick to the bottom of the pot less, and adds important essential fats (and calories). Spices are essential as they add a smorgasbord of nutrients as well as the flavor that keeps the meal fresh. I prefer to cook all the moisture up so the dish can be served on a salad or added to something else like a stir-fry, however the base meal could easily be made a soup simply by adding more water and oil if desired.

That’s it for now… good night and good eats.

Slip and Rip

Back at Loyalist MMA for Monday circuit and boxing. I stayed out of the gym last week to avoid further spreading my illness, but did some endurance intervals on my own in hopes of returning today in fine form.

Yeah, right.

I didn’t die nearly as often or as badly as last time, but that’s mostly because Jay (mercifully) put me on the easier circuit this time.

Easier… yeah, right.

Three minute rounds with thirty seconds rest between. Barely enough time to convince myself to keep breathing. Stair climber, Turkish getups, speed ropes, burpies, box jumps, pullups.

When the torture ended I hydrated and bought a pair of wraps. Almost twice as expensive as the department store variety available around town, but I like supporting the club. And, I generally trust a combat gym with stocking better quality equipment than Exploitation-Is-Us (sub the name of your most hated department store).

Wraps on, gloves on. I had a couple warmup rounds shadowboxing and hitting the heavy bags. The boxing stance is still a little odd to me, coming from years of practicing Karate and Wing Chun. But I settled into the sweet science of Slip and Rip by the time we paired up for drills.

Drill 1: Defending the jab. Slip-right straight. Duck-body shot. Duck overhand right. Once I worked through the initial discomfort of wanting to slip in the wrong direction (again, I’m blaming the Kung Fu) the movements began to feel natural.

Drill 2: Defending the right. Slip-hook. Roll-hook. Parry-right straight.

My partner was my size, which is nice, and in better shape than me but less experienced at fighting, which is less nice. I had to stop myself from correcting his hand positions a few times, and pull my half-speed shots often as not to stop from hitting him. Protecting yourself properly in a fight, even in a boxing match where your opponent only has two weapons, is much less intuitive than it seems. This is where my combative history comes in handy.

We suited up with focus mitts and body armor for the next drill. Jab, cross, duck, right to the body, left uppercut, right straight, roll out. I’ll be honest – I kind of love this combination. Within a few repetitions I found a nice rhythm, though I think I was dropping my head too much on the ducks and rolls. Probably because my legs were still jacked from the circuit, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The last drill focused on defending body shots. Bend the knees and drop the elbow to absorb the blow, shift weight, uppercut-cross.

Two boxing lessons down, and I’m already in love with the sport. I miss practicing Jiu-Jitsu night in night out, but boxing is a lot lower impact and therefore a lot better for me right now. My poor old body is going to take some time to get up to the average fitness level at Loyalist MMA. But I have the experience, the nutrition, and the determination. Nothing should be able to stand in my way, except illness or injury.

I hung around an extra twenty minutes after the punch out to stretch and detox my lungs. I always have (extra) trouble sleeping after nights when I train, and I believe leaving the gym all amped up makes it worse. So I stretched everything sore and then some, I did my shoulder rehabilitation, and took my time heading out to the parking lot.

Fighting… why’s it gotta hurt so good?

One Week Deep

Seven days since I resumed training in combat sports. The circuit workout last Monday at Loyalist MMA hit my body like a wheat thresher taking to the fields. I had trouble walking the next day, couldn’t fully extend my arms or raise them all the way above my head. There’s a fairly simple formula for rapidly increasing both cardiovascular and muscular endurance, and the head trainer at my favorite gym has it down to a science.

Two minutes of intense exercise followed by one minute of rest. Repeat.

This formula can also be expressed as Severe Self Inflicted Pain + Idiotic Determination = Superior Athlete.

I gassed out like a leaky hummer in every stage of the circuit. From burpies to box jumps to pullups, high-speed inclined treadmill runs to deadlifts and handstand pushups. Although the timing varied – I can run for longer than I can jump on and off a twenty inch platform, for example – the symptoms were the same. My head would start to spin, and I’d refocus on breathing to stay centered (and conscious). Then the muscles I was exercising would give out. Quite simply, they reach a point where they can no longer perform a certain action, and they rest regardless of my lunacy.

