Can’t see the Wood for(d) the trees: National Cross Country

My last blog post was supposed to be a final, sentimental goodbye, partly to offer thanks and partly as encouragement for myself along a relatively solitary road. The previous several days have, however, produced another loose end.

To undercut the seriousness I had quite a lot of fun thinking of a club-name-based pun for the title.. ‘A Wodf in Heath’s clothing’ was a favourite, but I dropped it because it was technically the other way round (a Heath in Woodford clothing) and it scans abominably.

If I could have known the outcome of this race in advance, I’d definitely have had no qualms beforehand about Stevenage’s MET League being my last outing for Heathside. To be fair though, if I had that foresight I probably wouldn’t even have turned up. It was a creditable position and a lot of people said nice things, but ultimately I had a target and I honestly fell a long way short.

Yes I was ill, but ultimately sportspeople across many disciplines, even absurd ones like chess boxing (maybe especially that..) come through worse to do better. Cross country, at any level, is a test of mental strength: I didn’t have it on Saturday. Also, I lacked the courage and consideration beforehand to communicate certain things clearly and effectively to the right people.

Earlier in the season, the plan was for this to be my last Heathside race. The way things worked out in the weeks beforehand that didn’t happen. The last blog post was a (heavily laden) raft of apologies, regret and things I’d miss: I won’t cover that ground again, but there is a bit of new ground.

It meant a great deal to have Heathside support out on the course. Although I recognised a lot of voices I can barely recall looking up from the unfathomable and seemingly fathomless mud long enough to register anything. Despite limited peripheral awareness, that support also is something I’ll look back on and be grateful for later in the season. Thank you to everyone who lent their hands and voices, and on the flip side a nod of gratitude to all those who suppressed booing and hissing the pantomime villain of the piece.

 

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This is.. well frankly I have no idea where this is, I spent the last two thirds of the race with no concept of space or time, and might as well have been anywhere in the world. Honestly I felt like I wanted to be anywhere else. Thanks to Tom for the photo, and R.I.P to my spikes (ripped in places, perhaps), for this was the last race before they were unceremoniously binned, torn beyond repair.

I take responsibility for the decision to run for Woodford in Nottingham. Looking back it’s hard to dodge the feeling that I deserved to feel how I did during the race. I thought the outcome would just be that I wouldn’t score for Heathside, and that my name would just be ‘unattached’ on the results. One of the peculiarities of a double-barrelled surname is that a name is always attached to itself, maybe to the exclusion of everything else. While that sounds like fortune cookie psychoanalysis, it’s about right here. Going back to the title, it’s about failing to see how my decision affected other people, as well as being a bit of linguistic fun.

I never thought that Heathside had paid for my entry, that I was going back on a commitment I’d offered to run the full cross country season for the club, and that it might risk problems afterwards in the administration of results. I just sent an email to someone I wanted an answer from (could I run unattached in a Woodford vest), got it, and considered the matter closed, because that was easier. Sure I was nervous before the race and had picked up a niggle in the build up that drew some attention away, but that’s not good enough.

Social anxiety wasn’t a factor, because all it would have taken was a few emails to clear things up with everyone. A simple cheque to the club to cover the cost of my race entry would have been a meaningful gesture of goodwill in leaving Heathside, and I’d have left things, for the moment, finished with respect. That didn’t happen, and it is what it is.

I’m sorry for the lack of respect in the build up to and immediately before the National that I showed the club. As much as I’d like to kid myself otherwise, that’s the note things end on for now.

It wasn’t a glorious top ten finish wearing a Heathside vest and an emotional goodbye trip back to London on the bus. I spent the arduous car journey back trying to get the knots of out of my stomach and desperately hoping not to need to vomit out the window. The last battle of the day was won, and I avoided throwing up onto someone else’s windscreen or onto my shoes.

If I run the Commonwealth time, I can look back on this and laugh, maybe smile. Hopefully both, as laughing without smiling is pretty sinister.

If I don’t, well, I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it, and I won’t know until the hourglass runs out of sand in September.

Thanks for reading.

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All in, all out: losing when it really matters

(Then winning, or er, coming fourth, when it really, really matters)

Standing on the start line of a race, the first thought is rarely ‘dear me, I’m lucky to be here in one piece’ (more profane exclamations also available). At least occasionally, it should be.

After comprehensively ruining my right shoulder and the remainder of the athletics season in June last year, I sent a text to the county selector after getting back from hospital to let him know I was most certainly out. A first county vest would have meant a great deal: my first selection in sport since I walked away from judo seven years ago. Well, walked is not perhaps the right phrasing, ‘escorted aggressively away by particularly ardent sentinels of despair’ seems more apt, though less snappy. More on that later.

