Answering some questions, or, oat enquiries

I got an email in October last year asking if I’d be happy to give answers to a few questions about athletics and porridge oats. This juxtaposition is made decidedly less odd by context: Flahavan’s Porridge sponsor the Northern Irish Primary Schools cross country league, and I’d just had perhaps my best race of the year over cross country.

That feels rather a long time ago now, but then I was in the rainy Wicklow mountains rather than warm continental Europe (incidentally, give me my favourite place in Ireland over balmy beaches any day of the week, even mid-January), and much has happened since.

Anyway, to keep up my goal of posting weekly, here are my answers. My other goal was reading a book a week. I’ve read two so far and am 90%, 50%, 50% and 10% through my ‘currently reading’ books. By my own admittedly flexible logic, I’m ahead of schedule. Now, on with the questions and answers:


Tell us a little bit about yourself!
How did you get involved in running / athletics?

I put these two questions together because it’s hard to answer them separately. Running is such a big part of my life now, and I’ve made so many friends through the sport that it’s hard to describe myself without it.

I only started running seriously a couple of years ago, although I did the steeplechase a few times at school. It’s a really funny story: a friend of mine who was a runner and also played hockey with me just told me one day that he’d put my name down for the steeplechase. I didn’t even know what it was!

After three races and almost no specific training I came fifth in the Northern Ireland schools championships. I spent a lot of time running around on a hockey pitch, an although I was a pretty bad hockey player I had a lot of practice for running chasing after the ball!

I always thought running was something I might come back to later on, and five years ago when I came to live in London I slowly started getting involved in athletics again. It started with a 5k parkrun near where I lived, and five years later I’ve raced twice for Northern Ireland and I’ve been picked to go to the Commonwealth Games.

For a long time I wanted to be an academic, a university lecturer in Anthropology, but somehow I’ve found myself trying to be a professional athlete. I still find it all very strange, as I was never really good at sport before, and all the attention is a bit odd, but I’m getting used to it now. I still don’t really think of myself as ‘really good’, but I think it’s better that way – it keeps you modest.

What is your advice for any young people looking to get involved in running/athletics?

Don’t be afraid to try! I think that’s a big secret to all sport. No one starts off being brilliant, and if they seem like they are it’s partly because they did something similar before.

Athletics isn’t for everyone, but everyone can do it, especially with endurance running like cross country. It’s not like or hockey or football, or even running on the track. Everyone’s doing the same thing, and everyone’s working all the time to keep going, even the people at the front. Another secret is that even if it looks easy, it probably still isn’t – I know it’s not for me! Don’t give up just because it’s hard, because it’s supposed to be.

Have a go, and see if you enjoy it. There’s so many different events, and I know it’s hard to think this at the time, but it shouldn’t be about how good you are. It should be about whether you’re having fun. Also, don’t be afraid to give something else a go. I spent a long time playing other sport before going back to running, and I came back not because I was good, but because I started to really enjoy it. It’s a sport you can always do, whatever age you are, and that’s why I love it so much.

What is the best piece of advice a coach has ever given you?

It’s very simple: four words – I’m on your side. I was struggling to pick myself up after a bad race, and instead of criticising me my coach just told me that. When you’re down, the best thing that someone else can do is offer support, rather than making you feel worse. My dad taught me that.

There’s a wonderful quote from Andy Baddley (who ran in the 2012 Olympics), who talked in an interview about the advice his coach gave him: “what you do in the dark comes out in the light”. Ultimately, sport’s sometimes hard, and it will sometimes hurt, especially if you want to do your very best. At these times, it’s important not to feel bad about not doing well, feeling tired or like you don’t want to be there, and to realise that these are the moments that matter. Not the easy stuff. If you can keep going when you’re alone, and it’s hard, you’ll find something extra in a race, when it really counts.

How do you fuel up ahead of a big race – how important is a healthy diet to you?

I always have a good breakfast on race day, something I’ve tried before and know well. Often it’s muesli or porridge with seeds, honey and fruit. I have something small several hours before a race (like a banana, a small bit of bread or a bit of salad), and I always try and sleep well in the build up. If you’re well rested your body can really absorb what you need from food, and it’s also really important not to eat too quickly and give yourself time to digest. It’s not a race to finish a meal!

