It’s a Thursday, mid-afternoon. I am sat on a bench outside my office, swearing into a phone that is pressed to my ear, knuckles white. Yesterday I announced the date of the event I had picked and organised for our yearly club triathlon championships. About ten minutes ago I found out that there’s another, non-race event that day that has the potential to drag many members away, something I tried so hard to avoid. It feels like my hair is ready to fall out. My face is probably sweaty and pale. I am shaking, but sat in the sun.
It is 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. I am sat on the garden step outside my kitchen, finishing off a very late lunch on account of a hectic weekend of bike and run training that overran somewhat. I cannot move. I cannot move because I came out here to get some fresh air and my legs are fucked. Like, so fucked. Robo-Arnie at the end of Terminator fucked. I decide to scratch any plans I had for the rest of the day because of this immobility, despite an ever-growing to-do list.
It is twenty to seven on a Wednesday morning. I gently lower myself into chlorinated water, fiddling with my goggle straps to occupy my hands. This is a new pool. I don’t know these people. Will me doing drills irritate them? Am I in the right lane? What if they are too fast? What if they are too slow? What if they don’t know or practise proper lane etiquette? Why, ever since I did day 2 of my coaching course, can’t I stop watching other people and silently noting the ways in which their strokes are flawed? Why am I so judgemental of these people?
It’s the same Wednesday evening. I am in the garage, having just returned from a short notice two-day work trip. I can feel the rivulets of sweat running down my face, a drop collecting slowly but with definite intention at the end of my downcast nose. I am staring at the results of the power test I have just done, displayed on the small screen of my bike computer. Seven weeks after beginning earnest training again, I have finally hit the same power levels that I posted in my first week of training last year. I do not know whether to laugh or cry, so I take a wanky Instagram shot and unclip from Agro’s pedals to go and make some food. I am too tired to think. It is probably a good thing.
It is late on a Sunday afternoon. My housemates are still ensconced in our local watching the rugby, post-roast; I have come home early, to pace back and forth in my bedroom. The anxiety has been building all afternoon until it was too much for me to be in a public space with public people. Eventually I grab the little foil trays and oh-so casually toss them into the rubbish bin. Over 2500mg of Mirtazapene, the last anti-depressant I had been prescribed before I stopped taking them for the final time. It has taken me either two or three years to get rid of this hidden cache. I think it’s three. It worries me that I can’t remember.
Saturday afternoon. My legs hurt. Again. I was running at the front of an off-road half marathon for a bit, then I was in second for a long while, then a GB 50/100k runner passed me and I didn’t bother to try and catch him, and I knew I couldn’t have if I’d have tried, and I’m totally and completely okay with that. Because I’m sat here hammering away at my laptop trying to remember what my thoughts have been for the day and I can’t. No anxiety, no stress (other than race-specific, which faded as soon as the starter’s horn went). It’s a wonderful feeling.
Those are just some odd little snapshots of life over the past month; if I’m honest, since I started recording them at odd intervals, it’s been long enough that I can’t really remember what the point of me doing it in the first place was. I think it was something to do with stress? Most things this year have been to do with stress.
Since I last wrote something on this blog 2017 has not yet let up; after promising to not over-commit my time like I did last year with the regular blogging, I have managed to do exactly that. And how. Clearly this is my karmic reward for enjoying 2016 so much, while everything else seemed to spend the whole year… well, dying. That disparity deserves some heavy karma, I’d guess.
Let’s roll back the train of thought a month, and maybe at some point I might explain what the point of this whole post is. Also I might actually try and be funny again – gee, those were simpler times. This year’s posts seem so far like the darker and edgier, needlessly grim, completely unnecessary Zack Snyder reboot of Half-Rust.
This is what resulted when I kind of, sort of, well, erm, ish… broke down a little bit on a tempo run a couple of weeks back. Throwing well back, about a year and a half ago at the start of this blog, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) about motivation and why I was trying to do that which I ended up doing.
It can also be a very dangerous mindset if you’re a certain type of person. There is nothing than feels good in the immediate here and now about cutting or burning yourself. It’s incredibly painful. This is where a find an overlap between self-harmers and athletes – both groups are pushing themselves through physical and mental stresses far beyond comfortable for most of the population. Both groups do this with an end goal in mind, and I wonder how similar the two groups might find their end goals when you boil it down.
