It’s five in the morning and I’m running full tilt down an
unpaved road surrounded by lunatics. Our cotton uniforms glow in the
Paul jogs by me grinning and Ian, a step behind, shakes his head like a
mournful dog. Jillian shoots me a long-suffering look as she lopes past.
“Bastards,” she mutters. “Don’t they have watches?”
I’m starting to wheeze. My ancestors were farmers and
accountants; I’m not built for speed. I’ll break an ankle. I’ll fall
be lost in the wilderness. Antipodean creatures with shiny teeth and
pouches will gnaw on my delicate expatriate American bones.
I am, in fact, bringing up the rear, the only adult in a
small pack of huffing children. Gradually, they too gain on me. The
pull away is an asthmatic 10-year-old who takes a puff from his inhaler
puts on a burst of speed. When he rounds the bend I’m alone in the
For a moment I’m terrified. Then, I realize, if I can’t see
them they can’t see me and I slow to a walk, a standstill and, finally,
show of defiance, I lie flat on the ground. The stars are shockingly
It’s peaceful. I would fall asleep if I wasn’t freezing. I struggle to
and limp into the darkness.
Around the next curve the road spills onto the beach. A
hundred karate students are kneeling in the sand meditating, huddled
against the wind. Their eyes are closed and they are missing a
sunrise. I have no hope of making my way to the front line of black
without stepping on someone so I drop where I am. I’m supposed to be
my mind but I’m thinking that if someone makes me go into the ocean
of hypothermia. Also, I am praying for
a minivan to appear out of nowhere and take me back to the camp. I’ve
Two hours later we’re lined up in the cafeteria waiting for
Sensei to show up so we can eat. I have a sore knee but I’ve made it
the morning otherwise unscathed. My uniform is almost dry. Being slow
beach had an unforeseen advantage: the black belts in the front had to
the deepest water. I am a small woman and it’s no small gift to be in
Sensei walks in with his senior students and the din dies
down. They fill their plates and make their way to the head table. When
reaches his chair he motions that we should start eating. We’re on the
like wild dogs. Ian rests his mouth on the lip of the
plate and shovels. Paul softens a roll in his coffee and
pushes it whole into his mouth. Jillian is on her third fried egg and
“What’s next?” I manage between bites.
“An hour of basics, an hour of syllabus work,” Ian says,
“Lunch, teambuilding exercises and a lecture.” He mock
snores with a full mouth. It’s not pretty.
“Take off your long johns and pee while you can,” Jillian
“I peed in the woods,” I admit.
“Well done,” Ian says with a note of admiration. He elbows
Paul who’s eyeing a dark-eyed green belt at the next table. “Seconds?”
“And thirds, mate.”
The lecture is endless. We kneel in meditation for so long
that a brown belt falls asleep and tips over. He hits the floor with a
wakes up and turns an astonishing shade of red. Sensei is so annoyed he
kneel for another 20 minutes before telling us to “sit and relax.” My
asleep and my right knee is locked out.
“At least Ian didn’t fart,” Jillian whispers. His gas is
Dinner is festive with a sort of gallows gaiety. Sparring
will start before sunup. The black belts will warm up on one another
the junior ranks and fight them.
Dawn is a blur. Some bastard 250-pound second-degree sweeps
me to the floor, offers me a hand up and drops me again. I give him a
and a mental “fuck you.” Paul is on my right in the sparring line. He
floor with the guy for the next three minutes. When the round ends Paul
over to me and spits his mouthpiece into his glove.
“You softened him up for me, mate,” he says, grinning. I
fall deeply and permanently in love.
The bus takes us into a flat brown city outside Melbourne.
Sensei’s dojo is the biggest game in town and everyone knows him.
Jillian and I
keep a few steps back while Ian and Paul, our seniors, do the requisite
fawning. Then we pile into a rented van and head for the airport. We’ve
several hours for the privilege of being pummeled.
“Did he say anything?” I ask nervously. I’m waiting for
Sensei to say I can test for my next belt.
Ian grins. “Start running now.”
I sink lower in the seat. I’ll be back in a few months. I’m
pleased and appalled at the prospect, a sore and satisfied masochist.
“She’ll be right, mate,” Paul says. “It’s all good.”
Lisa Starr is a writer, mother and karate student from Northern