The Anti-Hero: I’m not the good guy

Most of my blogs are too long for practical purposes. To quip that I’m not a practical person is a shabby defence. It will apparently take three minutes to get to the end of this one. I’d be very grateful if you could take the time, even if you skip every other paragraph. It’ll still make sense.

Sort of.

One of our most enduring moral questions is also disarmingly simple: am I a good person?

Concepts of good and evil are threaded throughout the fabric of the earliest stories we encounter. Whether it’s children’s tales, Disney Films or the Bible, one side wears white and clothes itself in virtue, while the other is plainly and simply dark, without the muddied waters of ethical complexity.

Whatever the source of our ideas, the notion of a clear dichotomy soon blurs with the passage of time. The stories we read as teenagers and adults, and even the narratives of our own lives, blow away easy ideas of right and wrong, replacing them with a complex entanglement of choices. Many of these lack a clear ending, and even if we would endeavour to choose the most moral path available, we cannot see enough of the way ahead to know where it might lead.

Very few of us can answer that question with a simple yes or no. Only a small number of people have done something so wonderful, or so terrible, so as to weigh all their other actions into relative insignificance.

Last year I achieved a lot in athletics. That’s not especially interesting in this context, nor morally relevant, but I am going somewhere. You might suppose the highest and lowest points in the year, certainly the latter, came on a running track, when I got the first and then the second Commonwealth Games standards. You might have been right, but you’re not.

In June, I decided to put one of my closest friends ahead of my own interests. That meant turning down the chance to run for Ireland, and to press ‘snooze’ on a childhood dream. There is no decision in my life I regret less.

In November, I did the opposite. Despite missing the chance to run for Ireland twice more, both for the more personally devastating reason of failing to measure up, not earning it when I felt I wanted nothing more for myself, that hurts far more looking back.

On the first occasion, despite difficult personal circumstances and some psychological struggles, I stepped up to the honour of a best man’s speech that I happily managed to deliver reasonably well. It came less than two weeks after one of the worst evenings of my life. Incidentally, that culminated in being injured, unable to sleep, sitting on a toilet in a dingy hotel room in Spain for several hours reading a book on introversion, clicking my heels together an muttering ‘there’s no place like home’. Especially coming after that, the wedding was one of few occasions that I felt weighed heavily in the ‘good books’, so to speak.

I won’t write about the second thing. This blog is the space for a lot of personal thoughts, vulnerabilities, negativity, doubt, hope and experience, but there are always things we hold back. That’s as it should be. Complete openness is often naive at best, and devastating at worst.

I wanted to write a very long piece that looked at the context and the balance of the last few years, when my life changed more quickly than at any other time before. I wrote above about relative insignificance. I’ve done many things I’m not proud of, as I’m sure we all have, and equally the converse is true.

As much as I hate to admit it, adding words often weaken the message. Just like trying to ‘fix’ that pesky, ambiguous number that looks more like a seven than a one, we’re left with a lot more ink on the page, and a messy scribble that no longer resembles either. Suffice to say that I feel there’s a balance to redress.

One key factor in the success of our goals is whether we share them, and in doing so hold ourselves accountable. For all the new year’s resolutions, upcoming international competition and hope for more, 2018 will be a success if I can avoid the kind of moral failure I closed last year with. The title’s very clear in how I feel about that failure.

In writing this, I encourage anyone else to seek to do the same, and put their moral values ahead of successes, disappointments or the easier, simpler broadcasts of empty positivity on social media. If, in sharing any of my vulnerabilities or reflecting on my deficiencies with the hope to do better, I can help anyone else, that will be as valuable a success as anything on a running track.

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Running Faster, hopefully (interview)

After the second of my three training camps before the Commonwealth Games in April, I was asked to answer a few questions in an interview piece for a website called Fast Running. I did. This is it. It’s also been published there, but as I’m not in the academic world anymore I don’t think self-plagarism is really an issue.

I’m sure many, many more people will have read that piece than this blog. It’s shorter, snappier and the answers have a word count. It’s also looking at the positives, of which there have been so many. Sometimes though, like old fashioned photographers, we need to sit down in the dark with the negatives and take a proper look at them.

