“Occasionally, it should be funny”, or, undercutting the seriousness

One of my favourite podcasts (and podcasts are one of my favourite things), is Radio 4s book club, where authors are interviewed about their work. James Naughtie presents it, and his calm yet engaging style is one of the few things that genuinely helps me switch off my anxiety. Two of the episodes I most enjoy listening to are the discussions with Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling.

There’s a great line in the first of these where Pratchett says:

“There’s part of me that will go for the gag. I could have been a contender, I could have been a Booker winner, probably, if not for that terrible idea that occasionally it should be funny.”

One problem with this blog is that I always feel the need to make a joke or a witty digression or the impulse to include something that seems especially original or unexpected. This makes it far harder to follow than it needs to be. Frustratingly, it also means that the sharp editorial eye I like to think I cast over other people’s work is mostly blind to my writing deficiencies, not least the critical inabilities to be succinct and ignore these needs and impulses to chip in with meandering absurdity.

My dad mentioned a few weeks ago that the blog is mostly “about my internal thoughts”. “What are external thoughts, then?”, I was tempted to reply. You could make the legitimate argument that language and literature are an extension of thought outside the brain, and I could say that piece of self-reflective logic is why I didn’t. In reality, I didn’t have the balls.

Ed Byrne has a wonderful bit in his comedy where he talks about things he wishes he’d said. The title of the DVD this piece comes from, “pedantic and whimsical”, might well be one of the many subtitles I’ve played around with for this blog. I could write about it, but frankly his delivery and crafting of the lines makes it what it is. Have a look here if you like. If not, essentially it’s that story you’d like to tell everyone really happened but if fact you really walked away fuming at your inability to deal with confrontation or awkwardness by saying anything at all.

That characteristic is probably as important to my life as anything else. If I actually said many of the important things I wanted to say to people I’d probably spend a lot less time penning these sorts of things. Odds are I’d probably not be doing elite athletics though, and that I’d have been fired from my job in a running shop for repeatedly mouthing off to infuriatingly condescending, pain rude or just frankly idiotic shoppers. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This bent towards witticisms and a wry look at the world is something I’ll probably never shake off. As I spend a lot of my time contemplating mortality, the moral philosophies that govern our behaviour and wandering around the realms of both memory and imagination, I struggle to put all my eggs in one basket. Frankly, I’ve probably lost track of most of them in between a myriad of potential baskets, most of which I’ve mislaid somewhere or other.

It does mean I’m rarely genuinely bored, and can happily spend a lot of time alone, which is great. On the flipside though, a mind that’s always switched on, producing endless reasons to avoid fully committing to anything isn’t really conducive to either a relationship, a job or, sadly, elite sport. Ultimately, it’s just running around in a circle, ellipse or wiggly line, with or without some ridiculous jumping around.

On the other part of the title, I always feel the need to undercut the seriousness of any situation, even if it’s only with thoughts to myself, and that makes it hard to really take anything entirely seriously. I get anxious, upset, depressed and stressed, I’d definitely say more than most people, which certainly make things seem serious. With that though, I know that it’ll go away, and life will bounce back to whimsical absurdity or musing abstraction soon enough.

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This is simply here to look ridiculous. It’s a Halloween costume from 2009 that perfectly blended absurdity and value (I just grabbed a pumpkin as serendipitously impromptu headgear, the skull gloves were an incidental bonus)

Giving up my job and becoming a de-facto professional athlete is definitely serious, but also definitely absurd. De-facto in this case being an exceptionally suitable word, meaning ‘whether right or not’, or, ‘with lawful authority or not’. That last bit’s particularly funny, as I’m sure my parents would have preferred me to be a lawyer, until I made it to a level where International Competition seems decidedly plausible. Now they want me to be an international-athlete-lawyer. Well, at least I’m making some progress…

Frankly, it was a pretty disposable job, and I was very easily replaceable. Rightly or wrongly, I’m much less replaceable as an elite athlete.

The supply of people who meet the criteria to work in a running shop, isn’t exactly limited, those criteria being:

 

No that blank space isn’t a typo. The only criteria at a basic level seem to me to be willingness to work, or, perhaps even more cynically, willingness to be employed.

This is largely a joke. I have a lot of friends who do a wonderful job in shops, and can give advice that encourages people who are nervous, self-conscious or have no idea where to start into a relationship with a sport that might change their life. In rare moments, that will happen, and those sorts of moments are a delight and a privilege.

The supply of people with the capability, inclination, time and sufficient lack of self-preservation instincts to be an elite steeplechaser is rather shorter. I find myself, perplexingly, inside the top 40 in Europe last year for my event. This still surprises me.

