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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

23 September 2012

22/09/2012 - Meningitis UK Charity GrappleThon

[This is the write-up of the 2012 GrappleThon. For the 2013 GrappleThon, go here]

If you're following me anywhere online, you'll almost certainly have seen me babble about this event over the last few months. I started thinking about doing a marathon grappling session after watching the grapple-a-thon held by the Martial Arts Planet gym in Ontario, Canada a few hours before I got promoted to purple belt, in March last year. After starting full-time at Gracie Barra Bristol later that year, when I moved to Bristol in May, I was waiting for the academy to get a WiFi connection. As soon as it did, which I think was around a year later, I could put my plan into action.

First I needed to ask Geeza if he was happy for me to run the event at his school, then check with my various contacts in BJJ about the possibility of t-shirts and prizes. Seymour 'Meerkatsu' Yang (who I have known online for a good few years now, but only met a few times) and Tatami Fightwear both responded immediately. Seymour generously provided the fabulous design at the top of this post, which Tatami put onto some t-shirts. I was particularly pleased that Seymour was able to make it down in person: as he's a popular figure in BJJ (who has recently opened his own online shop), I was hoping that his supporters would get behind the event too.

Thanks to various people around the web and the impressive efforts of the MUK Press Officer, we managed to get the GrappleThon a hefty bit of coverage. Obviously I've posted about it in various places, like here and here. Seymour has been active too, mentioning it here and talking about how he came up with his awesome custom design here.

Facebook has been another good place to share, like here, here and here. Other sites have also kindly put up some details, like Martial Arts Unltd, Gi Freak, BJJ Board and Southern Jiu Jitsu. We also got a mention on episode #39 of the Inside BJJ podcast, which was cool. The charity itself put up a press release here, then finally there has also been a bit of local press, here and here as well as national coverage in the October 2012 issue of Martial Arts Illustrated.

Once I began announcing the event in class, a steady stream of GB Bristol students started signing up (it won't surprise anyone familiar with my geeky tendencies that this was through an online spreadsheet ;D). Geeza and Dónal got behind it too, making announcements in their classes, along with adding a mention to the group emails Geeza regularly sends to all members of the club.

The difficult part was pinning people down to a specific time, as I was very keen to ensure that we didn't run out of people: e.g., everybody arriving on Saturday noon and forgetting about the early hours of Sunday. Unsurprisingly there were a few people who pulled out, but fortunately their absence was filled by the considerable number who hadn't put themselves down for a slot on the spreadsheet. That additional influx was thanks to Geeza and Dónal's class announcements, which meant we had a total of forty-four people over the course of the GrappleThon. :)

By the time of the GrappleThon, the spreadsheet was relatively full even with those gaps from people having to drop out. On the day, numbers were even better, with an average of at least eight or so at any one time. Several people stayed for much longer than they put on the spreadsheet, or popped in and out, like Steve. Nevertheless, there were still a few quiet spots. Between around 4am and 6am, it was beginning to look like the handful of tired, injured or sleeping grapplers remaining would have to cover a good three hours worth. We were therefore thrilled when first Andrew walked in, followed a bit later on by Sam and then Andre.

As the donations began to mount up on JustGiving, the last part to sort out was the stream over on JustinTV. I tried a couple of different webcams, which worked, but the quality wasn't great. Steve stepped in at this point: with the help of his technical wizardry and horde of gadgets, the stream jumped up to excellent quality, although that did of course depend on your home connection.

Seymour arrived at my house on the Friday, ready to go the next morning. I had a great big box of t-shirts to carry down, along with a backpack loaded with gis, cereal bars, collection boxes, meningitis information, laptop paraphernalia and spare pants. Yes, spare pants: sitting in underwear sodden with sweat for several hours is not pleasant. Hence why I had four: I brought two with me, then my gf brought another two when she dropped by to visit around 8pm. ;p

During the event, I was mainly acting as the administrator, sat behind a bank of laptops. From there I could check the stream, respond to the chat room, post Twitter and Facebook updates, but perhaps most importantly, manage my lovely spreadsheet for tracking how many spars each grappler had racked up. During the planning stages, I instituted several competitions for the GrappleThon, which I hoped would both help motivate people in attendance and also encourage maximum donations.

The first competition was for the Meerkatsu designed t-shirt. I was impressed that they arrived exactly when Gareth from Tatami had said they would: if their customer service is that good for a charity event, it must be brilliant for paying customers. To earn one of them, you had to donate to Meningitis UK by 9am on the Saturday, which most people did via JustGiving (though there are a few who prefer to do it offline, and have done very well. I'm looking forward to updating the total once those sponsorship forms come in! :D). I had some 'standard' Meningitis UK shirts to give out too.

