The space between the barriers, or, three hundred and seventy one days

22051693300
27051783762

They almost look like phone numbers, lists of digits preceded by a plausible commencement of code. They wouldn’t quite be the same area, but perhaps the two strings would share regional affiliation.

How we break numbers up is a huge part of their significance. I guess it works for words too.

22-05-16 93300 That’s a bank sort code, although followed by an implausibly short account number. Perhaps some digits have got lost in translation?

+22 051693300 Set like this, even without the plus, it’s a phone number. The eleven digits check out, if you call it you might even get through.

If I google the first code, the only result is an indecipherable list of numbers, headed in Mandarin or Cantonese script that I can’t begin to fathom. Any decryptions are welcome. http://www.chinxm.com/show7.asp?id=2205169

There are so many permutations, and they may mean absolutely nothing. For me, at least, this bizarre puzzle has a solution.

22.05.16: 9:33.0 27.05.17: 8:37.62

Three hundred and seventy one days separate two dates, and two performances. One was good enough to take me to the English championships a day after my lowest point of the year, and the second was a qualifying mark for the commonwealth games, the world university games (sadly not applicable), and thirteen hundredths of a second short of the mark required for the European Championships. It came, too, after a depth of hopelessness I don’t wish to return to again, and the number thirteen has a significance outside its culturally ominous portent that will be returned to at some stage. Perhaps.

In the space of time in between both races, I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words, perhaps closer to two, most of which lies in incomplete piles under a series of titles that I most recently counted at two hundred and fifteen. It’s impossible to quantify the depth of human experience in numbers, and by extension it’s impossible in words, as that’s all these are.

In writing on a screen, thoughts that take place in language switch form between nerve impulses from brain to finger into kinetic pops onto a digital keyboard, flipping rapidly from a numerical electronic signal to the standardised shapes we all recognise as letters. As in the subtext that accompanies those enticingly swish adverts, for narrative purposes steps have been removed and the sequence has been shortened.

I suppose I like to try. I sit down, sometimes in a spare moment on the tube, and often when travelling on more amenable aerated or rapid transports, and put pen to paper, or skin to screen. Inevitably these sorts of things fail, especially if they’re written on a Sunday evening and have drifted invariably off a topic that was originally quite simple.

The space between publishing posts often gnaws away at me. It wouldn’t if I felt nobody cared at all, and I was just writing for myself, but then I’d never end up finishing anything. I have a vague idea that some of what I write is for other people.

The things that actually go up on this blog are either pieces I’ve actually felt I’ve had to write (most recently before changing clubs, and subsequently to attempt to reverse stepping on toes, and in the clumsy attempt, I suspect, crushing more feet), or the throwing out of any piece of almost complete poetry to fill the space, and deprive silence of its empty power.

I’ve never set myself a deadline, and there’s so often been the excuse of work, training, or laziness (whether genuine or feigned I can never quite decide). I suppose I should have opened with an exciting account of a recent race, and goodness me there’s enough of that to be going on with. I might have produced an account of my first holiday since the summer of 2014, a trip to Slovenia that brought more new experiences than I could find words for.

That’s perhaps because my grasp of the language extends to basic courtesies, assorted fruit names and, aptly, the word for forest, gozd. There were a lot of forests, and I found being able to look out the window into dense woodland more restful and restorative even than the hours of sleep gloriously undisturbed by the noise and light of London. Like Tolkien, I have always had a love of trees and green space, and every return to London feels in some part like a betrayal of the desire to be apart from the compulsion to be conspicuously busy and ‘interesting’.

Sometimes when putting things off for long enough, we can be paralysed into inaction, or when returning to something after a long break, whether it’s a crossword, a painting or a friendship, the reunion can be underwhelming. That clue can still remain elusive, the colours and shapes flatter than we recall, or the communication more awkward and effortful than we remember.

There are so many things I could have written instead, but none of them were finished, and another poem would definitely have been a cop-out.

A clean slate seemed a fine place to start, but having painted all over it with words, I think it might have looked better empty. Much like the silence, the calmness of its surface ‘seemed to dislike being broken’, as Tolkien wrote of the quiet of Mirkwood.

I suppose I’ve also realised since returning that London isn’t as safe as even I’d thought, and we can’t know when our opportunity to break the silence, even ineptly, will leave us forever.

I’ve made an effort over the last week to contact friends and family more, and although that was simply an attempt to ground myself and stay focussed after the distractions of success unexpected both in its very arrival and its height, it now seems especially apt.

