If you were to see me now, you would not think of me as an example of physical fitness. I mean, I’m not morbidly obese or anything. But I am not in great shape. That mostly has to do with a sedentary lifestyle, a job in which I don’t have to leave my desk or undergo physical exertion, and some bad habits like smoking and overeating that I’ve settled into over the years. But once upon a time, I earned a black belt in American Kenpo (essentially a mix of styles between karate, taekwondo, kung fu and some jujitsu and aikido thrown in for good measure).
It started because of an incident in school in seventh grade. I witnessed a kid named Steve messing with someone’s lock on their locker. Steve and has buddies, known for being troublemakers, didn’t see me as they were trying to break the lock, and no one else was around. I waited until they were gone, went to my locker, and then went down to the vice-principal to report them. Steve got suspended, and was really pissed that someone had reported him. Somehow it was found out that the someone was me. Threats were made, including the ever popular threat to “beat me up after school.” I was a chubby little kid who definitely would not be able to hold my own in a fight, and Steve was a couple years older than me (he had been held back once or twice) who was known for run-ins with both school administration and the police. In our tiny suburban community, he and his friends were the closest thing we had to a gang.
My parents knew how scared I was of retaliation from Steve and his crew, and decided to take some action. They enrolled me in karate classes at LaVallee’s Karate in Liverpool, New York.
LaVallee’s was one of the biggest dojos in the area, and one of the most popular. They had two locations around Central New York, and opened a third one in the area and a fourth one down in Florida during my time there. It wasn’t an exceptionally traditional system, but it kept to many of the ideals of the martial arts pretty well. I started out, as all students do, as a lowly white belt. I learned some basic forms and went to class two or three times a week. In a couple of months, I started moving up the belt chain from white to yellow to orange. It took about a year for me to rank up four places to purple, where the real cool stuff started to be taught. The lower levels mostly focused on form and posture, concentrating mostly on stances, basic moves and katas. Purple belt was where you started to interact more with other students, learning how to break holds and grabs, and getting into sparring matches.
I never made a big deal out of my training outside of the dojo. I was still a chubby little kid. I was shorter than most of the people in my class and I still got picked almost last for every sport in gym class. I held my karate training to myself, considering it my “secret weapon” should I ever need to use it. The situation with Steve eventually blew over, but there were other antagonists to be dealt with. I did get into a fight with some kids in eighth grade towards the end of my seventh grade year. By that point, I was still an orange belt. I tried to use the little training I had to get out of the situation (I always wanted to hold true to the “always for defense, never for offense” ideal they taught us at the dojo), but I still got my ass kicked.
Time went on and I rose steadily through the ranks. I didn’t rocket through them like some kids, who were naturally athletic. I also didn’t languish in lower ranks for too long. I was a quick learner, and though my form was not the best, I still memorized all of my moves easily and really tried my best to do them well.
Thanks to puberty, my body was decidedly changing, though. I went from being short and chubby to being tall and lanky within a few years. I started high school as a stocky 183 lbs for my 5’3″ frame. I ended high school as a lean 183 lbs on a 6’1″ frame. This, combined with all of the stretching and physical activity of the classes made me stronger and more flexible, and as a result I got much better at my forms and stances. By the time I got to green belt, I was one of the top kids in my class.
The classes were organized by two things. The first half of the week, Monday through Wednesday, all classes were focused on katas and forms. The second half of the week, classes were geared towards self-defense with holds, grabs and sparring. Students were required to go to one of each type every week. Classes were also organized by belt. White belts had their own class. Yellow and orange belts had a class together. Purple, blue and green belts worked together. There were two levels of brown belt, and they had class together. And then red belts and black belts trained together. Most people advanced through these ranks in large groups together, so it was easy to build friendships with your classmates, since you were usually there at the same time for years.
