Pausing for thought, or, out of running

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)

Executive summary:  I’ve decided to take a break from elite sport for a while, and I thank everyone who’s helped me to get as far as I managed to without needing to stop to catch my breath and look for a different path forwards.

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In the belief that better days (like these!) will be at the top of the next hill, I’m taking a break rather than running away.

Roger Bannister, in a wonderful commentary set over a video of his four minute mile, mentions the phrase “full of running” on several occasions. That’s the ideal: everything moves fluidly, legs flowing along smoothly to carry arms and a body that are essentially along for the ride. It feels both that you’re running as quickly as you can, and, strangely, that you could go even faster if compelled to by an approaching opponent or the beckoning hands of the clock you’re chasing down.

Now, it’s impossible for things to feel that right and that easy all the time, but I suppose those sorts of moments are what every athlete looks forward to, in the same way an optimistic footballer might try a shot from well outside the box, knowing that nine times out of ten (or perhaps ninety nine out of a hundred in most cases), it’ll never sail into the top corner. A couple of weeks ago, the last time I stepped onto a track, I briefly felt that sense of controlled, elegant movement that I realised had been almost entirely absent for more than half a year before. In a different context, that might have been cause for celebration and delight.

With the situation as it was, euphoria was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but a few days later the reality was unavoidable: it really was time to stop, and I confess my strongest emotion was probably relief. A lot of the time I trained on a track last year, I had those sorts of experiences, and it reinforced a sense of purpose that came with having a clear goal I felt I could achieve, although most other people sensibly believed otherwise! My success came from a period of consistently good physical health, which I’d been slowly building up over a long period of time, getting used to training harder, racing in more competitive environments and the travelling associated with that.

Before late November last year, the balance between pushing my limits to the point those limits changed and pushing them to the point they determinedly pushed back had been going almost perfectly. I had a lot of moments where they refused temporarily, and a few minor breakdowns, but after several days, or a week at most, I found my way through. Since then, things obviously changed, but that’s not something I need to write more about now.

In one of my favourite quotes from the Lord of the Rings, Bilbo describes himself as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”. That concept of feeling like there isn’t enough of oneself to go around is something I imagine all of us have felt from time to time, though hopefully not for long.

At the end of November, I felt similarly, but that time I kept going. It was partly because I’d been picked to run in an international competition for my country in five months, and I felt a break might spread from weeks to months very easily, and lead me not wanting to return to elite sport, but mainly I wasn’t brave enough to make my position clear and give myself a real rest. Happily, it’s not too late now. Despite my fears to the contrary, it seems like no long-term damage has been done.

While I’ve had to drop any ambitions I had of qualifying for the European Championships in August, I can still run, manage my work and have good moments nearly every day. That’s enough, or it should be at any rate. As a result of various long-term health problems, I’ve spent a lot of my life without grand ambitions of success, in the public arena of sport or otherwise. For most of the time though, I’ve managed to be fairly happy, despite the unwelcome seasoning of depression.

A few days ago, a friend at work described me as a happy person, which caught me off guard. I certainly wouldn’t have used that phrase to describe myself, but I think that’s partly because the pursuit of success and embracing of ambition changed my expectations of myself a great deal. Moving those ambitions back hasn’t been that hard, as although they’ve been very different for quite a while now, their real home is somewhere more humble.

Before writing this, I felt I might elaborate on some of the issues I’ve had before I started running, and the context of previous health problems, but the details aren’t that important for now. Also, no matter how carefully and patiently I try to explain these sorts of things when talking to people in person, it rarely seems to sink in, which I suppose I understand. If someone who’s ostensibly very happy, bright and sporty talks about depression, psychological exhaustion and physical fatigue, it’s probably fairly hard to grasp. Also, despite my best attempts to seem clear and logical about the situation, people very often respond as though I’m giving up on something, or give advice that I’ve almost always already thought of (partly because I think a lot, and partly as I’ve had most of my life to think about these sorts of things). As such, I won’t try that here.

Before I finish, more from Lewis Carroll:

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.”

In my strangely accelerated journey through athletics, I’ve seen the best and worst of myself, as well as some others, though mostly to a lesser degree. For the most part, these have been meaningful experiences that I’ve been lucky and grateful to have, and I hope to come back sooner rather than later better equipped to deal with things.

