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.

img_0828

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!

Advertisements

All in, all out: losing when it really matters

(Then winning, or er, coming fourth, when it really, really matters)

Standing on the start line of a race, the first thought is rarely ‘dear me, I’m lucky to be here in one piece’ (more profane exclamations also available). At least occasionally, it should be.

After comprehensively ruining my right shoulder and the remainder of the athletics season in June last year, I sent a text to the county selector after getting back from hospital to let him know I was most certainly out. A first county vest would have meant a great deal: my first selection in sport since I walked away from judo seven years ago. Well, walked is not perhaps the right phrasing, ‘escorted aggressively away by particularly ardent sentinels of despair’ seems more apt, though less snappy. More on that later.

A first race in Northern Ireland colours ran away too, in February. Diminishing health meant a composed and confident first third of the race meant little. Four laps later a largely irrelevant sprint finish mustered from somewhere unexpected took a dispiriting fifth: the first four picked up the red and white vest. As a running friend recently suffered similar ills at the hands of misfortune for national selection, I felt I’d delayed finishing this long enough. Then I delayed a little longer, and while I’m now writing I’m fairly confident the delays won’t end here. [Note, they continued for several months more]

The higher one moves up in sport, the more training that goes into a sharply diminishing pool of key events. For the enthusiastic parkrunner, one missed 5k means fifty one more remain, and by and large the recreational athlete has a healthier relationship with their sport of choice. You catch up most weeks, but neither of you feel cheated if a few dates get missed.

The less recreational athlete is in something more like a long-distance relationship (if I had an editor they’d remove this awful pun, but hey ho). You don’t see each other very often, and when you do it can be really pressurised and you’re always worrying about what might happen if it doesn’t work when you’re apart again.

Despite lots of recent wins in the grand scheme of things I’m a long way from a professional approach, much less actually making a living from this whole cantering around tracks, fields, roads and, well those are pretty much the only places. Nevertheless, steps in that direction from June 2015 to the same point this year have probably produced a bit more sadness than happiness, if I’m brutally honest. I’d rather not be though, it doesn’t sound very nice and I’m generally much more whimsical. All isn’t sunshine and butterflies, but there are a lot of warm caterpillars looking promising.

Some of those caterpillars wiggled around happily as I once again won the county championships on the site of my last 5000m track race before the shoulder injury, with a surprising 800m victory thrown into the bargain.

Since then, well a week since to be precise, I have taken up steeplechase, and a series of rather fortunate events have followed pleasantly. In something of a spoiler, as I started writing this four months ago, there are now fields of joyful insects, but this piece unfortunately isn’t about that. Plenty more are though, so if it is stories of delight you seek, seek elsewhere in my ramblings.

Rather than looking forward, a glance backward returns to the title of this particular journey. A year ago, I lost the chance to compete in the inter-county championships, and, on some level, I wanted to give up. I didn’t have a job that was especially significant, but that was by choice, to allow me to focus on the sport.

Losing that sport for several months to come felt like an eternity. I stood (or more aptly lay ineffectually in pain) at the start of a road that was to last one hundred and thirty nine days. I wanted to cut my ties with London and go back home. I hated the noise, the people and the hustle and bustle of the city centre in summer. It would have been easy enough to go back to the peace and quiet of Lisburn. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had.

I looked out in resentment at the park, filled with people lying comfortably in the warm grass. I couldn’t lie comfortably on a bed stuffed with pillows and with a nervous system stuffed full of startlingly aggressive painkillers. The point, I think, has been sufficiently elaborated. I’d been depressed at university, and rather substantially, and fairly ill for long period of time at other points in my life, but I’d never really felt like I had that much to lose.

This time was different, I lost both the sport I loved and the opportunities to do something I felt was really significant. This is certainly melodramatic looking back on it, but it’s close to how I felt at the time. You can’t effectively examine anxiety and depression from the outside, it’s a bit like diving into a shark tank with a sturdy cage.

Sure it’s scary, sure there’s the minutest possibility the cage could open and present a delicious tinned snack to mr, mrs, ms or Lord shark*, but 99 percent of the time, you’ll be fine.

*(It definitely seems like a shark should have a pierage…)

You can also probably handily press a panic button and escape immediately. If you press a panic button from the other side of the cage, as mr or mrs anxious*, you get killed by sharks.

