Would you rather be the best, or be happy? Part One: A path too steep, or, don’t look down

Search anywhere online for ‘motivational slogans’, or similar morale-boosting ephemera, and you’ll probably be inundated with encouragements to the general effect of: “be the best you can be”.

I don’t want to be the best. I don’t even want to be the best I can be. Well, that’s not true, of course I do, but over the last week in particular I’ve been fighting myself about how much I want to put aside to progress further in athletics.

I came to the conclusion that I want to be good enough to be pleased and proud of what I’ve achieved without sacrificing my happiness or peace of mind in the long-term. I originally wrote this without the long-term bit. For so long I’ve been afraid of sustained effort and hard work, and the difficulties that inevitably entails: more on that later.

My priorities are retaining an appreciation of the small things, staying in touch with where I’ve come from and above all for my main focus not to be athletics, but my own mental health and wellbeing. This, alongside being able to support strong relationships with family and friends, is the main thing. Not how fast I can run around in a circle.

For a long time, I was afraid to say that or admit it. Now I’m not.

Again, that sounds great: it’s punchy, brave and probably makes me seem like a brave, punchy guy. That’s rubbish though. I’m still afraid, I’ve never properly punched anyone, and I’m not naturally succinct. More importantly though, putting mental health first can mean worrying about it, and making decisions to protect it when often that’s the worst thing to do.

Even though I’m really afraid of it, I know taking risks is not only more fulfilling and exciting, it’ll also strengthen me mentally for when I need it, like the death of a family member, a serious injury or something entirely unpredictable.

On that note, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother in April, for what I thought would be the last time. Two weeks ago, I had to say goodbye again, unsure whether that would be it or not. This time it was.

Her last words to me on the first occasion, were, smiling, “health is the most important”. I’d stayed fairly emotionally strong in public over the hard work of the last ten months, but this broke me completely. I knew the risks I’d been taking even then, and it’s eaten away at me ever since. That moment brought me well outside the world of athletics for a time, and after a period of depression I’m back there for long enough to have a very honest think about what I want from life, and my sport.

I’ve achieved what I never thought I could and felt worse for doing so. This wasn’t right, and I’m not afraid to change back. That’s not true – I am afraid, but I thought I’d do it anyway… success comes at a cost, and that can be severe if you rush it, or if you take consistent shortcuts in pushing your mind further than you think it really wants to go.

I originally wrote ‘know’ rather than ‘think’, but reading over this again I realise I didn’t know, I just thought I did. I don’t know what I can do, but I was afraid to really find out. I’d started really climbing the mountain, and over the last week I’ve had my first real look down.

When I was younger, I was afraid of heights, and to be honest it only really went away when I started climbing four years ago. I made my way up the wall, and, at some point I fell (though thankfully for this story and my ego not immediately). I kept climbing, and kept falling. Eventually, I would try riskier moves at greater heights, and still fall. But that was okay – I might get a few bruises, but nothing broke,  and I also became a lot less afraid.

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(A random photo of a spontaneous climb on a family holiday last year – note: this is not how I recommend using running shoes!!)

In life, I never climbed high enough to look down and feel a sense of vertigo. I really struggled at some points, but that was mainly through accumulated stress homesickness and feelings of isolation, not because I’d achieved something I couldn’t really comprehend.

The past ten months have been very hard, and I’ve taken the sorts of risks I’ve spent most of my life avoiding through fear and concern for the potential outcome. When I’ve found it hard, I’ve got depressed and worried, then previously decided enough was enough and essentially thrown in the towel. Incidentally, when I left a hotel in Spain six days ago I thought of that as a title, but it sounds a bit too much like I’m conceding everything, despite my witty subtitle (or, fighting the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal).

Giving up before lead to poor academic outcomes first in the end of school, and then in my Masters in London. I protected myself and took the cost of that. After getting my degree, I spent four and a half months unemployed. I say ‘getting my degree’, rather than graduating, as I didn’t go to the second ceremony: my time at UCL ended rather unpleasantly with sharply deteriorating mental health, and I wasn’t keen to be reminded of that, even by the expensive but delightful frivolity of airborne hats, Latin and scrolls…

My next job, and indeed all I’ve done since, was in a running shop. I have two university degrees, one a first, an IQ measured (with great variability across a number of years) at 115-140 and a fluency with words and writing that should counteract even the most mediocre of interview skills. I stayed in a job where I was paid below the London living wage for two years before my focus on athletics made it vaguely legitimate.

I don’t want lots of money, or anything too fancy, but this has still been hard to take at times. I’ve had periods of moderate depression, where I’ve gone a day or so without eating, talking to anyone or leaving the house. That was okay though, because I didn’t tell anyone about it until afterwards, and even then I maybe lied about the food bit to make it seem less scary. There’s nothing wrong with spending the day at home, but if you feel you can’t leave, it’s a very different story than just wanting to get through “just one more series” of Game of Thrones.

As well as the job thing, I gave up on one of my two real dreams a number of years ago: having a family. The other dream is competing for Ireland, and we’ll come back to that later. Despite my athletic success, sporadic academic achievement and many lovely trips abroad, my favourite memory is something very different. I was going to write a blog about this called ‘playing happy families, or, a flicker of possibility‘, but I’ve very rightly decided that it risked lying forever on the ‘to write’ pile, and that I should throw it in here instead.

