Can’t see the Wood for(d) the trees: National Cross Country

My last blog post was supposed to be a final, sentimental goodbye, partly to offer thanks and partly as encouragement for myself along a relatively solitary road. The previous several days have, however, produced another loose end.

To undercut the seriousness I had quite a lot of fun thinking of a club-name-based pun for the title.. ‘A Wodf in Heath’s clothing’ was a favourite, but I dropped it because it was technically the other way round (a Heath in Woodford clothing) and it scans abominably.

If I could have known the outcome of this race in advance, I’d definitely have had no qualms beforehand about Stevenage’s MET League being my last outing for Heathside. To be fair though, if I had that foresight I probably wouldn’t even have turned up. It was a creditable position and a lot of people said nice things, but ultimately I had a target and I honestly fell a long way short.

Yes I was ill, but ultimately sportspeople across many disciplines, even absurd ones like chess boxing (maybe especially that..) come through worse to do better. Cross country, at any level, is a test of mental strength: I didn’t have it on Saturday. Also, I lacked the courage and consideration beforehand to communicate certain things clearly and effectively to the right people.

Earlier in the season, the plan was for this to be my last Heathside race. The way things worked out in the weeks beforehand that didn’t happen. The last blog post was a (heavily laden) raft of apologies, regret and things I’d miss: I won’t cover that ground again, but there is a bit of new ground.

It meant a great deal to have Heathside support out on the course. Although I recognised a lot of voices I can barely recall looking up from the unfathomable and seemingly fathomless mud long enough to register anything. Despite limited peripheral awareness, that support also is something I’ll look back on and be grateful for later in the season. Thank you to everyone who lent their hands and voices, and on the flip side a nod of gratitude to all those who suppressed booing and hissing the pantomime villain of the piece.

 

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This is.. well frankly I have no idea where this is, I spent the last two thirds of the race with no concept of space or time, and might as well have been anywhere in the world. Honestly I felt like I wanted to be anywhere else. Thanks to Tom for the photo, and R.I.P to my spikes (ripped in places, perhaps), for this was the last race before they were unceremoniously binned, torn beyond repair.

I take responsibility for the decision to run for Woodford in Nottingham. Looking back it’s hard to dodge the feeling that I deserved to feel how I did during the race. I thought the outcome would just be that I wouldn’t score for Heathside, and that my name would just be ‘unattached’ on the results. One of the peculiarities of a double-barrelled surname is that a name is always attached to itself, maybe to the exclusion of everything else. While that sounds like fortune cookie psychoanalysis, it’s about right here. Going back to the title, it’s about failing to see how my decision affected other people, as well as being a bit of linguistic fun.

I never thought that Heathside had paid for my entry, that I was going back on a commitment I’d offered to run the full cross country season for the club, and that it might risk problems afterwards in the administration of results. I just sent an email to someone I wanted an answer from (could I run unattached in a Woodford vest), got it, and considered the matter closed, because that was easier. Sure I was nervous before the race and had picked up a niggle in the build up that drew some attention away, but that’s not good enough.

Social anxiety wasn’t a factor, because all it would have taken was a few emails to clear things up with everyone. A simple cheque to the club to cover the cost of my race entry would have been a meaningful gesture of goodwill in leaving Heathside, and I’d have left things, for the moment, finished with respect. That didn’t happen, and it is what it is.

I’m sorry for the lack of respect in the build up to and immediately before the National that I showed the club. As much as I’d like to kid myself otherwise, that’s the note things end on for now.

It wasn’t a glorious top ten finish wearing a Heathside vest and an emotional goodbye trip back to London on the bus. I spent the arduous car journey back trying to get the knots of out of my stomach and desperately hoping not to need to vomit out the window. The last battle of the day was won, and I avoided throwing up onto someone else’s windscreen or onto my shoes.

If I run the Commonwealth time, I can look back on this and laugh, maybe smile. Hopefully both, as laughing without smiling is pretty sinister.

If I don’t, well, I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it, and I won’t know until the hourglass runs out of sand in September.

Thanks for reading.

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Farewell, and thanks

Goodbye Heathside

I’ve written several drafts of explanation, justification, apology and agonisingly elaborate wrangling about leaving the club. The last attempt was definitely the most complete, but it clattered into the hurdle of brevity with a determined failure to express anything succinctly. Having finished this off it comes well over three thousand words, so apologies for the length, I guess it’s something I can’t do succinctly!
At the core, it’s about taking a risk. I hate risks, and that’s one of the reasons I love the sport so much. It’s not random, you can’t fluke a last minute goal or hole in one. Especially on the consistent circularity of the track, what you get is what you’ve earned. That’s true whether it comes through sitting behind someone for twelve laps and tearing up the last couple of hundred metres or starting and finishing a mile at the very front, never throwing a glance backwards to fuel the pursuing pack.

