The Time I Thought I Was Hercules

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When I was a child the period between Christmas and New Year was a strange time of year. I had new stuff to play with or wear, which was great, but my schedule was restricted by a number of factors. The weather and the darkness were equally frustrating, especially if I’d had something like a bike or cricket equipment as a Christmas present. Being deprived of friends due to them having their own family arrangements was also a bit of a pain. After all, you always want to show off your new gear to your mates or have a play with their new stuff. So with these factors sometimes restricting possibilities TV played a big part, but when I was a child there was very little on to look forward to by way of compensation. Televised live sport wasn’t the same as it is now. I mean, we had Grandstand and Channel 4 Racing on Boxing Day but that day was always taken up with a family Christmas dinner at my Nana and Grandad’s house so the highlight of the day was always the family get together. Otherwise the TV schedule was full of usually underwhelming Christmas specials featuring either Frank Bruno or Christopher Biggins in panto costumes or repeats. TV just didn’t provide much to look forward to. With one notable exception.


The World’s Strongest Man competition was always broadcast over new year. Sometimes on new year’s eve, sometimes new year’s day, sometimes elsewhere in the schedule but it was always something to look for in the festive TV listings magazines. These days you can find it broadcast in 11 different parts, including the heats, on Channel 5. Back then we had no idea who would be competing in the final, let alone whether they were amongst the favourites. We assumed that Geoff Capes would be there because, well, he was Geoff Capes, the strongest man this side of the Incredible Hulk. His old Icelandic adversary Jon Pall Sigmarsson would be there too, always jiggling his pectoral muscles when he did something good with a stone that weighed the same as a horse. One year our Geoff Capes wasn’t there and had been replaced by countryman Jamie Reeves, an enormous Yorkshireman who seemed nice and then actually went and won the competition! As did Welshman Gary Taylor another year. Imagine that! An actual Welshman being crowned the strongest man in the entire world!


Jon Pall Sigmarsson, 4 times World’s Strongest Man

For the uninitiated the World’s Strongest Man isn’t necessarily the strongest man in the world. It’s a ‘strongman’ competition, with ‘strongman’ being a sport itself. The participants compete in a number of different disciplines that include lifting increasingly heavy stones and placing them on barrels (whoever gets them done quickest wins the points), power lifting a horse box, sometimes with an actual horse in (whoever gets most lifts wins the points), holding gargantuan swords at arms length (whoever holds them longest gets the points) and pulling a truck or a large car with a rope and harness (whoever pulls it down the track the fastest wins the points). The one with the most points wins and gets to call themselves the World’s Strongest Man. The blokes competing are usually about the size of yeti so nobody is going to dispute that there may be someone stronger somewhere in the world that may not be competing in the sport or strongman. The truck pull always seemed the most exciting discipline to me, just for the spectacle of it. I mean, as a kid, what is more impressive than actually pulling a car or a truck? I’d seen several grown men struggle to push a car before but the only time I’d ever seen anyone try pulling one was at this event. It was an annual televisual treat!


I had no notion of becoming a strongman when I started weight training with my mate Gaz at the age of 14. In fact I can’t remember our motivation for starting but I had been beaten up by a gang of youths a few weeks earlier so my thought process may have been that I wanted to become more difficult to push around. A bit like when I eat junk food these days, justifying it because heavier people are harder to kidnap. This was in the days before it was common for seemingly everyone to go to a gym. They weren’t on every street corner as they are today and there were no well known chains of gyms around. Deeside Leisure Centre had a weights room and also a posher gym (called Shapes) for those that wanted to ogle fit women while they pretended to get fit themselves. We opted for the more traditional weights room because it was cheaper. There a few massive guys in there, all much older than us. When Rob Paul gave us the induction he took great care to ensure we were lifting everything correctly and using the weights as they should be, mainly because of our tender years. We were both still growing (though neither Gaz nor I grew too much after we were 14) and it was possible we could cause ourselves a long-term mischief if we used the wrong lifting technique. In fact, now that I have returned to the gym after an absence of almost a quarter of a century, the techniques I use are still flawless so Rob was (and still is!) evidently a very good instructor.