As in the quote for the photo, I have to take responsibility for the fact that some people will look at my success, my actions and my words, and take something from them. It’s critical to take that responsibility seriously, and to think carefully about how your words might affect others, or be perceived.

If nothing else, however, I’ve always tried to be honest, at least some of the time, when writing here.  As in the quote below (from Frankenstein), I’ve always been cautious about ambition and chasing success. Doing so on the public platform of elite sport has been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I won’t try and hide that.

The title’s also important: this wasn’t the one they used, as I actually just thought of it. In June last year, I asked myself whether being the best or being happy should be more of a priority. I decided, in the words of John Humphreys, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, and put the question to one side. I also wrote the first half of a blog I’ll finish, hmm, sometime.

If we just care about being happy, we’ll probably sit around eating fudge and watching tv for a lot of the time – I know I would! That’s a somewhat skewed set of priorities that leads definitively away from elite sport. It’s also very short-term. On the other side, however, if we just care about performance to the exclusion of happiness, then we can get great results for a while. I did, and happiness came along for the journey too.

Somewhere in early November, though, it got lost. I tried looking for it, leaving its favourite foods out in its bowl by the door, and asking friends if they’d seen it. No luck. I tried to go on without it, but after a month or so, my body decided that was a terrible idea, and went on strike for a few weeks.

Often happiness, pride and contentment come from achievement, exploration (self- or otherwise) or worthwhile acts, and to seek them out without those things is a bit like ice-cream without a bowl. Messy, and somewhat unsustainable. Being selected for the Commonwealth Games meant, as I mentioned, everything, but it wasn’t a cure for my often wayward happiness.

If I really want to get ‘better’, where those words refer to mental health, I have to be more honest with myself about what works, what doesn’t, and when I need to take a step back and recover, or at least not take another new step forward. If this means being less successful, less ‘better’ at athletics, or anything else, I stand by that proudly, knowing that the decisions to do so were my own.

Seek Happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing oneself in science and discovery.”

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Congratulations on your selection to represent Team NI. What does it mean to you to represent your country at the Commonwealth Games?

In a word? Everything. I didn’t grow up thinking I was good at sport. Despite my dad having played hockey for Ireland, I wasn’t very talented!

Because of my dad, International sport was a dream I had as a kid, but I let that go growing up as it seemed like a stupidly impossible ambition. I went to the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a spectator, and the idea I’ll be competing there this year still seems surreal.

Being Northern Irish is a huge part of my identity, and The Commonwealth Games are the highest level Northern Ireland compete independently at. As such this chance is incredibly special to me.
Can you tell us more about your typical training environment and the current focus of your programme?

It’s very solitary. Endurance running by its nature is quite a solo pursuit within an individual sport, and since I started working with my current coach I’ve been training mostly alone on the track.

I find that hard, but on the positive side there’s nowhere to hide and you have to do the work yourself, which is also a big part of finding the psychological toughness to compete at any level, when you’re out there on your own. I mostly train at Mile End track and on roads and parks in London.

I’ve started incorporating hurdles into my track reps now, and I definitely feel that competition time is getting closer, despite there being three months to go.

You took part in your first ever warm weather training camp with Athletics NI in December 2016 and returned to continue training in January. What advice would you have for athletes going warm weather training for the first time?

Don’t assume the routines you have will all just fit into warmer weather immediately. I started my first track session at my usual time, the day after an early start for a long flight, and I fell apart a bit – my heart rate went over 200 so I cut the session short.

Leave yourself time to recover from the journey, get used to the heat (in my case that meant training earlier in the morning) and definitely drink more water. Also, try and get familiar with the new environment in terms of sleeping and where you can eat and get things like snacks and water, as the tap water might not be drinkable.
Athletics NI team staff have focused on performance behaviours and mindset ahead of our travel to holding camp in the Gold Coast? European Bronze medallist Ciara Maegan and Paralympic Champion Jason Smyth have shared their experience of major championships. Will you be taking on board any of the advice from them?