In relation to the words above, because I found myself rather quickly doing something I both enjoyed and was pretty good at, it was hard to draw myself away, completely aside from the fact that the process made me a lot healthier and stronger mentally. 

In a story that again has a place elsewhere, I was asked to write an article on my experiences of running, athletics and mental health, and in an especially pertinent question was prompted to decide whether it had helped me mentally, or made things worse. I’m lucky in that, for most of my experience, it has helped significantly, but as things kept changing I ultimately didn’t have the strength to respond.

I wrote that article, but it came from something of a dark place, and while I like to keep it for posterity, it lacked the balance and consideration that sort of thing really needs to be effective. As difficult as things have been recently, I don’t resent the sport in general, and I try and be glad to have got as far as I have, as well as appreciative of the fact that much of that journey has been extremely positive. Indeed, even when it hasn’t the care and attention other people have shown has been humbling, especially when I felt it wasn’t warranted.

So, I suppose this is a failure in a far as I’ve had to stop for now, and that I’ve found a rather more unyielding limit, but it’s given me space to think with gratitude on all the people who’ve offered help in the past six months in particular. You know who you are, so I’ll finish with a temporary goodbye and many thanks.

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Running Faster, hopefully (interview)

After the second of my three training camps before the Commonwealth Games in April, I was asked to answer a few questions in an interview piece for a website called Fast Running. I did. This is it. It’s also been published there, but as I’m not in the academic world anymore I don’t think self-plagarism is really an issue.

I’m sure many, many more people will have read that piece than this blog. It’s shorter, snappier and the answers have a word count. It’s also looking at the positives, of which there have been so many. Sometimes though, like old fashioned photographers, we need to sit down in the dark with the negatives and take a proper look at them.

As in the quote for the photo, I have to take responsibility for the fact that some people will look at my success, my actions and my words, and take something from them. It’s critical to take that responsibility seriously, and to think carefully about how your words might affect others, or be perceived.

If nothing else, however, I’ve always tried to be honest, at least some of the time, when writing here.  As in the quote below (from Frankenstein), I’ve always been cautious about ambition and chasing success. Doing so on the public platform of elite sport has been very difficult for me for lots of reasons. I won’t try and hide that.

The title’s also important: this wasn’t the one they used, as I actually just thought of it. In June last year, I asked myself whether being the best or being happy should be more of a priority. I decided, in the words of John Humphreys, ‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’, and put the question to one side. I also wrote the first half of a blog I’ll finish, hmm, sometime.

If we just care about being happy, we’ll probably sit around eating fudge and watching tv for a lot of the time – I know I would! That’s a somewhat skewed set of priorities that leads definitively away from elite sport. It’s also very short-term. On the other side, however, if we just care about performance to the exclusion of happiness, then we can get great results for a while. I did, and happiness came along for the journey too.

Somewhere in early November, though, it got lost. I tried looking for it, leaving its favourite foods out in its bowl by the door, and asking friends if they’d seen it. No luck. I tried to go on without it, but after a month or so, my body decided that was a terrible idea, and went on strike for a few weeks.

Often happiness, pride and contentment come from achievement, exploration (self- or otherwise) or worthwhile acts, and to seek them out without those things is a bit like ice-cream without a bowl. Messy, and somewhat unsustainable. Being selected for the Commonwealth Games meant, as I mentioned, everything, but it wasn’t a cure for my often wayward happiness.

If I really want to get ‘better’, where those words refer to mental health, I have to be more honest with myself about what works, what doesn’t, and when I need to take a step back and recover, or at least not take another new step forward. If this means being less successful, less ‘better’ at athletics, or anything else, I stand by that proudly, knowing that the decisions to do so were my own.

Seek Happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing oneself in science and discovery.”

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Congratulations on your selection to represent Team NI. What does it mean to you to represent your country at the Commonwealth Games?

In a word? Everything. I didn’t grow up thinking I was good at sport. Despite my dad having played hockey for Ireland, I wasn’t very talented!

Because of my dad, International sport was a dream I had as a kid, but I let that go growing up as it seemed like a stupidly impossible ambition. I went to the 2014 Commonwealth Games as a spectator, and the idea I’ll be competing there this year still seems surreal.

Being Northern Irish is a huge part of my identity, and The Commonwealth Games are the highest level Northern Ireland compete independently at. As such this chance is incredibly special to me.
Can you tell us more about your typical training environment and the current focus of your programme?

