The clock strikes twelve, or, saving the worst for last

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.

Digested read:

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.

 

Notes:
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.

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As if I knew what was to come (and, as I’ll maybe write about later, I had some idea), I decided to camouflage myself in advance. The urge to vanish immediately after the race was very strong, and to be fair I did my best.

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.

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DNS, or, health is the most important

Did not start. Didn’t even bother. Didn’t turn up. I hate that: I’ve always loved racing, sixty seven last year was testament to that. I would have had a hundred if it weren’t for a meddling injury and being coached rather more seriously from early September.

I had a choice to race today, and a chance to follow up on my first victory in the MET League (London cross country League for the uninitiated) last month with another. It would have been easy to say that I was unambiguously injured or ill, and that I had a cast iron reason for staying at home. I didn’t: I had a doubt (a calf strain), and had to assess the balance of value at stake. It ultimately came down to a subjective decision I wasn’t certain about.

Things very often happen like that. We live with doubt all our lives. I initially typed: ‘all our loves’, and sadly that’s often also true. A lot of the time we hold things back from the people we love most because we worry about how they’d react. As I’ll write about elsewhere, I spent a long time doing that with my parents in respect to mental health and the hopes I had, or didn’t have, for the future. That changed a lot in mid-June.

Their support and belief has been enormously important to me over the years, and I’m always delighted to know that I can offer them pride and hope through the simple act of running around in a circle.

I run, especially, for a couple of other people too.

As much as I’d like to think going to the world championships would have made some significant difference to the last weeks of my grandmother’s life, I know honestly that it wouldn’t. Ever since her death I’ve thought of lifting my hands skywards after every race win, to dedicate it to her memory. I did that at the last London cross country league race. To try and do it again today would not only be foolish, but it would also disregard her last piece of advice to me: “health is the most important”.

I also really wanted to run today for someone else who might have been there. I wanted to show them how much difference they’ve made to my life, within the small world of athletics, and outside it. These, I suppose, were relatively selfless or at least outward-facing motives.

Yet, I also wanted to run for my ego. I wanted to show off, and have the chance to demonstrate just how good I was. I wanted to win, and that’s not wrong in itself. I wanted to be seen winning, and that’s something I’m less comfortable with. Is it wrong? For me, yes: that’s not who I want to be.

I often enjoy finding lines of writing and pieces of poetry that I can keep aside for later use, like a spare Oyster card (incidentally necessary this week as I lost mine) or a bit of tupperware that’s just the right size for that salad you always make.

This one’s significant for lots of reasons I might share elsewhere, but it stands more than well enough alone:

Your absence goes through me like a needle through thread
Everything I do is stitched with its colour

I so often think about granny when I race. In one session in April, I told myself, rather firmly: ‘remember why you’re here Kirky’ (because I never just call myself Adam). It worked, and I produced something that was perhaps even better than I managed in races last summer.

I have the chance to earn my first Irish vest in two weeks. If I do, she’ll never see it. Her absence in an existential sense breaks my heart.

That’s the thing with hearts though. They don’t stop beating when they break metaphorically, they don’t give up. We shouldn’t either, nor use that as a reason to withdraw from the world. I did that before, in very different circumstances, and on many occasions last summer I needed to be brave enough not to. I will again in the future.

That said, I also need the courage to walk away from a race like this rather than taking a risk. Another friend I spoke to this week said that I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. She was right, as much as I might like to pretend otherwise.

I’m ‘writing‘ (in a very loose sense, like I used to be ‘reading‘ 10 books at a time) another piece called ‘hooked on risk‘. I’m pleased to be able to let myself off the hook on this occasion, and put my health before my desire to roll the dice and show off.

There’s far more I could write, but I’ll reluctantly admit that, like speeches, these pieces are often better short than long.

My grandmother, and so many other people we care about, may be gone, but they are not lost to us. We should pick up the thread and carry on, rather than leaving it behind. We owe them that much.

 

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19 days old, yet still two weeks ahead of schedule. I’ve always been trying to beat the clock.

 

 

Conversations with myself: part two

Part Two: Plato’s Socrates

“Socrates said writing would be the death of memory, which is ironic really, considering that he’s only remembered because Plato decided to put pen to paper.”

Sometimes he’s in a genuinely good mood, and we have interesting conversations. I’m not always on the receiving end of a self-talk that would make Donald Trump or Nicklas Bendtner come out like the lion from the Wizard of Oz or Neville Longbottom (early in their respective stories).

