Mission complete... kind of
In the first of a series of blogs, Ben Dirs outlined why he set upon the path to fitness. In the second, he described his early struggles. In the third, all the hard work was starting to pay off. In the fourth and final instalment, we discover just how far he has come.
An odd thing happened the other day: an old friend, not noted for his love of healthy eating, called me from a supermarket to ask what he should buy for dinner. From bafflement to mild curiosity, suddenly my quest for fitness is all anyone wants to talk to me about. And as they pump me for tips and pointers, I can sense what they are thinking: if this muppet can pull this off, then maybe I can, too.
Not everyone has been supportive. One work colleague who got sucked into my world of no carbs, spinach-based meals and twice-daily exercise accused me of ruining his life. Let's be honest, it couldn't have been much of a life.
In addition, while my first two blogs garnered an almost unanimously positive response, negativity had seeped in by the third. It is an insight into the British psyche - as someone pointed out, everyone is happy to get behind a fat bloke, but once a fat bloke starts becoming a thin bloke, the knives come out.
From the outset, I said the point of these blogs was two-fold: first, to get myself in some sort of nick; subsequently, to show that anyone else can get in some sort of nick, too. Writing about oneself is self-indulgent - that is a given. But the underlying hope was that my experiences would resonate with the reader: the bloke who is getting married in the summer, the woman with a beach holiday booked, my mate who is embarrassed to take his T-shirt off in the marital boudoir. You know who you are.
"Don't be fooled by the ribs that I got - I'm still, I'm still Benny from the block..."
My six weeks are up, the figures are in: 20lbs shed, my body fat down by 7.5%. Even Matt Lovell, RFU and Tottenham Hotspur nutritionist and the man who set me on the path to fitness, looked shocked. I have not been this trim since I was 18. Which is grand, but also slightly depressing: all these years I have been cooking on half gas.
I never quite made middleweight, but as I write I am bang on the 12st super-middleweight limit. As for that six-pack... well, almost. It is there, I can see it, peering through the fur on my stomach like an old friend at a frosted window. I knew I should have shaved.
Of course I am going to say this now, but the six-pack was only ever a journalistic flight, there was always a more prosaic side to the mission. What if I had to save someone from a burning building? What if I got started on by a gang of school kids? In both cases, I probably would have been rubbered. Now? I reckon I could even have some of you.
John Houston, who runs South Moreton Boxing Club, might disagree. Houston's gym, set up in a converted barn in the Oxfordshire countryside, seemed as good a place as any to gauge how far I had come. "Get yourself down here for six thirty am," said Houston over the phone, "we'll be all wrapped up by eight." Turns out he meant pm.
I negotiate the morning 'squad' session just fine. It is when I pull the gloves on that things go awry. As Houston barks out the intended combinations, it occurs to me that pad-work is like a violent version of Simon Says. "One" for a jab, "two" for a cross, "three" for a hook to the body, "four" for a hook to the head.
Former boxer Mark Kaylor summed it up best: "I'm concentrating so much I don't know what I'm doing half the time." He was a British champion, so what chance did I have.
Before I know it, Houston's got the headguard on me and we are ready for a spar. That is I think I am ready, until it occurs to me Houston has neglected to teach me any defence. To Houston, a man who has fought Julius Francis - who in turn fought Mike Tyson - my jab must feel like a stick of rhubarb.
As he sags on the ropes, allowing me to tee off on his midriff, I try to think of someone I hate in the world. Problem is, I don't really hate anyone, but into my head pops Lionel Blair. By round three, I am so lacking in crackle, Blair's superior footwork would probably have given him the edge.
Fortunately, Houston is a kind man. "You've gone from unconscious incompetence, where you didn't know what you were doing and you couldn't do it anyway, to conscious incompetence, so you're aware of the mistakes you're making. And now you're aware of what you're doing wrong, you're on the road to doing it right," he explains.
No matter, I was never going to make it as a boxer anyway. But that is not the point, which is at least I was fit enough to give it a go in the first place.
Once upon a time in Romford... Dirs was the man who lost everything - except his beer gut
Having got myself in some semblance of shape, I realise the lessons can be applied to other areas of my life. I recently signed up to write a book, 70,000 words in less than two months. For those wondering what that equates to, it equates to borderline madness. But I am up for it, bring it on. I banged out 5,000 words on the first day, and I have not done that since I was writing my dissertation. And I copied most of that.
Getting fit has its downsides. Remember that girl from the first blog? The one DEPMUD TOG I by? We met up. I decided to drink white wine (schoolboy error: I went straight, she was on spritzers). It ended badly. Luckily, if I have a philosophy in life it is that whatever does not kill you will make a funny story. Eventually.
The four healthy meals a day, the exercise, none of it was too painful. No cravings, and despite the melodrama, the body stood up just fine. But the human mind can be a nasty piece of work: "You're quite fit now, pal," it whispers, "you might as well have a fag." As a wise man once said, "giving up smoking is easy, I've done it hundreds of times".
Where do I go from here? Helpful friends have suggested I just get even fatter than I was before, like De Niro in Raging Bull - "I remember those cheers, they still ring in my ears" - but I will pay no heed. However, the general consensus is I need "a hook".
"You could be a classic case of dropping out of exercise in the next three months, the interest waning," says Houston, "because you don't have that sports history behind you, which reinforces why you're exercising in the first place.
"There's no point in driving into you 'you must be fit, you must train' because eventually your brain will be like 'for what? Why don't I just go down the pub?' There has to be a hook." Mañana, John, hooks can wait until mañana...
In Mission Impossible 2, I posed the question: "Take away the booze and fags and who am I?" The answer? I am the same person, except without the booze and fags. The booze, the fags, the burgers, the pizzas and the lack of exercise, they only define you if you allow them to. Bit deep? Forgive me, it has been an emotional six weeks.
To those who have been inspired to follow in my footsteps, you will not regret it. You might not be running a marathon or cycling to Paris any time soon, but you will definitely look better striding through the house in your smalls. And to all the girls I've loved before - sorry, it could have been so much better.