Saturday, 26 January 2013

The importance of back up plans

The year was 1993, the month was January, the day was probably Wed, - though that's one detail I don't remember - the venue was Adamstown.  I was lined up in my bright yellow Donald Duck tee-shirt and my bare feet ready to take part in my first cross country race.

Now, 20 yeas later, almost to the day, I'm sitting in Dublin Airport waiting for a flight to Liverpool for the North of England Cross Country Championships.  The flight has already been put back from 07:45 to 10:15, but that's an ever moving target and until the inbound flight leaves Liverpool we won't actually know when we'll be flying.  And while the race was reported to still be going ahead at 07:50 this morning, that could still all change.  It's ok though.  I have a back up plan.  After a moment of madness last Monday I entered a 3,000m Indoor Race for tomorrow, just in case something like this happened.  I've not raced indoors for about 12 years, and I'm nowhere near track shape, so I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for eight kilometres of mud and snow today.  But I must admit, there is something very comforting about having a back-up plan.

And all this delay has given me some time to think.  Time to think about that first race 20 years ago.  Time to think about what I've achieved.  Time to think about what I've learned.  And time to think about back-up plans.

The gun went and I shot off like the proverbial bullet; straight to the front of the field.  I think I even created a bit of a gap on everyone else.  But then I was tired.  I had to stop and walk.  Loads of people passed me.  But I got going again and started to hold my place.  I even managed to pass one or two up the final hill to the finish.  I ended up 10th.  It was a county schools race.  There were lots of people behind.  I was ridiculed by my classmates for my naive tactics.  I didn't care.  I hadn't held anything back - those who know me know that I rarely do - and I thought that maybe, with a bit of practise, I could give this running lark a bit of a go.

I've been trying to think what my goals were back then; what I wanted from running, and if I ever achieved it.  I'm sure that Olympic stardom featured in my dreams at some stage, but back then I think I just wanted to be able to maintain the effort for the whole race, to win races like that, and to be looked up to by my classmates rather than be given a hard time by them.

Three or four months later other girls were upset because I statred to beat them.  The old guard of medal winners was being disrupted.  Four into three didn't go.  I had started to feature, and by May that year I won my first county title. 

I may never have realised my Olympic dreams, but running has given me so much more than the medals I've won or the dreams I've realised.  Corney as it may sound, it's made me the person I am today.

When I do deliver workshops with young performance athletes I ask them to list some of the skills and qualities that competing in sport has given them (particularly so that when they come to apply for jobs for which they have no obvious experience for they can look to their transferable skills), but I've never actually done that exercise myself, at least not until now.

And so what has running given me?  Well, aside from the fact that every educational or career decision that I have made since I was 15 has either been determined by the fact I am an athlete, or resulted from my direct and indirect experiences as an athlete, it has shaped my personality and my skill sets.  It's given me memories to cherish and most of all it's given me more enjoyment than I could even have imagined.

I didn't have many friends at school.  Truth is being a geek just isn't cool when you're 13.  Running though gave me a tiny bit of credibility, and it gave me a friendship circle away from school.  It showed me that if you work hard enough you can achieve things.  It showed me that there is more than one 7 o'clock in the day.  It thought me about setting and achieving goals, managing expectations and dealing with nerves.  It thought me to accept defeat, and to be humble in victory (a little easier when you always finish 2nd of course).  It thought me to manage my time, and it thought me to be a good team player.  It thought me the importance of a back-up plan.

And when I'm sitting here thinking about what I've learned, I'm also reminded about the things I've forgotten.  Unfortunately I've long forgotten to run like a naive 13 year old; to let everything out, and not to conserve too much; I've forgotten how to manage my life; and some days I've forgotten how much I enjoy running and racing like my life depends on it.

While I accept that the way I ran that race in 1993 isn't the best way to run a race, I do think sometimes that we can be too obsessed with the 'right' way to race.  Sport should be a way for us to express ourselves, and to demonstrate a little bit of our personality.

And so, when this plane eventually takes off, and I eventually get to Knowsley to race, I'm going to paint with my feet a little bit of me in that snow.

And so to the importance of a back-up plan.  The importance is not that I have something to fall back on if Plan A doesn't work out; it's that I have something to take my mind off the fact that Plan A isn't exactly going according to plan.  Oh and also that when I'm lined up with 8km ahead of me later today, I can think that no matter how bad it seems, the alternative, a fast 3km in a packed stadium, would have been so much worse.  

Unless of course I don't get to Liverpool.  In which case, wouldn't a 3,000m in the warm indoors make a pleasant change??!!!


At 09:50, the estimated time of departure was again adjusted - to 11:45 - too late for me to make it to my race.  Seats were offered, however, on the slightly delayed 10:10 service to Manchester.  We landed in Manchester at 11:30, I ran all the way to the train station, made the 11:40am train to Liverpool with about 30 seconds to spare, got a lift from the station to the race and made it to the course spot on time for the warm up.  And through it all I was as cool as a cucumber.

To say that the course was a challenge would be an understatement.  Where there wasn't six inches of snow, there was six inches of mud.  But then I love a challenge, and true to myself, I rose to that challenge.  The muddier the course got, the deeper I dug.  And what's more, I enjoyed myself every step of the way.  Beats being stuck in an airport - that's for sure!

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