*(No peerage here, as any nautical puns would be dead in the water. Ah, sink like a stone. Nevermind.)

Essentially melodrama is the order of the day in anxiety restaurant. It also comes with a deeply disappointing side of depression. You could try depression restaurant, but it’s a bit too dark in there to read the menus, and a side of anxiety attacking from the darkness is pretty scary. And not just for the anxiety.

Sorry for all the jokes, that bit just seemed a bit too serious. See below. Or sea below if you’re on a boat.

 

img_0360

Getting through the shoulder injury took a lot of time. For people in love with things, or more normally, other people, this sort of obsession with sport is hard to understand. Sure, people/things you love can leave/disappear (well, hopefully just the things), but by and large you have other people/things you love to fill the void.

Since the start of Autumn 2014, I’ve cared more about running than I did about anything or anyone else (anyone is though singular, family is more important than sport, even in my crazy world). I had a fairly serious Achilles injury for three months or so, but I still felt a long way away from being a genuinely good athlete at that stage, and intermittent unsuccessful attempts to return, while frustrating, kept me in the light to a certain degree.

“But you’ll find someone one day who means more than running” a logical reader might sagely offer. Tried that, bad idea…

Moving on (well, in a narrative sense at any rate) four months after coming back from that, the shoulder injury was the first time since I was 18 that I felt like I genuinely had something to lose, and lost it. I had to give up judo at that age, the sport the kept everything together at a time when it was falling apart, and I never summoned the mental or physical strength to come back. I was afraid running might be the same, and that was too much too handle.

I was also more than a little ill when running the Middlesex cross country championships in January this year, which strings things together rather appropriately. I was so out of it in my last ever judo competition that I had to let my opponent throw me, as I suddenly felt that my ability to even stand up on my own had disobligingly evaporated: I lost knowing that, and I’ve never come back to the sport.

After the start of the third and mercifully final lap, I felt something of the same ilk, though much less disconcerting. I still almost fell over, arms flailing slightly for balance (flailing more than normal, as they’re liable to be a bit wiggly even at the best of times), but and people actually watching me probably assumed I’d just stepped on some slippery mud.

Running, as I mentioned in the last post, is very different from judo, if you feel bad you can just keep doing the same thing a lot more slowly, and it will feel better. In judo, it will feel immediately better, the abruptly afterward, much worse as a very short journey to the floor ends your competition for the day.

Anyway, I carried on rather more slowly, and finished well outside the selection spots for a first county vest in the inter-counties cross country. I remember walking away from that race desolate, feeling like my health had given up again. I pulled off my club vest immediately, and wanted to disappear. A week later though, I was back to normal, and I thought happily about the contrast with my last judo competition.

Sometimes progress is made incrementally, sometimes it takes surprising bounds and leaps, like Tigger. Bounding backwards in time, my first race after the shoulder surgeries* was another cross country race in Stevenage, in November last year.

*plural: happily it was the same shoulder twice, as they marked the right one beforehand (as in correct, but also not left). I’m not sure six inch surgical scars are the kind of thing you want to ‘even out’. Here’s what it looked like after its second encounter with the scalpel. I assume it was a scalpel, but I suppose it could have been an expertly wielded pair of gardening shears.

file-08-10-2016-16-42-09

My cousin (a junior international athlete since) was over from Ireland for the junior women’s cross country race. She came first in her age category, and before seeing her run I’d been toying rather ominously with the idea of turning straight round and going home again. I wasn’t expected, and didn’t need to be there, or so the excuses went. Inspired, I brushed them aside, and heroically finished.. ah.. sixty eighth, through considerable pain.

Thinking back to this inspiration in the fifth race in the same league in February (Stevenage had been the second), I ran one of the few races where I’ve genuinely surprised myself (such are my lofty yet secretive ambitions) and finished sixty places higher in eighth. Knowing I’d come through that pain made the rather less painful ascent of the Alexandra Palace hills feel like an escalator, and one kindly going the right way. I haven’t thought back to either race much since writing this, but that’s mainly because I’ve been racing almost endlessly since, barring five weeks out with a knee injury.

file-08-10-2016-16-37-52

A look of genuine surprised delight. I once ate my ‘breaktime’ snack bar during class when I was nine, and then had no food for break. I found a Mars bar in my pocket. 8th in the MET league was right up there with serendipitous chocolate apparition.

