Sunday 21 January 2018

Maeve Higgins: Give me strength

Comedian Maeve Higgins was forced to wrestle with an aversion to exercise

Maeve Higgins
with trainer
Dave Price
Maeve Higgins with trainer Dave Price

In national school, I was the biggest and strongest child in my class. We used to play wrestling every small break and I loved nothing better than sitting on the spine of a wriggling classmate and hearing their muffled cries for mercy.

Something changed though, and made me embarrassed about being tough. In secondary school, I hated sweating and moving around. And changing clothes in front of people, and being last. I begged to be allowed practise my recorder instead of play basketball. I said I “needed to play music to function” and my PE teacher bought it. Every Thursday for two years, I sat under the gym stairs and read for 80 minutes, very pleased with myself.

My sister Raedi is a running coach and a personal trainer and also a hero of mine. Raedi runs up mountains and swims down rivers, and she makes an incredible banoffee pie. She believes in empowering women through athletics and sports. On the other hand, I believe that it's fun to go to the cinema twice in one day. Then, in April of this year, I got really sick with a condition called Graves disease. I know, great name. It's a classic Victorian lady disease; muscle weakness and anxiety caused by a super-fast heart rate are two of the main symptoms.

I got progressively more fretful and more feeble until, by the time it was diagnosed in June, I basically became the annoying kid from the ‘Secret Garden’. It was difficult for me to lift a full teapot. The whole experience was pretty scary, and made me realise that I needed to get as far from weak as I could. As soon as the medication got my heart back to normal — my heart rate actually, not my heart as those closest to me have learned, I am incapable of love — the doctor said I could start exercising, as long as it wasn't too strenuous.

Raedi suggested that I talk to the man who trains her — Michael Price in Crossfit Dublin in Blackrock. Clinging to the words “not too strenuous”, I phoned him and booked myself in for an introductory class. It was free, and it was only 50-minutes long — that was my mantra and I repeated it to myself as I neared the huge warehouse in a laneway and heard grunting noises coming from within. The last time I went for an assessment at a gym was 12 years ago, and the beefcake working there told me, with wonderment in his dense voice, that I had the upper body strength of an eight-year-old.

I bid him adieu at once with a flutter of my limp, little hand. I didn't think of it again, until the morning of my showdown with Crossfit Dublin. A new gym, a new level of frailty brought on by being a sickly, old scaredy cat. Anyway, I looked inside. The place is huge, with a black floor and high ceilings with bars and ropes hanging from it, and loads of weights stacked along the walls. There were also people, all sorts of people doing all manner of unexpected things: jumping on and off boxes, making faces and hauling themselves up on rings. And curiously, one man staring into the middle distance then quickly picked up a kettle someone had unhelpfully filled with concrete and ran off out the door.

It's an alien environment for someone like me, I'm far more at home in grubby little comedy clubs with chubby guys writing in notebooks or flowery little cafés with chubby girls writing in notebooks. That said, it was exhilarating, in part because they were playing the Beastie Boys, loud. I bloody love the Beastie Boys! The owner, Michael Price, explained to me and three other nervous rookies what Crossfit is — basically, it's a strength and conditioning programme that combines weightlifting and gymnastics with cardio exercises that helps create an all-round athlete.

He talked to us about the principles of fitness he believes in and how each exercise is scaled to the individual's ability. We try out a few exercises. I cannot even attempt a squat. I hurt my back two years ago. I was lifting my suitcase in New York and slipped a disc. It was so sudden and so painful my first thought was that I got shot. Because I was in Brooklyn and have a pretty chequered gang history, you see. I'm the Tupac Shakur of East Cork. So I discover that as well as my strength, my mobility and flexibility aren't great. But I am intrigued by the place and the people there, they look like proper athletes. I meet Michael's brother David, another trainer and come up with a plan — he'll take me twice a week for one-on-one sessions until I'm strong enough to join the regular classes.

I told my friend Niamh about this and in doing so realised I didn't even have the vocabulary. I tried to describe what Dave's role at the gym is but trailed off after saying, “He's a man and it's his job to teach me strong exercise, he's like a, um, strong-helper, yeah”. Dave was pretty serious for the first few weeks, which is good, because if I could have gotten away with chatting and stalling, I would have. There's lots to take in, and he's a brilliant teacher.

At the start though, I feel mortification lurking when I have to do awkward things like stick my bottom really far out to get into a proper position for the deadlift. I refuse to let the mortification in by thinking: “No! You're a robot and RobotMaeve2011 has no blush function.” It's hard though. Self-belief has never been my strong point, and my history of failed diets, false starts and self-deprecating humour don't help. I've made a career out of watching people, myself included, and pointing out the silliness of what we do.

It's not a bad thing to be analytical at times and it's great not to take anything seriously, but cynicism comes at a price. I have become an observer more than a participant. I don't want to be on the sidelines any longer, waiting to see how it all turns out, afraid to get it wrong. So I decide to try. I swallow back self-doubt and keep trying. One morning Dave says we'll try skipping. By that he means I'll try skipping and he'll keep an eye on me. Turns out I'm good at skipping! I was delighted with myself — and grinned over at Dave as I skipped, looking for praise. I tripped on the rope immediately.

He managed not to laugh, I reminded myself to focus. I'm easily distracted. I had to stop wearing earrings on stage because I'd be in the middle of a routine and lose my thread because I'd suddenly wonder, “What the hell is hanging off my head?” An unexpected aspect of Crossfit Dublin is that they place no emphasis on weight-loss as a goal in and of itself. That is pretty classy. I am sick of the weight-loss industry, it's everywhere, it's oppressive and it doesn't help. Women deserve better than that. We don't need to be skinny, we need to be strong! Strong enough to work hard and live loud, not just exist to keep on top of things and hope we look all right.

Another good surprise is how I often get on the train to Blackrock with something worrying me, like properly crowding in on my brain, but an hour later, on the train home, that same thing has become more manageable. Lifting something heavy or running really fast doesn't make my problems go away, but it does leave me with some ice-cool and very refreshing emotional resilience in my system. It's only been a couple of months, and I've got a long way to go.

I have to get strong enough to join the classes. Then I have to get strong enough to do handstands and 82kg backsquats, and play any sport I want. Including, of course, wrestling — small-break 1986 style, where I win every time.

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