“Fair point, and, actually, I really like that. Can I use it in my blog? I think it’s a great bit of thought” I chirp back, on this occasion very grateful for his input.

We were running, but as I’m wasn’t using physical breath to produce that statement, I didn’t really need to worry about it. Sure, it took conscious effort, but as most of my training takes place at ‘conversational pace’, there’s a lot to spare. With an irony that would be sadder if I wasn’t so willfully solitary, I rarely have anyone else to talk to on most of my runs, so the conversations are often of this nature.

The conversations are often of nature, too, and I tend to feel happiest when I’m running through trees and forests that remind me of my ideal of home: peaceful woodland, clean air and soft paths.

“Don’t you mean our blog?”

“If you had a blog nobody would read it, you’re just a voice buddy.” I reply, more playfully than in anger.

“Isn’t every writer just their voice, and what they choose to express? Plus, you need me as much as I need you.”

More rhetorical rhetoric. He’s right too, unfortunately. I couldn’t deal with having nobody to bounce ideas off.

“Is this going on the blog?”

“No, it’s too weird, people wouldn’t get it.”

“Right you are sir. Maybe if you let me talk more people would understand it.”

If I let you talk all the time we’d both be screwed, I pondered silently, trying to play for time before remembering he was probably reading my thoughts again.

“Are you gone?”

“Silence”

I laughed, despite myself, or in fact, because of myself (my self, him? Never mind).

“Did you just say silence? How are we supposed to convey that on paper?”

“Maybe use a different font. Here’s one for you. What typeface did Cicero use?”

“No idea. Garamond? Comic Sans?”

“Not even close. Times Old Roman.”

“That’s terrible. Okay, time for bed, see you in the morning.”

I thought some more.

“Let’s make a deal: if I get up at 2:30 to take a piss, you have to keep quiet.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“Well, if you do it every time, I’ll sleep better, and maybe we’ll get to go to the European Cross country championships.”

“I’d like that. Does it mean we can properly call ourselves an international athlete?”

“Yeah. For real. Deal?”

“Okay, but you’ll have to start tidying up memory lane, I want to try out my new bike, and I’m tired of dodging piles of unfinished stories.”

“Seems fair. Where shall I put them?”

“I’ll just make some room over here…”

Some files start moving around precariously.

“Careful, that looks important!” I shout anxiously.

“Shit. Adam?”

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To be continued…

Hey there Delilah, or, How I came to the steeplechase

Hey there Delilah, or, How I came to the steeplechase

I’ve put this one off for ages. Now I’ve actually been put forward for the Commonwealth Games it seems to be the right time to pull this particular curtain back. I should really be finishing ‘out of time’, as that’s also on part one (of many), but at least I’m finishing something. Also, redeemingly, a lot of people have asked me about this one.

The same conversation so often repeats itself now, and it gets increasingly funny and surreal as time goes along. It seems to inevitably come up with everyone who knew me before I became rather good at running. As that’s basically anyone I met before late May this year, it’s a lot of people, despite my solitary tendencies.

They search for a kind way to begin. Our dialogue pauses for a second as they try to phrase the somewhat backhanded compliment in a good-natured way.

How come you’re so good at running now? I mean…” (they stutter momentarily) “you weren’t that good at hockey.” (*see below)

The reply always seems like an enormous non-sequitur, even by my ludicrously loose standards.

Have you heard the song ‘hey there Delilah’, by the Plain White Ts?”

What?!” They reply, with some incredulity.

You know..” I offer back, self-consciously beginning to mumble: “what’s it like in New York..

Yes, I’ve heard it” they cut me off, causing any bystanders to sigh with relief that I’ve stopped trying to sing. “What on earth has that got to do with it?” (Earth may be replaced by rather, em, earthier language).

Well” I begin, “how much time to do you have? It’s rather a long story…”

And here it is, as briefly as I can tell it. Well, it’s a shorter version than it might be at any rate. Okay, it’s in at least two parts, because it’s not really short at all.

Before going on, I’ll underline something simple about causality. In the jargon, there are proximate and ultimate causes. The first are the factors closest to producing the effect.

For example: Why is my foot sore? Because I dropped a jar of jam on it.

