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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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. It 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.

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.

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.

Answering some questions, or, oat enquiries

I got an email in October last year asking if I’d be happy to give answers to a few questions about athletics and porridge oats. This juxtaposition is made decidedly less odd by context: Flahavan’s Porridge sponsor the Northern Irish Primary Schools cross country league, and I’d just had perhaps my best race of the year over cross country.

That feels rather a long time ago now, but then I was in the rainy Wicklow mountains rather than warm continental Europe (incidentally, give me my favourite place in Ireland over balmy beaches any day of the week, even mid-January), and much has happened since.

Anyway, to keep up my goal of posting weekly, here are my answers. My other goal was reading a book a week. I’ve read two so far and am 90%, 50%, 50% and 10% through my ‘currently reading’ books. By my own admittedly flexible logic, I’m ahead of schedule. Now, on with the questions and answers:

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself!
How did you get involved in running / athletics?

I put these two questions together because it’s hard to answer them separately. Running is such a big part of my life now, and I’ve made so many friends through the sport that it’s hard to describe myself without it.

I only started running seriously a couple of years ago, although I did the steeplechase a few times at school. It’s a really funny story: a friend of mine who was a runner and also played hockey with me just told me one day that he’d put my name down for the steeplechase. I didn’t even know what it was!

After three races and almost no specific training I came fifth in the Northern Ireland schools championships. I spent a lot of time running around on a hockey pitch, an although I was a pretty bad hockey player I had a lot of practice for running chasing after the ball!

I always thought running was something I might come back to later on, and five years ago when I came to live in London I slowly started getting involved in athletics again. It started with a 5k parkrun near where I lived, and five years later I’ve raced twice for Northern Ireland and I’ve been picked to go to the Commonwealth Games.

For a long time I wanted to be an academic, a university lecturer in Anthropology, but somehow I’ve found myself trying to be a professional athlete. I still find it all very strange, as I was never really good at sport before, and all the attention is a bit odd, but I’m getting used to it now. I still don’t really think of myself as ‘really good’, but I think it’s better that way – it keeps you modest.

What is your advice for any young people looking to get involved in running/athletics?

Don’t be afraid to try! I think that’s a big secret to all sport. No one starts off being brilliant, and if they seem like they are it’s partly because they did something similar before.

Athletics isn’t for everyone, but everyone can do it, especially with endurance running like cross country. It’s not like or hockey or football, or even running on the track. Everyone’s doing the same thing, and everyone’s working all the time to keep going, even the people at the front. Another secret is that even if it looks easy, it probably still isn’t – I know it’s not for me! Don’t give up just because it’s hard, because it’s supposed to be.

Have a go, and see if you enjoy it. There’s so many different events, and I know it’s hard to think this at the time, but it shouldn’t be about how good you are. It should be about whether you’re having fun. Also, don’t be afraid to give something else a go. I spent a long time playing other sport before going back to running, and I came back not because I was good, but because I started to really enjoy it. It’s a sport you can always do, whatever age you are, and that’s why I love it so much.

What is the best piece of advice a coach has ever given you?

It’s very simple: four words – I’m on your side. I was struggling to pick myself up after a bad race, and instead of criticising me my coach just told me that. When you’re down, the best thing that someone else can do is offer support, rather than making you feel worse. My dad taught me that.

There’s a wonderful quote from Andy Baddley (who ran in the 2012 Olympics), who talked in an interview about the advice his coach gave him: “what you do in the dark comes out in the light”. Ultimately, sport’s sometimes hard, and it will sometimes hurt, especially if you want to do your very best. At these times, it’s important not to feel bad about not doing well, feeling tired or like you don’t want to be there, and to realise that these are the moments that matter. Not the easy stuff. If you can keep going when you’re alone, and it’s hard, you’ll find something extra in a race, when it really counts.

How do you fuel up ahead of a big race – how important is a healthy diet to you?

I always have a good breakfast on race day, something I’ve tried before and know well. Often it’s muesli or porridge with seeds, honey and fruit. I have something small several hours before a race (like a banana, a small bit of bread or a bit of salad), and I always try and sleep well in the build up. If you’re well rested your body can really absorb what you need from food, and it’s also really important not to eat too quickly and give yourself time to digest. It’s not a race to finish a meal!

My coach has really helped me change my diet, which wasn’t very good before! It’s not just about performance, or even recovery, but also about mood, sleep and energy through the day. People don’t talk enough about how the wrong food can make a difference to our mental health, and how we sleep, and this is something that’s really important to me. Athletics isn’t just about what you do on the track, or even in training, and I see diet as part of my job as a sportsman.

What way do you have your oats?

It depends on the time of day! I very often have porridge in the mornings: I used to love pouring golden syrup and sugar all over mine, but now I use honey and seeds or nuts as it’s much healthier. Sometimes I’ll mix oats and muesli for breakfast to have a different texture to my meal.