It’s very solitary. Endurance running by its nature is quite a solo pursuit within an individual sport, and since I started working with my current coach I’ve been training mostly alone on the track.

I find that hard, but on the positive side there’s nowhere to hide and you have to do the work yourself, which is also a big part of finding the psychological toughness to compete at any level, when you’re out there on your own. I mostly train at Mile End track and on roads and parks in London.

I’ve started incorporating hurdles into my track reps now, and I definitely feel that competition time is getting closer, despite there being three months to go.

You took part in your first ever warm weather training camp with Athletics NI in December 2016 and returned to continue training in January. What advice would you have for athletes going warm weather training for the first time?

Don’t assume the routines you have will all just fit into warmer weather immediately. I started my first track session at my usual time, the day after an early start for a long flight, and I fell apart a bit – my heart rate went over 200 so I cut the session short.

Leave yourself time to recover from the journey, get used to the heat (in my case that meant training earlier in the morning) and definitely drink more water. Also, try and get familiar with the new environment in terms of sleeping and where you can eat and get things like snacks and water, as the tap water might not be drinkable.
Athletics NI team staff have focused on performance behaviours and mindset ahead of our travel to holding camp in the Gold Coast? European Bronze medallist Ciara Maegan and Paralympic Champion Jason Smyth have shared their experience of major championships. Will you be taking on board any of the advice from them?

It was a privilege to be able to spend time with Ciara and Jason. Having them around on the camp was a big bonus, and it made me realise how important it is to stay grounded and not get carried away with your success. At the level they’re at, the basics are still the most important things, and there’s no shortcut to getting there.

Both Jason and Ciara talked about self-belief, and the importance of not getting distracted from your job as an athlete. Ultimately, you’ve been selected as an ambassador for your country and for your sport, and the strongest belief comes from knowing you’ve done yourself justice and not missed things in getting to the start line.

What are your goals for the Games?

Honestly, it’s my first international event and I want to go in feeling relaxed and not putting any extra pressure on myself. I know I’ve improved this season in so many areas, but there are always risks and unknowns in sport, and you can’t be complacent or take anything for granted.

If I can get to the start line in the best possible condition, knowing I’ve done my utmost to prepare as professionally as I can, I can be proud of whatever happens afterwards. Lots of people will have things to say about what you can achieve, what you should and what you can’t, but it’s critical not to lose sight of why you’re there in the first place.

Resolving to.. not give up just yet

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, for a variety of reasons:

-I’m not especially good at setting effective goals, as my targets tend to be rather underwhelming and/or vague (‘try to read more’, ‘eat salad quite often’, or, even worse, ‘be slightly less depressed this year’)

-I prefer the idea of long-term, sustainable change to almost inevitably transient behavioural flips that leave you a bit sad in February, or earlier, depending on willpower.

-The division of time into years has always seemed a bit arbitrary to me: it makes sense to split our time on Earth, and indeed time in general, into some sort of segments. That said, anything beyond days and seasons is somewhat unempirical. I don’t mind years, but it seems a bit silly to make the start and end of a new one so important.

Going back to my rather shabby goals, I almost inevitably fail to read more and eat salad often enough. It doesn’t help that I have no idea how much enough is. How do you quantify salad in all its various types? Does adding pasta mean that it’s a salad with pasta, or a pasta salad? These factors, while ostensibly inconsequential, have significant bearing on my imaginary salad volume calculations.

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A salad of sorts. Also a salad of apples, prunes, celery, walnuts, red peppers and avocado. I think the absence of any leaves makes the legitimacy of its identity somewhat tenuous.

As is sometimes the case, I’m being silly to avoid being too serious or sad. During a period of exhaustion over the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of time to think about the pressures and attention of elite athletics, not having a real job, what I should be trying to do with my time and where I might place myself geographically.

Well, that last one should really be when I might return to the island I call home, which is neither where I am now (despite the nice weather and surrounding warm water), nor where I flew from.

I’m now in Tenerife, and came from London. Well, not originally. Never mind.

I was going to make a joke about the weather in London still being better than anywhere on the island of Ireland, most of the time, but that it’s hard to appreciate that on account of all the smog. So I did. Sort of.

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Just a photo.

Going back to the whole ‘being less depressed’ thing, my level of mental wellbeing mostly swings around a pivot, regressing to the mean like a gloomy but determined boomerang.