There’s so much more to write, and so much more to finish, but I think this will do for now. Thanks for reading, for I suspect at least someone has, and goodnight, good afternoon or good morning as appropriate.

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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.

Light on your feet or ‘A Hobbit Steeplechase’

This really is as silly as the second part of the title makes it sound. If not more so. I’d also be amazed if anything quite like this has ever been written before. On we go then…

A thought occurred recently while jogging to Euston, specifically after being briefly airborne across part of the forecourt to expidite my way through the masses. It’s important to be light on your feet for steeplechase, as well as just plain light.

Writing this now makes me think of that section from the hobbit, when Gollum, after being leapt over by mister Baggins, ‘threw himself backwards and grabbed’, but Bilbo escaped, and ‘falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel’.

If I seem unusually familiar with the verbatim text, it’s because one of my favourite things to listen to growing up was a BBC radio full cast adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Years have passed, and I’m much better at running, somewhat taller and with many more words in my head, but it’s still among my best loved sounds. I often have it in my ears when I drift off to sleep, or occasionally if I’m immediately cast adrift into sleep after a particularly hard day’s training, in which case I don’t take much in!

Tolkien also spares a moment to illustrate the specific character of Bilbo’s bound: ‘seven feet forward and three feet in the air’. I was trying to work out how this corresponds to the height of the men’s steeplechase barrier (definitely unfair, but I’m sure there’s no specified Hobbit height), and it’s quite a likeness – three feet (assuming six feet as roughly 180cm), comes to 90cm, or almost exactly the right height (that being 91.4cm)

On less slapdash calculation, a foot is twelve inches, and an inch 2.54cm, which would make ten inches 25.4cm, and twelve, or a foot, 30.48cm. Brilliantly that comes to 91.44cm, with the Hobbit clearing the horizontal obstacle by a mere four millimetres! But then again Bilbo is only about three and a half feet tall, so in human terms it’s closer to a high jump than a barrier!

[Edit: just before publishing this, I googled ‘Bilbo height’, as you do, and was rewarded with the information that Hobbits are three feet and six inches on average. I only wish that had come up in a pub quiz, or rather less plausibly, on university challenge. As a segway within a digression, I was only a week and a half ago on a pub quiz team with a champion of said academic trivia program, and felt suitably awestruck.]

Seven feet forward is a fine bound, but equally not to the order of a proper long jump – it’s the equivalent of a human jumping 2.3 times their height, or 4.5 metres, assuming the human is six feet tall. Seven feet would be 205cm, which isn’t enough for the Hobbit to literally clear a water jump, as the water reaches out 3.66 metres from the foot of the barrier. Disappointingly, although our fictional leaper’s vertical deftness is almost flawlessly suited to clearing a normal barrier, he would need to either step on the water jump and prepare for an impromptu bath, or perhaps leap onto and over an airborne competitor, were his timing as impeccable as his airborne height.

Having written this, in the interest of fairness it must be emphasised that Bilbo wasn’t wearing any shoes, running or otherwise, and the surface of the caves under the misty mountains can’t have been the most conducive to either optimal takeoff velocity or absolute fleetness of foot. It seems fair to credit Tolkien’s diminutive protagonist with a bit of extra springiness in respect to height and length on a regular track surface, which may help with that pesky water jump.

To jump over Gollum, assuming it was a leap clean above the ‘miserable and wicked creature’ rather than past or alongside him, with three feet at the apogee of the Hobbit’s jump, (also assuming it was timed perfectly) means that Gollum was probably some combination of: crouching (very possible), in an extremely hunched position (almost certainly, if his posture in the films is anything to go by), and unable to stand to his full height due to malnutrition and all that crawling around in caves and tunnels. I reckon that last bit is almost certain.

In conclusion, both the whimsical abstraction of Bilbo running a steeplechase and the much more narrative bound practicality of leaping over Gollum seem acceptable, within the parameters of such a ludicrous way of passing two half hour tube journeys on a rest day when all I can think about is running! I wrote this last week (on the 31st of January) and subsequently spent most of today’s return leg tidying it up, but no doubt I’ll find further delays in the pipeline somewhere.

I do find the coincidence of the Hobbit’s leap and the barrier height somewhat ominous. Though this might be dismissed by a wiser person as mere happenstance, I can’t help but see it as part of the subconscious preconditioning that has taken me to the precipice of attempting to leap my way to 8:43, and Australia in 2018.