The second are ultimate, higher-level causes, i.e., why did the jam jar fall? As (according to Wikipedia) “an ultimate cause may itself be a proximate cause for a further ultimate cause”, you can have as many of these as you like. Here are some of mine:

The jar was precariously positioned on a surface that can move easily
The jam wasn’t evenly distributed in the jar, making it unbalanced
The surface upon which the pot had been placed was slippery
I was hurrying, careless because I was late for work already
The light wasn’t on, so I couldn’t see very much at all
Because of all the above, I’m a complete idiot
God/other divinity hates me, feet and jam
Gravity.

Now, let’s apply this to athletics.

I’m doing the steeplechase because (these aren’t in causal order):

  1. A background in judo, a little gymnastics, and a whole other pile of sports makes me springy and agile. I was never really very good at any apart from judo, but I did a lot. Crap hand-eye coordination stopped me being good at the other sports. I’m better at those that don’t involve coordination. For example, I’d be a decent cyclist if I liked it and didn’t crash my bike all the time.
  2. I always enjoyed jumping over things for no apparent reason. This is more significant than it sounds, as the ability to clear a barrier without losing too much rhythm and stride pattern is built up over years. I was practicing that well before I became an athlete.
  3. My legs are especially long compared with my body height. When hurdling in particular, this is very important. If you consider the hurdling action as a long, vertically extended stride, rather than a ‘jump’, the barrier clearance is really about how much “vertical displacement” (movement up) needs to happen in the hip, rather than how high you can jump.
  4. Longer legs, and higher hips, means less of a disruption to your stride. The tradeoff to this is that mostly longer legs mean a bigger body which is heavier and slows you down. If you can get longer legs without a bigger body, you’re flying. Or perhaps falling with style.
  5. On that note, I know how to fall. Judo again. If you’re doing the steeplechase as a specialist event you will fall. Some people fall and get injured, and stop. Six years of being thrown around on mats in variously unpredictable ways teaches you that there are many different ways for your body to hit the ground, and some hurt a lot more than others.
  6. I don’t have a strong physical self-preservation instinct, and enjoy taking risks. Running at well under three minutes a kilometre towards solid blocks of wood that weight up to twice what you do under the assumption you’re *almost* certain to get over them makes this impulse, or lack of, something of a prerequisite.
  7. Elite endurance sport is pretty simple. If you have cardiovascular, circulatory and respiratory systems that start off very good and respond well to aerobic training, you’re well on the way. If you don’t, no amount of hard work will get you to a top level. I’m very lucky in that sense. While I might have a very inconsistent and unreliable brain, my body holds up its part of the deal pretty heroically.
  8. I never felt fast enough for a really top quality 1500m, despite holding up Roger Bannister as an icon and hero for as long as I can remember, and the twelve and a half laps of a track required to run a 5000m are psychologically pretty tough. Nine minutes and below seems to be an ideal time span for me, athletics wise, and the 3000m of the steeplechase also fits my physiological profile (balance of speed, springiness and endurance) pretty perfectly.
  9. A lot of good athletes are afraid of the steeplechase and don’t go near it because of an only partly accurate assumption that it makes you more likely to get injured. Sure, the injury rates are a bit higher, but that’s like switching from 97% fat free milk to 98% fat free milk. Ultimately, unless you drink a cowfull of milk every day (other more plausible measures are available), there’s not as much absolute difference as you’d think. Just cut out one mars bar a week instead (or, in this analogy, do appropriate stretching and strength work to facilitate greater hip mobility and the capacity to maintain balance and agility towards the end of a race. If you have a smaller pool of talent, you’ll do better in it.
  10. Northern Ireland and Ireland (not enough space to go into what I think about that distinction, even if I wanted to !!) are small countries. Last year, with very limited practice and planning, I was the best in Northern Ireland, won the national championships, and ran for my country in Manchester. This year, with a hell of a lot more of both, I was the best in Ireland, won the national championships, and didn’t run for my country. This was partly because I didn’t get a passport in time and also had best man duties, and partly because I missed the world championships by four seconds. It’s the pond thing again.

That’s technical and logical stuff. My cup of tea, only I prefer to refuel via a USB port in the side of my head.

The story is really about how, like the jam, I fell. Unlike the jam, I fell for somebody. This brings us to the last point:

10.    Love. Like gravity, only you can’t discover it with an apple. Allegedly. Ironically Adam did get knowledge from an apple, but that’s another story entirely..

This tale continues, sometime in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, with part two.

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This is just a generic steeplechase photo of me, there’s no special reason for its inclusion other than the fact I’m actually falling, which seems appropriate.

