I think it’s going to take a few weeks for it to sink in, but I just competed at a World Championships! What an adventure. The whole experience was just incredible, from being away with a team again through to the actual competition itself.
I arrived in Qatar almost two full weeks before my first race, and the first week was taken up by a holding camp. This was time devoted to acclimatising to the environment, establishing a routine and the last bits of training preparation prior to the competition itself. We were accommodated in the Torch hotel, an iconic building from the 2006 Asian games located in the West of the Qatari capital of Doha.
This hotel is within the Aspire Zone, which is one of the best equipped sporting facilities in the world with a 50m swimming pool, athletics track and full size football pitch – all indoors. It also has several gyms and 12 other sports pitches all under the same roof. It also has an outside track, rehabilitation hospital and 50,000 seat stadium outdoors. It was these facilities that we had access to for our holding camp, and we couldn’t have asked for more. We were provided with exactly what we needed, exactly when we needed it and I am so grateful for that.
My second week in Doha was spent in the competition hotel, just next door to the competition arena. I moved across on the 21st in order to go to the opening ceremony, which was simply stunning. It was held at an open air amphitheatre next to the bay and was such an incredible spectacle to witness – dancing, fireworks, a trapeze artist swinging from a balloon and a wheelchair athletes doing back-flips on a skateboard ramp – it was amazing! I was there as the GB and NI flag bearer which was such a proud moment for me. Because of my military service, that flag means so much to me already, and the fact that I now got to carry it in representation of my country adds more significance to something already so iconic.
After the opening ceremony, it was back to business of concentrating on performance. This meant more sleeping, more eating, and more training – simple! I think these five days between the opening ceremony and my first race were the hardest of my time in Doha. The waiting was horrible. Being my first major competition, the nerves were most definitely there. I found I couldn’t concentrate on anything for thoughts of the race. I had brought a whole load of PhD material with me and I think in the whole time I was in Qatar I managed to write about three paragraphs worth of work. Not great, but I was at a World Championships! A few long days and nights in November should help me catch up on that. I started to see my sleep suffer, adrenaline peaks every time I thought of the race, irritability and poor performance in the training sessions.
However, when it came to my semi-final, I felt I was as ready as I could be in the circumstances, had a great warm-up and felt amazing going into the call room. But that’s where it all went wrong. Call-room is something I’ve only really experienced once before, and that was at the Anniversary Games, and it’s different every time. Going into call for my semi-final, I think everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. Because of the heat, I had sweat in my sockets, so I took my legs off to dry them out. Then, when I had my legs off we got called to the second call room, so I rushed to put my legs back on. In second call, I needed the toilet, but the toilet floor was tiled so I had to take my legs off again, and was again rushed to put them back on again. As we got taken out to track, I was expecting to drop my things in a box behind the start line, but this was different again and we dropped them at the side of the track. And then, as we got to the start line, the officials only moved my blocks back about a foot, and they were in the way of my normal preparation jumps. Whilst all of these things are just minor details, the cumulative effect of them was that I was all over the place when it came to the start. As the gun went, my legs went to absolute jelly and I ran what felt like a terrible race. I was wobbly, I was tense and I couldn’t put any power down. But I managed to compose myself for the last 50m and qualify for the final – target achieved!
After my semi-final I felt quite down about the performance I’d delivered, really felt like I’d let myself down and definitely didn’t show my potential, but after words with team mates and a pep-talk from my team coach, Rob Ellchuck, I realised what an achievement it was, and how much potential there was for improvement – I’d just qualified for the World Championship final with a bad run! All the experience of the semi made going into the final a genuine pleasure. I knew what to expect, I knew what to do and the nerves had gone – I was just looking forward to racing. As I walked into the stadium I took the time to look around and breathe in the moment, reflecting on where I was and the journey to get there, and I was happy. I lined up for the start and everything was good. The gun fired and I was away, running a relaxed bend and had a reasonable transition onto the bend, and then I tripped. Definitely not what you want in the final, but I tripped nonetheless! It happens quite a lot with blade runners, and it comes down to the fact that you can’t feel below where your stumps finish, so that proprioceptive feedback just isn’t there. It is one of those things that becomes less common with experience, and I will get there, but at the time there was nothing I could do about it so I had to laugh! I ended up in lane 8 as I was bounced around by my blades, but managed to recover and come through in 7th place with a time that wasn’t too horrendous and smiled all the way to the finish line! I’d just ran in the World Championships, messed up both my races and managed to come 7th, what an experience! I know that even if I don’t get to run in a major competition again, I lived in the moment and relished it.
Coming back from the Qatar gives me time to focus and reflect on the experience. I learned so much while I was away, taking advice and guidance from Dave Weir, Dan Greaves, Aled Davies and Rich Whitehead all helps with my own development. Getting advice from the coaches and the medical staff also increases my chances of better performance over the next 12 months. Understanding the different pressures that come with major competitions, knowing what it is like to be away from home with people that were strangers at the beginning, how to adjust the training schedule and create a routine that works were all vital lessons that can only be learnt by going to a major. But for me, the best thing that could have happened was that final race. Understanding how to live in the moment and enjoy something that is inherently fun is something that I know will stay with me through every competition from here on. It taught me how to replace the nerves with excited anticipation, how to reduce the pressure that comes from major competition, and that it is something that is fun to do! It allowed me to come away from the competition with enthusiasm and drive for the next season, rather than anger and disappointment that I didn’t perform anywhere near my best.
So now, at the end of one season and the beginning of another, I simply can’t wait to race again. It’s just over ten months until the Rio Paralympics, so let’s get back to work!