Sometimes things work really well. That’s not hard to write about. Certain things have been superb recently, not least two cross country races. I didn’t write about either of those. Occasionally, and thankfully not very occasionally, all the wheels seem to fall off at once. That happened yesterday.
It appears I’ve reattached everything now, but it’s probably going to happen again at some point. Next time, I hope it’s an even quicker pit stop, and that the new wheels might even be slightly better than the old ones.
I had a terrible cross country race and was very sad. Then I wrote about it and felt a bit better. I thought of some jokes and digressions while putting this together, and flirted for the briefest of moments with completely giving up running during the race. By that I mean both the immediate decision to drop out and the more dramatic absurdity of going off to live as a juggling hermit. Only I can’t juggle. Yet. And also I should probably stick out the running having got this far.
I’m also not a proper international athlete yet. That ship hasn’t yet sailed, but it’s moved its moorings at least four and a half months away, so I have to spend a bit longer impatiently stuck on dry land. Then I pulled myself together partly with the help of a friend and mainly the advice of my coach Tomaz. Well, not totally, but at least it’s a nicer ending than just deciding not to give up.
Lastly, I’m not asking for any advice or support. I’m lucky to have enough of that, this is really just for an insight that might help some of you reading it, and because it’s hard, which is part of the reason it’s perhaps worth writing.
Particularly big digressions or especially silly ad libs are in italics, so you can steer your reading around them, should you so wish.
This was never going to be effectively edited. Sorry.
Cerberus means ‘spotted’ in Greek, as I found out both at a dinner party (featuring both fireworks and jars of sweets, so let’s not pretend I’m a grown up) and while watching The Punisher last week. If you take nothing else away from this (and let’s face it, you probably won’t), know that the great and terrible god of the Underworld, Hades, called his demonic multi-headed guard dog spot.
Preamble aside, let’s begin.
“Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” W.B. Yeats once wrote. I learned one of his poems by heart this year: ‘when you are old’, and recited it while running through the mountains in Wicklow. It’s very sad, and has a particular beauty. I cried reciting it, but it helped a lot that the only watchers were sheep, and they seemed a lot more interested in the surrounding foliage.
Three days without human company might seem a punishment rather than a pleasure, but that’s one of the many ways I’m slightly odd.
There are also many ways I’m extremely odd, I did talk to the sheep, for example. They seemed mostly unconcerned with my attempts to make them laugh, which admittedly brings them in line with most of my human company.
Having the beauty of that environment, where I’d spent many beloved family holidays, to myself, was an incredible joy. Combine that with the incredible peace and quiet that comes only in places like this, as well as the thoughtful reflection it gives rise to, and I had my idea of heaven.
Yesterday I felt like crying too, but for very different and more obvious reasons. Going back to the quote, don’t worry about treading on those aspirations. At this point the hopeful dreams have been so thoroughly shoed all over that an extra step or two won’t make a blind bit of difference.
Like the captain of a certain Starfleet vessel, I’ve been slaughtered by mud more times than I care to remember. Spoiler alert? Sort of, though it is pretty obscure. Hopefully people who’ve seen it enjoy the reference, but even then I think it might take a re-read. Sorry. I laugh to keep from weeping.
Early this year I had one of the worst races of my life at the English national cross country. It was my second race of the year, and up until yester, my worst. I was pretty down afterwards, but that’s mainly because I felt broken from about halfway, got sick very soon after finishing, almost lost a leg in the quagmire, and had a long journey back where I had to make conversation while cursing death and destruction upon myself and all those who happened to be within doom-wishing distance.
There are a lot of jokes. There need to be. It was that or a lot of swearing and melodrama, and that’s not my style. Well, the heaps of swearing at any rate.
Yesterday I saw a third chance to run for Ireland this year slip through my fingers. It was definitely the easiest, in that the first was a moral choice I’ll never regret and the second was the bloody world championships. I told myself it had to happen. This was the year my granny had died.
She’d died knowing I might perhaps make it as an international athlete. I felt, and still feel, that I owed it to her not to give up, and to give my very best to the sport. On Sunday that resolve was the weakest it’s been since mid-June. That’s what was at stake.
I was closer to dropping out in the English championships, but I didn’t feel anywhere near as despondent.
Incidentally, I think what stopped me there was the length of the trek back to my bag. Disappointingly, the precise point at which the impulse to surrender was strongest happened to coincide exactly with maximum possible distance to walk back.
My self-talk was pretty brutal.
“You look awful mate, you sure you’re up for this? It’s not a 3k race, go home.”
(Starting with a light jab)
“Didn’t you beat some of these guys last month, what’s happened? You’ve really fucked this one up. Aren’t you supposed to be good?”
(Something a bit stronger)
“I bet those people who wrote you were in contention to get on the podium are regretting putting their pen behind you now buddy. What a disgrace.”
(That was embarrassing. How did I contrive to mess this up so badly?)
“People came here to watch you. Just for this? I know, I’m amazed too. Good thing nobody’s flying to Australia to see the inevitable mess you’ll make of that one.”
(A bit of future undermining there. Cunning.)
“Good thing your granny didn’t live to see this. Just drop out, if you finish outside the top ten you’ll probably have to get a taxi home. And the driver’s probably going to ask you why you’re covered in mud, then you’ll tell him this hopeless story and he’ll throw you out of the car.”
(Nope. No more words.)
That’s where I left it. At that point, I couldn’t handle the chatter anymore and decided I was just going to ignore myself. I think that was at the start of the third lap, when I decided to discard my gloves in what was either:
A futile act of petulance, blaming a couple of bits of fabric for my manifest personal failings.
A deeply misguided attempt to lose weight in a doomed bid to right the wrongs of my performance.
A propitiation (or offering, I like fancy words) to the running gods to provide some form of divine intervention.
A signal to myself that enough was enough, and I had to pull what remained of the race together somehow.
All, or some combination of, the above.
Nothing in endurance sport is a fluke, and equally you always get what you’ve earned. Yesterday I earned nothing in particular, other than an aggravated hip and the glares of all properly moral spectators who saw the prat who finished tenth not stick around long enough to shake anyone’s hand, or even essentially stop after crossing the line. I think I deserved both.
Some things will never get better, but one the great parts of life is that there are many, many more chances to do other things better. In this case, an almost infinite number of chances, as that race was the equivalent of trying to brush my teeth without opening my mouth, or making orange juice with bananas. Even with the best will in the world, short of some sort of transubstantive alchemy, it just wasn’t going to happen.
To end this part, Tomaz rescued the gloves I’d discarded, and gave us both the chance to fight another day. That’s what it’s about. I’m lucky I had someone to save my gloves, and I’m very grateful he picked us both up over the last couple of days. I hope I’ll have the chance to do that for someone else in the future, because I know what it means, and something of what it takes.
The title is because it’s almost December, nearly the end of the year, and I was much closer to twelfth than any position that mattered. That, and the elves hate the run-up to December. I always had a lot of sympathy with elves. They’re probably on zero hours contracts too.
Part two may happen. Possibly. As a bonus, my hip also seems okay now.