There are, for the most part, no team mates to get in the way and provide excuses for failure, or to pick you up and provide a reason outside your own head to get on with it. It’s an individual sport, but successes still aren’t something one person can claim credit for, and failures and low points don’t need to be suffered alone.

If I do end up on the start line at the Commonwealth games next year, which is ultimately what all this is about, it’ll be thanks to the club as a whole and so many of you individually.

To give myself a better chance of doing that, I’ve jumped ship and joined Woodford, but I accept what that comes with. It means changing from the high adrenaline fast food diet of racing every week to the proverbial lettuce and vegetables of hard training, almost exclusively alone or with my coach. It requires more discipline, focus and determination to fit other aspects of my life around the sport, rather than vice-versa.

It also means letting the club down, and putting my own interests above the gratitude I feel for everything Heathside and its individual members have done for me. This is something I really regret.

Perhaps most of all it means a risk of putting everything on the line and not making it, in a way I’ve never done before in anything. I’ve always been half-preparing for failure, provisionally producing excuses in case something goes wrong, second guessing how on earth things managed to work out when nothing did, and waiting for it all to fall apart.

I’ve never told someone I loved them, or moved to a different country with no idea what I was going to do or where I was going to live. I don’t have these experiences as a point of comparison, but the last five months of work feel in that order of significance. I started my steeplechase adventure with, at best, a slim sense that if everything worked out I might get close enough to the Commonwealth standard to make the effort worthwhile: to fail credibly and maybe get into the top 10 in the U.K.

I now feel like it’s something I could legitimately do, and it would fulfil the only genuine life ambition I’ve ever had (other than playing for Arsenal): representing my country as an athlete, and competing on the international stage. When I was growing up I quickly and correctly gave up the idea that I was really good at sport, and that dream disappeared with it.

In September, when a coach with Olympic level experience working with athletes and international experience as a competitor offered to take me on, those aspirations that had been left for dead were revived, and I leapt at the chance. I started a new chapter in my running, and left a lot behind.

A roundabout apology

A lot of people say I apologise too much: and I tried telling them I was sorry, but it didn’t seem to help… Without going into unnecessary and embarrassing detail, last summer I wanted to tell someone I card about a great deal that.. well, that really, once you’ve said that it’s pretty much done, one way or the other. I was too afraid to say it, so, feeble person that I am, I sent a message. Sadly it was the other, and, angsty anxiety-ridden pseudo-intellectual running robot that I am, I decided enough was enough on emotional engagement, and I’d do anything else important by email, and dodge any of the emotional stuff.

I hadn’t banked on getting a new coach a few months later.

I wanted to sit down with Jacob and explain that getting to the Commonwealth games had taken on a kind of mythical significance for me, and that I wanted to do everything in my power to give myself a chance to do that, whatever the cost. Now that being an international athlete seemed within reach (if I stretched a lot, both literally and figuratively: steeplechasers, as I’ve discovered, need serious flexibility) everything else (club loyalty, a friendship) rather went out the window.

I didn’t, because I was a coward. I sent an email, not even offering to talk over the phone, much less meet up and provide a much deserved gift or mare some more obvious effort of gratitude and apology. I paid back several years’ worth of advice, help, encouragement and a lot of time and emotional investment with an email and a lack of basic respect and courtesy. I tried to convey my gratitude for everything in that email, but it’s a bit like saying I wore my smartest Hawaiian shirt to a funeral. Very inappropriate, and frankly ridiculous.

My only other effort to reach out was a pathetic ‘hi’ after the MET league in Stevenage, which was quite rightly ignored. Jacob is a fantastic and committed coach and has put so much time and energy into the club while working in a demanding academic job and travelling a heck of a lot, and deserves a lot better than what I provided. I can’t go back and change things, nor can I effectively make amends, but I hope this is worth something.

More broadly, I’m sorry that I can’t stay in a Heathside vest, and help us in the Southern League by going for implausible hat tricks like August’s 800, 5000 and 2000 steeplechase (where I was disappointingly foiled in the 5000, my only SAL defeat of the season, but to be fair I only ran six races). I regret walking away from helping the club in cross country, collecting five gold stars for taking on each of the five races, battling it out with Tom to lead Heathside home. I’m sad not to be able to help out in relays, partly because fighting it out to lead Heathside into an admittedly assailable top five placing in the Southern or even National relays would be a great challenge, but also because I love being part of the team, travelling together and enjoying the day out.