I bonded with two students in my class, Philip and Hillary. You may remember them from a post long ago during Fiona Apple week. I set the two of the up at one point, and after they broke up dated Hillary myself. We all met when we were in the purple/blue/green class together. Hillary was the daughter of one of the instructors, so she took the whole thing pretty seriously and was really skilled. I also took things seriously and had some pretty decent skills. Philip did not take it seriously and was just kind of “getting by.” The three of us were fast friends, and frequently trained together. By the time we all made it to our second-degree brown belts, the goal of black belt started looming large for us. Our instructors were starting to ramp us up for what would be required for it, and we were started going to the “black belt spectaculars,” the biannual ceremony in which students put on a showcase and received their black belts.
One part of the spectacular was a self-choreographed demo of skills that groups of people put on. A group of three to five students would do a little display of their abilities set to music, usually techno, frequently selected from the Mortal Kombat soundtrack (the game, not the movie). Hillary, Philip and I were already starting to plan what we wanted to do for it. We were going to use a Nine Inch Nails song, and we had a full routine mocked up to it. Even though the usual routines were only usually a minute to a minute and a half long, we were building a program based on a five minute song.
As it turns out, I got my red belt before the other two. Philip was starting to drop away from karate. I don’t think his heart was ever in it, and the physical requirements to progress from red belt to black belt were going to be more than he was willing to do. Hillary was still going, but I had been ahead of her before and remained so now. I stayed friends with her, but we were no longer training partners.
As things started ramping up for me to get my black belt, things got a lot more intense. First of all, you had to be nominated for it by an instructor. After that, the black belt program was a six month commitment, with special extended classes for candidates every Saturday morning. In that six months, there were regular exams, focusing on different skills gained throughout your training, and there were physical requirements. You had to be in pretty good physical form to make that final push. One of the most daunting requirements for me was the running. After the Saturday class every week was a run, anywhere from two to five miles. I did well on all of my forms, my kata and my kumite and my sparring, but I am not a good runner. I’ve always been a good sprinter, especially as I got tall. I use an extremely long gate to cover ground fast. But longer distances eluded me. To finally qualify for a black belt, you had to do a mile run in under eight minutes, a two mile run in under sixteen minutes and a three mile run in under twenty-four minutes. I had no issues with the mile run. I usually came in the top ten of my class on that one, averaging around six to six and a half minutes to complete it. The two mile run was a little harder for me, and I would end up around fourteen or fifteen minutes for it. I could never do the three mile run in anything less than twenty-six to twenty-eight minutes. It was my one downfall. The first time I went through my candidacy for black belt, the only thing that held me back was the run. I was solid everywhere else. I wasn’t the only one. A couple of other kids my age had the same issue. One was just as tall as me, but a bit heavier. That was Mark. Mark and I were into the same music and had pretty similar builds and pretty similar style. Mark was also bad at the running, and had trouble coming in under the necessary time for both the two and three mile runs. The other guy was Mike. He was short and stocky, but not fat. He was just barrel-chested and heavier. He was really intense in class, and one of my best sparring partners. But he couldn’t cut it on the run either, coming in late on all three. Our first time through, none of us made it.
We were undeterred, though, and were easily nominated to be part of the next group. I think a part of it was that people liked watching Mark and I spar. We were both so tall, and had both been taught well to use our reach to our advantage. The main instructor was a shorter guy, coming in closer to five feet tall than six, and he would teach people to spar the way he would. He was quick and powerful, closing the gap with his opponent fast and getting several good body shots in with punch combos. He rarely used kicks. It was an effective style, and our friend Mike was almost as good at it as the instructor. But it took another teacher, Hillary’s father actually, to pull the pair of us aside and say “let me teach you how tall people fight.” He showed us the advantages of reach, and we became good at using our legs keep people away and our height to get in over a guard. It was effective, and Mark and I both adopted the style easily. As a result, our sparring matches became a flail of legs and arms in a war of attrition to not get too close but to get close enough to tag the other.
