Search anywhere online for ‘motivational slogans’, or similar morale-boosting ephemera, and you’ll probably be inundated with encouragements to the general effect of: “be the best you can be”.
I don’t want to be the best. I don’t even want to be the best I can be. Well, that’s not true, of course I do, but over the last week in particular I’ve been fighting myself about how much I want to put aside to progress further in athletics.
I came to the conclusion that I want to be good enough to be pleased and proud of what I’ve achieved without sacrificing my happiness or peace of mind in the long-term. I originally wrote this without the long-term bit. For so long I’ve been afraid of sustained effort and hard work, and the difficulties that inevitably entails: more on that later.
My priorities are retaining an appreciation of the small things, staying in touch with where I’ve come from and above all for my main focus not to be athletics, but my own mental health and wellbeing. This, alongside being able to support strong relationships with family and friends, is the main thing. Not how fast I can run around in a circle.
For a long time, I was afraid to say that or admit it. Now I’m not.
Again, that sounds great: it’s punchy, brave and probably makes me seem like a brave, punchy guy. That’s rubbish though. I’m still afraid, I’ve never properly punched anyone, and I’m not naturally succinct. More importantly though, putting mental health first can mean worrying about it, and making decisions to protect it when often that’s the worst thing to do.
Even though I’m really afraid of it, I know taking risks is not only more fulfilling and exciting, it’ll also strengthen me mentally for when I need it, like the death of a family member, a serious injury or something entirely unpredictable.
On that note, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother in April, for what I thought would be the last time. Two weeks ago, I had to say goodbye again, unsure whether that would be it or not. This time it was.
Her last words to me on the first occasion, were, smiling, “health is the most important”. I’d stayed fairly emotionally strong in public over the hard work of the last ten months, but this broke me completely. I knew the risks I’d been taking even then, and it’s eaten away at me ever since. That moment brought me well outside the world of athletics for a time, and after a period of depression I’m back there for long enough to have a very honest think about what I want from life, and my sport.
I’ve achieved what I never thought I could and felt worse for doing so. This wasn’t right, and I’m not afraid to change back. That’s not true – I am afraid, but I thought I’d do it anyway… success comes at a cost, and that can be severe if you rush it, or if you take consistent shortcuts in pushing your mind further than you think it really wants to go.
I originally wrote ‘know’ rather than ‘think’, but reading over this again I realise I didn’t know, I just thought I did. I don’t know what I can do, but I was afraid to really find out. I’d started really climbing the mountain, and over the last week I’ve had my first real look down.
When I was younger, I was afraid of heights, and to be honest it only really went away when I started climbing four years ago. I made my way up the wall, and, at some point I fell (though thankfully for this story and my ego not immediately). I kept climbing, and kept falling. Eventually, I would try riskier moves at greater heights, and still fall. But that was okay – I might get a few bruises, but nothing broke, and I also became a lot less afraid.
(A random photo of a spontaneous climb on a family holiday last year – note: this is not how I recommend using running shoes!!)
In life, I never climbed high enough to look down and feel a sense of vertigo. I really struggled at some points, but that was mainly through accumulated stress homesickness and feelings of isolation, not because I’d achieved something I couldn’t really comprehend.
The past ten months have been very hard, and I’ve taken the sorts of risks I’ve spent most of my life avoiding through fear and concern for the potential outcome. When I’ve found it hard, I’ve got depressed and worried, then previously decided enough was enough and essentially thrown in the towel. Incidentally, when I left a hotel in Spain six days ago I thought of that as a title, but it sounds a bit too much like I’m conceding everything, despite my witty subtitle (or, fighting the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal).
Giving up before lead to poor academic outcomes first in the end of school, and then in my Masters in London. I protected myself and took the cost of that. After getting my degree, I spent four and a half months unemployed. I say ‘getting my degree’, rather than graduating, as I didn’t go to the second ceremony: my time at UCL ended rather unpleasantly with sharply deteriorating mental health, and I wasn’t keen to be reminded of that, even by the expensive but delightful frivolity of airborne hats, Latin and scrolls…
My next job, and indeed all I’ve done since, was in a running shop. I have two university degrees, one a first, an IQ measured (with great variability across a number of years) at 115-140 and a fluency with words and writing that should counteract even the most mediocre of interview skills. I stayed in a job where I was paid below the London living wage for two years before my focus on athletics made it vaguely legitimate.
I don’t want lots of money, or anything too fancy, but this has still been hard to take at times. I’ve had periods of moderate depression, where I’ve gone a day or so without eating, talking to anyone or leaving the house. That was okay though, because I didn’t tell anyone about it until afterwards, and even then I maybe lied about the food bit to make it seem less scary. There’s nothing wrong with spending the day at home, but if you feel you can’t leave, it’s a very different story than just wanting to get through “just one more series” of Game of Thrones.
As well as the job thing, I gave up on one of my two real dreams a number of years ago: having a family. The other dream is competing for Ireland, and we’ll come back to that later. Despite my athletic success, sporadic academic achievement and many lovely trips abroad, my favourite memory is something very different. I was going to write a blog about this called ‘playing happy families, or, a flicker of possibility‘, but I’ve very rightly decided that it risked lying forever on the ‘to write’ pile, and that I should throw it in here instead.
