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Vaulting into the unknown

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Tom Fordyce | 14:25 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009

There are many ways you'd ideally like to feel before your first ever crack at the pole vault - strong, spring-heeled, as energetic and bouncy as a teenage flea.

What you wouldn't want is to be struck down by a dose of man-flu so dismal that you're left with legs that feel like sandbags and all the brute strength of an asthmatic kitten.

Ordinarily under such circumstances I'd retire to bed with a cold compress and a month's back issues of Athletics Weekly. Right now, however, ordinarily has nothing to do with it.

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There are just three months and three weeks to go until I have to complete an entire decathlon in under an hour. I have never even held a vaulting pole before. Surrender now and the battle is truly over before it has even begun.

Mentally, too, this feels like the first true test of my calibre as a wannabe decathlete.

This is not a sport for the weak of mind or limb. Pain-barriers must be smashed. Doubts must be crushed. Obstacles must be ignored, except the ones I have to jump over or hurdle.

Did Dean Macey allow the fact that he could barely walk without sticks prevent him from winning bronze in a new PB at the 2001 Worlds in Edmonton?

Would Daley, a man who used to train three times on Christmas Day alone, allow a mere sniffle to stand between him and a heap of hard work?

I rest my case.

On last week's blog, user decathlonDave recounted his own first attempt at pole vaulting. "In trying to emulate the great Daley, I held the pole at the very end, sprinted down the track, planted the pole and shot straight up vertically and straight back down onto the track."


Happily for me, training methodology has moved on a fraction since then.

Down at Brunel University's indoor centre, coach Ian Grant begins by getting me to hold the pole vertically by my side, my right hand gripping it as high as I can. My left hand holds it just above my head.

For the first few minutes, I practise walking slowly forward, planting the pole on the ground and swinging myself gently through, right knee leading, left leg trailing behind me.

On one hand it lacks the splendid Charge of the Light Brigade glory of decathlonDave's approach, not to mention any semblance of the event as practised by Yelena Isinbayeva and Steve Hooker. At the same time, my arms are still in their sockets.

After every couple of swings, Ian moves my hands another six inches up the pole. After five minutes, I'm landing on the mat, even if the temptation is to flop on it face downwards and fall into a deep flu-ridden sleep.

It doesn't take long until you're feeling quite high off the ground - relative to your normal eye level, at least. The problems are more to do with what I'm doing when I'm up there.

I'm supposed to be pushing the pole through with my right hand, keeping my head and chest straight on and my hips still. Instead, with a brain full of delusional Bubka heroics, I'm swinging myself around like a child on a swing.

In my head, I'm throwing my legs forward in the manner of someone ready to invert themselves over a bar five metres off the ground. In reality I'm doing an impression of a monkey holding onto the branch of a storm-lashed tree.

Ian is full of encouragement. "Lots of people don't manage to penetrate the bed on their first attempt," he says, somewhat cryptically.

When the time comes to walk down the runway itself, I find myself subconsciously aping the mannerisms of a proper vaulter - resting the pole on my right shoulder, holding it aloft with one hand, rocking back repeatedly on my heels.

No matter that my run-up is all of six paces, and that it would be more accurately described as a stutter-up. It's all I can do not to start ostentatiously clapping at an imaginary grandstand.

The first effort is nothing less than shambolic. Concentrating on not missing the box with the end of the pole, I forget everything else I've been told, ping sideways and fall off the pole in a tangle of weary limbs.

Three attempts later, it suddenly clicks. My feet are six feet off the ground. One attempt later, it all falls apart again.

Either way, it's sensational fun. Just falling onto the mat from a decent height is enjoyable enough - the sort of thing they should offer on stag-do's. Doing so while flipping off a long fibreglass pole is even better. Why don't people do this more often?

By the end of the hour-long session, there are some clear positives. I'm running - well, jogging - with the pole, landing it in the box and swinging through onto the mat. When Ian lowers the elasticated foam bar to two metres, I even manage to get over it and lob the pole away before that follows me through.

On the downside, the concept of a solid bar to get over is still to be introduced. My shoulders, hip-flexors and arms are whinging in a way that Daley never would. And I'm yet to make the pole bend, let alone get close to the 3.20m I need to score 400 points - the mark I require to beat the overall target of 4,000 points.

Judge it yourself from the cumbersome antics in the accompanying video. If you've got the inclination and expertise, pass on all the tips you have. If you have neither, feel free to scoff. With hurdles and javelin as yet untouched, there's plenty more where that came from...

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