"Alright, would you rather do 10,000 pressups… or 1,000 muscle ups?"
It wasn’t a surprising question to be asked since we ask each other these kinds of things all the time, like “Could you take that drop and walk away?”, or “If this balcony was going to collapse in 10 seconds, what would you do?” and in fact both questions I had answered in the last week.
But even though these questions are always being circulated amongst us and might raise a smile, they’re always deadly serious, and your answer is expected to be also. If the next day that balcony did begin to collapse and you found yourself standing on it, what WOULD you do? That’s the point, to get you thinking and to make you find an answer so that if it happens, well you have the answer already, there’s no more thought needed.
Anyway, after a few minutes I said I’d rather do 1,000 muscle ups and we went back to eating our food in the Brazilian Chinese restaurant… that is, a restaurant in Brazil that serves Chinese food. Then I really began to think about it and we talked it over a little more, estimating the time it might take, how it would compare to the three hundred muscle ups we had done the year before, whether it would be possible or not within 24 hours etc.
Then I said something that I knew might as well be carved in stone, “I’m gonna do it”. I knew I’d have to keep my word, with these guys it’s always the same and if you say you’ll do it then you have to do it. Within fifteen minutes, Dan was in too, and within the hour, Stephane had committed himself, then Bruno. We laughed over dinner at the idea of it but in the backs of our minds we knew we’d just signed up for something we would probably regret.
Although we were bound by PKG law to try and complete the thousand anyway, we wanted a good cause to do it for as we thought we might be able to raise some money for this craziness. It quickly became obvious that we should try to raise more funding for Naoki and his family to cover their hospital fees from the Summer and so our planning was complete.
Six months later and I’m standing in a chilly converted warehouse gym known as OLF, or the Optimal Life Fitness Centre, in East London. I’m excited and glad that we’re about to begin the challenge and as I look around I see nervous smiles, focused eyes, chalked hands, people taping their fingers and everyone making last minute preparations in the area they had chosen to face this beast. Everyone’s plan is slightly different and everyone’s training was slightly different but what is the same for all of us is that we’re staring down the barrel at 1,000 muscle ups each. I think it’s fair to say that 95% of the human population couldn’t execute a single muscle up and here we were, planning on doing 1,000. Each. Our team of four had grown to a team of eight over the months and it was time for us all to get this underway.
The highly anticipated start was a relief in some ways and made me smile not just because I was with my friends facing another crazy challenge but because the big build up only lasted about 10 seconds as we all jumped up and grabbed the bar and did no more than three or four muscle ups each, before dropping down and resting. This was a strategic and tactical move that we’d all seemed to agree on for pacing yourself was going to be the key to completion.
We were on the way and what follows from here is a very one sided account as I have little idea of what went on around me for the next sixteen hours…
255 muscle ups and 1 hour, 49 minutes.
I’m feeling good, hands are taped, chalked and still in one piece. I briefly think about the 300 challenge which I did quite a while ago and remember it took me 2 hours and 11 minutes last time. Even though this is a very different kind of challenge, I think I’d like to beat that by just a minute or so to improve my time but I don’t want to push myself too much.
300 muscle ups and 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Two minutes faster than last time and I’m still feeling not too bad. I had begun today by doing three muscle ups in a row then dropping and resting a whole minute before doing the same again and repeating the process. It was working well but I was beginning to feel that it wasn’t going to be long before I failed to complete a set of three.
363 muscle ups and I switch to doubles.
I’m over a third of the way and change my pattern to two every minute. A few of the guys had also completed the 300 challenge within the two hour thirty minute time limit and I was happy to take a two minute break to shake their hands and congratulate them.
401 muscle ups and 3 hours, 3 minutes.
It had been building up for a while but so slowly and steadily that I hadn’t really heard my body telling me that I felt a bit sick. Whether it was low blood sugar, plain hunger or just the sustained effort, I needed a break and food. It was worrying to stop because I feared I might seize up, get cold and find it hard to restart but I had to deal with this feeling now or I might not be able to continue at all.
500 muscle ups and 4 hours, 54 minutes.
I’m halfway there and the break had been perfectly timed. I had sat down for 20 minutes, eaten a beef burger that had been grilled at 6am that morning and munched on some biscuits, had some tea, some water, an apple and half a banana. At first I felt cold but the food really helped me to feel better and ward off the sick feeling. Five minutes on the rowing machine had warmed me back up but not tired me out and the time between 400 and 500 went quite quickly. Time, in general, was moving quickly. I couldn’t believe we’d been going for almost five hours already and my original goal of completing the challenge in around ten hours was still on track.