Oats are amazing as part of Apple crumble, and they’re also great in flapjacks and energy balls! I try and make my own treats rather than buying things from the shop, so I know exactly how they’ve been made and to make me appreciate them more.

They’re a great thing to travel with, as I’ve found myself competing in international races a bit this year – if a hotel doesn’t have the right thing for breakfast they always have hot water, so I sometimes bring a little box myself, or buy some from a shop before I get to where I’m staying.

What’s your favourite porridge topping?

Blueberries, without a doubt. We have some in the garden back at my family home in Northern Ireland, but as I live in London I have to buy them from the shop. They’re probably my favourite fruit and are well worth the price! I often have banana, nuts, seeds and dried fruit too, one of the great things about porridge is that there’s so much you can add to it.

What did/do you like to hear from the side-lines when you are competing? How did it make you feel to receive this support?

I was running in the Antrim International for Northern Ireland and having a pretty bad race: I’d started too quickly and the muddy conditions had got the better of me. Feeling my legs losing their spring, I came round a corner and someone shouted: “come on Northern Ireland”. At that moment I realised I wasn’t running for myself – the vest I was wearing was a privilege, and people were supporting me not because of who I was, but what the vest I wore represented. I felt honoured to have the opportunity, and I was determined to make the rest of the race something to be proud of.

Resolving to.. not give up just yet

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, for a variety of reasons:

-I’m not especially good at setting effective goals, as my targets tend to be rather underwhelming and/or vague (‘try to read more’, ‘eat salad quite often’, or, even worse, ‘be slightly less depressed this year’)

-I prefer the idea of long-term, sustainable change to almost inevitably transient behavioural flips that leave you a bit sad in February, or earlier, depending on willpower.

-The division of time into years has always seemed a bit arbitrary to me: it makes sense to split our time on Earth, and indeed time in general, into some sort of segments. That said, anything beyond days and seasons is somewhat unempirical. I don’t mind years, but it seems a bit silly to make the start and end of a new one so important.

Going back to my rather shabby goals, I almost inevitably fail to read more and eat salad often enough. It doesn’t help that I have no idea how much enough is. How do you quantify salad in all its various types? Does adding pasta mean that it’s a salad with pasta, or a pasta salad? These factors, while ostensibly inconsequential, have significant bearing on my imaginary salad volume calculations.

IMG_2304.JPG

A salad of sorts. Also a salad of apples, prunes, celery, walnuts, red peppers and avocado. I think the absence of any leaves makes the legitimacy of its identity somewhat tenuous.

As is sometimes the case, I’m being silly to avoid being too serious or sad. During a period of exhaustion over the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of time to think about the pressures and attention of elite athletics, not having a real job, what I should be trying to do with my time and where I might place myself geographically.

Well, that last one should really be when I might return to the island I call home, which is neither where I am now (despite the nice weather and surrounding warm water), nor where I flew from.

I’m now in Tenerife, and came from London. Well, not originally. Never mind.

I was going to make a joke about the weather in London still being better than anywhere on the island of Ireland, most of the time, but that it’s hard to appreciate that on account of all the smog. So I did. Sort of.

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Just a photo.

Going back to the whole ‘being less depressed’ thing, my level of mental wellbeing mostly swings around a pivot, regressing to the mean like a gloomy but determined boomerang.

2017 had some huge highs, but sadly they were almost balanced out by some despondent lows. Happily, they weren’t quite, and it was, despite how it ended, the best year of my life.

But it did end crappily. I spent a large part of Christmas Day in bed, which is fine if you’re sleeping off eating half your body weight in roast dinner. It’s not fine if you’re too psychologically exhausted and anxious to leave your room for several hours.

Maybe this whole elite athlete thing isn’t for me. Maybe I should pack in London, and go back to my favourite island.

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to write something inspirational about not giving up, fighting for what you believe in, or the tough moments defining who you are.

The truth is, I can’t do that yet. Of course I can write it, but it wouldn’t be genuine. I don’t feel I should hold the position of giving out advice when I still can’t take care of myself. I haven’t earned it, but I’m always happy to share my experiences if they might be useful.

Honestly, I think talking about the low moments will always be more important. People don’t talk about them as much, and I suppose it also makes sense in that it’s more difficult than publicising our successes.

In sport, successes and failures will always be public, but it’s those that take place away from that platform that matter more to me.

The best I can do is try and make those discussions a bit more open, and continue bumbling along. That’ll do for a resolution, I think. Every time I feel like giving up, instead of shouting ‘no’ like a brave person, I’ll just avert my eyes and awkwardly mumble ‘not yet’. It seems to have worked so far, more or less.

 

Incidentally, I did actually make a resolution to read one book a week and publish one blog post. Provided I can manage thirty more pages in the next five days or so, that’ll be two out of two so far.