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.

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A ghost in the glass

A shadow on the path ahead races ever further forwards,
It’s not yours, it’s something else, more and less than you,
Not a thinking thing, no mind, not knowing what it’s running towards,
Every passing day, hope shatters, every day it builds anew.

You cannot join this spectral form, it’s only there when you are not,
Elusive always to its seer, while all the others see it not,
This thing’s the light that might have been, but now it’s only dark,
A glance you cast into the glass, looking back, the guilty mark.

The morning comes, the mirror breaks, a face in pieces starting back,
Later then, these shards are lifted, pieced together, razor keen.
As you walk, thoughts spin and weave, ever yearning for a track,
The others do not, could not grasp, what sits and waits behind unseen.

But hurry now, let’s carry on, these days they will not wait,
Though hope’s heavy, while it hurts, we cannot let it go,
Those well meaning words of wisdom, stinging as they come too late,
Another day is passed, and then, one later day it’s time to go.

Running and Depression

Eleven months ago I broke the club 2000m steeplechase record by half a second, and two days later was in hospital for emergency shoulder surgery. A few hours ago I ran the 3000m steeplechase in 9:33, twelve seconds inside the English Championships qualifying standard and a club record by the same margin, having raced 10k on the track less than a day before.

Thank you dearly to everyone who’s offered support and encouragement over what has been a hugely variable three hundred and thirty seven days. For the last ten years, depression has regrettably been an important part of my life, and I’ll be writing quite a bit about it and mental health in general on my blog over the next several weeks. Injuries, illnesses and stress make a huge difference, and although there are inevitably some low points, sport has made a huge difference in my experience, particularly since I started taking competitive running seriously two years ago, and this is a lot of what I write about.

I had meant to write something for depression awareness week last month, but never got round to making the notes something complete. If anyone’s reading this thinking they’ve felt something similar, please do have a word with someone close, it’s not always easy but it nearly always helps!

(This was also posted on Facebook, and I might add a bit more here soon)

Running and Health

I wrote this originally early in 2015: there’s quite a lot of old material waiting patiently to appear, so most of the upcoming posts will be from the proverbial desk pile, rather than penned for purpose here. On the plus side it means more content which you might enjoy, on the minus end there’s more content, which you might not enjoy. Swings and roundabouts…

 

A Health Problem / Injury 
If you say you’ve got “a health problem” most people’s initial assumption is that your physical condition is somewhat compromised. The idea of health, like happiness or success, is often simply understood: being in good working order, smiling a lot, or having a desirable job.

It’s important to view health more broadly, but especially so for runners (and sportspeople in general). We’re inclined to take better care of ourselves and be more concerned about how we’re performing, and what might stop us doing that well. There’s a lot more to it than that however, though it’s very easy to forget.

The key question for many runners is total mileage. Is it enough? Is it too much? “I’ve dropped off recently, and feel guilty”, “I pushed it a bit too much, my legs feel so heavy”. The quality of those miles and how they’re focussed is what makes training really work, or fall down.

I get the impression, just from personal experience, that health is viewed secondarily, simply as whether or not you can run. If you’re ok, great, fingers crossed it stays that way.

If not, frustrated thumb twiddling, disciplined aqua jogging and cross training (for the best of us!); more time spent in front of screens (I’m definitely in this boat…), numerous physio visits and stretching routines.

For me, the biggest barrier towards getting better is lifting myself (physically and mentally) to get out and train. For some people, it’s easy. For others, it’s not, but they’ll push through that difficulty with a determined focus on the end result.

A lot is written about the stigma around mental health, whether it’s mild depression, anxiety, or something more serious. As sportspeople, we’re generally acutely quite of our physical state, and pay great attention to our performances. The framework underlying an effective training regime, both getting the most out of your potential, and being sustainable, is keeping the rest of your life in balance.
Training and Anxiety

A few people have asked why I don’t get involved in much club training, and am rarely seen at the track. It’s certainly not because I don’t care, that I’m intrinsically lazy, take a laid back attitude to running or have an impossibly busy life. I just find it very difficult to pick myself up to do something I know I’d enjoy and benefit from.

I’ve always found races easy to motivate myself for. There’s a sense of responsibility to give something back to the club, and do my best for it. When it’s just a question of getting out by yourself, and setting some disciplined time aside to grind out some miles, most of the time, I’ve got nothing. It would be embarrassing to admit even if it was a lack of a desire, but it’s more than that.

I worry about what might happen if I push too hard and get injured again, I’m concerned that I won’t improve much, or might lose my love of running. I worry that I’ll get too tired during a longer run and lose the motivation to keep going well, with no one to be accountable to if I don’t.

I’m also a bit afraid with going out with a group, as I don’t want to say I’ll make it, then not be able to get out the door. Moreover, I’m uncomfortable with the pressure of living up to expectations of being a good runner all the time, and if I am feeling tired, giving the impression I don’t care or aren’t trying.