600 muscle ups and 6 hours, 39 minutes.
And there it was. The good times were over, the fun had stopped and everything was not ok. It was far from ok. I had some pain in my elbows as the tendons were becoming inflamed and every repetition was beginning to hurt. Shirley and Andy had taped, and re-taped my hands countless times and I was resting more and more between sets. It was time to be honest with myself. 600 sounds like a lot and on any other day it would be, but when you’re left with 400 muscle ups, you are far from done. This is where the line was drawn and it was becoming obvious which techniques worked best, whose training methods had been most effective for this challenge and just how much we wanted to finish this.
I decided that if the pain got much worse, then I would think about stopping but right now I was going to keep going, one muscle up at a time, and one minute at a time.
700 muscle ups.
I have no record on my paper as to when I reached 700. It wasn’t a relief or significant enough to remember to make a note and I just remember the pain in my elbows had become worse. Andy had managed to tape my hands up in a way that the tape seemed to fuse together and hold tight for the rest of the night, which I was very grateful for, and Joe had just finished his last muscle up of the 1,000 which was a fantastic moment and gave us all hope that the end was near. Joe’s plan had been to abandon any kind of timing and just feel it all out. When he felt good, he did a bit more, when he felt bad, he did a bit less and by listening to his body throughout the whole process and sticking with a technique that worked for him, he blasted through the whole thing in around eight and a half hours – an incredible achievement.
There were many peaks and valleys throughout the day and if I could have started again I decided I would have increased my pace during the peaks and just relaxed a bit in the valleys to reserve my strength. I had been too regimented in my approach and by doing three each time then resting a whole minute, I was pushing too much when I was tiring but not really doing very much at all whilst I was fresh.
Andy had also finished his 300 reps around this time and this was a fantastic achievement. His original plan had been to try and hit 100, and when he got there he just kept going and then he aimed for 200. When he informed me that he had to leave soon to attend his work’s Christmas dinner, but felt like he could have perhaps reached 300, I couldn’t help but ask him which he would remember more in ten years time… doing 300 muscle ups or going to his work dinner, and sure enough after some thought, he stayed and polished off all 300 with good form. We were all really happy for him and proud to see him reach his goal. You can read his version of events and check out more photos of the day here.
800 muscle ups and 10 hours, 20 minutes.
I’d lost any sense of time and progress had all but stopped. I would walk up to the bar, jump and grab, pull up, lean forward and push only to experience pain in my elbows above and beyond any I’ve felt before and on the way down it hurt just as much, if not more. I would drop, walk around for a minute or two, come back and repeat the process. It was murder. Constant pain, fatigue, tightness and the feeling of never getting any closer to finishing enveloped me. The problem with this kind of thing is that the more time you take, the more the magnitude of everything is multiplied. As the hours pass and the body is denied rest and forced to work on and on, the mind is also driven to places it hasn’t been before. I knew this moment would come but wasn’t sure when and it was fast becoming just as much of a mental battle as a physical one.
900 muscle ups and 13 hours.
It had taken me almost three hours to do the last 100 muscle ups and I was aware that there was a good chance it could take longer than that for the last 100. The pain hadn’t increased but it was ever present and substantial. The difference was that now it hurt all of the time, not just during the muscle up. I couldn’t fully bend my arms due to the tight muscles, my neck and traps felt like knotted lead and oddly enough my abs were destroyed. I walked around and began laughing to myself at how ridiculous the whole situation was. Why do we do this? Why am I continuing to endure this? I could just stop now, go home and sleep. Nobody would think any less of me, it’s not a matter of ego… it was something else. Despite feeling the way I did and being in the amount of pain I was in, it was a rush to feel so alive and be aware of it.
Yao was a massive help in massaging my elbows, neck and shoulders a few times during the night, which would relieve the worst of the pain for about twenty minutes or so before everything returned to the way it was. The simple cups of tea from Naomi, Tracey and Shirley were the sweetest and greatest things I was sure I’d ever tasted and with nothing else to be happy about, I really began to appreciate and enjoy the little things… like a short text message from a friend wishing me luck or a few words from one of the other guys.
Chris had just finished his last rep of his hard fought campaign across the scaffolding from me and it was another landmark moment for the guys still fighting on as we were getting closer to reaching the end too. Another brief pause to congratulate him was followed by another trip to the bar to grind a repetition out.
