We mostly don’t need to think twice about throwaway comments on social media, because they’re just that: something to scribble down and discard.
The majority of content on Facebook, twitter and associated digital ephemera is in that ballpark. In this analogy, it’s a very messy one filled with balls of paper that either say nothing in particular, or say things that are so foul as to be either hilariously absurd or warrant immediate incineration. Perhaps often both. Now that ballpark is filling up at twice the rate, thanks to millions of daily selfies and photos of food, if my lazy prejudices are anything to go by.
Most of these balls of paper are unwrapped and passed between ‘friends’ (whatever that now means), ‘followers’ (always sounds scary to me) to some extent. Occasionally someone influential will serendipitously pick one of these up, and share it with their enormous circle, giving the originator of the message a flicker of celebrity. Not quite fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol proffered, but at least several thousand vaguely entertained clicks’ worth.
For some social media superstars, an artfully crafted breakfast photo that gets less than ten thousand likes is immediately deleted by advisers concerned about the negative effects of perceived unoriginality or lack of conspicuous public interest. Perhaps.
I follow more people on twitter than follow me. Some of us follow each other, which really only makes sense if we’re moving in some kind of giant sand circle, but maybe I’m taking this too literally. I have over five hundred friends on Facebook. This is about over five hundred minus, say, five, more than the amount of people I talk to at any length on any given day. I used to work in a running shop and have lots of broadly meaningless conversations. Now I don’t; more on that elsewhere.
I’ve been on Instagram for a few hours and appropriately have zero followers. I’m also on Strava, which positions itself as “the social network for athletes”, but if it was that, you’d have people editing the pacing and distance of their runs with some kind of elaborate filter to ensure more likes. I have more followers there than follow me, but, in the interest of transparency, I think that’s purely because one’s Strava following can be correlated with performance. Despite a few successful attempts to prove myself talentless, I’ve also had a few pretty good performances.
For various reasons, mainly past performance in sport (about 12 years of being a determinedly mediocre hockey player), expectation, confidence (or lack thereof) and the consistency of my health, I never thought I’d make it this far. I assumed I’d get ill again, get hit with a serious bout of depression, or just lose my love of the sport that’s become a job, give up and want to go home. I still want to go home, but I know I will in the next few years, and that’s enough for now.
Equally, I still love the sport, perhaps even more than before, and, hell, sometimes I’d be so happy and humbled by untroubled solitude and beauty of the environments I was running through so much I’d cry a little. I’m less depressed than before, even dealing with rather more sad and stressful things than I expected this year, and while anxiety, fatigue and depression have undermined a few performances this year, I’ve done what I set out to do.
My coach often mentioned that it is in some ways harder to prepare for success than to prepare for failure, because when you succeed, you need to change your beliefs about yourself. I’ve never really been brave enough to do that, and so I’m almost always surprised when things actually go well.
Training on the track in Tenerife on Wednesday, in admittedly hot conditions, I fell apart. According to a lab test in February 2016 (one of the things that convinced me to give athletics a proper go), my maximum heart rate is 200. Five days ago it was 202,. I felt like collapsing, but I thought I should at least get to six from the initially planned nine sets of two and a half laps (1km), even if I did collapse.
It was a bit of a watershed moment, a somewhat ironic choice of words as I was pretty dehydrated and at that point wanted to ingest as much water as possible.
I did the last rep, it wasn’t that much slower, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even partly collapse, which, while concerning, would have felt suitably dramatic. As evidence of my continuing survival, see below:
Although I did spend half an hour in bed afterwards, after lying down face first for what I convinced myself would be thirty seconds before hauling myself into the shower. I was okay again. Not immediately, but well before my next hard training session on Saturday.
Among the various thoughts going through my head, I imagined elite sport like playing Jenga while getting progressively better. Eventually, your tower will fall down, and you’ll need to start again, but, with luck, the next arrangement of blocks will be taller. It’ll always suck when it collapses, but as well as getting better at carefully removing blocks you’ll also get better at starting a new tower.
Ultimately, you can’t be afraid of tumbling down. Especially if you’ve chosen the steeplechase as not only your athletics event, but as a sort of job too. Not everyone does their job right all the time though. Sometimes it’s outside your control, like a goalkeeper trying to save a penalty bound for the top corner, or Teresa May (or, ah, anyone) trying to make Brexit work.
Sometimes you fall over ‘just a bit’ and manage to style it out. When everyone’s job is trying to win, most people will go home disappointed. That doesn’t mean you give up.
There’s a great quote in a book about positivity a friend of mine gave me.
“Whenever you fall down, pick something up” (Oswald Avery)
The first thing to pick up is yourself, and I’m getting better at that. Another one is a response to failure: “fail again, fail better” (by Samuel Beckett, who is ironically often rather distopian in his outlook). That seems to be working too, if managing to eat regular meals and keep a vaguely normal sleeping routine after the Irish cross country championships is anything to go by.
This title came from actually getting a bit of social media training last week. I’m faced with the seemingly unthinkable situation that, in some small way, some of these scribbles might mean something. I always knew someone read them, but I have to grudgingly admit more people are doing so. With a increasing but still small readership comes an increasing but still small set of responsibilities and sense of significance. There’s a small chance I might matter, so I have to pretend everything I write could.
Again on social networks, here’s a bit I like from a film of that name:
“The Internet isn’t written in pencil Mark, it’s written in ink”
Just as you can’t remove a bad result in athletics, you can never fully scour something from the internet once you’ve dropped it there. To be honest, I can probably get away with changing or removing all my past posts, or indeed this whole blog, and have it vanish effectively, just as I could walk away from the sport that has brought new extents of delight and despair over the last year and a half.
As time passes though, doing so will become harder. I have responsibilities now I didn’t have before, and I can’t pretend otherwise. I’ve written openly about depression and anxiety before, I’m not going to stop doing so. That’s as much a part of my life as anything else. I’ll say and write more stupid things, and get more bad results, but, if the time since June last year is anything to go by, it’ll be worth it for the better moments.