2017 had some huge highs, but sadly they were almost balanced out by some despondent lows. Happily, they weren’t quite, and it was, despite how it ended, the best year of my life.

But it did end crappily. I spent a large part of Christmas Day in bed, which is fine if you’re sleeping off eating half your body weight in roast dinner. It’s not fine if you’re too psychologically exhausted and anxious to leave your room for several hours.

Maybe this whole elite athlete thing isn’t for me. Maybe I should pack in London, and go back to my favourite island.

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to write something inspirational about not giving up, fighting for what you believe in, or the tough moments defining who you are.

The truth is, I can’t do that yet. Of course I can write it, but it wouldn’t be genuine. I don’t feel I should hold the position of giving out advice when I still can’t take care of myself. I haven’t earned it, but I’m always happy to share my experiences if they might be useful.

Honestly, I think talking about the low moments will always be more important. People don’t talk about them as much, and I suppose it also makes sense in that it’s more difficult than publicising our successes.

In sport, successes and failures will always be public, but it’s those that take place away from that platform that matter more to me.

The best I can do is try and make those discussions a bit more open, and continue bumbling along. That’ll do for a resolution, I think. Every time I feel like giving up, instead of shouting ‘no’ like a brave person, I’ll just avert my eyes and awkwardly mumble ‘not yet’. It seems to have worked so far, more or less.

 

Incidentally, I did actually make a resolution to read one book a week and publish one blog post. Provided I can manage thirty more pages in the next five days or so, that’ll be two out of two so far.

Conversations with myself: part two

Part Two: Plato’s Socrates

“Socrates said writing would be the death of memory, which is ironic really, considering that he’s only remembered because Plato decided to put pen to paper.”

Sometimes he’s in a genuinely good mood, and we have interesting conversations. I’m not always on the receiving end of a self-talk that would make Donald Trump or Nicklas Bendtner come out like the lion from the Wizard of Oz or Neville Longbottom (early in their respective stories).

“Fair point, and, actually, I really like that. Can I use it in my blog? I think it’s a great bit of thought” I chirp back, on this occasion very grateful for his input.

We were running, but as I’m wasn’t using physical breath to produce that statement, I didn’t really need to worry about it. Sure, it took conscious effort, but as most of my training takes place at ‘conversational pace’, there’s a lot to spare. With an irony that would be sadder if I wasn’t so willfully solitary, I rarely have anyone else to talk to on most of my runs, so the conversations are often of this nature.

The conversations are often of nature, too, and I tend to feel happiest when I’m running through trees and forests that remind me of my ideal of home: peaceful woodland, clean air and soft paths.

“Don’t you mean our blog?”

“If you had a blog nobody would read it, you’re just a voice buddy.” I reply, more playfully than in anger.

“Isn’t every writer just their voice, and what they choose to express? Plus, you need me as much as I need you.”

More rhetorical rhetoric. He’s right too, unfortunately. I couldn’t deal with having nobody to bounce ideas off.

“Is this going on the blog?”

“No, it’s too weird, people wouldn’t get it.”

“Right you are sir. Maybe if you let me talk more people would understand it.”

If I let you talk all the time we’d both be screwed, I pondered silently, trying to play for time before remembering he was probably reading my thoughts again.

“Are you gone?”

“Silence”

I laughed, despite myself, or in fact, because of myself (my self, him? Never mind).

“Did you just say silence? How are we supposed to convey that on paper?”

“Maybe use a different font. Here’s one for you. What typeface did Cicero use?”

“No idea. Garamond? Comic Sans?”

“Not even close. Times Old Roman.”

“That’s terrible. Okay, time for bed, see you in the morning.”

I thought some more.

“Let’s make a deal: if I get up at 2:30 to take a piss, you have to keep quiet.”

“What do I get out of it?”

“Well, if you do it every time, I’ll sleep better, and maybe we’ll get to go to the European Cross country championships.”

“I’d like that. Does it mean we can properly call ourselves an international athlete?”

“Yeah. For real. Deal?”

“Okay, but you’ll have to start tidying up memory lane, I want to try out my new bike, and I’m tired of dodging piles of unfinished stories.”

“Seems fair. Where shall I put them?”

“I’ll just make some room over here…”

Some files start moving around precariously.

“Careful, that looks important!” I shout anxiously.

“Shit. Adam?”

