The Tallest Tree

Oh, here we go again. One post a month, can’t be that hard after doing one a week for a year, right? But no, back home from having worked 28 hours over the last few days, knackered, might have had a stress beer, pages and pages of notes and 4 hours to try and forge them into something resembling a statement. But this is where the magic happens, right? When there’s no time for real thought, and everything just becomes an incomprehensible, seething wave of thought?

It’s true though, isn’t it. I still think the best posts I ever wrote (disclaimer: my mind may change on this quite often) were the Something To Write Home About mini-series; they weren’t planned, I didn’t spend hours editing them. I didn’t plan to write them until I realised I was going to spend a lot of time in the car on the long road to Sweden and decided I’d need something to distract me. They’re just whatever was at the top of my head that day, surface thoughts. Fear, gratitude, things ticking over. They’re the posts that when I go back and re-read I don’t feel immediately compelled to edit the poor spelling. It’d make them feel less, I dunno, ‘pure’.

Yes, it’s a bit late, but I can promise I’ve been thinking about the blog a lot throughout the hedonistic throes of the ritual off-season. It’s a grand thing, isn’t it? All that time, no pressure to go anywhere and do anything and… oh god I’ve been doing this all wrong. You’re meant to stop at some point, right? Actually, like, take a break?

It's okay, they didn't catch me

That is not the face of a man who has taken a break. That is the face of a man who is trying to make the universal ‘cut, make it stop, I am dead’ cross-throat hand gesture, having maybe, just maybe gone out a little too hard at cross-country and run himself into the ground. Literally. Twice. Still finished, but not my finest effort.

To be fair, I don’t think the off season is as much about giving oneself a physical rest – although it does involve much more of that, it’s not being completely inactive. It’s more, certainly for me, about releasing mental pressure – no all-consuming training schedule, no rigorous diet regime, no running various race scenarios over and over and over and over in the head until you’re sick of it. It is doing stuff for the fun of it again, which has been nice.

King of the land, as well as the sea

Fun, for me, has mainly meant more cycling. It’s meant a double sportive weekend, that I loved despite the inclement weather, non-functioning gears and legs that were ragged from my mid-week endeavours (more on those in a bit). It’s meant the annual Jekyll & Hyde Duathlon in fancy dress, which was a special kind of sweaty hell. Unfortunately I can’t find any pictures of how aero that was on the bike, but there’s a couple of videos of the sprint finish at the end (here’s one featuring the flailing arms of the world’s most excitable marshall, the other angle on Instagram).

The one sole concession I have made towards serious self improvement is a lot of hours spent at my very posh physio in Central London, where I have mainly been doing squats. Squats, weighted squats, lunge squats, squats against a medicine ball, single leg squats, jump squats, drop squats, turn and squat, jog and squat, squat squat squat to strengthen that posterior chain. Fun has involved little running, other than a return to Goodgym that I’ve shamefully missed for most of the year, and nipping down to Brockwell last weekend to finally steal a 1st finisher spot that’s been eluding me for years at my local. Fun has involved no swimming. Swimming is the Devil.

At some point, though, I got a bit fidgety, and it was time. Maybe my hand’s been forced a bit, but I’m jumping back in. This has been accompanied by a lot of tough decisions.

It’s been a frustrating year. I say that, knowing that at times, it has been frustrating at best. Another bloody achilles strain just as the season kicked into life, this budding triathlete managed a grand total of three triathlons this year. Three. I did more than that in my first season when I still heard ‘aero’ and thought ‘mmm confectionary’. I did more than that in my second season, where I was Ironman-obsessive and thought aero was a thing you could buy. Old, wise, crippled me knows that aero is a thing you have to become, and managed three bloody races. Pah.

More infuriating still is that precisely one of these races went well, and it was a bloody sprint. Albeit my hometown sprint, but a sprint nonetheless, for someone who is fairly firmly set at excelling over long distance. Less time for something to go wrong, I guess, but that’s a very fatalistic mindset. Nothing went colossally wrong over 10 ½ hours in Sweden, after all. It is possible. Possible, but… bleh. Roth was a shitshow from start to finish, if I’m blunt. Even from before it started, with training disintegrating into more physio and work. Wales, I can at least still console myself in the thought that it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Most infuriating was the constant battle going on in my head, all year, about what actually was and wasn’t my fault. Work was mental. I couldn’t have changed that (without quitting on the spot). But did I make the most effective use of the time I had? No. I quit. I quit Roth months before the race. I quit Wales on and off again, several times over several weeks.

Dialling into the specifics, how much were Roth’s hamstring and Wales’ technical issues actually real, and how much were they sandbagging (term being thrown out a lot at the moment, look it up)? I can never work out how much of the problems I’ve had this year are problems, and how much of them are ‘problems’. It’s easier to rationalise continuing on a very time consuming, very very expensive, very very very antisocial journey into sports if there is a sense of progression about things; and if there isn’t, if there is a concrete extraneous reason as to why, so there is still hope of improvement. If it isn’t just me flailing against some aspiration that I’ll never reach.