I miss the banter in training, smiling and joking before flying along at the front, and all the kind words that would come my way there and in generous reports on the website. I’m sad to be without the camaraderie and companionship at the track and cross country, where a reputation as the friendliest club in North London is well earned. But I’ve made a decision, it’s not on anyone else, and I hope it’ll all be worth it.

Thanks

Without the development and introduction that Heathside gave me to the sport, I’d never have got where I was five months ago, having run for Northern Ireland domestically and broken all my PBs in the best year of my life. This comes rather late, but I don’t want to make a cursory private gesture. I want to put something out there, even if it is just written text, to do what I hope this manages.

Being part of the club has also given me a lot more than just increasing my running speed. It’s been fantastic for my confidence to feel so appreciated, welcome and valued. Critically, feeling like I had a place in London through the club and the people I’d got to know through running kept me here when I thought very seriously about going back to Northern Ireland and turning my back on the city, and England, for good.

I only ended up joining the club after a chat with Ed Samuel after a race in Regent’s Park, when I realised it was possible to combine the job I hoped to do (working as an academic) with running competitively, and what running as part of a club entailed. We’ve got so many wonderful minds at Heathside, and it’s been a privilege to have the respect of people who I think deserve a lot more than me for what they do outside the sport. If I wasn’t so shy in social situations and disinclined to get involved in any sorts of gatherings, I’d know a lot more of you, but that is what it is. There have been a lot of moments during my time at the club, outside of running, that I’m especially grateful for.

I recall being blown away by a chat I had with Gavin Evans after a Sunday league race a couple of years ago by the sort of things he was working on. With my background in anthropology concepts of race and how they have affected scientific practice was fascinating to learn about, and I look back on that fondly.

Sue, as well as being great conversation and a fantastic journalist, has helped me on several occasions when I’ve mentioned anxiety and worrying about injuries and running performance, especially on the train to the Southern Road relays in March last year, when I was struggling a lot more than I realised.

After my bike accident in June 2015, Dan McKeown phoned me to offer some help, but not just the ‘Get well soon variety’. I’d been worried about taking painkillers as I tend to avoid any drugs (medical or otherwise!) as much as possible, and thought I might be able to hack it without them. I was hugely mistaken, and having the perspective of someone who’d been through something worse was an invaluable boost when I was at my most vulnerable.

Perhaps the memory that makes me smile most to look back on is Joe McKeown and Ben Woolfe rescuing me in an SAL steeplechase in 2015, a day before that fateful bike accident – I wasn’t paying attention to the clock and almost missed the start of the race, ending up running to the start line determined not to cause a delay and compete in my road racing shoes. Joe and Ben ran over with my spikes, and convinced the slightly irritated officials to wait several moments for me to get something more grippy on my feet. I ended up getting a club record by half a second in that race, so it was definitely worth the effort!

Coming back from that shoulder injury, I came to the track desperately worried that I’d lose all my speed, and didn’t want any fuss made about my return. Warming up in a hooded top drawn close to my face, I thought I’d got away with it, broadly speaking, avoiding eye contact and keeping my head down. I think I avoided going straight back to the front, but after a couple of reps I got a tap on the shoulder, and Jacob Phillips laughingly told me I wasn’t fooling anyone, and welcomed me back with a hug. I was taking myself a bit too seriously, having spent quite a lot of time over the previous few months alone, and this was a perfect antidote.

Tom has been a fantastic role model for me, and is someone I’ve always looked up to. So often in races I’d start ahead of him, knowing my lead would inevitably first evaporate then be revered as metronomic pacing and a steely determination ran my guileless enthusiasm down. He’s managed to balance a full time job doing something significant, raising a family and reaching the very top level of club competition, and making an excellent account of himself at national level. These are things that, for various reasons, I’m not sure I’ll ever balance, but if I can take the determination and focus he applies to racing and training to every aspect of my approach to running, I’d know I’ve given it my very best.

This isn’t a moment, but it is the most important. Ever since I joined the club, Jacob always had time for me, getting back to exhaustively long emails with speed and detail, and always being there for a long chat and q and a session at the end of most training sessions. I looked forward so much to a congratulatory message at the end of every race, and was delighted to be able to reward his efforts with fairly consistent improvements, when I wasn’t out injured. It meant a lot at the time, and still does.

