Out of time: part one

Introduction: life and death

This one matters. If you, good reader, would spend time perusing one of my blogs, this is probably the wisest choice. Promise.

When discussing the importance, or otherwise, of sporting endeavours, one stock phrase comes back again and again. “It’s not life and death“. For me, this was.

For a number of months I was caught between the end of a life that meant so much to me and the uncertainty, trepidation and dizzying change that came with taking my own in a completely new direction.

I felt that ‘Out of Time’ needed some context: certainly, I needed a bit of a run up to take it on. I was afraid of what I’d have to face up to by starting it, never mind finishing. It was as hard as I expected. I started and then scrapped so many insufficient beginnings: nothing was good enough, but then that’s partly how I felt looking back at the season, too.

At the start of August, I sat in the stands at the Olympic stadium in London, knowing that just four seconds separated me from a spectator’s view of events and the incredible privilege of competing at the World Championships. It would have been my first Irish vest, and almost a month after my grandmother’s funeral, I felt that running there would somehow pull back the time that I felt had suddenly run away from me in her death. I know how much it would have meant to her, and this is something I’ll never entirely be able to let go of.

Ultimately, I now find myself pursuing my childhood dream of international sport, with hopes to run at major competitions over the next several years. That’s worth everything to me. I’m very lucky to have this chance, and I’m partly writing this to chase away a few ghosts that seem intent on holding me back.

It’s a long story, with a lot of light and a good deal of darkness, but I hope to be more succinct than usual. There’s a lot of ground to cover.

Part one: Lost for words

“One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.”

(Atul Gawande, Being Mortal)

While sorting through a small pile of paper in a vaguely organised part of my room, a page written by a different hand fell to the floor. I so rarely receive written communication from other people, with the exception of my father, and time seems to have left that art behind. Most of my writing is on a screen.

That’s the thing with digital text. It doesn’t just drop out of a stack of mixed papers and leave you winded: lost for words. The letter was one of two that my granny had written to me in the last several months of her life, and it took me entirely by surprise. Often, when something happens unexpectedly, we have no chance to prepare appropriate, considered emotions, and are forced to face something that we’d rather not.

In organising our thoughts to react, we make them line up in a way that we’re progressively trained to do as adults. Not too much, not too little, and certainly not too public. Excessive emotions should be private, especially for men, and particularly for men brought up in a traditional, middle-class, educated way. Keep a stiff shirt collar and a stiff upper lip, we’re told.

Searching for a way to start this series, nothing seemed to work: I suppose I was waiting for the right moment, without any idea what that might entail. It might have passed already, or I might have spent an indeterminate period of time looking out for something that was never going to arrive. That’s the same with relationships, and while that’s a good story a lot of us might understand, it’s one for another time.

I had hoped it would be easy, that I might stumble on the right words by accident, and not have to dig too deep to find them. I also thought I could ignore the low points of my journey, and paint a bright tapestry that started with a first vest for my country in Manchester and carried onto a PB that puts me among the top 40 steeplechasers in Europe. No one really needed to know, right? Who really wanted to know? I didn’t tell my parents, and I only gave my friends a sense of what was going through my head, but in safe patches, just enough to digest in nice pieces, so it wasn’t too intense.

There were two periods where I told my coach I was giving up. The first lasted as long as my resolve, which was a day and a half. The second continued for a little longer, but ultimately I failed to give up then, too. I didn’t have the stubborn, bloody minded strength of will to make the change I was telling myself I could, and go back home, and I’m very grateful for that.

On many other occasions I wanted to throw in the towel, but I told myself ‘just one more day’, ‘see how it feels tomorrow‘. Often tomorrow would be better, sometimes it would be worse, but mostly I kept going, because I was afraid to give up, too. It wasn’t bravery, but a different kind of fear.

If I gave up before the track season, I’d never know whether I could have made it, and I’d never forgive myself for quitting early. I suppose it was both a fearful hope (aspiring with trepidation and self-doubt to perhaps succeed), and the kind of hopeful fear one experiences when placed precipitously atop the highest diving board. The opening quote poses a wonderful question, but I’m still too afraid and indecisive to answer it firmly.

Later on, after I got the first and even the second Commonwealth standard, I was worried about writing this. As much as I wrote other things, many of them witty, some jokes, some poems, some stories and a couple of speeches, this was admonishing me from the top of my to-do list.

Life in London has given me a great deal. I’ve got to a point where I can call myself a semi-professional athlete, on the verge of international competition, with two university degrees under my belt and a hopefully long life stretching out in exciting directions. I can’t complain, but I’ve always partly wanted to be at home, to be the centre of nobody’s attention apart from my own, and be there for my family when they need me, if I had the consistent mental and physical health to do so.

That was my responsibility. I always thought I’d have time to go home and spend time with my grandmother, whose funeral I went to in July, the day after the British championships. The day after I’d let another opportunity at the Commonwealth standard slip through my fingers.

Just as my window to dip once more under 8:43 was closing, my time with my grandmother had vanished completely. I couldn’t claw it back, but most days since the start of June, my thoughts have come back to her last words to me. Not once, but twice I thought I’d heard the final things she’d ever say to me.

The first, last sentence was, “health is the most important”. The second, “news from Adam“. On both occasions, I left in pieces, and had to pick myself up to keep going, to pick up training and carry on, knowing that the place I most wanted to be was the place I was leaving.