The second competition was to see who could spar the longest, hence the spreadsheet. That proved to be a successful concept, as I think a number of people were tempted to stay on longer to either get the highest total of six minute rolls, or at least beat somebody else's total (one girl was even motivated to try out BJJ for the first time, having come down with her family to watch her brother: she ended up with 16 rolls!). Maeve took this a step further: on her fundraising page, she announced that for every £50 she raised, she would spar another hour, in addition to the two hour slot she'd already agreed. That meant she had the difficult challenge of sparring for six hours.

Now, most people would probably break that up over the twenty-four hours, perhaps heading home for a sleep in between. Not Maeve. She sparred pretty much non-stop. When she finished the sixty rolls, she was still full of energy. In fact, I reckon she could have done sixty more! Brilliant performance: you can watch the last few minutes of it here. Almost the entire stream is still available for playback, here, although I'm not sure how long the videos stay up on JustinTV after the stream has finished. Even if they do go down, Steve has all of them downloaded: we'll hopefully have a highlight video sorted at some point.

Along with Maeve, there were several other people gunning for the title. Andrew Wormald was the early leader, who ended up with 60.5 rolls (the 0.5 was because Geeza was keen to go one better than Dónal: otherwise they would have been tied). Seymour made it to 60.5 as well. Young Louis Horne (I may have that surname wrong) was also in the lead for a long time with 42 rolls. That's an even better total when you take into account Louis is only ten years old. Yet the eventual champion was Kyle Chesmore, who was there for most of the day, spreading out his 63 rolls. Well done champ!

Speaking personally, I didn't spar all that much by comparison. My total at the end of the twenty-four hours was 31 rolls, meaning I had sparred for just over three hours. In one go, that would have been a lot, but I spaced it out across the whole event. There were two longer stints, including an hour long roll with Maeve (thanks Deidre! ;D) and thirty minutes with Andrew to give everyone else a rest during a quiet period. Those were the exceptions: most of the time I just occasionally jumped in. I wanted to be ready to take up the slack if needed, so I tried to maintain an even lower intensity than normal. It also meant I could pose for random pictures, like the one below with Gem. Hooray!

The third and final competition is a simple one: who can raise the most money. In order to be fair to people who are fundraising offline and therefore have to chase their supporters to claim the pledged cash, the deadline for this one is October 22nd. So, if you are supporting an individual fundraiser, you can still help them win if you pop over to JustGiving (if they have a page: most of the fundraisers did, but there were a couple of exceptions). And remember, JustGiving works outside the UK too. Incidentally, although I'm not taking part in that competition, I'm only £10 off my personal target, if anybody wants to help me reach it. :D

Seymour has done a write-up too (here), for which he has loads of good snaps (the ones in my post almost all come from GB Bristol member Bruno): if you check out the Meerkatsu Facebook page, you'll see a few of them. Also, considering I'm quite sleep-deprived at this point, I'll probably need to update my post for mistakes and typos anyway. ;p

There were several people there who had direct experience of meningitis. For example, Martin was hospitalised for a month with viral meningitis, which still affects him today: he rolled for forty-eight minutes. People kept coming up to me to talk about uncles, sisters and cousins who had either survived meningitis or sadly passed away. That demonstrates how many families are affected by the disease. Hopefully the money we raised at the GrappleThon will help make sure those stories become less common.

If you would like further information on meningitis, take a look at the Meningitis UK website. You'll want to pay special attention to the symptoms: meningitis can kill in less than four hours. Speed is of the essence, so see a doctor immediately if you have even the smallest suspicion that you or somebody you know might have contracted meningitis.

Update 26th Sep 2012: Steve has put together a few highlight videos. He's got more on the way, and once I get hold of the main footage I'll most likely throw a few up on Facebook. To start with, here's one of the beginning and end, with a bit of the middle:

Then here is a speeded up version of Maeve's mammoth sixty rolls (three hundred and sixty minutes!):

Class #470
Gracie Barra Bristol, (BJJ), Nicolai 'Geeza' Holt, Bristol, UK - 22/09/2012

In regards to the actual training, it was essentially an extended open mat. Geeza kicked things off at 09:00 by running through some flow drills, while the first pair were sparring in front of the MUK banner. Like I said above, I did thirty-one rounds of six minutes, but spread out across the whole event. About half of that was with two people, due to an hour long roll with Maeve and a thirty minute session with Andrew.

