At the end of December, just before Christmas, I tested for my Advanced Red, also known as the Red/Black belt and passed. As with many people around that time of year, wrapping up things at work before taking some time off, holiday stuff, overspending on shopping, and spending time with my family took the majority of my time so it’s only just now that I’m caught up enough to bring this up.
This was a very momentous occasion for me. As you know, I’m a firm believer in belts as goals, and this was one that I was aiming at for quite a while. Nearly as much as the Black Belt, I imagined what it would be like to have a Red/Black tied around my waist back when I was brand new to Krav Maga. No, I didn’t obsess about it or any other belt but I aspired to it. It was a big goal of mine for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being because it is the last belt you can achieve in class. After this belt you’re off to Boot Camp to get sharpened up for the three grueling, crushing tests to achieve the rank of Black Belt. That belt at our school is awarded at a special Black Belt ceremony held outside the school at a larger venue in order to accommodate family and friends attending the event. So the Red/Black, in some ways, is a bittersweet event, the passing into a new phase of goals.
The moment was almost surreal as I look back and reflect on it now. In ways similar to graduating high school or college. You are sitting there thinking about how it somehow took forever and yet practically no time at all to get where you are at that very moment. It seemed like it would never arrive when you were training week after week but looking back it seems like you only just started. You’ve learned so much yet you feel like you’ve only begun. So it was with this introspection that I found myself sitting in a row at the front of the dojo with the rest of the graduates, anxiously awaiting my neatly folded, completely sweat-free (for the moment), colorful new belt.
If I were to summarize my thoughts of the journey by belt so far it would go something like this:
- White – Anxiety. What am I doing here!? Am I cut out for this? I wish I knew more. Damn, am I tired…and sweaty! When is my next belt? What is testing like? Why is everything so sore? Oh great, another bruise. So much to learn.
- Yellow – So this is what it feels like to get a belt. Maybe I can do this. Am I ever going to get more coordinated. Why am I fracturing a toe every month? How come I haven’t lost weight yet? Still so much to know and learn!
- Orange – Hey, I’m at the top of the pile in Basic class. Orange belts rule! “We’re number one! We’re number one!”…
- Purple – …oh, wait!! I’m at the bottom of the pile in Advanced class. I am a White belt equivalent in this class, lower than whale poop. Look at these students — the intensity and aggression! I have to step it up. Reminder: still so, so much to learn.
- Blue – Hey, I’m no longer fresh meat in the Advanced class — there’s another group behind me now. Getting more comfortable sparring and getting extra sparring time alternating Friday nights. Taking on Muay Thai and getting more breadth. Better start running.
- Green – This is an anti-climactic time – I’m not new nor am I an old hand in this class. I am not a beginner belt in Advanced but I am so far away from being a Black belt. This belt feels like what it must be to be the middle child in a family of 11.
- Brown – Starting to feel like I’m at the base of the mountain now. This is the first belt in our school that tests at 6 months instead of 3. Starting to get included in the group of advanced belts that is broken out from the rest of the underbelts when classes are split up due to size. Really finding a groove with sparring. Starting to feel the anxiety that Boot Camp, though still a year away at best, is just around the corner. Kicking the weight loss into high gear.
- Red – Wow, the 2-year mark. I guess I really can do this. Down about 50 lbs. with another 25 – 50 to go. Passed my first 6 month interval test from Brown. Taking on kickboxing to amp up the cardio.
And here we are — last stop on the Underbelt Express, or maybe it’s a local train. Either way, what I feel now is a sense of nervous excitement. In some ways, I’ve come full circle back to the very first stop: Anxiety. But a healthier one. At the time of this writing I’m down 89 pounds, teetering on the brink of 90. I’ve come so far and have learned so much about myself.
To revisit the high school metaphor, I’m like a senior in high school who still has the daunting SATs and scary college entrance exams lurking up ahead, barring my way to college. Though, with the entrance exams and SATs I’m about to take to get my Black Belt, I expect a lot more bloody noses, bruises, and aches than getting into college.
One thing still resonates with me, as it did all along the way so far: there is still so much to learn. I’m not talking about just techniques, of which there are no doubt many, but about refinements. From what I gather, much of what comes out of Boot Camp is refinement. Yes, there is also a lot of abuse that students take, physically and psychologically — lots of testing to see if the student has the heart to succeed — but refinement I think is the main objective of Boot Camp. Refining the reactions, techniques, speed, aggression, and so forth.
You know the techniques by now, you are a dangerous sword. You are, unfortunately, blunt and untempered. To complete the final process, students now need to be put into the immensely hot forge (Boot Camp), hammered and tapered on the anvil (aggression drills and reaction drills), quenched to temper their resolve (through sparring under exhaustion and timed runs), then have a final razor sharp edge created with the whetstone (via the instructors’ eagle-eye observations and micro-corrections of your technique).
It’s after that baptism of fire, that body-draining experience that you simply can’t get from a DVD, that a student can truly become a Black Belt. As they say often in my school, a Black Belt isn’t something you get, it’s something you become.
So this is the year or preparing for that trip to the smithy.
This is the year that I begin my Boot Camp (sometime between April and mid-Summer). This is the year I resume running now that I’ve lost additional weight and reduced my chances of knee injury. This is the year of that final sprint to the Black Belt tests late this year into early 2015.
And I say bring it.