I’m writing something separate about my first race for Northern Ireland, a home nations fixture in Manchester, but it’s important to end with here.

Although the running season never truly finishes, or even clearly demarcates itself if you’re racing on the road, cross country, and indoor and outdoor track, as I have since coming back from the shoulder injury, the Manchester race marked a turning point.

Since November last year, I’ve raced, by my count, 21 different events and distances:

800, 1500, 3000 meters and a mile on indoor tracks
(well, actually the same one, Lea Valley, though other venues are available)

800, 1500, 3000, 5000 and 10000 metres on the track, as well as a mile:
all, apart from ten thousand, at least twice

2000 and 3000 metre steeplechase: eleven times in total
One mile and two miles on the road, as well as 5k, 10k, ten miles and two half marathons, the second of which was almost five minutes faster.

And, um, 4.25k (the distance recording convention in running is K for road races, lots of zeros for track races. I didn’t give up a 5k at 4.25k, thankfully that was the race distance.)

Eight, twelve and fifteen kilometres cross country
(As well as silly distances like 7.8km, and those no one was really certain of as they weren’t measured exactly.)

The only conventional distances I haven’t raced in that time are the sprints (100m, 200m and the hideously high 110m hurdles), the 400m with or without hurdles, odd mile races like three, five and seven, the daunting twenty miles, and even more unapproachable, a marathon. Still some work to do there perhaps.

I’ve got a PB in everything I’ve raced at least once, and really couldn’t have asked for much more from my previously notoriously injury-prone frame.

After all this, before Manchester I asked one more thing, just one more. I’d taken ten days off racing beforehand, which sounds like no time, and really is, but for me this was an enormous holiday where I forgot what it felt like to race.

Northern Ireland had picked me in their squad for the Manchester International, and I’d taken the news rather, ah, enthusiastically. So much so in fact that I needed to put my hand on ice for an hour or so afterwards after striking the wall in delight. It would have been absurdly ironic to have ruled myself out of the event celebrating the fact I’d been picked to run. Although it wouldn’t have been lost on me I don’t think I’d have taken it well.

Beforehand, I’d felt what seemed like a rather serious tendon strain, but this is another story. Another story that picks up here (link, um, pending), to be precise. Thanks for reading this one!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s vaguely advisable to read part one first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

image

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.

image

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…

 

Hospitable Hackney half horribly hot! (yet reckless running reaps rich rewards)

There’s a plethora of things reasonable people would do with eight days’ notice. Go for a meal with work colleagues, head out to a football match or write a short essay on the global political outcome of Donald Trump becoming US President. I really hope this doesn’t happen, but I understand meals with work colleagues are fairly common in civilised society.

Eight days’ notice to train for a half marathon is somewhat outside that reasonable person’s agreeability, and rightly so. On the plus side, I’m a fairly well trained (although dubiously dieted) athlete and have run the distance twice before in races. Conversely, I’d just had a week off running with a cold, had only fully recovered from a knee injury in mid-April, and am quite afraid of half marathons, and with good cause because both those previously races went fairly poorly.

I had planned to pace a friend to finish in 75-76 minutes, and was fairly confident of being able to do that. Fairly confident, that is, until I read the weather forecast. It seemed impossible in subzero temperatures, as for some reason (not unrelated to recent searches for a now infamous polar research ship) my default search prefix was ‘arctic’. Sadly, temperatures were to be only partly more hospitable, reaching 26 degrees in the course of the morning.

At least I was going to be on a proverbial lead with pacing duties, and constrained from doing something stupid. Something exactly like planning to test the limits of my endurance and psychological toughness by running hard for 10 miles then trying to hang on for the last 5k and a PB (previous best 76:16 at Ealing in 2014). Definitely not that on a hot day after two races and two parkruns in the previous eight days. As if determined by the fates as a test of foolish endeavour, my pacing mission was aborted the day before as my friend pulled out.

Free of my lead, any sort of responsibility and running a race I had absolutely no plan or target for, I decided… well, it shouldn’t be that hard to guess what I might have decided.