It was a privilege to be able to spend time with Ciara and Jason. Having them around on the camp was a big bonus, and it made me realise how important it is to stay grounded and not get carried away with your success. At the level they’re at, the basics are still the most important things, and there’s no shortcut to getting there.

Both Jason and Ciara talked about self-belief, and the importance of not getting distracted from your job as an athlete. Ultimately, you’ve been selected as an ambassador for your country and for your sport, and the strongest belief comes from knowing you’ve done yourself justice and not missed things in getting to the start line.

What are your goals for the Games?

Honestly, it’s my first international event and I want to go in feeling relaxed and not putting any extra pressure on myself. I know I’ve improved this season in so many areas, but there are always risks and unknowns in sport, and you can’t be complacent or take anything for granted.

If I can get to the start line in the best possible condition, knowing I’ve done my utmost to prepare as professionally as I can, I can be proud of whatever happens afterwards. Lots of people will have things to say about what you can achieve, what you should and what you can’t, but it’s critical not to lose sight of why you’re there in the first place.

Athlete Profile: vital statistics and personal pleonasm

At the start of the year I was asked to fill in a personal profile for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. While, as repeatedly evidenced here(!), I always enjoy writing, and mainly about myself on this blog, completing this sort of thing was extremely surreal. I had to tone down the jokes rather sharply, but there’s still a few pieces I eventually decided not to cut out!

The most surprising thing is that I actually managed to produce a succinct version of my athletics ‘story’, after dedicating tens of thousands of words here failing to do so. Hopefully it’s worth reading to the end to see that I actually managed to!

Name
Adam Kirk-Smith

Date of Birth
30.01.91

Height
173cm

Weight
61kg (does this really matter? It’s not like it’s top trumps..)

Place of Birth
Belfast

Country of Birth
Northern Ireland (UK)

Nickname(s)
Kirky

I could also add: Adamo, Adamovic, Adee, Captain Kirk, Ad-dog, Adsey, Noodles (that one’s a long story), Adamski…

Hobbies
Writing (blogs, short stories, some bad poetry and worse jokes!), reading (popular science, novels, good poetry, anything really), climbing (when I can), a bit of photography, some computer games, having naps, sailing, making huge salads and overly long lists..

Occupation
Athlete, part-time running shop staff

Tertiary Education (Institution & course)
University of Kent, Canterbury (BSc/Undergraduate degree in Anthropology)
University College London (MSc/Master’s degree in Digital Anthropology)

Languages spoken
English (native), French (moderate)

Coach
Tomas Plibersek

Sporting Relatives (all competing for Ireland)
Dad, Ian (Senior International field hockey)
Grandad, George McCaw (Senior International field hockey for Ireland, school’s cricket)
Cousin, Roseanne McCollough (Junior international athlete)

Other sports played (at a high level)
None. I’m terrible at everything else, but I loved doing it all!

Injuries (description and years)

Damaged ankle ligaments, 10 months from September 2009
Torn hip tendon, 14 months from September 2010
Damaged Achilles tendon, 3 months from November 2014
Snapped shoulder ligaments in bike accident, 5 months and 2 surgeries from June 2015

Why and when they took up this sport?

I always ran around from time to time, but I started running as a hobby in October 2012, as I was in London and I had too far to travel to play hockey. Having been a very mediocre player for the vast majority of my life, I’m surprised I kept at it so long! I started running consistently in mid-2014, and after getting a few injuries a year and a half later in late 2015 (November), I committed to giving athletics a proper go.

Ambition/goals  (including 2018 Commonwealth Games)
Staying fit, healthy and happy enough to compete for as long as I can in the sport, and to represent Ireland and Northern Ireland in all major competitions. If in doing so I can positively affect anyone else’s life that would mean more than the success I might have.

Memorable moments (plus any from previous Commonwealth Games)

In sport?

Not that much of significance. It’s probably summed up by the following moment. I was first drugs tested at the Northern Irish Championships in June 2017, and after saying that this was my first test, the immediate question was “How have you got to this level and never been tested?”. I replied, smiling: “I’ve only been at this level for about two weeks, does that answer your question?”