Sometimes the body, brain being (for most people) a part of it, just needs a break. There was just too much going on in the head, and me haranguing my legs into hurtling around Kensington Gardens was too much. The stress was too much; trying to hide behind exercise had the opposite effect to what had been intended. It wasn’t much of an escape. Until I realised I’d been locked in Kensington Gardens. Then it became an escape. Of sorts. Avoiding tearing my shorts on those bastard spiky railings as I dragged my heaving, sweaty carcass over them was probably the most I achieved in that hour.
Feeling stress is natural, and feeling negative emotions is natural; let’s not dispute that. The problem came in completely falling into the trap of pretending that sport (will refer to it in the generic term for ease) and beasting myself physically was a separate action from beasting myself mentally. When you’ve watched obese guys who probably weigh the same as four of you still plodding along at hour sixteen of an Ironman, at which point you have: finished, collapsed, got a massage, got food, made stink-eyes from afar at the ice bath, got beer, gone back into the athlete village to get your medal engraved, got more beer, got drunk off two beers, ordered steak, eaten steak, collected noble steed from transition, dropped noble steed off for transport, headed to finisher’s hour, collected enough instagram-worthy shots, nearly fallen over for a second time when feet decide they’ve had enough, and hobbled back to the car; after all of that, they are still going, and the argument than endurance sport is in any way more physical than mental has flown straight off the breakwater and into that fucking horrid Baltic sea. Mentally, I didn’t have it in me on that day for a hard session. I should have been doing what I did when I got home, and planning on how to resolve some problems.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Yes, obviously I was going to talk about this at some point (forgetting that I already did above). Last month’s spectacular came at the Winter 10k in London, but this month has come this morning courtesy of the Larmer Tree Half Marathon. I do quite enjoy trail running, but it’s not something I do often as the large bulk of my training focuses on road-based running. Moreover, despite having signed up to 4, I’ve never actually managed to make it to a proper Goodgym race due to double booking, illness or injury. There was quite a bit of internal pressure to represent well: it’s probably safe to say I’m one of the faster runners at Goodgym, but it’d be nice to have some proof of this on a public stage, wouldn’t it?
Hey presto, a 3rd place finish, the first time I’ve made it into the podium spots on any given race. It wasn’t a perfect run by any means: still went out a touch too hard, as is my way; probably didn’t need to stop for a drink at every water station; absolutely definitely should have listened to the England International Ultra-Runner I was – at the time, for another mile or so – battling for second with when he said ‘ooh, I wouldn’t risk my calves on that’ as I flew past him on a sharp downhill. I never claimed to be an intelligent runner (says the guy who has been walking on his big toes all day, a kinda penguin-like waddle, because he ‘accidentally’ ran a marathon yesterday). Still, first time on a podium, first half marathon, first trail race, I’m happy with all of that.
Better than all of that: for a couple of hours, my head just stopped and focused on the one job in front of it – just keep turning the legs over. Uphill, downhill, gravel, mud, whatever. Oh great good God, did it ever hurt! But that was okay. That just meant I was trying sufficiently hard.
It’s not like life just suddenly stopped for this race; all the things causing the stress and anxiety still existed. But they’d been diminished somewhat, not in terms of gravity, but because I’d put plans in place to try and deal with some of the things threatening me with early-30s hair loss. Which I’m not sure why I’m so terrified of anyway because it would be so much more aero than the mop I have right now…
That’s the weird dichotomy of sports right there. There’s such an indistinct line between being bloody minded enough to crack on through the hard times, and knowing when enough is enough, and actually you probably need to take a back seat and cool off. One concept that’s been reinforced through my coaching course thus far is the ‘learning zone’, which exists somewhere on the boundary between what is challenging and what is outright uncomfortable. Going back to the whole mind/body link, I think this concept has applications far beyond a classroom full of a motley crew of narcissist triathletes in South Croydon.
With life getting chaotic, it helps a bit to have structured training to fall back on, to impose some kind of regularity and order on things. Everything is a lot simpler when you don’t have to plan your day because your coach has already done it for you (cheers Coach Dan). More than that, everyone’s got to have a hobby, after all, to distract us from going mad by driving us mad (but in a new shiny direction).
But as much as I love triathlon, and can’t get enough of it as a hobby, I need to balance up having some semblance of a functioning life beyond the sweat and lycra. Training effectively requires that whole body, brain ‘n all, to be able to engage in that learning zone. I’ve picked another heavy year and am getting a lot done; great, by September I’ll have accomplished a shedload more amazing things, and I’m looking forward to that. But there needs to be a balance there in how I manage my time and efforts, and not try to tackle everything face on. The distractions never leave, but provided there’s contingencies and progress in place and you’re not just trying to shove them in a deep dark closet, they can hold off for a couple hours more.