Fear keeps its own scorecard. And it sure scratches the tally in some biologically sensitive places.
Hanging 60 feet above Wellington Harbour, my neck constricts and just for a second I remember cage fighting. The triangle choke. Thick rough legs wrapping ’round your carotid artery and squeezing. Black spots in your vision, stomach, groin.
The Hikitia, a floating crane ship, is 92 years old. Struggling to hold on to her is exactly like the moments before being choked unconscious. Worse because you can’t submit. No gentle little tap-out on someone’s knee. There’s staying awake or there’s the ground. I wonder how the hell someone who doesn’t like heights ever got here in the first place.
I wonder if history is more painful to land on than steel.
Primordial, reptile-brain chemicals are firing and my arms have started that horrid shake.
I don’t think Wellington’s had street cameras installed yet. But it’s just a matter of time. I wonder if they did a trial rollout near the waterfront. If this most private and unscoreable sporting moment is going to end up like all the others on YouTube.
I really should have stuck with climbing in Assassin’s Creed.
The Greatest of all Times
I’ve been a sportsman since I was 3 years old and got hit on the head with a rugby ball. This is a rite of passage in New Zealand – if you haven’t lost at least a few brain cells to the Great Game, you’re a bit funny. Possibly a girl or a terrorist. Highlights of my brilliant career include over 100 twisted ankles in basketball, being on the wrong end of a cricket bat to the groin and the horror of the Large Sweaty Fat Man cagefighting incident (more on that later).
Virtual sports kicked in at age 4, when I found Microsoft Decathlon. I got my fingers stuck in the gap between the arrow keys and never looked back.
Now, a quarter of a century later, as I head out my side door down the shaggy staircase, the two sports worlds are about to collide. The greatest 3-year-old rugby ball stopper in history has become a fully digitized, individualized and slightly pungent man.
I knew I’d be world champion someday.
I usually start first thing on Sundays, before the city has recovered from Saturday night.
Along the path from my house are some wooden railings that I try and monkey-swing down. This doesn’t work well because my body still can’t believe I’m not in bed, but it gets me onto Tinakori Road and near the next drop.
Tinakori Road used to be the Wellington Harbor shoreline before the earthquakes and the infill, the spot where Papatuanuku Earth-mother handed over to Tangaroa Sea-king. We screwed that bargain over good years ago, and now it’s another long staircase down to the flat plain of central Wellington proper.
I have the iPod with me, but it’s less and less useful every time. Colin Running takes concentration, forces you to open up and listen to the landscape a bit. Like the earthworm echoes of the old Jewish cemetery on the left, shifted across Wellington when the gravestones and corpses got in the way of the Hutt Road motorway.
Down onto level ground, and the blood’s hitting my legs. Looming ahead is a long road full of parking meters. As I pass each of them I do a little push-jump-plant-turn thing that works about three quarters of the time. The failures look like someone with a hangover humping a metal post.
By the end I can nearly see the railway station. Sea air from the harbor wafts by. The Sunday morning grogginess has gone, and I’m ready to vault some rails, climb some walls, defeat the city at its own game.
The fear rises like bile. Am I getting points for this on some grand cosmic scoreboard?
It’s All About The Numbers
Like any sports fan, I’m addicted to numbers, statistics and replays. Watching the Green Bay Packers last year (yes, we get bits of the NFL here at the end of the earth), I followed Brett Favre’s touchdown/interception ratio as it crept above 1.5. Then I kicked that number to the curb in Madden. I’m on 92 percent completion in San Andreas. When I play Halo 3 I realize that having 10 skill and 61 EXP after 316 games means I shouldn’t quit the writing gig anytime soon.
Game saves, replays, different camera angles, service records: Everything I do as an online sportsman is there forever. I’m as immortal as Muhammad Ali or that guy they locked up in the Great Pyramid. I even have my third round knockout of Mike Tyson as a desktop background.
But do you ever feel like all this exactitude, in everything from sports stats to cheeseburger calories, is a bit much? Oppressive, even?
Colin Running is damn near the only thing in my life that can’t be measured or digitized.
Except that I’m a videogame addict and I can’t help bringing my habit along with me.
Out onto the Wellington waterfront and it feels like an under-lit Liberty City, complete with out-of-body camera hovering eight feet behind and above. The only clear difference is the gumbo of fear, sinew, pain and adrenaline that games can still only shadow.
That and I’m not jacking the Harbour Tours helicopter that sits on Queen’s Wharf dock by the loading cranes. Pity.
Past the restaurants and Ferg’s Kayak rental, gathering speed, hopping along the boat ties and curbs. Swarm up a high lamppost for a minute, then down. The main waterfront section is a kilometer or so of walkway that stretches past corporate buildings, eateries, cruise ship docks, parks and the Te Papa National Museum. This, on Sunday morning, is where Wellingtonians begin to throng: couples walking, kids rollerblading, babies and Blackberries all networking above the tarmac seal.