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To be continued…

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.

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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.

No news is bad news (sometimes), or, talking to myself

I realise I haven’t written one of these for absolutely ages. Apologies! I have written heaps of things since, but none of the other ones are finished. This was first finished as a bit of an angry rant, but I’ve cheered it up a bit with chocolate and jokes, so hopefully it reads more positively now.

I don’t like lying to people. Okay, that’s a lie, I’m actually quite fond of mendacity, and only partly because there are so many fantastic words for it. Wonderful words like duplicity and perfidiousness, that make it sound so exciting and important.

I also enjoy dissembling (both the word and the deed itself) which actually means disguise or concealment, rather than lying in a direct sense. This isn’t because I enjoy tricking people, or as a result of a pathological desire to deceive and mislead friends and family. It’s because it makes life enormously more practical.

If I were to report exactly how I felt when asked, the response would occasionally be quite dreadful to read.

Today I didn’t eat any food until the evening, just because I just didn’t quite feel like it. I meant to, but somehow it didn’t quite happen for most of the day.”

“I wanted to leave the house today, but I never quite managed it. I had a slight calf strain, and thought it might be better just to keep myself from walking too far. That, and I was afraid of going outside.”

“Today I looked at houses back home in Northern Ireland, and thought about how lovely and quiet life would be there. I could live in the countryside, away from the caustic London air, polluted by noise, chemicals and incessant light. Maybe I could work a few days a week as a handyman, and make ends meet with some writing or editing.”

(Although I’ve never written professionally, I have worked as a tradesman of sorts, so that bit isn’t quite as ridiculous as it might seem)

The last one doesn’t sound so bad, but to be fair I think those sorts of things most often, and if I tell people that I’d worry they’d think I was taking the city life for granted, and not appreciating my lot. They’d also be right in thinking that I’d be leaving them behind, as I have a lot of friends in London, and would very probably not hurry to return once I left properly.

Happily I manage to eat and leave the house almost every day, so it’s not as bad as all that. More often though, I have days where I’ve hardly left the house, and if I wasn’t running or going to work there would probably be a lot more.

When I’m at home in Northern Ireland, I’ve never not left the house in a day. If I want to get out for some fresh air, I open the door, I don’t need to travel miles to a green space that’s almost clean enough to breathe happily. If I want to see the stars at night, I turn off the lights and look up.

IMG_2337Home! Fine weather not necessarily representative of normal conditions…

If I want to visit one of my oldest friends, I, well, I ask him to pick me up, because I still haven’t bothered to learn to drive, and we always hang out at his house, partly because there was always decent space to play hockey and football. Our garden doesn’t really work for football, unless the game was to be radically reinvented, requiring both teams to kick the ball steeply uphill once they’d carried it past the midfield, towards which they’d carry the ball downwards. It’s a field with a huge dip in the middle, I’m sure you get the picture.

A good friend of mine said that I was the most un-London person he knew, and he was rather amazed I’d been here for so long. So am I. Well, not entirely, because I know how much I’m afraid of change, and how hopeless I am at making important decisions. I’ve never made an important decision about my job, for example, and as a consequence spent four months unemployed after finishing my Masters Degree, and the following three and a half years working in running shops.

Ultimately though, that resulted in my becoming a semi-professional athlete and achieving a lifetime dream, so swings and roundabouts I guess!

Going back to the point about lying, I find I can easily convince myself of things that aren’t true, and a transcript of my self-talk might sometimes be startling.

Here’s an example. I’ve centred it in italics so it stands out, as formatting options are limited here, and caps lock would look dreadful. This choice does sort of make it look like an absurdly bloated haiku, but hopefully that undercuts the dire tone.

I miss the sport I loved. Not running, though I am taking a break at the moment and the lack of running does cover everything with a decidedly murky aura. No, I miss judo.

I don’t like to spend much time thinking about the moment I lost judo, because it’s one of my worst memories, and I won’t write more about it here. Often though, when I’m injured, my mind travels back to that point, and brings out some of the worst aspects of my character.

After every training session, I went home feeling like I’d done a hard evening’s work. I miss the scratches, the bruises and the ache in my arms that stood testament to having tried my best. I never have that now. Running isn’t the same. Either you’re injured, fatigued, exhilarated after hitting a great time, but you never have the same sense of really suffering for something.