Water jumps always come with a bit of an adrenaline boost, knowing the potential to hilariously stack it is only a stumble away. Hell, if even Evan Jager can screw it up, we can all manage to make it look like we’ve never tried one before.

And now that asterisk I left hanging invitingly somewhere above:

*Feel free to substitute in football/judo/squash/badminton/golf/(table)tennis and indeed any other sport I’ve ever tried and, relatively speaking, failed at.

We played on the university third team together, and you were, em… just ‘normal’. how did that happen? What changed?”

Many other historical squads are available, including my hockey club’s 6th XI. We had seven teams. Sometimes they’ll smile and ask if I’m doping, which I suppose I should take as a compliment.

I was actually drugs tested in June: it’s no news to me that I’m clean, but it’s flatteringly surreal to be good enough at a sport that people think I might be cheating in a more insidious way than just cutting out a bend on the track, which I’m fairly sure people would notice.

Conversations with myself, or, Plato’s Socrates

This is a much less scary title. The original was: Bipolar bare, or, not making heads or tails of it, and frankly I prefer that, but it’s too extreme. This title relates to the more positive part two, and is perhaps wisely a lot less headline grabbing. It’s sad that in order for mental health to be taken seriously, these sorts of scary titles still seem to need to feature in the media and in public consciousness. To be fair, however, a great deal of progress has been made in that respect, and I hope these thoughts make some small contribution.

It’s important to issue a slight trigger warning here. This one’s a little sweary. If you’re offended by bad language (as in rude), or bad language (as in things that aren’t written clearly and can be hard to follow), it’s perhaps best not to read on.

I was worried about being so openly odd on my blog. This was partly dissuaded by the compulsion I felt to publish it after getting some good feedback from friends I shared it with. Mainly though, I put it up because I suspect people often don’t read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, rendering everything below something of an irrelevance anyway.

Caveats over, let’s begin…

Introduction

For the purposes of clarity and avoiding terrifying anyone actually mad enough to read on: I’m not bipolar, or at least I think I’m not. I asked myself, and I said I was okay, so it must be fine, right?

Seriously, I know what it is, and I’m happily a long way away from that side of the psychological spectrum, but I’m not quite wired normally either. It’s important to understand mental health as a variable experience and a fluid state of mind, rather than an unchanging suitcase of static ‘baggage’ that everyone carries around with them.

This is my first attempt at something extremely difficult. In essence, I’m trying to capture the wildly fluctuating internal dialogue of anxiety, depression and whatever else happens to be going on in my head. A lot of the time, it’s positive, and I’m happy, but sometimes it’s a bit scarier. Sorry to be starting with the darker bits, but it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself in for. Part two is cheerier, I promise.

Before we get into it, I should probably offer some explanation for the title. I previously thought of a comedy sketch where mental health concepts are depicted as cartoon animals. This is important, as concepts, rather than realities, is all they are: see the excellent book “crazy like us” for more on this.

Anyway, those characters include: depression dog (with appropriately sad droopy ears), manic monkey (a wildly excitable gibbon) and schizoid snake (who has two heads and no tail), and, my favourite, bipolar bear.

He’s half white and half brown, as in polar and grizzly, because mental health isn’t black and white, and he’s like Beorn from the Hobbit, neither entirely a man nor completely a bear. The quote below is direct from Tolkien’s work (and straight from my memory, though I do admit to getting the word order wrong and correcting it after the fact):

“He is a skin-changer, that is to say that he changes his skin. Sometimes he is a man and sometimes he is an enormous black bear… you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”

The title is bipolar bare because I’m trying to nudge at some of the misconceptions we have about mental health, because it’s a pun on the above character name, and because it’s alliterative, which pleases me. The heads and tails thing will make sense in a moment.

Part One: welcome to our brain

He’s in bold. We flipped a coin, and it came up heads. It was a trick coin through, depicting the Roman god Janus, a famously two-headed deity, but at least he pretended to give me a fair shot. I’m in italics, because underlining is really only for titles and headings, and I was never very good at standing up straight.

“Evening mate, how was the day? Get any phone numbers?”

It’s odd to hear the voice again, after a few days of quiet. I very quickly get used to not having ‘him’ around every corner, and spend many happy hours pretending that I’m in control after all. That’s rubbish of course.

“You know bloody well I didn’t, and why do you think it necessary to come up with some witty opener every time? We both know you’re there, and it’s not like you’re going to catch me off guard. We’re both in the same head, for fuck sake.”