The best moment? Getting my P.B. and a second Commonwealth standard at Letterkenny in County Donegal, the County where my grandmother was born, less than a week after her funeral, with my family watching by the track.

Hero

Roger Bannister. His achievements made an enormous impact on the public awareness of athletics and inspired so many people. More than that, his role in medical practice and research is something people are less aware of, and when interviewed about his greatest achievement he spoke about that, not his sport.

His life is an example of what the human body can manage when trained scientifically, rigorously and thoughtfully, but also what we might all be able to achieve if we commit ourselves with that same application to something outside sport.

Biggest Influence

This is a tricky one. I won’t say who they are, because they’d prefer me not to. Though my coach and my family have been incredible and hugely supportive, I wouldn’t have got to the stage where I was worth taking seriously as an athlete without someone else really believing in me. I’ll always be grateful for that, and it helps me not to take what I have for granted.

Pre-competition ritual(s)

Nothing special really. I have the same routines on hard training days and race days, more or less. I don’t have any different food or wear any different clothes, other than what I need to race. I like to take a book into the call room, because I hate sitting down on a bench pretending to be relaxed. I’m not, and I won’t pretend to be, but I always like reading anyway so it seems like a sensible use of the time!

Any additional information?

I have a blog. If you’d like to read more about my strange world, go there: https://theanthropologuy.wordpress.com/


I notice you are relatively new to athletics at a mature age. I’ll be interested to read how you got into the sport late. Also a tremendous breakthrough 2017 season, four steeple PBs. Thoughts please.

Thanks for this question, I appreciate you’ve got an awful lot of these to produce and I’m grateful you took the time to look into my background. There are a lot of versions of this story at very different lengths, but I’ll tell it succinctly.

As I mentioned above, I only started running when I came to London because I wanted to do a sport that wasn’t hockey. One of my best friends from home encouraged me to do our local 10k race we’d done a few times before, and I really enjoyed it, after taking a bit of time to train in the build up.

The building blocks were in place in late 2012, but it’s really the absence of physical and psychological health problems and avoiding serious injury over the last couple of years allowed me to make the step up. People take these sorts of things for granted when everything’s going well, but often these kinds of factors are what stop so many athletes excelling.

Again, as above, a friend really encouraged me to give athletics a real go, and to pick a specific event and commit to a higher level of performance. Without that I would never have got to 9:02 in 2016. It gave me the chance to meet my coach, and my progress since then has been mostly down to the discipline, focus and advice he’s given me. While I’m really delighted with 2017’s progress, I believe I still have quite a lot of room to improve.

Answering some questions, or, oat enquiries

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What way do you have your oats?

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

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

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

What’s your favourite porridge topping?

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

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

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

Resolving to.. not give up just yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just a photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Relax your face!

Most of my blogs are like that Guardian long read you maybe (hopefully?) find interesting on first glance, but then realise two minutes in that I’ll take much longer than you thought to finish. It’s then added to the ‘to read list’ that nothing gets out of. This isn’t like those. You could read it while brushing your teeth, unless you’re in a real rush. In which case, hurry up!

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Ah, so relaxed. Nothing like a nice cold foot bath. Photo credit Sam Barnes, Sportsfile.

When I’m getting to the end of a hard morning’s training on the track, the inevitable instruction drifts through from my coach.

Relax your face!” Ironically, this tends to be said quite loudly, but admittedly it’s not very effective to mutter or whisper from the side of a track.

Okay, that’s going in a suitable place on my priority list”, replies my internal voice. My external voice lacks both sufficient bravery and oxygen to answer.

There are a few things that might logically take precedence:

1. Continue to respire, using whatever means necessary (including osmosis and photosynthesis, worst coming to worst)
2. Remain upright, via the same approach as above. Maybe not photosynthesis, although sunflowers seem very good at standing up straight.
3. Keep moving forward (it’s a huge bonus if I maintain the same speed)
4. Make my arm movement slightly less like Phoebe from Friends.

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I really want to come past someone in a race like this. Definite bucket list item.