It was also around now that I came out of my bubble a little bit and looked around. For the past couple of hours I’d heard a rhythmic pounding in the background somewhere every minute or so and hadn’t thought much of it even though I knew what had been happening. Brian was in the background with a sledgehammer and was smashing a tractor tyre to pieces with it every minute or so. I found out he was aiming for 1,000 tyre slams with the hammer and could see it was taking a toll on him. I’d been so consumed in my own little world that I hadn’t realised just what all the noise had been about. We talked for a few minutes then went back to work but there seemed to have been an unspoken agreement made during our brief moment together… we’d both finish this. He would hammer, I would do a muscle up. I would do a muscle up, he would hammer. When one went for it, the other one did and it helped a great deal to work with someone even if it was just for a little while. I was alone on the scaffolding at this point as the others had either finished, stopped or were taking a break and as the minutes and hours passed I could taste the end. We both could.
1,001 muscle ups and 15 hours, 45 minutes.
The last 30 had been slow, but knowing I didn’t have to hold anything back now, I was speeding up a little toward the end. Words of encouragement and the steady music in the background which had gone from death metal to hip-hop to movie soundtracks and back, three times, helped to see me through and I remember the moment where I had three reps left. No matter what happened, I would finish. It would all be over soon. With one left, I wandered around and knew that as always, this was never going to finish on 1,000 and that there is always enough left in you for one more repetition to dedicate to the others around me to thank them for their support and to the other guys who had been battling alongside me. We start together, we finish together, as always.
It was also for everyone who had donated over the last couple of weeks, whether it had been in blood or otherwise. The thousandth rep and the one after were done back to back and as I dropped down there wasn’t much to feel. Nothing really changed but as I was congratulated by the people around me I knew a lot had changed inside. I needed food, water and rest more than anything else but I just wanted to sit down for a minute and breathe. I spent the next half hour slowly eating a Chinese takeaway that Annty and Shirley had gone to pick up a while ago. Nothing else had been open at that time of night but nothing could have tasted better, I was sure of it.
After Annty carefully cut me out of my taped up hands, I lay on the gym floor wearing all of my clothes and drifted in and out of a light sleep. I woke up to congratulate Jun for finishing his last rep and went back to lying down again as standing up was too much effort. Everything from the waist upwards ached more than it has ever before and my muscles were so tight I felt like I was wearing a straight jacket. Not everyone had finished so we opted to stay overnight on the gym floor and try to get some sleep but a never ending hunger kept me awake and munching on food on the floor. At some point I passed out and came around as the last few reps of the day were being polished off at 9am, twenty-three hours after the first few were completed.
It was all over. Was it worth it?
My muscle up technique probably hasn’t improved and I doubt my max reps have increased much, if it all. I won’t be stronger after this challenge. My tendons and ligaments are only just feeling normal now, eleven days later and I still get tired quickly from exercise.
It wasn’t functional or efficient but yes, it was worth it. In the same way running a marathon is worth it. Just like winning a heavyweight title is worth it. Training is for something and you train to meet a goal or to get closer to where you want to be. If all we ever did was train when we were fresh and have short, effective sessions then yes, we would progress quickly but to what end? Where is the challenge? Where is the doubt? Where is the growth?
Knowing that I can complete 1,000 muscle ups back to back in one session and more importantly that I can push through levels of sustained pain that I hadn’t experienced before, made it worth it. Without chaos, nothing evolves.
My biggest thanks go to everyone who came to support us at OLF, from BJ and Tommy for letting us use the gym and to Julie for giving us a lift in the car bright and early in the morning. To Naomi, Tracey, Shirley and Annty for keeping the kettle full and the never ending support and to Brian for keeping the rhythm with his hammer. Thanks to Andy for helping me tape my hands and to CJ for dropping by to offer his support. Thanks to Yao and Bruno for their massages and encouragement. Thanks to Peter and Alli for dropping by later to continue the support. Thanks to Joe for the bite of chocolate cheese cake and for showing us the way and to Chris for generally battling through but mostly for his ‘power hour’ with Disturbed that lifted the mood. Thanks to everyone who donated in muscle ups or otherwise but my greatest thanks to all the guys who were next to me on the scaffolding, it would’ve been a far tougher challenge without you.
Until the next crazy challenge, be sure to check out Andy's version of events and photographs here