There are many occasions when the daunting realisation hits you that you’ve let your fitness drift away into the ocean.
For me, just six weeks into the new year, it struck, minutes into a training session with Harrogate Railway.
Railway boss Billy Miller had offered me a chance to experience the high-intensity workout his Evo-Stik First Division North players go through every Wednesday.
Having spent weeks sidelined through an ankle ligament injury, and a further two frustrated by the weather, this exercise came early in my rehabilitation.
Even when fully ‘fit’, as a stereotypical lower league Sunday morning footballer, motivation for intensive training can often pass me by.
I’m the usual tough-tackling defensive midfielder, who has the irony of turning out for Wetherby Athletic.
But when Miller provided the opportunity, there was no way I would turn it down.
The Mancunian instructed me to arrive prepared for an oxygen-sapping grilling. He wasn’t far wrong.
“Bring a good set of lungs,” he instructed ominously.
“You’re about to understand just how hard these lads work. There’s no backing out now.”
Trepidation was the main feeling as I headed from Harrogate to Railway’s weekly training base, Askham Bryan College in York.
So much so, as I briefly pulled home to grab my kit, I was questioning how I could escape the session. Which muscle hurt? Would a cold mysteriously strike? How can the car break down?
Unfortunately, no excuse came to prominence and I arrived, ten minutes late after several trips round the site, genuinely lost.
Opening the door, the sight of 20 grown men bunny hopping onto the backs of each other wasn’t exactly what I had expected.
Thankfully, it was nothing untoward and just part of Miller’s warm-up.
Grinning first-team coach Richard Lawrence greeted me, and he did little to ease my nerves as he panned across the sports hall to two bulky tractor tyres.
Both stared back.
‘Surely we wouldn’t be lifting those?’ I wished to ask.
After a few minutes of diversionary chat, I was soon handed a orange bib and thrown into a warm-up exercise which combined netball with hitting a cone.
When the cone was struck, the losing team faced press-ups. Ten of them. With past experience playing handball at university, I was confident I could mix it.
“Go and join Lee (Ashforth, Miller’s assistant), he’ll look after you,” said Miller.
The first thing that struck me was the electric pace of each player’s movement. I drifted around looking for space but often players would buzz past, and when the ball eventually arrived, I showed the composure of a central defender with the goal at his mercy. Forty press-ups later, Miller shouted “next goal winner”, with a punishment of 25 press-ups for the losers.
Thankfully, teammate Nathan Cartman struck and victory went was claimed.
Two passing drills followed with Miller focusing on players’ movement before receiving the ball. Thankfully, I had more success controlling and distributing the ball with my feet, despite a couple of heavy touches.
But just as I felt comfortable trapping balls and dribbling around the outside of the cones, we were ushered back in as a group, told to down a gulp of water and taken over to those tyres.
Miller ordered everyone to get into groups of three, preferably with two players the same height and shape.
He jokingly added, “who’s going to take Ed then,” before pairing me with the two nippiest participants, Cartman and Michael Jordan.
The work out of the week was a 16 minute rotation involving more press-ups, punches, burpies and jumps onto the dreaded tyres.
I can’t say I was looking forward to it. After punching the back with 20 beats, followed by the doing other exercises ten times, my fears were upheld.
It was shattering.
Every other player whistled through it, punching frantically and completing push-ups with ease,
I punched feebly, lolloped down for the press-ups and slipped from the tyre on each jump. There was no energy left in my legs as it came around for my turn to go again. Second time, I missed out the press-ups. Third time, I missed out all together.
The encouragement of Cartman and Jordan, and the spectating coaches, was unerring. They kept pushing, and I helped me struggle through the 16 minutes without being sick, just.
“The good thing now, after doing all that, they get to play,” chirped Miller, brandishing a ball and a weighty smile.
“They do that every week.
“They are an incredibly fit bunch.”
Again, he was not wrong.
Moving into the small-sided game, I was shunted into a team alongside veteran Colin Hunter, Fatlum Ibrahimi and Dan Thirkell among others.
From somewhere, long lost stamina returned and I felt more than at comfort slotting in at the back, making a few forays forward, and a couple of meaty challenges to win back the ball.
Again, the speed of the passing was like nothing I had ever played against. Left, right, centre, players switched. It was another clear indication to how Miller expects his players to play when out on grass.
I received the acclamation of my teammates as I diverted one shot over the bar from our goalline. And then another moment to shine came. Hunter laid the ball across the two-yard imaginary line and my back-flick gloriously trickled into the net.
The small-sided game came and went, and there was one last surprise. Miller stood at the front of the group, music blaring, and said, “squats to finish”.
For three minutes, I had no idea what to do, copying others so as not look a fool.
It was easy to see how Miller has masterminded Railway’s upsurge in the league. Each player listened to every softly spoken instruction. And there were no complaints over the fitness tasks, other than my own moping.
“The session is designed to be enjoyable and not too repetitive,” concluded Miller.
“Anyone who aspires to play at this level should see just how hard the lads work.”
Once again, he was not wrong at all.