Elite athletes and depressives have a surprising amount in common – including worrying that they just can’t do it any more
WHEN Jonny Brownlee won gold at the World Triathlon Championship event in Edmonton just over a week ago, he admitted he wasn’t really feeling like a world-beater.
The Olympic Silver and Bronze medallist had just won the 13th World Championship race of his glittering career.
But he told the BBC that – after injury and accidents had left him without an elite-level victory in almost two years – he’d feared he might never win again.
“I’ve doubted myself a lot.,” he said. “Athletes have very short-term memories and it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done in the past.
“The last 18 months, really, I’ve thought I’m never going to get on the podium again; never mind win one of these again.”
Hearing Brownlee talk about doubt – and only being able to remember success for a short period – made my ears prick up.
This is because I also doubt myself constantly, and tend to forget the many positive things I’ve done.
The difference between us is: I’m not a world-class athlete, but an ordinary man with depression.
So I suppose it’s a matter of scale.
While Brownlee worried about never being at the top of the world again, I started today wondering where I would find the energy to take a parcel to the Post Office, or put out the washing – let alone go for the run I was planning.
Whereas he had understandably lost confidence through being injured or crashing out of races, all I needed to do for my mood to dip was drink too much alcohol, or fail to turn off my loopy thoughts.
For example, this morning, I woke up worrying that I was still feeding my teenage son broccoli, which he dislikes, and not avocado, which he has a (probably passing) fancy for.
But the avocados can’t be from Israel, I fretted, still not quite awake. Israel is cruel to the Palestinians! Oh God! I hope I haven’t bought Israeli avocados by mistake!
When I did wake up properly, I felt tired and sore. Both my knees hurt and a muscle in my lower back had locked up painfully.
I had a stomach ache and, while I’d been hoping to run, I started yearning for a Duvet Day instead.
I looked at the washing that still needed to go out on the line, and a parcel that needed Sellotaping and taking to the Post Office.
I knew that I’d done these things before, lots of times. But, like Brownlee, I wasn’t sure that I could reach those heights again.
The triathlete told the BBC last week that he’d got back to winning ways by keeping the faith and throwing himself into training. Mind over matter, in short.
So I threw myself into the morning routine, knowing that the more I did, the better I would probably feel.
I emptied the dishwasher and washed up last night’s pans, telling myself that it would all be over in less than 10 minutes.
In fact, it took longer, but by then I’d nearly done it, so the effort didn’t seem such a problem anymore.
I made myself put my running gear on, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly run with the knees, the back and the tummy. In fact, I reckoned that I wouldn’t be able to run up the first hill before I gave in to the discomfort.
And then inspiration struck, and my Mind found a way out of the impasse.
I pointed out to my – hopelessly suggestible – head that, if I walked the parcel up to the Post Office, I could cut the first hill out of my run, and start running on the flat ground outside the shop.
It was only 300 metres out of 10,000 that I was saving myself, but I would also be crossing the parcel off my To Do List… I liked the thought of that. Suddenly Can Do Me was back.
So, reader, I dropped off the parcel. I logged on to Strava, hobbled off and – 10 intensely painful kms later – arrived back home, having completed the seemingly impossible run.
I went out in the garden and, in between stretches, I hung up the formerly far too exhausting washing.
And, as I did so, I reflected that, once again, Mind had won out over Matter – even if it had been fucking close this time.
Jonny: you know where to find me if you need any tips for Tokyo.