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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3184

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

A thread of hope

Normally I don’t include any context with poems, I just throw them out there and hope for the best, like lobbing a hastily improvised grenade. Or so I would imagine. Most of the time, the best is an ambiguous silence filled partly by the knowledge that someone, somewhere, has read at least a bit.

I may set a low bar (incidentally making me an awful and/or indolent high jumper), but I’d consider this a success. This does reveal something of my confidence in both myself and whatever I’ve decided, wisely or otherwise, to throw into the internet.

Every new year might be a largely if not entirely arbitrary division of time, and I confess my ‘tradition’ is usually to sleep through it, as I did last night, but I’ll try to continue posting more regularly through 2018. This might mean more poems, as they’re the things I tend to actually end up finishing most often.

This one’s probably my favourite from what I wrote last year. There’s a great quote from Frankenstein that I expect has found its way into this blog already: “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries”.

That’s a big clue for the poem’s meaning, although my role in science and discovery is still, as ever, disappointingly nonexistent. I write a lot of very stupid jokes, and perhaps as a consequence the poems aren’t trying to be funny. To be fair, most of the jokes don’t succeed anyway. I would say to myself ‘stick to the day job‘, but I haven’t really got one anymore.

Anyway, with what was a fairly irrelevant preamble out of the way, here’s the poem.

A master’s ropes pull on reluctant legs,
A vessel full of joy drained to its dregs.
What once was sinew now seems puppets’ strings,
The limbs that moved as one, recast as ‘things‘.

They’ve come apart from what drove them before,
Lost promise that can bring them forward no more.
The mind that was a guide, it’s lost its soul,
But still the dice of chance will play its role.

Eyes half averted, also half transfixed.
Hope and despair are perhaps best unmixed,
Where to?”, they ask, “where now?“, the muttered cry,
Three fates are left to fight, to share one eye.

These spinners always spun the webs we tread,
What looked like solid ground, in fact was thread.
Its woven well through all we think our own,
And when we’re gone, what of these seeds we’ve sown?

Shelly’s great king left nought beside a sound,
Ariadne’s silk, spun of hope, unwound,
Yeats’ great work, to perfection it was brought,
A lesson not yet learned, but it was taught.

One thing still remains: “What then, asked the ghost
It’s what we have lost, that’s what meant the most

“Occasionally, it should be funny”, or, undercutting the seriousness

One of my favourite podcasts (and podcasts are one of my favourite things), is Radio 4s book club, where authors are interviewed about their work. James Naughtie presents it, and his calm yet engaging style is one of the few things that genuinely helps me switch off my anxiety. Two of the episodes I most enjoy listening to are the discussions with Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling.

There’s a great line in the first of these where Pratchett says:

“There’s part of me that will go for the gag. I could have been a contender, I could have been a Booker winner, probably, if not for that terrible idea that occasionally it should be funny.”

One problem with this blog is that I always feel the need to make a joke or a witty digression or the impulse to include something that seems especially original or unexpected. This makes it far harder to follow than it needs to be. Frustratingly, it also means that the sharp editorial eye I like to think I cast over other people’s work is mostly blind to my writing deficiencies, not least the critical inabilities to be succinct and ignore these needs and impulses to chip in with meandering absurdity.

My dad mentioned a few weeks ago that the blog is mostly “about my internal thoughts”. “What are external thoughts, then?”, I was tempted to reply. You could make the legitimate argument that language and literature are an extension of thought outside the brain, and I could say that piece of self-reflective logic is why I didn’t. In reality, I didn’t have the balls.

Ed Byrne has a wonderful bit in his comedy where he talks about things he wishes he’d said. The title of the DVD this piece comes from, “pedantic and whimsical”, might well be one of the many subtitles I’ve played around with for this blog. I could write about it, but frankly his delivery and crafting of the lines makes it what it is. Have a look here if you like. If not, essentially it’s that story you’d like to tell everyone really happened but if fact you really walked away fuming at your inability to deal with confrontation or awkwardness by saying anything at all.

That characteristic is probably as important to my life as anything else. If I actually said many of the important things I wanted to say to people I’d probably spend a lot less time penning these sorts of things. Odds are I’d probably not be doing elite athletics though, and that I’d have been fired from my job in a running shop for repeatedly mouthing off to infuriatingly condescending, pain rude or just frankly idiotic shoppers. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This bent towards witticisms and a wry look at the world is something I’ll probably never shake off. As I spend a lot of my time contemplating mortality, the moral philosophies that govern our behaviour and wandering around the realms of both memory and imagination, I struggle to put all my eggs in one basket. Frankly, I’ve probably lost track of most of them in between a myriad of potential baskets, most of which I’ve mislaid somewhere or other.