‘It’s not a day for PBs’ they said, ‘start slowly’ they said, ‘nearly there’ shouted one encouraging bloke, absolutely inexplicably as there were five miles to go at that point, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

I had pulled a random target out of the hat and came up with top ten and sub-75. I’m not sure which hat, but something like the large floppy hats fashionable women wear at summer parties. Or the ones in my imagination anyway, having never been to such an event, and having a great fear of doing so (for more about my fear of formal social endeavours, click here (link pending…)).

While aerodynamically suicidal such a headpiece would have been wonderful sun protection. I’d have been very shady, and by the end of the race I’d certainly lost enough body weight to feel slim. My authenticity, slim shady or otherwise, on the other hand, was to be called into serious question, as we’ll find out later on.

Completely against character, I decided to make some preparations the evening before, rather than just getting up slightly earlier than normal with a vague but determined sense of where everything I needed was and how to get where I needed to be. Racing kit was laid out, efficiently if unceremoniously, a change of clothes for afterwards sat alongside sun cream (something I’m sure I would have forgotten in my morning assemblage of items) and various unexciting accoutrements of travel and logistics, all of which can be seen below.

image

I also put some pasta in a box, which I had planned to eat on the journey in. I had even packed a spoon in a plastic wallet, but when it came to the pivotal moment of potential pasta consumption I folded and failed to eat it under pressure from other tube travellers also travelling to the race. I felt outnumbered (as opposed to among fellow runners sharing a similar activity in the summer sunshine, which gives some clue as to my level of relentless sociopathy) and hoarded my food avariciously. Ironically, in a state of post-race exhaustion I entirely forgot about it, and feasted on the far less appropriate items in the goody bag while lamenting the lack of carbohydrates…

After some stresses in locating a number (one did not arrive in the post) a urinal (thank you, discreet patch of shrubbery) and the bag drop (given the queue I seriously considered hiding it up a tree, but I rightly assumed my legs would be in no condition to climb after the race), I was at the start line. Well, near the start line. I had underestimated how many people constitute well over eleven thousand, and must have awkwardly danced, shuffled and squeezed my meandering way through several hundred metres of competitors before I reached the start line. To my great disappointment, there had been a small gap in the fence to allow the elite athletes and faster club runners to assume their allotted placing at the front. I always feel a bit uncomfortable positioning myself close to such mythical figures, but this time I felt the position had been well earned through much wriggling and contortion.

After fifteen minutes of delay waiting to clear the course (in my imagination, the people of Hackney were fighting off a Vogon destructor fleet, but the reality was probably just a lost, confused ore belligerent driver), we were off. Well, before we actually depart I should note the presence of several Highgate athletes that will be returned to later, and a friend of mine who was to win the women’s race by an astonishing seven minutes. I was thinking of popping over to say hello, but as she’s a run fast athlete and was accompanied by the top two male finishers, both also with run fast, and also elite Kenyans (who in what really shouldn’t constitute a spoiler were to beat me by ten and seven and a half minutes respectively), I smiled timidly then continued to wonder about how the Vogons were dealing with the more determined hipsters.

image

(As the race commenced I cunningly took the inside line approaching the first left turn, a strategy not employed by my Kenyan opponent on the far right, who obviously felt confident enough to concede this significant early advantage)

A first mile went by fairly uneventfully: I had decided to start at a sensible pace initially and see how things developed, but my strategy of running the first nine or ten miles hard was voicing itself agreeably. After looking around at the rest of the large group I was in, I decided valour, while perhaps not the better part of discretion, was the part I preferred, and sped off in pursuit of the escaping front runners.

Surprisingly, I felt fine after a couple of miles, and made my way into 7th place, sitting behind two fairly serious looking club athletes. I had run alongside a fellow just before, and asked him what time he was going for: “about seventy three, seventy two” he replied. Bearing this in mind, I decided he was either going to change gear substantially or was playing mind games, whichever the case I decided to continue my daredevil charge forwards.

Coming alongside a park I used to cycle past, I was struck with a burst of reckless zeal, to add to my pool of reckless zeal, and decided to try and pull away from the three athletes alongside me. Having done so, I found myself in fourth, and spent the next five miles enjoying the acclaim that comes with being the first British runner in such a race, although I knew that such joy was fleeting. I expected to be caught on nine miles, despite a growing lead I always struggle in hot conditions and I knew this pace was unsustainable given my limited training.