My coach has really helped me change my diet, which wasn’t very good before! It’s not just about performance, or even recovery, but also about mood, sleep and energy through the day. People don’t talk enough about how the wrong food can make a difference to our mental health, and how we sleep, and this is something that’s really important to me. Athletics isn’t just about what you do on the track, or even in training, and I see diet as part of my job as a sportsman.

What way do you have your oats?

It depends on the time of day! I very often have porridge in the mornings: I used to love pouring golden syrup and sugar all over mine, but now I use honey and seeds or nuts as it’s much healthier. Sometimes I’ll mix oats and muesli for breakfast to have a different texture to my meal.

Oats are amazing as part of Apple crumble, and they’re also great in flapjacks and energy balls! I try and make my own treats rather than buying things from the shop, so I know exactly how they’ve been made and to make me appreciate them more.

They’re a great thing to travel with, as I’ve found myself competing in international races a bit this year – if a hotel doesn’t have the right thing for breakfast they always have hot water, so I sometimes bring a little box myself, or buy some from a shop before I get to where I’m staying.

What’s your favourite porridge topping?

Blueberries, without a doubt. We have some in the garden back at my family home in Northern Ireland, but as I live in London I have to buy them from the shop. They’re probably my favourite fruit and are well worth the price! I often have banana, nuts, seeds and dried fruit too, one of the great things about porridge is that there’s so much you can add to it.

What did/do you like to hear from the side-lines when you are competing? How did it make you feel to receive this support?

I was running in the Antrim International for Northern Ireland and having a pretty bad race: I’d started too quickly and the muddy conditions had got the better of me. Feeling my legs losing their spring, I came round a corner and someone shouted: “come on Northern Ireland”. At that moment I realised I wasn’t running for myself – the vest I was wearing was a privilege, and people were supporting me not because of who I was, but what the vest I wore represented. I felt honoured to have the opportunity, and I was determined to make the rest of the race something to be proud of.


The space between the barriers, or, three hundred and seventy one days


They almost look like phone numbers, lists of digits preceded by a plausible commencement of code. They wouldn’t quite be the same area, but perhaps the two strings would share regional affiliation.

How we break numbers up is a huge part of their significance. I guess it works for words too.

22-05-16 93300 That’s a bank sort code, although followed by an implausibly short account number. Perhaps some digits have got lost in translation?

+22 051693300 Set like this, even without the plus, it’s a phone number. The eleven digits check out, if you call it you might even get through.

If I google the first code, the only result is an indecipherable list of numbers, headed in Mandarin or Cantonese script that I can’t begin to fathom. Any decryptions are welcome.

There are so many permutations, and they may mean absolutely nothing. For me, at least, this bizarre puzzle has a solution.

22.05.16: 9:33.0 27.05.17: 8:37.62

Three hundred and seventy one days separate two dates, and two performances. One was good enough to take me to the English championships a day after my lowest point of the year, and the second was a qualifying mark for the commonwealth games, the world university games (sadly not applicable), and thirteen hundredths of a second short of the mark required for the European Championships. It came, too, after a depth of hopelessness I don’t wish to return to again, and the number thirteen has a significance outside its culturally ominous portent that will be returned to at some stage. Perhaps.

In the space of time in between both races, I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words, perhaps closer to two, most of which lies in incomplete piles under a series of titles that I most recently counted at two hundred and fifteen. It’s impossible to quantify the depth of human experience in numbers, and by extension it’s impossible in words, as that’s all these are.

In writing on a screen, thoughts that take place in language switch form between nerve impulses from brain to finger into kinetic pops onto a digital keyboard, flipping rapidly from a numerical electronic signal to the standardised shapes we all recognise as letters. As in the subtext that accompanies those enticingly swish adverts, for narrative purposes steps have been removed and the sequence has been shortened.

I suppose I like to try. I sit down, sometimes in a spare moment on the tube, and often when travelling on more amenable aerated or rapid transports, and put pen to paper, or skin to screen. Inevitably these sorts of things fail, especially if they’re written on a Sunday evening and have drifted invariably off a topic that was originally quite simple.

The space between publishing posts often gnaws away at me. It wouldn’t if I felt nobody cared at all, and I was just writing for myself, but then I’d never end up finishing anything. I have a vague idea that some of what I write is for other people.

The things that actually go up on this blog are either pieces I’ve actually felt I’ve had to write (most recently before changing clubs, and subsequently to attempt to reverse stepping on toes, and in the clumsy attempt, I suspect, crushing more feet), or the throwing out of any piece of almost complete poetry to fill the space, and deprive silence of its empty power.