Back then I was a fit lad (not as in ‘attractive’, that’s never been the case). I was playing cricket every Saturday during the summer, usually bowling 20+ overs with a run up that was far longer than required considering the pace I was generating. Come to think of it, the run up was probably faster than Allan Donald, the fastest bowler in the world, would have required! I also played cricket during midweek. I played 5-a-side on a Sunday. Weight training was twice a week, circuit training once a week. I relied on my bike to get around. Spare time was generally spent down the park kicking a ball around with mates. If I’d had any idea about nutrition and insisted on following a particular diet in those days I’d probably have had a six pack, which seems ludicrous now. In fact, it seemed ludicrous by the time I reached twenty years old.


You see, I started working for Capital Bank the day after my 19th birthday. I quickly made friends, some friends only in the office, others friends more outside of the office. One of those was a guy named Adrian, whose nickname was Ben because he allegedly looked like a character from Grange Hill called Boogie Benson. Ben was from Yorkshire and was staying in digs in Chester during the week and travelled back to be with his fiancée at weekends. He was generally bored during the evenings on his own and so we soon got into the habit of going for a pint after finishing work at 8.30pm. As spring turned into summer we found ourselves in a routine of pub quiz on a Monday and Tuesday, watching the ‘Champions League’ on a Wednesday night, Friday was an early finish when we would be out with work colleagues we only saw on Fridays. The only night off was Thursday when I had cricket practice. After those pints in the pub I was usually able to get the train home at 11pm (apart from the time it left early and I tried to summon the attention of the conductor on the train by throwing my shoe at the rear window as it retreated. Quite how I managed to get my shoe off while running down the platform is beyond me but my valiant attempt was in vain. I had to jump down onto the track in shame to retrieve my shoe). I didn’t start work until 12.15pm the day afterwards and was young enough to have no hangovers. That was, in many ways, the perfect shift pattern for me. Unfortunately they didn’t exactly accommodate any fitness schedule and so I stopped going to the gym. In fact, I stopped doing anything energetic other than cricket for about the next 25 years. Unless you count darts.


After a couple of career moves I’d found myself living in Timperley, a village made famous by Vimto, Frank Sidebottom and a member of the Stone Roses. My workplace was Rawtenstall, a village in the Rossendale district of Lancashire. By now I was getting to work by car, a white Nissan Cherry that I found in a back street garage in Sale for £300. I punished that car while I had it. I didn’t just use it to commute. My route to work took me along the A56, the main road from Cheshire into Manchester, for a bit before I went around the M60 and then M66. The journey was 27 miles in each direction. It was also the transport required to get me around the north of England to sell the rugby league fanzine I was writing at that time (The Egg Chaser and then Another 6 Tackles) three times a weekend. When it eventually began to come apart at the seams I later sold that car for £50 to a guy I met outside a scrapyard in Miry Lane, Wigan so that I could buy a ticket to a Wigan Warriors game and have a few beers before getting the train home.


That car only broke down once on me. Well, I say ‘broke down’….

How low do you let the petrol in your car get before you top it up? Do you do it when the low petrol warning light comes on, or do you follow the needle? Do you leave it until it gets to a quarter of a tank before topping it up should there be an emergency? I’m sure you have your regular method. I tend to leave it until the warning light comes on and then study the needle intently, trying to see how low it gets between light and needle hitting ‘empty’. In conducting my research I’ve found that you can get about 50 miles after the warning light comes on. While some may be uncomfortable about setting off on a 20 mile journey after their light has come on I have no such reservations. I know there is likely to be a petrol station somewhere that I can top up. It makes mundane journeys that much more of an adventure if I do it that way and I kind of resent modern cars for telling you exactly miles worth of fuel you have remaining. It spoils all the fun!


The petrol warning  light in the Nissan Cherry had just come on as I set off for work, so I was well inside the 50 miles I thought I had to play with. My schedule was perfectly planned in the mornings and left me with no time to stop for petrol. The thought never crossed my mind to do so and I made it to work safe and sound. My plan was to top up at the petrol station that acts as an unofficial ‘Welcome To Rawtenstall’ landmark on my way home. To do so would involve going around a roundabout twice, which doesn’t sit well with me, but that was my most time efficient, and therefore best, option.


