Archive for March, 2012

Don’t Look Back!

March 28, 2012

So, my indoor track season is over. Blink and you’d have missed it this year. Just three race meetings, and a total of six races. Did I really train that hard just for them?

I guess that, given the persistence of my calf injury through the winter, I should be pleased that I’ve come through it nearly unscathed. I needed to tape my leg for each race, but I didn’t do it any greater harm. I was, however, SLOW! OK, I got two medals at the Southern Counties Championships (silver and bronze) and I won both “B” finals at the British Masters Championships, ending up 4th overall on times in the 60 metres. But I am rather disappointed with the times I ran. Over 200 metres, make that “very disappointed indeed”.

My winter’s training has left me strong and (by my own standards) pretty agile. That’s great, given that strength and agility were two of my winter targets. However, being regularly unable to run in training at little faster than a jog has meant that I’m just not in the groove when it comes to running fast. And that’s a bit of a drawback for a sprinter, especially one who reckons that 200m is usually his best event.

I think it was my friend and track maestro Steve Peters, amongst others, who said “you’re only as good as your last race”. The wisdom of that is only now dawning on me. That’s because, far too often this winter, I’ve been telling myself things like “Hey, you almost won a World Championship 200m medal in 2009” and “Remember when you raced three great rounds of 200m in a day at the World Indoors in 2008?” The thing is that, while thoughts like this might console my ego, living on past glories tends to make one flabby in current training.

Me, flabby? What I mean is that there have been far too many occasions where, on the pretext that I was protecting my injured leg, I’ve looked back and said something like “Yeah, well you don’t lose the ability that got you [A, B or C] overnight, do you?” I’ve allowed a bit of nostalgia to take the place of ambition, targets and so on. No, that’s not correct. Actually, I’ve allowed a LOT of nostalgia to do that.

It isn’t an “age thing”, even though it’s obvious that the older you get, the more you have to look back on. I have a friend who is very focussed on a world age group record in his own event this August. This is motivating him hugely, and the training sessions he’s putting in literally put mine to shame. And what are my own ambitions for the upcoming summer track season? Erm…ummmm…weeellll…..I guess if I am honest, they involve words like “survive”, “get through it”, and so on. Of course, I’m the first to admit that this isn’t how it ought to be.

I guess what I’m lacking is a decent set of benchmarks. My indoor times were, as I’ve said, slow and unsatisfying. Even when I got those two medals, I couldn’t help looking on the times as so far adrift from much better performances that had won me nothing at all in past races. What I mean is that they were “OK” times for that competition – after all, I finished up near the sharp end of the field, didn’t I? See, there’s that nostalgia thing lurking in there all the time, isn’t there? I’m wanting to be as good as races I ran a couple of years ago, or more; I’m finding the reality difficult.

Now, that might be an age thing. Maybe I’ve just reached the age where performance on the track starts to decline more noticeably than before? I’ve been unusual in that respect. I returned to sprinting aged 46, after 15 years away from it. I didn’t run my current Masters 200m best time for another 8 years, and my 100m best 9 years after my return. I am also firmly convinced that depression, and anti-depressant medication, in the last two years has robbed me of vitality. I’m not bitter about that. Depression is a bastard, but it’s a bastard I’m coming to terms with, and one that hasn’t managed to rob me of most of the things I hold most dear. You’ll never get me to say that I’m glad for my depression, but it has changed me, and made me a stronger person – that I do believe. Just not a faster one!

I now have about a month before the outdoor track season begins. I am nervous about the month. I want to use it to build on what that modest set of winter competitions has shown me is still lurking in the machine, but I am really keen to do that without triggering more hurt, which in turn will trigger more under-performance, and disappointment.

What I do need to do is take some of my own advice. So often, I’ve found myself saying to other athletes suffering far worse hurt than me “Always remember: in Masters athletics there is always next year.”

An evocative drawing by my clubmate Paul Ross-Davies

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Digital Dreams and Networked Nightmares, and “To blog or not to blog?”

March 16, 2012

That is the question.

I’ve recently been working with a couple of organisations who want (and need) to start blogging. To be honest, the technicalities of this are pretty straightforward these days. There’s quite a small choice of good, adaptable and easy to use blogging platforms. A blog is far easier to set up than, say, and email address, and when you demonstrate how easy a blog is to create and maintain, there is a definite “wow factor” for those who have not been there before.

In one case, I was also able to show how one blogging platform could serve as a substitute for an RSS feed, a photo gallery, an adjunct (rather than a threat) to a well-established newsletter, as well as a basic blogging platform for managers, staff, volunteers, stakeholders, and so on and so on…. For both, the discovery that you could compose your content almost anywhere and cut and paste the content into the blogging platform was an additional eye-opener.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the issue then? Just get on with it.

Well, to a greater or lesser extent in both cases, neither body has really twigged what a huge difference a regular blog will make to their organisation. More than a newsletter, more than their slowly emerging Twitter feed, far more than an RSS newsfeed, and probably far more even than the web site on which it sits.

I get the impression that in some cases (and have one case in point in mind) the birth pangs of a web site are so horrendously challenging for an organisation that, once published, there is a real tendency to sit back, relax, and feel that the work is, basically, now over. If you ask how their web site will be discovered, the answer is usually “by browsing”, “Google” and so on. Great care always goes into web site home pages, and the cacophony of links that run from this, but few web site owners seem to realise that it’s normally a minority of users these days who navigate into content via a home page.

