Day 445

Went back to the fencing club tonight. First time I’d picked up a blade since the fall.

Thursday is our “open floor” night — no lesson, no drilling, just throw on your gear and mix it up. Only six people, on the light side for a Thursday. Many of the people I’ve competed with don’t know if they’re coming back. I wish them well, but also hope they change their minds. Their wit is one thing I hope won’t be permanently lost due to the pandemic.

Our coach set a club policy on masking — if one person needs to wear a mask, everyone must. One of the teens tonight hasn’t been vaccinated yet, so I wore a mask designed for working out under my fencing mask. This mask provided better air intake and therefore worked better than the masks I’d attempted to wear when fencing last summer (a decision that now seems foolish). When the unvaccinated teen left, the three of us still at the club took off our masks — the relief was immediate. I can wear this new mask as I make my way back into the sport, but I’m really looking forward to discarding it.

As I completely expect, the effect of spending so much time away from fencing was evident. I attempted a simple lunge soon into my first bout, but with no flexibility in my legs I kinda stumbled forward. I felt like a hippo trying to tap dance, and was thankful that I didn’t fall on my face.

But when I switched from foil after a few bouts and put on my saber gear, I finally felt the exhilaration that came to me so often on Thursday nights before COVID. The action in saber is so swift that you can only rely on instinct and reflexes; there’s no time for planning a strategy and worrying about its success. You just go, focusing all your energy into single bursts of action. Every cell in my body feels alive when I’m fencing saber, and it’s a thrill I’ve missed sorely this past year and hope to never have to abandon again.

Day 415

Didn’t blog much last week, and while COVID and my increasingly busy schedule are convenient excuses, the truth is that I didn’t feel inspired. Rather than go through the motions, I decided to take a week off. Now I’m back to continue this odd little journal of pandemic-inspired observations.

***

Went to the gym this morning for the first time since at least November, most likely further back.

Today was about feeling comfortable and getting re-acclimated rather than pushing myself. Got on the treadmill and jogged for 25 minutes, with a maximum speed of 3.0 MPH and no incline, a pace brisk enough to produce a full-body sweat. My knees are always the most sensitive part of my body when running, and I felt enough tension down there to convince me not to dial up the speed or incline. As I write this a few hours later I feel fine, but the chance of overnight stiffness is pretty high. Assuming I’m not terribly laid up tomorrow, going to the gym on Tuesday morning will return to my weekly routine.

I wore a mask designed for exercising the entire time. When properly tightened the edges fully cover the nose and mouth, with the fabric around the mouth molded into a kind of pouch that makes heavy breathing noticeably easier. It never went unnoticed, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. If I have to wear it to work out, I’m more than willing.

How that mask will hold up when I return to the fencing club, where I get my most rigorous and enjoyable exercise, could be another story. Until I stopped going in the fall when the pandemic reached dangerous levels, wearing a cloth mask under my fencing helmet, with its sturdy metal cage close to my face, was at times unbearable. I had to take frequent breaks when sparring at practice; competing in tournaments was overwhelming. But if I employ the take it easy approach I used today at the gym, I expect to enjoy getting back to stabbing people (and getting stabbed by them) for fun.

I’ll use the busy schedule excuse to explain why I’m not going to the club this week. Next week should work out, and I’m looking forward to seeing my people again. Some of my friends there I haven’t seen since the fall, others in over a year. Walking into the club will be a victory far greater than any I could achieve in a bout.

Day 259

COVID is disrupting or outright eliminating many of my usual exercising activities, which makes the coming of winter and reduction in outside activity even more ominous.

I haven’t been to my fencing club in several months. Classes and private lessons are still being offered, but with the requirement to wear a cloth mask under our regular metal face coverings. I’ve heard of studies that have demonstrated masks don’t significantly inhibit oxygen intake while exercising, but I’ve never felt comfortable wearing a second mask while fencing. I feel like I’m suffocating… I believe and respect those who say it doesn’t bother them, but the experience is completely unsettling to me. People need to wear masks, even when fencing. I totally get it. And while it pains me to step away from the sport until the pandemic is under control, I don’t see an alternative.