My aunt Gill, who I’ve always found rather inspiring, was producing a play called ‘Green Street’ set in a beautiful courthouse in Dublin. It was primarily about the revolutionary Robert Emmet and his role in the Irish uprising in 1803, and the audience moved interchangeably through several different rooms of the courthouse itself. This made wonderful use of the historic space, which they had to borrow for the occasion. I mention these details partly because Anglo-Irish politics and criminal justice are two of the topics I feel most passionately about, and might one day get round to discussing here, and partly because it was an amazing experience to be involved in.

Being an inordinately busy and active person anyway, she also had four equally busy children aged 10-17 at that stage (one now the other international athlete in our group of eight cousins), and needed a bit of help around the house. As I had some free time before starting my Masters in London, and because it was something I was very keen to do, I found myself arriving at the door for my longest ever stay in Dublin (ten days or so, if memory serves).

Walking the two youngest girls to and from school, preparing dinner (don’t laugh, I did create some palatable meals…), eating together, and helping them with homework (except Irish!), and going along to tennis lessons was the happiest time of my life. I felt useful, engaged in something bigger, and, for the first time, a ‘grownup’ part of a family.

Getting up every morning knowing that I directly mattered to someone was an incredible honour, and a real joy. That word is thrown around lightly, but I don’t use it casually here. In my heart though, I knew that I couldn’t manage it full-time, and that the stress of supporting a family when for half my life I’ve had intermittent periods of being unable to support, or (very occasionally) even feed myself would be too much.

I’m building up, and getting there slowly, but I worry that by the time I’m able to do so the window will have closed. I try to accept this, but I know that I’m the only person who knows whether or not it’s really possible, and the self-doubt, hope and uncertainty around that is tricky to live with. I’ve spoken about this with a close friend, who, when I said I’d accepted that, pulled me up on it and said ‘it sounds like you haven’t’. He was right, but to be fair I did tell him so at the time.

This sort of thing is important. Sport, for most of us, isn’t in the same league (aha? nevermind). For me it’s different. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I’ll never be able to handle a ‘proper’ job, but I could do well in sport. Since the start of 2015, I’ve been decent enough at running to be referred to in the family as ‘the runner’ – that being my main role.

People often respected and understood that I was putting a hobby I loved ahead of a career, and I was proud of that. It wasn’t a profession, and I was never going to be able to live off it, but I was putting my effort into something I cared about deeply. That meant a lot, and kept me in much better shape mentally than I would otherwise have been.

This brings us to the second dream. I never thought I’d compete for Northern Ireland in a provincial competition, never mind being offered the green of Ireland I’d seen at the back of my mind since I was six. My dad had played hockey for the island (Ireland is united in international hockey and rugby), and it always seeemed painfully impossible for me to follow his footsteps. Last year, for reasons entirely too elaborate to tell here, I found myself a nascent steeplechase specialist. Sure, I’d race every other distance going, but I eventually found my way into the top 20 in the U.K., being well outside the top hundred for everything else.

The highest level of competition that Northern Ireland compete in without being under the auspices of ‘Team GB’** is the Commonwealth Games. To run for “the province I love” (to use Mary Peter’s immortal words) would mean the world. I decided to give everything towards trying that, and I started down a road that’s lead where I am today.

Just over a year after I ran 9:33 for the steeplechase, qualifying for the English championships by twelve seconds, and a chance to run for Middlesex. Last month I ran 8:37, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games* by five seconds.

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(This was absolutely surreal: like when someone shows you how to alter a website rover display different photos and text – it was a joke, right?)

After the first race, I was triumphant, amazed at myself and in love with a new event. After the second I just felt focused, disciplined, and determined to make the immediate jump to the next standard, the world championships, without really digesting what I’d done. Think of it as the difference between a good meal at pizza express enjoyed slowly and wolfing down something elaborately named and even more fancily prepared at a Michelin star restaurant.

I’d achieved my dream and put myself in the frame for a selection for Ireland this year that I’d never even considered. I was on the BBC sport athletics website, for crying out loud! My time would have put me top 40 in Europe last year! I was eighth on the Irish all time list over the steeplechase! I’d made it!

Then why didn’t it feel that way? Why did I feel scared, rather than overjoyed and fulfilled?

Because I looked down.

More to come. I’m not sure when exactly.

 

Asterisks

*Actual selection pending, see upcoming ‘the Northern Irish hunger games’, a title a friend suggested that I love, for more. Once I write it…

**I put ‘Team GB’ in inverted commas because the full name, Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is rarely used, and the top bit of the island of Ireland (political opinion alert!!) forgotten. I have a lot more on this, but it’s for another time.

 

Other Notes

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Emmet

More on Robert Emmet, and perhaps by doing so nailing my colours to the Irish mast rather obviously.

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.529070

A review of the play, which we were all incredibly excited to read. The moment this was read and sent round the family stood out more than my athletics successes – it was a collective achievement, something we could all be proud of, and something we’d all worked towards in a small way.

Green Street Courthouse (below)

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The space between the barriers, or, three hundred and seventy one days

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They almost look like phone numbers, lists of digits preceded by a plausible commencement of code. They wouldn’t quite be the same area, but perhaps the two strings would share regional affiliation.

How we break numbers up is a huge part of their significance. I guess it works for words too.

22-05-16 93300 That’s a bank sort code, although followed by an implausibly short account number. Perhaps some digits have got lost in translation?

+22 051693300 Set like this, even without the plus, it’s a phone number. The eleven digits check out, if you call it you might even get through.

