As another year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on the past twelve months and without taking certain banned words and phrases out of parentheses [viz. journey, rollercoaster of emotion, etc.], it would be reasonable to suggest that 2016 has been “eventful”.
There have been a number of difficult moments that remain at the forefront of the mind, despite my best efforts to rid them from my thoughts. A significant “blip” (it’s a technical term) in the summer had a greater effect on me than I allowed all but those closest to me to see; but led to me inviting my workmates to a talk about the reality of living with a form of depression.
Me and dysthymia have been companions for four decades, but much as talking about daily struggles and revealing even a little of the person behind the 9 to 5 (strictly speaking it’s 8:30-4:30) mask is still emotionally draining, the fact that a couple of colleagues felt able to open up about their own situation was moving and genuinely humbling.
2016 has been another—the third to be precise—year of my “challenges” to raise mental health awareness. From “Dry January”, to a second 12-hour solo darts marathon, working in a soup kitchen, meeting a couple of Middlesbrough footballers, owning a racehorse for a day and completing the equivalent of an English Channel crossing on an indoor rowing machine, I have tried (very much in my own way) to show that it is fine to talk about mental health conditions; and it’s equally fine for ask for help.
Fine doesn’t mean “easy”—but to use a sporting analogy, even the bravest fighters need someone in their corner. There’s no shame in mental illness… none at all; and I am determined to keep trying my best to highlight these unseen, yet so often devastating conditions and the positive change that help and support can bring.
My list of challenges for 2017 is not quite complete yet (suggestions always welcome), but preparations are underway, and hopefully some of the tasks and events will gain enough interest to maintain the profile of the underlying theme.
On a personal level, the possibility of meeting Bryony Page, Olympic trampoline silver medallist in Rio, is something I’m really excited about. Bryony was responsible for one of my two most magical sporting moments of the year; the other coming courtesy of the Team GB women’s hockey squad. Two stunning performances under the most intense pressure, followed by the most wonderful and unforgettable release of emotion. Elite sport doesn’t get any better in my opinion.
In other respects, 2016 has been a sad and disturbing year. I know little about politics; but even those that purport to have some knowledge cannot rationalise the implications of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, let alone Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency. He comes across as a dangerous loose cannon, and I worry about the world that my children and future generations are going inhabit and inherit—even more so given the conflict and threat that already exists.
The sadness comes from the seemingly unprecedented number of high-profile names that have left us over the past twelve months. Most of us will have been affected by the news of yet another passing at some point; for me it was the loss of “the Greatest” Muhammad Ali—as an athlete and a human being we will probably never see his like again…
I suppose that if this year has taught us anything, it is to take nothing for granted. I am therefore both thankful and blessed that 2016 will end… just as it began, with the most special person I know; my wife Elaine. I am looking forward to sharing 2017 (and beyond) with her, and will keep doing everything possible to make her life as happy and fulfilled as I can—and I’ll be doing all the cooking as well!
I’m lucky to have my amazing parents, a wonderful family, and some great friends; and I will end my last blog of this year by thanking you for all your love (where appropriate!) and support and wishing you everything you would wish for yourself in 2017.
Yesterday saw the completion of my 75th Time to Change mental health awareness challenge. The three-quarter point on the way to my eventual goal of a century of widely varying tasks was reached with the most physically demanding test thus far—to complete the equivalent of an English Channel crossing on an indoor rowing machine.
The shortest distance between the English and French mainlands is the 34km (21 miles) between Dover and Cap Gris Nez; and this was therefore my target.
I joined the gym at Eston Leisure Centre in September and gave myself three months to train for the event, which was scheduled for 23rd December, thereby allowing me enough time to recover and regain the strength I would need to open all my presents on Christmas morning.
After my first couple of sessions on the rowing machine (or ergometer… “erg” to its friends), a few things were apparent: I am old, I was not very fit, and France is much further away from England than it looks on a tiddly map.
I sent an e-mail to British Rowing to explain what I was doing and ask if they could offer some guidance on how best to prepare for the event. A few days later, I received a message from Neil Dunning, club captain of Tees Rowing Club, who said he would put Julian Bunn in touch with me, as he would be perfectly placed to help me with all aspects of the training.
