Cubicle to the cage Blog #5 Episode 104
“If you can survive the first two or three months of MMA training you’ll be fine.” That’s what professional mixed martial artist and TITAN stalwart, Jeremy Josey told me first when I approached Peter about wanting to start training MMA. And he was right. At the two month mark, many of us started to feel a change. I’m not sure if it was a physical or mental change. Certainly there was a physical component. For those of us who had endured the two plus months of intense conditioning, I think we were all in perhaps the best cardiovascular shape of our lives. Bumps and bruises aside, we were far stronger, faster and better conditioned than we had been coming into the program. But we were mentally stronger as well… or so we thought.
The daily grind had become something we not only tolerated, but relished. Although we certainly had miles to go and we had made little or no progress as far as fighting skill goes, we had endured several weeks of the kind of training that would break most people, and we knew it. For those of us still training consistently, we felt we had actually accomplished something, just by being there. And that is why we were so pleased when Peter and Ian presented us with our DRAKO rash guards and shorts. As Steve Goodfellow says, some might say it was no big deal, just a bunch of clothes, but, to us, it was a lot more than that. For many of us, we had put our professional and personal lives on hold, we had revamped our diets and begun rebuilding our bodies. We had committed ourselves to something in a way that many of us had never done before. Whether Peter was willing to accept it or not, we all felt we were in it for the long haul. To receive the rash guard and shorts with the TITANS name and logo on it was humbling. And in a moment it gave us a physical representation of what we were all (or, well, almost all) beginning to feel, we were a team. We may not be TITANS fighters yet, but we were a team under Peter Martell, under Renzo Gracie, Under Gracie Barra. Gulp! I can’t speak for any of my teammates but I was starting to feel an enormous burden of responsibility.
However, rewarding as our new kit was, as the days and weeks passed, more and more people simply stopped coming to class. They didn’t out and out quit, they just stopped coming. They all had their reasons, and I respect them all. Many realized they were not interested in the level of commitment required to take on this challenge. Some had unavoidable work commitments. Some, like Byron, sustained injuries or realized their physical limitations. Some felt they had more important things in their lives. Whatever their motivation, they felt their energies were best spent elsewhere. There is no shame in that. As Peter likes to say, anybody can train martial arts, but not everybody is going to become a professional fighter.
But, to Peter’s surprise, the most recent round of dropouts left 25 people in the program at nearly two months in. Based on his experience with folks ‘walking in off the street’ and saying they wanted to become fighters, this was unexpected. Before starting the program, Peter had told me of cases where would-be fighters quit less than 5 minutes into a training session at TITANS. Nearly 20 years of training fighters had taught him that a 50 percent dropout rate in the first month was not to be unexpected. However, to have nearly 75 percent of the original participants left in the program after two months of intense training was a shocking surprise. And it was a problem.
In order to have any chance of turning one of us into a fighter in one year, Peter felt he had to provide intense personal attention to a very select group of students. He wasn’t prepared to ‘kick anybody out,’ but he felt he had to do something drastic to reduce the number of participants. The method he chose… was the weight cut.
The weight cut was horrible. Period.
I’m tempted to end it right there. But some explanation is perhaps required to ensure the reader truly appreciates the true horror of the experience. Before I get into the specifics, let me pause to acknowledge that all of this must seem quite silly to wrestlers, boxers and other mixed martial artists who are well versed in the ways of cutting weight. But, you have to realize, when you are engrossed in something as intense and physically demanding as mixed martial arts training, you very quickly lose sight of what is ‘normal.’ What seems routine to you can in many ways seem incredibly unusual to the average onlooker.
I like to refer to this as the fishbowl syndrome. A fish, living in a bowl, as long as its basic needs are met, no matter the condition of that environment, feels completely at home, as it is the only reality it has ever known. Those of us on the outside of the fish bowl can’t possibly imagine what it must be like existing in that same environment. So it is with fight training. When you are doing it every day, the things you do, the punishment you endure, the sacrifices you make, all seem perfectly normal. But to the onlooker it must seem absurd, bordering on insane.
Cutting weight is a prime example of that. In the days leading up to the weight cut, I spoke with countless coworkers, friends and acquaintances and none of them were aware that such a thing even existed. When I explained that, at 152 pounds I was preparing to lose 17 pounds in approximately 36 hours, they thought I was completely mad. I tried explaining the science behind it… as best I could with my limited knowledge. They were not convinced. And many seemed genuinely concerned for my safety.
As is, or at least was, standard practice for cutting weight, we all water loaded for a couple of days, drinking 8 to 10 liters of distilled water. We also cut out our salt and carbohydrates and then stopped drinking or eating completely 24 hours before our expected weigh-in. Having given up food and water at 4 PM, our evening training session was, in a word, tough. Dressed in a sauna suit, thermal underwear and several layers of wool or microfiber clothing, we ran, jumped, punched, kicked and grappled until we were completely exhausted. When we stripped off the layers and weighed in, many of us were happy to realize we’d dropped nearly half the water required to hit our desired weight. Having started at 152 pounds earlier in the week, I’d already dropped to 145 pounds by the time I left the gym on the first night of the weight cut. I had a false sense of security, thinking the second half of my weight cut would be as easy the next morning. I was wrong… very, very wrong.
Before going to bed, I drank 75 millilitres of cold water. I’d been told by several TITANS fighters that this was a good way to ensure my body did not become so stressed that it began holding on to the remaining water I had to cut. I did a little research and couldn’t find anything to substantiate this claim. But, after 8 hours with no fluids, and after enduring 2 hours of intense cardio, I was so parched I would have happily drank 75 millilitres of warm horse piss. Sipping a couple of melting ice cubes gave me a huge mental, if not physical boost. Dressed in thermal underwear, jogging gear and a wool hat, I settled in for a restless night of tossing and turning.