If I google the first code, the only result is an indecipherable list of numbers, headed in Mandarin or Cantonese script that I can’t begin to fathom. Any decryptions are welcome. http://www.chinxm.com/show7.asp?id=2205169

There are so many permutations, and they may mean absolutely nothing. For me, at least, this bizarre puzzle has a solution.

22.05.16: 9:33.0 27.05.17: 8:37.62

Three hundred and seventy one days separate two dates, and two performances. One was good enough to take me to the English championships a day after my lowest point of the year, and the second was a qualifying mark for the commonwealth games, the world university games (sadly not applicable), and thirteen hundredths of a second short of the mark required for the European Championships. It came, too, after a depth of hopelessness I don’t wish to return to again, and the number thirteen has a significance outside its culturally ominous portent that will be returned to at some stage. Perhaps.

In the space of time in between both races, I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words, perhaps closer to two, most of which lies in incomplete piles under a series of titles that I most recently counted at two hundred and fifteen. It’s impossible to quantify the depth of human experience in numbers, and by extension it’s impossible in words, as that’s all these are.

In writing on a screen, thoughts that take place in language switch form between nerve impulses from brain to finger into kinetic pops onto a digital keyboard, flipping rapidly from a numerical electronic signal to the standardised shapes we all recognise as letters. As in the subtext that accompanies those enticingly swish adverts, for narrative purposes steps have been removed and the sequence has been shortened.

I suppose I like to try. I sit down, sometimes in a spare moment on the tube, and often when travelling on more amenable aerated or rapid transports, and put pen to paper, or skin to screen. Inevitably these sorts of things fail, especially if they’re written on a Sunday evening and have drifted invariably off a topic that was originally quite simple.

The space between publishing posts often gnaws away at me. It wouldn’t if I felt nobody cared at all, and I was just writing for myself, but then I’d never end up finishing anything. I have a vague idea that some of what I write is for other people.

The things that actually go up on this blog are either pieces I’ve actually felt I’ve had to write (most recently before changing clubs, and subsequently to attempt to reverse stepping on toes, and in the clumsy attempt, I suspect, crushing more feet), or the throwing out of any piece of almost complete poetry to fill the space, and deprive silence of its empty power.

I’ve never set myself a deadline, and there’s so often been the excuse of work, training, or laziness (whether genuine or feigned I can never quite decide). I suppose I should have opened with an exciting account of a recent race, and goodness me there’s enough of that to be going on with. I might have produced an account of my first holiday since the summer of 2014, a trip to Slovenia that brought more new experiences than I could find words for.

That’s perhaps because my grasp of the language extends to basic courtesies, assorted fruit names and, aptly, the word for forest, gozd. There were a lot of forests, and I found being able to look out the window into dense woodland more restful and restorative even than the hours of sleep gloriously undisturbed by the noise and light of London. Like Tolkien, I have always had a love of trees and green space, and every return to London feels in some part like a betrayal of the desire to be apart from the compulsion to be conspicuously busy and ‘interesting’.

Sometimes when putting things off for long enough, we can be paralysed into inaction, or when returning to something after a long break, whether it’s a crossword, a painting or a friendship, the reunion can be underwhelming. That clue can still remain elusive, the colours and shapes flatter than we recall, or the communication more awkward and effortful than we remember.

There are so many things I could have written instead, but none of them were finished, and another poem would definitely have been a cop-out.

A clean slate seemed a fine place to start, but having painted all over it with words, I think it might have looked better empty. Much like the silence, the calmness of its surface ‘seemed to dislike being broken’, as Tolkien wrote of the quiet of Mirkwood.

I suppose I’ve also realised since returning that London isn’t as safe as even I’d thought, and we can’t know when our opportunity to break the silence, even ineptly, will leave us forever.

I’ve made an effort over the last week to contact friends and family more, and although that was simply an attempt to ground myself and stay focussed after the distractions of success unexpected both in its very arrival and its height, it now seems especially apt.

There’s so much more to write, and so much more to finish, but I think this will do for now. Thanks for reading, for I suspect at least someone has, and goodnight, good afternoon or good morning as appropriate.

A city boy (poem)

I wrote this last summer, and having departed ‘the City’ in particular if not in general it’s nice to look back from the surprisingly friendlier world of a running shop in Canary Wharf. I suspect I’ll never be able to produce a wad of £50 notes when faced with a malfunctioning card machine standing in between me and an expensive running watch, but I’m not sure I’d want the capacity to either. Sure, I know that James Watt and Matthew Bolton share space on the highest denominational note, but the pair haven’t seen the inside of my pockets! There’ll be more proper writing soon. Perhaps.

He’ll pull a fast one every time, but never pull a punch,
He’ll solely look out for himself, on alert for a free lunch.
The city boy, not city man, he runs from consequence,
Who cares who pays the later pound; As long as he can squeeze some pence.

If there’s a bus, he’ll throw you under,
He’ll bolt a moment after thunder,
He’d buy a lion, but no heart,
He’ll always duck doing his part.

Of course he’ll work and grind away,
Most waking hours that fill the day,
But only when this serves his pay,
He’ll always keep his morals grey.

Upon such men a city’s built,
Upon a river, harbours guilt.
What once was stone now shining screen,
A bleak lament for what has been.

Can’t see the Wood for(d) the trees: National Cross Country

My last blog post was supposed to be a final, sentimental goodbye, partly to offer thanks and partly as encouragement for myself along a relatively solitary road. The previous several days have, however, produced another loose end.