That morning in work I had a bit of a problem. I couldn’t find my wallet. Which turned out not to be a problem at all as I just borrowed a couple of pounds from a colleague to get some dinner until I’d been to a cash point. My wallet would undoubtedly be in my car. If it was it that wouldn’t have been the first time it had dropped out of my pocket only to be found under the seat or hiding beneath the pedals.


At the end of the working day I went to the car and had a rummage for my wallet but it was nowhere to be seen. Not underneath the seat, not in the foot well, not in the boot or glove compartment. Not that I’d have forgotten putting my wallet in such places but I thought I’d check everywhere anyway. After all, there are only so many places you can misplace a wallet in a clapped out Nissan Cherry.


The search was concluded unsuccessfully. There was no doubt about it – I didn’t have my wallet. This meant that my colleague would have to wait until the next day for the money they’d lent to me which, though no big deal, was of more concern to me than the fact it could have been robbed. I guess that’s just the way I was brought up. As well as leaving my colleague temporarily out of pocket the lack of wallet also meant that I had no means of paying for fuel. When I left there were no colleagues remaining in the office from which to borrow money and so I did what I thought was the only option available to me. I set off on my journey home. After all, there was a chance I might make it home, depending on how close my prediction was that I could get 50 miles out of a tank after the warning light came on.


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Still 50 miles left in this tank, easy!

I ensured I stayed in the inside lane of the motorways should I need to pull onto the hard shoulder if I ran out of fuel. I also tried to save petrol by going as slowly as was safe and even by ‘freewheeling’ with the engine switched off when I got to downhill sections. They don’t tell you how to do that on your driving test, probably due to the dangers involved with coasting along the motorway at 50mph with the engine switched off and the car in neutral. And all the efforts I made were rewarded because I made it! I made it….as far as junction 17 of the M60, the turn off for Whitefield and Prestwich. I may have said some naughty words when the Cherry started stuttering and I had no option but to pull onto the hard shoulder. At least the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been. As luck would have it there was a petrol station up the hill that the slip road was on. It would need my best powers of charm and negotiation but I had no other option than to try and get a tetra can full of unleaded, give them my details or leave my phone as a deposit and offer to come back later that day to make payment once I had my wallet.


Striding purposefully up the hill with a confidence that belied the fact I’d just committed one of the most embarrassing acts that a motorist can do, I noted that the hill was steeper when you walk up it than it seems when you drive up it. I also wondered how many people had ever actually walked up this part of the road before. It gave me some sense of achievement knowing I was part of a very select group of people to have ever done so. The walk also seemed longer than I thought it was and the petrol station was about a quarter of a mile past the roundabout that was at the top of the slip road. It was also on the other side of the road. The fact that this was not a road for pedestrians became evident when I got to the top and there were no footpaths anywhere to be seen. It was now getting towards dusk and the headlights were slightly dazzling as the cars sped past me a little too close for comfort.


When I got to the petrol station I put on my best smile and tried to appear like a confident guy that had made a genuine mistake. I had to exude an expectation that the request I was about to make was in no way out of the ordinary so that the cashier would accept my request and give me the petrol, and a can to contain it in, that I required. Apologetically I explained what had happened with puppy dog eyes that would have seen me adopted by Paul O’Grady and proposed my solution. The lady behind the counter was sympathetic but informed me I could not get the petrol to take away in a tetra can. Though she did inform me that had I driven the car onto the forecourt I could have filled up, completed a form and come back to pay at a later date. “That’s handy to know,” I said, “but what am I going to do now?”


“Unless you can get the car here I can’t do anything, I’m afraid,” the cashier informed me. She was sympathetic to my predicament but sadly for me Nissan Cherrys don’t run on sympathy. I was in a bit of a pickle. Oh to be 19, I thought, when I was fit and strong. I could have pushed the car heroicly up the hill like a World’s Strongest Man contestant and onto the forecourt to fill her up.


