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.

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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.

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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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