I was at a student workshop/convention/thing earlier this year, and I can’t wholly remember the context in which it happened (I may have been hungover at the time), but a question was asked – what is the hardest thing about being an off-campus PhD student?
I didn’t answer at the time – possibly due to the aforementioned hangover (or possibly because of jet-lag – those are my two excuses and I am sticking to them non-exclusively), but there is an answer that I wish I had provided. The inability to immerse yourself wholly in the subject matter you are addressing.
I am a person with a variety of labels, and this is self-imposed (the variety – not the labels). I am a Dad, a boyfriend/partner, a son, a training manager, a professional, a PhD student, a triathlete/runner. Like many/most people – to use the corporate bingo terminology – I wear many hats. What this means though is that my ability to be execute these roles faithfully is diluted by volume. I’d love to be a better runner, and I would likely be so if I spent the time that I spend reading and writing for my PhD running instead. I’d love to be a better PhD student – more immersed in the subject matter and knowledgeable of ongoing developments, and I would likely be so if I spent the time that I spend running – reading and writing for my PhD instead. We make these conscious choices because we enjoy more than one thing and sometimes we make these choices because the alternative is not palatable. Ideally, I would quit my job as a training manager and spend the time that I would then gain running and studying for my PhD. That won’t happen because in my hierarchy of values – I value having food and a roof over my head (and helping provide for those I love) more than I value a potential PhD or a sub 20 minute 5km.
But sadly (for me at least), that immersion feels more and more like a (the) key to success. When I encounter those who work in the think-tank world and talk to them about nuclear weapons, it’s not just a job – they live it. It’s virtually all they talk about (that, and Game Of Thrones. Naturally) – and that is what makes them so successful. Their success comes from the immersion in the subject matter. They are the opposite of that adage – ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I see the same in the triathlon/running world. The ones that are the most successful are (generally) the ones who live, breathe, sleep triathlon. I don’t need to ask them what they are doing on the weekend, because I know. It’s one of four things (wait for it) – they are swimming (yep), cycling (yep), running (ok…) or drinking (boom). Everything ties back to triathlon – and that is awesome. I envy that level of dedication and focus, and it why – for the time being at least – I am not likely to reach the levels of the first group of running at track nights. I choose not to immerse myself wholly in these things, but rather spread myself amongst a number of things – and I’m constantly looking for new things to distract away from the things I’m already working on. I want to do a podcast about politics, I want to get more involved in local politics, there are numerous television shows that I keep meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to. Too many things.
And it’s not even as if this is new ground for me. I particularly remember – as a young boy – being told by a family friend over a campfire one evening about this very thing. They told me that the key to success, and why they felt that hadn’t been as successful as they could have been, was to pick one thing and go for it. My choice was between being a mediocre tennis player and being a mediocre cricket player at that time. I went for cricket (really) and was not bad – I think I probably maximised my talent in that area. But I lost that lesson over time, and now I find myself in this position of once again being middling and unfocused – as justified as that is with the other priorities in my life.
The advice sticks true though I believe. If you want to succeed – and I define success here as making the most of the talent and whatever you have available to you – then pick one thing and go at it. Be single minded in your goal and give it everything you’ve got. Then see how far you’ve come.
Listening To: ‘Fall At Your Feet’ by Boy and Bear
I was born and raised in a city called Melbourne in Australia. Melbourne could easily be characterised as one of the most sport-crazy cities in the world, and from my experience of living in a couple of places – that is not far off the mark. I used to joke that greetings in Melbourne went “What is your name?” first, and then “What team do you support?” second. It wasn’t even a question of sport – it had to be Australian Rules Football – or ‘footy’ as we called it. It was just a natural thing; we needed to know what team you followed in order to categorise you immediately – to put you in a bucket. If you said ‘Collingwood’, I could marvel that you actually had your full set of teeth and rapidly put my hand on my wallet for security reasons. If you said ‘Footscray’, I could pass comment that I wondered what class of drug you were currently high on. If you said ‘Sydney’, I could immediately infer that you had only followed the sport leisurely and had no fucking idea what you were talking about. You get the idea.