I had a chance to practice clearing an arm from the back with Marcus, putting what I teach into practice. Pulling up when they are grabbing an arm to get them to pull back down worked initially, as I could sweep the arm down and bring my leg over the top. However, I wasn't able to get it behind the back, meaning it was rather less secure by Marcus's hip and stomach: IIRC, he eventually worked his arm back under.

A number of times over the course of the GrappleThon I was looking to get past somebody's knees while in their guard, due to some variation or other of the knee-shield/z-guard. I am still tending to flop down and aim to slide past the knee, but that relies too much on them making a mistake rather than pro-actively working around the knees.

I'm also continuing to be far, far too passive with spider guard. This is my default guard, especially when I want to be lazy (which was all the time at the GrappleThon, because I was worried about blowing all my energy early on). I can get into spider guard, pushing on the arms and hips to keep them away. But that is about it: I have been shown sweeps from there, the details of which I normally forget.

The same goes for closed guard, where I'm stalling too much, either in a high guard, a 'normal' closed guard with tight head control, or an overhook. I did land a few triangles, but that's heavily mitigated by the fact I mostly rolled with white belts and was almost always fresh by comparison to my training partner.

On top, I managed to maintain the position ok. My focus was locking down in top half guard, mount and side control by reaching under the head and gripping the cloth by their far armpit. That way, I can use my shoulder to immobilise them on one side, while pulling tightly on the armpit-cloth stops them moving on the other side. Their legs are still a danger, but if I can get that upper body trapped, I can at least stabilise.

However, as with spider guard, I'm just maintaining and not submitting. On the other hand, I did go for more submissions than normal, with a few kimuras and that nifty little gi choke Matty Burn showed me a while back (although I wasn't really feeding enough of the gi tail, so the subs were a bit sloppy).

I also had a play with something I learned more recently, from Kev, who in turn learned it from Felipe Souza. I don't normally find myself attacking the turtle all that often, but I had a few opportunities during the GrappleThon. So, it was time to pull out the clock choke, but not the typical one. I suck at the typical one. IMO, Felipe's version is a great deal easier to apply: in basic terms, after you've got the collar grip, you just brace your free elbow on the other side of their head, drop your weight and move through.

Sparring with Seymour was cool, because we haven't rolled in a while. I think I was still a blue when we last sparred, but I'm not certain. Either way, Seymour noted afterwards that my game seems quite different, as I now clearly prefer the top: back when he rolled with me as a blue, I was in guard, but not really doing anything with it. It's good that my top game has improved a bit, but looking back I unfortunately can't see all that much has changed with my guard (possibly my spider guard is slightly harder to pass than it used to be, but not by much). I've said it before, but I need to refocus on getting some reliable sweeps in guard.

Annoyingly, there seems to be something amiss in the inner thigh of my left leg. It has been feeling tight for a while now. I thought it was just sore, but as it feels like it's been that way for ages, could be time to check in with a physio. Still, the only time it really hindered me was when I was looking to practice the windscreen wiper sweep: whatever injury I've got makes that technique awkward.

Special mention to Tony, who as always was an awesome training partner. Very relaxed, controlled and technical. Like last time I was playing around with gi grips, seeing if I could do anything with them, without much purpose. Tony has a lovely double-knee sweep that is hard to pass, so it was an interesting challenge to try and avoid that. The only time I managed to pass it was just swinging my leg off as fast as I could, so that's not a reliable method.

GrappleThon Aftermath

The fundraising has continued since the GrappleThon, meaning that the total donated, as of 11th February 2013, was £3,015! :D

Aside from this write-up, other participants wrote up their thoughts too. I've already mentioned Seymour's summary, then there is also Rich's post. We got a mention on BJJ News too, linked here and here.

We've also had further press coverage, starting with the Meningitis UK site, here. Martial Arts Illustrated also followed up with another story in their November 2012 issue. Seymour namechecked us in an interview he did with the German site, Grapplers Paradise. There is also a short report in Issue 11 of Jiu Jitsu Style, plus a brief mention during my article on 'BJJ: Martial Art or Sport?' in the same issue.


  1. Congrats on a successful event. I'll happily supply that last £10. Also, special thanks to Seymour for the roll, that was good fun.

  2. Thanks for heading down to spar, Mike: IIRC, Seymour was very complimentary about your BJJ skills afterwards. Oh, and I've now hit my personal target (thanks Kirsty!), but further donations are of course welcome. ;D