“When an athlete gets injured, it’s akin to amputating a chair’s leg and expecting it to stand. The leg which supports them, defines them, disappears” – Cathal Dennehy, Sunday Tribune, 2007.
Ironically, I had been coaching at Cathal Dennehy’s parent club Emerald AC for some months when I read his award-winning piece of journalism ‘Nil Desperandum’.
A tale of hope at a time when I was beyond hope. Aged 20, I had known little but injury or illness for the previous two years. I had turned to coaching to fill the void that running had left behind.
I would attend coaching courses usually with a group of people twice my age. Parents, volunteers and ex-athletes, largely satisfied with their athletic endeavours and trying to give something back.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I do some coaching in Limerick, it gives me something to do when I’m injured. ‘Oh, so do you run?’ Well yeah, kind of. ‘What have you run?’ I ran 34:40 for 10km and 26:48 for 5-miles but that was when I was 17. ‘Did you run track and cross country?’ Yeah, I finished 6th in an all-Ireland 1500m and top 20 in a national senior school cross country but that was when I was 17. My brother won an All-Ireland cross country as a juvenile. ‘Oh yeah, I think I remember him’.
By the age of 25, I had completed all the coaching certification available in Ireland, coached at Emerald AC for 3 seasons and was running the endurance programme at the University of Limerick for the next 3. In 4 years of University education, I had run in a solitary 5,000m on the track, in my final year and preceded by 12 weeks of cross-training due to plantar fasciitis in my left foot.
By this point, my developing knowledge of injury and performance was beginning to find a limited voice in the sport. I would go on my first warm weather training camp as sports science support for Irish u20 internationals in 2011.
Back on home soil, at a coaching course, my newly researched methods for injury prevention would be laughed out of the room. Classed as ‘sub-dominant’, ‘your man in Limerick doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing’. I was still young and emotional about the methods that had robbed me of my running. The German guy giving the course seemed to like what I was saying – it kept me going.
For me, there would be other comebacks. During the first year of my PhD studies, I managed 7 months of training before disaster struck. The following year, I coached 15 people from our office to run a half marathon. As they made their way around the streets of Limerick, I followed them on a bike with fluids. Afterwards, toasting their success, I could barely concentrate on their exuberant stories due to the pain in my left foot. I would need pain killers for the night-out.
Bit by bit, the sport wore me down. First, I would give up all ambition of track running, perceiving it as too hard on my body. I would instead focus on road racing, before having to give up racing ambition altogether.
The song suggests that the first cut is the deepest. The cuts only got deeper with each passing injury. I became wary of the sport. Like a lover with a commitment phobia, I began to flirt with running rather than falling in love all over again. I’d make a comeback and decide not to fully commit until I started to see some returns. Not do the little things, keep going out on a Saturday night, never fully committing so that when the next injury would inevitably result, I wouldn’t be as hurt. It still hurt though. What hurt more was the gradual removal of my identity.
‘Do you run?’ Ah yeah, I just do a bit to keep fit. Occasionally pressed further, ‘Did you compete?’ Yeah, but that was nearly 10 years ago now.
I was offered a get out of jail free card in 2012 – an MRI scan. ‘Calcaneal bone oedema, a 1.2cm tear in the plantar fascia’. This is great I thought, my leg is fucked and I have a piece of paper to prove it.
In 2014, aged 27, I had given up and was training for my first half-ironman. A cousin wanted to do one and asked if I’d like to join. I was working in England, trying to write a PhD thesis at night and studying for another degree on the weekends in Ireland. My achilles was on fire at the time. I thought what the hell, the swimming and biking will keep me fit during a busy time and I’ll get by on the run from muscle memory.
The training was miserable, especially on the bike. A painful reminder that you’d have to do twice as much, at half the heart rate, to get anything close to the buzz of running. Running was heroin, triathlon was methadone, at best. The conversations got worse.
‘Are you a triathlete?’. No, I’m a runner (wish I was), I just do this when I’m injured. ‘What’s a good swim time in the half-ironman?’ I’ve no idea. ‘What type of bike do you have?’ One with two wheels.
The Road to Redemption
At this point, I had practiced many different running routines. Encountered many false dawns. Slowly I began to see a colour picture. The result of many injuries and comebacks, underpinned by 3 science degrees. I began to notice how I had become adept at problem solving long standing injuries for international athletes and also, restoring consistent running to even the most hopeless of amateur cases. I began to wonder, could I try to love again? Re-invest once more?
