A hot summer afternoon, Bendigo. Sweat drips from my forehead into my right eye, causing it to sting. The sun beats down, increasing my dizziness. My lungs burn, my calves ache and I have a stitch. I’ll permit myself to stop running after one more lap of the block, just one more lap. I feel faint and I’m angered by my weakness; my pathetic stamina will be punished by an extra two laps. At a set of traffic lights I allow myself to stop and select some music to spur me on. In the moment of silence between songs, I hear a man yell, “Good on ya, love”! He’s leaning with his elbow out of his open car window. I smile and wave. I’ve become accustomed to the local cheer squad.
Whenever I jog, people constantly wave and shout words of encouragement. Each time (and to be fair, it’s not very often) I venture out in my lycra and trainers, cars toot and I hear an array of cheers.
“Keep goin’ love, you can do it”!
“You’re brave in this heat”!
“Good on ya”!
“Keep it up”!
One man even ran a block with me as support (no, no humiliation in that). As well intentioned as it is, I could do without their enthusiasm. To enable me to hear and appropriately respond I have to pull out my earphones and my rhythm is interrupted. The only alternative is to nod, wave and smile … oblivious to what’s actually being said. No one in London has ever spoken to me when I’ve been running and I’m comfortable with the English practice of avoiding eye contact; with a decidedly un-athletic figure, I prefer to be ignored when I’m bright red, sweating like a bullfrog and extracting a wedgie.
Classes at the local gym are also curiously social. The women arrive an hour early to chat and then, after an hour’s class, have coffee together. At the commencement of each class the instructor hands everyone a jelly baby (a “sugar shot for energy”), and often participants bring in surplus home-grown vegetables (today it was cucumbers and tomatoes) so that people can take them home. However their relaxed approach is not to be mistaken for any lack of determination. Like a ballerina smiling through a performance while her battle-worn feet are bleeding, their affable front covers a tough (and slightly insane) core.
Australians have a reputation for being easy-going, friendly and encouraging … but they take their exercise seriously. It hasn’t taken me long to remember why I never quite fitted in here. Five minutes into each class I’m ‘glowing’ with perspiration. I don’t know how everyone continues jumping when I can barely breathe. Thirty minutes into each vigorous workout, the instructor repeats the same tiresome questions. Smiling, as though her non-stop bouncing is effortless, she shouts, “It’s a bit warm today, isn’t it? Do you want air? Do you need air? Nah … I think you can all work a bit harder to deserve air. The air con can stay off”! For Christ’s sake, it’s 37 degrees.
On Wednesday I decided to give myself a break from the cheering street people and mad gym crew, and go to the aquatic centre. I figured lolling about in a swimming pool was marginally better than sitting on the sofa eating party pies and pringles.
I discovered that, in addition to a giant water slide, the aquatic centre has a baby pool, an intermediate pool, and a normal 50metre pool. My plan was to swim a few laps and then treat myself with a Bubble O’Bill ice-cream at the little café. I looked at the people in the 50metre pool with sudden dismay; equipped with goggles and professional swimming costumes they were completing laps with an Olympic level of speed and proficiency. I marched past them in my leopard print ensemble and purple flip flops, as though my intended destination had always been the intermediate pool. Here a group of special needs children enjoyed a game of water volley ball and I spent a pleasant afternoon splashing about with dozens of elderly people who were supervising their grandchildren. Finally I’d found my sporting equals – the cast of Cocoon.