Julian is one of the best indoor rowers of his age group in the whole country, and he has produced outstanding performances across various distances in competitions both here in the UK, and abroad. Basically, he has forgotten more than I will ever know about indoor rowing and I was delighted that he was willing to work with me.
By the time we met, I had managed to extend my longest training session to 18km—just beyond halfway, and therefore too late to turn back. Julian helped me devise a structured training plan that would enable me to complete a 25-26km row a week or so before race day. This included recovery sessions, antagonistic weights to make sure I was balancing the work being done by the muscles most used on the machine. He gave me tips on nutrition, some of which I admit I ignored purely on the basis of taste (although my ears pricked up at the sound of the words “Jaffa Cakes”), and also advice on hydration, all of which I followed.
We talked about mental preparation, which would be every bit as crucial as the physical training, and we exchanged regular e-mails as the work intensified.
Apart from a two-week hiatus caused by a particularly nasty virus that kept me away from both work and the gym, training went pretty well. I was aware there would be good and bad days and as fantastic as I felt after a 26km row on 11th December, I was equally sluggish over a much shorter distance the following Sunday.
Overall though, I felt strong, but as with any endurance event, there would be difficult moments along the way, which was where the training and mental prep would come into play. The toughest part of the training hadn’t actually been the fitness, but the discomfort caused from sitting on the plastic seat for an extended period. I had devised a plan whereby I would row for 12-15km and then use a padded seat to get me through to 20km, then discard it again when the discomfort turned to pain.
I’d cramped quite a lot in the early stages of training, and that led to another concern, as too much liquid to overcome the cramp would lead to unwanted calls of nature; and it took me almost the full three months to finally get the balance right.
Although the final five days prior to the event were essentially a time for rest, I went down to the gym on the eve of the race to record a piece with Louise Hobson of BBC Radio Tees, who have been good enough to support a number of events over the past three years. Louise had to use her phone for the recording after her tablet chose a particularly ill-opportune moment to stop working. Note to self to check the battery in the rower… a flat battery would equal no proof of completion.
I didn’t sleep very well that night. I had trained well, but my head was filled with the things that could go wrong (viz. the battery, a painful posterior or an uncomfortably full bladder… or worse still, all three).
Thankfully when I arrived at the Leisure Centre, Rachael was on hand to make sure everything was set up and ready; Julian duly arrived, followed soon after by Louise and her temperamental tablet. Warm-up and stretches complete, there was time for a short live chat with Louise (whose producer had apparently commented on my “nice legs”—presumably followed by “shame about the….”), a few last words of encouragement from Julian and off I went.
As the white Kentish cliffs disappeared into the virtual distance, I had a visit from my friend Glen Durrant, BDO World no.1, Winmau World Master (twice) and hopefully soon to be world champion. Glen and I met through this challenge project and he mentored and guided me from not having thrown a dart in public for 25 years to playing him on stage in from of a couple of hundred people and then, around this time last year, somehow managing to hit back-to-back 180s for the first time in my life in another leg against Glen (that I still lost). He’s a genuinely top bloke who is so generous with his time and, as always, it was a pleasure to see him.
At various intervals during the row, Louise would take short videos, during which I would give an update on my progress. Both she and Julian stayed for the whole event (which was massively appreciated); a couple of other friends also popped in to see how things were going (thanks Gel and Les, it was great to see you), and Rachael and the Leisure Centre staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
Elaine arrived just before 11 o’clock (she was supposed to arrive at half past ten, and I’ve yet to discover how much money she spent in that half hour), and she was soon “persuaded” by Louise to make her radio debut. Louise chatted to her and to Julian in a live feed just after half past eleven, before she came over to ask how close I was to la côte de la France.
If I’d maintained my pre-race plan of a steady 25 strokes per minute and a kilometre every six minutes, I would have been maybe four kilometres away, but probably due to the hugely positive effect of the company, I’d been rowing faster than I’d ever done in training and was only two hundred metres from the finish.
Louise asked how I was feeling. I said I was fine. I was lying.
As I later learned, the show’s host stayed with Louise because I was so close to completing the 34km; I really pushed the last hundred metres and the finishing time of 3 hours 1 minute and 21 seconds was a total surprise. It might not compare with anything a decent athlete could do, but I was so happy with what I’d achieved; and thrilled that people had taken time out their respective days to support me.
