The Anti-Hero: I’m not the good guy

Most of my blogs are too long for practical purposes. To quip that I’m not a practical person is a shabby defence. It will apparently take three minutes to get to the end of this one. I’d be very grateful if you could take the time, even if you skip every other paragraph. It’ll still make sense.

Sort of.

One of our most enduring moral questions is also disarmingly simple: am I a good person?

Concepts of good and evil are threaded throughout the fabric of the earliest stories we encounter. Whether it’s children’s tales, Disney Films or the Bible, one side wears white and clothes itself in virtue, while the other is plainly and simply dark, without the muddied waters of ethical complexity.

Whatever the source of our ideas, the notion of a clear dichotomy soon blurs with the passage of time. The stories we read as teenagers and adults, and even the narratives of our own lives, blow away easy ideas of right and wrong, replacing them with a complex entanglement of choices. Many of these lack a clear ending, and even if we would endeavour to choose the most moral path available, we cannot see enough of the way ahead to know where it might lead.

Very few of us can answer that question with a simple yes or no. Only a small number of people have done something so wonderful, or so terrible, so as to weigh all their other actions into relative insignificance.

Last year I achieved a lot in athletics. That’s not especially interesting in this context, nor morally relevant, but I am going somewhere. You might suppose the highest and lowest points in the year, certainly the latter, came on a running track, when I got the first and then the second Commonwealth Games standards. You might have been right, but you’re not.

In June, I decided to put one of my closest friends ahead of my own interests. That meant turning down the chance to run for Ireland, and to press ‘snooze’ on a childhood dream. There is no decision in my life I regret less.

In November, I did the opposite. Despite missing the chance to run for Ireland twice more, both for the more personally devastating reason of failing to measure up, not earning it when I felt I wanted nothing more for myself, that hurts far more looking back.

On the first occasion, despite difficult personal circumstances and some psychological struggles, I stepped up to the honour of a best man’s speech that I happily managed to deliver reasonably well. It came less than two weeks after one of the worst evenings of my life. Incidentally, that culminated in being injured, unable to sleep, sitting on a toilet in a dingy hotel room in Spain for several hours reading a book on introversion, clicking my heels together an muttering ‘there’s no place like home’. Especially coming after that, the wedding was one of few occasions that I felt weighed heavily in the ‘good books’, so to speak.

I won’t write about the second thing. This blog is the space for a lot of personal thoughts, vulnerabilities, negativity, doubt, hope and experience, but there are always things we hold back. That’s as it should be. Complete openness is often naive at best, and devastating at worst.

I wanted to write a very long piece that looked at the context and the balance of the last few years, when my life changed more quickly than at any other time before. I wrote above about relative insignificance. I’ve done many things I’m not proud of, as I’m sure we all have, and equally the converse is true.

As much as I hate to admit it, adding words often weaken the message. Just like trying to ‘fix’ that pesky, ambiguous number that looks more like a seven than a one, we’re left with a lot more ink on the page, and a messy scribble that no longer resembles either. Suffice to say that I feel there’s a balance to redress.

One key factor in the success of our goals is whether we share them, and in doing so hold ourselves accountable. For all the new year’s resolutions, upcoming international competition and hope for more, 2018 will be a success if I can avoid the kind of moral failure I closed last year with. The title’s very clear in how I feel about that failure.

In writing this, I encourage anyone else to seek to do the same, and put their moral values ahead of successes, disappointments or the easier, simpler broadcasts of empty positivity on social media. If, in sharing any of my vulnerabilities or reflecting on my deficiencies with the hope to do better, I can help anyone else, that will be as valuable a success as anything on a running track.

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Running Faster, hopefully (interview)

After the second of my three training camps before the Commonwealth Games in April, I was asked to answer a few questions in an interview piece for a website called Fast Running. I did. This is it. It’s also been published there, but as I’m not in the academic world anymore I don’t think self-plagarism is really an issue.

I’m sure many, many more people will have read that piece than this blog. It’s shorter, snappier and the answers have a word count. It’s also looking at the positives, of which there have been so many. Sometimes though, like old fashioned photographers, we need to sit down in the dark with the negatives and take a proper look at them.

As in the quote for the photo, I have to take responsibility for the fact that some people will look at my success, my actions and my words, and take something from them. It’s critical to take that responsibility seriously, and to think carefully about how your words might affect others, or be perceived.

If nothing else, however, I’ve always tried to be honest, at least some of the time, when writing here.  As in the quote below (from Frankenstein), I’ve always been cautious about ambition and chasing success. Doing so on the public platform of elite sport has been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I won’t try and hide that.

The title’s also important: this wasn’t the one they used, as I actually just thought of it. In June last year, I asked myself whether being the best or being happy should be more of a priority. I decided, in the words of John Humphreys, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, and put the question to one side. I also wrote the first half of a blog I’ll finish, hmm, sometime.