To undercut the seriousness I had quite a lot of fun thinking of a club-name-based pun for the title.. ‘A Wodf in Heath’s clothing’ was a favourite, but I dropped it because it was technically the other way round (a Heath in Woodford clothing) and it scans abominably.

If I could have known the outcome of this race in advance, I’d definitely have had no qualms beforehand about Stevenage’s MET League being my last outing for Heathside. To be fair though, if I had that foresight I probably wouldn’t even have turned up. It was a creditable position and a lot of people said nice things, but ultimately I had a target and I honestly fell a long way short.

Yes I was ill, but ultimately sportspeople across many disciplines, even absurd ones like chess boxing (maybe especially that..) come through worse to do better. Cross country, at any level, is a test of mental strength: I didn’t have it on Saturday. Also, I lacked the courage and consideration beforehand to communicate certain things clearly and effectively to the right people.

Earlier in the season, the plan was for this to be my last Heathside race. The way things worked out in the weeks beforehand that didn’t happen. The last blog post was a (heavily laden) raft of apologies, regret and things I’d miss: I won’t cover that ground again, but there is a bit of new ground.

It meant a great deal to have Heathside support out on the course. Although I recognised a lot of voices I can barely recall looking up from the unfathomable and seemingly fathomless mud long enough to register anything. Despite limited peripheral awareness, that support also is something I’ll look back on and be grateful for later in the season. Thank you to everyone who lent their hands and voices, and on the flip side a nod of gratitude to all those who suppressed booing and hissing the pantomime villain of the piece.

 

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This is.. well frankly I have no idea where this is, I spent the last two thirds of the race with no concept of space or time, and might as well have been anywhere in the world. Honestly I felt like I wanted to be anywhere else. Thanks to Tom for the photo, and R.I.P to my spikes (ripped in places, perhaps), for this was the last race before they were unceremoniously binned, torn beyond repair.

I take responsibility for the decision to run for Woodford in Nottingham. Looking back it’s hard to dodge the feeling that I deserved to feel how I did during the race. I thought the outcome would just be that I wouldn’t score for Heathside, and that my name would just be ‘unattached’ on the results. One of the peculiarities of a double-barrelled surname is that a name is always attached to itself, maybe to the exclusion of everything else. While that sounds like fortune cookie psychoanalysis, it’s about right here. Going back to the title, it’s about failing to see how my decision affected other people, as well as being a bit of linguistic fun.

I never thought that Heathside had paid for my entry, that I was going back on a commitment I’d offered to run the full cross country season for the club, and that it might risk problems afterwards in the administration of results. I just sent an email to someone I wanted an answer from (could I run unattached in a Woodford vest), got it, and considered the matter closed, because that was easier. Sure I was nervous before the race and had picked up a niggle in the build up that drew some attention away, but that’s not good enough.

Social anxiety wasn’t a factor, because all it would have taken was a few emails to clear things up with everyone. A simple cheque to the club to cover the cost of my race entry would have been a meaningful gesture of goodwill in leaving Heathside, and I’d have left things, for the moment, finished with respect. That didn’t happen, and it is what it is.

I’m sorry for the lack of respect in the build up to and immediately before the National that I showed the club. As much as I’d like to kid myself otherwise, that’s the note things end on for now.

It wasn’t a glorious top ten finish wearing a Heathside vest and an emotional goodbye trip back to London on the bus. I spent the arduous car journey back trying to get the knots of out of my stomach and desperately hoping not to need to vomit out the window. The last battle of the day was won, and I avoided throwing up onto someone else’s windscreen or onto my shoes.

If I run the Commonwealth time, I can look back on this and laugh, maybe smile. Hopefully both, as laughing without smiling is pretty sinister.

If I don’t, well, I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it, and I won’t know until the hourglass runs out of sand in September.

Thanks for reading.

Farewell, and thanks

Goodbye Heathside

I’ve written several drafts of explanation, justification, apology and agonisingly elaborate wrangling about leaving the club. The last attempt was definitely the most complete, but it clattered into the hurdle of brevity with a determined failure to express anything succinctly. Having finished this off it comes well over three thousand words, so apologies for the length, I guess it’s something I can’t do succinctly!
At the core, it’s about taking a risk. I hate risks, and that’s one of the reasons I love the sport so much. It’s not random, you can’t fluke a last minute goal or hole in one. Especially on the consistent circularity of the track, what you get is what you’ve earned. That’s true whether it comes through sitting behind someone for twelve laps and tearing up the last couple of hundred metres or starting and finishing a mile at the very front, never throwing a glance backwards to fuel the pursuing pack.

There are, for the most part, no team mates to get in the way and provide excuses for failure, or to pick you up and provide a reason outside your own head to get on with it. It’s an individual sport, but successes still aren’t something one person can claim credit for, and failures and low points don’t need to be suffered alone.

If I do end up on the start line at the Commonwealth games next year, which is ultimately what all this is about, it’ll be thanks to the club as a whole and so many of you individually.

To give myself a better chance of doing that, I’ve jumped ship and joined Woodford, but I accept what that comes with. It means changing from the high adrenaline fast food diet of racing every week to the proverbial lettuce and vegetables of hard training, almost exclusively alone or with my coach. It requires more discipline, focus and determination to fit other aspects of my life around the sport, rather than vice-versa.

It also means letting the club down, and putting my own interests above the gratitude I feel for everything Heathside and its individual members have done for me. This is something I really regret.