I’ve never set myself a deadline, and there’s so often been the excuse of work, training, or laziness (whether genuine or feigned I can never quite decide). I suppose I should have opened with an exciting account of a recent race, and goodness me there’s enough of that to be going on with. I might have produced an account of my first holiday since the summer of 2014, a trip to Slovenia that brought more new experiences than I could find words for.

That’s perhaps because my grasp of the language extends to basic courtesies, assorted fruit names and, aptly, the word for forest, gozd. There were a lot of forests, and I found being able to look out the window into dense woodland more restful and restorative even than the hours of sleep gloriously undisturbed by the noise and light of London. Like Tolkien, I have always had a love of trees and green space, and every return to London feels in some part like a betrayal of the desire to be apart from the compulsion to be conspicuously busy and ‘interesting’.

Sometimes when putting things off for long enough, we can be paralysed into inaction, or when returning to something after a long break, whether it’s a crossword, a painting or a friendship, the reunion can be underwhelming. That clue can still remain elusive, the colours and shapes flatter than we recall, or the communication more awkward and effortful than we remember.

There are so many things I could have written instead, but none of them were finished, and another poem would definitely have been a cop-out.

A clean slate seemed a fine place to start, but having painted all over it with words, I think it might have looked better empty. Much like the silence, the calmness of its surface ‘seemed to dislike being broken’, as Tolkien wrote of the quiet of Mirkwood.

I suppose I’ve also realised since returning that London isn’t as safe as even I’d thought, and we can’t know when our opportunity to break the silence, even ineptly, will leave us forever.

I’ve made an effort over the last week to contact friends and family more, and although that was simply an attempt to ground myself and stay focussed after the distractions of success unexpected both in its very arrival and its height, it now seems especially apt.

There’s so much more to write, and so much more to finish, but I think this will do for now. Thanks for reading, for I suspect at least someone has, and goodnight, good afternoon or good morning as appropriate.

Lots of writing, but just a poem to show for it

Despite writing, in no exaggeration, well over ten thousand words of vaguely (blog) publishable content over the last four months, the moment of actually pressing the enticingly clickable ‘publish’ button has been endlessly snoozed. Like an alarm that you’ve set on a weekend to avoid wasting the morning, the only imperative to finish anything is a general sense of doing something worthwhile with time designated as spare.

As a significant portion of that time is spent running, doing activities related to running (stretching, strength exercises and jumping over things, mostly hurdles that I should be jumping over, occasionally other things), or thinking of running, I can be a bit listless the rest of the time. Listless, that is, apart from the constantly proliferating ‘to-do’ lists, featuring absurdities like (I kid you not) ‘review all previous to-do lists, collate and synchronise’, and, even more ridiculously: ‘backdate diet with receipts’ from July 2014. Needless to say the fact I still have that intact list, along with tens of others is testament to my failure to collate or synchronise anything.

With pieces of writing, I always find them partly started or half finished, with just enough material for me to know where I was going and someday venture in that direction again. I tend to finish poems, in that a first draft is produced with promises to ‘refine’ or not doubt ‘collate’ the words with some other witty thought buried alongside hundreds of other notes. In that spirit then, here’s something with no title I thought of mostly during a long run. It’s not complete, but in the spirit of actually finishing something, it’s complete enough to be going on with. More to come, perhaps.


The title, to choose something rather than nothing, is ‘a wooden form’.


The bough, in bending to the wind, resists by knowing it must yield,
Arms fend the swirling bluster off, with lissome limbs compose a shield.

Spry willow of new wood is wrought, a pliant will that knows its end,
These broken branches can be whittled, shattered but with strength to lend.

It breaks each time, but yet breaks later, body holds for longer, still,
The limits move from frame to mind, the form has done the work it will.

It matters not if mind’s cast down, drive tired limbs with ropes of thought,
Take strength from each resisting fibre, focus not on what is ought,

The wisps of hope, these threads, can help, if we can follow where they lead,
In each failed attempt, is strength, in each fallen fruit a seed.

Smith’s birch might offer shelter here, a story that has much to teach,
By all means travel, learn and wonder, yet ever know how far to reach.

If we strive out with arms of flesh, we must keep one eye on the flame,
Despite all our earthly delights, there is a darkness we must name.