So then I moved to London, and I wanted that kind of tribal loyalty again – though I knew that it would have to be, in a way, manufactured. You can’t replicate a lifetime (years 1993-1996 excepted) of support for a single team by simply dropping in. But how do you choose? How do you choose your loyalty with little frame of reference to pick from? I decided I needed a system, I needed a completely objective process. So I said – wherever home is when I first get to London; the team closest to that will be my team. Fair enough right? Here’s the problem – the first place I lived was Kensington. So QPR, Fulham or Chelsea could lay claim. I decided Fulham. But I had a problem – no-one cared. People would ask who I supported, and I’d say Fulham, and they’d kinda shrug. That wasn’t what I was looking for! So I hit reset and said -the next place I move to; that will be it. And I moved to Caledonian Road in North London. On match days, when the wind was blowing the right way, I could hear the sounds from the Emirates Stadium bellowing out. When I told people that I supported Arsenal, they would sneer. I had found my team – though trying to get passionate about them was sometimes trying, because I didn’t necessarily have that conditioned feeling for it that I have for my Australian Rules (footy) team, Melbourne. But I tried to get into it.
It hasn’t been great being an Arsenal ‘supporter’, but it hasn’t been completely rubbish. A couple of trophies, and a couple of embarrassing walks to work after European floggings – but all in all, they’ve been great to follow. Much the same like Melbourne really; ever disappointing and with fans accused of being fairweather at best. My kind of team. But then I did this:
And now I had something on the line. I had a real reason to dislike Spurs, and not just because I was supposed to. Because I hate losing – I hate losing at almost everything. I have to swallow a small part of my pride whenever I let my 5-year old daughter win a running race. I am 95% sure I will lose a Fantasy Football league I am in this year, and I’m furious with myself! One of my driving motivators for getting better at triathlon and running is because I am competitive enough that I want to be at the pointy end – not stuck in the middle. I am a competitive person, even though I try my hardest to suppress that as much as I can.
But in making this bet with Joanna – I lost, and I lost huge. It wasn’t even close. Arsenal have been abject to watch this year, and Spurs have been…well…they’ve been…good. They’ve been good to watch, a good professional football team. Arsenal haven’t been – and now I have to do a ParkRun (thank god its not a marathon!) in a Spurs shirt courtesy of Joanna. Time to take your medicine boy – you made your bed, now you have to run in it.
It’s all in great fun though, isn’t it? This is the kind of stuff that I was looking for, this kind of feeling, this kind of rivalry. It’s great. Though I won’t enjoy running in the shirt.
And it’s actually come at a rather good time, as my running is on the upswing at the moment. I’m not setting myself any targets, just running. Trying to get that mojo back and build myself up to being as fast as I know I can be. I did a track session with Chasers on Tuesday night, and I loved it, even if it did make me feel glacially slow and inferior compared to all of these amazingly fast people (and their bodies – my goodness – chiselled gods in all directions; I bet they don’t eat Pizza Hut for dinner!). But I really pushed myself because I was surrounded by all these fast people, which was exactly what I was looking for. I’ll be back.
So I’m running well, in that I am running. I’m reminding myself that this is supposed to be run focused triathlon training, as I still have designs on returning to triathlon to do 70.3s in the future. I know my end-goal targets (under 0:30 swim, 2:30 bike and 1:30 run) that are incredibly optimistic for someone of my standard, but something I want to push for somehow. I have to believe I can do it – and I have to work for it. Spending this year focusing on the run is a good way to start that, while I still pursue my other pieces that are ongoing (which are going well – past the halfway word count on my PhD draft!!).
Lots of work to do on the roads of West London. Sadly, some of it in a Spurs shirt. Go Gunners!
Listening To: ‘The Captain’ by Biffy Clyro
I can hear you already. I can hear the voices, strangled in pain, crying across from The Mall in a incandescent wail matched only by the pain of walking down a small set of stairs. It squeals – “YOU didn’t RUN the London Marathon! How can you possibly get a post Marathon bump?!”