I must have fallen into a deep sleep at some point because I remember waking up in a state of total confusion. The sun was up and I had a sudden sense of panic that I was supposed to be somewhere. I attempted to jump out of bed to check the time, but the moment I stood up I could sense something was wrong. I had a huge headache, a gnawing feeling in my stomach, and my mouth felt like it was filled with cotton balls. I stumbled to the bathroom, turned on the cold water and lowered my head to take a drink. As the water touched my tongue I snapped to my senses. It all started to make sense to me. I rinsed my mouth several times with water and managed to resist the temptation to swallow even a little of the water. To my surprise I was actually able to urinate a little. When I’d weighed myself the night before, I’d weighed 144 pounds on my bathroom scale. When I stripped and stood on the scale that morning I was 141! I had lost nearly three pounds as I slept, or maybe it was all the tossing and turning.
We all met Peter at a local gym to begin cutting our remaining weight. The girls started in the sauna, while the guys donned sauna suites and layers of heavy clothes before hitting the exercise bikes. The plan was to switch between the sauna and the bikes until we’d all reached our target weight. I was only 6 pounds from my goal of 135 lbs.
Getting started on the bikes was a little tough because I felt so drained. But once we got going, and the banter between the cubes started, it didn’t feel too bad. It didn’t feel too bad for the first 15 or 20 minutes anyway. But by the time we’d hit the 30 minute mark I had a horrible case of cotton mouth and I wanted a sip of water more than anything else in the world. As we walked to the sauna the first time, I quickly snuck off to the fountain where I rinsed my mouth out. But, again, I managed to stop myself from actually swallowing any water.
The moment we stepped into the sauna I knew I was in trouble. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a mild case of claustrophobia. It’s vastly better now than when I was a kid, but I still hate getting into elevators or even walking in tight stairwells. So, already taxed physically and mentally by losing nearly 10 pounds in less than 24 hours, stepping into an 8’ x 8’ sauna with 10 other guys was not a task I relished. But it wasn’t the heat that was the problem, it was the feeling of being trapped. Actually, it wasn’t so much a ‘feeling’ as a reality as Peter was either blocking the doorway or standing outside holding the door shut. Don’t get me wrong, the heat WAS horrible and as we neared our target weight, many of us were pushing the limit of exactly how much water we could actually loose. Although we were probably in no real danger at that point, our brains did not believe this to be the case. I managed to endure the first 20 minute stint in the sauna by engaging in conversation with the other cubes and meditating. It certainly wasn’t pleasant, but I made it through with only minor psychological scaring.
Peter felt that nobody would have made their target weight after one bike and one sauna session, so we headed directly back to the bikes. Having barely kept it together in the sauna the first time I was determined to work off any remaining water on the bike so I did not have to go back into the sauna. I pushed as hard as I could over the next 30 minutes. My mouth and throat were so dry I couldn’t swallow and as I pushed hard on the bike and was forced to gulp air, I often found myself caught in coughing fits that gagged me and made me want to vomit. Not that I could have thrown up even if I wanted to at that point.
Unable to swallow the slimy, foamy saliva in my mouth I took to spitting into a towel every few minutes. When the bike ride ended and we headed for the scales for the first time I was hoping dearly that I’d made my target weight of 135 pounds.
To my horror, I stepped onto the scale to discover I’d lost only a couple of pounds and was still over 138 pounds. I was crestfallen. Having worked so hard over the previous hour and a half, I felt there was absolutely no way I was going to lose another 3 pounds, no matter how hard I pushed. My mind was racing, my heart was pounding, and my spirit was broken as I stepped back in the sauna for the second time. And this time, the tiny spec of composure I’d felt the first time was noticeably absent. Within a couple of minutes I could feel a full blown panic attack coming on. I quickly began stripping layers of clothes until I was in just my rash guard and leggings. This gave me a short window of relief but as I slowly dehydrated, my body began sending more and more warning signals to my brain. Simply put, I felt like I was dying.
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to make a run for it. I was sitting on the upper level of the sauna because several guys, most notably Jock, Norm and Colin were having an even tougher time than I, so I let them sit on the floor where it was ‘cooler’ (aka not so blistering hot). At some point, I stood up and said something like, “Ok guys, I have to get down lower…” but as I stood up and my head went up into the hottest part of the sauna, I snapped. Exhibiting a speed and agility that I had never shown in class, I leapt across the sauna, shouldered Peter out of the way, pushed the door open, and made a mad dash for the exit. But freedom was not to be mine. Peter grabbed me by the leg and pulled me back kicking and screaming toward the sauna. I’m sure he could have physically thrown me back in, but he did not. He did something worse. He pointed out that by breaking, by showing that I couldn’t… or more accurately WOULDN’T stick it out and get the job done, I was letting the whole team down and setting a bad example. I walked back into the sauna, not because I was afraid Peter would throw me back in, I did it because I felt it was my obligation. If my teammates were in there, no matter how badly I wanted to escape, no matter how horrible I knew I would feel, I was compelled to join them and see this through. The scream you hear as Peter closes the door behind me is not a cry of pain or fear. It is a scream of frustration and shame. In that moment, I swore that no matter what happened over the next 10 + months I would never, ever break mentally and let down my team again. As you will see over the next several episodes, this resolve would be tested many, many times. Whether or not I was able to live up to that promise is yet to be seen.
I could dive right in and start talking about the huge toll this little experiment started to take on my family, but I think that’s something that can wait for later. I need to go drink another glass of water