“Speak for yourself old chap, I’m anywhere and everywhere really, you’re stuck here all the time, but I can go wherever. You shouldn’t leave our brain switched on this late you know, it’s not healthy.”

He’s always so smug. Just like the Hobbit’s dragon (Smaug, for the uninitiated) is almost smug, I’m always teetering on the precipice of being an arrogant tosser, but happily I never quite manage it. One of our many differences, that.

“And where have your travels taken you recently then?” (I have to humour him, we both know where this is going eventually. I ignore the time comment, he always pretends he’s got nothing to do with it, and that always pisses me off)

“Had a nice walk down memory lane. It’s very interesting, but you really should keep it tidy. There’s too much clutter, no wonder you get lost so often. We’ll need a tourist office and a guidebook soon. Not that we could afford it.”

Always the comedian, I muttered to myself (after thinking of yet another new title*). We could afford it, but the logistics of setting up a tourist office in your own mind, boggles the… well, boggles the brain I suppose.
“You don’t seem to have any trouble getting around, and it’s not like we’re ever going to let anyone else in, is it?”

“Come on Adam, don’t be such a spoilsport.” He returns. “Maybe someone will be interested enough to hang around, and besides, can’t you remember that Dumbledore quote: “to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure”? You need to get your house in order, and I’m not talking about writing a will.”

Here we go then, back where we both know we’re going to end up every night, with or without a side of depression. Happily without in this case. Sometimes depression is even a main dish, but I only tend to have it for that part of the meal if they’re out of sea bass and that delicious mushroom risotto. The restaurant at the end of our universe, I find myself thinking, wittily. What a shame no one else was there to hear it.

“Don’t be a git, you know I can hear your thoughts too, right?” He breaks my concentration with calculated precision, after giving me just enough of a respite to think he might have wandered off again.

“I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to have anything nice to say, isn’t it?” I retort, though as we’ve established, at this point the actual dialogue is mostly for effect.

“Do you see the thoughts or hear them?”

I suppose I’m thinking aloud here, but in something a lot more like a petulant mutter or an impudent whisper than the sort of calm and measured voice one should probably use when talking to oneself.

“Both. Anyway, even by your dire standards, that restaurant bit wasn’t that funny. More Douglas Bader than Douglas Adams.”

“Douglas Bader?” I replied, incredulous. “The World War Two Flying Ace? Where the hell did that come from?”

“No, you must have misheard me. Douglas Badder. As in, not as good as Douglas Adams. But also because our brain is light on alternative famous Douglases, and the Bayern Munich winger is a bit too left-field. Or maybe he plays on the right… never mind, where were we?”

“Jesus, and people say I’m hard to follow”

“You are, but not for me. On the other hand, I know exactly what you’re going to say, so it’s maybe not a fair game.”

“How about now? … Purple monkey dishwasher!” I offer abruptly, hoping to take him by surprise.

“Bad luck, try again matey.” Comes the infuriatingly sanguine response.

“Expecto patronum!” (That’s bold and italics, because we both said it at the same time. Try to keep up.)

A few moments of silence. Neither of us move. Well, our body doesn’t move, we’re always running around. Never a moment’s peace in this brain.

“So, one more day closer to death then?”

Bad news. He’d cut to the chase,

“Yes. It is. What do you want me to say? You’ll die too, you prick!” I shout, losing my temper. Our temper? Even I’m confused at this point.

“Now now, it’s getting late, try and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early. Maybe I won’t, who knows. You might die in your sleep.”

“Night night. If you get bored, try and write some things down, or draw some pictures.” I offer, forty minutes after we got back home. Whatever else this is, it was at least in real time.

31704_133870813290670_7067450_n
This is just a photo of me entering coordinates in the ship’s log six years ago. The relevance is that a lot of these conversations take place in the literal and imaginary dark. That, and I wanted some sort of picture.

*That title was “Neurotourism, new frontiers of the mind, or, take a trip on me”, and deals with the idea of being able to experience someone else’s consciousness from the inside, as it were.

It’s a weirdly conceptual approach to the point I made at the start, and very sci-fi’ but there is a vague starting point in reality here. Read more, you know you want to. Here’s a snippet from the article:

“UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. Eventually, this process will allow you to record and reconstruct your own dreams on a computer screen.”

