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    1. Posted: 28 May, 2015

      D is for Disappearing. And Depression.

      Category:

      Yes, I’ve disappeared from the world of athletics. No, I haven’t retired. It’s taken me a long time to work out what to say here, and how to say it, but I wanted to get it right. So I have joined forces with the lovely people at MIND to get my message across, and my blog also appears here.

      Sometimes it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. It shouldn’t be – I have a beautiful wife and an amazing baby daughter. They make me happier than I can express here without both boring and sickening you in one fell swoop. But still, sometimes, inexplicably, it’s hard to do simple things. 

      It’s a ludicrously hard thing to admit to feeling depressed, especially when I have no way of quantifying it. Am I depressed enough, or am I simply dealing with feelings and anxiety that everyone experiences? They don’t complain, so what gives me the right to feel self-pity? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I do know that it feels like a weakness to admit it. As a sportsperson, mentality is the key to success. I pride myself on my mental toughness – I feel like I have dealt incredibly well with some very challenging situations, in life and in the sport that I love.

      Athletics’ beauty is in its simplicity. It is completely objective. Cross the line first. Run the fastest time. But what happens when you don’t cross the line first or run the fastest time? There have been plenty of occasions for me where that has been the case, as there have for every athlete out there. Sometimes I’ve made poor decisions, sometimes I’ve not been fit enough and sometimes there have been injury problems – all things that I am responsible for, but not necessarily things that I have wanted to, or felt able to explain.

      I’m a private person, something which is difficult to reconcile with a job that places me under scrutiny and in the spotlight. Social media provides the opportunity to explain but it can also leave me feeling tremendously and terrifyingly exposed.

      I want to share how I have been feeling, in some part to reach out to other people who may feel the same way, but also through a desire for catharsis. But I am simultaneously paranoid about the reaction I will receive – particularly (and most peculiarly) from people I don’t know. Should it matter to me what a complete stranger thinks?

      What has led me to this point? The 2012 Olympics were an amazing experience and an incredibly proud achievement, but in the 31 months since the end of the 2012 season, I haven’t managed to toe the line in a single outdoor track race. Injury has meant I haven’t ever been able to train fully throughout that time.

      I’ve had several lengthy conversations with close friends about how it has felt to deal with a serious long term injury, and why it has contributed to my feelings of depression. The best way I can explain it is to ask them to imagine showing up to work every day, but being completely unable to actually carry out that work. Not only this, but not doing their work takes all day, and by the time they get home they are exhausted and frustrated but yet have achieved nothing.

      Struggle with identity

      If someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I am a runner. But for the last 31 months, there have been very few days where that self-definition has felt accurate. I feel like I have completely lost my identity. Holding myself up against the training I have been able to do in previous years is one thing that has left me disconsolate and barely able to leave the house.

      At the end of 2013, after more than 12 months of pain, problems and inconclusive diagnoses, finding out that I had a chronic tear in my hamstring tendon felt like a solution to my problem. It also meant that it felt ok to start again at zero and to compare each day to the last, rather than to days when I was ready to take on the best in the world. All I had to do was focus on “being the best me” each day. I had a plan and could set about tackling it head on.

      But I wasn’t ready for the other impossible-to-put-my-finger-on causes of some moments of darkness. These are by far the most frustrating. I like to be able to solve problems, but not being able to pinpoint the problem (or perhaps not being certain that I have a problem deserving of attention) only makes the feelings of helplessness worse.

      There have been times when I have been ashamed of the person I seemed to be becoming. The main reason for my self-reproach was a complete inability to distance myself from the athletics world – and in particular the performances of others. I felt angry towards those people who were able to compete, and I wilfully hoped for them to fail. These feelings were quickly replaced with abject guilt – I know first-hand how hard one has to work to succeed, and I should be able to respect the endeavours of others.

      It took the slap in the face of a close friend calling me a “bitter old man” (amongst other things) to make me confront how irrational I was being. Hearing this from someone I trust was exactly what I needed. I feel like I can finally hold athletics at a safe distance, allowing me to be more relaxed and objective about watching the sport that I love. I’m now able to be happy for other people and their success, which has lifted a huge burden from my shoulders that I wasn’t even aware I was carrying.

      On some days I still suffer from crippling indecision, where making simple choices or getting out of the house takes hours for no reason other than procrastination. I still worry about what other people think. I sometimes react nervously to receiving a text message or email in case I have caused someone to think badly of me. But the lowest, most lonely moments – when I would think that it might be better if I had some sort of career ending accident that would take the decisions and heartache out of my hands – don’t really happen anymore.

      The injury struggles I’ve described here have culminated in serious knee surgery to repair damaged tendons. The recovery and rehab will be difficult, both mentally and physically, but the moment the anaesthetist asks me to start counting down from 10, will be my new day zero. It will mark the start of my attempt to make the Rio Olympics, however unrealistic that might seem. And I hope that it will allow me to share the details of my recovery, on both the good days and the bad days.

      Writing this has helped, and talking to people about it has helped. Talking and trusting close friends continues to help. So that’s the why I am sharing this, because if anybody reads what I have written and it strikes a chord, I hope it encourages them – encourages you - to talk to someone.

      Please do visit the MIND website if you feel like you need help or to talk to someone.


    2. Posted: 14 October, 2012

      The Big O

      Category: Competition, Photos

      Despite the fifty shades of red, white and blue on display, the screams inside the Olympic Stadium were simply the outpourings of support from 80,000 people who had come out to watch Our Greatest Team. In the process they showed me personally, Team GB and most importantly the rest of the world, that Britain really does have the best supporters in the world.