I am so grateful to everyone I’ve mentioned during this blog. You all made a real difference. Thank you.
I must give one more special mention to Louise and Julian though. The coverage that Louise gave the event… and by definition the cause which was always the most important thing, was fantastic. And I think it’s safe to say that without Julian’s support and wise words, I would have struggled to complete this challenge—and I certainly wouldn’t have finished anywhere near the time I actually managed. I just hope my performance did Julian and Tees Rowing Club justice—I honestly gave it everything.
I will finish simply by saying two things. Firstly, I did this (as I have done the 74 previous challenges) to raise mental health awareness; if you are struggling, please don’t ever be afraid to talk or ask for help. And secondly… I wish you all a very Happy Christmas x
Just one week to go (strictly speaking it’s quite a few hours less than one week) until my attempt to complete an English Channel crossing on an indoor rowing machine.
I gave myself three months to go from very little exercise to training for an hour or more four times a week in order to be able to complete the 34000m (or 21 miles), which is the distance between Dover and Cap Gris Nez, the shortest possible crossing between the English and French mainlands.
In actual fact, the distance is just short of 33.5km, but what are a few metres between friends? Call it a short lap of honour.
Progress was interrupted by a virus that kept me off work and out of the gym for two weeks in early-mid November, but I’ve been working really hard to put my old aching body in a position where I can complete an event that (if everything goes according to plan) will take around three-and-a-half hours.
I have been incredibly lucky to have been getting invaluable help and support from Julian Bunn, a member of Tees Rowing Club who is an experienced and hugely successful competitive indoor rower. Julian has given me advice on technique, training plans, nutrition, hydration, mental preparation—basically everything I need to get me to the proverbial starting line in the best condition possible (or rather the best condition possible for a portly fifty-two-year old with dodgy hips).
Physically I am now in decent shape (certainly better than I look); and given a bit of luck, I’ll avoid the various bugs that are still affecting so many people at work and feel strong on the day. I’m starting at 8:30am on Friday (23rd)–at Eston Leisure Centre—and I definitely find I row better first thing rather than after a long day at work.
The training has been built around setting and maintaining a steady pace of a kilometre every six minutes, based on 25 strokes per minute. I began with the tension set at 2 (out of 10), but I am now rowing at 4, which better reflects water resistance, as well as my improving fitness. Fairly naturally, the same effort and number of strokes per minutes at higher tension means I will cover the distance a little quicker, but the time will only become relevant if (but hopefully) when I actually finish.
My biggest worries are mainly concerned with the discomfort and consequent pain that comes from sitting on a fairly unforgiving seat for so long. I know my hips will suffer, but hopefully my technique will be sound enough to prevent any problems in my lower back. I’ve had cramps in my legs, probably caused by dehydration; but take on too much fluid and nature will soon call—it’s a fine line, but something I absolutely have to get right on the day.
As those of you who have been kind enough to take an interest in the “challenges” I am undertaking to raise mental health awareness will know, this is not a fundraising event. I’m hoping that a few people might pop along on the day to offer some welcome support, but essentially this is a personal test of body and mind, and a chance to reinforce a message.
I’m no more a rower that I am a boxer, dart player or stand-up comedian; I’m not talented or brave, but completing this challenge would still feel like an achievement. Real courage is when the definition of “achievement” is simply overcoming the struggles of daily life, before going to sleep safe in the knowledge that the fight will start all over again the next morning.
Mental illness comes in many different forms; and the effects can be unseen, and devastating. Anyone can be affected (statistically one in four adults will be at some point), but stigma—or maybe even a perception of stigma—can cause a sense of shame that in turn leads to silent suffering to avoid any outward sign of “weakness”. But talking or asking for help is NOT a sign of weakness; it is a brave step, a huge step, and just maybe the first step towards positive long-term change.
This year’s Sport’s Personality of the Year event promises to be fascinating. Given the unprecedented success of Team GB in the Rio Olympics and Paralympics, it’s not surprising that the shortlist is dominated by some of the athletes who performances lit up the summer.