Now I come home feeling tired of having to answer people’s stupid questions about whether their foot, knee or ankle pain can be instantaneously and magically solved by a new pair of running shoes. (It almost certainly cannot, but sadly the conversation is never that mercifully brief)

I come home after travelling on a hot, humid and cramped metal cylinder with hundreds of other equally unhappy people (well probably, I don’t ask them, that would be a hideous breach of London public transport protocol, and at the end of the day I’ve spent far more time than I can comfortably handle talking to people).

I come home knowing that I’m paying for the privilege of traveling on that underground train, paying for the vile air and frequently unpleasant population, and paying for a place that has none of the peace and quiet I would sacrifice a lot for. Just not enough, it would seem, to actually do something about it.

I sometimes feel that it’s cowardice and lack of conviction rather than affection that keeps me where I am, and I can lose myself in despair and a sense of being trapped in a city where a clear horizon is so often only in the imagination. Some of my favourite memories are of sailing in an open ocean, and this contrast hits very hard during my darker moments.

During these periods, things like the above come strongly to mind. I can pretend they don’t, and not tell people, but that’s rather less brave than being open about this sort of thing. I’m not an inherently brave person, but I am trying to change that.

Of course I love running, hell, I’ve found myself crying a few times over the last several years during the most banal recovery runs because I’m so happy to be fit and able to compete at my favourite thing in the world. Of course you suffer for something if you’re running, that’s the whole point of endurance sport – you endure stuff!

Working in a running shop is fine, sometimes it’s fun, and though occasionally it’s a bit aggravating, I leave my work behind as soon as I go out the door, and that’s worth so much to me. Sure, the tube is hot and stuffy, but sometimes it goes outside and you do get fresh air! Sometimes it’s really quiet and you can read while you hurtle happily toward a staggering range of destination options.

Sometimes part of a carriage will break out in spontaneous applause when an unknowingly headphoned passenger solves his Rubik’s cube, having followed his progress for minutes of mute entrancement. Okay, that happened once, but I did successfully start the clapping, and it’s also one of my favourite memories.

I spoke to a friend last weekend about depression, and I’d realised in opening up about some of the points above that I made my life sound rather bleak. Ultimately, those are the bad days, and those are outnumbered by the good days I have cause to be happy and grateful.

The main point is that every day I try and wake up hoping it’s going to be a good day, as if I don’t, I might as well stay down. That’s one thing I’ll never forget from judo. I never stayed down then, and if I can keep the same attitude to everything else, I can be happy that I’m doing my best to fight the good fight.

Sometimes it’s not enough, and I lose, sometimes badly, but there’s always another round after the next corner. That’ll do for me.

Would you rather be the best, or be happy? Part One: A path too steep, or, don’t look down

Search anywhere online for ‘motivational slogans’, or similar morale-boosting ephemera, and you’ll probably be inundated with encouragements to the general effect of: “be the best you can be”.

I don’t want to be the best. I don’t even want to be the best I can be. Well, that’s not true, of course I do, but over the last week in particular I’ve been fighting myself about how much I want to put aside to progress further in athletics.

I came to the conclusion that I want to be good enough to be pleased and proud of what I’ve achieved without sacrificing my happiness or peace of mind in the long-term. I originally wrote this without the long-term bit. For so long I’ve been afraid of sustained effort and hard work, and the difficulties that inevitably entails: more on that later.

My priorities are retaining an appreciation of the small things, staying in touch with where I’ve come from and above all for my main focus not to be athletics, but my own mental health and wellbeing. This, alongside being able to support strong relationships with family and friends, is the main thing. Not how fast I can run around in a circle.

For a long time, I was afraid to say that or admit it. Now I’m not.

Again, that sounds great: it’s punchy, brave and probably makes me seem like a brave, punchy guy. That’s rubbish though. I’m still afraid, I’ve never properly punched anyone, and I’m not naturally succinct. More importantly though, putting mental health first can mean worrying about it, and making decisions to protect it when often that’s the worst thing to do.

Even though I’m really afraid of it, I know taking risks is not only more fulfilling and exciting, it’ll also strengthen me mentally for when I need it, like the death of a family member, a serious injury or something entirely unpredictable.

On that note, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother in April, for what I thought would be the last time. Two weeks ago, I had to say goodbye again, unsure whether that would be it or not. This time it was.