My wife attends Pilates classes regularly, and at the start of 2019 got me interested in the activity. I enjoyed the strength and flexibility training, and attended a class with my wife one morning a week. After a two-month COVID shutdown in the spring, our Pilates studio reopened with smaller class sizes. Masks weren’t required by all instructors; we chose those who made them mandatory. I didn’t encounter the breathing problem I had with fencing, both because the physical effort wasn’t as great and there wasn’t this large metal shield over the mask. I looked forward to the Wednesday morning class… and then the Pilates studio closed, for good, at the beginning of November. Another small business casualty. There are other studios within driving distance, and while my wife has been making the trip, I haven’t wanted to start over again. Not yet, anyway.

There was still the community gym, also operating at reduced capacity and with stricter masking requirements. After a few weeks of experimenting with different times, I found late mornings to be the least crowded. According to the center’s web site, the building is still open. Yet with last week’s directive to stay at home whenever possible, it doesn’t seem right to be going there.

There are opportunities at home. For several years I’ve been using a recumbent stationary bike in the living room (“you have to put it where you live” — best sales advice I ever received), and have been using it more as outside options began disappearing. I also have a fencing workout area set up in the basement, which I’ll resume using once my enthusiasm for the sport returns. We also ordered a Pilates machine (they’re called reformers for some odd reason) last month that should finally arrive this week; demand for home exercise equipment has far exceeded supply. It’ll take up a good deal of space in the sunroom, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

There’s been talk that many remote workers won’t want to return to the office once the pandemic restrictions are eliminated. I don’t expect the same will hold for exercising. There’s an energy I get when I’m surrounded by people focused on exerting their bodies, and I hope to feel that energy again sometime soon.

An Unusual Practice

I had a private lesson with my fencing coach this morning, a session unusual for two reasons — it was my first since June, and my first ever outdoors.

When COVID-19 lockdowns began lifting in late May, I returned to the fencing club for group and private lessons for about a month. Then our state’s infection numbers increased sharply, and masks were mandated throughout the state. Being so close to people breathing heavily didn’t seem like such a good idea, so I told my coach I’d be away for a while.

However, I did commit to practicing more at home. At least once a week, many times twice, occasionally a third. My goal was to keep my skills from deteriorating, and today’s lesson promised to test whether my approach worked.

My coach lives fifteen minutes from my house, and her home has a small park with an asphalt basketball court that is rarely used. The morning was warm and muggy from yesterday’s rain, with abundant sunshine from a mostly cloudless sky. We worked on beat attacks, where timing is the key to success. On defense, beat the opponent’s blade in the middle of their advance; on offense, beat the blade as you complete your advance. Finish the beat with a lunge, adding a disengage if necessary. It’s not a skill I worked on at home, so my timing was hardly perfect. But in regards to core skills — hand position, balance, lunge form — my coach was very positive. All that work at home seems to have paid off.

We’re going to make outdoor lessons every week so long as the weather holds up, which may mean I’ll be working with my coach on that basketball court all the way into November. Maybe by then the COVID-19 situation will have improved enough for me to feel comfortable returning to the club.

Kinesiology Tape

I don’t make a habit of writing product endorsements on this blog, but I simply have to relate my recent experience with a particular sports medicine device.

As I mentioned on becoming a right-handed fencer again, my left elbow started aching over the winter. I wore a brace over my forearm for several months, and while the brace did alleviate some of the discomfort, I never felt my elbow was healing.

Last month, I visited my sister, who happens to be an experienced physical therapist. She took one look at my brace, and went straight to her supply cabinet. She then cut a strip of kinesiology tape and attached it to the back of my forearm, as shown in the above picture.

From what little I understand of the science, the tape relieves pressure from over the inflamed tendons, allowing them to heal. Personally, I never felt any tugging, so when I first started using the tape I wondered if it was actually doing any benefit.

I’m glad I kept my cynicism at bay, because after only three weeks of using the kinesiology tape, my elbow pain disappeared. As in, it doesn’t hurt any more.

In case you’re curious, the tape is applied like a very large bandage, only with stronger adhesive. The edges of the tape start curling up after a couple of days, and after around five days it’s time to tear it off and apply a new strip of tape. You can shower and bathe over it without having to take it off.

This relief for my left elbow forces me to choose between Renny and Lenny again. Perhaps Renny will appear in some tournaments, and Lenny in others. (You can switch fencing arms during a tournament, so long as all the gear for both arms has passed pre-competition testing. But no, you can’t go full Inigo Montoya and switch arms in the middle of a bout!) But if either of them develops an elbow problem, I now have a solution for them.