If we just care about being happy, we’ll probably sit around eating fudge and watching tv for a lot of the time – I know I would! That’s a somewhat skewed set of priorities that leads definitively away from elite sport. It’s also very short-term. On the other side, however, if we just care about performance to the exclusion of happiness, then we can get great results for a while. I did, and happiness came along for the journey too.

Somewhere in early November, though, it got lost. I tried looking for it, leaving its favourite foods out in its bowl by the door, and asking friends if they’d seen it. No luck. I tried to go on without it, but after a month or so, my body decided that was a terrible idea, and went on strike for a few weeks.

Often happiness, pride and contentment come from achievement, exploration (self- or otherwise) or worthwhile acts, and to seek them out without those things is a bit like ice-cream without a bowl. Messy, and somewhat unsustainable. Being selected for the Commonwealth Games meant, as I mentioned, everything, but it wasn’t a cure for my often wayward happiness.

If I really want to get ‘better’, where those words refer to mental health, I have to be more honest with myself about what works, what doesn’t, and when I need to take a step back and recover, or at least not take another new step forward. If this means being less successful, less ‘better’ at athletics, or anything else, I stand by that proudly, knowing that the decisions to do so were my own.

Seek Happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing oneself in science and discovery.”

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Congratulations on your selection to represent Team NI. What does it mean to you to represent your country at the Commonwealth Games?

In a word? Everything. I didn’t grow up thinking I was good at sport. Despite my dad having played hockey for Ireland, I wasn’t very talented!

Because of my dad, International sport was a dream I had as a kid, but I let that go growing up as it seemed like a stupidly impossible ambition. I went to the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a spectator, and the idea I’ll be competing there this year still seems surreal.

Being Northern Irish is a huge part of my identity, and The Commonwealth Games are the highest level Northern Ireland compete independently at. As such this chance is incredibly special to me.
Can you tell us more about your typical training environment and the current focus of your programme?

It’s very solitary. Endurance running by its nature is quite a solo pursuit within an individual sport, and since I started working with my current coach I’ve been training mostly alone on the track.

I find that hard, but on the positive side there’s nowhere to hide and you have to do the work yourself, which is also a big part of finding the psychological toughness to compete at any level, when you’re out there on your own. I mostly train at Mile End track and on roads and parks in London.

I’ve started incorporating hurdles into my track reps now, and I definitely feel that competition time is getting closer, despite there being three months to go.

You took part in your first ever warm weather training camp with Athletics NI in December 2016 and returned to continue training in January. What advice would you have for athletes going warm weather training for the first time?

Don’t assume the routines you have will all just fit into warmer weather immediately. I started my first track session at my usual time, the day after an early start for a long flight, and I fell apart a bit – my heart rate went over 200 so I cut the session short.

Leave yourself time to recover from the journey, get used to the heat (in my case that meant training earlier in the morning) and definitely drink more water. Also, try and get familiar with the new environment in terms of sleeping and where you can eat and get things like snacks and water, as the tap water might not be drinkable.
Athletics NI team staff have focused on performance behaviours and mindset ahead of our travel to holding camp in the Gold Coast? European Bronze medallist Ciara Maegan and Paralympic Champion Jason Smyth have shared their experience of major championships. Will you be taking on board any of the advice from them?

It was a privilege to be able to spend time with Ciara and Jason. Having them around on the camp was a big bonus, and it made me realise how important it is to stay grounded and not get carried away with your success. At the level they’re at, the basics are still the most important things, and there’s no shortcut to getting there.

Both Jason and Ciara talked about self-belief, and the importance of not getting distracted from your job as an athlete. Ultimately, you’ve been selected as an ambassador for your country and for your sport, and the strongest belief comes from knowing you’ve done yourself justice and not missed things in getting to the start line.

What are your goals for the Games?

Honestly, it’s my first international event and I want to go in feeling relaxed and not putting any extra pressure on myself. I know I’ve improved this season in so many areas, but there are always risks and unknowns in sport, and you can’t be complacent or take anything for granted.

If I can get to the start line in the best possible condition, knowing I’ve done my utmost to prepare as professionally as I can, I can be proud of whatever happens afterwards. Lots of people will have things to say about what you can achieve, what you should and what you can’t, but it’s critical not to lose sight of why you’re there in the first place.

Athlete Profile: vital statistics and personal pleonasm

At the start of the year I was asked to fill in a personal profile for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. While, as repeatedly evidenced here(!), I always enjoy writing, and mainly about myself on this blog, completing this sort of thing was extremely surreal. I had to tone down the jokes rather sharply, but there’s still a few pieces I eventually decided not to cut out!

The most surprising thing is that I actually managed to produce a succinct version of my athletics ‘story’, after dedicating tens of thousands of words here failing to do so. Hopefully it’s worth reading to the end to see that I actually managed to!

Name
Adam Kirk-Smith

Date of Birth
30.01.91

Height
173cm

Weight
61kg (does this really matter? It’s not like it’s top trumps..)