I may not have been 19. I was certainly not fit and didn’t feel particularly strong but there was no choice. I had to give this a try. Admittedly I didn’t think it would be possible to get the car up the hill, let alone negotiate the roundabout (thankfully mine was the first exit), the quarter mile after the traffic lights and then turn the car into the petrol station in the time the feeder lights were on green. After all, competitors in World’s Strongest Man had a harness to help them and a flat track whenever they were pulling a car. Furthermore, from what I recalled, none of the competitors performed their feats of strength while wearing Hush Puppies and a pair of Farah slacks, either. Yet here I was about to attempt something that Hercules himself would have found daunting as I had no alternative. Well, I suppose I could have called the AA or someone but that would have cost money as I wasn’t a member and money wasn’t something I had much of.


The hill I had to push the car up is on the left.

The Cherry wasn’t the heaviest car in the world and as I released the handbrake I was confident that I could at least make it move forwards without much of a problem. Once I had it rolling I thought I would have a bit of momentum and would just have to keep going, pumping my legs like Walter Payton in his heyday. I got myself behind the car and started pushing the back of it, looking down as I did so. I reasoned that would be the best technique as seeing the progress I was making would be good to keep my spirits up. I started pushing and to my relief I started making steady progress. The first twenty feet passed by quite smoothly. Unfortunately though, this progress wasn’t being made in a straight line. With nobody around to help steer the car as I pushed it quickly veered into the rumble strip on the inside of the hard shoulder. Bugger. I quickly made my way to the drivers seat and wound down the window so that I could run from the back to the steering wheel and make corrections as I pushed. For the next few yards, as I approached the start of the hill, I pushed for a bit then ran to the side of the car to correct the steering, being sure not to over compensate and steer the car into the slip road where it could cause a hazard for those decelerating from the motorway.


Once the hill began I realised I would have to revise my plan. In the milliseconds it would take me to run around the car the incline of the hill would not only stop any momentum I had but could also see the car start rolling backwards. The dangers of that happening didn’t bear thinking about. What if I was unable to stop it once it rolled backwards and it careered back down the hill into the motorway and caused a pile up, injuries or even death? How I wished this car was like the one Fred Flintstone used to have! Sadly, as old as the Nissan Cherry was, it wasn’t old enough to be powered from the inside by my own feet and so I had to find another method. I decided that I would stand and push the driver side window arch. This wouldn’t give me as much traction as pushing the rear end of the car but it would allow me to steer it more effectively.


As I got half way up the hill I felt myself losing energy. I no longer did any sort of exercise at all and so my heart was beating with all the pace and power of a pneumatic drill. My feet kept slipping as if Hush Puppies hadn’t considered pushing a car single handedly up a motorway slip road when they designed the brogues that I was wearing. I had to keep going as if I’d stopped then I doubted I would be able to get it started again. It was one thing to get it rolling on the flat but on a hill it would be nearly impossible. And where the hell was my ‘good Samaritan’ to offer me a hand?! Were all these people whizzing past me thinking I was just a strongman doing some unorthodox training session for an upcoming event or something? Surely if I was a driver I would have stopped to offer a hand to someone if they were in a similar predicament, wouldn’t I? That nobody was coming to my assistance was dispiriting but I knew I had to carry on. If I could get to the top then I could have a rest. Not far to go now.


It probably took me about 20 minutes of pushing to get the car to the top of the hill, by which time I was absolutely exhausted. Parts of me were aching that I’d long since forgotten I had. Having done no strength or cardio training for the previous 7 years and having had a diet that consisted of too much booze and junk food I was amazed that I’d even got this far. Sweating like Nigel Farage at a Rock Against Racism gig and struggling to breathe, now I was on a flat piece of road I had a break to catch my breath before attempting to merge the car from the hard shoulder into the main part of the road before negotiating the roundabout. I could have done with oxygen but had to make do with a few deep breaths of noxious motorway air. After a short break, I decided to move again. There were traffic lights that at least gave me a chance of getting the car into the road ahead of the traffic joining from the motorway. I had my hazard lights on and assumed that would be enough to placate any road rage from those whose journey home I was delaying, especially as this would not delay anyone too much in what is a busy stretch of road during rush hour. The hopes for the calming effect of the hazard lights proved inaccurate. Admittedly the car immediately behind me could see what was going on but those behind them had no idea why they were moving at less than walking pace. Beeps rang out seemingly from all around Greater Manchester until they got to overtake me. When they did get to see me I hoped they would be ashamed of themselves – I was quite evidently a broken man.