I’d like to write more of these, but partly because I think I have to stop writing at some point, and partly because I didn’t take the chance to get involved in the social life of the club very much, that’s it. Anxiety in any sort of group situation that didn’t involve the start line of a race, various health worries and a dislike of staying out late anywhere meant that I hardly went to any dinners, post-race drinks or anything else. Being around at cross country and the SAL in particular meant that I got to know many of you though, and that’s something I’m grateful for.

The cross country end of season event last year was a notable exception, I think the only one barring a couple of evenings after the club handicap. It was wonderful to be honoured with the athlete of the season award last time, although I did feel it should have gone, as ever, to Tom. His performances were a benchmark for me for so long, and the club handicap this year marked perhaps our last race on level terms, given how much more time and energy I’ve had to put into the sport over the last several months. It was a lovely evening, and although I enjoyed it I felt a bit sad that I knew it was a bit of a one off, and that I would continue to not want to gather myself to go out very much at all.

Stepping up a level has brought with it a great amount of confidence, joy and a sense of purpose I’ve honestly never had before, but no matter where I end up I’ll never forget where I came from. Thanks again to everyone who’s ever cheered me on in cross country, clapped me through on Tuesday training or offered a friendly greeting when we cross paths out on a run. I wish you all the very best.

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A bit of context, or procrastination explanation

Once I made the decision in August to change clubs in the Spring, I wanted to let you all know what I’d be doing in person, to offer something in the way of a farewell speech and to offer words of thanks. I wanted everyone to hear it from me, rather than have word circulate around that I planned on leaving and wasn’t going to tell anyone. It’s pretty clear that I’ve messed that last bit up rather massively, hence writing this. Messed up wasn’t my original phrasing, but I think it’s best to avoid profanity.

I’ve had very little contact with the club since September, mainly because of a serious race curtailment, but also because I’ve been doing almost every training session, and run of both long and common or garden variety run alone or with my coach.

I had a few quick conversations before the MET league at Claybury, then afterwards spoke to Jerry and Peter about my intentions to depart. They were really helpful and understanding: it meant a lot to me at the time, and also now looking back. There were no attempts to push me away from what I’d mentioned, just sensible advice not to rush or burn any bridges, which I hope I haven’t.

I had a few more quick words with people, but partly due to exhaustion and nerves, I can’t recall what else I said to who. I did drive back with Ula, Sue, Tony and Jake, but I remember being so hyped-up after my seemingly impossible position in the race that I didn’t manage much in terms of a provisional farewell.

The next race was Stevenage, and I came there with the weight of expectation – I knew people had been caught off guard by my finish at Claybury, not least me, but this was a much stronger field and I’d been training really well. I was full of determination, but also nerves. I picked up my race number quickly and without hanging around, and went to store my bags with Woodford to avoid any sort of distractions. This was very successful as nobody knew who I was, and I was able to come to and from the kit area with no disturbances. If this sounds a bit serious and self-regarding, I’m afraid it is.

It definitely helped my preparations, and the race went rather spectacularly as I finished second in a field including a handful of athletes with sub 30 minute 10k PBs and beat Kevin Seaward (2016 Irish Olympian), Paul Marteletti (who once held godlike status for me as the Finsbury parkrun course record holder, and is a phenomenal athlete), and a couple of guys from Shaftesbury Barnet with 5000m PBs of 13:46 and 14:05.

I meant to write something after this, but I got rather ill afterwards, as my body was somewhat unused to such Herculean efforts, and despite my health recovering the rest of the year was completely focussed on training. Into the new year, I had to start thinking about the actual moment of changing clubs, and going through the process of departing. Again, I planned to write something beforehand and managed to produce lots of half-finished thoughts.

Earlier this month I actually filled in the club change form and went through the processes I’d been half anticipating, half dreading. Now I feel compelled enough to write something that I’ve actually got round to finishing this. I hope it’s been informative and not too waffly, and that you’ll wish me well for my pursuit of the Commonwealth standard, but I totally understand if you’d prefer to put another few pins in the voodoo doll of the traitorous Northern Irishman and wish me ill. In the latter case, the left achilles is probably the most realistic location, although a pair of scissors through the chest is probably more demonstrative.

Thanks for reading!

Steeplechase sandwiches seem silly in retrospect: part one, a final hurdle

Thank you all for returning to the tales of my strange adventures. Well, by that I mean thank you to those who did return, and were not put off by the enormous gulf in time since my last race report, all the way back to the Hackney Half Marathon in May. The time in between has hardly lacked material: since then I’ve run PBs over 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, 10000m, and 3000 steeplechase (this last one four times), scattered among an absurd number of events.

