So we come to the final update of my first international, and it went well. Better than well, it was awesome! It really seemed like all of the training, all of the preparation, all of the work that we’ve done and has been done for me by others, is finally starting to pay off. I went into the race in a really good place, mentally and physically. The week of long periods of rest interspersed with short, sharp track sessions seemed to do the world of good. When the race finally arrived on Sunday, I was rested and ready to go. The set-up at the stadium was rather different to what I’ve been used to. The warm up area was about 400m away from the competition area, which meant a few leg changes before I got to the call area. The call area itself was an open air pen to keep all the athletes in one place prior to each race, and the call time was a full 25 minutes before race time. All of these different elements meant a lot of potential for cooling down before we even got to the start line and so a decent pre-race plan was required before we even arrived at the sport complex.
The week in Berlin seems to have flown by and the one thing I definitely feel from this week is privileged. I don’t really think there’s any better words to describe what it’s like to be in the company of some of the country’s finest athletes, to witness their positivity and their humour, and, of course, their competitive spirit. I write this on Saturday, the day before my first international, and it’s safe to say I’ve been inspired by the other athletes as they’ve competed over the last two days. Really looking forward to my own competition now – just a few hours left.
The week has progressed much like it started, short training sessions every day to give the legs a run-out, but not enough to create any lactic build-up. Thursday and Friday were down at the track whereas today was a short low-intensity jog around one of the fantastic parks (the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Park if anyone’s interested!). On Friday afternoon I headed down to the stadium to watch the 100m heats in some pretty changeable weather – I think we went from a -3.4 to a +0.8 wind at one point – not easy racing for sure! However, the athletes took it in their strides and put in some solid performances.
So we’ve finally arrived at my first proper international competition. This will be the first time that I’ve raced under an international license, with an international classification against some of the best international athletes in my classification. It’s fair to say I’m a tad nervous, but definitely more excited. I arrived in Berlin on Monday to give me good time to get into a rhythm and check out everything I need to before going into the race on Sunday.
This last period has all been about the translation of the work we’ve done over the last 9 months onto the track. After the failings of the first race, I was desperate to get back onto the track to show that people haven’t wasted their time investing in my development. I took a day away from the track the day after that race and just rested and reflected on what had gone wrong. I wrote in some detail in the last post what I felt the take-away lessons were, but now it was time to put them into practise.
The first thing I did when I headed back to the track was to alter my warm-up, for no other reason than to get a feel of what I need to do to warm up away from my normal routine. I think that routine nature of what I was doing before put me into a little bit of a mindset before every session, and when that changed in that first race it made me feel mentally unprepared – I hadn’t been able to do a lot of my normal warm up because the track was in use, so was largely limited to the high jump area. Using just a small space in the warm up allowed me to understand how best to prepare when the situation is less than ideal. Second, I worked on my cadence. I have a nasty habit of switching to ‘safety mode’ when I’m nervous about a race. Whilst not slow, it definitely feels more like a run than a sprint. The one thing which I’m really keen to bring on over the next few months is the application of my sprinting technique to the bend. I know that this is a confidence issue – a lot of my more painful tumbles have happened either on the bend or just on the exit, and forcing my mind and body to go out of that comfort zone is proving to be quite difficult. This will come with practise and I’m definitely getting there. Third, more work on the start. I’d been working on a new method of starting since January that involved the use of a hand rest to give me the stability I need from a three-point start, but with the added advantage of putting my back in a better position for applying power to the track. I found out in April that this method of starting was only applicable to those with an arm disability or length discrepancy (this was quite unclear in the rule-book, hence why I’d been working on it).
This week saw me (finally) into race season, and what a way to start! I’d been looking forward to getting the first one out of the way with equal parts of nerves to excitement. I know I’ve worked hard over the winter on my background training and now was the time to start learning how to deliver. I know that Roger’s selected the first few races specifically to iron out as many problems as we can before the big races come along, but you always want to perform at your best and it was no different for this one. On the day though, it all seemed to go wrong! Firstly, I came into the race with the remnants of a cold, which is never ideal, and had also picked up an intercostal muscle injury during a lifting session on Saturday so was a little way off from 100% in terms of physical peak. Secondly, there were 400m races on directly before my race, which meant I couldn’t do my normal warm-up which threw me right off rhythm. Then there were the equipment issues. I’m currently still running on last year’s prosthetic sockets as I wait for delivery of my new ones, and a lot has changed in my size over the winter. The strength training in the gym has meant that my glutes have got bigger, meaning that the socket fit on my right hand side (the socket trim comes a lot higher because of the different amputation level) is a little restrictive when I fire my hamstrings. The second equipment issue was one of pure absent-mindedness.