5. Avoid shaking my head around like one of those ridiculous dolls. You know, the football ones.
6. Stop thinking about falling over, stopping breathing or generally giving up.
7. Relax any other part of my body that I’m actually using to run (in between strides, so that I’m not moving like a robot. And not one of those slick sci-fi ones, like C3PO after being left in the blazing light of Tatooine’s twin suns all day.)
8. Continue to perspire, as I think when the body stops sweating very bad things happen.

 

9. Relaxing the sounds of my breathing, as if I was actually racing someone that’s probably what they would focus on more, considering that my respiration sounds at this point like Darth Vader struggling with a particularly severe pollen allergy.
10. Focus on leaning forward from the hips to bring my centre of gravity closer to my landing point, and maintain forward rather than sideways movement (this should be higher on the list but I’m not rearranging all these numbers now!)
11. Try and ignore all the pain everywhere. This one definitely needs to be higher.
12. Focus on why I’m actually training, by myself, in what for the purpose of this drawn out scenario are windy, wet conditions.

 

13. Maybe relax my face for as long as I can keep my attention on it, rather than any, or indeed all, of the more important things above.

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

Sometimes things work really well. That’s not hard to write about. Certain things have been superb recently, not least two cross country races. I didn’t write about either of those. Occasionally, and thankfully not very occasionally, all the wheels seem to fall off at once. That happened yesterday.

It appears I’ve reattached everything now, but it’s probably going to happen again at some point. Next time, I hope it’s an even quicker pit stop, and that the new wheels might even be slightly better than the old ones.

Digested read:

I had a terrible cross country race and was very sad. Then I wrote about it and felt a bit better. I thought of some jokes and digressions while putting this together, and flirted for the briefest of moments with completely giving up running during the race. By that I mean both the immediate decision to drop out and the more dramatic absurdity of going off to live as a juggling hermit. Only I can’t juggle. Yet. And also I should probably stick out the running having got this far.

I’m also not a proper international athlete yet. That ship hasn’t yet sailed, but it’s moved its moorings at least four and a half months away, so I have to spend a bit longer impatiently stuck on dry land. Then I pulled myself together partly with the help of a friend and mainly the advice of my coach Tomaz. Well, not totally, but at least it’s a nicer ending than just deciding not to give up.

Lastly, I’m not asking for any advice or support. I’m lucky to have enough of that, this is really just for an insight that might help some of you reading it, and because it’s hard, which is part of the reason it’s perhaps worth writing.

 

Notes:
Particularly big digressions or especially silly ad libs are in italics, so you can steer your reading around them, should you so wish.

This was never going to be effectively edited. Sorry.

Cerberus means ‘spotted’ in Greek, as I found out both at a dinner party (featuring both fireworks and jars of sweets, so let’s not pretend I’m a grown up) and while watching The Punisher last week. If you take nothing else away from this (and let’s face it, you probably won’t), know that the great and terrible god of the Underworld, Hades, called his demonic multi-headed guard dog spot.

 


Preamble aside, let’s begin.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” W.B. Yeats once wrote. I learned one of his poems by heart this year: ‘when you are old’, and recited it while running through the mountains in Wicklow. It’s very sad, and has a particular beauty. I cried reciting it, but it helped a lot that the only watchers were sheep, and they seemed a lot more interested in the surrounding foliage.

Three days without human company might seem a punishment rather than a pleasure, but that’s one of the many ways I’m slightly odd.

There are also many ways I’m extremely odd, I did talk to the sheep, for example. They seemed mostly unconcerned with my attempts to make them laugh, which admittedly brings them in line with most of my human company.

Having the beauty of that environment, where I’d spent many beloved family holidays, to myself, was an incredible joy. Combine that with the incredible peace and quiet that comes only in places like this, as well as the thoughtful reflection it gives rise to, and I had my idea of heaven.

Yesterday I felt like crying too, but for very different and more obvious reasons. Going back to the quote, don’t worry about treading on those aspirations. At this point the hopeful dreams have been so thoroughly shoed all over that an extra step or two won’t make a blind bit of difference.

Like the captain of a certain Starfleet vessel, I’ve been slaughtered by mud more times than I care to remember. Spoiler alert? Sort of, though it is pretty obscure. Hopefully people who’ve seen it enjoy the reference, but even then I think it might take a re-read. Sorry. I laugh to keep from weeping.