We’re in the day of posted hyperlinks, links in tweets, links in blogs and the like. These don’t say “go to such and such home page, click topic A, then sub-topic B, and you’ll find what you want”. They post links direct to content, bypassing home pages altogether. And that’s possible because we are into a growing culture of information sharing. I spend (aka “waste”) far less of my time nowadays browsing for and through web sites. I read blogs. Usually blogs containing links. I use aggregators like Instapaper to create a reading list that takes me straight to what I want, rather than casting me in its general direction and leaving me to search.

Like any social media, actually “doing stuff” is often well rewarded by a prior spell of “reading stuff”. It’s amazing who is blogging and what you can find regular blogs about. But unless you have an inkling of this, it can be hard to appreciate two key issues about blogs:

  1. they are THE way at present to get your views out to readers; and
  2. they will reward you with more feedback, comment and recirculation than you’ll believe before you begin.

And still they ask “But who will read it?”. This becomes an opportunity to stress the value of blogging and tweeting as partner activities. One of my organisations has 160 followers on Twitter and an e-mail list for its newsletter of about 200 others. That’s more than 350 potential readers for a start, before adding in the retweets etc that will share the content with ever outwardly rippling lists of others.

I’ve also been asked “should we tweet or should we blog?” My answer is that it isn’t either/or. Yes, Twitter began as a “micro-blogging platform”, and there are many users who are still satisfied to use it that way, condensing all they have to say into 140 characters. But how many of these are in your everyday timeline now, really? Anyone with anything to say is blogging elsewhere, and using Twitter as one of the most effective instant messaging services around, to post links. I’m increasingly aware that this is happening with newspaper articles (where the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” is setting a standard) just as much as it is happening with individuals and small organisations.

So, back to the original question. To blog or not to blog? How can you afford not to?

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

March 15, 2012

Happy Birthday to me!

Actually, I do have a real birthday coming up. It’ll be tough, as it’s going to be the first one in my life when I won’t get a card from my mother. However, this week is also a different kind of anniversary. It’s two years now since I was diagnosed with clinical depression.

Of course, I’d like to say those years have raced by, but it’s far from true. Today I found myself looking back at old blogs and diaries to reassure myself it really was “just” two years. One of the great things about blogging for a while is having reference to old stuff and seeing what you were saying around then. This was my blog at the time. The cold I mention there only made matters worse, but it’s interesting, given the truth, to see what light I made of that trip to Ghent. Because it was there, in the  solitude of a room at the local Campanile motel, that I first admitted to myself that “things were not right”, and that maybe, just maybe, I needed some professional help.

The racing that weekend was indeed good. Such has been my situation subsequently, that I’ve probably not won more than one or two races since that 60 metres title in the 2010 Belgian Masters Championships. The performances there were really a bit of a “last hurrah” on the steady slope down which I’d been sliding in the previous eight months or so. They happened at the point at which I can now see that I just “lost the plot”.

I recall the Ghent weekend as being a pendulum of emotions. Up, as in our visiting team of GB Masters won several races. Then down, when the Belgians wouldn’t award us medals, and celebrated the first Belgians past the post as “winners”. That was false, forced and even embarrassing to the local athletes. Up, as in I ran well. Down, as in I realised I’d got a cold coming. And so on. The cold was real, by the way, not a euphemism for my parlous mental state.

I returned to the motel, closed the door, and recall saying to myself “Is that it, then?” Athletes on the professional Grand Prix circuit probably feel a bit like that all the time. I was suddenly almost completely overwhelmed by a desire to go straight home. My Tunnel ticket was for the next day, and I’d promised a small group of other athletes I’d join them for a meal that evening.

I’ve come to understand that I am what, I think, is known as a “high functioning depressive”. Quite what I actually looked and felt like as company that evening, I dread to think. However, I remember it as a jolly time in an excellent little restaurant, and I’d be very sure no one I was with had the slightest idea what was going on inside my head. With hindsight, I am hugely grateful to Keith, husband of athlete friend Ann, for engaging me in conversation that evening, because I really do shudder to think how I’d have been or what I’d have done, had that meal out not provided the diversion it did.

Belgian beers and some paracetamol for the cold were a potent enough combination to let me sleep. My memory of next day is almost blank, however. I recall being in the streets of St Omer in northern France, but having not the faintest recall of the journey there, or even why I’d made the journey there. It was well off my direct route home. I remember overdosing on coffee in a motorway halt, being home again, and fortunately getting an appointment next morning with my very excellent GP. Thus began a two stage process of my eventual diagnosis.

The regular reader of this blog will recall it was eight full months before I felt able to blog about depression. In the meantime, that “high functioning depressive” continued to wear his “normal person” mask. The feeling of release when I did write about it did make me feel bad about, lets face it, being fairly dishonest in the intervening blogs. Or maybe not dishonest, just very partial.

So, two years, eh? Last weekend, I won a couple of minor medals in regional championships. The national championships are in two days from now. I’m still racing. I’ve stopped taking the anti-depressants. I still have great days and they outnumber the terrible, grindingly awful ones. We athletes can be pretty self-centred at times, but the big change in two years is that I have come to see how valuable other people are in my life. For example, the people who have just been around and aware when I’ve been in a bad place; the people who have shared with me their own experiences of depression; those who’ve shown me how interesting, fun, challenging and sometimes downright stupid this life can be. And my fellow athletes particularly, who have not made any allowances for me on the track, whatsoever!

Elton’s title (off the “Captain Fantastic…” album) is for all of you.