In our second attempt at black belt glory, all three of us focused on the run. The cycle started in March, with snow still on the ground and cold still in the air. We did okay in those early months. As it got warmer, it got harder, but we persevered. When it came time for the final timed runs, there was a lot of pressure on Mark and I. Mike had decided he was not ready. For the one mile, I pushed hard and came in second, just under six minutes. Mark lagged a little behind, coming in around seven minutes. On the two mile run, we stayed pretty even and both came in between thirteen and fourteen minutes. We had three tries to pull off the three mile run after that (you had five weeks and could do them in any order). On our first attempt, on an ungodly hot day in late June, both of us came in at an embarrassing thirty minutes. We had made the mistake of training for it all week by running all week, and our legs were noodles by Saturday. The next week, Mark found his rhythm and left me behind around the turnaround point. He came in at twenty-three minutes and qualified to move on. I came in around two minutes later, just above twenty-five minutes. I had one more chance to make it, and every other candidate was pulling for me. Only a handful of us still had yet to qualify, so the others were there to coach us and motivate us. I put everything I had into that run. Along the way, several of my classmates and instructors were hanging out at different points along the route to pace me, encourage me and push me on through the pain. I felt like I had a pretty good pace, though I was towards the back of the pack. But there were so many people rooting for me, I just had to do my best. As I rounded the last corner, one of my favorite instructors and Mark were waiting for me. I had probably about 200 or 300 yards left. I was tired, my legs burned and my lungs ached. But they told me I still had time. I had less than a minute, though, so I had to push it. From reserves I didn’t know I had, I pulled up every bit of strength I had and opened up my gate to a full sprint. I left Mark and my instructor in the dust, and poured every once of energy into that final bit of distance. When I was within site of the finish, Hillary’s father was there, keeping the time. He and a bunch of my classmates were cheering for me, and I gave it everything. My gate opened up even more, about eight feet between footfalls, and I dashed to the end. When I crossed the line, the time was 23 minutes and 58 seconds. I had done it.
The next few weeks were spent getting ready for the “final exam,” a three day event in which we went through everything we had learned from white belt on. On Friday night, it was all of the various katas we had learned throughout the years. On Saturday, in the morning we went through all of the holds, grabs and self-defense moves we had learned. In the afternoon it was a huge sparring tournament, which Mark and I both did very well in. Saturday ended with us breaking boards with various kicks and punches. On Sunday, it was the final run, a 10K through the suburbs of Liverpool. There was no timing on it, it was just a guided run. There were a lot of hills involved, and the instructors leading it like for us to up and down the same hill multiple times. The only requirement was that we finish. I made it through, though I was a sweaty, chaffed mess by the end of it. I couldn’t sit right for a couple of days after.
After that, we had all officially qualified and all that was left was to put on a show. Mark and I partnered up for our little display portion, but we needed a couple more to add to our group. We ended up with a pair of women, Debbie and Anna. We got together after class and decided on the music and the content of our little display. The first thing we decided to do was lean towards our strengths. Mark and I had some seriously awesome kicks, and could get and impressive amount of air for our jump kicks (especially considering we were lanky white guys). Debbie and Anna were better at the forms and the upper body work. So it was decided that each pair would choreograph their bits and put it together at the end. But we needed music. I brought up the Nine Inch Nails song that Philip, Hillary and I had planned, but decided to keep to scrap it since it would be too long. I still got the song choice, opting instead for After the Flesh by My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
After getting my black belt, I was only at LaVallee’s for about another year before heading off to college. At Ashland, I didn’t have the desire to get involved with some new dojo, and I had different priorities. After Ashland, I no longer had interest in continuing with martial arts. But it was great for me when I was in high school. It was not only physically beneficial, but instrumental in building confidence. I would no longer consider myself a black belt in anything. A tool is no longer sharp if you leave it on a shelf too long. I was a black belt, though, and the efforts and sacrifices I made to get there are not soon forgotten. I hold some of the ideals of my time there still to this day. Ideals of modesty, honesty and perseverance still ring as true to me now as they did then. I just can’t kick as high as I used to.