Playing for pain: what’s not to like? (Or wings of wax)

 

Before a judo competition, I knew pain was essentially unavoidable. Even if a round was easy, the next fight, the next chance to get hurt, would almost never end the same way.

Even with a ‘simple’ leg sweep, catching someone off guard before their foot finishes its step, you need to throw your body forward at the falling opponent, and both end up on the ground. Without propelling them to the mat with some of your own body weight, a disruption of balance won’t turn into something that matters on the scoreboard.

To say that pain was the currency of the sport would be stupid. Judo’s not boxing, and I can’t claim to know what it’s like to step into the ring knowing your objective is to get punched in the head as little as possible, but still a bit. Suffering was always part of the contract on the mat though.

Running is very different: you have a ‘discomfort’ button that needs to stay pressed as long as you want a top class time, performance or finish to a race. It’s not pain in the same way, and I always try to remind myself of that before I go into an important race. If it’s going to hurt, it’ll hurt because you choose it, not because someone else does.

(Extreme digressions are in italics. Purple monkey dishwasher.)

People say there’s nowhere to hide in an individual sport like running. I disagree. There are individual sports, between groups of people, and individual sports where two people, attention always focused on each other, go toe to toe. The crowd are always focused on that battle, and there’s no one else to distract them, no other competition to draw attention away, even for a moment.

In running, you can literally hide behind others, albeit in plain sight: let someone else ‘do the work’ for you by sitting behind in their slipstream, or just ‘sit’ in a group on the track, no one person taking the focus of the race or the crowd. You can hide within yourself by choosing not to give it everything, to come in well outside your best, and for the most part have people not know it, or assume you weren’t fit, were a bit ill, or had been training too much in the build up.

This concealment can happen in the moment, as you let that runner in front slip away on the final laps, or afterwards, behind tiredness, niggling injury or just not being one hundred percent. Whether that’s an excuse or not is something that’s mostly intangible, just an elusive sense of ‘not being quite there’. When you stare across the taped square on the wide, flat mats at someone you’re about to fight, that excuse just isn’t the same.

Judo is a zero sum game, with two possible outcomes, neither of which is a draw. If you’ve come out on the wrong side of that, it’s over. Excuses, or reasons, don’t really matter. What you gave was good enough, or what you gave wasn’t. (While this sounds great, you can actually draw, but for the purposes of actually winning a medal or a competition, you ultimately can’t.)

Most of the time in judo, I’d come back with a few bruises, maybe a couple of scrapes and cuts, and a general sense of having been in a rather serious pillow fight.

In this fight, I’ve lost my pillow halfway through and had to take goose feather blows to the body for half an hour. That’s much less scary than fighting actual geese though: an entirely different scenario, thankfully consigned to the realm of the nightmare, rather than thrice weekly events.

After a particularly hard run I come back home, have a shower, feel drowsy for a few hours, eat and lie in bed and for the most part feel vaguely achey the next day. That’s it. Mostly. Sometimes I lie on the floor first, then do everything else and lie in bed.

I’ve had numerous races and runs, recovering from injury, where the physical process and the psychology is totally different. The pain itself in these sorts of situations isn’t a problem, particularly following my mandatory acquaintance with high level painkillers after shoulder surgery.

Digressionally (almost sounds aloud like Harry’s spluttered ‘Diagonally’ in The Chamber of Secrets, taking him inside the grim interior of a dusty cupboard inside the grimmer interior of Borgin and Burkes), I can imagine how that conversation might go.

(Rising from chair) “Good morning dihydrocodine, I’m Adam”, (the opiate responds gruffly, sort of like Hagrid without the warmth) “sit down mate, you won’t be feeling too lively after this”. It then rips part of its arm off and shoves it into my throat. I fall over and black out in narcotic bliss. End scene.

That pain, this nerve activity, triggers firing synapses and brain electronics is a given. It also summons forth altogether less empirical anxiety and panic, uncertainty about being strong or fit enough shattered by physical reality. I’m never sure in these circumstances, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.

I’ve never had a race that mattered so much I was prepared to risk injuring myself ‘properly’, or if I did I’ve always deluded myself that somehow nothing bad was going to happen. In the analogy of the subtitle, I’ve always been Icarus, flying upward blissfully ignorant of the dangers of the sun’s melting rays. This time I’m Daedalus, winging it in the sun’s general direction because something matters more than the adhesion of wings to shoulders. I’ll be wearing a Northern Irish vest this evening, and taking a risk knowing I’ve decided it’s worth it.

I always thought the defining moment as a ‘serious’ athlete would come when, after a performance of barely believable quality, a man or woman in white would ask me to pee in a plastic cup. Apparently not.

This time, going into a race knowing injury is almost inevitable, and that pain will have a long term outcome in time away from the sport, the psychology is, again, different. There would be incredible relief just getting through it and only missing enough days to count on one hand, teeth gritted in reluctant acceptance if the fingers count weeks, and a gut rending immersion in inevitably rather serious depression if the abacus of digits numbers months.

Wish me luck, I’m afraid it’ll be required.

Advertisements