Sir Chris Hoy is one strong man.
This is not about cycling. Nor is it about weeping at medal ceremonies, although I have always admired him for being ‘man enough’ to do so and actually, I used to weep along too.
No. This is about the recent documentary (How to Win Gold, BBC) in which Sir Chris interviewed Andy Murray about the strain on Centre Court.
Murray, face darker and more intense than a brooding thundercloud, smouldered blankly before the camera like the perfect Hollywood psychopath. And Hoy was asking him about his feelings! I had to look away; my second favourite cyclist was clearly about to get thumped!
But Andy started talking willingly about his emotions. Apparently, he found the Wimbledon publicity overwhelming (there were a lot of people watching, suddenly…)
And Lennox Lewis talked, too – over a game of chess that Hoy (very sensibly, if you ask me) lost by miles. Apparently a good game of chess is useful for keeping you in the right frame of mind to compete. It also illustrates the mind games involved in boxing.
But Sir Chris’s most startling interviewee was Graeme Obree, who calmly pointed out that if one happened to be an astronaut by profession, then one would have to accept some likelihood of a technical failure resulting in one’s death. What was the difference, Obree asked, between that and the risk of a cyclist risking pushing himself so hard that his heart failed? It was just a risk he had accepted.
Madness. I couldn’t relate to that at all. Perhaps Sir Chris could, although he doesn’t look insane. I doubt that my uber-competitive friend Gareth would ever push himself so hard that he risked a coronary.
I could identify with Andy Murray though. I am also easily distracted from my sport by other people, even though they are not actually watching me or gossiping in the newspapers. I am distracted by the electronic American woman on my phone who tells me how fast I am running (she always maintains that it is slower than it actually is). I am distracted by people with dogs (dogwalkers sterotypically dislike joggers). I am distracted by heckling groups of teenagers. I am distracted by people walking (are they noticing how slow I am?).
The most distracting people however, are other runners. I am distracted by good looking male runners (obviously); by beautiful woman joggers (how come they look so beautiful, when I just look like me with a red face?) I am distracted by slow joggers (are they really slower than me, or have they already done thirty miles?) and of course, by the fast ones. (There is a skinny old guy with really, really long legs who passes me sometimes. He comes up behind me, overtakes and disappears over the horizon all in about three strides. Damn him).
But most of all, I am distracted by Gareth and Naomi. Gareth might be injured, but they are still ahead by miles. They have a training plan! They have been practising sections of the route! What’s more, they haven’t spent any time at all working 12-hour days over the other side of Manchester this summer – and even if they had, they’d probably still have found time to train. They’re the most conscientious people I know; they deserve to do well, where as I don’t. On one hand, it is only their involvement and my fear of Gareth’s famous ridicule that has kept me running so far. On the other hand, I am soon to have to buy them a meal (they are set to beat us by at least two hours). Damn them! Damn them! Damn them!
When I went for a run last weekend, all this Damning was making my head hurt. Well, it was either that or the bitter shandy I’d been unable to resist about two hours previously, having spent the greater part of the day not drinking any water and lounging around under a blistering sun. At any rate, I now found that I ‘couldn’t run,’ although I knew that Gareth and Naomi would have somehow made themselves. I limped home feeling cross and scanned i-player for a programme to watch…..which is when I found Sir Chris’s documentary.
For those who didn’t see it (they’ve taken it down now, I’m afraid), Hoy’s story of addressing his own psychological needs began with him getting distracted by the opposition. He spoke of watching another competitor start off strongly and suddenly worrying about whether to change his own race – to start in a different gear from usual, for instance….
But thanks to sports psychology, by the end of his career, Sir Chris was ignoring his fellow finalists. He had his race, his game-plan, in his head. He was simply going to be blinkered to the performances of others and focus on being the very best that he could be. His best turned out to be very good indeed.
Of course, he’d worked on his performance for years. Perfecting every aspect from his first few pedal-strokes to his diet. There was a lot of talk about ‘marginal gains’ to improve his overall time; of clawing back a few nanoseconds by taking his own matress to the games rather than using a hotel one; of putting on heated trousers between the warm-up and the race. I don’t think ‘marginal gains’ is anything for me to worry about, given the much-less-marginal things that I will never alter for my running performance (Vets’ hours. Family time. Half a bitter shandy on sleepy July afternoons. Sleep…).
But the other bit – about ignoring the opposition and using the mental energy I waste on damning them to do something about my own performance – could be very relevant. I have chosen to misinterpret this lesson to cover the whole business of competing – of looking at the time, of comparing my milage to theirs, of listening to that stupid woman on my phone. The more of this I have done, the more reluctant I have been to go out for a run. Rather than seeing my own poor runs as a challenge to overcome, I have been taking them as comfirmation of my own rubishness. The belief that I should be competitive has been dragging me down; my attitude has been too toxic of late to get me round a twenty-mile run.
So the very next day, I got home from work, stuck some sweets in my pockets and ran out of the door without even glancing at the clock. I have no idea how far I ran how quickly, but it was great. I stopped to stroke a staffordshire bull terrier. I watched a heron in the river. I saw a kestrel do a shit mid-hover. I called ‘Good Evening’ to everyone I met and followed some paths just to see where they went.
I remembered my long-distance walking days. Back then, I don’t think I cared how fast i was going, or how many miles I was going to walk, or how much weight I was going to loose. I’d just set out, get a little bit fitter every day and by the end of each walk, I used to enjoy my identity as the blonde English waif with an enormously heavy backpack, powering past the proud, fit Frenchmen who carried all the best lightweight gear. Sure, this made me feel smug but I’d never have gone walking for that. I used to walk because I loved walking.
And that night, I found that I loved running, too. My knee did not complain once. I looked down over the glorious Rivelyn Valley and I felt remarkably free. It’s sad that I’ll never win a medal, or get so much as a fell-race named after me. But you know, Sir Chris has a whole velodrome named after him – and he still got turned away from it last week, when he forgot to take his ID.