So there’s this charity that does good things.  It provides scholarships for underprivileged and at-risk kids to attend arts classes of all kinds, including theater, music, and (here’s the relevant piece) martial arts.  And my dojo – can I call it that yet?  or should I say, “the dojo where I take classes”?  a sense of ownership will come later, I suspect – anyway, the dojo, whatever it is, participates in this program.  To raise money, among other things the charity organizes Kick-a-Thons.  As with a 10-mile walk or 5K run, you gather pledges beforehand and then go to the dojo at the appointed hour and kick your heart out for two hours.  Or your legs out, as the case may be.

Sensei tells us about the fundraiser in class one day, that it’s a good cause, that he’d like us all to be there, if possible.  Oh, I’m thinking, that sounds fun.  Good practice, anyway.  And my mind wanders a bit while he talks, with visions of kids trooping off to classes and improving their lives, thinking I’ll check the charity’s website when I get home.  I tune back in when I hear a number.  Sensei is telling us how many kicks they did last year:  two thousand six hundred and something.  I didn’t quite catch it but was impressed.  That’s a lot of kicks, I thought.  Then he said, “Each.”


Standing there in the middle of class, I managed not to shout out, “Are you kidding me?”  And he went on to explain that most of the participants last year were black belts, and that at white-belt level we shouldn’t expect to do that many.  Oh.  Good thing.

So far I only know three kicks anyway, and can hardly imagine repeating them that many times in one day.  Rather, I should say I’ve only been taught three.  I hardly “know” them, but I do know what Sensei means, at least, when he says, “Shomen-kekomi-geri,” “Shomen-kai-soku-geri,” and “Yoko-kekomi-geri.” After he translates, that is.

Shomen-kekomi-geri (Front Thrust Kick):  Like extending your leg to kick through a hole in a wall in front of you, but pushing the hole away from you as you do.  (This is an unofficial description, of course.)

Shomen-kai-soku-geri (Groin Kick):  Literally “front top-of-foot kick.”  Raise the knee.  Kick the pointed foot out, fast.  You can see how it would be effective.

Yoko-kekomi-geri (Side Thrust Kick):  Sensei says we’re not expected to be good at this until we get to blue or green belt – four or five levels from now – but they teach it at white belt anyway so we can start to practice, and so we can learn from the practicing.  That means I have years to learn it, years to keep lifting one leg out to the side, twisting my foot and hip as I thrust the heel behind me.  And lose my balance.  And do it again.  Mo-ichi-do. (Japanese: one more time, or however many times Sensei says).  It will take that long to learn.

The thing is, I really can’t see calling friends and neighbors to ask for pledges.  How in the world am I going to guess the number of kicks I can do?  If I ask Sensei, I know what he’ll say.  He’ll answer like those college professors – which he used to be – who won’t tell you how long to make your term paper.  They say, “Long enough to sufficiently cover the topic.”  Sensei will tell me to do as many kicks as I feel like I am able.  But how many is that?  Ten?  Fifty?  A hundred?  Can I just say, “Not 2,634,” and see how it goes?  If I ask for pledges, then I’ll have to go back to everyone and report my number, which could be embarrassingly low.  People will wonder what I’ve been learning these last few months.  Either that, or they’ll be much more impressed than necessary.  When we do kicks down the floor during class, we probably fit at least ten along the length of the room.  So we could get to pretty high numbers, pretty fast, now that I think about it.

I decide not to gather any pledges this year, and just to give a donation.  Next year, I tell myself, I’ll make more money for the group.  This is a test run.

My daughter pledges me a penny per kick from her allowance.  I know I won’t cost her much.

The day of the Kick-a-Thon, I grab my gi and head for the dojo. I change – I’ve gotten passable at tying the belt now – and join the others “on deck,” as they say, which means in the dojo proper.  We only have that two-hour window and are casual about beginning, for which I’m grateful.  I want to delay as long as possible so that I can’t possibly be expected to do very many kicks during the diminishing time frame.  Sensei says to do some warm ups to avert injury.  I am the lowest ranked student there, and the others all know what to do – which stretches and exercises will be most beneficial.  I watch and imitate.

Then we start.  Our names are on the white board in different colors.  A mark goes by each name after a certain number of kicks, different numbers for everyone.  The black belts do 100 kicks per mark.  Someone from another style, who will be teaching in this dojo later in the afternoon and is kicking today, gets a mark after 50.  His number is lower because he does Capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight art, and Capoeira kicks are full-body events involving spins and half cartwheels and such.

I get a mark after only ten.

I start out with Front Thrust Kicks – ten left, ten right, ten left, ten right.  Then I move on to Groin Kicks – ten, ten, ten, ten.  And Side Thrust Kicks – same thing.  I’ve started sweating so I stop for water.  Bow to the masters, bow to the room.  Guzzle from my water bottle which is just outside on the shelf.  I’m tired already, but look at the white board!  I’ve done 120 kicks!  That’s amazing.  I realize that I’ve had a number in my mind all along, as a goal, without being fully conscious of it:  300.  That seems respectable and reasonable, enough to push myself but not to totally immobilize my legs for days to come.  At least I don’t think so.  We’ll see.  And that means my daughter will give me $3.00, and that’s reasonable for her, too.  So I’m nearly halfway there.

Back in the dojo, I figure I only have to run through the same series once more for 240, and then halfway through again.  Easy.

Then, of course, my legs start to feel it.  When I lift them forward or sideways, the little muscles at the hip resist.  I remember what Sensei says in class about tightening the abs and recruiting the bigger quads.  “Recruit!” I tell them.  “Enlist!”  But they’re not listening.  The little finger-sized muscles are doing all the work.  Ouch.

Some variety would be nice.  I look around the room at the others and wish I knew the backwards kicks one of the black belts is doing, as an alterative.  The Capoeira kicks look fun, too, and allow more of the body to help out than just the legs.

I sigh and position myself for my little trio of kicks again.  Front, Groin, Side.  Water.

For the final half set, I have to slow my pace to ten, ten, water, ten, ten, water.  And I skip the Side Thrust Kicks completely and go back to the other two.  Otherwise, I’m not going to be able to get out of bed in the morning, I know.  My legs really weren’t meant to move sideways like that, and I haven’t sufficiently trained them in this new way of thinking about what they can achieve.

And when I reach 300, I stop.  I could push harder, really test myself and see how far my body will allow me to go.  But why?  What would that prove?  That I can become obsessed with some phantom achievement and, in the process, make a bad decision for my body’s short-term well-being?  Not smart.  Granted, I didn’t come close to the 1,550 of one the black belts.  He’s been learning Karate for 17 years, and he’s sweating and panting at that number; no way I could have reached it.  Another black belt reached 1200, and a couple of young kids tallied halfway between those two.  But they’re 7.  Boundless energy.  The Capoeira kicks came in at 550.  Another white belt reached 300, like me.

So we’ll raise some money and have another high total number of kicks to surprise and shock next year’s recruits.

As it is, I’m find that proud of myself for having reached the goal I set, for 300 being a big enough number that doesn’t sound like I wimped out when I got tired.  And I am tired.  I did good work, got good practice, but I’m not collapse-on-the-floor exhausted.  Maybe I should have gathered pledges, after all, just for getting this far.

(c) 2010 Stephanie Harp.  All rights reserved.