Her last words to me on the first occasion, were, smiling, “health is the most important”. I’d stayed fairly emotionally strong in public over the hard work of the last ten months, but this broke me completely. I knew the risks I’d been taking even then, and it’s eaten away at me ever since. That moment brought me well outside the world of athletics for a time, and after a period of depression I’m back there for long enough to have a very honest think about what I want from life, and my sport.

I’ve achieved what I never thought I could and felt worse for doing so. This wasn’t right, and I’m not afraid to change back. That’s not true – I am afraid, but I thought I’d do it anyway… success comes at a cost, and that can be severe if you rush it, or if you take consistent shortcuts in pushing your mind further than you think it really wants to go.

I originally wrote ‘know’ rather than ‘think’, but reading over this again I realise I didn’t know, I just thought I did. I don’t know what I can do, but I was afraid to really find out. I’d started really climbing the mountain, and over the last week I’ve had my first real look down.

When I was younger, I was afraid of heights, and to be honest it only really went away when I started climbing four years ago. I made my way up the wall, and, at some point I fell (though thankfully for this story and my ego not immediately). I kept climbing, and kept falling. Eventually, I would try riskier moves at greater heights, and still fall. But that was okay – I might get a few bruises, but nothing broke,  and I also became a lot less afraid.

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(A random photo of a spontaneous climb on a family holiday last year – note: this is not how I recommend using running shoes!!)

In life, I never climbed high enough to look down and feel a sense of vertigo. I really struggled at some points, but that was mainly through accumulated stress homesickness and feelings of isolation, not because I’d achieved something I couldn’t really comprehend.

The past ten months have been very hard, and I’ve taken the sorts of risks I’ve spent most of my life avoiding through fear and concern for the potential outcome. When I’ve found it hard, I’ve got depressed and worried, then previously decided enough was enough and essentially thrown in the towel. Incidentally, when I left a hotel in Spain six days ago I thought of that as a title, but it sounds a bit too much like I’m conceding everything, despite my witty subtitle (or, fighting the ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal).

Giving up before lead to poor academic outcomes first in the end of school, and then in my Masters in London. I protected myself and took the cost of that. After getting my degree, I spent four and a half months unemployed. I say ‘getting my degree’, rather than graduating, as I didn’t go to the second ceremony: my time at UCL ended rather unpleasantly with sharply deteriorating mental health, and I wasn’t keen to be reminded of that, even by the expensive but delightful frivolity of airborne hats, Latin and scrolls…

My next job, and indeed all I’ve done since, was in a running shop. I have two university degrees, one a first, an IQ measured (with great variability across a number of years) at 115-140 and a fluency with words and writing that should counteract even the most mediocre of interview skills. I stayed in a job where I was paid below the London living wage for two years before my focus on athletics made it vaguely legitimate.

I don’t want lots of money, or anything too fancy, but this has still been hard to take at times. I’ve had periods of moderate depression, where I’ve gone a day or so without eating, talking to anyone or leaving the house. That was okay though, because I didn’t tell anyone about it until afterwards, and even then I maybe lied about the food bit to make it seem less scary. There’s nothing wrong with spending the day at home, but if you feel you can’t leave, it’s a very different story than just wanting to get through “just one more series” of Game of Thrones.

As well as the job thing, I gave up on one of my two real dreams a number of years ago: having a family. The other dream is competing for Ireland, and we’ll come back to that later. Despite my athletic success, sporadic academic achievement and many lovely trips abroad, my favourite memory is something very different. I was going to write a blog about this called ‘playing happy families, or, a flicker of possibility‘, but I’ve very rightly decided that it risked lying forever on the ‘to write’ pile, and that I should throw it in here instead.

My aunt Gill, who I’ve always found rather inspiring, was producing a play called ‘Green Street’ set in a beautiful courthouse in Dublin. It was primarily about the revolutionary Robert Emmet and his role in the Irish uprising in 1803, and the audience moved interchangeably through several different rooms of the courthouse itself. This made wonderful use of the historic space, which they had to borrow for the occasion. I mention these details partly because Anglo-Irish politics and criminal justice are two of the topics I feel most passionately about, and might one day get round to discussing here, and partly because it was an amazing experience to be involved in.

Being an inordinately busy and active person anyway, she also had four equally busy children aged 10-17 at that stage (one now the other international athlete in our group of eight cousins), and needed a bit of help around the house. As I had some free time before starting my Masters in London, and because it was something I was very keen to do, I found myself arriving at the door for my longest ever stay in Dublin (ten days or so, if memory serves).