My route, in purple.

Having negotiated the roundabout (push, turn wheel, push again, turn wheel some more, push again, turn wheel back to straighten up, push again, turn wheel again etc) I was now faced with a dilemma. How to get to the right hand lane of three in order to be in the correct lane to turn into the petrol station. I had a quarter of a mile to think about it and decided that the very short break in traffic that was afforded by the traffic lights behind me would be my only chance. When that brief break in traffic happened I would then have to point the wheels to the right and just push as fast as I could. If it bumped into the central reservation then so be it, there wasn’t going to be much damage due to the slow speed of impact and at least I’d be in the right lane. There was also a tiny suggestion of a down slope to help me get up a head of steam before the adverse camber became noticeable.


I turned around and watched for the break in the traffic stream. There wasn’t as much of a break as I’d anticipated due to the fact that one of the lanes was blocked with a broken down Nissan Cherry, but through the darkness and basing my judgement on the distance of approaching headlights I could see a break of around 100 yards. I thanked the traffic lights, turned the steering wheel fully to the right, ran to the back of the car, summoned up every piece of energy that remained and pushed with all the might I could muster. Mercifully I was able to push for around 5 yards at full speed until my lungs, muscles, tendons, heart and every other fibre of my soul could push no more. At that exact moment, an ant could have pushed the car further than I could. If we’d traded then I doubt I could have pushed an ant’s ball of dung. But I couldn’t give up! I had to resume my position at the driver side window in time to control the wheel and steer it again so it was going in the direction the road was heading.


I had made it to the feeder lane and knew from previous journeys that they usually took ages to change. No man wearing Farah slacks has been so sweaty since the Milk Tray man was chased by an angry rottweiler. I was glad of the break, brief as it was. I was at the final fence of the Grand National, the final corner at Silverstone, about to go into victory formation in the Super Bowl. I only needed to push it across two lanes of traffic and I would reach the petrol forecourt, from where I could take my time in relative safety to push the car the few remaining yards to the pump.


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Being first in line at the lights with no other cars coming in my direction I was able to take my time a bit more with this final push. The cars waiting to go straight ahead after I’d completed the turn would just have to wait. I’d take their beeps on the chin as I had nothing else left. My body was spent as I got to the edge of the forecourt where I was dismayed to see that some sadist had put a ramp between the pavement and the forecourt. It only rose about 6 inches but that was too much. I was a broken man and there was no way I could generate any more energy to get the car over this. At least I thought I was. You see, when you’ve come so far on your own and feel quite heroic for having done so you don’t want anything other than admiration. So when a lad in a dark hoodie asked if I wanted a push I politely declined. “No, I’m alright, thanks,” I said unconvincingly. I then gave one last big push to get over the ramp, managed it, and took great pleasure as the Cherry rolled toward the pump.


I glanced toward the cashier, who hadn’t noticed me. I felt like waving my arms and shouting, “Hey! Remember me?! Do you see what I’ve done here on my own??!!!” in triumph. After a couple of pumps on the handle of the petrol pump (to alert the cashier that there was a pump that needs activating) she eventually looked up. Her face was one of utter astonishment, shock and probably fear that I was about to jiggle my flabby pecs at her like Jon Pall Sigmarsson. She gawped at the exhausted, sweaty mess of a man that stood before her, shaking her head with her mouth wide open and pointed me out to a colleague. I feared for a second that she wasn’t going to activate the pump, knowing full well that I had no money but thankfully she didn’t. I filled the tank and made my way in to complete the form, take my applause and revel in the acknowledgements of my heroism.


Once inside there was no hero’s welcome, but there was an acknowledgement that what I’d done wasn’t usual. I asked whether I could add a drink to my bill because my efforts had left me without any energy. The cashier said no, but told me she would get one for me as she feared I might keel over if I didn’t get something.


I went back the following day to pay and intended to buy something in return for the cashier but she wasn’t there. I’ve had no reason to fill up with fuel at that station since but each time I go past that junction I always check my fuel level just in case. I’m also tempted to invest in a harness and always carry it in my boot, though I still use the technique for assessing when I need to fill up with fuel and have never run out of fuel since.