These sorts of things are part and parcel of the kind of anxiety I have; it always throws up reasons why it’s better to stay at home, whether it’s going out for a run, a drink, or just for lunch.

I’ve got a lot more respect for people who manage family commitments, a difficult job, or long term injuries, yet still make it, day in, day out, than the fastest club runners. Maybe they don’t have these kind of questions, maybe they answer them and move on, or just take it in their stride.

Making Progress?

Being part of such a friendly and welcoming club is something I’m really proud of, but I think running, and moreover sport in general, could take the lead in reducing some of the stigma around mental health issues, and give people an open and invaluable platform to make real differences to their whole health, not just the part everyone can see.

There’s some good material that’s been written on the subject: scrolling through the archives of running magazines, there are quite a few articles about how running helps with depression, and the psychology of sport in general has attracted a lot more interest since the work of people like Steve Peters.

For me, writing is one of the best ways of dealing with anxiety and depression, as it forces you to think about worries more rationally, and lets you take a step back and, in a way, have a look at your thinking. I’d encourage anyone who’s experienced something similar to have a go, even if it’s just a few sentences every now and then on how you feel, just to get a sense of awareness.

I’d be happy to put some useful reading together for anyone that’s interested, and there’s a few good general documentaries (radio and television) that are a useful way to think about these sorts of things more generally. Anyway, any thoughts or comments are greatly appreciated, and I’d be delighted anyone’s come away from reading this feeling more able to think about their own health.

Shoulder Injury: 1, Pandora’s Box

1: Pandora’s Box

‘Please stand clear of the closing doors, the next train will be along in two minutes, stand clear of the doors please’. The broadcast voice, seemingly disembodied, in fact emanated from an embattled station staffsperson; undaunted, the impatient crowds pushed determinedly into diminishing and non-existent spaces between compacted torsos.

 

I dutifully stood clear of the doors, watching as the unmistakably branded steel cylinder began its way along the tunnel. A habitual urge to join the human tide inside had been curtailed both by the unfailingly coercive tones of pain and concern for a damaged right arm supported by a friendly looking blue sling. The precious minutes were grudgingly sacrificed.

 

The next train did obligingly seem to be arriving as predicted, lights heralding its imminent arrival. ‘Just one more step matey’ – no terrifying stranger was behind me, this was, thankfully and less distressingly, the briefest of internal monologues. It signalled something I’d been keeping well clear of for a handful of months since I got back to running again: that spectre of depression and anxiety had returned rather determinedly.

 

I don’t know where such phantoms normally reside in the good times, I assume somewhere dark with a lot of soul… maybe a jazz club. I didn’t think about this riposte to my internal demons at the time, but to be fair they tend not to share my sense of humour about this sort of thing anyway.

 

Re-writing this nearly a year after the event in a bright room early in the morning, it’s hard to conjure to mind anything like the same fear, and I think that’s important. I’ve always felt when writing about my own mental health that there’s a real risk of over-dramatising, which is okay for something kept to myself, but if the point of the writing is to get a message across and encourage others to do the same, it fundamentally undermines it.

 

Looking back on this after really struggling through a shorter period of much less serious injury, the need to do more with it really hit hard. Despite having made a lot of progress with my running in the last six months, I feel like the mental health aspect hasn’t strengthened along with that, and I’d like to do something about it.

 

The reason for the title is that I use running largely not as a solution to these problems, but as a stopper, something to keep the anxiety and depression away. A deterrent rather than a solution. That’s not to say it hasn’t helped me make huge progress, but much of that tends to be short term, and I’d be very concerned about what would happen if something stopped me running for good, which could easily have been the case ten months ago.

Running

I always took running for granted. I tried my hand at any sport I could, doing reasonably well in hockey, judo, football and athletics. Like many decent runners from rural areas, I always cleaned up at school sportsdays, and figured myself rather special as a ten year old.

Secondary school shattered those illusions, and my sprinting dreams died in the dust of larger boys, zooming away into the distance. I ran a little after that, but running was always just something that helped with other sports, compensating for a lack of technical prowess, positional sense, concentration or a greater awareness of the rules. In my last year, I ran the steeplechase, partly because the thought of giant hurdles proved too tempting to resist, and placed well in Ulster.

As a student, I enjoyed regular football and hockey. One football match changed everything. During trials at the start of second year, I stretched out for a loose ball, and my leg was caught awkwardly by a mistimed challenge. I’d never had a serious injury before, but I knew immediately this was different. Long story short, I missed a year of sport, and couldn’t even manage a walking pace that would threaten an intrepid turtle without worrying about pain arriving.

After getting help from a physio, and stretching almost every day for months, I managed what I thought was impossible, and found myself running again. Now, regardless of poor weather or some complaint from a disinclined body or mind, I always try and be grateful I can just put one foot in front of the other again.