A first race in Northern Ireland colours ran away too, in February. Diminishing health meant a composed and confident first third of the race meant little. Four laps later a largely irrelevant sprint finish mustered from somewhere unexpected took a dispiriting fifth: the first four picked up the red and white vest. As a running friend recently suffered similar ills at the hands of misfortune for national selection, I felt I’d delayed finishing this long enough. Then I delayed a little longer, and while I’m now writing I’m fairly confident the delays won’t end here. [Note, they continued for several months more]

The higher one moves up in sport, the more training that goes into a sharply diminishing pool of key events. For the enthusiastic parkrunner, one missed 5k means fifty one more remain, and by and large the recreational athlete has a healthier relationship with their sport of choice. You catch up most weeks, but neither of you feel cheated if a few dates get missed.

The less recreational athlete is in something more like a long-distance relationship (if I had an editor they’d remove this awful pun, but hey ho). You don’t see each other very often, and when you do it can be really pressurised and you’re always worrying about what might happen if it doesn’t work when you’re apart again.

Despite lots of recent wins in the grand scheme of things I’m a long way from a professional approach, much less actually making a living from this whole cantering around tracks, fields, roads and, well those are pretty much the only places. Nevertheless, steps in that direction from June 2015 to the same point this year have probably produced a bit more sadness than happiness, if I’m brutally honest. I’d rather not be though, it doesn’t sound very nice and I’m generally much more whimsical. All isn’t sunshine and butterflies, but there are a lot of warm caterpillars looking promising.

Some of those caterpillars wiggled around happily as I once again won the county championships on the site of my last 5000m track race before the shoulder injury, with a surprising 800m victory thrown into the bargain.

Since then, well a week since to be precise, I have taken up steeplechase, and a series of rather fortunate events have followed pleasantly. In something of a spoiler, as I started writing this four months ago, there are now fields of joyful insects, but this piece unfortunately isn’t about that. Plenty more are though, so if it is stories of delight you seek, seek elsewhere in my ramblings.

Rather than looking forward, a glance backward returns to the title of this particular journey. A year ago, I lost the chance to compete in the inter-county championships, and, on some level, I wanted to give up. I didn’t have a job that was especially significant, but that was by choice, to allow me to focus on the sport.

Losing that sport for several months to come felt like an eternity. I stood (or more aptly lay ineffectually in pain) at the start of a road that was to last one hundred and thirty nine days. I wanted to cut my ties with London and go back home. I hated the noise, the people and the hustle and bustle of the city centre in summer. It would have been easy enough to go back to the peace and quiet of Lisburn. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had.

I looked out in resentment at the park, filled with people lying comfortably in the warm grass. I couldn’t lie comfortably on a bed stuffed with pillows and with a nervous system stuffed full of startlingly aggressive painkillers. The point, I think, has been sufficiently elaborated. I’d been depressed at university, and rather substantially, and fairly ill for long period of time at other points in my life, but I’d never really felt like I had that much to lose.

This time was different, I lost both the sport I loved and the opportunities to do something I felt was really significant. This is certainly melodramatic looking back on it, but it’s close to how I felt at the time. You can’t effectively examine anxiety and depression from the outside, it’s a bit like diving into a shark tank with a sturdy cage.

Sure it’s scary, sure there’s the minutest possibility the cage could open and present a delicious tinned snack to mr, mrs, ms or Lord shark*, but 99 percent of the time, you’ll be fine.

*(It definitely seems like a shark should have a pierage…)

You can also probably handily press a panic button and escape immediately. If you press a panic button from the other side of the cage, as mr or mrs anxious*, you get killed by sharks.

*(No peerage here, as any nautical puns would be dead in the water. Ah, sink like a stone. Nevermind.)

Essentially melodrama is the order of the day in anxiety restaurant. It also comes with a deeply disappointing side of depression. You could try depression restaurant, but it’s a bit too dark in there to read the menus, and a side of anxiety attacking from the darkness is pretty scary. And not just for the anxiety.

Sorry for all the jokes, that bit just seemed a bit too serious. See below. Or sea below if you’re on a boat.

 

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Getting through the shoulder injury took a lot of time. For people in love with things, or more normally, other people, this sort of obsession with sport is hard to understand. Sure, people/things you love can leave/disappear (well, hopefully just the things), but by and large you have other people/things you love to fill the void.

Since the start of Autumn 2014, I’ve cared more about running than I did about anything or anyone else (anyone is though singular, family is more important than sport, even in my crazy world). I had a fairly serious Achilles injury for three months or so, but I still felt a long way away from being a genuinely good athlete at that stage, and intermittent unsuccessful attempts to return, while frustrating, kept me in the light to a certain degree.

“But you’ll find someone one day who means more than running” a logical reader might sagely offer. Tried that, bad idea…

Moving on (well, in a narrative sense at any rate) four months after coming back from that, the shoulder injury was the first time since I was 18 that I felt like I genuinely had something to lose, and lost it. I had to give up judo at that age, the sport the kept everything together at a time when it was falling apart, and I never summoned the mental or physical strength to come back. I was afraid running might be the same, and that was too much too handle.

