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.”
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.