Or perhaps, for those readers familiar with the story, I might be asked a set of riddles to get to the Commonwealth Games, with the price of failure similarly high. I can’t say I fancy being eaten, but it may be that riddle steeplechase has the potential to join chess boxing among the most implausible of combined activities. Or perhaps not. Just as well, I suppose, as any International riddle steeplechase would probably be rightly played in Swahili…

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!

Playing for pain: what’s not to like? (Or wings of wax)

 

Before a judo competition, I knew pain was essentially unavoidable. Even if a round was easy, the next fight, the next chance to get hurt, would almost never end the same way.

Even with a ‘simple’ leg sweep, catching someone off guard before their foot finishes its step, you need to throw your body forward at the falling opponent, and both end up on the ground. Without propelling them to the mat with some of your own body weight, a disruption of balance won’t turn into something that matters on the scoreboard.

To say that pain was the currency of the sport would be stupid. Judo’s not boxing, and I can’t claim to know what it’s like to step into the ring knowing your objective is to get punched in the head as little as possible, but still a bit. Suffering was always part of the contract on the mat though.

Running is very different: you have a ‘discomfort’ button that needs to stay pressed as long as you want a top class time, performance or finish to a race. It’s not pain in the same way, and I always try to remind myself of that before I go into an important race. If it’s going to hurt, it’ll hurt because you choose it, not because someone else does.

(Extreme digressions are in italics. Purple monkey dishwasher.)

People say there’s nowhere to hide in an individual sport like running. I disagree. There are individual sports, between groups of people, and individual sports where two people, attention always focused on each other, go toe to toe. The crowd are always focused on that battle, and there’s no one else to distract them, no other competition to draw attention away, even for a moment.

In running, you can literally hide behind others, albeit in plain sight: let someone else ‘do the work’ for you by sitting behind in their slipstream, or just ‘sit’ in a group on the track, no one person taking the focus of the race or the crowd. You can hide within yourself by choosing not to give it everything, to come in well outside your best, and for the most part have people not know it, or assume you weren’t fit, were a bit ill, or had been training too much in the build up.

This concealment can happen in the moment, as you let that runner in front slip away on the final laps, or afterwards, behind tiredness, niggling injury or just not being one hundred percent. Whether that’s an excuse or not is something that’s mostly intangible, just an elusive sense of ‘not being quite there’. When you stare across the taped square on the wide, flat mats at someone you’re about to fight, that excuse just isn’t the same.

Judo is a zero sum game, with two possible outcomes, neither of which is a draw. If you’ve come out on the wrong side of that, it’s over. Excuses, or reasons, don’t really matter. What you gave was good enough, or what you gave wasn’t. (While this sounds great, you can actually draw, but for the purposes of actually winning a medal or a competition, you ultimately can’t.)

Most of the time in judo, I’d come back with a few bruises, maybe a couple of scrapes and cuts, and a general sense of having been in a rather serious pillow fight.

In this fight, I’ve lost my pillow halfway through and had to take goose feather blows to the body for half an hour. That’s much less scary than fighting actual geese though: an entirely different scenario, thankfully consigned to the realm of the nightmare, rather than thrice weekly events.

After a particularly hard run I come back home, have a shower, feel drowsy for a few hours, eat and lie in bed and for the most part feel vaguely achey the next day. That’s it. Mostly. Sometimes I lie on the floor first, then do everything else and lie in bed.

I’ve had numerous races and runs, recovering from injury, where the physical process and the psychology is totally different. The pain itself in these sorts of situations isn’t a problem, particularly following my mandatory acquaintance with high level painkillers after shoulder surgery.

Digressionally (almost sounds aloud like Harry’s spluttered ‘Diagonally’ in The Chamber of Secrets, taking him inside the grim interior of a dusty cupboard inside the grimmer interior of Borgin and Burkes), I can imagine how that conversation might go.

(Rising from chair) “Good morning dihydrocodine, I’m Adam”, (the opiate responds gruffly, sort of like Hagrid without the warmth) “sit down mate, you won’t be feeling too lively after this”. It then rips part of its arm off and shoves it into my throat. I fall over and black out in narcotic bliss. End scene.

That pain, this nerve activity, triggers firing synapses and brain electronics is a given. It also summons forth altogether less empirical anxiety and panic, uncertainty about being strong or fit enough shattered by physical reality. I’m never sure in these circumstances, otherwise I wouldn’t do it.

