All’s well that ends well, or, new beginnings: Commonwealth Games steeplechase

I wrote the piece below three weeks ago, on the morning after the evening of the Commonwealth Games steeplechase. I’d spent much of the time since my selection in early October worrying about how tired my body and mind seemed to be, which can’t have been much help for either.

Things got worse in the eight weeks before the race, and that concern kept me from wiring anything more here, as I didn’t want to draw any extra attention to something that approached with an increasing sense of peril.

A number of J.R.R. Tolkien’s short stories take place in ‘The Perilous Realm’, and one, Smith of Wooton Major, tells of ‘things of both beauty and terror‘. Danger, risk and peril can doom us, but they can also surround circumstances that lift our lives outside things we’ve done before, provided we can navigate them safely.

While I think it’s critically important not to blindly pursue success, and question your honest reasons for chasing, the need, and the consequences of failure, you shouldn’t spend too long in the abyss of speculation either. At a certain point it’s just about jumping into the sea (or, in this case over the water).

After nearly half a year where large parts were spent in that abyss, I had to jump. This, with another of my usual preambles, is the story of that jump:

In the last several months, I’ve found my physical and mental limits, but instead of stopping, I’ve gone through them. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “this has widely been regarded as a bad move” (a bit like deciding to upgrade your pawn to a knight rather than a queen because horses are pretty).

That road has led to staring some pretty serious demons in the eye, and, frankly, it’s been the help and advice of a few of my closest friends that’s stopped me stumbling off the path into somewhere rather awful. I’m very lucky to have people in my corner that had the patience and good humour to listen to my increasingly hopeless ramblings, then nod me back in the right direction.

I spoke briefly about depression when interviewed after the race, and I was asked whether athletics has made it worse or better. At points it’s made the symptoms worse, but it’s important to understand the distinction between an underlying condition and its impacts at a given time. After breaking through into elite athletics less than a year ago, my ability to cope has increased enormously. The trouble is, the pressure piled up too, and it became too much in November.

I’m not going to walk away from the sport. A friend I respect enormously told me last year that even putting off giving up was an achievement to be proud of.┬áIt would be easier to throw in the towel, and it would certainly help my mental health in the short term. It’s not the right decision though. If I really want to inspire people dealing with mental health problems, and I genuinely do, I need to dig in and offer the best of myself.

That means not giving up even though it seemed so much more appealing than continuing for a long time. That means reluctantly realising that I can be inspiring even though I sometimes have cereal for dinner, fear leaving the house and squander a fair amount of time playing computer games and writing this sort of rubbish.

Anyway, this was supposed to be a race report. Sort of.

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My life ambition was originally to be a dragon. As it became clear that was unlikely, I decided I wanted to be an international athlete, like my dad. Yes, I still spend the occasional secret moment during runs downhill flapping my arms and roaring hopefully, but I think I’ve otherwise largely accepted my fate to continue life as a human.

I’d never run internationally before last night. It didn’t feel like it could possibly mean as much as I’d built it up to, especially as I felt a top 8 finish, the team objective for these championships, was impossible. To do that, I’d need to beat someone with a faster PB than me: I knew I was well off the shape I’d been in last year, physically as well as mentally, and the idea of racing to achieve something seemed impossible when just running at all was looking like it would take everything I had.

If you’d offered me last place at the Commonwealth Games four years ago, I’d have taken that with a kind of rueful bemusement – despite apparent failure, that would have meant I’d made it. Life ambition done, even if I didn’t beat anyone. I knew there was a chap from Vanuatu running who had a PB about a minute slower than mine: secretly, beating him was my only goal – that meant a top 10, and not last place. I saw him warming up and thought:

uh oh, he looks in great shape. Maybe he’s been training like crazy since his last race. Maybe he actually ran 8:30 somewhere unofficially, and was lulling me into a false sense of security. The Vanuatu tracksuits are really cool. Why doesn’t mine look like that?” … and other such things

When I was warming up, I felt like I had to be running quite quickly. It wasn’t an ‘easy’ pace, and I seemed to be going along at a fair clip. I looked at my watch. 7:35 milling. Crap. It had felt like 6:30. I’m fairly sure that’s slower than 9:40 pace for the steeplechase. Too late now, I’ll have to do this.

The rest of the warm up seemed okay, but the hurdle I was practicing over seemed quite high, literally as well as metaphorically. I checked it. Nope. All fine. I saw a real barrier on the track, and eyeballed it. About the right height? Probably. As I was running up to it, mind on other things, I stumbled, and somehow managed to carry my body over it, clipping my foot on the way over. It had been a long way down.

Right height? Nope. I didn’t realise at the time, and tried again successfully. Walking past to the call room, I asked Jackie, the NI director of coaching, whether it was the right height. “That’s definitely high” she replied. Ah. Well, at least the race would be easier! I thought about how easily I might have fallen there, and what that might have done to a degree of confidence that was already thinner than the pretext for going to war in Iraq, or claiming expenses for a duck moat.