Early this year I had one of the worst races of my life at the English national cross country. It was my second race of the year, and up until yester, my worst. I was pretty down afterwards, but that’s mainly because I felt broken from about halfway, got sick very soon after finishing, almost lost a leg in the quagmire, and had a long journey back where I had to make conversation while cursing death and destruction upon myself and all those who happened to be within doom-wishing distance.

There are a lot of jokes. There need to be. It was that or a lot of swearing and melodrama, and that’s not my style. Well, the heaps of swearing at any rate.

Yesterday I saw a third chance to run for Ireland this year slip through my fingers. It was definitely the easiest, in that the first was a moral choice I’ll never regret and the second was the bloody world championships. I told myself it had to happen. This was the year my granny had died.

IMG_2876

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

She’d died knowing I might perhaps make it as an international athlete. I felt, and still feel, that I owed it to her not to give up, and to give my very best to the sport. On Sunday that resolve was the weakest it’s been since mid-June. That’s what was at stake.

I was closer to dropping out in the English championships, but I didn’t feel anywhere near as despondent.

Incidentally, I think what stopped me there was the length of the trek back to my bag. Disappointingly, the precise point at which the impulse to surrender was strongest happened to coincide exactly with maximum possible distance to walk back.

My self-talk was pretty brutal.

You look awful mate, you sure you’re up for this? It’s not a 3k race, go home.”
(Starting with a light jab)

Didn’t you beat some of these guys last month, what’s happened? You’ve really fucked this one up. Aren’t you supposed to be good?
(Something a bit stronger)

I bet those people who wrote you were in contention to get on the podium are regretting putting their pen behind you now buddy. What a disgrace.”
(That was embarrassing. How did I contrive to mess this up so badly?)

People came here to watch you. Just for this? I know, I’m amazed too. Good thing nobody’s flying to Australia to see the inevitable mess you’ll make of that one.
(A bit of future undermining there. Cunning.)

Good thing your granny didn’t live to see this. Just drop out, if you finish outside the top ten you’ll probably have to get a taxi home. And the driver’s probably going to ask you why you’re covered in mud, then you’ll tell him this hopeless story and he’ll throw you out of the car.”
(Nope. No more words.)

That’s where I left it. At that point, I couldn’t handle the chatter anymore and decided I was just going to ignore myself. I think that was at the start of the third lap, when I decided to discard my gloves in what was either:

A futile act of petulance, blaming a couple of bits of fabric for my manifest personal failings.

A deeply misguided attempt to lose weight in a doomed bid to right the wrongs of my performance.

A propitiation (or offering, I like fancy words) to the running gods to provide some form of divine intervention.

A signal to myself that enough was enough, and I had to pull what remained of the race together somehow.

All, or some combination of, the above.

Nothing in endurance sport is a fluke, and equally you always get what you’ve earned. Yesterday I earned nothing in particular, other than an aggravated hip and the glares of all properly moral spectators who saw the prat who finished tenth not stick around long enough to shake anyone’s hand, or even essentially stop after crossing the line. I think I deserved both.

Some things will never get better, but one the great parts of life is that there are many, many more chances to do other things better. In this case, an almost infinite number of chances, as that race was the equivalent of trying to brush my teeth without opening my mouth, or making orange juice with bananas. Even with the best will in the world, short of some sort of transubstantive alchemy, it just wasn’t going to happen.

To end this part, Tomaz rescued the gloves I’d discarded, and gave us both the chance to fight another day. That’s what it’s about. I’m lucky I had someone to save my gloves, and I’m very grateful he picked us both up over the last couple of days. I hope I’ll have the chance to do that for someone else in the future, because I know what it means, and something of what it takes.

The title is because it’s almost December, nearly the end of the year, and I was much closer to twelfth than any position that mattered. That, and the elves hate the run-up to December. I always had a lot of sympathy with elves. They’re probably on zero hours contracts too.

Part two may happen. Possibly. As a bonus, my hip also seems okay now.