18 Mar It’s a pretty standard story…..
It’s a pretty standard story; I was a talented youngster, on the way to great things and although training was hard, success came relatively easily. I took a few set-backs, same as everyone else, but I seemed to bounce back and injuries longer than a few weeks were unfamiliar.
And then things weren’t working out the way they were supposed to. I was training hard but results weren’t going my way. At first it doesn’t seem like a big deal and you can shrug it off, but then PBs become elusive. Races don’t seem as fun; each time you race and are disappointed, your confidence takes another knock and you don’t bounce back as quickly as the last time. Hands up if this sounds familiar.
I don’t know how common this is; hitting an inexplicable wall in your career. I know a lot of people will have experienced the running black hole and drop-out statistics speak for themselves; there’s only a certain amount of time that even the most stubborn person is going to hit their head against a brick wall.
In 2011, although training went well and I won the 1500m at BUCS, after that I couldn’t find any good form. I was aiming for European Under 23s and hadn’t imagined qualifying would be a problem as I had run under the qualifying time plenty of times before, but I couldn’t get there. I raced again and again trying to run the time, but nothing happened, except I got more and more frustrated and my confidence was being worn down. I was in the middle of my final university exams, so put it down to that, but even after they were finished things didn’t get better. When I found out I had stress responses in 3 bones in my left foot I was relieved, because it meant I didn’t have to keep going, I didn’t have to put myself on the start line any more, knowing before I started what was going to happen. It was easier to call it a day for the season and try to re-group for the next year.
My cross country season was equally disappointing and I dropped out of a couple of races, which damaged my confidence more. My coach Arthur was trying to help me, but he was based at home in Blackburn while I was in Birmingham and he couldn’t really work out what the problem was.
So I started trying to find out what the problem was by myself. I wondered if my confidence was the problem and spoke to a sports psychologist. I thought it could be taking the Pill, so I wouldn’t take it anymore. I’d recently had a blood test, so didn’t think it could be anaemia or a virus. I thought I just wasn’t pushing myself hard enough so I saw the psychologist more. I questioned my coaching set up and wondered if I was right to stay with Arthur and because I like to live up to clichés, I was scared I was running badly because I was too fat. I tried to get back to my 18-year-old weight. I ended up eating little in the morning and for lunch, and then eating A LOT of junk in the evening (and we’re talking whole packets of biscuits here, I don’t believe in doing things by halves…) In case you’re wondering, this isn’t a successful weight loss regime.
I got to May 2012, a time that I’d always imagined to be incredibly exciting when I thought I’d be challenging for a place at the Olympics, with slow legs and low confidence. I was offered a place in the invitation race at BUCS in the Olympic stadium and ran 2.11, a time I was pleased to run at 15, but didn’t excite me so much at 22.
As an athlete it’s hard to know when it’s time to walk away. In my own circumstances I repeatedly asked myself if I would be happier without athletics; if I could quit and make myself feel better. My parents were supportive and wouldn’t have questioned it if I’d decided to call it a day; it was hard on them as well, as they’d watched me get faster each year since I was 14 and found it hard to see me floundering. Over the summer my mum asked if it was ok if she didn’t come and watch anymore, because she didn’t like to see me run badly and get upset ; in some ways it was a relief when she said it, because if she wasn’t there it was one less person to let down again.
So how do you get out of a performance black hole? I’m afraid I can’t tell you. Questioning what you’re doing is useful to a point; grasping desperately in the dark for answers is definitely more trouble than it’s worth. In the end I got a blood test and found my ferritin level was low for a normal person and so much pretty useless for trying to run fast. I asked Bud Baldaro to coach me as Arthur’s health had deteriorated, and I settled down into the training. I lost weight naturally as the iron tablets kicked in and I started running better. I got an invite to run in the On Camp With Kelly race at Crystal Palace, and I ran 2.05, a 5 second SB. After everything On Camp with Kelly did for me over 5 years, that invite probably meant the most. Kelly had spoken to me over the winter and tried to keep me motivated, but that invite, in effect saying ‘We think you’ve still got it.’, was probably the best thing she could have done.
So my advice for anyone who finds themselves struggling, whether it’s for 2 months or 2 years; do other things. Make sure you’re not spending all your time stressing about running. Although it’s the biggest cliché in the world, it’s not life or death. Take yourself out of the environment sometimes. Be nice to everyone else who’s doing well; It’s not their fault that you’re running like lethargic sloth and they’re running well and you want them to remember that you were gracious in defeat when you eventually get back to where you want to be. Don’t worry about little things like your weight. Unless you’re challenging for selection on The Biggest Loser, it’s unlikely to be causing your poor performance. If anyone starts questioning your sanity for carrying on; don’t listen. You’re not done until you say you are.
I’ve no idea what this summer, or the rest of my career, will bring. 2.01 might be the best it’s ever going to get but I hope not and I’m staying around until I can find out how far I can go. If you think you’d be happier without athletics, call it a day. But if like me you can’t imagine life without it, hang in there because if you do, you’ll probably make it out the other side. As lots of smart people have said to me before and since, “It’ll be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”