Was I nervous? Not really. What, really? Really really. Depression had been very sharp recently, and I couldn’t bring myself to feel nervous at all. I had a strong sense of not wanting to be there, and I had quipped an hour and a half before the race that this was the sort of evening I’d love to spend alone on a quiet beach, or, even better, on a ship in the middle of a slowly moving ocean.

A friend had told me to look for the positives though, and as I’d essentially promised myself I would, I did. Hey, I wasn’t nervous. That’s great. I’ll take that! I made a few jokes with the volunteers, and had a pretty funny internal monologue. As we jogged out to the track, my friend Ieuan ran past me, looking pretty serious. As he sped along ahead, his feet seemed to say: “ready to lose?”. I was tempted to reply “I was born ready to lose. I’m ready to lose right now.” But I realised this might have been picked up by TV cameras, and that I’d look rather mad by doing so.

As the names were being announced (for some unfathomable reason I was last, in lane one), I thought about how I’d acknowledge the camera. A wave? A smile? Running away? The last seemed most agreeable.

A small moth or butterfly flew past (or perhaps fluttered by. I did genuinely think this at the time, smiling at the wordplay), landing by the feet of the Ugandan athlete beside me. I looked down at it, thinking how nice it would be to be able to shrink to that size and disappear. Wings would probably help with the barriers too. I don’t think the IAAF had the prescience to write “no flight permitted” in any section of their rules. I also thought about the bit in the Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf uses the butterfly to summon an eagle to rescue him from Isengard’s lonely peak.

Were we allowed to tag in fictional birds of prey? I could probably beat the Kenyans riding an eagle. Probably.

I had been politely clapping as other athletes’ names were announced, partly as it seemed like the right thing to do, and partly as it gave me something to do with my hands other than hang them hopelessly by my side. As the camera arrived, I smiled awkwardly, then clapped around to the stadium. This is the sort of thing that risks looking quite stupid, but it seemed to work well. As I’ve established there will very possibly be a ‘next time’ for international competition, this seems like a good ‘signature’ thing.

So we were off. Well, everyone else was. The pace was ridiculously fast at the start, and I decided to start at the back. At least nobody could overtake me, right? My plan had been to sit behind the Cypriot athlete, then see if I could catch him at the end. Honestly, I felt that was unrealistic. Everyone else in the field had a faster PB, and he had the sort of hair that only works for superb athletes or someone with a staggering degree of self confidence. By contrast, I cut my own hair, partly to save money and partly because I’m afraid of making casual conversation with the hairdresser.

Even the guy from Vanuatu had gone with it, to a certain extent. I was actually last. Was I just judging it horribly wrong? If the first 200m over no barriers felt hard, I didn’t hold out much hope for the remaining 2800.

The first lap was actually far too quick. I went through in what I felt was the right pace, and, eventually, people came back to me. The chap from Vanuatu had paid the price for going out so swiftly, and I hoped he’d still get round in a decent time. I sort of ignored the crowd. Yeah, it was quite loud, but we were separated by six or seven lanes of a track, and lots of lovely air. I was safe behind all the air, and nobody was really looking at me, right?

Technically, I was fine over the barriers, and the water jump seemed fine. Certainly, other people seemed to be worse at it. Considering I’d only trained it on two occasions since late January, I was doing pretty well.

After about half the race, I came past the guy from Cyprus. I decided to do it on a bend, as I secretly enjoyed the fact that it was a silly place to do it, and it also just seemed like the right place from an entirely arbitrary perspective.

I was now, amazingly, where my Commonwealth ranking and PB said I should be. My legs didn’t feel that tired. Soon there were two laps to go, and a quick glance behind informed me that the Cypriot was well back. The next bloke was an Australian who’s been to the world championships in 2015. He was one of the people I’d convinced myself I couldn’t beat.

Despite this, I’m always very indecisive, and appropriately changed my mind. Perhaps I could beat him. With 450m left, I moved past, reckoning I had enough to respond if he came back to me. Coming up to the water jump, the crowd roared, and I thought he’d made a big move. I looked back, realising three things,

Firstly, I was going into the last water jump. What the hell was I doing looking back?
Secondly, he wasn’t that close. Hurrah!

Third, the roar was because Conseslus Kipruto had won, not because anyone was paying attention to the back of the race half a lap behind.

Happily, I got over the water jump, and, looking at the trackside clock, realised I was coming in under 8:50. I’d started last season with 8:51, this was two seconds quicker.

I’d got into the top 8, the initial goal that athletics NI had set for us, and, also importantly, it was over! I’d done my best, and it had been enough.

Physically, I didn’t feel that tired. Mentally, I felt absolutely fried. So fried, in fact, that sleep has deserted me, and I’m writing this at four in the morning. I’m really looking forward to getting back to my own bed. I think I can safely say I’ve earned it.

So, giving up will have to wait. My body, by not failing, has committed itself to trying to qualify for the European Championships, and starting this bizarre roller coaster all over again.

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