None of us may live forever, but don’t let’s hurry to the halt,
Each, in every gilded moment, breathe with joy, forget, exalt.

Look, depression! (Don’t worry, there are some jokes)

Having had a bit of practice, I find it so much easier than I did to write about mental health, to let people know it’s been a large part of my life, and to draw attention to something a lot of people would rather keep quiet.

There’s an important semantic distinction to be made between depression as a condition and the use of the word ‘depressed’ to describe a state of mind. A lot of people will say they feel depressed when they mean sad or melancholy. It’s a bit like a sore leg and a broken leg. A broken leg (depression in this instance) is certainly sore (i.e. makes you feel sad), but most leg pain isn’t a break.

You don’t often get people who’ve had bruised legs talking about how people with broken legs should toughen up and walk on their fractured limbs though. Of course, it’s nowhere near this simple, but I still think it’s a good example of how frustrating it can be when people tell you to ‘man up’ or ‘get a grip’. “My leg’s ******* broken!’ I always feel like shouting. Without knowlede of this helpful metaphor though, it’s both senseless and likely to provoke some very odd reactions.

As sadness and our descriptions of it are subjective, you can’t definitively say whether you’ve been depressed or not. The classification scale isn’t a categorical measurement, but a soft form of assessment that will probably vary a lot depending on when it’s done and who’s doing it. When measuring height, for example, unless you’re standing on your toes just a little bit, or asking a generous friend to measure you, you’ll get the same figure.

After coming through a bad period earlier in the year (depression and anxiety), I’ve talked to a lot of friends about depression in particular, and it has certainly helped. I sort of thought that once I started fighting it out in the open, it would play fair. Perhaps it might decide to knock before walking through the house with muddy feet and no regard for attentive pleas to be careful not to knock the parsley off the windowsil.

The floor is relatively clean, and the parsley that amazingly survived through the winter and ten days without water is still perplexingly alive. Sadly, in the metaphorical world of thought and imagination, floor and parsley have merged into one sad pile, and socks, instead of simply being thrown around, have been nefariously concealed in assorted alcoves.

It’s difficult to conjour my usual humour in this situation, so even zingers like the hidden socks evoke not so much a burst of laughter as the vaguest of neural impulses. It’s still a good deal better than nothing, and certainly a massive step up from the empty silences… as distinct from the wholesome sort of silence you have meditating or watching mute footage of a tree falling in the woods. To be fair that one did actually make me laugh, as I didn’t think I had a philosophical double entendre in the tank at this time of the morning.

Last time I was feeling a bit down, but not like this, I did a bit of writing, and it seemed to help a lot. Much of the time, things I normally rely on when I’m a bit glum can’t be depended on when ‘properly’ depressed.

Food tends not to help a great deal, unless I use it to make ice cream sculptures, which normally requires a lot more concentration and artistic vision than I’m normally disposed of even at the best of times. Running is often very helpful, but that’s such a normal part of my routine anyway I can’t add any more in, and the low energy normally associated with depression means I almost inevitably do less.

Reading and writing are things I also normally struggle with when depressed, and the words never seem to flow quite as easily from mind to page or screen. To be fair, this can be a good thing, as most of the time that flow is rather too rapid and often regulated as effectively as offshore finance under the current government.

The last two months have been fantastic writing wise, as I’ve probably produced about fifteen thousand words in various capacities, if not closer to twenty. When I’m feeling really good though, there are so many ideas bouncing around that I inevitably leave something just finished enough to come back to and pick up the original thread and flow, knowing where I want to go with it. Feeling like this, I know that if I put the proverbial pen down, it’s not going anywhere for a while.

This isn’t to say that I’m advocating a depressed state of mind as conducive to writing productively, or recommending it at all, that’s just an aspect of it for me. I find it can shift my focus away from bleak introspection just long enough to open up a chance to feel better in hours rather than days, and that makes a huge difference.

I’m not sure how helpful or relatable this is for everyone, but please do put a blank slate down (paper, digital, leaf, stone) and try writing something next time you’re a bit off 100%. I suspect drawing or painting might also work really well, but because I can only make horrible scrawls that would reduce even the most benign and amiable primary school teacher to a hopeless wreck I’ll still to the squiggly word stuff.

Thanks for reading, hope something here you liked, or at least felt was vaguely worth casting an eye over.