I’ve never had a race that mattered so much I was prepared to risk injuring myself ‘properly’, or if I did I’ve always deluded myself that somehow nothing bad was going to happen. In the analogy of the subtitle, I’ve always been Icarus, flying upward blissfully ignorant of the dangers of the sun’s melting rays. This time I’m Daedalus, winging it in the sun’s general direction because something matters more than the adhesion of wings to shoulders. I’ll be wearing a Northern Irish vest this evening, and taking a risk knowing I’ve decided it’s worth it.

I always thought the defining moment as a ‘serious’ athlete would come when, after a performance of barely believable quality, a man or woman in white would ask me to pee in a plastic cup. Apparently not.

This time, going into a race knowing injury is almost inevitable, and that pain will have a long term outcome in time away from the sport, the psychology is, again, different. There would be incredible relief just getting through it and only missing enough days to count on one hand, teeth gritted in reluctant acceptance if the fingers count weeks, and a gut rending immersion in inevitably rather serious depression if the abacus of digits numbers months.

Wish me luck, I’m afraid it’ll be required.

Still eating steeplechase sandwiches: Part two, the final hurdle continues

It’s vaguely advisable to read part one first.

Reviewing the last post, it jumps around a bit in terms of dates and moments. This is probably acceptable in an introduction written by someone who only begrudgingly yields to the linearity of time, but that can’t continue. Starting before the finish and finishing after the start is probably the best plan, so read on in unnervingly chronological order!

I only ran my first 3000m steeplechase (hereafter intermittently SC to save space… not that I do that particularly well) of 2016 for two reasons. One was my rapaciously frivolous pursuit of as many club records as I can possibly collect. I reckoned I could run 9:44, and in researching future races, I saw that breaking our club record would also qualify me for the English SC championships at the end of July. That’s because the qualifying standard is 9:45, not because any new London Heathside record holder gets a complimentary invite to the national championships…

The other reason, intriguingly, shall remain private for now. Well, not from me, I  do know it, but I don’t think anyone else does.

The day before I had run the Highgate 10000m through an unfriendly cold: a friend watching mentioned later he heard my coughing at the start line from the crowd. I ended up running a track PB by half a minute, but afterwards I felt for the first time since coming back in the first race from my shoulder injury that I had something to prove.

It wasn’t something to prove to other people, one race wouldn’t shift anyone’s view that much, I needed to prove it to myself. Despite the fact I tend to be my own worst critic, I’m also simultaneously (and duplicitously) my biggest fan, so this situation is unusual.

I ended up running 9:33 in this first race (22nd May), and two weeks later took it down by fourteen seconds to 9:19. If someone had offered me a steeplechase PB of 9:09 before I took the event up properly at the end of May, I’d have jumped at the chance. Well, hurdled at it anyway. The reality was that I leapt at it face first, as the thrillingly poised screenshot below demonstrates.

I ran 9:09 in the South of England Championships on the 11th of June, despite my enthusiastic acquaintance with the water jump. I worked out this cost about three seconds. It would only have taken an extra one and half seconds of effort, and not to fall, to get inside 9:05. As well as sounding nice and fast, this was the qualifying standard for the British Championships, where Olympic selection was decided, on the 25th of June.

I lost a potential gold medal following this unpremeditated and disastrous self-baptism, so it’s hard to laugh about it too much. In fact, it’s really not at all, the fall itself is hilarious, even though I know it’s me. Here’s a link to watch it with moving pictures (skip to 7:30): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Rv0guXD8JGs

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As some of you might know, I’m hoping to run the SC for Northern Ireland in the next Commonwealth Games in 2018. I previously had an unfathomably tenuous idea that I could make it for the 5000m, if I really dedicated myself to the sport, improved dramatically and had a bit of luck, or more appropriately a lot of luck, with injury. The standard was 13:40 in 2014, and the SC was 8:40.

The 5000 would involve me taking seventy seconds off my best time for a distance I’ve run as a race on eighty three occasions. That’s if Saturday morning parkruns are included (and they are, as promises to myself to ‘take this one easy’ never hold up). That seventy seconds needs to come off a mark I set in an international class road race in February, where I was pulled along to my absolutely limit.

While my road 5k PB this season has come down from 15:42 to 14:50, and my track time from 15:17 to 14:53, it’s still a long way off. Under 30 seconds in the SC, having taken it up properly three weeks before the Southern championships, seemed so much more doable. After that race, it became something I felt I had a genuinely good shot at. I thought things were in place to run the British championships qualifying standard and get my first taste of really top class competition. They weren’t.