I had a bet with my roommate at the training camp I’ve just flown back home from that the loser of a best of three table tennis match would have to jump into the swimming pool on the roof. It was colder than you might expect for Tenerife, even in December, so this wasn’t as relaxed a wager as it might seem. When going to collect the bats, the receptionist asked us who would win.

“Me”, he replied. Almost at the same moment, I answered “him”.

I actually won, and when I returned the bats I was asked who’d come out on top.

“Me”, I answered with a smile. “You don’t have to be confident, you just have to be good.”

This great line was wasted partly because of the receptionist’s limited English, and partly my botched delivery of a carefully crafted zinger.

I’m still not confident, but, despite my best efforts to prove otherwise, not least in my last race, I am fairly good. While you might not need confidence, it’s important to take things some things more seriously, or rather with conviction, and some things with a more relaxed approach.

As things are now, I can float around whimsically most of the time, but when it comes to the sport that’s now my job, and especially races like the Commonwealth Games, I need to clear my head of these witticisms, doubts and diversions, and get that job done. We’ll find out if I managed that in a bit less than four months (final selection pending, to be technically correct).

 

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Relax your face!

Most of my blogs are like that Guardian long read you maybe (hopefully?) find interesting on first glance, but then realise two minutes in that I’ll take much longer than you thought to finish. It’s then added to the ‘to read list’ that nothing gets out of. This isn’t like those. You could read it while brushing your teeth, unless you’re in a real rush. In which case, hurry up!

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Ah, so relaxed. Nothing like a nice cold foot bath. Photo credit Sam Barnes, Sportsfile.

When I’m getting to the end of a hard morning’s training on the track, the inevitable instruction drifts through from my coach.

Relax your face!” Ironically, this tends to be said quite loudly, but admittedly it’s not very effective to mutter or whisper from the side of a track.

Okay, that’s going in a suitable place on my priority list”, replies my internal voice. My external voice lacks both sufficient bravery and oxygen to answer.

There are a few things that might logically take precedence:

1. Continue to respire, using whatever means necessary (including osmosis and photosynthesis, worst coming to worst)
2. Remain upright, via the same approach as above. Maybe not photosynthesis, although sunflowers seem very good at standing up straight.
3. Keep moving forward (it’s a huge bonus if I maintain the same speed)
4. Make my arm movement slightly less like Phoebe from Friends.

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I really want to come past someone in a race like this. Definite bucket list item.

5. Avoid shaking my head around like one of those ridiculous dolls. You know, the football ones.
6. Stop thinking about falling over, stopping breathing or generally giving up.
7. Relax any other part of my body that I’m actually using to run (in between strides, so that I’m not moving like a robot. And not one of those slick sci-fi ones, like C3PO after being left in the blazing light of Tatooine’s twin suns all day.)
8. Continue to perspire, as I think when the body stops sweating very bad things happen.

 

9. Relaxing the sounds of my breathing, as if I was actually racing someone that’s probably what they would focus on more, considering that my respiration sounds at this point like Darth Vader struggling with a particularly severe pollen allergy.
10. Focus on leaning forward from the hips to bring my centre of gravity closer to my landing point, and maintain forward rather than sideways movement (this should be higher on the list but I’m not rearranging all these numbers now!)
11. Try and ignore all the pain everywhere. This one definitely needs to be higher.
12. Focus on why I’m actually training, by myself, in what for the purpose of this drawn out scenario are windy, wet conditions.

 

13. Maybe relax my face for as long as I can keep my attention on it, rather than any, or indeed all, of the more important things above.

Social Media Policy: what if it mattered, or, writing in ink

We mostly don’t need to think twice about throwaway comments on social media, because they’re just that: something to scribble down and discard.

The majority of content on Facebook, twitter and associated digital ephemera is in that ballpark. In this analogy, it’s a very messy one filled with balls of paper that either say nothing in particular, or say things that are so foul as to be either hilariously absurd or warrant immediate incineration. Perhaps often both. Now that ballpark is filling up at twice the rate, thanks to millions of daily selfies and photos of food, if my lazy prejudices are anything to go by.

Most of these balls of paper are unwrapped and passed between ‘friends’ (whatever that now means), ‘followers’ (always sounds scary to me) to some extent. Occasionally someone influential will serendipitously pick one of these up, and share it with their enormous circle, giving the originator of the message a flicker of celebrity. Not quite fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol proffered, but at least several thousand vaguely entertained clicks’ worth.

For some social media superstars, an artfully crafted breakfast photo that gets less than ten thousand likes is immediately deleted by advisers concerned about the negative effects of perceived unoriginality or lack of conspicuous public interest. Perhaps.

I follow more people on twitter than follow me. Some of us follow each other, which really only makes sense if we’re moving in some kind of giant sand circle, but maybe I’m taking this too literally. I have over five hundred friends on Facebook. This is about over five hundred minus, say, five, more than the amount of people I talk to at any length on any given day. I used to work in a running shop and have lots of broadly meaningless conversations. Now I don’t; more on that elsewhere.

