If you’re a gazelle wandering the plains of Africa then what’s gonna save your tasty, hairy arse when a cheetah comes flying at you from the long grass. Assuming that you have some warning – and you see it before it crunches into you – then the most common answer will be speed. Performance biologists are fixated with sprint speed and often use it interchangeably with escape performance. So many biologists will suggest it is speed – and speed alone - that will determine escape from capture.
But I disagree. Escaping (or deathing) will always be decided by a combination of speed, acceleration and agility. After all – almost every predator has a faster top speed than their prey!! There has to be something else to escape than just speed.
I first learned this lesson as a 20 year old back in 1992. Of all the places to discover the importance of escape performance – it was outside a nightclub. So, get comfortable, put on some slippers and pour yourself a goblet of brandy, and let me tell you all about my discoveries…….
For me, it was the usual Saturday night when I was a young buck. My friends and I headed out to the local RSL club (Retired Military Services Club) until about midnight. Having got ourselves suitably joyful on $2 spirits (it was cheap then), we walked down the road to the only nightclub around at the time. I lived in Mona Vale on the northern beaches of Sydney – and the Rocklilly nightclub was the only action around, unless you wanted to catch the bus to Manly (1/2 hr) or the city (1 hr). Apathy meant that was a rarity.
Three hours of fun, loud music, bad dancing and a little bit of YMCA, and it was closing time at the Rocklilly. We were all very intoxicated, but not quite ready to let go of the night. A crowd gathered out on the street. Maybe I was trying to chat up a girl that I had no chance of getting to know better OR maybe I was just trying to act the clown to an audience (any audience) but I heard a scream and then shouting. I turned to see one of my best mates (Chris*) on all fours looking in real trouble. He was about 10 m from me.
Then I watched some guy line up what could only be described as a very impressive “top-of-the-laces” kick straight into the side of his jaw. Did I really see that? I was a little confused. My first instinct was to run over and help. I was beside him in a flash but was stopped by two strong hands to my chest.
I didn’t recognise the guy stopping my progress, but I looked him in the eye and pointed to my friend as if to say, “Help me pick up my friend”.
This dude did want to help. But not me!!
I felt a solid right hook to the cheek – ouch!! I staggered back trying to wrap my thoughts around what was happening. Shit that hurt – was my first insight. The next was an explosion of anger. I sent three punches straight to the guys face and he went down. Wow – my adrenaline just surged.
The immense satisfaction of dealing with this clown completely overwhelmed the realisation that I’d just broken my hand. Again, my instinct was to my friend.
Chris was being lifted up and helped away. Immediate threat dealt with. I turned towards my combatant and he was gone. Adrenaline surged again – “I’m the man”, I’m thinking to myself. I probably wouldn’t have used that phrase in 1992, but maybe I did a little dance in my parachute pants and said “You can’t touch this……”
As I walked over to Chris I saw my rival appear again on the scene. Oh no. This time he had three friends in tow. With a finger clearly pointed in my direction, I heard him say “ Yep – that’s him. Let’s f*ck him up”. I got to admit that there were sphincters in my body that I didn’t even know existed until I felt them all simultaneously contract.
I assessed the situation. Four angry dudes, me, Chris being helped into a taxi, and no other friends around that I could see – I foresaw a situation that wasn’t ideal.
I turned away from the threat and drifted into a brisk walk. Not necessarily a good idea – but what could I do? Isolated with four guys on my tail – three of them clearly bigger than me – and all wanting to hit me.
My problems quickly escalated. They all sprinted at me audibly shouting, “Get him”.
Feeling like they were in no mood to negotiate, I did the only sensible thing and ran.
Let’s consider this scenario for one moment. In this predicament, I was clearly the prey. I was smaller, vulnerable and going to be irrevocably altered, if caught. My thoughts were along the lines of faster is always better, so I was hoping my speed was good enough.
When I was 20 I was fast – real fast. But it soon became apparent that so were two of these big fellas in the quartet of pain. I needed to stretch it out and slip into 5th gear. Although they were gaining on me I had a revelation – not a spiritual one – although that could come later. I was damn fit and I was much shorter than my predators - so I changed my escape strategy.
I began to side-step when they approached, and I ran at different angles. My quick, sharp changes in direction were totally eating up their fitness and these large, cumbersome clowns couldn’t cope with my agile moves. I knew I was going to be safe.
I learned another thing about myself that night. I was a total smart arse when I knew I had the advantage, so I began taunting my would-be predators. “You know you can’t catch me”!! “You know you’re just big, dumb, and slow”!! “Losers”!! Not smart in hindsight, I know – but it all worked out.
As I rounded the first corner up the road I spotted my final saviour for the evening, a police wagon. Walking up to them calmly, and losing my smart arse swagger, I said “You see those guys over there? They want to beat me up. Would you mind terribly if you gave me a lift home? The policemen looked at me, at the four meatheads and resigned themselves to the situation. They couldn’t leave this little smart arse on the street with these four guys hunting him. So they gestured to me to jump in the back of the wagon. I was safely locked up and they kindly gave me a lift home to Chris’ place.
Five minutes later, I rolled up in a police wagon feeling quite proud of myself. Not sure why.
I greeted Chris who was laying on the sofa with ice on his head. I grabbed some ice for myself and placed it on my now throbbing hand and joined my friend on the sofa. We exchanged an understanding grunt and began to laugh. It was then I considered the importance of speed and agility for out-running my predators. Thank goodness I had enough of both.
Needless to say, I stayed away from that nightclub for the next year. Safe move Robbie. Safe move.
And for those of you interested in what caused the initial fight – or in other words, why was Chris attacked. It was all over a girl – of course!!! It seems that an ex-boyfriend did not approve of his old flame moving on to better pastures (i.e. Chris). In any case, Chris and this ‘new’ girlfriend have now been together now for 20+ years, and have three beautiful children together. How do you like them apples? Ya dickhead……..
*not his real name