Out of time: part one

Introduction: life and death

This one matters. If you, good reader, would spend time perusing one of my blogs, this is probably the wisest choice. Promise.

When discussing the importance, or otherwise, of sporting endeavours, one stock phrase comes back again and again. “It’s not life and death“. For me, this was.

For a number of months I was caught between the end of a life that meant so much to me and the uncertainty, trepidation and dizzying change that came with taking my own in a completely new direction.

I felt that ‘Out of Time’ needed some context: certainly, I needed a bit of a run up to take it on. I was afraid of what I’d have to face up to by starting it, never mind finishing. It was as hard as I expected. I started and then scrapped so many insufficient beginnings: nothing was good enough, but then that’s partly how I felt looking back at the season, too.

At the start of August, I sat in the stands at the Olympic stadium in London, knowing that just four seconds separated me from a spectator’s view of events and the incredible privilege of competing at the World Championships. It would have been my first Irish vest, and almost a month after my grandmother’s funeral, I felt that running there would somehow pull back the time that I felt had suddenly run away from me in her death. I know how much it would have meant to her, and this is something I’ll never entirely be able to let go of.

Ultimately, I now find myself pursuing my childhood dream of international sport, with hopes to run at major competitions over the next several years. That’s worth everything to me. I’m very lucky to have this chance, and I’m partly writing this to chase away a few ghosts that seem intent on holding me back.

It’s a long story, with a lot of light and a good deal of darkness, but I hope to be more succinct than usual. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

Part one: Lost for words

“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.”

(Atul Gawande, Being Mortal)

While sorting through a small pile of paper in a vaguely organised part of my room, a page written by a different hand fell to the floor. I so rarely receive written communication from other people, with the exception of my father, and time seems to have left that art behind. Most of my writing is on a screen.

That’s the thing with digital text. It doesn’t just drop out of a stack of mixed papers and leave you winded: lost for words. The letter was one of two that my granny had written to me in the last several months of her life, and it took me entirely by surprise. Often, when something happens unexpectedly, we have no chance to prepare appropriate, considered emotions, and are forced to face something that we’d rather not.

In organising our thoughts to react, we make them line up in a way that we’re progressively trained to do as adults. Not too much, not too little, and certainly not too public. Excessive emotions should be private, especially for men, and particularly for men brought up in a traditional, middle-class, educated way. Keep a stiff shirt collar and a stiff upper lip, we’re told.

Searching for a way to start this series, nothing seemed to work: I suppose I was waiting for the right moment, without any idea what that might entail. It might have passed already, or I might have spent an indeterminate period of time looking out for something that was never going to arrive. That’s the same with relationships, and while that’s a good story a lot of us might understand, it’s one for another time.

I had hoped it would be easy, that I might stumble on the right words by accident, and not have to dig too deep to find them. I also thought I could ignore the low points of my journey, and paint a bright tapestry that started with a first vest for my country in Manchester and carried onto a PB that puts me among the top 40 steeplechasers in Europe. No one really needed to know, right? Who really wanted to know? I didn’t tell my parents, and I only gave my friends a sense of what was going through my head, but in safe patches, just enough to digest in nice pieces, so it wasn’t too intense.

There were two periods where I told my coach I was giving up. The first lasted as long as my resolve, which was a day and a half. The second continued for a little longer, but ultimately I failed to give up then, too. I didn’t have the stubborn, bloody minded strength of will to make the change I was telling myself I could, and go back home, and I’m very grateful for that.

On many other occasions I wanted to throw in the towel, but I told myself ‘just one more day’, ‘see how it feels tomorrow‘. Often tomorrow would be better, sometimes it would be worse, but mostly I kept going, because I was afraid to give up, too. It wasn’t bravery, but a different kind of fear.

If I gave up before the track season, I’d never know whether I could have made it, and I’d never forgive myself for quitting early. I suppose it was both a fearful hope (aspiring with trepidation and self-doubt to perhaps succeed), and the kind of hopeful fear one experiences when placed precipitously atop the highest diving board. The opening quote poses a wonderful question, but I’m still too afraid and indecisive to answer it firmly.

Later on, after I got the first and even the second Commonwealth standard, I was worried about writing this. As much as I wrote other things, many of them witty, some jokes, some poems, some stories and a couple of speeches, this was admonishing me from the top of my to-do list.

Life in London has given me a great deal. I’ve got to a point where I can call myself a semi-professional athlete, on the verge of international competition, with two university degrees under my belt and a hopefully long life stretching out in exciting directions. I can’t complain, but I’ve always partly wanted to be at home, to be the centre of nobody’s attention apart from my own, and be there for my family when they need me, if I had the consistent mental and physical health to do so.

That was my responsibility. I always thought I’d have time to go home and spend time with my grandmother, whose funeral I went to in July, the day after the British championships. The day after I’d let another opportunity at the Commonwealth standard slip through my fingers.

Just as my window to dip once more under 8:43 was closing, my time with my grandmother had vanished completely. I couldn’t claw it back, but most days since the start of June, my thoughts have come back to her last words to me. Not once, but twice I thought I’d heard the final things she’d ever say to me.

The first, last sentence was, “health is the most important”. The second, “news from Adam“. On both occasions, I left in pieces, and had to pick myself up to keep going, to pick up training and carry on, knowing that the place I most wanted to be was the place I was leaving.

While I was off racing internationally in Belgium and Spain, other people were by granny’s bedside, there for her when she needed it. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I ever will be, but I told myself I had to try and find out.

So, after months of putting it off, I put pen to paper last week and started writing. Almost immediately I fell apart in tears, and decided that it was a bad idea. Too late though, I’d started, and I needed to make it lead somewhere. This was too important not to finish.

Now, having begun a new season, I think it’s time to open the door a little, and share some of what I’ve been keeping back.

To do that, I need to jump back a year and a half, and start at something like the beginning.

Part two continues the story.

IMG_2569

This photo was taken the day before I spoke to my granny for the last time. It looks like I’m winning – I came third, two people are ahead of me out of shot. The camera might lie, but, for the duration of this series, I’ll try not to.

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