I would apologise for the digression, but as a good friend recently (rightly!) asked me to stop needlessly apologising, and as we’re still in my head here, I won’t. For the purposes of these pieces, I’ll try and throw excessive digressions in a pile at the end, like this, rather than taking a huge meandering wander away from my point and getting absolutely lost.

Out of time: part one

Introduction: life and death

This one matters. If you, good reader, would spend time perusing one of my blogs, this is probably the wisest choice. Promise.

When discussing the importance, or otherwise, of sporting endeavours, one stock phrase comes back again and again. “It’s not life and death“. For me, this was.

For a number of months I was caught between the end of a life that meant so much to me and the uncertainty, trepidation and dizzying change that came with taking my own in a completely new direction.

I felt that ‘Out of Time’ needed some context: certainly, I needed a bit of a run up to take it on. I was afraid of what I’d have to face up to by starting it, never mind finishing. It was as hard as I expected. I started and then scrapped so many insufficient beginnings: nothing was good enough, but then that’s partly how I felt looking back at the season, too.

At the start of August, I sat in the stands at the Olympic stadium in London, knowing that just four seconds separated me from a spectator’s view of events and the incredible privilege of competing at the World Championships. It would have been my first Irish vest, and almost a month after my grandmother’s funeral, I felt that running there would somehow pull back the time that I felt had suddenly run away from me in her death. I know how much it would have meant to her, and this is something I’ll never entirely be able to let go of.

Ultimately, I now find myself pursuing my childhood dream of international sport, with hopes to run at major competitions over the next several years. That’s worth everything to me. I’m very lucky to have this chance, and I’m partly writing this to chase away a few ghosts that seem intent on holding me back.

It’s a long story, with a lot of light and a good deal of darkness, but I hope to be more succinct than usual. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

Part one: Lost for words

“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.”

(Atul Gawande, Being Mortal)

While sorting through a small pile of paper in a vaguely organised part of my room, a page written by a different hand fell to the floor. I so rarely receive written communication from other people, with the exception of my father, and time seems to have left that art behind. Most of my writing is on a screen.

That’s the thing with digital text. It doesn’t just drop out of a stack of mixed papers and leave you winded: lost for words. The letter was one of two that my granny had written to me in the last several months of her life, and it took me entirely by surprise. Often, when something happens unexpectedly, we have no chance to prepare appropriate, considered emotions, and are forced to face something that we’d rather not.

In organising our thoughts to react, we make them line up in a way that we’re progressively trained to do as adults. Not too much, not too little, and certainly not too public. Excessive emotions should be private, especially for men, and particularly for men brought up in a traditional, middle-class, educated way. Keep a stiff shirt collar and a stiff upper lip, we’re told.

Searching for a way to start this series, nothing seemed to work: I suppose I was waiting for the right moment, without any idea what that might entail. It might have passed already, or I might have spent an indeterminate period of time looking out for something that was never going to arrive. That’s the same with relationships, and while that’s a good story a lot of us might understand, it’s one for another time.

I had hoped it would be easy, that I might stumble on the right words by accident, and not have to dig too deep to find them. I also thought I could ignore the low points of my journey, and paint a bright tapestry that started with a first vest for my country in Manchester and carried onto a PB that puts me among the top 40 steeplechasers in Europe. No one really needed to know, right? Who really wanted to know? I didn’t tell my parents, and I only gave my friends a sense of what was going through my head, but in safe patches, just enough to digest in nice pieces, so it wasn’t too intense.

There were two periods where I told my coach I was giving up. The first lasted as long as my resolve, which was a day and a half. The second continued for a little longer, but ultimately I failed to give up then, too. I didn’t have the stubborn, bloody minded strength of will to make the change I was telling myself I could, and go back home, and I’m very grateful for that.

On many other occasions I wanted to throw in the towel, but I told myself ‘just one more day’, ‘see how it feels tomorrow‘. Often tomorrow would be better, sometimes it would be worse, but mostly I kept going, because I was afraid to give up, too. It wasn’t bravery, but a different kind of fear.

If I gave up before the track season, I’d never know whether I could have made it, and I’d never forgive myself for quitting early. I suppose it was both a fearful hope (aspiring with trepidation and self-doubt to perhaps succeed), and the kind of hopeful fear one experiences when placed precipitously atop the highest diving board. The opening quote poses a wonderful question, but I’m still too afraid and indecisive to answer it firmly.