It does mean I’m rarely genuinely bored, and can happily spend a lot of time alone, which is great. On the flipside though, a mind that’s always switched on, producing endless reasons to avoid fully committing to anything isn’t really conducive to either a relationship, a job or, sadly, elite sport. Ultimately, it’s just running around in a circle, ellipse or wiggly line, with or without some ridiculous jumping around.

On the other part of the title, I always feel the need to undercut the seriousness of any situation, even if it’s only with thoughts to myself, and that makes it hard to really take anything entirely seriously. I get anxious, upset, depressed and stressed, I’d definitely say more than most people, which certainly make things seem serious. With that though, I know that it’ll go away, and life will bounce back to whimsical absurdity or musing abstraction soon enough.

IMG_3085

This is simply here to look ridiculous. It’s a Halloween costume from 2009 that perfectly blended absurdity and value (I just grabbed a pumpkin as serendipitously impromptu headgear, the skull gloves were an incidental bonus)

Giving up my job and becoming a de-facto professional athlete is definitely serious, but also definitely absurd. De-facto in this case being an exceptionally suitable word, meaning ‘whether right or not’, or, ‘with lawful authority or not’. That last bit’s particularly funny, as I’m sure my parents would have preferred me to be a lawyer, until I made it to a level where International Competition seems decidedly plausible. Now they want me to be an international-athlete-lawyer. Well, at least I’m making some progress…

Frankly, it was a pretty disposable job, and I was very easily replaceable. Rightly or wrongly, I’m much less replaceable as an elite athlete.

The supply of people who meet the criteria to work in a running shop, isn’t exactly limited, those criteria being:

 

No that blank space isn’t a typo. The only criteria at a basic level seem to me to be willingness to work, or, perhaps even more cynically, willingness to be employed.

This is largely a joke. I have a lot of friends who do a wonderful job in shops, and can give advice that encourages people who are nervous, self-conscious or have no idea where to start into a relationship with a sport that might change their life. In rare moments, that will happen, and those sorts of moments are a delight and a privilege.

The supply of people with the capability, inclination, time and sufficient lack of self-preservation instincts to be an elite steeplechaser is rather shorter. I find myself, perplexingly, inside the top 40 in Europe last year for my event. This still surprises me.

I had a bet with my roommate at the training camp I’ve just flown back home from that the loser of a best of three table tennis match would have to jump into the swimming pool on the roof. It was colder than you might expect for Tenerife, even in December, so this wasn’t as relaxed a wager as it might seem. When going to collect the bats, the receptionist asked us who would win.

“Me”, he replied. Almost at the same moment, I answered “him”.

I actually won, and when I returned the bats I was asked who’d come out on top.

“Me”, I answered with a smile. “You don’t have to be confident, you just have to be good.”

This great line was wasted partly because of the receptionist’s limited English, and partly my botched delivery of a carefully crafted zinger.

I’m still not confident, but, despite my best efforts to prove otherwise, not least in my last race, I am fairly good. While you might not need confidence, it’s important to take things some things more seriously, or rather with conviction, and some things with a more relaxed approach.

As things are now, I can float around whimsically most of the time, but when it comes to the sport that’s now my job, and especially races like the Commonwealth Games, I need to clear my head of these witticisms, doubts and diversions, and get that job done. We’ll find out if I managed that in a bit less than four months (final selection pending, to be technically correct).

 

Relax your face!

Most of my blogs are like that Guardian long read you maybe (hopefully?) find interesting on first glance, but then realise two minutes in that I’ll take much longer than you thought to finish. It’s then added to the ‘to read list’ that nothing gets out of. This isn’t like those. You could read it while brushing your teeth, unless you’re in a real rush. In which case, hurry up!

IMG_2077

Ah, so relaxed. Nothing like a nice cold foot bath. Photo credit Sam Barnes, Sportsfile.

When I’m getting to the end of a hard morning’s training on the track, the inevitable instruction drifts through from my coach.

Relax your face!” Ironically, this tends to be said quite loudly, but admittedly it’s not very effective to mutter or whisper from the side of a track.

Okay, that’s going in a suitable place on my priority list”, replies my internal voice. My external voice lacks both sufficient bravery and oxygen to answer.

There are a few things that might logically take precedence:

1. Continue to respire, using whatever means necessary (including osmosis and photosynthesis, worst coming to worst)
2. Remain upright, via the same approach as above. Maybe not photosynthesis, although sunflowers seem very good at standing up straight.
3. Keep moving forward (it’s a huge bonus if I maintain the same speed)
4. Make my arm movement slightly less like Phoebe from Friends.

