Monty Halls

There’s one thing you can do better than anyone else, and that’s be yourself. So listen to your body and work out where you’re great, says aspiring pole vaulter Monty Halls 

A new year, so time to take stock. Time to look ahead and figure out what form your training will take and what challenges are realistic. For me, it generally takes the ensuing 12 months to appreciate that these are in fact utterly unrealistic, but it’s good to aim high. Mercedes did this at the start of their Formula 1 campaign last year, describing their team aspirations as BHAG – Big Hairy Assed Goals. So that’s what I’m going to do. You heard it here first – by the end of 2015 I want to have a massive hairy ass. No, hang on, that’s not quite right is it? Anyway, it’s largely a moot point, as regardless of my physical training goals each year, I do tend to end up doing the same sort of thing. And here, within a record-breaking single paragraph, we come to the point of this month’s column.

I hypothesise that we are all designed, deep down, to be good at one particular form of physical activity. We might train like a demon at something else, aspire to be a legend, spend lonely hours marinating in our own sweat, and still not be very good. This is because we ignore the elephant in the room. It’s very difficult to train when there’s a massive elephant in the room. And – of course – it’s even trickier if you have a big hairy ass. But enough of hairy asses, really. Let’s move onto elephants.

The ivory-tusked pachyderm I refer to is that you might desperately want to be great at something, but all the while you’re actually fighting your DNA, your pedigree, your physiology, your mentality, your ancestors, and your natural gifts. It’s because we all have a natural gift for something. I’ve been fairly average at most sports all my life really. I was always the honest yeoman at school sports, never quite the captain, always the stout fellow who made up the ranks of the equivalent of the peasantry with roughly hewn pikes and smelly trousers. I wanted to be the dashing knight on the snorting steed, but somehow always lacked the natural talent to do so. That was until I discovered squash. Weirdly I was uncommonly good at smashing a tiny rubber ball into a wall, and at figuring out which of the other walls it was going to bounce off. Not an absolutely key life skill I’m sure you agree, but when you’re 14 and trying to snog Stella Belam, it’s significant nonetheless. Suddenly my coltish, angular collection of limbs all seemed to get on with each other, and with one plimsoll planted on the T and the other squeaking it’s way the court around several yards away on the end of my gigantic spindly leg, like a bouncing marshmallow rammed onto the end of a snooker cue, I swept all before me. And I got to kiss Stella Belam, albeit briefly before she ran off with Carl Widdowson (the dashing and mahogany-thighed skipper of the 1st XV).

This translates neatly into the modern me. Like every bloke I know, and don’t deny it as you’ll waste both my time and your own, I want big guns. Oh, and quivering pecs. I’ve tried very hard to get both, and even installed a mini-gym in my garage full of kettle bells and pull-up bars. Here I would perform elaborate and physiologically ruinous circuits, a middle-aged man alone in the dark, sometimes wearing just his pants, shouting things like “Ooost” and “One more rep big fella”. The dog would sometimes accompany me out of curiosity, as having heard previous circuits through the kitchen door I think he assumed I was bludgeoning a moose to death and then tenderising it. He would stare at me in complete bewilderment as I ‘banged out’ another set of reps in a desperate quest for the ‘vein of truth’ – that big vein that snakes down the biceps of the type of chap who wears a t-shirt that is slightly too tight. It never appeared, and in the end I gave up, thinking, “Oh sod it, I’ll go for a run.”

So I’d go running, or sea kayaking, or on an expedition. Immediately my physiology would go into tick over, those long limbs would settle into their rhythm, and the heart and lungs would relax into their natural beat. In other words my body was trying to tell me something – that some of us are designed to do one thing, and some another.

Strangely enough this has never really translated into cycling by the way. I’m not quite sure what the ideal shape for riding a bike is, but it’s not me that’s for sure. I imagine it’s narrow shoulders, pointed hands, massive thighs, a backside the size of an outboard motor, and a perfect cone instead of a head. Whatever it is, all I know is that when I cycle I’m a monument to inefficiency. A friend of mine in the Marines was the same by the way. A phenomenal athlete, fearless rugby player, and all round sporting legend, he decided to take up cycling. He duly hired a bike from a local shop (there was a large notice on the counter – “Cycling is Fun” it announced). He returned two hours later, a ruin of a man, and wordlessly took a felt tip pen and changed the notice to “Cycling is F***ing Knackering”, then left the shop never to climb on a bike again.

My point here is that we’re all designed for something. The short stubby ones, the lanky angular ones, the ones in the middle, we’re all uniquely equipped to be very good at something. So perhaps that’s my resolution this year, to once again try to find that elusive sport that will see me excel. Pretty much the only sport I’ve never tried is pole vaulting, so perhaps I’ll have a go at that. Mind you it requires real power, huge speed, genuine nerve, and a massive pole. And I haven’t got any of those. So perhaps it’s back to where me, my body and my dog are happiest – out in the open air, paddling the coast, or going for a run.

A former officer in the Royal Marines, Monty Halls is a broadcaster, adventurer and marine biologist, best known for his BBC series Monty Halls’ Great Escape. He also writes, leads diving expeditions and occasionally runs marathons dressed as a dolphin.