My aunt Gill, who I’ve always found rather inspiring, was producing a play called ‘Green Street’ set in a beautiful courthouse in Dublin. It was primarily about the revolutionary Robert Emmet and his role in the Irish uprising in 1803, and the audience moved interchangeably through several different rooms of the courthouse itself. This made wonderful use of the historic space, which they had to borrow for the occasion. I mention these details partly because Anglo-Irish politics and criminal justice are two of the topics I feel most passionately about, and might one day get round to discussing here, and partly because it was an amazing experience to be involved in.
Being an inordinately busy and active person anyway, she also had four equally busy children aged 10-17 at that stage (one now the other international athlete in our group of eight cousins), and needed a bit of help around the house. As I had some free time before starting my Masters in London, and because it was something I was very keen to do, I found myself arriving at the door for my longest ever stay in Dublin (ten days or so, if memory serves).
Walking the two youngest girls to and from school, preparing dinner (don’t laugh, I did create some palatable meals…), eating together, and helping them with homework (except Irish!), and going along to tennis lessons was the happiest time of my life. I felt useful, engaged in something bigger, and, for the first time, a ‘grownup’ part of a family.
Getting up every morning knowing that I directly mattered to someone was an incredible honour, and a real joy. That word is thrown around lightly, but I don’t use it casually here. In my heart though, I knew that I couldn’t manage it full-time, and that the stress of supporting a family when for half my life I’ve had intermittent periods of being unable to support, or (very occasionally) even feed myself would be too much.
I’m building up, and getting there slowly, but I worry that by the time I’m able to do so the window will have closed. I try to accept this, but I know that I’m the only person who knows whether or not it’s really possible, and the self-doubt, hope and uncertainty around that is tricky to live with. I’ve spoken about this with a close friend, who, when I said I’d accepted that, pulled me up on it and said ‘it sounds like you haven’t’. He was right, but to be fair I did tell him so at the time.
This sort of thing is important. Sport, for most of us, isn’t in the same league (aha? nevermind). For me it’s different. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I’ll never be able to handle a ‘proper’ job, but I could do well in sport. Since the start of 2015, I’ve been decent enough at running to be referred to in the family as ‘the runner’ – that being my main role.
People often respected and understood that I was putting a hobby I loved ahead of a career, and I was proud of that. It wasn’t a profession, and I was never going to be able to live off it, but I was putting my effort into something I cared about deeply. That meant a lot, and kept me in much better shape mentally than I would otherwise have been.
This brings us to the second dream. I never thought I’d compete for Northern Ireland in a provincial competition, never mind being offered the green of Ireland I’d seen at the back of my mind since I was six. My dad had played hockey for the island (Ireland is united in international hockey and rugby), and it always seeemed painfully impossible for me to follow his footsteps. Last year, for reasons entirely too elaborate to tell here, I found myself a nascent steeplechase specialist. Sure, I’d race every other distance going, but I eventually found my way into the top 20 in the U.K., being well outside the top hundred for everything else.
The highest level of competition that Northern Ireland compete in without being under the auspices of ‘Team GB’** is the Commonwealth Games. To run for “the province I love” (to use Mary Peter’s immortal words) would mean the world. I decided to give everything towards trying that, and I started down a road that’s lead where I am today.
Just over a year after I ran 9:33 for the steeplechase, qualifying for the English championships by twelve seconds, and a chance to run for Middlesex. Last month I ran 8:37, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games* by five seconds.
(This was absolutely surreal: like when someone shows you how to alter a website rover display different photos and text – it was a joke, right?)
After the first race, I was triumphant, amazed at myself and in love with a new event. After the second I just felt focused, disciplined, and determined to make the immediate jump to the next standard, the world championships, without really digesting what I’d done. Think of it as the difference between a good meal at pizza express enjoyed slowly and wolfing down something elaborately named and even more fancily prepared at a Michelin star restaurant.
I’d achieved my dream and put myself in the frame for a selection for Ireland this year that I’d never even considered. I was on the BBC sport athletics website, for crying out loud! My time would have put me top 40 in Europe last year! I was eighth on the Irish all time list over the steeplechase! I’d made it!
Then why didn’t it feel that way? Why did I feel scared, rather than overjoyed and fulfilled?
Because I looked down.
More to come. I’m not sure when exactly.
*Actual selection pending, see upcoming ‘the Northern Irish hunger games’, a title a friend suggested that I love, for more. Once I write it…
**I put ‘Team GB’ in inverted commas because the full name, Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is rarely used, and the top bit of the island of Ireland (political opinion alert!!) forgotten. I have a lot more on this, but it’s for another time.
More on Robert Emmet, and perhaps by doing so nailing my colours to the Irish mast rather obviously.
A review of the play, which we were all incredibly excited to read. The moment this was read and sent round the family stood out more than my athletics successes – it was a collective achievement, something we could all be proud of, and something we’d all worked towards in a small way.
Green Street Courthouse (below)