The Northern Irish championships on the 19th of June were my last chance to do so, but as it was only a week before that’s perhaps unsurprising. My last chance that is, unless someone decided to hold an impromptu yet fully registered and officiated athletics meeting (with a steeplechase) in the five remaining days. Amazingly, nobody decided this.

The forecast for the day was pretty dire, and lamentably Sunday brought the promised rain. Despite the deluge, the water jump hadn’t properly filled up, and after assembling on the start line ready to race we were cast back into the oblivion of the call room for another twenty minutes, trying to stay warm and alert.

The race started slowly, as I was aware of the risk of starting too quickly on what was effectively a time trial (as there were no other serious steeplechasers in the race, if I can call myself such), and I came through two seconds down on my target split for the first 200m. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’d started in the wrong gear, and never really got into the rhythm I needed to beat the magical 9:05. Here’s my reaction to seeing that number disappear into practical impossibility:

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The conditions had been bad, but ultimately 9:05 was a long way off. About 40 metres off, using the old speed = distance / time. In the interest of showing my working, the lap pace for 9:12 is 73.6 seconds, divide 400 (lap distance) by this to get speed in metres per second: 5.4. Seven and a half seconds is 40.5 metres exactly. Unfortunately I was roughly a hundred metres away from the finish line, and, in what most definitely isn’t a spoiler, didn’t quite manage to run the last 100m, over a steeple, in 9.2 seconds.

I’d won by a long way, but crossing the line that almost seemed not to matter. Although I could nominally call myself national champion, I was desolate at the finish. Desolate and wet, despite not having fallen into the water jump on this occasion. Considering how remarkably well the previous two months had gone, as ambitiously foolish as it was, I’d really imagined myself lining up in the British Championships.

While my mum and dad, who’d been watching from the enviable dryness and comfort of the stands, were delighted, and I had a gold medal temporarily around my neck, it felt hollow. The win that is, not the medal, that would be absurd.

A good friend of mine told me a story about buying baguettes on holiday in France: he and his brothers would go to the shop, buy a baguette, then take the end off and remove all the delicious, bready inside, leaving only a very plausible looking husk.

To a casual observer, the baked blade would look whole and hearty, and only those privy to the dreadful secret knew its golden casing held nothing but air. I can’t say my exterior exhibited a delicious golden tan, and I do thankfully have both arms and legs, but here the dissimilarities end. I felt as empty as the baguette, and much more damp.

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The photo says it all really. That’s if ‘it all’ is a fluorescently shod someone with head in hands being pursued, knowingly or not, by an ominously black clad figure on a wet athletics track. At twelve minutes past nine in the morning, or possibly evening, with some distant feet far removed in the background. While one could assume they’re attached to people, that’s uncertain.

I’d missed something I’d, admittedly rather foolishly, set my heart on. Or, I suppose, thrown my heart on is more appropriate. If you’re setting your heart on something you’ve at least hit it with initial heart placement. I’d either thrown my heart and missed, or set it on something that subsequently moved, with the disembodied ticker falling off onto the ground. To be honest, leaving its body was a pretty terminal move for the heart, so anything after that really is adding insult to such key organ departure.

I’d missed my last chance to get into the best race it was possible for me to run in 2016, and I felt stupid for hoping that I could. Hope, as I’ll write elsewhere, is deeply important to my dealing with anxiety, depression and various health problems also explored in other writing. It’s a light in the dark, and when you look at your light and think it’s foolish, the temptation to turn it off is pretty strong. Coming back to the foul air of London, feeling broken, tired and homesick, the light went out.

After arriving at Victoria at twenty to one in the morning following over two hours of train and flight delays I’d missed the last tube by ages. Carrying a bag with several kilos of weight, I ran three miles home through the city. While it was delightfully empty, and I could delight in the people-free streets,  I knew the night’s sleep was a bit of a write off.

I got home, showered and got to bed at 2am feeling only the most tenuous obligation to sleep. It was hard to get through work on Monday, but I managed it. Getting home, I heroically fell asleep on the floor, waking up a couple of hours later to drag myself to the kitchen, whip up a delicious meal of baked beans and tuna that looked like rather fancily presented dog food (I added some parsley to convince myself it was fit for human consumption), then labour into the shower, out again, then back to bed.