The crowds were great fun, and in the first two thirds of the race I tried to raise a hand or a smile as often as I could to thank people for their support. I saw a few friends and club mates along the way, and in these stages I was able to shout back grateful thanks. After picking up water bottles I tried to throw them into recycling bins, and can look back happily with a 60% success rate. It’s hard to go past countless kids waiting for a high five without meeting one or two of those outstretched hands, and thankfully I know from previous experience it takes a bit of slowing down: I once tried a high five at a 10k without breaking stride or arm movements, and to my great regret I nearly took somebody’s hand off.

Reading this, it might seem like I wasn’t taking the distance or the race especially seriously, and that would be… right. I passed a set of steel drums and tried to pull off a little bit of samba, to the extent such a thing is possible when racing, and it seemed to go down very well. Realistically, even though I was in fourth there’s only prize money for the top three, and I preferred to treat the race as a training exercise than getting too worried about placing or strategy.

I’d hope to run several minutes quicker than my finishing time later in the season, and there were several good opportunities to do so, so the pressure was certainly off. Also, there was a race to get substantially more worried about two weeks later, where twenty five merciless laps of an athletics track need to be negotiated, and I thought it best to save my worrying until then. Also I might have left a saucepan in the sink that was doubtless attracting an army of intrepid rodents.

Looking back several times, I saw after seven miles that I had a far larger gap than I expected, though I knew this was only likely to delay the point where I got caught, as I was feeling the fatigue building up in my legs. Any delay in getting caught is better than no delay though, and some part of me still believed that there might just be a chance. A chance they’d respect my careless disregard for strategy and give me a guard of honour over the last three miles, perhaps.

It was at this point that a spectator shouted ‘not far now’. This point, eight miles into the race, with just over five miles left. That’s a bit like the teacher welcoming you all back to class after lunch with a cheery, “nearly there class, just double maths then Latin to come”. I’m sure in such a situation, dependent on the environment of the school, the response would be anything from odd whispered remarks to a barrage of rubbers, pencil cases and arrows. I shouted back: “five miles still!” more in amusement than dismay. There was still some dismay though, as it had provided transient but substantial bamboozlement.

As this is rambling on a bit, even for me, suffice to say the next three miles were uneventful, although I did get steadily more tired and the pursuing pack closer (is three a pack? certainly three cards would be a poor total, and three wolves somewhat shortpawed). In a tunnel just before the eleven mile marker, I felt my resolve start to crack, and having run alongside me for a quarter of a mile, first one and then the other passed me. One green vested foe (thankfully not Highgate!) remained behind, but I knew I was fading fast. I was snapped a couple of times here, and in none of the photos do I look brimming with effervescent liveliness, but this black and white one at least spares the obvious tiredness a little. (Thanks to Tom Hosking for the photo)

image

A few more friends and club mates (Thanks Mary, Henry and Sam, others I can’t recall through recollections of painful steps) offered support in the closing stages, and it gave me a lift, but I knew the legs were spent. The green vest was closing determinedly in, and I knew I had an unassailable lead on the runner in 8th. This was not the time for heroics, it was the time for a swim, but sadly there was no pool handy, I don’t think any degree of tiredness would coerce me to go for a dip in the canal, and at any rate there was a race to finish.

Passing under a set of bridges the realisation that my last run over ten miles had been towards the end of January hit home fairly sharply: the last couple of miles were effectively uncharted waters. Here be dragons. Unsafe. Sadly more thoughts of water related travels were not what the doctor ordered (though our proverbial doctor would probably be fairly firm in his insistence that an IV drip be supplied), and I struggled to keep things together.

Had I known that all three British athletes who finished ahead of me had run marathons well underneath 2:40 I would have felt a bit better about being overtaken. One, Patrick Wightman, actually has the world record for the fastest marathon dressed as a banana (2:58 in Barcelona in 2011). As it was I glared ruefully at their escaping backs, and desire and determination bled from my legs with metres ticking slowly past.