Perhaps most of all it means a risk of putting everything on the line and not making it, in a way I’ve never done before in anything. I’ve always been half-preparing for failure, provisionally producing excuses in case something goes wrong, second guessing how on earth things managed to work out when nothing did, and waiting for it all to fall apart.

I’ve never told someone I loved them, or moved to a different country with no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to live. I don’t have these experiences as a point of comparison, but the last five months of work feel in that order of significance. I started my steeplechase adventure with, at best, a slim sense that if everything worked out I might get close enough to the Commonwealth standard to make the effort worthwhile: to fail credibly and maybe get into the top 10 in the U.K.

I now feel like it’s something I could legitimately do, and it would fulfil the only genuine life ambition I’ve ever had (other than playing for Arsenal): representing my country as an athlete, and competing on the international stage. When I was growing up I quickly and correctly gave up the idea that I was really good at sport, and that dream disappeared with it.

In September, when a coach with Olympic level experience working with athletes and international experience as a competitor offered to take me on, those aspirations that had been left for dead were revived, and I leapt at the chance. I started a new chapter in my running, and left a lot behind.

A roundabout apology

A lot of people say I apologise too much: and I tried telling them I was sorry, but it didn’t seem to help… Without going into unnecessary and embarrassing detail, last summer I wanted to tell someone I card about a great deal that.. well, that really, once you’ve said that it’s pretty much done, one way or the other. I was too afraid to say it, so, feeble person that I am, I sent a message. Sadly it was the other, and, angsty anxiety-ridden pseudo-intellectual running robot that I am, I decided enough was enough on emotional engagement, and I’d do anything else important by email, and dodge any of the emotional stuff.

I hadn’t banked on getting a new coach a few months later.

I wanted to sit down with Jacob and explain that getting to the Commonwealth games had taken on a kind of mythical significance for me, and that I wanted to do everything in my power to give myself a chance to do that, whatever the cost. Now that being an international athlete seemed within reach (if I stretched a lot, both literally and figuratively: steeplechasers, as I’ve discovered, need serious flexibility) everything else (club loyalty, a friendship) rather went out the window.

I didn’t, because I was a coward. I sent an email, not even offering to talk over the phone, much less meet up and provide a much deserved gift or mare some more obvious effort of gratitude and apology. I paid back several years’ worth of advice, help, encouragement and a lot of time and emotional investment with an email and a lack of basic respect and courtesy. I tried to convey my gratitude for everything in that email, but it’s a bit like saying I wore my smartest Hawaiian shirt to a funeral. Very inappropriate, and frankly ridiculous.

My only other effort to reach out was a pathetic ‘hi’ after the MET league in Stevenage, which was quite rightly ignored. Jacob is a fantastic and committed coach and has put so much time and energy into the club while working in a demanding academic job and travelling a heck of a lot, and deserves a lot better than what I provided. I can’t go back and change things, nor can I effectively make amends, but I hope this is worth something.

More broadly, I’m sorry that I can’t stay in a Heathside vest, and help us in the Southern League by going for implausible hat tricks like August’s 800, 5000 and 2000 steeplechase (where I was disappointingly foiled in the 5000, my only SAL defeat of the season, but to be fair I only ran six races). I regret walking away from helping the club in cross country, collecting five gold stars for taking on each of the five races, battling it out with Tom to lead Heathside home. I’m sad not to be able to help out in relays, partly because fighting it out to lead Heathside into an admittedly assailable top five placing in the Southern or even National relays would be a great challenge, but also because I love being part of the team, travelling together and enjoying the day out.

I miss the banter in training, smiling and joking before flying along at the front, and all the kind words that would come my way there and in generous reports on the website. I’m sad to be without the camaraderie and companionship at the track and cross country, where a reputation as the friendliest club in North London is well earned. But I’ve made a decision, it’s not on anyone else, and I hope it’ll all be worth it.

Thanks

Without the development and introduction that Heathside gave me to the sport, I’d never have got where I was five months ago, having run for Northern Ireland domestically and broken all my PBs in the best year of my life. This comes rather late, but I don’t want to make a cursory private gesture. I want to put something out there, even if it is just written text, to do what I hope this manages.

Being part of the club has also given me a lot more than just increasing my running speed. It’s been fantastic for my confidence to feel so appreciated, welcome and valued. Critically, feeling like I had a place in London through the club and the people I’d got to know through running kept me here when I thought very seriously about going back to Northern Ireland and turning my back on the city, and England, for good.

I only ended up joining the club after a chat with Ed Samuel after a race in Regent’s Park, when I realised it was possible to combine the job I hoped to do (working as an academic) with running competitively, and what running as part of a club entailed. We’ve got so many wonderful minds at Heathside, and it’s been a privilege to have the respect of people who I think deserve a lot more than me for what they do outside the sport. If I wasn’t so shy in social situations and disinclined to get involved in any sorts of gatherings, I’d know a lot more of you, but that is what it is. There have been a lot of moments during my time at the club, outside of running, that I’m especially grateful for.

I recall being blown away by a chat I had with Gavin Evans after a Sunday league race a couple of years ago by the sort of things he was working on. With my background in anthropology concepts of race and how they have affected scientific practice was fascinating to learn about, and I look back on that fondly.

Sue, as well as being great conversation and a fantastic journalist, has helped me on several occasions when I’ve mentioned anxiety and worrying about injuries and running performance, especially on the train to the Southern Road relays in March last year, when I was struggling a lot more than I realised.