Ok, perhaps I over-egged that one a bit. But I am feeling surprisingly motivated to run again, which has seen me back out on the pavement and even – gasp – considering making my Chasers track debut. And it’s all because of the feats of not just the pros – but actually moreso everyone else who ran, particularly those who filled my social media feeds over the Sunday with great photos and memories. I’m so incredibly happy for, and perhaps just a tiny, tiny bit (incredibly) jealous of everyone who got to run on Sunday; it has just really spurred me on to find that 30/60 minutes most days to get out and run. It doesn’t matter at the moment how far or how fast – I’m just trying to get out and run on a regular basis.
There is quite a long way until Frankfurt (October), so I need to be careful not to injure myself – but I know already what my challenge for this next marathon will be. I need to maintain my motivation. I’m really good (who isn’t?) at being motivated for the first chunk of training. When I look at the data from my Rotterdam preparation, I was bang on track (more or less) for the first few months, but dropped off with a month or so to go. This would be annoying if it wasn’t what I have done for pretty much every marathon I’ve ever run. I start off well, maintain that for a few months and then grind to a screeching halt with about 6 weeks to go – losing all of that good work from the leadup, resulting in a stagger over the finish line.
Any advice would be great actually; how do you maintain your motivation in the latter stages of your marathon training? And a massive congratulations to everyone who completed London – you are an inspiration!
Listening To: ‘Where The City Meets The Sea’ by The Getaway Plan
Here’s a question for you – why do you run?
I’ve been doing my post-race analysis, and as far as time goes it is really simple to work out why I ran what I ran in Rotterdam. I stopped training for the month leading up, and that apparently can have a detrimental effect on your ability to run an above-average marathon time. While part of the reason I stopped running was because I got sick (especially in the last two weeks), the main reason I stopped running prior to that was that I just didn’t want to anymore. I really didn’t. I’ve never quite experienced a drop in motivation like it in regards to running, and I had no answer to the funk. I just decided that I didn’t want to run – consequences in Rotterdam be damned.
I’m still ok with my Rotterdam experience; I enjoyed it much more than I did Rome where I ran a faster time. But I am keen to get to the bottom of my motivation problem, as it is quite easily the biggest limiter to better performance. I can’t escape this question that keeps coming back to me of late though – what is the point?
There is a voice in my head that asks this a lot. It asks questions like ‘who cares if you run a marathon under 3:30?’, and ‘who cares how many marathons you have run?’. It is this voice that is – to a degree – the reason why I haven’t told anyone where I work that I had run the marathon, and definitely haven’t told them the time. I have this nagging voice in my head that says ‘why would anyone care?’. And more importantly – ‘why do you care?’. I have to be honest – I don’t have an answer for these questions at the moment. I don’t know whether it matters for me to run a faster marathon or not. I don’t know why I would care that much about running under 3:30 for a marathon, or 1:30 for a half marathon – other than the fact that it is there.
I’ve done some research into why other people run, and I’ve found that – generally speaking at least – most of it doesn’t work for me. I’m sadly not motivated by elements of charity (I give to charity without the running, and I could live without the guilt of potentially under performing in a race in support of a charity. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like charity places in races), nor do I feel anymore the need to prove myself to anyone or impress anyone. I’ve found lately that no-one really cares anyway. So I’m not sure why I want to run anymore. Right now I want to run because I can’t. My legs are still battered from Rotterdam, my feet still baring the blistered scars of 42.2km and my cold still holding on for dear life causing the occasional hacking cough. But what happens after that? What happens for me once I can start running again and I’m starting to build again for my Autumn races? I don’t know – but I’m hopeful that for Aberdeen and Frankfurt it will be different and I can start to realise my potential a bit.
I’ve got a long way to go to figure this out though – a marathon all of its own.
Listening To: ‘Knee Socks’ by The Arctic Monkeys