25 races in twelve weeks sounds a lot, but really it’s only every 3.36 days, and the longest one took thirty three and a half minutes (apart from the half marathon), so most of the time is recovery really. Actually after Hackney I pretty much spent the day in a haze of heat related hallucinations, so that probably shouldn’t count as recovery.

That’s it though, just twenty five. Well, more truthfully, it’s not. It doesn’t include the last leg of a 4x400m relay on the first weekend, a distance that always feels, in Bilbo Baggins’ fantastic description: ‘like butter stretched over too much bread’.

There was also another 400 relay at a ‘relaxed’ event in Oxford. After two races at the weekend I told myself I was just going to enjoy the atmosphere, with mixed ability teams and a balmy summer evening. However, these being my first steps on the hallowed track where Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile, running the anchor leg which would decide final (non-competitive!) positions, and only having two gears (‘go’ or ‘definitely injured’) that was never going to happen.

For the more visually minded, behold the varieties and depth of my mad endeavours… there’s certainly a lot of bread.

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If you include a couple of 5k parkruns in April, and I do, I’ve raced at least once (and fittingly, three times thrice) every weekend from mid-April until the 10th of July. This streak ended with something of a bang. Well, actually two, the starting guns only fifteen minutes apart. First was 1500m race where the last lap was run at four minute mile pace (3:45 for 1500) and later a second 3000m steeplechase in two days. Hence the title of this post.

It was a final gamble in a long series of dice rolls, including some rather spectacular throws:

1) A 3000m steeplechase with a cold (that’s carrying a minor viral infection, not an ice cream) the day after a 10000m on the track that left me dizzy and throwing up several times in the warm down. Happily nobody was a around to witness this, apart from a few drunkards and dogs, all of whose eyes, countenancing this pitiful sight, seemed to say: ‘I’ ve been there mate‘.

This time qualified me for the English championships, and amazingly didn’t lead to a ruptured calf/achilles… the tendon that is, for ‘ruptured Achilles’ see Homer’s Iliad.

2) Trying, and succeeding, to hurdle the water jump after half a training session at Mile End track, with no water in the pit. This could have gone very spectacularly wrong, in that I’d never tried it before, that I was already fairly tired and a headlong plunge into a deep hole in the ground was very possible.

Happily, it worked out, and gave me the confidence to attempt the same thing three more times, with a positive 66% success rate. I did fall rather spectacularly in the final lap of the Southern championships on my failed effort, but there’s no video of that. There is one of the time it worked in the Northern Irish championships though! Here’s an exciting freeze frame. You can’t see the water very well, but it’s there. All over the track, the shot put area, the grass, and also in the appropriate pit.

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3) The day after the double steeplechase, the second bread of the title’s sandwich (slightly wet bread, as befits the water jump) I decided to continue the mad effort levels. After I work I ran 3.5 miles to the Castle climbing centre, very much as cool as it sounds, climbed for 1h15m, then ran five miles in Finsbury Park. I think I got home and fell asleep on the floor, but that’s sadly not as unusual an occurrence as might be expected.

It’s not that I don’t have a bed, happily I do, and a spare mattress in case someone maliciously distributes green spherical vegetables and reinforcements are required, or more plausibly if I have a guest. It’s just that I have certain health problems that obligate this sort of thing. (Let’s call them ‘challenges’, says the imaginary editor). I’ll listen to them this time, as I feel guilty about ignoring their increasingly frustrated prompts to write concisely, stop using brackets and shorten sentences…

To understand all of this properly, a lot more needs to be explained (health and psychology), put up with (brackets like these, constant jokes, lack of conciseness), and understood (lots of history!). I’ll write about that separately, and you’re more than welcome to have a look at it. A lot will be more private, honest and probably serious than this sort of thing, though not without haphazard and flippant humour. More on that another time, onward for now. Except the flippant humour. That hangs around eternally, sort of like a loveable but increasingly irritating puppy.

When I started writing this post, it was about my adventures in steeplechase and the entire course of the last three months. The story runs from coming back nervously in mid-April, to a middle-distance double, not fully fit and not really psychologically ready for competition, or so I thought, to an even more nervous wait for a first potential international call up. As I took nearly two thousand words to describe a single race that lasted less than fifteen minutes, I’m not sure how I thought this tale would work as a single post!

Several sections split off, like apples falling beside their tree, and growing new plants of their own. To avoid what might be a very untidy garden, these have been uprooted and will be planted over the next few weeks, with what I hope will grow into some semblance of an order. Thank you all for reading, I would say I hope it’s as much fun to write as it was to read, but that’s probably a little too much to ask! Until next time, whenever I can get round to planting some more trees…