Pausing for thought, or, out of running

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

Executive summary:  I’ve decided to take a break from elite sport for a while, and I thank everyone who’s helped me to get as far as I managed to without needing to stop to catch my breath and look for a different path forwards.

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In the belief that better days (like these!) will be at the top of the next hill, I’m taking a break rather than running away.

Roger Bannister, in a wonderful commentary set over a video of his four minute mile, mentions the phrase “full of running” on several occasions. That’s the ideal: everything moves fluidly, legs flowing along smoothly to carry arms and a body that are essentially along for the ride. It feels both that you’re running as quickly as you can, and, strangely, that you could go even faster if compelled to by an approaching opponent or the beckoning hands of the clock you’re chasing down.

Now, it’s impossible for things to feel that right and that easy all the time, but I suppose those sorts of moments are what every athlete looks forward to, in the same way an optimistic footballer might try a shot from well outside the box, knowing that nine times out of ten (or perhaps ninety nine out of a hundred in most cases), it’ll never sail into the top corner. A couple of weeks ago, the last time I stepped onto a track, I briefly felt that sense of controlled, elegant movement that I realised had been almost entirely absent for more than half a year before. In a different context, that might have been cause for celebration and delight.

With the situation as it was, euphoria was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but a few days later the reality was unavoidable: it really was time to stop, and I confess my strongest emotion was probably relief. A lot of the time I trained on a track last year, I had those sorts of experiences, and it reinforced a sense of purpose that came with having a clear goal I felt I could achieve, although most other people sensibly believed otherwise! My success came from a period of consistently good physical health, which I’d been slowly building up over a long period of time, getting used to training harder, racing in more competitive environments and the travelling associated with that.

Before late November last year, the balance between pushing my limits to the point those limits changed and pushing them to the point they determinedly pushed back had been going almost perfectly. I had a lot of moments where they refused temporarily, and a few minor breakdowns, but after several days, or a week at most, I found my way through. Since then, things obviously changed, but that’s not something I need to write more about now.

In one of my favourite quotes from the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo describes himself as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. That concept of feeling like there isn’t enough of oneself to go around is something I imagine all of us have felt from time to time, though hopefully not for long.

At the end of November, I felt similarly, but that time I kept going. It was partly because I’d been picked to run in an international competition for my country in five months, and I felt a break might spread from weeks to months very easily, and lead me not wanting to return to elite sport, but mainly I wasn’t brave enough to make my position clear and give myself a real rest. Happily, it’s not too late now. Despite my fears to the contrary, it seems like no long-term damage has been done.

While I’ve had to drop any ambitions I had of qualifying for the European Championships in August, I can still run, manage my work and have good moments nearly every day. That’s enough, or it should be at any rate. As a result of various long-term health problems, I’ve spent a lot of my life without grand ambitions of success, in the public arena of sport or otherwise. For most of the time though, I’ve managed to be fairly happy, despite the unwelcome seasoning of depression.

A few days ago, a friend at work described me as a happy person, which caught me off guard. I certainly wouldn’t have used that phrase to describe myself, but I think that’s partly because the pursuit of success and embracing of ambition changed my expectations of myself a great deal. Moving those ambitions back hasn’t been that hard, as although they’ve been very different for quite a while now, their real home is somewhere more humble.

Before writing this, I felt I might elaborate on some of the issues I’ve had before I started running, and the context of previous health problems, but the details aren’t that important for now. Also, no matter how carefully and patiently I try to explain these sorts of things when talking to people in person, it rarely seems to sink in, which I suppose I understand. If someone who’s ostensibly very happy, bright and sporty talks about depression, psychological exhaustion and physical fatigue, it’s probably fairly hard to grasp. Also, despite my best attempts to seem clear and logical about the situation, people very often respond as though I’m giving up on something, or give advice that I’ve almost always already thought of (partly because I think a lot, and partly as I’ve had most of my life to think about these sorts of things). As such, I won’t try that here.

Before I finish, more from Lewis Carroll:

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.”

In my strangely accelerated journey through athletics, I’ve seen the best and worst of myself, as well as some others, though mostly to a lesser degree. For the most part, these have been meaningful experiences that I’ve been lucky and grateful to have, and I hope to come back sooner rather than later better equipped to deal with things.

In relation to the words above, because I found myself rather quickly doing something I both enjoyed and was pretty good at, it was hard to draw myself away, completely aside from the fact that the process made me a lot healthier and stronger mentally. 

In a story that again has a place elsewhere, I was asked to write an article on my experiences of running, athletics and mental health, and in an especially pertinent question was prompted to decide whether it had helped me mentally, or made things worse. I’m lucky in that, for most of my experience, it has helped significantly, but as things kept changing I ultimately didn’t have the strength to respond.

I wrote that article, but it came from something of a dark place, and while I like to keep it for posterity, it lacked the balance and consideration that sort of thing really needs to be effective. As difficult as things have been recently, I don’t resent the sport in general, and I try and be glad to have got as far as I have, as well as appreciative of the fact that much of that journey has been extremely positive. Indeed, even when it hasn’t the care and attention other people have shown has been humbling, especially when I felt it wasn’t warranted.

So, I suppose this is a failure in a far as I’ve had to stop for now, and that I’ve found a rather more unyielding limit, but it’s given me space to think with gratitude on all the people who’ve offered help in the past six months in particular. You know who you are, so I’ll finish with a temporary goodbye and many thanks.

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