Hong Kong will punish you if you don't make an effort to stay in shape.
I learned this the hard way. When I moved here, I figured the combination of the heat and activity would melt pounds off me like butter in a frying pan. Wrong. Way wrong.
To my chagrin, I gained weight. It might have had something to do with my horrendous diet and sedentary lifestyle, but who can be sure about these things? The pizza and beer, greasy Chinese food and beer, and the McDonald's and beer might or might not have had a thing to do with packing on the pounds. No one knows.
Pack it on I did. I should have clued in when Chinese people said to my face: Oh boy, you fat!
But you know how it is: denial is a powerful force. Two things conspired to make me realise I was in bad shape.
One evening, we went to a friend's place. He lived on the ninth floor of the building down the street from us. When we stepped into the lift with several other people, the overload alarm emitted a rude buzz. Hanging my head in shame, I stepped out. The buzzer went silent.
"No problem," I thought. "I'll just run up the stairs."
I reached the ninth floor just after the lift arrived. I was beyond winded: dangerously short of breath. My heart thumped so hard I thought it was about to rupture. I couldn't even speak. It took about 20 minutes before I could breathe with some semblance of normalcy. Damned scary for a man who's only 35 years old.
Later, I weighed myself on a high-tech scale that measures weight and calculates the ratio of body fat. I programmed my gender and height into the machine and stepped on it when it beeped ready. Results? 120.4 kilograms; 34% body fat. I was 265 pounds, the heaviest I'd ever been. Frightening; even at 6'2".
Most men in my family tend to become heavy; images of 300-pound-plus uncles leapt into my mind. I went home and told my wife I'd made a decision. I'd change my diet and begin regular exercise. In one year or less, I'd shed 65 pounds and get down to my fighting weight.
The time had come to get serious, before it became too late. The road I was heading down led to a heart attack or worse, and it wouldn't be long before I woke up and found a 50-year-old man looking back in the mirror. A fat 50-year-old man. Ugh.
Thus began my relationship with what I've come to call the Steps of Pain.
My exercise program includes a circuitous walk that loops around So Kon Po recreation ground. It's a nice green belt in the midst of the concrete, and the traffic isn't heavy, which means I can breathe. Regardless, I wear a Respro anti-pollution mask to filter the air. No sense getting lung cancer while I'm getting in shape.
I start by walking down Caroline Hill Road, following as it curves to the right around the South China Athletic Association Stadium. Next I turn left onto Eastern Hospital Road, past Hong Kong Stadium, which sits on the right. I turn left again on Cotton Path, which meets up with Caroline Hill Road, where I begin.
Along the way I run the steps outside Hong Kong Stadium.
I haven't measured the exact vertical rise, but I've estimated it to be 15 feet. I wanted to measure my progress against the nine storeys that had almost killed me.
I ran up and down the stairs to see how many times I could do it before I tired. The first day I ran them 10 times and walked them five. The next day I ran them 15 times. Then 18. Then 20. It wasn't long before I was running the steps 40 times per session.
It didn't come without payment. I discovered my body didn't want to accept this sudden shove into action. It wasn't happy, not one bit. It threw pain at me; a lot of pain. The muscles in my legs, the quadriceps and calves in particular, stiffened and screamed at the slightest movement. The hamstrings and Achilles tendons tightened up like piano wires. My knees, shins and lower back ached and throbbed.
That's what I got for sitting on my ass for two years. Say fat ass, and I'll have you maimed. Brutalised but determined, I kept at it. I learned I had to rest one day in between sessions to rebuild my muscles. Stretching through the pain for 45 minutes loosened things enough that I could move about without wincing. Once I was walking, the muscled relaxed.
I maintained a plateau of running the steps 40 times before our trip to Hawai'i. I was concerned I'd put weight back on with the heavy American food and tropical drinks, but swimming in the ocean every day helped keep off the pounds I'd lost. When we returned, I picked up where I'd left off, but 10 days off my schedule had had a significant impact. Running the steps 40 times was a chore; by the end of the first session, I was wasted.
Two days later, I went back. To my surprise, I was able to run the entire session without great difficulty. Encouraged, I worked on that level for a week. Yet the pain in my legs made me realise I needed to alter my routine if I wanted to persist.
I began splitting sets between walking and running. I walked the steps five times, then ran them five, alternating until I completed the full count. I discovered I could increase the number of times I climbed per routine, and keep my heart rate up without feeling ragged at the end of the run.
I pushed it up to 50 times, then 60. In 45 days, I went from 30-minute routines and climbing the equivalent of a 20-storey building to 60-minute routines and climbing the equivalent of a 90-storey building. I added a 30-minute walk afterward to cool down and stretch the muscles so they wouldn't be as sore the next day.
My goals are simple: reach 100 storeys, then 150 and 200. When I hit 200, I'll be running 100 and walking 100: serious fitness. I calculated that were I to run the steps 388 times, it would equal one vertical mile. At my current rate of climbing 60 times per hour, it would take me over six hours to accomplish. That's not fitness, that's self-abuse.
Despite my aches and pains, I feel good. I look forward to my scheduled runs. I've run the steps in blistering temperatures, under massive downpours and even during a typhoon. I'm determined and committed; I will reach my goals. It's not a difficult a choice to make.
I'll take the Steps of Pain over chest pains any day of the week.
July 26, 2001
Next Tale: How Now, Macau?