I was meant to be better this year, and I haven’t. In long distance races, I’ve got progressively worse since Sweden: 10:28:44; 10:56:10; 11:28:37. I remember them all well. Partly because they’ve all been lock codes on my work phone in the past year – anyone who races semi-regularly should never have to think too hard the next time something seizes up and won’t work again without changing an arbitrary six-digit code. Seriously, no-one cares about your races, they don’t know what your times are, you’re safe.

But yeah, also the frustration. I look at those times, and I look at the excuses, and I genuinely have no idea any more if the reasons I gave were the reasons at all. I don’t trust my own account of these races; races are emotional places, not safe zones of rational thought. On the other hand, I need to believe that I am capable of more than I managed. I have to believe those excuses are real, because otherwise, I’ve just wasted a year going backwards. That is not a concept that sits comfortably with me. Neither is the thought than I’m being so bloody absolutist about the whole thing and the numbers are all that matters, and I didn’t learn some valuable lessons along the way.

So the first tough decision was: which race? Trying to fit an early season race in before work picks up again, I was limited to a handful of choices. In the end, it came down to two: I can accept entirely that 2017 was out of my hands, go to South Africa, and have another punt at stringing a good bike together, who knows. Another 6 months to sharpen up, anything could happen, lots of rolldown. Or: I could accept that I’m maybe not where I thought I could be by now, if you asked me a year ago, and test myself against a much tougher course, that plays to the strengths I thought I had before this year shook my faith in them.

If I only could, make a deal with God...

I figured I’m more likely to learn something this way. Plus Lanzarote is generally touted, alongside Wales, as being one of the two hardest course on the circuit, so I can say I’ve got both those feathers under my hat. Hey, who knows, maybe I’ll re-find myself in a delirious haze while suffering from heat-stroke halfway up a volcano.

Either way, I needed to sign up for another one. Because I am not done yet, because I still have something to prove, because I would like to find out exactly what that is. Because I need to learn to pace myself out of T1 and to grind into the wind. Because I was getting fidgety. Because my head isn’t quiet, because I need the hurt in my legs to distract me. Because I’m lucky enough to have lots of excess income. Because I’m a prat who doesn’t learn his lesson. All of those are applicable.

There was a harder decision hanging around at the time though, and one I feel a lot of guilt over. None of the things that went wrong (or that I think went wrong) this year were Coach Dan’s fault, and absolutely I would never have shown any fleeting promise in Kalmar without his help. At the moment though, I’m not sure where my motivation is, and I’ve decided to part ways for the time being. It feels pretty horrible, as Dan’s a great mate as well as a great coach, but something had to give to get me back on track. In order to try and really hammer the swim/bike that I need to improve on, I’ve turned to Coach Tim, who already has been responsible for all of the swim improvements I made at the start of last year, and has also helped me out a bit on the bike in the past. Despite the guilt, I’m very excited to see where this goes next (I mean it, honest, it’s just hard to jump from morose back to excited after a paragraph like that).

I guess the main thing that’s been going on in my head is where I am at, and I guess this blog kind of reflects that. 2017 has had its moment, but it’s been much less funny than 2016, and I guess I don’t want to try and hide that. I’ve realised that I’ve never been in love with a moment more than when I crossed that line in Sweden, and that’s a blessing. It’s also a curse, of sorts. Half the reason 2017 was so disappointing is that I went from over-achieving in 2016 to underachieving in 2017. Maybe in my head the gap is a little more disparate than others would feel, but it exists. I never felt accomplished this year. It felt motionless, hanging on rather than moving on.

Actually, that’s the best way I could put it. Hanging on to the things I did last year, both in trying vaguely to keep sharp in triathlon despite a trying work environment, and in hanging on to Sweden as a happy time, the epitome of the person I’d like to be. Neither’s a good thing. I need to be moving past both of those.

I can’t help but feel I should have left this blog done last September. It’s fun, and although I’ve had less time to do the writing stuff this year, I still enjoy it. But I think the story was better encapsulated in one little year. Sometimes I wonder what purpose it serves continuing this, if it’s forcing me to keep dwelling on things that I was trying to draw a line under.

But hey, I carried on anyway, so now I feel kind of committed. This site would fit a two-act structure in it’s current state, but I prefer the classic three-act, so let’s stick it out for another year and see where that goes. I can’t promise any great literary miracles, but I can try to carry on being open, I guess. Maybe the humour will happen again.

State of the Union, one week prior to training beginning for the 2018 season. Yeah, I’ve got no idea how to wrap that up, and I need to get to bed. Physio tomorrow morning. Roll on the 2018 season.

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