After my bike accident in June 2015, Dan McKeown phoned me to offer some help, but not just the ‘Get well soon variety’. I’d been worried about taking painkillers as I tend to avoid any drugs (medical or otherwise!) as much as possible, and thought I might be able to hack it without them. I was hugely mistaken, and having the perspective of someone who’d been through something worse was an invaluable boost when I was at my most vulnerable.

Perhaps the memory that makes me smile most to look back on is Joe McKeown and Ben Woolfe rescuing me in an SAL steeplechase in 2015, a day before that fateful bike accident – I wasn’t paying attention to the clock and almost missed the start of the race, ending up running to the start line determined not to cause a delay and compete in my road racing shoes. Joe and Ben ran over with my spikes, and convinced the slightly irritated officials to wait several moments for me to get something more grippy on my feet. I ended up getting a club record by half a second in that race, so it was definitely worth the effort!

Coming back from that shoulder injury, I came to the track desperately worried that I’d lose all my speed, and didn’t want any fuss made about my return. Warming up in a hooded top drawn close to my face, I thought I’d got away with it, broadly speaking, avoiding eye contact and keeping my head down. I think I avoided going straight back to the front, but after a couple of reps I got a tap on the shoulder, and Jacob Phillips laughingly told me I wasn’t fooling anyone, and welcomed me back with a hug. I was taking myself a bit too seriously, having spent quite a lot of time over the previous few months alone, and this was a perfect antidote.

Tom has been a fantastic role model for me, and is someone I’ve always looked up to. So often in races I’d start ahead of him, knowing my lead would inevitably first evaporate then be revered as metronomic pacing and a steely determination ran my guileless enthusiasm down. He’s managed to balance a full time job doing something significant, raising a family and reaching the very top level of club competition, and making an excellent account of himself at national level. These are things that, for various reasons, I’m not sure I’ll ever balance, but if I can take the determination and focus he applies to racing and training to every aspect of my approach to running, I’d know I’ve given it my very best.

This isn’t a moment, but it is the most important. Ever since I joined the club, Jacob always had time for me, getting back to exhaustively long emails with speed and detail, and always being there for a long chat and q and a session at the end of most training sessions. I looked forward so much to a congratulatory message at the end of every race, and was delighted to be able to reward his efforts with fairly consistent improvements, when I wasn’t out injured. It meant a lot at the time, and still does.

I’d like to write more of these, but partly because I think I have to stop writing at some point, and partly because I didn’t take the chance to get involved in the social life of the club very much, that’s it. Anxiety in any sort of group situation that didn’t involve the start line of a race, various health worries and a dislike of staying out late anywhere meant that I hardly went to any dinners, post-race drinks or anything else. Being around at cross country and the SAL in particular meant that I got to know many of you though, and that’s something I’m grateful for.

The cross country end of season event last year was a notable exception, I think the only one barring a couple of evenings after the club handicap. It was wonderful to be honoured with the athlete of the season award last time, although I did feel it should have gone, as ever, to Tom. His performances were a benchmark for me for so long, and the club handicap this year marked perhaps our last race on level terms, given how much more time and energy I’ve had to put into the sport over the last several months. It was a lovely evening, and although I enjoyed it I felt a bit sad that I knew it was a bit of a one off, and that I would continue to not want to gather myself to go out very much at all.

Stepping up a level has brought with it a great amount of confidence, joy and a sense of purpose I’ve honestly never had before, but no matter where I end up I’ll never forget where I came from. Thanks again to everyone who’s ever cheered me on in cross country, clapped me through on Tuesday training or offered a friendly greeting when we cross paths out on a run. I wish you all the very best.

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A bit of context, or procrastination explanation

Once I made the decision in August to change clubs in the Spring, I wanted to let you all know what I’d be doing in person, to offer something in the way of a farewell speech and to offer words of thanks. I wanted everyone to hear it from me, rather than have word circulate around that I planned on leaving and wasn’t going to tell anyone. It’s pretty clear that I’ve messed that last bit up rather massively, hence writing this. Messed up wasn’t my original phrasing, but I think it’s best to avoid profanity.

I’ve had very little contact with the club since September, mainly because of a serious race curtailment, but also because I’ve been doing almost every training session, and run of both long and common or garden variety run alone or with my coach.

I had a few quick conversations before the MET league at Claybury, then afterwards spoke to Jerry and Peter about my intentions to depart. They were really helpful and understanding: it meant a lot to me at the time, and also now looking back. There were no attempts to push me away from what I’d mentioned, just sensible advice not to rush or burn any bridges, which I hope I haven’t.

I had a few more quick words with people, but partly due to exhaustion and nerves, I can’t recall what else I said to who. I did drive back with Ula, Sue, Tony and Jake, but I remember being so hyped-up after my seemingly impossible position in the race that I didn’t manage much in terms of a provisional farewell.

The next race was Stevenage, and I came there with the weight of expectation – I knew people had been caught off guard by my finish at Claybury, not least me, but this was a much stronger field and I’d been training really well. I was full of determination, but also nerves. I picked up my race number quickly and without hanging around, and went to store my bags with Woodford to avoid any sort of distractions. This was very successful as nobody knew who I was, and I was able to come to and from the kit area with no disturbances. If this sounds a bit serious and self-regarding, I’m afraid it is.