Having said that, it’s a pretty normal situation for me: I can think of only a few races where I’ve misjudged things to such an extent I’ve actually had energy left in reserve! Pacing a friend round 5k in sixteen minutes last year, I felt at 4.7k that the job was done, though the presence of a Highgate vest in front of me may have had something to do with that decision, and I blasted the last 300, happily leaving the aforementioned zebra singlet behind.

The prime example of the opposite scenario was the South of England cross country championships, incidentally on my birthday this year, where I, filled with anniversarial zeal, ran the first quarter mile at a canter, an felt like I was hanging on for nearly nine miles! That made Sunday’s effort feel exceedingly comfortable in contrast, but it’s probably the hardest I’ve ever run, barring a V02 Max test on a treadmill that remains locked at the back of my mind…

Returning to the present, or at any rate the more recent past, the final runner of the dread following trio passed me with a mile or so to go, and by that time I knew anything less than seven minutes for the last mile would see me through under 75, and into the top ten with a big PB. Despite most parts of me generally wanting to give up and walk, it was happily not a democratic decision on a cellular level, and my brain’s determination that twelve miles of hard work was not to be wasted brought me to the finishing straight (or, the finishing section of fewer and fewer corners).

image

(Ouch time.)

In one final quarrel before the day’s efforts were concluded, I found myself wondering angrily at the jocular unspecificity of the ‘nearly there’ sign, in place of a much less cuddly but infinitely more practical ‘500m left’, and then I saw the finish. The commentator noted that I finished like speedy Gonzales, and the composition of my facial expression shifted to incorporate an aspect of amusement in an otherwise dire grimace of finality and exhaustion. Pondering this later, I realised that the rapid mouse has a giant yellow hat, which would have been a rather spectacular addition to my race equipment.

Crossing the line in 74:11, seventh overall, I felt a disorientating wave of dizziness, and determined to find the nearest shelter. It transpired to be beside the metal fencing that separated the crowd from the athletes, so in front of confused looking spectators I retreated to the shadowy embrace of these barriers for several moments before returning to life and meandering my way to the bag collection and home, via a much appreciated sports massage.

Thanks to anyone who got to the end of this one, If I ever do run a marathon I feel I’m now committed to a commensurate length of report, but equally it’s only 215 words a mile, so tune in next week for a paragraph on my 800m at the county championships…

P.S.

Reviewing the results afterwards, I saw my name had been replaced by the enigmatic Jake Chilcott, who seems to have no previous athletic performances and will doubtless have been rather surprised to see his name up in the proverbial lights of the first page of the results listings. As I mentioned many hundreds of largely frivolous words earlier, I had needed a replacement number on the day, and the swap had not been made.

Hackney Results

I suspect following an enquiry that Run Hackney will take seven years to discover the truth and in the interim Jake will be appointed Middle East peace envoy and earn a fortune on the public speaking circuit, while I will be dismissed as a Celtic incumbent whose gruff manner and stout appearance renders him a scapegoat for the collapse of the global running shoe market.

[This is entirely constructed because I saw a Chilcott enquiry joke and couldn’t resist, sorry if the politicisation of otherwise entirely light-hearted content raises an eyebrow of disapproval! As we see below, the matter was in fact dealt with in a tenth of a percent of the time it will have taken the government enquiry, and one suspects with a more authentic and satisfying result.]

P.P.S.

After a mere modicum of processing delay, the good folks at Run Hackney resolved the mystery of Jake Chilcott, and my name was reunited with the result it earned. Even more excitingly, evidence below supports what wordpress has been telling me for a few weeks, that you, dear readers, actually exist, and are not a figment of my imagination!

Thanks of course to the race organisers, but especially Sara at Brooks for magicing a race entry out of the hat for me! #runhappy

Hackney Results ammendment

Adam, among Armagh’s astonishing athletic assembly? Alliteratively Agreeable!

It was a dark, though thankfully storm free Thursday night in the smallest city on the Island of Ireland. It would take close to 600 of Armagh, with a population under 15,000, to fill London.

A surprisingly large crowd lined the edges of the course, expectantly awaiting by far the fastest 5k road race in the British Isles, implausibility situated yet annually graced by a legion of superb athletes.

20 of the top 30 UK times for that distance last year were run in Armagh, including 8 of the top 10. Last year a pack of fifty six broke the magical fifteen minute barrier, and I had flown home for the race holding a tenuous and ambitious hope to join that illustrious crowd.

