Hey there Delilah, or, How I came to the steeplechase
I’ve put this one off for ages. Now I’ve actually been put forward for the Commonwealth Games it seems to be the right time to pull this particular curtain back. I should really be finishing ‘out of time’, as that’s also on part one (of many), but at least I’m finishing something. Also, redeemingly, a lot of people have asked me about this one.
The same conversation so often repeats itself now, and it gets increasingly funny and surreal as time goes along. It seems to inevitably come up with everyone who knew me before I became rather good at running. As that’s basically anyone I met before late May this year, it’s a lot of people, despite my solitary tendencies.
They search for a kind way to begin. Our dialogue pauses for a second as they try to phrase the somewhat backhanded compliment in a good-natured way.
“How come you’re so good at running now? I mean…” (they stutter momentarily) “you weren’t that good at hockey.” (*see below)
The reply always seems like an enormous non-sequitur, even by my ludicrously loose standards.
“Have you heard the song ‘hey there Delilah’, by the Plain White Ts?”
“What?!” They reply, with some incredulity.
“You know..” I offer back, self-consciously beginning to mumble: “what’s it like in New York..”
“Yes, I’ve heard it” they cut me off, causing any bystanders to sigh with relief that I’ve stopped trying to sing. “What on earth has that got to do with it?” (Earth may be replaced by rather, em, earthier language).
“Well” I begin, “how much time to do you have? It’s rather a long story…”
And here it is, as briefly as I can tell it. Well, it’s a shorter version than it might be at any rate. Okay, it’s in at least two parts, because it’s not really short at all.
Before going on, I’ll underline something simple about causality. In the jargon, there are proximate and ultimate causes. The first are the factors closest to producing the effect.
For example: Why is my foot sore? Because I dropped a jar of jam on it.
The second are ultimate, higher-level causes, i.e., why did the jam jar fall? As (according to Wikipedia) “an ultimate cause may itself be a proximate cause for a further ultimate cause”, you can have as many of these as you like. Here are some of mine:
The jar was precariously positioned on a surface that can move easily
The jam wasn’t evenly distributed in the jar, making it unbalanced
The surface upon which the pot had been placed was slippery
I was hurrying, careless because I was late for work already
The light wasn’t on, so I couldn’t see very much at all
Because of all the above, I’m a complete idiot
God/other divinity hates me, feet and jam
Now, let’s apply this to athletics.
I’m doing the steeplechase because (these aren’t in causal order):
- A background in judo, a little gymnastics, and a whole other pile of sports makes me springy and agile. I was never really very good at any apart from judo, but I did a lot. Crap hand-eye coordination stopped me being good at the other sports. I’m better at those that don’t involve coordination. For example, I’d be a decent cyclist if I liked it and didn’t crash my bike all the time.
- I always enjoyed jumping over things for no apparent reason. This is more significant than it sounds, as the ability to clear a barrier without losing too much rhythm and stride pattern is built up over years. I was practicing that well before I became an athlete.
- My legs are especially long compared with my body height. When hurdling in particular, this is very important. If you consider the hurdling action as a long, vertically extended stride, rather than a ‘jump’, the barrier clearance is really about how much “vertical displacement” (movement up) needs to happen in the hip, rather than how high you can jump.
- Longer legs, and higher hips, means less of a disruption to your stride. The tradeoff to this is that mostly longer legs mean a bigger body which is heavier and slows you down. If you can get longer legs without a bigger body, you’re flying. Or perhaps falling with style.
- On that note, I know how to fall. Judo again. If you’re doing the steeplechase as a specialist event you will fall. Some people fall and get injured, and stop. Six years of being thrown around on mats in variously unpredictable ways teaches you that there are many different ways for your body to hit the ground, and some hurt a lot more than others.
- I don’t have a strong physical self-preservation instinct, and enjoy taking risks. Running at well under three minutes a kilometre towards solid blocks of wood that weight up to twice what you do under the assumption you’re *almost* certain to get over them makes this impulse, or lack of, something of a prerequisite.
- Elite endurance sport is pretty simple. If you have cardiovascular, circulatory and respiratory systems that start off very good and respond well to aerobic training, you’re well on the way. If you don’t, no amount of hard work will get you to a top level. I’m very lucky in that sense. While I might have a very inconsistent and unreliable brain, my body holds up its part of the deal pretty heroically.
- I never felt fast enough for a really top quality 1500m, despite holding up Roger Bannister as an icon and hero for as long as I can remember, and the twelve and a half laps of a track required to run a 5000m are psychologically pretty tough. Nine minutes and below seems to be an ideal time span for me, athletics wise, and the 3000m of the steeplechase also fits my physiological profile (balance of speed, springiness and endurance) pretty perfectly.
- A lot of good athletes are afraid of the steeplechase and don’t go near it because of an only partly accurate assumption that it makes you more likely to get injured. Sure, the injury rates are a bit higher, but that’s like switching from 97% fat free milk to 98% fat free milk. Ultimately, unless you drink a cowfull of milk every day (other more plausible measures are available), there’s not as much absolute difference as you’d think. Just cut out one mars bar a week instead (or, in this analogy, do appropriate stretching and strength work to facilitate greater hip mobility and the capacity to maintain balance and agility towards the end of a race. If you have a smaller pool of talent, you’ll do better in it.
- Northern Ireland and Ireland (not enough space to go into what I think about that distinction, even if I wanted to !!) are small countries. Last year, with very limited practice and planning, I was the best in Northern Ireland, won the national championships, and ran for my country in Manchester. This year, with a hell of a lot more of both, I was the best in Ireland, won the national championships, and didn’t run for my country. This was partly because I didn’t get a passport in time and also had best man duties, and partly because I missed the world championships by four seconds. It’s the pond thing again.
That’s technical and logical stuff. My cup of tea, only I prefer to refuel via a USB port in the side of my head.
The story is really about how, like the jam, I fell. Unlike the jam, I fell for somebody. This brings us to the last point:
10. Love. Like gravity, only you can’t discover it with an apple. Allegedly. Ironically Adam did get knowledge from an apple, but that’s another story entirely..
This tale continues, sometime in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, with part two.
This is just a generic steeplechase photo of me, there’s no special reason for its inclusion other than the fact I’m actually falling, which seems appropriate.
Water jumps always come with a bit of an adrenaline boost, knowing the potential to hilariously stack it is only a stumble away. Hell, if even Evan Jager can screw it up, we can all manage to make it look like we’ve never tried one before.
And now that asterisk I left hanging invitingly somewhere above:
*Feel free to substitute in football/judo/squash/badminton/golf/(table)tennis and indeed any other sport I’ve ever tried and, relatively speaking, failed at.
“We played on the university third team together, and you were, em… just ‘normal’. how did that happen? What changed?””
Many other historical squads are available, including my hockey club’s 6th XI. We had seven teams. Sometimes they’ll smile and ask if I’m doping, which I suppose I should take as a compliment.
I was actually drugs tested in June: it’s no news to me that I’m clean, but it’s flatteringly surreal to be good enough at a sport that people think I might be cheating in a more insidious way than just cutting out a bend on the track, which I’m fairly sure people would notice.