There are 11 flights of stairs at North Shore Hospital. Noel Austin knows them well, because for the past few months, he’s been quietly walking up them again and again and again. “It takes me around 37 minutes to get up them eight times, with the elevator ride back to the bottom lasting approximately one minute,” Noel says. He’s been using the hospital stairs as part of his training for the Eureka Stair Climb, a tower that stands 88 floors above Melbourne.
In essence, it’s all part of a plan to make sure he doesn’t end up back at the hospital for real.
“22 November 2011, I remember the date clearly,” Noel tells. “I knocked on death’s door, and if I hadn’t gone to see the doctor, I wouldn’t have made Christmas dinner.” Heart issues run in Noel’s family, with his father passing away due to a heart attack at 60, and his two older brothers have also had heart problems. “I’m know lucky to still be here,” Noel says candidly. “I’m determined to not drop dead like my dad, and I don’t want to sit and rot. I intend to live a long life, so I decided to commit to my health.”
Noel has been working with personal trainer Gary Kettless for two years, starting from a very limited base. Despite having been a policeman for almost 40 years, and having to complete the required physical testing, injuries and health issues limited Noel’s fitness when he first met Gary. Add to his heart operation five knee surgeries, five fused vertebrae and a shoulder injury, and he had a lot to overcome. “I could hardly lift the bar without any weight on it,” he recalls. “I set a goal of chest pressing 100kg, we’ve been chipping away at that, and I’ve just got there. We’ve now set a dumbbell goal on top of the tower training.”
His resilience and commitment has brought strong results. Noel’s lost 10kg, gained strength, increased his fitness, and for the first time in his life, is now able to touch his toes. Most importantly, his attitude has changed, to the point where he now misses working out if he’s not able to make it to the Gym. “I’ve seen massive changes in Noel since we started working together,” Gary tells. “His strength has improved, and he has all range of motion in his lower back. His confidence is much higher and he’s now willing to try any exercise.”
Noel also had an ectopic heartbeat, which either skips or adds an extra beat to a regular rhythm. “It was 13% of my total beats,” Noel explains. “I was told I might need medical intervention, like a pacemaker, if I couldn’t lower that percentage.” Thanks to his training with Gary, when Noel returned to the cardiologist 12 months later, his ectopic heartbeat rate had reduced down to 1.3%. “It was such a relief when the cardiologist told me to get out of his office because he only treats sick people,” Noel laughs. “He shook my hand and told me to go for it on the tower!”
With two sons working as volunteer firefighters, Noel has seen the effort they put into their fitness. Last year, when he travelled with one of his sons to New York for the 101-floor 9/11 Memorial Tower Climb, Noel was inspired to try something similar. With research from his son, and clearance from his cardiologist, Noel set his sights on Euerka’s 88 floors in the middle of November. He has been working out with Gary three times a week to prepare for the event, and it’s evident the pair have formed quite a bond. They joke and poke fun at each other, and have even set different challenges against one another. That fun environment helps motivate Noel, and keeps Gary on his toes too. “We mix our exercises up a lot, and have been pulling staff members on sleds, or I’ve made him pull me along the floor to make it enjoyable and avoid boredom,” Gary says.
Having a trainer who takes the time to understand his injuries and limitations, and works around them to push him, is a big element for Noel. “I’m not here to muck around,” he says, “and Gary will push me hard. He watches me to make sure I won’t get injured, and knows when to pull back. He’s a true professional who took the time to get to know me and my goals, rather than just jumping straight in.” The accountability of a trainer waiting for him helps Noel’s motivation, as well as the friendly Gym environment. “The enjoyment comes from a lot of things, including seeing yourself progress, but also small things like being greeted by name.”
88 floors is a lofty goal, figuratively and literally, and Noel’s not assuming any personal pressure in the process. “There’s no time limit for the event, but just because I can take all day doesn’t mean I want to!” he laughs. He will tackle the tower in relation to the training he’s done at the hospital, knowing that he can break Eureka down to eight sets of eleven, with a minute or so rest to simulate the elevator to the bottom. Ultimately, it’s getting to the top that matters, not the time. “So long as I’m not going backwards, I’ll be happy,” he laughs. “There will definitely be a few bourbons sunk that night!”
In some sense, Noel still can’t believe what he’s got himself in for. It’s a challenge he’s both looking forward to and slightly scared of. “I’ve never done anything like this before, and here I am at 69, going for it” he says. He’s aware there’s a stereotype around older people being limited in their exercise which may stop some others from getting started with an exercise regime, but he’s an advocate for its importance. “I came so close to not being here, if I can do it, anyone can,” he implores. “Being fit doesn’t mean becoming a runner or a weightlifter. You can walk, or play bowls or swim. It starts by taking a series of small steps, then it becomes part of your lifestyle.”
Gary agrees, as he sees the evidence every week. “Noel’s a living testimony that exercise can and will improve your health, no matter what it is you’re wanting to achieve,” he says. “Not bad for a guy fast approaching his 70th birthday!” he says.
How you can support Noel
The official charity of the Eureka Tower Climb is the Fred Hollows Foundation, which is one of Noel’s favourite charities, especially since he has had cataracts removed from both eyes. The charity works to provide high quality and affordable eye care in the Pacific Islands. You can donate to support Noel and his family’s team “Austin Powers” here: https://www.eurekastairclimb.org/fundraisers/noelaustin