Each time I had to stop exercising and double over panting, Jay yelled at me to keep working. Just once, to let me know he cared. I would wave a hand (or in the case of the pullups round, nod) to show I’d heard and force myself to move. Walk in tight circles, shadowbox, keep the blood pumping until enough lactic acid drained that I could continue the exercise.

Tuesday and Thursday I went back for Jiu-Jitsu class despite a myriad of stiff sore muscles and related pains and discomforts. The workouts were not as intense these nights, but the practice of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu itself is as draining as any circuit. The gi is thick and heavy, and combined with an opponent’s body heat it’s easy to sweat to the point of dehydration. If the opponent has any skill, they make you carry their weight with every movement. It’s like swimming upstream wearing winter garments and a backpack.

If the stream actively tried to strangle you.

I love my sport. Fighting is something I’ve enjoyed and been unnaturally proficient at my entire life. This passion has caused some moral dilemmas in the past, but I’ve finally decided to ignore the haters and follow my heart. Problem is, I plunged in a little too deep too fast.

I got sick. Not violently ill, no projectile vomiting or trips to the ER for aerosol antibiotics. These things don’t generally happen when you take care of your body. I haven’t been “sick” in two or three years, which is about how long I’ve been focused on eating as healthy as possible. But yesterday I endured several hours of severe indigestion after eating one of my staple meals (a super healthy chicken salad). The good thing about eating similar meals most days of the week is that if you have an adverse reaction, it’s generally not the food that’s a problem. It’s the body.

This morning I wanted nothing more than to get back to the gym and blast my nervous system again. Although there are plenty of comfortable ways to increase maximal strength and flexibility, and even endurance in the big picture, “no pain no gain” is an accurate adage for anyone looking to go from veritable couch potato to wrecking machine. But I woke up with a runny nose, mucus gathered at the back of my throat, and a gastrointestinal aversion to vegetables and meat – the cornerstones of my usual diet.

No need for a doctor to make the diagnosis – I overclocked my nervous system pretty severely on Monday, thus reducing the efficiency of my immune system. Tuesday and Thursday I performed equally draining workouts while rolling around with a bunch of other sweaty men. That’s like opening the door wide and throwing out a mat that read ‘Germs Welcome’.

I’ll be honest – the concept of missing a Monday at Loyalist MMA threatened to plunge me into depression. I was swallowed by a wave of insecurity and self doubt. Luckily I’m a strong swimmer, and I broke the surface and breathed the air of reason after re-focusing on my passion.

Certainly it sucks that I had to take the day off. But getting to the gym isn’t the only part of achieving my goals, and in terms of caring for my body and mind, it’s actually pretty low on the list. I rested, I went for a walk and bought some groceries. Ate as healthy as I could of the foods that upset my stomach the least and did a meager version of the circuit I know I missed.

And then I sat down and wrote this blog post… because fighting is only a part of what makes my passion beautiful. Sharing is important too, and sometimes I forget that.

Loyalist MMA

Belleville Ontario… the last place one would expect to find a fully functioning Mixed Martial Arts gym. And yet it exists. Nestled beneath an innocent restaurant with no advertisement needed, this haven for combat sports waits upon individual discovery.

My shoes slide across the frozen parking lot in a series of careful steps. My bag is heavy on my back and one misstep could end the night’s training before it begins. The steel door opens to a downward flight of concrete steps. The drywall wears long scars above the bannisters supports, where weary athletes climbing to the surface after a muscle-wringing workout have leaned. At the bottom of the stairs a long dark corridor opens into the space.

Hooks for coats, space for shoes, an old refrigerator and a few shelves heaped with papers occupy the near wall. All of the necessities crammed into as little space as possible. A forest of hanging heavy bags occupies the bulk of the first room, with a full sized boxing ring at the far end. Gloves, pads, and equipment of all kinds fill bins and lockers that line the walls between dingy mirrors.

Through a wide opening in the rear wall I move onto the mats. Here is where I began my training in combat sports. Each step on the padded surface brings back memories of lessons learned, victories won, and endless sweat and submission. There is an old saying in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu… a black belt is just a white belt who has tapped ten thousand times.

Unpacking my bag, I move to the washrooms at the back to change, wondering what the night’s workout will bring. Only two things are certain at Loyalist MMA… it will hurt, and I’ll leave a little happier.