Later on, after I got the first and even the second Commonwealth standard, I was worried about writing this. As much as I wrote other things, many of them witty, some jokes, some poems, some stories and a couple of speeches, this was admonishing me from the top of my to-do list.

Life in London has given me a great deal. I’ve got to a point where I can call myself a semi-professional athlete, on the verge of international competition, with two university degrees under my belt and a hopefully long life stretching out in exciting directions. I can’t complain, but I’ve always partly wanted to be at home, to be the centre of nobody’s attention apart from my own, and be there for my family when they need me, if I had the consistent mental and physical health to do so.

That was my responsibility. I always thought I’d have time to go home and spend time with my grandmother, whose funeral I went to in July, the day after the British championships. The day after I’d let another opportunity at the Commonwealth standard slip through my fingers.

Just as my window to dip once more under 8:43 was closing, my time with my grandmother had vanished completely. I couldn’t claw it back, but most days since the start of June, my thoughts have come back to her last words to me. Not once, but twice I thought I’d heard the final things she’d ever say to me.

The first, last sentence was, “health is the most important”. The second, “news from Adam“. On both occasions, I left in pieces, and had to pick myself up to keep going, to pick up training and carry on, knowing that the place I most wanted to be was the place I was leaving.

While I was off racing internationally in Belgium and Spain, other people were by granny’s bedside, there for her when she needed it. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I ever will be, but I told myself I had to try and find out.

So, after months of putting it off, I put pen to paper last week and started writing. Almost immediately I fell apart in tears, and decided that it was a bad idea. Too late though, I’d started, and I needed to make it lead somewhere. This was too important not to finish.

Now, having begun a new season, I think it’s time to open the door a little, and share some of what I’ve been keeping back.

To do that, I need to jump back a year and a half, and start at something like the beginning.

Part two continues the story.

IMG_2569

This photo was taken the day before I spoke to my granny for the last time. It looks like I’m winning – I came third, two people are ahead of me out of shot. The camera might lie, but, for the duration of this series, I’ll try not to.

No news is bad news (sometimes), or, talking to myself

I realise I haven’t written one of these for absolutely ages. Apologies! I have written heaps of things since, but none of the other ones are finished. This was first finished as a bit of an angry rant, but I’ve cheered it up a bit with chocolate and jokes, so hopefully it reads more positively now.

I don’t like lying to people. Okay, that’s a lie, I’m actually quite fond of mendacity, and only partly because there are so many fantastic words for it. Wonderful words like duplicity and perfidiousness, that make it sound so exciting and important.

I also enjoy dissembling (both the word and the deed itself) which actually means disguise or concealment, rather than lying in a direct sense. This isn’t because I enjoy tricking people, or as a result of a pathological desire to deceive and mislead friends and family. It’s because it makes life enormously more practical.

If I were to report exactly how I felt when asked, the response would occasionally be quite dreadful to read.

Today I didn’t eat any food until the evening, just because I just didn’t quite feel like it. I meant to, but somehow it didn’t quite happen for most of the day.”

“I wanted to leave the house today, but I never quite managed it. I had a slight calf strain, and thought it might be better just to keep myself from walking too far. That, and I was afraid of going outside.”

“Today I looked at houses back home in Northern Ireland, and thought about how lovely and quiet life would be there. I could live in the countryside, away from the caustic London air, polluted by noise, chemicals and incessant light. Maybe I could work a few days a week as a handyman, and make ends meet with some writing or editing.”

(Although I’ve never written professionally, I have worked as a tradesman of sorts, so that bit isn’t quite as ridiculous as it might seem)

The last one doesn’t sound so bad, but to be fair I think those sorts of things most often, and if I tell people that I’d worry they’d think I was taking the city life for granted, and not appreciating my lot. They’d also be right in thinking that I’d be leaving them behind, as I have a lot of friends in London, and would very probably not hurry to return once I left properly.

Happily I manage to eat and leave the house almost every day, so it’s not as bad as all that. More often though, I have days where I’ve hardly left the house, and if I wasn’t running or going to work there would probably be a lot more.

When I’m at home in Northern Ireland, I’ve never not left the house in a day. If I want to get out for some fresh air, I open the door, I don’t need to travel miles to a green space that’s almost clean enough to breathe happily. If I want to see the stars at night, I turn off the lights and look up.

