OVER THE HILL AT 30
By Ian Wilkerson, Evening Post, 28 June 2003
Everyone can be prone to opening their gob before their brain is in gear and now I have landed myself in it big style.
Before we get going, there's a few things to sort out and we're waiting for the start of the players' meeting. It's the first day of pre-season training and I should be hovering around with tape recorder poised to catch up with a few of the sun-tanned players who nod their hellos and ask about signings as I sit in the car.
What I should not be contemplating is getting changed and doing a bit of a workout myself.
And it was all my idea. Where's the straitjacket?
I'm prepared as I will ever be, passing on the two-sausages-bacon-poached-egg-toast-and-beans usual from the works canteen in favour of bran flakes for breakfast.
I even had spaghetti for dinner the night before in search of some carbohydrates, for what use they will do.
It's just like your first day at school.
Deep breath and march in after the manager, who has just turned up.
"You look nervous," says Keith Curle, with a smile that suggests he is going to enjoy himself for the next couple of hours, most probably at my expense.
There really is no turning back, no hamstring injury to feign as we cross the pitch to the changing rooms.
It really is now or never - and never is becoming an increasingly attractive offer.
The cricket blares in the background, there's a game of pool going on and conversation concerns holidays, women (typically) and Big Brother.
The players, all of which are younger than my 30 years, are seemingly as addicted to sitting in their house watching other people sitting in a house as everyone else.
Finally we are called through and Curle outlines the aims he has for the season.
"You're back earlier than a lot of clubs but we're not going to go mad early on.
"We'll have some days when we really put you through it but we'll just get back into it first."
This sounds encouraging.
"Right, go and get changed and be at the minibus in 20 minutes."
I apologise in advance to anyone who signs for Stags and acquires the number 23 shirt.
It might now be stretched a bit.
The players have been fitted with heart monitors to gauge their progress, but Junior Mendes takes the last one in the box and I will be unable to give them an indication of how their performances rank with a member of the great unfit.
All ready, we pile into the minibus, off on a magical mystery tour, heading out towards Clipstone.
None of us know what we are in for and when John Gannon, sat beside me at the front of the bus, says they are going to drop me off and get me to run back five miles, I laugh nervously.
Then we turn into the Vicar Water Country Park and look up to the hills.
Now there really is no escape.
"Now we'll see who has done their programme and who spent all summer drinking.
"If anyone finishes behind Ian, they are going to get shot and he's been doing a bit so be warned."
I'm the only one not laughing.
After disembarking we start running, on the flat, at a pretty leisurely pace.
Safe in the knowledge that peaking too early could have disastrous consequences, I settle in midfield and manage to listen in and laugh at conversations that still seem to revolve around girls from Blackburn that were met in Ibiza.
It's a nice day and not too hot. I'm actually enjoying it...
My midfield position is threatened and I soon slip to the back as I find myself trudging up a hill, a stony version of a similar gradient to the steepest sections of Maid Marion Way, which I already know will give me nightmares for months.
All I can see is distant dots at the top but I manage to slog my way up just in time for them to walk back down again.
Curle is out front and turns halfway down and tells us to get into groups of four.
"Run up to Gans but don't sprint. Just under three quarters."
The groups leave about ten seconds apart and I'm in the third group of four. Andy White, Iyseden Christie, Lee Williamson and me.
From the first few steps I'm way behind.
Had anyone been at the bottom of the hill, they may have had an optical illusion as it seemed the other three were standing still and I was running backwards.
Soon the next group overtook me and the one after that. And then they are only going to do it again.
"You don't have to do it all," says Gannon and I gratefully accept his invitation for a breather.
Curle is out front again, he'll turn around in a minute. Hold on, come back! He's going to the bottom. Oh, hell!
This time I am right at the back and the boys are disappearing over the hill as I nod to Alex, our photographer who is taking great pleasure in my suffering.
We decide to walk, following the snake that is heading for the lake at the bottom of the other side. I look at the people fishing and contemplate covering a sport conducted at a more sedate pace.
Just as I get there, six players run past, asking me where I've been, on their way to a lap of the lake, which is about half a mile.
I stay on the bridge and look after Mendes's inhaler.
There is a time to participate and a time to spectate so I take the latter option.
Everyone circumnavigates the water and then goes again in the opposite direction.
Then they are done for the day and we jog and walk back to the minibus.
I've got through it.
I can't do both at once and do my best not to fall over. I reflect that it has been an eye-opener and I am shattered but happy as well.
After all, this is the nearest I will ever come to being a professional footballer.
After lunch of chicken soup followed by a jacket potato with cheese and beans, I pop my head round the door to say thanks to Curle.
"There's no point doing too much," he says. "I've had it tough on the first day back before and it's hell, but you don't benefit from days two, three and four because you are too tired.
"Anyway, you coming tomorrow?"
Blimey, is that the time? I must get back to the office.
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