Place of Birth
Belfast

Country of Birth
Northern Ireland (UK)

Nickname(s)
Kirky

I could also add: Adamo, Adamovic, Adee, Captain Kirk, Ad-dog, Adsey, Noodles (that one’s a long story), Adamski…

Hobbies
Writing (blogs, short stories, some bad poetry and worse jokes!), reading (popular science, novels, good poetry, anything really), climbing (when I can), a bit of photography, some computer games, having naps, sailing, making huge salads and overly long lists..

Occupation
Athlete, part-time running shop staff

Tertiary Education (Institution & course)
University of Kent, Canterbury (BSc/Undergraduate degree in Anthropology)
University College London (MSc/Master’s degree in Digital Anthropology)

Languages spoken
English (native), French (moderate)

Coach
Tomas Plibersek

Sporting Relatives (all competing for Ireland)
Dad, Ian (Senior International field hockey)
Grandad, George McCaw (Senior International field hockey for Ireland, school’s cricket)
Cousin, Roseanne McCollough (Junior international athlete)

Other sports played (at a high level)
None. I’m terrible at everything else, but I loved doing it all!

Injuries (description and years)

Damaged ankle ligaments, 10 months from September 2009
Torn hip tendon, 14 months from September 2010
Damaged Achilles tendon, 3 months from November 2014
Snapped shoulder ligaments in bike accident, 5 months and 2 surgeries from June 2015

Why and when they took up this sport?

I always ran around from time to time, but I started running as a hobby in October 2012, as I was in London and I had too far to travel to play hockey. Having been a very mediocre player for the vast majority of my life, I’m surprised I kept at it so long! I started running consistently in mid-2014, and after getting a few injuries a year and a half later in late 2015 (November), I committed to giving athletics a proper go.

Ambition/goals  (including 2018 Commonwealth Games)
Staying fit, healthy and happy enough to compete for as long as I can in the sport, and to represent Ireland and Northern Ireland in all major competitions. If in doing so I can positively affect anyone else’s life that would mean more than the success I might have.

Memorable moments (plus any from previous Commonwealth Games)

In sport?

Not that much of significance. It’s probably summed up by the following moment. I was first drugs tested at the Northern Irish Championships in June 2017, and after saying that this was my first test, the immediate question was “How have you got to this level and never been tested?”. I replied, smiling: “I’ve only been at this level for about two weeks, does that answer your question?”

The best moment? Getting my P.B. and a second Commonwealth standard at Letterkenny in County Donegal, the County where my grandmother was born, less than a week after her funeral, with my family watching by the track.

Hero

Roger Bannister. His achievements made an enormous impact on the public awareness of athletics and inspired so many people. More than that, his role in medical practice and research is something people are less aware of, and when interviewed about his greatest achievement he spoke about that, not his sport.

His life is an example of what the human body can manage when trained scientifically, rigorously and thoughtfully, but also what we might all be able to achieve if we commit ourselves with that same application to something outside sport.

Biggest Influence

This is a tricky one. I won’t say who they are, because they’d prefer me not to. Though my coach and my family have been incredible and hugely supportive, I wouldn’t have got to the stage where I was worth taking seriously as an athlete without someone else really believing in me. I’ll always be grateful for that, and it helps me not to take what I have for granted.

Pre-competition ritual(s)

Nothing special really. I have the same routines on hard training days and race days, more or less. I don’t have any different food or wear any different clothes, other than what I need to race. I like to take a book into the call room, because I hate sitting down on a bench pretending to be relaxed. I’m not, and I won’t pretend to be, but I always like reading anyway so it seems like a sensible use of the time!

Any additional information?

I have a blog. If you’d like to read more about my strange world, go there: https://theanthropologuy.wordpress.com/


I notice you are relatively new to athletics at a mature age. I’ll be interested to read how you got into the sport late. Also a tremendous breakthrough 2017 season, four steeple PBs. Thoughts please.

Thanks for this question, I appreciate you’ve got an awful lot of these to produce and I’m grateful you took the time to look into my background. There are a lot of versions of this story at very different lengths, but I’ll tell it succinctly.

As I mentioned above, I only started running when I came to London because I wanted to do a sport that wasn’t hockey. One of my best friends from home encouraged me to do our local 10k race we’d done a few times before, and I really enjoyed it, after taking a bit of time to train in the build up.

The building blocks were in place in late 2012, but it’s really the absence of physical and psychological health problems and avoiding serious injury over the last couple of years allowed me to make the step up. People take these sorts of things for granted when everything’s going well, but often these kinds of factors are what stop so many athletes excelling.

Again, as above, a friend really encouraged me to give athletics a real go, and to pick a specific event and commit to a higher level of performance. Without that I would never have got to 9:02 in 2016. It gave me the chance to meet my coach, and my progress since then has been mostly down to the discipline, focus and advice he’s given me. While I’m really delighted with 2017’s progress, I believe I still have quite a lot of room to improve.