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.

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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.

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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.

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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27051783762

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.