On the start line, I would have been especially delighted to join that number this year, as I was beginning to struggle with an ominous cold. The illness was to put paid to my ambitions of a first national vest in a selection race several days hence, but this, by and large, is a happy tale, and such things are best skipped over lightly, or at least without breaking down into a sobbing heap. And so onward…

Just starting to warm up, a familiar face appeared, and I knew a villainous Highgate vest lay under perfectly nice looking jacket that was nonetheless guilty by association. My wandering mind was shocked into a greeting: ‘Hi Chris’ I squeaked.

Never knowing how much time other athletes spend on Power of 10, pouring through race statistics, I’m unsure how relatable this sort of information gulf is. If you, oh general reader, know not what Power of 10 is, a lot of the below will seem like esoteric ramblings and claptrap, which it only partly is. I hope the general humour and flow of things make it readable anyway, but sincere apologies in advance if my verbal superfluity causes you to flee, never to return.

I knew he’d easily broken 31 minutes for 10k, had beaten me by nearly 49 seconds in a five mile race last year, and was accustomed to a single digit MET league token. In contrast, when I was handed one last week, several lower than his, but won in a time only a few seconds faster, I spent the rest of the day in befuddled euphoria. He knew… well, I’m not sure really, but he did nod acknowledgement of something or other.

It transpired the cunning team Highgate had me outnumbered seven to one (that I knew of, there were in fact nine… like the Nazgul, but rather more scantily clad and with slightly more refined respiratory systems). No doubt they had flown over on chariots guided by winged black and white capuchin monkeys. Zebras are perhaps a more appropriate but less viable steed…

Somewhat surreally, our arch nemeses had followed me home, as if Saturday’s defeat of Chris Rainsford had been such a cosmic aberration that the foe had decided to waste absolutely no time in restoring balance to the force. On also seeing Peter Cambers and Andy Maud, it appeared the only zebra striped athlete noticeably faster than me who wasn’t here was Norwegian International Audun Nordveit. Without prolific Highgate vanquisher Tom alongside me, nor indeed any Heathside vest other than my own, I felt very outgunned indeed.

Undeterred… well, actually I was very deterred, but I’d prefer to seem brave in this story, I I took to the start line, politely waiting towards the back as very fast looking athletes waited until the last moment to join the pack.

It became apparent that although each shoe had a chip on it, there was no mat to cross after starting, so those shoes would all receive the same start time, irrespective of when they crossed the chalk line on the road. This considered, bodies arranged themselves very agreeably, athletes looking sideways and either retreating respectfully, standing assuredly or moving forward with the steely glare of a prefect bisecting crowds of unruly first years in the lunchroom.

The call to prepare to start cracked the frosty air and the tightly packed group of athletes became a scrum, albeit an extremely light and multi-vested one. The horde stepped back as a recalcitrant beast, and after much shepherding a precarious arrangement was reached, with shoulders leaning inexorably forwards, awaiting the start like a hundred and sixty coiled springs, only with slightly more running shoes.

As the horn of beginning blared, things sprung rather abruptly, and I felt pushed from all sides (well, apart from the front, because that would be absurd in an activity where moving backwards is strongly discouraged) to carry myself along with euphoric zeal. Invitation accepted, I came through the first mile in a wildly unsustainable 4:35. Considering my mile PB was 4:25, had I been aware of the pacing at the time, I would most certainly have despaired of any possibility of continuing at a reasonable speed for two more.

In a more spectacular tale, I would have somehow continued at this blistering rate, and, defying all expectations, beaten Highgate’s dread trio by a hair’s breadth on the finish line. Sadly, reality is much less ideologically flexible, and refused to confirm to my ludicrous aspirations. I viewed Chris Rainsford’s white hat as some kind of sugared confectionary in a fevered opium dream (a metaphor I’m vastly better equipped to comprehend after my surgical adventures), and kept it in my sights.