Physical suffering was beginning to subside but to re-invest there would be more mental suffering to endure. As the number of injuries and the number of comebacks began to rise in tandem, a major challenge to re-investing was the reaction of friends and family. My two biggest fans are my mother and my brother, but even for them, my running had become tedious. The look in my mother’s eyes was that of a woman looking at a lame dog that might be better off put down, ‘why are you doing this to yourself?’ Almost as if to plead with me to stop, but stopping short in the knowledge – it was a plea that would fall on deaf ears. My brother developed a reflexive roll of his eyes at my mere mention of the word running. The same gaze he uses anytime he feels something is a complete waste of time. I told friends and family less and less about it, unless I had performed well in a race. I felt better talking about it when I had concrete evidence of my progress.
I was running consistently during the Christmas of 2015. By April 2016 I was running 35:18 for 10km but more importantly, I would race 5 more times that summer – a record haul of participation. At the time I was asked what my running goals might be?
“I’d like to run a faster 10km than I did at 17 (34:40) and to be honest, if I ever broke 34, I think I’d retire”.
I returned from holidays to address part A. I committed, on the limited run training my body would tolerate, to improving every day and to having the discipline not to do too much too soon. The conversations began to change.
‘Best of luck tomorrow Peter’ Thanks. ‘Will you break 35 minutes?’ I haven’t for 12 years, but it’ll give it ago. ‘Do you run?’ Yeah. ‘What have you run?’ I ran 34:20 for 10km last week.
Part A achieved by Christmas 2016, it was time for Part B. Consistency became the aim of the game for December and January until I moved to New Zealand for a 6-month stint in February 2017. The challenge now was to do slightly more but be equally as consistent. I went to bed before 9pm every night and rose at 6am. Every morning, my tired old body would inevitably limp from bed. At times, the pain in my achiles made me wonder was I chasing an impossible dream. Warming up during an easy run used to require 1 mile, now it required 3. Initial conversations with flat-mates were amusing.
‘Why do you get up at 5:45am on a Saturday?’ Because I need to be on the golf course to use the grass for running before the golfers start. ‘You’ve been training twice today?’ Yes, Wednesday is double cross-trainer day, once in the morning, once in the evening. ‘Do you train every day?’ Yes. ‘On your own?’ Yes.
Eventually, after what seemed like never ending training phases, the races came – a reprieve from the boredom consistency demands. A false start in Sydney in May, an under-performing 34:19 in Christchurch in June, Sydney in July was the last 10km of a standard whereby PB’s were possible.
It wasn’t as simple as just signing up. I would have to engage in another phase of training, during a time when friends and family were visiting for a Lions tour. I would have to reorganise my mindset and cope with the guilt arising from trying to be the best you can be when family deserve your attention too. I was touring around Auckland with them, they were having a good time and I was glad to have them. Deep down I felt guilty that wherever we went, in the back of my mind was the training I would be doing the following day.
As the race approached, I was hanging on to the training process for dear life. The goal became to protect the process at all costs. I text home for a couple of sessions to freshen up my week. Asked a colleague at the University to hold a watch at the track in order to break the solitude. Set targets such as ‘make this the best Yoga class you’ve ever done’.
I flew into Sydney on Saturday night. The flight was late and the shuttle bus took longer than expected. I stayed at a hotel on top of the start line. I warmed up with the same warm up I’d used before every session in the last few months. My brother and uncle would be out there somewhere. A warm-up provides a platform for self-doubt to creep in.
‘What if I do it, wouldn’t it be great? What if I don’t do it, there’s no more races left this season. Focus, stay focused on the process not the outcome, 5-minute 24-seconds per mile, 6-minute 45-seconds per 2km.’
A quick nod to my uncle and brother who I’d spotted at the start and we’re off. The internal narrative begins.
‘Go fast Peter but not too fast. This feels alright but that group of 20 are getting away, have I fucked it up already, too slow? Mile one 5:11. Phew, this doesn’t feel too bad, glad I’m not gone through at sub 5-minute pace. Mile two 5:36. This hurts, but don’t panic you’re just levelling off from mile 1. Four km, 13:10. Good, the target was 13:30. Fuck this really hurts now, how will you get through the next 6km? Get to 6km, if you’re off pace, you can jog it home, it wasn’t your day, you tried, you’re retiring after this season anyway, who cares about sub 34. Six km, 20:00. Damn, you’re still on track, you can’t give up, you’ve got no excuse. Get to 8km, you always finish well from there. 27:00 at 8km. Exactly on target pace. Ok, push on. There is no push on. Ok, keep rhythm and cadence to 9km and you can surge from there. 9km, fuck this, I’m retiring. Ok, if you’re retiring, how fast will your last ever kilometre be? Surge! I’ve got nothing. Ok, make the form of a sprinter and maintain cadence. Where the fuck is the clock? There it is on the left, I can see 41 seconds. I’ve hardly run 34:41, I couldn’t have dropped off that much, could I?’
“And another one under 34”, said the race announcer.
A big hug for my uncle and brother, tears fill my eyes and quickly give way to a smile.
Nil Desperandum indeed, 10 years on.