They turned down plans for a Hilton hotel here last week. Would have interfered with the indoor soccer club. Jumping over the rails by the Events Centre you can feel it – this used to be ocean before the reclamation. We are, all of us, hovering above the ghosts of shellfish and tides.
I can fall just over 12 feet now. The trick is to land on your toes, crumple immediately through your knees, then turn over your shoulder and roll the momentum away. I started with little half-foot plunges and built my way up.
The day I do it wrong it’s gonna hurt. Much worse than that rugby ball or even the cricket bat.
Barreling out of old Frank Kitts park, jump-stepping along a line of fastened metal spheres, moving underneath the cellphone towers, over the subterranean broadband lines, cat-crawling along the bridge that covers the young couples in their rented push-yachts …
Up ahead, before the National Museum, the docks turn a hard left.
In the crook, tempting, high and huge, sits the rusted bulk of the good ship Hikitia with a “Private property” sign beneath its crane.
The crane. It’s like man-child Colin Running catnip.
Time to soar like a mighty eagle of stupidity.
Cage Fighting and the Giant, Sweaty Fat Man Incident
Eight years ago, I was under-occupied and, for the first time in my life, overweight. I’d been living in a place where all the food was cheese toasties and all the sports were virtual. It showed.
There was a dingy basement workout room 20 feet below Auckland’s Queen Street. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Tuesdays, submission fighting Thursdays, show up and try your luck Sundays. A bizarre assortment of rugby players, strongmen, genetic freaks and tiny feral bastards who’d go at you like wolverines. All men – women looking for self defense lessons would show for one class and never return.
No one in New Zealand had heard of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The great wave of stupid YouTube beatdowns was a long way off. I sweated, gritted, lost weight and gained strength, figured out chokes and holds and how to ground ‘n’ pound.
Then I ran into Lee.
Lee was five foot nine, 280 pounds. He had a barrel midsection, tree trunk arms and a massive surplus of blubber on top of the muscle.
Lee was direct. He’d charge right in, haul you to the ground, maul you like a cave bear.
I got good. I could hold Lee’s mass off me and threaten to retaliate. I was getting somewhere. Skill was mastering power.
Lee went to Lee Plan B. He moved forward. Hovered above me. Grabbed, with an audible squelch, a handful of his own chest fat then lowered the whole writhing mass onto my face.
Two hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight formed a vacuum seal of sweaty skin over my eyes, nose and mouth. My world became chest fat. I couldn’t breathe, move or believe it was happening.
Acrid sweat entered my ears. I tapped to the most brutal submission hold the world has ever seen.
I don’t think I was cut out for cage fighting. This “real world” thing is overrated sometimes.
And so here I am, hanging above Google Earth point 41-17’21.19″ S x 174-46’49.46″ E, a meeting of ocean, urban design and sky. Ninety years of history on the deck below me, 28 years of sports memories behind, brain chemicals firing and flashing in configurations they’ve never known back on the couch at home.
The Hikitia came out of Scotland in 1926. Its coal-fired boiler hauled it back and forth across Wellington Harbour and into the Cook Strait, where its great crane would move cargo, perform rescues, even lift entire ships clean out of the water and onto land, away from the clutches of Tangaroa and his tantrums.
They used to play sport on the deck – rugby, cricket and wrestling – while they waited for another call from the harbor master.
The Hikitia is old, rusty and for a while, was nearly forgotten. But a small group of engineers, enthusiasts and seafarers took her back with love, moved her to berth and swarmed over her on weekends, checking the engines, fixing the oil, looking at pieces of salvage in a tiny lab below decks.
I don’t know if they planned for someone swinging off their 90-ton crane.
Everything is combining. The digital overlay and the gameplay and the twitch-response and the fear and the manifold viewpoints and histories of this place. Virtual and real are building and enhancing each other in a way my 3-year-old reptilian brain could never have imagined.
Sports fields, real and virtual, are some of the most recorded, photographed and observed places in the world. Just like the centers of modern cities.
We’ve made free running and fighting into YouTube events, an excuse for laughing at idiots and maniacs.
But the sidelines will always only be the sidelines.
On a good Sunday morning in the Southern Hemisphere, I get to limp back in the front door. Stretch. Hot shower. Chocolate. Back to the warm comforting bath of all that information and measurement, maybe a game of Madden and then some rounds of Big Team Battle. My nerves are still firing, and my muscles can feel it. Everything is filled with surging chemicals.
Come on. Really. This is a great time to be alive.
Colin Rowsell is a writer and strategist working out of Wellington, New Zealand. Talk to him on email@example.com.