The last few weeks (I know it’s been a little longer than normal since my last post) have seen the start of new challenges, as well as continuing with the old. It seems like a long time coming, but I’ve finally started my PhD. If you asked me ten years ago whether I had thought about becoming a doctoral candidate I would have thought you were joking. Ten years ago I was building up for the interview process for becoming an Army Officer – (then called) the Regular Commissions Board (RCB). At that point, assuming I passed, I had my career mapped out at least until December 2016. I was fortunate enough to be offered a place on the Army’s Undergraduate Army Placement (UGAP) scheme which meant I joined the Army for a full year and this formed the third out of four years of my Bachelor’s degree. In my head I would do this work placement, finish my studies, take a few months out, rejoin the Army and serve for 8 full years. So far, so good! I passed my RCB in August 2005 and moved onto the UGAP just a few weeks later.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to have gone abroad for some warm weather consolidation training in Gran Canaria. As we enter into race season in the next month or so, this was a massively welcome opportunity to work on all aspects of my sprinting technique to try and be in the best position possible when the races start to come thick and fast in May and June.The funding for the trip came from Help for Heroes as part of my continuing involvement with their Front Line to Start Line programme, and the training was put on by Professional Warm Weather Training. Outside of PWWT’s expertise, I was also massively fortunate to have not only my own coach, Roger, but also a lower-limb amputee running specialist, Hayley Ginn, who runs a company called Carbon Motion. Having this support network around me for nearly a week was absolutely invaluable, and the confidence I gained in advance of the race season will prove absolutely invaluable. Having made the most of the winter training in terms of improvements in overall strength, stamina and speed, this week was a real opportunity to make the subtle changes needed that will allow me to make the most of what we developed out of season.
The pace of life only ever seems to get quicker, and this last week has been no exception. It started off with the first educational module of the Front Line to Start Line transition programme with the Help for Heroes Sports Academy. Although partly focussed on introducing the athletes to the programme, what it offers and where it can support our development, the second stage of the module moved on to a discussion about the differences and similarities between top level athletes and military personnel and how these can be translated across into the right mental approach to high level competition. I found the discussions incredibly thought provoking and they really made me realise where, in particular, I need to make changes in my overall approach to athletics in order that I may best achieve.
Along the same lines, I’ve also been reading the book called “Winners: And How They Succeed” by Alastair Campbell – Tony Blair’s former chief spokesman and strategist during his time in office. Whilst it’s impossible to agree with every statement in the book, it has been an incredibly valuable tool for questioning my decision making process, and the examples he uses provide valuable insight into ways in which I can improve my own attitude towards success.
The last few days have definitely been full of ups and downs, and the downs have definitely been more painful than most but the ups have been fantastic. The week started on a massive high with my little sister’s wedding on Saturday – a beautifully special day which got me more than a little bit emotional, and it was also Emily’s first big day out!
Training was definitely more challenging this week. I felt during the first few sessions of the week that I was running on flat tyres and couldn’t for the life of me seem to hit top speed. I know I’ve been more tired than usual as we adjust to Emily’s night time interruptions but I didn’t feel like it should be affecting me as much as it was doing. I had a look at my training style and my training diary and realised that there had been too many weeks of doing very similar activities, and I felt that by adding variety it could help push things forward a notch. In the gym, I simply varied my sets and reps throughout my normal workouts and it made a huge difference. Changing my heavy sessions to 10 sets of 3 (as opposed to 6 sets of 4), and my lower intensity sessions to 3 sets of 8 (as opposed to 5 sets of 6) made the sessions feel like completely different workouts! Definitely learning all the time.
I’ve got that feeling again when the date suddenly sinks in and you have a sneaky suspicion that someone has pressed the fast-forward button – how is it March already? Christmas was ten weeks ago, Remembrance was four months and the Invictus games happened half a year ago. How are we at March that quickly? The most nerve racking part for me is that it’s now just two months until I start my race season and in my head there still are so many areas to work on – my start is still a little alien, my cadence needs improving, my bend/straight transition needs tidying and everyone can do with running a little faster! That being said, the difference from now to the end of last season feels remarkable. In February it felt like progress was going backwards as we concentrated efforts on improving form. This led to an inevitable dip in overall speed but towards the end of the month it started to feel like the lessons were starting to sink in and we were making some real progress. I think now as we enter into the final 8 weeks of pre-season training and continue to work on the new skill set we should see some real improvements over the best of last season’s races. I fully expect to make mistakes over the first few races in May and record times below where I feel they should be, but that’s all part of the race season – make the mistakes early and learn from the experience then take those lessons through to the bigger races.