      I felt incredibly proud to be a part of Team GB for a home Games. Whilst all of the athlete interviews from all the sports may have lent the “crowd were incredible” sentiment an air of cliché, that is simply because there is no way to describe how it felt. It was and still is, impossible to describe the wall of noise, the electric atmosphere of anticipation, or the feeling of pulling on the British vest. But suffice it to say, as a country we showed everything that is Great about Britain.

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      After the tribulations I mentioned in the previous blog, I arrived in the village ready to go, and to soak up the atmosphere. I moved into our apartment with Chris Tomlinson, Robbie Grabarz, Andrew Osagie and Ross Murray, where I was sharing a room with Chris Thompson.

      Day one of athletics arrived, and it was finally time to don the vest in anger. It was a usual race day of nervous waiting, coupled with an air of “is this real” and “s***, this is the Olympics!”. Time slipped by and suddenly I was at the warm up track, where I can only really describe the atmosphere as the calm before the storm. By this point we all knew this wasn’t a normal major championships – watching a full stadium roar Jess on to a world heptathlon best in the hurdles in the morning session made sure of that! I had a walk around the warm up track with my coach, and then lay down for a quick read to clear my head. Stretching, then a very early jog as we had to contend with an unusually long 50 minute call time. I did a few easy strides, grabbed my spike bag and headed into final call.

      For once, all the officials were speaking English, which was strangely comforting. For anyone wondering what goes on in there – our bags are checked to make sure spikes are the right length and that no one has an iPod or phone, or any branding that’s not allowed. The call room is basically a big room with dividing walls separating it into pens so that each heat is segregated from the others. Plain walls, and eerily quiet as each athlete goes through their routine. There is the occasional bit of banter to break the tension, and the officials try to stop any jogging around. Then it was time for the long walk through the tunnel to the main stadium – 8 minutes of walking in silence feels like a long way. We were given our front name bibs with transponders attached (which provide 100m splits for all the distance athletes), leg numbers and it was time for spikes and a few strides on the short straight under the stands.

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      Then it was time for one of the most incredible moments of my life. We came out from underneath the stands in single file, and there was a surge of deafening noise spreading outwards as the crowd spotted the Team GB colours. If I thought that was loud, I was in for a rude awakening as my name was announced on the start line. If I had clapped my hands in front of my face I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. The sound had such a physical positivity, that I felt taller, I felt lighter. Then we were off, and despite tripping with 120m to go, I felt great and qualified in an automatic spot.

      After crossing the line, in a mixture of excitement and relief, there was a brief chance to soak up the atmosphere and to acknowledge the crowd before hiking back to the warm up track via the longest ever mixed zone! A quick warm down and the chance to talk to my coach whilst getting a massage, then I hopped on the bus back to the village. I went straight into the (6000 seater) dining hall before heading back to Team GB medical HQ for an ice bath.

      Fast forward less than 24 hours, and I’m sitting with the guys in our apartment in the village with no idea of what’s about to happen. Super Saturday. Need I say more. We watched three of our friends and teammates win the biggest prize in world sport, it was incredible. So incredible that I had to take myself out for a walk around the village to calm down and relax before trying to get some sleep before my own Olympic semi-final.

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      So then it was my turn again, it was Sunday, with much the same routine as Friday. I was drawn in the second semi-final, which was made up of 13 athletes after the reinstatement of Nixon Chepseba who had stumbled in his heat. First 5 athletes from each semi would qualify automatically, with the next 2 fastest overall also progressing. I felt good in the warm up, nervous but ready to go. Then we got out on the track and the noise hit me again, I’ve run out of superlatives for the way that it made me feel.

      The gun went, and the rest is a blur. The pace felt incredibly fast, but what was not necessarily obvious was that it was fluctuating – always the toughest way to run. Not only was the pressure applied at the front inconsistent (by an obviously keen-to-stay-out-of-trouble Chepseba), but the rest of us were scrapping for position and doing our best to avoid stumbles and fallers. I felt like I was going as hard as I could go right from the gun, and when I knew that I really needed to move up through the field I was already at my red-line and just couldn’t make it happen. I ran hard to the line but finished in an agonising 8th place – 7th place 0.4s ahead of me qualified for the final.

      How I felt back at the warm up track is perhaps the most difficult thing to explain. The event that I had been training for over the last four years was over, and I was one place away from a second consecutive Olympic final. Obviously I was disappointed, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that. The closest word I can think of is empty. It was a case of “ok, well what now?”. There’s no urgency to recover, to get an early night or to think about training again. Perhaps lost is also appropriate.

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      Another reason for such complicated emotions was my own constantly shifting goal posts. Four years ago I was confident of competing for a medal in London. A smattering of small injuries over the next few years meant that it wasn’t quite so straightforward, and as I mentioned in the previous blog, at the end of 2011 I wasn’t even sure I would make the team. But so consistent was my training from September 2011, by the time I ran a PB over 3000m in May 2012, I knew that I was back at my best – stronger and faster than in 2008. But, also as per the previous blog, my four week lead in to the games was far from perfect, and even if only subconsciously, the goal posts moved again.

      Yes, I was disappointed not to have a chance to compete for a medal, but I was also (and perhaps more importantly) proud to have fought my own demons and won, and to have represented Team GB on the biggest stage of all.