Sadly, the sugary hat (confused metaphors, while literarily spurious, can be delicious), seemed to disappear into the distance, and I became concerned with more immediate matters. After two kilometres had sped by in well under six minutes (5:43 to be precise), I knew the impossible was on – I needed 3:03 per kilometre to break the hardest club record so far, and 3:00 per kilometre to break 15 minutes. Going out slowly and building up would have been more practical, but far less exciting, and I now had an entirely different set of motivations: instead of picking up speed and earning the coveted sub 15 as I crossed the line, I now had fifteen seconds in the bank, and needed to avoid losing that advantage over my future self and cling on for dear life to an almost inconceivable number to greet me at the finish.

Despite these logical retrospections, as a child who has successfully escapes school exceedingly early, I ignored the obvious and painful future consequences and determined to make the most of my early speed and take the opposition by surprise. I ran past Peter Chambers at close to 3k, who it transpired was pacing a spectacularly Machiavellian race by enticing me to pass him, then unfairly stealing victory by being a massively superior athlete and finishing twenty seconds ahead of me.

He did come past me again after a few hundred metres, as we passed like the tides, if it were possible for two adjacent tides (itself a concept worthy of some semantic unease) to be moving in separate directions simultaneously. One tide would be confidently aware that it was speeding up, carrying expectation confidently on its crest, the other breathing like darth Vader in Kew Gardens with a pollen allergy and wishing it had been just the two miles.

My two mile split was 9.23: a flat out two miles last year had been 9:36. In fairness, I was a lot fitter than that time, and I do expect to run a good deal faster than my finishing time over 5k this season, but that makes this part of the story rather too serious, so consider this a whispered aside…

As the race progressed, the firm Tarmac underfoot seemed to take on the texture of sand, and my legs lost their enthusiastic bounding spring. Time was slipping away, but I knew I didn’t need to hang on for too much longer. Coming up to the last lap, I heard ‘go on Chris’: I wasn’t being lapped by the Highgate maestro, but an even more fearful possibility leapt to mind.

Christopher Madden, my nemesis, my vanquisher last year in the beloved hometown race, my first ever road race back in 2006, the Lisburn 10k, was closing in. But was he? I was sure he couldn’t be running this far under fifteen minutes, his best was 15:13, and… well I certainly didn’t want to believe it. Had he improved that much? Would be beat me even if he had? Yes, definitely, I was knackered and really feeling the weekend’s races in my legs, and he’d probably been altitude training in Kenya, abstaining from all forms of distraction, hell bent on defeating me in this most auspicious of occasions. Or perhaps he wouldn’t even know my name to look at. Never having actually spoken to him, I confess this is more plausible.

Closing down the final straight, mercifully downhill, I saw the time ticking down. I thought I saw 14:50 – another second, it said 14:40, and there had to be less than ten seconds of running left, surely?

The last seventy, sixty metres felt like, well ninety, anything more than that really would be ridiculous over that sort of distance, and I’ve got a pretty good sense of what meters feel like in an absolute sense like even at my most addled.

A sub fifteen finish came, but did not go, as it had always done before. I crossed the line beside it for the first time, yet not interrupting its passage. This was not a local standard track 5k where I stopped the clock, but an international class road race where I was close to a minute behind the winner.

Entering the finishing area I almost collapsed, thoroughly spent. Having run an utterly unexpected, ridiculous 14:50, all thoughts of other times and other runners vanished in an exhausted haze.

I recovered enough to wobble around unsteadily, then walked over to one of the finish assistants and asked to borrow a pair of scissors to cut the chip off my shoe. Despite the fact there were several spare, she must have looked into my exhausted and disorientated visage and thought that if the scissors were handed over I would end up lacerating my foot, and so kindly removed it for me.

Reviewing the results later, I finished ahead of one of the athletes selected to wear a Northern Ireland vest for the race, and, only knowing this, my ego was at dire risk of inflation.

Just the right amount of reality hit home a moment later however, and I saw that my local rival, my nemesis, Chris Madden, the having also heartbreakingly beaten me in our hometown race, the Lisburn 10k, last year, and taken my course record at the local parkrun, had beaten me by a second in 14:49.

The third mile had been 4:56, eighteen seconds slower than my first. By contrast, two of those who ran around 14:30 had splits deviating by a measly four seconds! No doubt they also left their icing until the end on cakes growing up, much more sensible to be sure, but a lot less fun!

I returned to London exhilarated, but safe in the grounding knowledge that I’m still not even the best athlete in Lisburn, and with much work still to do.