IMG_3082

I really want to come past someone in a race like this. Definite bucket list item.

5. Avoid shaking my head around like one of those ridiculous dolls. You know, the football ones.
6. Stop thinking about falling over, stopping breathing or generally giving up.
7. Relax any other part of my body that I’m actually using to run (in between strides, so that I’m not moving like a robot. And not one of those slick sci-fi ones, like C3PO after being left in the blazing light of Tatooine’s twin suns all day.)
8. Continue to perspire, as I think when the body stops sweating very bad things happen.

 

9. Relaxing the sounds of my breathing, as if I was actually racing someone that’s probably what they would focus on more, considering that my respiration sounds at this point like Darth Vader struggling with a particularly severe pollen allergy.
10. Focus on leaning forward from the hips to bring my centre of gravity closer to my landing point, and maintain forward rather than sideways movement (this should be higher on the list but I’m not rearranging all these numbers now!)
11. Try and ignore all the pain everywhere. This one definitely needs to be higher.
12. Focus on why I’m actually training, by myself, in what for the purpose of this drawn out scenario are windy, wet conditions.

 

13. Maybe relax my face for as long as I can keep my attention on it, rather than any, or indeed all, of the more important things above.

Conversations with myself, or, Plato’s Socrates

This is a much less scary title. The original was: Bipolar bare, or, not making heads or tails of it, and frankly I prefer that, but it’s too extreme. This title relates to the more positive part two, and is perhaps wisely a lot less headline grabbing. It’s sad that in order for mental health to be taken seriously, these sorts of scary titles still seem to need to feature in the media and in public consciousness. To be fair, however, a great deal of progress has been made in that respect, and I hope these thoughts make some small contribution.

It’s important to issue a slight trigger warning here. This one’s a little sweary. If you’re offended by bad language (as in rude), or bad language (as in things that aren’t written clearly and can be hard to follow), it’s perhaps best not to read on.

I was worried about being so openly odd on my blog. This was partly dissuaded by the compulsion I felt to publish it after getting some good feedback from friends I shared it with. Mainly though, I put it up because I suspect people often don’t read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, rendering everything below something of an irrelevance anyway.

Caveats over, let’s begin…

Introduction

For the purposes of clarity and avoiding terrifying anyone actually mad enough to read on: I’m not bipolar, or at least I think I’m not. I asked myself, and I said I was okay, so it must be fine, right?

Seriously, I know what it is, and I’m happily a long way away from that side of the psychological spectrum, but I’m not quite wired normally either. It’s important to understand mental health as a variable experience and a fluid state of mind, rather than an unchanging suitcase of static ‘baggage’ that everyone carries around with them.

This is my first attempt at something extremely difficult. In essence, I’m trying to capture the wildly fluctuating internal dialogue of anxiety, depression and whatever else happens to be going on in my head. A lot of the time, it’s positive, and I’m happy, but sometimes it’s a bit scarier. Sorry to be starting with the darker bits, but it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself in for. Part two is cheerier, I promise.

Before we get into it, I should probably offer some explanation for the title. I previously thought of a comedy sketch where mental health concepts are depicted as cartoon animals. This is important, as concepts, rather than realities, is all they are: see the excellent book “crazy like us” for more on this.

Anyway, those characters include: depression dog (with appropriately sad droopy ears), manic monkey (a wildly excitable gibbon) and schizoid snake (who has two heads and no tail), and, my favourite, bipolar bear.

He’s half white and half brown, as in polar and grizzly, because mental health isn’t black and white, and he’s like Beorn from the Hobbit, neither entirely a man nor completely a bear. The quote below is direct from Tolkien’s work (and straight from my memory, though I do admit to getting the word order wrong and correcting it after the fact):

“He is a skin-changer, that is to say that he changes his skin. Sometimes he is a man and sometimes he is an enormous black bear… you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”

The title is bipolar bare because I’m trying to nudge at some of the misconceptions we have about mental health, because it’s a pun on the above character name, and because it’s alliterative, which pleases me. The heads and tails thing will make sense in a moment.

Part One: welcome to our brain

He’s in bold. We flipped a coin, and it came up heads. It was a trick coin through, depicting the Roman god Janus, a famously two-headed deity, but at least he pretended to give me a fair shot. I’m in italics, because underlining is really only for titles and headings, and I was never very good at standing up straight.

“Evening mate, how was the day? Get any phone numbers?”

It’s odd to hear the voice again, after a few days of quiet. I very quickly get used to not having ‘him’ around every corner, and spend many happy hours pretending that I’m in control after all. That’s rubbish of course.

“You know bloody well I didn’t, and why do you think it necessary to come up with some witty opener every time? We both know you’re there, and it’s not like you’re going to catch me off guard. We’re both in the same head, for fuck sake.”