The distinctly unlovable depression monster had returned. I suspect if he was more loved, he might visit less frequently, like an awkward relative you can ply with regular phone calls and small gifts, but I have neither the tolerance of phone calls nor the generosity for this. Nor, come to think of it, the knowledge where the depression monster lives, which seems important.

 

Look, depression! (Don’t worry, there are some jokes)

Having had a bit of practice, I find it so much easier than I did to write about mental health, to let people know it’s been a large part of my life, and to draw attention to something a lot of people would rather keep quiet.

There’s an important semantic distinction to be made between depression as a condition and the use of the word ‘depressed’ to describe a state of mind. A lot of people will say they feel depressed when they mean sad or melancholy. It’s a bit like a sore leg and a broken leg. A broken leg (depression in this instance) is certainly sore (i.e. makes you feel sad), but most leg pain isn’t a break.

You don’t often get people who’ve had bruised legs talking about how people with broken legs should toughen up and walk on their fractured limbs though. Of course, it’s nowhere near this simple, but I still think it’s a good example of how frustrating it can be when people tell you to ‘man up’ or ‘get a grip’. “My leg’s ******* broken!’ I always feel like shouting. Without knowlede of this helpful metaphor though, it’s both senseless and likely to provoke some very odd reactions.

As sadness and our descriptions of it are subjective, you can’t definitively say whether you’ve been depressed or not. The classification scale isn’t a categorical measurement, but a soft form of assessment that will probably vary a lot depending on when it’s done and who’s doing it. When measuring height, for example, unless you’re standing on your toes just a little bit, or asking a generous friend to measure you, you’ll get the same figure.

After coming through a bad period earlier in the year (depression and anxiety), I’ve talked to a lot of friends about depression in particular, and it has certainly helped. I sort of thought that once I started fighting it out in the open, it would play fair. Perhaps it might decide to knock before walking through the house with muddy feet and no regard for attentive pleas to be careful not to knock the parsley off the windowsil.

The floor is relatively clean, and the parsley that amazingly survived through the winter and ten days without water is still perplexingly alive. Sadly, in the metaphorical world of thought and imagination, floor and parsley have merged into one sad pile, and socks, instead of simply being thrown around, have been nefariously concealed in assorted alcoves.

It’s difficult to conjour my usual humour in this situation, so even zingers like the hidden socks evoke not so much a burst of laughter as the vaguest of neural impulses. It’s still a good deal better than nothing, and certainly a massive step up from the empty silences… as distinct from the wholesome sort of silence you have meditating or watching mute footage of a tree falling in the woods. To be fair that one did actually make me laugh, as I didn’t think I had a philosophical double entendre in the tank at this time of the morning.

Last time I was feeling a bit down, but not like this, I did a bit of writing, and it seemed to help a lot. Much of the time, things I normally rely on when I’m a bit glum can’t be depended on when ‘properly’ depressed.

Food tends not to help a great deal, unless I use it to make ice cream sculptures, which normally requires a lot more concentration and artistic vision than I’m normally disposed of even at the best of times. Running is often very helpful, but that’s such a normal part of my routine anyway I can’t add any more in, and the low energy normally associated with depression means I almost inevitably do less.

Reading and writing are things I also normally struggle with when depressed, and the words never seem to flow quite as easily from mind to page or screen. To be fair, this can be a good thing, as most of the time that flow is rather too rapid and often regulated as effectively as offshore finance under the current government.

The last two months have been fantastic writing wise, as I’ve probably produced about fifteen thousand words in various capacities, if not closer to twenty. When I’m feeling really good though, there are so many ideas bouncing around that I inevitably leave something just finished enough to come back to and pick up the original thread and flow, knowing where I want to go with it. Feeling like this, I know that if I put the proverbial pen down, it’s not going anywhere for a while.

This isn’t to say that I’m advocating a depressed state of mind as conducive to writing productively, or recommending it at all, that’s just an aspect of it for me. I find it can shift my focus away from bleak introspection just long enough to open up a chance to feel better in hours rather than days, and that makes a huge difference.

I’m not sure how helpful or relatable this is for everyone, but please do put a blank slate down (paper, digital, leaf, stone) and try writing something next time you’re a bit off 100%. I suspect drawing or painting might also work really well, but because I can only make horrible scrawls that would reduce even the most benign and amiable primary school teacher to a hopeless wreck I’ll still to the squiggly word stuff.

Thanks for reading, hope something here you liked, or at least felt was vaguely worth casting an eye over.