Walking the two youngest girls to and from school, preparing dinner (don’t laugh, I did create some palatable meals…), eating together, and helping them with homework (except Irish!), and going along to tennis lessons was the happiest time of my life. I felt useful, engaged in something bigger, and, for the first time, a ‘grownup’ part of a family.

Getting up every morning knowing that I directly mattered to someone was an incredible honour, and a real joy. That word is thrown around lightly, but I don’t use it casually here. In my heart though, I knew that I couldn’t manage it full-time, and that the stress of supporting a family when for half my life I’ve had intermittent periods of being unable to support, or (very occasionally) even feed myself would be too much.

I’m building up, and getting there slowly, but I worry that by the time I’m able to do so the window will have closed. I try to accept this, but I know that I’m the only person who knows whether or not it’s really possible, and the self-doubt, hope and uncertainty around that is tricky to live with. I’ve spoken about this with a close friend, who, when I said I’d accepted that, pulled me up on it and said ‘it sounds like you haven’t’. He was right, but to be fair I did tell him so at the time.

This sort of thing is important. Sport, for most of us, isn’t in the same league (aha? nevermind). For me it’s different. Rightly or wrongly, I feel like I’ll never be able to handle a ‘proper’ job, but I could do well in sport. Since the start of 2015, I’ve been decent enough at running to be referred to in the family as ‘the runner’ – that being my main role.

People often respected and understood that I was putting a hobby I loved ahead of a career, and I was proud of that. It wasn’t a profession, and I was never going to be able to live off it, but I was putting my effort into something I cared about deeply. That meant a lot, and kept me in much better shape mentally than I would otherwise have been.

This brings us to the second dream. I never thought I’d compete for Northern Ireland in a provincial competition, never mind being offered the green of Ireland I’d seen at the back of my mind since I was six. My dad had played hockey for the island (Ireland is united in international hockey and rugby), and it always seeemed painfully impossible for me to follow his footsteps. Last year, for reasons entirely too elaborate to tell here, I found myself a nascent steeplechase specialist. Sure, I’d race every other distance going, but I eventually found my way into the top 20 in the U.K., being well outside the top hundred for everything else.

The highest level of competition that Northern Ireland compete in without being under the auspices of ‘Team GB’** is the Commonwealth Games. To run for “the province I love” (to use Mary Peter’s immortal words) would mean the world. I decided to give everything towards trying that, and I started down a road that’s lead where I am today.

Just over a year after I ran 9:33 for the steeplechase, qualifying for the English championships by twelve seconds, and a chance to run for Middlesex. Last month I ran 8:37, qualifying for the Commonwealth Games* by five seconds.

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(This was absolutely surreal: like when someone shows you how to alter a website rover display different photos and text – it was a joke, right?)

After the first race, I was triumphant, amazed at myself and in love with a new event. After the second I just felt focused, disciplined, and determined to make the immediate jump to the next standard, the world championships, without really digesting what I’d done. Think of it as the difference between a good meal at pizza express enjoyed slowly and wolfing down something elaborately named and even more fancily prepared at a Michelin star restaurant.

I’d achieved my dream and put myself in the frame for a selection for Ireland this year that I’d never even considered. I was on the BBC sport athletics website, for crying out loud! My time would have put me top 40 in Europe last year! I was eighth on the Irish all time list over the steeplechase! I’d made it!

Then why didn’t it feel that way? Why did I feel scared, rather than overjoyed and fulfilled?

Because I looked down.

More to come. I’m not sure when exactly.

 

Asterisks

*Actual selection pending, see upcoming ‘the Northern Irish hunger games’, a title a friend suggested that I love, for more. Once I write it…

**I put ‘Team GB’ in inverted commas because the full name, Team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is rarely used, and the top bit of the island of Ireland (political opinion alert!!) forgotten. I have a lot more on this, but it’s for another time.

 

Other Notes

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Emmet

More on Robert Emmet, and perhaps by doing so nailing my colours to the Irish mast rather obviously.

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.529070

A review of the play, which we were all incredibly excited to read. The moment this was read and sent round the family stood out more than my athletics successes – it was a collective achievement, something we could all be proud of, and something we’d all worked towards in a small way.

Green Street Courthouse (below)

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