If choosing between an array of gold medallists wasn’t enough, Andy Murray also won Wimbledon and will end the year as the men’s world no.1, and Jamie Vardy represents a Leicester City team whose Premier League triumph was and probably always will be one of the greatest ever sporting stories.
I’d be staggered if the Foxes didn’t win Team of the Year. Their starting odds implied Leicester were ten times less likely to win the Premier League than England’s cricketers were to overturn a seemingly hopeless position in the 1981 Headingley Ashes Test. Perhaps 500/1 in what was effectively a three-horse race bears some comparison with 5,000/1 to finish above nineteen competitors, but Leicester’s magnificent achievement was the result of sustained excellence over an extended period and for that reason is unrivalled in my lifetime.
In a sense, that is a bit of a shame, because “my” team of the year would be the Team GB women’s hockey squad, who produced the highlight of this Olympics—and for me the most memorable British Olympic performance since Ann Packer’s 800m gold in 1964—to defeat Holland in a compelling, dramatic and emotional final.
Strangely, all the nerves I had felt during the four quarters (which were dominated by the Dutch) disappeared as soon as the final hooter sounded. The game… and the gold medal would be decided by a penalty shoot-out—and we had Maddie Hinch.
I’ve lost count of the number of times English footballers (of the highly-paid variety) have simply crumbled under this kind of pressure. These women are different; they plan and prepare meticulously, they have unshakeable belief in themselves and each other—oh, and they have Maddie Hinch.
They also had Kate Richardson-Walsh, as inspirational a leader as you will find in any contemporary British sporting team–male or female. It’s a given that she’s a fine athlete, but Kate is also courageous (viz. playing with a broken jaw at London 2012), driven, humble, and an exceptional role model….
Winning the shoot-out was genuinely no surprise to anyone who has watched this group for any length of time, and the reaction that followed Hollie Webb’s decisive goal was something I will never forget. A joyous outpouring of emotion from a squad of outstanding athletes who had overcome the desolation of a semi-final defeat four years earlier, worked unbelievably hard, sacrificed so much, and peaked at exactly the right time.
It was the perfect tournament, and the perfect end to Kate Richardson-Walsh’s stellar international career.
I would never lessen the accomplishments of any elite athlete. Simply making it to Rio was a fantastic feat, and to return home with a medal… well I can only imagine how that might feel. I salute all the Olympians and Paralympians on the shortlist, as well as those from other sports whose achievements are deservedly recognised.
For me, the choice is straightforward though: Kate Richardson-Walsh is my Sport’s Personality of the Year.
The bookies reckon she is 250/1 with Andy Murray seemingly already holding the trophy at stupid odds-on, but sometimes in sport you just never know…. “Dilly ding, dilly dong”.
Just under a fortnight until Christmas, and the current state of play in the Kirby household is: presents purchased - 100% (marvellous!); presents wrapped - 0% (drat!). My wrapping skills are very similar to those I have for DIY; limited to the point of being non-existent. Obviously I still have a go… you can’t fuse an entire house with wrapping paper, scissors and sellotape (and trust me, I’ve tried), but I’ve cleverly made sure that everything I’ve bought is either square or rectangular to make the job just that little less painful.
I must admit I’m not great at getting into the Christmas spirit. I’m not the archetypal “Bah! Humbug!”, although I will concede my outlook is often more humbuggy than festive.
Christmas does offer an all-too-rare opportunity to meet up with my children, which is always lovely; and I’m very lucky that my parents are just fifty miles down the road. This year though, the traditional Boxing Day trip is being brought forward twenty-four hours because of Elaine’s work commitments. I can’t remember when I last spent Christmas Day in York, but it must be at least thirty years.
Must remember to remind Mum about bread sauce….
Whatever Christmas meant all those years ago, it has become a period for reflection and some amount of introspection. I do look back on the past; the things I’ve done right and the mistakes I’ve made (sadly there are more of the latter). I try not to dwell too much on things I cannot change, because everything that’s happened has ultimately led me to where I am; but sadly if there’s a chance of giving myself a metaphorical mental beating, it’s an opportunity I rarely decline. Being able to spend time alone with Elaine is something I cherish though (even more than my annual bottle of Sancerre), and the conversation will often turn to loved ones who we miss every day—but Christmas just seems to heighten feelings of sadness.