“Speak for yourself old chap, I’m anywhere and everywhere really, you’re stuck here all the time, but I can go wherever. You shouldn’t leave our brain switched on this late you know, it’s not healthy.”

He’s always so smug. Just like the Hobbit’s dragon (Smaug, for the uninitiated) is almost smug, I’m always teetering on the precipice of being an arrogant tosser, but happily I never quite manage it. One of our many differences, that.

“And where have your travels taken you recently then?” (I have to humour him, we both know where this is going eventually. I ignore the time comment, he always pretends he’s got nothing to do with it, and that always pisses me off)

“Had a nice walk down memory lane. It’s very interesting, but you really should keep it tidy. There’s too much clutter, no wonder you get lost so often. We’ll need a tourist office and a guidebook soon. Not that we could afford it.”

Always the comedian, I muttered to myself (after thinking of yet another new title*). We could afford it, but the logistics of setting up a tourist office in your own mind, boggles the… well, boggles the brain I suppose.
“You don’t seem to have any trouble getting around, and it’s not like we’re ever going to let anyone else in, is it?”

“Come on Adam, don’t be such a spoilsport.” He returns. “Maybe someone will be interested enough to hang around, and besides, can’t you remember that Dumbledore quote: “to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure”? You need to get your house in order, and I’m not talking about writing a will.”

Here we go then, back where we both know we’re going to end up every night, with or without a side of depression. Happily without in this case. Sometimes depression is even a main dish, but I only tend to have it for that part of the meal if they’re out of sea bass and that delicious mushroom risotto. The restaurant at the end of our universe, I find myself thinking, wittily. What a shame no one else was there to hear it.

“Don’t be a git, you know I can hear your thoughts too, right?” He breaks my concentration with calculated precision, after giving me just enough of a respite to think he might have wandered off again.

“I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to have anything nice to say, isn’t it?” I retort, though as we’ve established, at this point the actual dialogue is mostly for effect.

“Do you see the thoughts or hear them?”

I suppose I’m thinking aloud here, but in something a lot more like a petulant mutter or an impudent whisper than the sort of calm and measured voice one should probably use when talking to oneself.

“Both. Anyway, even by your dire standards, that restaurant bit wasn’t that funny. More Douglas Bader than Douglas Adams.”

“Douglas Bader?” I replied, incredulous. “The World War Two Flying Ace? Where the hell did that come from?”

“No, you must have misheard me. Douglas Badder. As in, not as good as Douglas Adams. But also because our brain is light on alternative famous Douglases, and the Bayern Munich winger is a bit too left-field. Or maybe he plays on the right… never mind, where were we?”

“Jesus, and people say I’m hard to follow”

“You are, but not for me. On the other hand, I know exactly what you’re going to say, so it’s maybe not a fair game.”

“How about now? … Purple monkey dishwasher!” I offer abruptly, hoping to take him by surprise.

“Bad luck, try again matey.” Comes the infuriatingly sanguine response.

“Expecto patronum!” (That’s bold and italics, because we both said it at the same time. Try to keep up.)

A few moments of silence. Neither of us move. Well, our body doesn’t move, we’re always running around. Never a moment’s peace in this brain.

“So, one more day closer to death then?”

Bad news. He’d cut to the chase,

“Yes. It is. What do you want me to say? You’ll die too, you prick!” I shout, losing my temper. Our temper? Even I’m confused at this point.

“Now now, it’s getting late, try and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early. Maybe I won’t, who knows. You might die in your sleep.”

“Night night. If you get bored, try and write some things down, or draw some pictures.” I offer, forty minutes after we got back home. Whatever else this is, it was at least in real time.

31704_133870813290670_7067450_n
This is just a photo of me entering coordinates in the ship’s log six years ago. The relevance is that a lot of these conversations take place in the literal and imaginary dark. That, and I wanted some sort of picture.

*That title was “Neurotourism, new frontiers of the mind, or, take a trip on me”, and deals with the idea of being able to experience someone else’s consciousness from the inside, as it were.

It’s a weirdly conceptual approach to the point I made at the start, and very sci-fi’ but there is a vague starting point in reality here. Read more, you know you want to. Here’s a snippet from the article:

“UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. Eventually, this process will allow you to record and reconstruct your own dreams on a computer screen.”

I would apologise for the digression, but as a good friend recently (rightly!) asked me to stop needlessly apologising, and as we’re still in my head here, I won’t. For the purposes of these pieces, I’ll try and throw excessive digressions in a pile at the end, like this, rather than taking a huge meandering wander away from my point and getting absolutely lost.

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.

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.

 

img_1787

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.