It definitely helped my preparations, and the race went rather spectacularly as I finished second in a field including a handful of athletes with sub 30 minute 10k PBs and beat Kevin Seaward (2016 Irish Olympian), Paul Marteletti (who once held godlike status for me as the Finsbury parkrun course record holder, and is a phenomenal athlete), and a couple of guys from Shaftesbury Barnet with 5000m PBs of 13:46 and 14:05.

I meant to write something after this, but I got rather ill afterwards, as my body was somewhat unused to such Herculean efforts, and despite my health recovering the rest of the year was completely focussed on training. Into the new year, I had to start thinking about the actual moment of changing clubs, and going through the process of departing. Again, I planned to write something beforehand and managed to produce lots of half-finished thoughts.

Earlier this month I actually filled in the club change form and went through the processes I’d been half anticipating, half dreading. Now I feel compelled enough to write something that I’ve actually got round to finishing this. I hope it’s been informative and not too waffly, and that you’ll wish me well for my pursuit of the Commonwealth standard, but I totally understand if you’d prefer to put another few pins in the voodoo doll of the traitorous Northern Irishman and wish me ill. In the latter case, the left achilles is probably the most realistic location, although a pair of scissors through the chest is probably more demonstrative.

Thanks for reading!

Light on your feet or ‘A Hobbit Steeplechase’

This really is as silly as the second part of the title makes it sound. If not more so. I’d also be amazed if anything quite like this has ever been written before. On we go then…

A thought occurred recently while jogging to Euston, specifically after being briefly airborne across part of the forecourt to expidite my way through the masses. It’s important to be light on your feet for steeplechase, as well as just plain light.

Writing this now makes me think of that section from the hobbit, when Gollum, after being leapt over by mister Baggins, ‘threw himself backwards and grabbed’, but Bilbo escaped, and ‘falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel’.

If I seem unusually familiar with the verbatim text, it’s because one of my favourite things to listen to growing up was a BBC radio full cast adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Years have passed, and I’m much better at running, somewhat taller and with many more words in my head, but it’s still among my best loved sounds. I often have it in my ears when I drift off to sleep, or occasionally if I’m immediately cast adrift into sleep after a particularly hard day’s training, in which case I don’t take much in!

Tolkien also spares a moment to illustrate the specific character of Bilbo’s bound: ‘seven feet forward and three feet in the air’. I was trying to work out how this corresponds to the height of the men’s steeplechase barrier (definitely unfair, but I’m sure there’s no specified Hobbit height), and it’s quite a likeness – three feet (assuming six feet as roughly 180cm), comes to 90cm, or almost exactly the right height (that being 91.4cm)

On less slapdash calculation, a foot is twelve inches, and an inch 2.54cm, which would make ten inches 25.4cm, and twelve, or a foot, 30.48cm. Brilliantly that comes to 91.44cm, with the Hobbit clearing the horizontal obstacle by a mere four millimetres! But then again Bilbo is only about three and a half feet tall, so in human terms it’s closer to a high jump than a barrier!

[Edit: just before publishing this, I googled ‘Bilbo height’, as you do, and was rewarded with the information that Hobbits are three feet and six inches on average. I only wish that had come up in a pub quiz, or rather less plausibly, on university challenge. As a segway within a digression, I was only a week and a half ago on a pub quiz team with a champion of said academic trivia program, and felt suitably awestruck.]

Seven feet forward is a fine bound, but equally not to the order of a proper long jump – it’s the equivalent of a human jumping 2.3 times their height, or 4.5 metres, assuming the human is six feet tall. Seven feet would be 205cm, which isn’t enough for the Hobbit to literally clear a water jump, as the water reaches out 3.66 metres from the foot of the barrier. Disappointingly, although our fictional leaper’s vertical deftness is almost flawlessly suited to clearing a normal barrier, he would need to either step on the water jump and prepare for an impromptu bath, or perhaps leap onto and over an airborne competitor, were his timing as impeccable as his airborne height.

Having written this, in the interest of fairness it must be emphasised that Bilbo wasn’t wearing any shoes, running or otherwise, and the surface of the caves under the misty mountains can’t have been the most conducive to either optimal takeoff velocity or absolute fleetness of foot. It seems fair to credit Tolkien’s diminutive protagonist with a bit of extra springiness in respect to height and length on a regular track surface, which may help with that pesky water jump.

To jump over Gollum, assuming it was a leap clean above the ‘miserable and wicked creature’ rather than past or alongside him, with three feet at the apogee of the Hobbit’s jump, (also assuming it was timed perfectly) means that Gollum was probably some combination of: crouching (very possible), in an extremely hunched position (almost certainly, if his posture in the films is anything to go by), and unable to stand to his full height due to malnutrition and all that crawling around in caves and tunnels. I reckon that last bit is almost certain.

In conclusion, both the whimsical abstraction of Bilbo running a steeplechase and the much more narrative bound practicality of leaping over Gollum seem acceptable, within the parameters of such a ludicrous way of passing two half hour tube journeys on a rest day when all I can think about is running! I wrote this last week (on the 31st of January) and subsequently spent most of today’s return leg tidying it up, but no doubt I’ll find further delays in the pipeline somewhere.

I do find the coincidence of the Hobbit’s leap and the barrier height somewhat ominous. Though this might be dismissed by a wiser person as mere happenstance, I can’t help but see it as part of the subconscious preconditioning that has taken me to the precipice of attempting to leap my way to 8:43, and Australia in 2018.