We will raise a glass to Elaine’s wonderful parents Terry and Alma, and to all our grandparents. Random thoughts and memories of my Nannie and Grandad (Mary and Les) and Gran and Grandad (Gertie and Eric) regularly pop into my head; sometimes that is comforting, but right now I just wish I could spend one more day with them…..
But however far my thoughts drift, I am well aware that it is so much harder for Elaine. This isn’t the time or the place to dwell on circumstance; suffice to say I am constantly amazed and moved by Elaine’s courage and dignity. I’m not in a position to give her what I’m sure she would want for herself this Christmas, but she will always have my respect, my friendship, and above all, my love.
I think about the present… another year successfully (after a fashion) negotiated; and I also look to the future and wonder what it might hold. Health and happiness might be the biggest clichés going, but they’d be top of my list for those closest to me. Away from my family, I will be continuing to do whatever I can to raise mental health awareness. My own condition is stable–and I’d be more than happy if it stayed that way—but the need to share experiences and take on challenges remains incredibly strong. The messages…? Well, they’re still the same: it’s fine to talk about mental health, and it’s also fine to ask for help if you are struggling.
If you feel that it’s about time I changed the record, I will understand. Everyone has causes that (for whatever reason) mean a lot to them… this just happens to be one of mine. If my blogs, challenges, radio interviews, podcasts (did one last Monday!) make a difference to even one person and that person somehow finds the strength to talk, then that vindicates everything I’ve said and done over the past three years.
There is (and remains) no expectation that you will read some/any/all of my blogs, but for those of you who have ever taken the time to read and maybe even comment; you have my sincere thanks x
Right… time to start wrapping.
Badminton’s loss of all UK Sport funding for Tokyo 2020 is a decision that I really cannot understand at all.
I appreciate there are many sports vying for a share of the pot and I have total admiration for the ability, dedication and determination of every elite athlete who sacrifices so much to achieve their full potential and strives (often for many years) for the chance to represent their country at the world’s greatest sporting celebration….
A total withdrawal of funding should be a clear sign of “failure”—and I use the term in the sense of not achieving the medal target set prior to Rio. There were no medals for Team GB competitors in four of the five sports affected, however Marcus Ellis and Chis Langridge (pictured above) won a fantastic bronze in the men’s doubles—and the target? To win a medal...
And I would add that the medal we won was one of only fifteen available in the sport and as Badminton England tweeted, there were no repechages and no multiple events. To bring home a bronze medal from Brazil (along with some other outstanding British performances) was not only a notable achievement; it was the fulfilment of a target that UK Sport set, and now seem to have summarily ignored.
Judo achieved its target of one medal has had its funding increased. It’s a fair assumption therefore that the medal must have been a gold? Or maybe a silver?
In fact, Sally Conway won a bronze medal.
A superb accomplishment, but no better in metallic terms than the badminton squad, but financially, a difference of over seven and a half million pounds.
Oh and by the way, there were forty-two judo medals available.
I have been lucky enough to visit the National Badminton Centre in Milton Keynes, and even more privileged to have faced England international Rhys Walker on one of the courts at this amazing complex. Rhys is just one of the athletes whose efforts to reach his absolute best in 2020 have surely been at best compromised, at worst ruined by this week’s announcement.
These athletes give everything to badminton. And being successful isn’t just about personal achievement, nor is it necessarily simply about winning medals (UK Sport please take note); it is also the fact that these men and women become role models in what is a sizeable, and therefore by definition important, participation sport. They are people who can inspire the younger generation; as well as earning the admiration of those of us who have swung a very average racket, but just love to see top level action and competition.
The short-term consequences of this decision will have a devastating impact on these fine athletes and role models; but there may also be an arguably worse longer-term effect if a lack of subsequent success (as defined by UK Sport) leads to a reduction in publicity and a lessening in interest—especially from those wide-eyed children who want to be just like the heroes they see on television.
From my perspective, there was a simple solution. Proportionally reduce the money given to other sports to create the funds for badminton. Thirty-one drops in the proverbial ocean to guarantee the development of a sport that did everything that was asked of it (and arguably more) in Rio, but which has seemingly and inexplicably been hung out to dry.
Shame on you UK Sport.