All’s well that ends well, or, new beginnings: Commonwealth Games steeplechase

I wrote the piece below three weeks ago, on the morning after the evening of the Commonwealth Games steeplechase. I’d spent much of the time since my selection in early October worrying about how tired my body and mind seemed to be, which can’t have been much help for either.

Things got worse in the eight weeks before the race, and that concern kept me from wiring anything more here, as I didn’t want to draw any extra attention to something that approached with an increasing sense of peril.

A number of J.R.R. Tolkien’s short stories take place in ‘The Perilous Realm’, and one, Smith of Wooton Major, tells of ‘things of both beauty and terror‘. Danger, risk and peril can doom us, but they can also surround circumstances that lift our lives outside things we’ve done before, provided we can navigate them safely.

While I think it’s critically important not to blindly pursue success, and question your honest reasons for chasing, the need, and the consequences of failure, you shouldn’t spend too long in the abyss of speculation either. At a certain point it’s just about jumping into the sea (or, in this case over the water).

After nearly half a year where large parts were spent in that abyss, I had to jump. This, with another of my usual preambles, is the story of that jump:

In the last several months, I’ve found my physical and mental limits, but instead of stopping, I’ve gone through them. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “this has widely been regarded as a bad move” (a bit like deciding to upgrade your pawn to a knight rather than a queen because horses are pretty).

That road has led to staring some pretty serious demons in the eye, and, frankly, it’s been the help and advice of a few of my closest friends that’s stopped me stumbling off the path into somewhere rather awful. I’m very lucky to have people in my corner that had the patience and good humour to listen to my increasingly hopeless ramblings, then nod me back in the right direction.

I spoke briefly about depression when interviewed after the race, and I was asked whether athletics has made it worse or better. At points it’s made the symptoms worse, but it’s important to understand the distinction between an underlying condition and its impacts at a given time. After breaking through into elite athletics less than a year ago, my ability to cope has increased enormously. The trouble is, the pressure piled up too, and it became too much in November.

I’m not going to walk away from the sport. A friend I respect enormously told me last year that even putting off giving up was an achievement to be proud of. It would be easier to throw in the towel, and it would certainly help my mental health in the short term. It’s not the right decision though. If I really want to inspire people dealing with mental health problems, and I genuinely do, I need to dig in and offer the best of myself.

That means not giving up even though it seemed so much more appealing than continuing for a long time. That means reluctantly realising that I can be inspiring even though I sometimes have cereal for dinner, fear leaving the house and squander a fair amount of time playing computer games and writing this sort of rubbish.

Anyway, this was supposed to be a race report. Sort of.

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My life ambition was originally to be a dragon. As it became clear that was unlikely, I decided I wanted to be an international athlete, like my dad. Yes, I still spend the occasional secret moment during runs downhill flapping my arms and roaring hopefully, but I think I’ve otherwise largely accepted my fate to continue life as a human.

I’d never run internationally before last night. It didn’t feel like it could possibly mean as much as I’d built it up to, especially as I felt a top 8 finish, the team objective for these championships, was impossible. To do that, I’d need to beat someone with a faster PB than me: I knew I was well off the shape I’d been in last year, physically as well as mentally, and the idea of racing to achieve something seemed impossible when just running at all was looking like it would take everything I had.

If you’d offered me last place at the Commonwealth Games four years ago, I’d have taken that with a kind of rueful bemusement – despite apparent failure, that would have meant I’d made it. Life ambition done, even if I didn’t beat anyone. I knew there was a chap from Vanuatu running who had a PB about a minute slower than mine: secretly, beating him was my only goal – that meant a top 10, and not last place. I saw him warming up and thought:

uh oh, he looks in great shape. Maybe he’s been training like crazy since his last race. Maybe he actually ran 8:30 somewhere unofficially, and was lulling me into a false sense of security. The Vanuatu tracksuits are really cool. Why doesn’t mine look like that?” … and other such things

When I was warming up, I felt like I had to be running quite quickly. It wasn’t an ‘easy’ pace, and I seemed to be going along at a fair clip. I looked at my watch. 7:35 milling. Crap. It had felt like 6:30. I’m fairly sure that’s slower than 9:40 pace for the steeplechase. Too late now, I’ll have to do this.

The rest of the warm up seemed okay, but the hurdle I was practicing over seemed quite high, literally as well as metaphorically. I checked it. Nope. All fine. I saw a real barrier on the track, and eyeballed it. About the right height? Probably. As I was running up to it, mind on other things, I stumbled, and somehow managed to carry my body over it, clipping my foot on the way over. It had been a long way down.

Right height? Nope. I didn’t realise at the time, and tried again successfully. Walking past to the call room, I asked Jackie, the NI director of coaching, whether it was the right height. “That’s definitely high” she replied. Ah. Well, at least the race would be easier! I thought about how easily I might have fallen there, and what that might have done to a degree of confidence that was already thinner than the pretext for going to war in Iraq, or claiming expenses for a duck moat.