Or perhaps, for those readers familiar with the story, I might be asked a set of riddles to get to the Commonwealth Games, with the price of failure similarly high. I can’t say I fancy being eaten, but it may be that riddle steeplechase has the potential to join chess boxing among the most implausible of combined activities. Or perhaps not. Just as well, I suppose, as any International riddle steeplechase would probably be rightly played in Swahili…

The Fallen Star

This is my first attempt at a short story, and one a few friends have been generous enough to say good things about. I hope they were truthful, but if not I appreciate the kindness all the same. It’s based on my favourite work of literature, Tolkien’s ‘Smith of Wooton Major’, and although the character’s name is the same, I hope for anyone who’s read both it’s sufficiently individual to be credible. Thanks for reading, or at the very least getting to the end of this introduction.

 

Smith always walked through the forest in the mornings. He loved the clean, quiet air that seemed to whisper with the wind, the green canopy of trees like interlaced fingers above and the floor with its seasonal carpets of earth, mud, leaves and water below. He knew the woods so well, he could close his eyes any time and walk through them without taking a step.

The forest was, for Smith, a place of peace and solitude. He was never interested in parties or large gatherings, and preferred to spend time wandering outside, even in winter. As much as he loved exploring new places, he also delighted in travelling old, well known paths and following the small changes day to day and week to week that are so easily missed: a new bird’s nest in the rafters of a tree’s upper reaches, a trickling stream fresh with water after an evening’s rain, or a missing branch blown off by an angry gust of wind. They were all part of the living, breathing world that existed quite apart from the hustle and bustle of the towns, or the more intermittent babble and chatter of the village.

At school when he was growing up they recited the Lord’s Prayer. When first learning it, he’d mistaken a word on the blackboard, writing: ‘lead us not into ambition’. He and his friend Tom tested each other the next day. Noticing the difference, he checked with another friend and changed the verse in his head.

When asked he recited it perfectly, winning a gold star, which he kept. Later, Smith found himself thinking that temptation could just as easily have been ambition, and it seemed to him a better fit. He didn’t like ambition, and felt that when some people used it they just wanted a nice sounding way to be greedy. Smith also thought ambition sometimes led people to twist the truth to impress others, and this was something he always took care not to do. This meant he wasn’t as popular as he might have been, nor as impressive, but that never seemed important.

He never had trouble remembering things, except music, which he’d very honestly accepted he was awful at. It was nice to listen to, but Smith thought it was better for everyone if nobody had to listen to him! He liked to hum to himself from time to time when walking in the forest, but even then it was very quiet. Partly he didn’t want to disturb all that he shared the forest with, the birds and woodland creatures, but also he liked listening to the sounds of the trees themselves as the wind whistled and fluttered through the layers of leaves and evergreen bristles. For Smith, no sound a mouth of skin or brass could produce made him feel more at home.

For the most part, life went on very happily in the village, there weren’t a lot of visitors from outside, and people rarely travelled too far away. Then one day an old man arrived and told of a fallen star that had dropped somewhere in the woods the night before. He told people if they ran to seek it, they would have what their heart wanted most.

People assumed it was a magic star that would grant a wish to the first to capture it, or would provide fabulous wealth or a beautiful bride to the one who brought it home.

They called their friends, and soon all the nearby towns had heard of the magical star and its rapturous reward. They ran in a hurry, all over the wood, kicking up the leaves and shouting loudly to each other, scaring the animals and shattering the quiet of the place. After a few weeks of frantic activity, they gave up, and moved on to other things, forgetting the star and what had once been their great quest.

Smith travelled the forest every day, but slowly and carefully, looking in all the corners of the wood, high and low, day and night, seeking to track down the star. He loved mysteries and puzzles, and something in his heart told him that the old man had been telling the truth. He was not sad when he could not find it, for he loved being in the wood, and journeying through it had given him a sense of freedom and of peace that seemed in keeping with its character. He didn’t disturb the animals, kick up the leaves or make any sound other than the flow of his breath and the light, nimble padding of his footsteps.

He found that he loved to travel across the land in this way, and often went many miles to see how far his legs would carry him. Sometimes, he would come to distant villages, and strange lands, and people would wonder how he had travelled there. All the old roads were lost, and the townsfolk weren’t used to people from far away coming there at all. Smith simply said that he had been carried by the wind, and though they were always kind he never overstayed his welcome in these new places.

After a time, Smith grew braver and more adventurous, and explored different lands and was bolder in his ventures out into the unknown, enjoying the feeling of being lost and the process of learning new places. He could never stop his mind wondering what had become of the star, but was not troubled by these concerns. They came and went like clouds across the sky, and were a companion to his solitary wanderings. Despite never knowing, he always had a feeling that the answer would become clear in time.

One day, after many years and many new and different forests, he came to the top of a mountain, and saw the old man again. The figure motioned him to approach, a warm smile on his face. “If I may ask, sir, where was the star?” he enquired, assuming that someone else had found it, that it had disappeared, or was still waiting somewhere among the trees.

“The star wasn’t hidden away, nor was it something that would suddenly appear” the old man replied. “It was something anyone who worked hard and patiently enough to find it would already have”.

“What do you mean?”, Smith asked, perplexed.

“The star came to you in time, as you were the only one mindful enough to keep searching, but not to be consumed by it. You always kept it in your heart, but would never lose hope when it would not appear. It is nothing more than your happiness and contentment, for that was and is all your heart desires.” came the answer.

The old man smiled, and a warmth grew out from his bright eyes, a gratitude that filled Smith once again with a sense of peace. Smith smiled too, and after thanking the man for his explanation, let his feet carry him away once more.