Mental HealthRunning

Becoming Past Tense…

I used to be a runner…

Not a bad one too. And like many obsessive types it dominated my thoughts and actions for years. Fifteen hours a week of skipping round the mountains backed up by recovery spins on the bike. Sub 3:35 Seven Sevens twice in a week, followed by a 3:41 Mourne Skyline, with a couple of 55 minute Slieve Donards for rest days. Diet pored over, any excess a weakness that could shatter the delicate mental balance of an elite mindset. Holidays were thinly disguised training camps. The mantlepiece groaned with the weight of a lovely variety of trophies. Grippy Inov8 rubber soles were worn to rounded nubs in a matter of weeks. I trained, I raced and virtually everything else was secondary. Never underestimate the power of true addiction, and even when the craved for activity is essentially healthy, the withdrawals are just as powerful as the most artificial of stimulants.

And then I wasn’t…

It was a more gradual process than that I suppose, more a coming together of circumstances. Covid decimating the race calendar for a couple of years coincided with a body that was clearly beginning to question the workload. Initially it was actually okay, the novelty of not having to train meant that it felt like a choice, but the reality was that I was working almost as hard. Strava KOM’s still accompanied most efforts and deep down I knew that if I wanted then I could still be competitive, still win whenever it meant enough. As if to prove it I did come out of retirement to win the Irish World Champs trials, smashing a course record and putting eight minutes into the second placed athlete, himself a 2:15 marathon man. Then the Worlds was cancelled and that was that. Decision made, time to hang up the shoes and go out to pasture.

Identity Crisis

Nothing really prepared me for the impact of identity loss. In the eyes of so many people I was ‘Ian Bailey the runner’ and so when the almost daily interactions in the street or the supermarket no longer brought tales of crazy schedules or planned world record attempts it became apparent that people really knew nothing else about me. Conversations became shorter and less frequent as my name disappeared from the newspapers and websites, and the mantlepiece gradually freed up space for photos and candles. Losing something so central to your character can be a huge blow, especially when you realise how tightly your self-worth is aligned to noticeable physical prowess. Mental health issues brewed and the inevitable pondering of unstoppable demise filled my thoughts. Fortunately the desire to stay fit remained and I avoided the pitfalls of so many retired athletes who relax completely and wake up one day to find themselves four stone heavier. I told people that training was all about keeping off the pounds now, I almost believed it once or twice.

Facing Facts

I’m 44 years old, which in ultra-endurance terms isn’t actually that old. Theoretically my best years could still be ahead of me and occasionally, driven by that knowledge I’ve pushed hard again, re-introduced the running sessions, re-acquainted with that pain. It’s short-lived though, and although there’s still a solid engine there, the injuries are always lurking, calves tightening and locking in a manner so familiar. Acceptance has come in stages, each time a little less crushing than the last, emphasise the positives and swallow the upset, I had a good innings and hindsight brings mild satisfaction and pride.

Becoming Present Again

Something had to change. The loss of identity, of confidence, of ability, it all had to be stopped in its tracks in order to find salvation, and it ultimately came in an unlikely form, yoga. I’d tried it briefly before, and driven by the correct assumption that my body was becoming crippled by specificity I’d attempted to complete the occasional session. Unfortunately the burden of tweaked ankles, wire-tight hamstrings and perpetually exhausted quads made every position into purgatory; my body needed to recover first before beginning a transformative process. Running had destroyed overall wellbeing, both physical and mental, the self-induced torture of failing to live up to past achievement haunting both body and mind. Yoga allowed a freedom only accepted by a results-driven mindset simply because I was so awful at it. Laughing at my own ineptitude suddenly brought happiness, where previously only disappointment lurked.

Looking to The Future

I’ll not lie, the desire to train persists, but the NEED has dissipated and now it genuinely is a choice. I still run but it’s pretty much solely on monday evenings where I’m coaching the next generation of mountain runners, coaxing them towards steep slopes and broken ground, acquainting them with the joys of open space. Every day begins with twenty minutes of yoga, and there are signs of genuine progress, positions that seemed physically impossible a year ago are becoming realistic. The gym has also become a passion, creating all-round strength and a more balanced body structure. And biking is obviously still prevalent, my first love will always be there and cardio can never be fully ignored, even if the need to bury myself has all but died. I’m definitely stronger and healthier and the hollowed cheeks and emaciated body of the obsessive runner have been consigned firmly to the past.

The Lure…

Once a competitor, always a competitor is an adage that rings true for many athletes, and once their elite careers are put to bed they often set about decimating the age categories. I must admit that the lure of competition does occasionally rear its head but I’ve come to realise that what I always thought was my prime motivator actually matters little to me. I’d always considered ego to be my driving force, the accolades and respect of others energising tired limbs, forcing me out of the door into the elements. It turns out that I was wrong, it’s actually the intrinsic satisfaction of knowing I’m in good shape that maintains motivation and drive, and besides that, the buzz of competition can still come from elsewhere.

Recently, and totally out of the blue, my elder son Rowan said that he wanted to try a Cross Country running race, and not just any race, it was the NI and Ulster championships. Naturally I was delighted and re-arranged my planned work day to go and watch. Pulling into the venue brought back memories of winning the Ulster champs myself a few years back and the familiar smells and sounds of racing certainly raised the hairs on my neck. As a twelve-year-old competing against the best fourteen-year-olds in the country I’d warned Rowan to run his own race, ignoring the incredible pace off the start line and keeping to the speed that he could maintain for the distance. I can’t lie, seeing him come round towards the finish having run his second lap faster than his first got me totally welled up with pride and it more than equalled the feelings emanating from any of my own achievements. He crossed the line muddy, exhausted and smiling, experiencing the post-race high for the first time as I experienced a different, and no less powerful joy of competition.

Rowan enjoying his first XC race a couple of years after I ‘enjoyed’ my last!

Rowan has now joined his school cross country team and although he currently shown no signs of sharing my degree of obsession, seeds have been planted and maybe he’ll keep wanting to discover the joys of exercise, training and competing long-term. He’s the future, but I no longer feel like the past.

Embracing the Inevitable

Change is the only constant and realising that has been a revelation. I’ll never again match past times or achievements on testpieces of old but that’s fine, it doesn’t lessen me as a person and it doesn’t mean that the grave is imminent. I can now touch my toes without pain, knock out 500 press-ups with ease and comfortably cruise 200km on the road bike, I could never do that before. Beyond that, and more importantly, I can use my experiences and knowledge to help those who’s best performances are still years away, and because of that my running will never be consigned to the past. Feeling past tense is now itself in the past tense, the future is always coming, we just have to embrace it.