Was I nervous? Not really. What, really? Really really. Depression had been very sharp recently, and I couldn’t bring myself to feel nervous at all. I had a strong sense of not wanting to be there, and I had quipped an hour and a half before the race that this was the sort of evening I’d love to spend alone on a quiet beach, or, even better, on a ship in the middle of a slowly moving ocean.

A friend had told me to look for the positives though, and as I’d essentially promised myself I would, I did. Hey, I wasn’t nervous. That’s great. I’ll take that! I made a few jokes with the volunteers, and had a pretty funny internal monologue. As we jogged out to the track, my friend Ieuan ran past me, looking pretty serious. As he sped along ahead, his feet seemed to say: “ready to lose?”. I was tempted to reply “I was born ready to lose. I’m ready to lose right now.” But I realised this might have been picked up by TV cameras, and that I’d look rather mad by doing so.

As the names were being announced (for some unfathomable reason I was last, in lane one), I thought about how I’d acknowledge the camera. A wave? A smile? Running away? The last seemed most agreeable.

A small moth or butterfly flew past (or perhaps fluttered by. I did genuinely think this at the time, smiling at the wordplay), landing by the feet of the Ugandan athlete beside me. I looked down at it, thinking how nice it would be to be able to shrink to that size and disappear. Wings would probably help with the barriers too. I don’t think the IAAF had the prescience to write “no flight permitted” in any section of their rules. I also thought about the bit in the Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf uses the butterfly to summon an eagle to rescue him from Isengard’s lonely peak.

Were we allowed to tag in fictional birds of prey? I could probably beat the Kenyans riding an eagle. Probably.

I had been politely clapping as other athletes’ names were announced, partly as it seemed like the right thing to do, and partly as it gave me something to do with my hands other than hang them hopelessly by my side. As the camera arrived, I smiled awkwardly, then clapped around to the stadium. This is the sort of thing that risks looking quite stupid, but it seemed to work well. As I’ve established there will very possibly be a ‘next time’ for international competition, this seems like a good ‘signature’ thing.

So we were off. Well, everyone else was. The pace was ridiculously fast at the start, and I decided to start at the back. At least nobody could overtake me, right? My plan had been to sit behind the Cypriot athlete, then see if I could catch him at the end. Honestly, I felt that was unrealistic. Everyone else in the field had a faster PB, and he had the sort of hair that only works for superb athletes or someone with a staggering degree of self confidence. By contrast, I cut my own hair, partly to save money and partly because I’m afraid of making casual conversation with the hairdresser.

Even the guy from Vanuatu had gone with it, to a certain extent. I was actually last. Was I just judging it horribly wrong? If the first 200m over no barriers felt hard, I didn’t hold out much hope for the remaining 2800.

The first lap was actually far too quick. I went through in what I felt was the right pace, and, eventually, people came back to me. The chap from Vanuatu had paid the price for going out so swiftly, and I hoped he’d still get round in a decent time. I sort of ignored the crowd. Yeah, it was quite loud, but we were separated by six or seven lanes of a track, and lots of lovely air. I was safe behind all the air, and nobody was really looking at me, right?

Technically, I was fine over the barriers, and the water jump seemed fine. Certainly, other people seemed to be worse at it. Considering I’d only trained it on two occasions since late January, I was doing pretty well.

After about half the race, I came past the guy from Cyprus. I decided to do it on a bend, as I secretly enjoyed the fact that it was a silly place to do it, and it also just seemed like the right place from an entirely arbitrary perspective.

I was now, amazingly, where my Commonwealth ranking and PB said I should be. My legs didn’t feel that tired. Soon there were two laps to go, and a quick glance behind informed me that the Cypriot was well back. The next bloke was an Australian who’s been to the world championships in 2015. He was one of the people I’d convinced myself I couldn’t beat.

Despite this, I’m always very indecisive, and appropriately changed my mind. Perhaps I could beat him. With 450m left, I moved past, reckoning I had enough to respond if he came back to me. Coming up to the water jump, the crowd roared, and I thought he’d made a big move. I looked back, realising three things,

Firstly, I was going into the last water jump. What the hell was I doing looking back?
Secondly, he wasn’t that close. Hurrah!

Third, the roar was because Conseslus Kipruto had won, not because anyone was paying attention to the back of the race half a lap behind.

Happily, I got over the water jump, and, looking at the trackside clock, realised I was coming in under 8:50. I’d started last season with 8:51, this was two seconds quicker.

I’d got into the top 8, the initial goal that athletics NI had set for us, and, also importantly, it was over! I’d done my best, and it had been enough.

Physically, I didn’t feel that tired. Mentally, I felt absolutely fried. So fried, in fact, that sleep has deserted me, and I’m writing this at four in the morning. I’m really looking forward to getting back to my own bed. I think I can safely say I’ve earned it.

So, giving up will have to wait. My body, by not failing, has committed itself to trying to qualify for the European Championships, and starting this bizarre roller coaster all over again.

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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.

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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