Renny Returns

That’s my left forearm in the picture, and the black band wrapped around the middle is the result of a rare incident — a fencing injury.

Despite having its origin in the deadliest of blood sports (I’ve got a sword, and I’m gonna kill you with it), modern fencing has a remarkable safety record. Cuts only occur when a blade is broken in the middle of an attack that cannot be stopped; bruises are commonplace, and the stress placed on key joints — ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, wrists — are the source of the most serious fencing injuries, especially among veteran fencers like myself.

(And yes, older fencers call ourselves veterans. If you have a problem with that, come suit up and meet me on strip some time, and we’ll discuss which one of us is old.)

About a month ago, I woke up one morning to a throbbing left elbow. It’s been a little over a year since I switched fencing hands, and after decades of inactivity the exterior tendon of that elbow appears to have buckled under the strain. The common term for my condition is tennis elbow, and while it hasn’t bothered me during most activities, some actions are quite painful. I can lift objects, but bringing objects down from a height is difficult. I can read, write, and brush my teeth with my left hand without issue, but I now use my right when pulling doors open. And while fencing, I can hold the blade and even attack as I had before — but even a light parry will shoot enough pain through my arm to cause me to drop my weapon.

The black band in the picture is a tennis elbow brace. It’s wrapped tightly on the forearm, and forces the muscles above the brace to perform work with less assistance from the muscles closer to the elbow. As the elbow muscles rest, so too do the injured tendons. With time, the swelling decreases.

I fenced with the brace for a few weeks, but when it became clear the elbow was not getting better I decided it was time for a temporary switch back to being a right-handed fencer (fortunately, I haven’t sold my old equipment, making this a cost-free switch). So until my left elbow stops hurting, Lenny will be deferring to Renny.

Feats of the Feet

The sport of fencing engages the entire body, even the parts that are not targets or directly involved in scoring. Feet are especially critical, and to illustrate this idea I’ll use video I recorded at the recent NCAA Championship. (You’ll see the back of a lot of heads; I’m a fan, not a professional.)

As the footwork is very different for the three weapons, they’ll each get their own example.

Foil

In foil (where touches are scored with the point of the blade only, and the target area is limited to the torso), the feet are constantly moving, either forward or back. The fencer advances not only to come within striking distance, but to probe for weaknesses. Retreats can also be used strategically, as shown in this video. Notice how the fencer on the left comes in close and flicks his blade at the opponent, hoping to elicit a reaction; he then abandons his attack and moves backwards, drawing in the fencer on the right, who advances too far and gets hit with a perfectly timed attack from the left.

Epee

If foil is about constant back and forth, epee (touches scored only with the point, but the target area is the entire body) is about waiting. Epee fencers bounce on the balls of their feet as often than they advance or retreat, looking for an opportunity to attack. In this video, the fencer on the right matches the steady rhythm of his opponent, and strikes when the fencer on the left extends himself too far.

Saber

Nether the strategy of foil nor nuance of epee is anywhere to be found in saber (touches scored with any part of the blade, and the target is anywhere from the waist up). Don’t think — just go. Both fencers show remarkable athleticism in this video, and I’m not sure which is more impressive: the leap from the left, or how the fencer on the right was able to stand up after he ends up like he does.

I’m not going to reach the level of expertise I witnessed at the NCAA tournament, but I came away convinced more than ever that you fence with your feet.

Renny and Lenny

This photo was taken soon after I resumed fencing. After competing as a high school and college fencer, I had been away from the sport for nearly three decades, and within a month after getting back, I wondered why I had ever left.

Here is a more recent image, from the time I began practicing as a left-handed fencer. It has been a difficult experiment, as I’ve had to convince my legs that yes, I really do want the left to take the lead, and the right simply must provide the power.

Yesterday, I had a little fun with my transition.

My club conducts two week-long summer camps for student fencers, and this past week I helped our coach run the show (one benefit of my recent career change is the ability to say yes to myself more often). I enjoyed working with the youths — people who believe the coming generation is a collection of smartphone-addicted zombies need to spend time in the places young people want to go — and found that explaining and demonstrating our drills made me appreciate the importance of proper technique.