I’ve been on Instagram for a few hours and appropriately have zero followers. I’m also on Strava, which positions itself as “the social network for athletes”, but if it was that, you’d have people editing the pacing and distance of their runs with some kind of elaborate filter to ensure more likes. I have more followers there than follow me, but, in the interest of transparency, I think that’s purely because one’s Strava following can be correlated with performance. Despite a few successful attempts to prove myself talentless, I’ve also had a few pretty good performances.

For various reasons, mainly past performance in sport (about 12 years of being a determinedly mediocre hockey player), expectation, confidence (or lack thereof) and the consistency of my health, I never thought I’d make it this far. I assumed I’d get ill again, get hit with a serious bout of depression, or just lose my love of the sport that’s become a job, give up and want to go home. I still want to go home, but I know I will in the next few years, and that’s enough for now.

Equally, I still love the sport, perhaps even more than before, and, hell, sometimes I’d be so happy and humbled by untroubled solitude and beauty of the environments I was running through so much I’d cry a little. I’m less depressed than before, even dealing with rather more sad and stressful things than I expected this year, and while anxiety, fatigue and depression have undermined a few performances this year, I’ve done what I set out to do.

My coach often mentioned that it is in some ways harder to prepare for success than to prepare for failure, because when you succeed, you need to change your beliefs about yourself. I’ve never really been brave enough to do that, and so I’m almost always surprised when things actually go well.

Training on the track in Tenerife on Wednesday, in admittedly hot conditions, I fell apart. According to a lab test in February 2016 (one of the things that convinced me to give athletics a proper go), my maximum heart rate is 200. Five days ago it was 202,. I felt like collapsing, but I thought I should at least get to six from the initially planned nine sets of two and a half laps (1km), even if I did collapse.

It was a bit of a watershed moment, a somewhat ironic choice of words as I was pretty dehydrated and at that point wanted to ingest as much water as possible.

I did the last rep, it wasn’t that much slower, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even partly collapse, which, while concerning, would have felt suitably dramatic. As evidence of my continuing survival, see below:

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Although I did spend half an hour in bed afterwards, after lying down face first for what I convinced myself would be thirty seconds before hauling myself into the shower. I was okay again. Not immediately, but well before my next hard training session on Saturday.

Among the various thoughts going through my head, I imagined elite sport like playing Jenga while getting progressively better. Eventually, your tower will fall down, and you’ll need to start again, but, with luck, the next arrangement of blocks will be taller. It’ll always suck when it collapses, but as well as getting better at carefully removing blocks you’ll also get better at starting a new tower.

Ultimately, you can’t be afraid of tumbling down. Especially if you’ve chosen the steeplechase as not only your athletics event, but as a sort of job too. Not everyone does their job right all the time though. Sometimes it’s outside your control, like a goalkeeper trying to save a penalty bound for the top corner, or Teresa May (or, ah, anyone) trying to make Brexit work.

Sometimes you fall over ‘just a bit’ and manage to style it out. When everyone’s job is trying to win, most people will go home disappointed. That doesn’t mean you give up.

There’s a great quote in a book about positivity a friend of mine gave me.

Whenever you fall down, pick something up” (Oswald Avery)

The first thing to pick up is yourself, and I’m getting better at that. Another one is a response to failure: “fail again, fail better” (by Samuel Beckett, who is ironically often rather distopian in his outlook). That seems to be working too, if managing to eat regular meals and keep a vaguely normal sleeping routine after the Irish cross country championships is anything to go by.

This title came from actually getting a bit of social media training last week. I’m faced with the seemingly unthinkable situation that, in some small way, some of these scribbles might mean something. I always knew someone read them, but I have to grudgingly admit more people are doing so. With a increasing but still small readership comes an increasing but still small set of responsibilities and sense of significance. There’s a small chance I might matter, so I have to pretend everything I write could.

Again on social networks, here’s a bit I like from a film of that name:

The Internet isn’t written in pencil Mark, it’s written in ink”

Just as you can’t remove a bad result in athletics, you can never fully scour something from the internet once you’ve dropped it there. To be honest, I can probably get away with changing or removing all my past posts, or indeed this whole  blog, and have it vanish effectively, just as I could walk away from the sport that has brought new extents of delight and despair over the last year and a half.

As time passes though, doing so will become harder. I have responsibilities now I didn’t have before, and I can’t pretend otherwise. I’ve written openly about depression and anxiety before, I’m not going to stop doing so. That’s as much a part of my life as anything else. I’ll say and write more stupid things, and get more bad results, but, if the time since June last year is anything to go by, it’ll be worth it for the better moments.