I was also more than a little ill when running the Middlesex cross country championships in January this year, which strings things together rather appropriately. I was so out of it in my last ever judo competition that I had to let my opponent throw me, as I suddenly felt that my ability to even stand up on my own had disobligingly evaporated: I lost knowing that, and I’ve never come back to the sport.

After the start of the third and mercifully final lap, I felt something of the same ilk, though much less disconcerting. I still almost fell over, arms flailing slightly for balance (flailing more than normal, as they’re liable to be a bit wiggly even at the best of times), but and people actually watching me probably assumed I’d just stepped on some slippery mud.

Running, as I mentioned in the last post, is very different from judo, if you feel bad you can just keep doing the same thing a lot more slowly, and it will feel better. In judo, it will feel immediately better, the abruptly afterward, much worse as a very short journey to the floor ends your competition for the day.

Anyway, I carried on rather more slowly, and finished well outside the selection spots for a first county vest in the inter-counties cross country. I remember walking away from that race desolate, feeling like my health had given up again. I pulled off my club vest immediately, and wanted to disappear. A week later though, I was back to normal, and I thought happily about the contrast with my last judo competition.

Sometimes progress is made incrementally, sometimes it takes surprising bounds and leaps, like Tigger. Bounding backwards in time, my first race after the shoulder surgeries* was another cross country race in Stevenage, in November last year.

*plural: happily it was the same shoulder twice, as they marked the right one beforehand (as in correct, but also not left). I’m not sure six inch surgical scars are the kind of thing you want to ‘even out’. Here’s what it looked like after its second encounter with the scalpel. I assume it was a scalpel, but I suppose it could have been an expertly wielded pair of gardening shears.

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My cousin (a junior international athlete since) was over from Ireland for the junior women’s cross country race. She came first in her age category, and before seeing her run I’d been toying rather ominously with the idea of turning straight round and going home again. I wasn’t expected, and didn’t need to be there, or so the excuses went. Inspired, I brushed them aside, and heroically finished.. ah.. sixty eighth, through considerable pain.

Thinking back to this inspiration in the fifth race in the same league in February (Stevenage had been the second), I ran one of the few races where I’ve genuinely surprised myself (such are my lofty yet secretive ambitions) and finished sixty places higher in eighth. Knowing I’d come through that pain made the rather less painful ascent of the Alexandra Palace hills feel like an escalator, and one kindly going the right way. I haven’t thought back to either race much since writing this, but that’s mainly because I’ve been racing almost endlessly since, barring five weeks out with a knee injury.

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A look of genuine surprised delight. I once ate my ‘breaktime’ snack bar during class when I was nine, and then had no food for break. I found a Mars bar in my pocket. 8th in the MET league was right up there with serendipitous chocolate apparition.

I’m writing something separate about my first race for Northern Ireland, a home nations fixture in Manchester, but it’s important to end with here.

Although the running season never truly finishes, or even clearly demarcates itself if you’re racing on the road, cross country, and indoor and outdoor track, as I have since coming back from the shoulder injury, the Manchester race marked a turning point.

Since November last year, I’ve raced, by my count, 21 different events and distances:

800, 1500, 3000 meters and a mile on indoor tracks
(well, actually the same one, Lea Valley, though other venues are available)

800, 1500, 3000, 5000 and 10000 metres on the track, as well as a mile:
all, apart from ten thousand, at least twice

2000 and 3000 metre steeplechase: eleven times in total
One mile and two miles on the road, as well as 5k, 10k, ten miles and two half marathons, the second of which was almost five minutes faster.

And, um, 4.25k (the distance recording convention in running is K for road races, lots of zeros for track races. I didn’t give up a 5k at 4.25k, thankfully that was the race distance.)

Eight, twelve and fifteen kilometres cross country
(As well as silly distances like 7.8km, and those no one was really certain of as they weren’t measured exactly.)

The only conventional distances I haven’t raced in that time are the sprints (100m, 200m and the hideously high 110m hurdles), the 400m with or without hurdles, odd mile races like three, five and seven, the daunting twenty miles, and even more unapproachable, a marathon. Still some work to do there perhaps.

I’ve got a PB in everything I’ve raced at least once, and really couldn’t have asked for much more from my previously notoriously injury-prone frame.

After all this, before Manchester I asked one more thing, just one more. I’d taken ten days off racing beforehand, which sounds like no time, and really is, but for me this was an enormous holiday where I forgot what it felt like to race.

Northern Ireland had picked me in their squad for the Manchester International, and I’d taken the news rather, ah, enthusiastically. So much so in fact that I needed to put my hand on ice for an hour or so afterwards after striking the wall in delight. It would have been absurdly ironic to have ruled myself out of the event celebrating the fact I’d been picked to run. Although it wouldn’t have been lost on me I don’t think I’d have taken it well.

Beforehand, I’d felt what seemed like a rather serious tendon strain, but this is another story. Another story that picks up here (link, um, pending), to be precise. Thanks for reading this one!