The final day of camp consisted of an in-house tournament, an opportunity to test the skills worked on during the week. Due to lack of lames for saber, we decided to forgo electronic scoring equipment for that weapon. I was suddenly inspired, and couldn’t resist making a proposal — “Why don’t I fence saber as both a lefty and a righty, to see which is my better hand?”

(Momentary aside for any Inigo Montoya fans who might be reading this — no, fencing rules do not allow you to switch hands in the middle of a bout. If you’re injured during a tournament and the on-site medical staff certifies you cannot continue competing with the hand you’ve been using, it is possible you could continue with the other, although it’s hard to imagine that same staff agreeing to let an injured fencer compete.)

Perhaps sensing a wavering of my transition, our coach was completely against my proposition. But after seeing the overwhelming enthusiasm of our campers to the idea, she had little choice but to acquiesce.

Two entries were made on the tournament whiteboard, and I volunteered my names be entered as Ken R and and Ken L. (Perhaps, in keeping with the tradition of this blog, it should have been Keigh Ahr and Keigh El.) But another coach then suggested that Kenny — only members of my fencing club call me Kenny, and they will always call me Kenny — should compete as Renny and Lenny. The suggestion was too brilliantly adorkable to do otherwise than win the day.

The results were not surprising. Renny and Lenny were closely matched, both winning two bouts and losing two others. However, Lenny was able to score one more touch in his losing bouts than did Renny, and surrendered one less touch in the bouts he won, giving Lenny a +3 indicator that bested Renny’s +1. “It’s time for Renny to retire,” our coach proclaimed at the end of the tournament, and I’m fine with that, because I’m getting used to the idea of being a little sinister when I fence.

The Spirit of Competing

The latest poem from Matt has nothing to do with fencing, but it does express how I feel about the sport. Victory provides a special kind of exhilaration, and I’m curious to know what earning a rating feels like, but I never want the desire to win jeopardize the thrill of pulling a gray meal cage over my face and approaching my opponent, weapons in our hands.

Left?

The masked man in the picture is me, testing a theory about my unusual motor skills.

When I picked up a foil for the first time in my teens, I used my right hand, as that’s side I use for most activities. Through high school and college I continued fencing as a righty, and when I returned to the sport after a three-decade absence I defaulted to my right again.

However… I’m not completely right-handed. When I eat or brush my teeth, I’ve always used my left hand. It wasn’t until I met my ever-observant wife that I understood this oddity. “Your gross motor skill — hand and arm dexterity — is on your right side,” she explained, “while your fine motor skill, finger dexterity, is on your left.” Makes sense to me, and sounds a lot better than you’re a freak.

Soon after resuming my fencing career, my coach saw me writing with my left hand, and made a suggestion: “You should fence as a lefty.” I always parried her suggestion with the fact I am entirely right-footed. Roll a ball towards me, and I’ll always kick it with my right foot — that’s the gross motor skill at work. And with balance being an important component of fencing, I considered leading with my right leg of paramount importance.

Thing is, finger coordination in fencing is important for point control. The disengage, in which you drop your blade under an opponent’s attempted parry, is most effective when executed with the fingers, rather than wrist or arm.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided there was nothing to lose by trying. Borrowing a glove and foil from the club, I started fencing as a lefty.

The feeling was as awkward as I expected.

At times I found myself advancing by moving my right foot first, which when fencing as a lefty is behind your body — the motion made me lurch forward, like pushing a wheelbarrow with its front tire stuck in the mud. Each lunge was an argument with my body, an attempt to convince dormant muscles that it was perfectly all right to stretch.

Yet despite these discomforts, I felt my sense of distance to my opponent was somewhat enhanced, which I had not expected as I am right-eye dominant. I also had a better awareness of the tip of my blade — the heightened finger dexterity did seem to make a difference.

At this point, I fence far better with my right hand, and I’m not thrilled by the prospect of buying an almost entire new set of equipment. (If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see a covered zipper channel on the left side of my lame, the gray covering for my torso used for electronic scoring. For safety reasons, fencing regulations require jackets and lames to be zippered either in the back or on the fencer’s non-weapon arm. I can continue using my current gear for practice, but should I enter competitions as a lefty, I’ll need appropriate gear.) But I’m intrigued enough by what I’ve observed these last two weeks to continue this experiment.