While I was off racing internationally in Belgium and Spain, other people were by granny’s bedside, there for her when she needed it. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure I ever will be, but I told myself I had to try and find out.

So, after months of putting it off, I put pen to paper last week and started writing. Almost immediately I fell apart in tears, and decided that it was a bad idea. Too late though, I’d started, and I needed to make it lead somewhere. This was too important not to finish.

Now, having begun a new season, I think it’s time to open the door a little, and share some of what I’ve been keeping back.

To do that, I need to jump back a year and a half, and start at something like the beginning.

Part two continues the story.

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This photo was taken the day before I spoke to my granny for the last time. It looks like I’m winning – I came third, two people are ahead of me out of shot. The camera might lie, but, for the duration of this series, I’ll try not to.

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Light on your feet or ‘A Hobbit Steeplechase’

This really is as silly as the second part of the title makes it sound. If not more so. I’d also be amazed if anything quite like this has ever been written before. On we go then…

A thought occurred recently while jogging to Euston, specifically after being briefly airborne across part of the forecourt to expidite my way through the masses. It’s important to be light on your feet for steeplechase, as well as just plain light.

Writing this now makes me think of that section from the hobbit, when Gollum, after being leapt over by mister Baggins, ‘threw himself backwards and grabbed’, but Bilbo escaped, and ‘falling fair on his sturdy feet, sped off down the new tunnel’.

If I seem unusually familiar with the verbatim text, it’s because one of my favourite things to listen to growing up was a BBC radio full cast adaptation of Tolkien’s novel. Years have passed, and I’m much better at running, somewhat taller and with many more words in my head, but it’s still among my best loved sounds. I often have it in my ears when I drift off to sleep, or occasionally if I’m immediately cast adrift into sleep after a particularly hard day’s training, in which case I don’t take much in!

Tolkien also spares a moment to illustrate the specific character of Bilbo’s bound: ‘seven feet forward and three feet in the air’. I was trying to work out how this corresponds to the height of the men’s steeplechase barrier (definitely unfair, but I’m sure there’s no specified Hobbit height), and it’s quite a likeness – three feet (assuming six feet as roughly 180cm), comes to 90cm, or almost exactly the right height (that being 91.4cm)

On less slapdash calculation, a foot is twelve inches, and an inch 2.54cm, which would make ten inches 25.4cm, and twelve, or a foot, 30.48cm. Brilliantly that comes to 91.44cm, with the Hobbit clearing the horizontal obstacle by a mere four millimetres! But then again Bilbo is only about three and a half feet tall, so in human terms it’s closer to a high jump than a barrier!

[Edit: just before publishing this, I googled ‘Bilbo height’, as you do, and was rewarded with the information that Hobbits are three feet and six inches on average. I only wish that had come up in a pub quiz, or rather less plausibly, on university challenge. As a segway within a digression, I was only a week and a half ago on a pub quiz team with a champion of said academic trivia program, and felt suitably awestruck.]

Seven feet forward is a fine bound, but equally not to the order of a proper long jump – it’s the equivalent of a human jumping 2.3 times their height, or 4.5 metres, assuming the human is six feet tall. Seven feet would be 205cm, which isn’t enough for the Hobbit to literally clear a water jump, as the water reaches out 3.66 metres from the foot of the barrier. Disappointingly, although our fictional leaper’s vertical deftness is almost flawlessly suited to clearing a normal barrier, he would need to either step on the water jump and prepare for an impromptu bath, or perhaps leap onto and over an airborne competitor, were his timing as impeccable as his airborne height.

Having written this, in the interest of fairness it must be emphasised that Bilbo wasn’t wearing any shoes, running or otherwise, and the surface of the caves under the misty mountains can’t have been the most conducive to either optimal takeoff velocity or absolute fleetness of foot. It seems fair to credit Tolkien’s diminutive protagonist with a bit of extra springiness in respect to height and length on a regular track surface, which may help with that pesky water jump.

To jump over Gollum, assuming it was a leap clean above the ‘miserable and wicked creature’ rather than past or alongside him, with three feet at the apogee of the Hobbit’s jump, (also assuming it was timed perfectly) means that Gollum was probably some combination of: crouching (very possible), in an extremely hunched position (almost certainly, if his posture in the films is anything to go by), and unable to stand to his full height due to malnutrition and all that crawling around in caves and tunnels. I reckon that last bit is almost certain.

In conclusion, both the whimsical abstraction of Bilbo running a steeplechase and the much more narrative bound practicality of leaping over Gollum seem acceptable, within the parameters of such a ludicrous way of passing two half hour tube journeys on a rest day when all I can think about is running! I wrote this last week (on the 31st of January) and subsequently spent most of today’s return leg tidying it up, but no doubt I’ll find further delays in the pipeline somewhere.

I do find the coincidence of the Hobbit’s leap and the barrier height somewhat ominous. Though this might be dismissed by a wiser person as mere happenstance, I can’t help but see it as part of the subconscious preconditioning that has taken me to the precipice of attempting to leap my way to 8:43, and Australia in 2018.

Or perhaps, for those readers familiar with the story, I might be asked a set of riddles to get to the Commonwealth Games, with the price of failure similarly high. I can’t say I fancy being eaten, but it may be that riddle steeplechase has the potential to join chess boxing among the most implausible of combined activities. Or perhaps not. Just as well, I suppose, as any International riddle steeplechase would probably be rightly played in Swahili…

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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…