IMG_2337Home! Fine weather not necessarily representative of normal conditions…

If I want to visit one of my oldest friends, I, well, I ask him to pick me up, because I still haven’t bothered to learn to drive, and we always hang out at his house, partly because there was always decent space to play hockey and football. Our garden doesn’t really work for football, unless the game was to be radically reinvented, requiring both teams to kick the ball steeply uphill once they’d carried it past the midfield, towards which they’d carry the ball downwards. It’s a field with a huge dip in the middle, I’m sure you get the picture.

A good friend of mine said that I was the most un-London person he knew, and he was rather amazed I’d been here for so long. So am I. Well, not entirely, because I know how much I’m afraid of change, and how hopeless I am at making important decisions. I’ve never made an important decision about my job, for example, and as a consequence spent four months unemployed after finishing my Masters Degree, and the following three and a half years working in running shops.

Ultimately though, that resulted in my becoming a semi-professional athlete and achieving a lifetime dream, so swings and roundabouts I guess!

Going back to the point about lying, I find I can easily convince myself of things that aren’t true, and a transcript of my self-talk might sometimes be startling.

Here’s an example. I’ve centred it in italics so it stands out, as formatting options are limited here, and caps lock would look dreadful. This choice does sort of make it look like an absurdly bloated haiku, but hopefully that undercuts the dire tone.

I miss the sport I loved. Not running, though I am taking a break at the moment and the lack of running does cover everything with a decidedly murky aura. No, I miss judo.

I don’t like to spend much time thinking about the moment I lost judo, because it’s one of my worst memories, and I won’t write more about it here. Often though, when I’m injured, my mind travels back to that point, and brings out some of the worst aspects of my character.

After every training session, I went home feeling like I’d done a hard evening’s work. I miss the scratches, the bruises and the ache in my arms that stood testament to having tried my best. I never have that now. Running isn’t the same. Either you’re injured, fatigued, exhilarated after hitting a great time, but you never have the same sense of really suffering for something.

Now I come home feeling tired of having to answer people’s stupid questions about whether their foot, knee or ankle pain can be instantaneously and magically solved by a new pair of running shoes. (It almost certainly cannot, but sadly the conversation is never that mercifully brief)

I come home after travelling on a hot, humid and cramped metal cylinder with hundreds of other equally unhappy people (well probably, I don’t ask them, that would be a hideous breach of London public transport protocol, and at the end of the day I’ve spent far more time than I can comfortably handle talking to people).

I come home knowing that I’m paying for the privilege of traveling on that underground train, paying for the vile air and frequently unpleasant population, and paying for a place that has none of the peace and quiet I would sacrifice a lot for. Just not enough, it would seem, to actually do something about it.

I sometimes feel that it’s cowardice and lack of conviction rather than affection that keeps me where I am, and I can lose myself in despair and a sense of being trapped in a city where a clear horizon is so often only in the imagination. Some of my favourite memories are of sailing in an open ocean, and this contrast hits very hard during my darker moments.

During these periods, things like the above come strongly to mind. I can pretend they don’t, and not tell people, but that’s rather less brave than being open about this sort of thing. I’m not an inherently brave person, but I am trying to change that.

Of course I love running, hell, I’ve found myself crying a few times over the last several years during the most banal recovery runs because I’m so happy to be fit and able to compete at my favourite thing in the world. Of course you suffer for something if you’re running, that’s the whole point of endurance sport – you endure stuff!

Working in a running shop is fine, sometimes it’s fun, and though occasionally it’s a bit aggravating, I leave my work behind as soon as I go out the door, and that’s worth so much to me. Sure, the tube is hot and stuffy, but sometimes it goes outside and you do get fresh air! Sometimes it’s really quiet and you can read while you hurtle happily toward a staggering range of destination options.

Sometimes part of a carriage will break out in spontaneous applause when an unknowingly headphoned passenger solves his Rubik’s cube, having followed his progress for minutes of mute entrancement. Okay, that happened once, but I did successfully start the clapping, and it’s also one of my favourite memories.

I spoke to a friend last weekend about depression, and I’d realised in opening up about some of the points above that I made my life sound rather bleak. Ultimately, those are the bad days, and those are outnumbered by the good days I have cause to be happy and grateful.

The main point is that every day I try and wake up hoping it’s going to be a good day, as if I don’t, I might as well stay down. That’s one thing I’ll never forget from judo. I never stayed down then, and if I can keep the same attitude to everything else, I can be happy that I’m doing my best to fight the good fight.

Sometimes it’s not enough, and I lose, sometimes badly, but there’s always another round after the next corner. That’ll do for me.