It’s that time of the year that everyone reflects back on how the previous months went for them. The highs and lows the highs and heart breaks. So here is a reflection on my year as a runner…
My last run of 2013 was Dec 25th and I was lucky enough to have spent Christmas in New York with my family and friends (one of whom is a Sub 3 hour Marathon runner). That morning we ran 7 miles along the Hudson in the beautifully crisp and dry but freezing cold New York sunshine. And then that was it. My runners were so badly worn that when I got back to my room I took them off, looked at them as if they were an old friend, and chucked them in the bin!..
And then my gloomy period started… January 6th, 2014 I was scheduled for surgery to repair the damage from a mountain biking injury the previous March in Finale Ligure, Italy. I had lots going on, chronic shoulder dysplasia and years of weightlifting, rugby, kayaking, boxing and climbing etc. had left it in a sorry state. Combine that with a fractured AC joint a posterior dislocation and a ruptured biceps tendon and I wasn’t going to be doing anything for quite a while. I had the surgeries (yep, 2 of them!) and was then left in a god awful contraption of a sling that had me externally rotated for the next 12 weeks. No mountain biking, running, or driving to give me independence and it started a downward spiral of feeling sorry for myself and wondering that whole why me? Now I know I didn’t get life changing news and no one was dying but these are personal problems and when they are yours they are as big as anyone else’s in your weakened mind.
I was starting to feel cut off as all my friends are bikers are runners and I was beginning to feel completely left out of the social element of life. I think when you’re an active person who genuinely loves physical activity an injury can be a catalyst for depression if you don’t manage the negativity and think of future positives. My Strava and Garmin was empty for over 3 months. I had previously ruptured ACL’s on both knees and had to have those repaired so I was starting to feel like I had done something in a previous life that warranted orthopaedic punishment! But there is only so much self-loathing I can stand and then one day I had enough. I knew the sling would come off and my world would revolve around Mr Miyagi wax on wax off Rehab and pulleys and thera bands would become my new training aids. I set myself a goal, the most important thing I believe you can do when you are looking for some motivation and to maintain focus on life in general whether it’s sporting or just learning a new skill.
I believe without goals and ambition life is a hollow affair.
So the goal became Dublin City Marathon 2014 and the ultimate goal was to run a 3:30 my previous best effort a 3:32 in the inaugural Limerick marathon with my younger brother. I started slowly regaining fitness and cardio output. Slow and steady was the mantra but boy did I enjoy it! I was out of the house I had both arms moving independently again and freedom was mine! I could process thoughts, filter them and come back with a clearer outlook and my cloud of depression began to lift with every run.
As the race neared my training couldn’t have been going any better, short fast runs saw average pace of 6:30 per mile over 5 miles and my long runs were on the button of 8 min/miles, sometimes even faster. I like to make training tough so I don’t do gels and as you know from my previous post I don’t do music. So long runs were a bit of a war of attrition. But I was winning each Battle with the end of the war in sight. Friends were asking me how training was going and I was gushing with confidence I was bouncing during training and loving running again. Then a week out I did a final ten mile run and proclaimed to my wife that I think that on the day I could be looking at a slightly faster time and I quite rightly allowed myself to hope.
Now the thing about any sporting event as any athlete of any level will tell you, Training is everything and nothing. Because if it goes wrong on the day it can go really wrong. Cue three days out I woke with a sneeze and sore bones. I have 3 kids and they had all been like diseased rats the previous week – eyes puffy, noses running and generally trying to infect the house! I dosed myself with paracaetomol and hot drinks and took to bed. And I got worse! The Sunday before the Marathon (It’s on the October bank holiday Monday) and I was in Limerick coaching the youngsters at my Rugby Club and walking was leaving me sweating and coughing gunk. But I convinced myself I was on the turn so off I went to Dublin to register and get my race number for the next day. I always love Dublin, lots of my friends take part and we always carb up the night before and support each other, there is a lovely sense of comradery to the whole event.
That night I shivered and shook and thought about quitting but the training was done and I was going to run it if it killed me. But I wasn’t stupid, I changed tact, I decided that I would pace some of my friends to a 4:10 finish and for the first 16 miles we were bang on pace. Sadly though at mile 16 I walked off the road and told them to press on and don’t drop pace. I was beaten, done and dusted. Use all the terms you can think of and you could have applied anyone of them to my state at that time in South Dublin. But I didn’t quit!!! I simply changed outlook at the split second, something I have never done before. Normally I kick and scream if I lose sight, I am very competitive and always have been I grew up in a house with all boys and we all played sport (Carnage). I began to shuffle and just kept repeating, “one step, one step, one step”. And then I made it to mile 20, only to have a large hand placed on my back as a member of my running club patted me on the back and asked “ Are you f***ed too ?” I looked at the person who shall remain nameless, and I simply shrugged and said “ Yep, do you wanna stroll with me ?”.
So we strolled onward, sometimes shuffling, sometimes attempting to get back on pace. Smiling and thanking people for kind words of support and laughing at inappropriate ones from people who have obviously never ran in their life but meant well. My co-finisher, I found out, was married to a girl from my home town and was a sister of one of my friends growing up and I never knew! He had also suffered one of the greatest tragedies with his wife as they lost a baby at childbirth and we talked about this and as a dad of 3 healthy active kids I couldn’t imagine how he even got up every morning those weeks after. We spoke about this and we spoke about how at 26 I came home one day and found my dad had passed away on the couch from a massive heart attack, aged just 52. I spoke to him at 12:55 and when I got home at 1 he was gone. We spoke about how we both coped with different losses, and here’s the thing, at that moment in time I realised that life was mirrored in the race. It is a struggle and its distance certainly warrants marathon stamina. You can quit if you like but if you find support and take encouragement from others you can persevere.
There will be times when you will be cruising with everything working perfectly, life and love in unison and then there will be days where you feel like you can’t breath and just taking another step is the most taxing thing in the world. But look for help, process thoughts and stay on course.
I plodded home to my slowest ever finish as it took me 4 Hours 46 Mins to conclude this ordeal. But I genuinely think that I drew more from this race than I would have if my illness had abated and I could have pursued my initial target. I realised what it is to be humbled by something out of your control, to realise that my problems are indeed mine but they are not the all-encompassing cloud I had let them become, I realised an inner strength and resilience to accept a situation, deal with it and see it through. I was delighted finishing and promptly rang my doctor and made an appointment the following morning which led to anti-biotics for a lung infection!
So looking back on my year it started with physical health that led to mild mental health issues and culminated in a medal which I will treasure more than any other, even though it went into the shoe box under the bed like the rest never to be seen again! And this process of writing down how I felt has been extremely cleansing, and at the end of the year I am running better than ever and still trying and if I can live my life as I ran that Marathon with support, humility and acceptance the rest of my days on this revolving rock should be just fine.