Posts by Yes, I've Tried Carrots

Where to start? I am a 48 year old father of a 20 year old daughter, M, and 19 year old twins, J (aka Golden Balls) and R, lovingly collectively known as the twit-twins or more simply the twits. M has recently moved out and lives in Scarborough, where she works in a nightclub/bar. The oxymoronic twits are in the first year at uni. I have been with my GF for 18 months now. My mum and dad, who live in Bridlington, are (often far too) regular visitors. My younger brother P, and his family live in Norwich. I work in-house as a solicitor, with the grandiose title of Group Legal Director, for a company that distributes cider around the world. I split my time between our office in Manchester, and my kitchen table. Putting it simply, I absolutely love my job and the people who I work with! Previous to that, I worked for the biggest law firm in Leeds for 9 years before being made redundant, undoubtedly one of the best things that has ever happened to me! I have mentored numerous people within the legal community and sat on a Law Society committee, both of which I found very rewarding. Before commencing my legal career, I was a full-time international sprinter, winning 24 international medals, including two silvers at Barcelona 1992 and a silver and a bronze at Atlanta 1996. Sydney 2000 was a washout! I did this for 14 years and was lottery funded for about seven of those years. I desperately miss those lycra-clad, being-sick-after-every-training-session medal-winning days. I still try to keep relatively fit in my garage gym. I’m a lifelong season-ticket-holding Leeds United supporter, love attending my son’s rugby league matches, and love betting on sports, especially horses and golf. Due to a reasonable degree of success, 11 of the major bookmakers now refuse to take bets from me – a badge of honour if ever there was one!! On occasions I suffer with minor depression and anxiety – possibly linked to LUFC – but this has never stopped me from working. I’ve a bad back, bad shoulder and a bad neck, but this doesn’t stop me trying to ward off the effects of getting older through regular exercise. I have to get up to the toilet several times a night, my hair line is getting ever higher, I can’t’ get in or out of a chair without saying “aaaah”, I struggle to stand for an entire football match, putting on shoes/socks is one of the hardest things I do every day, but mentally I still feel like I’m 24! I love quizzes (although I can’t remember the last time I was part of a winning team despite partaking at least once a week), comedy gigs (especially at City Varieties in Leeds). I love (but spend most of my time denying myself) strong Belgian beers, single malt whiskeys, red wine, chocolate, biscuits, crisps and other less healthy foods! I can’t sleep unless my belly is full of at least one of the aforementioned! I find cooking and (perhaps surprisingly) housework relaxing, especially whilst listening to sport or comedy podcasts. I love watching comedy on TV and films, and I’d be lost without my iPhone. My steam mop is undoubtedly my favourite appliance. I have been an extra in a Robson Green TV film and had my photo on Kellogg’s Cornflakes boxes throughout 2000. I also work with a couple of local charities. Oh yes, before I forget, as it might crop up once or twice on this blog, I’m totally blind and have been since I was 21 can’t even tell if it’s light or dark anymore!

1994: Bronzed in Berlin – Part II

The Brazilians failed to win a medal that day, and thus I did manage to get some sleep that night, four hours or so.  I woke with great expectations safe in the knowledge that I had slept more than the previous night which had been followed by a personal best.  Warm up was easier as there were only six of us, so a massive backlog was not going to be an issue again.  The first two runners went, nothing to worry about there.  The third runner was DC, an Australian who had won the bronze medals in the 200m and 400m at Barcelona.  Despite his credentials, I was still surprised when he improved on his heat time of over 12 secs to run 11.89 secs, but I knew that I could beat that, and I was going to.  The fourth runner went, and his time was again over 12 seconds, so nothing to worry about there.  And then it was my turn.

Blocks were put down, we tested them, and then stripped off.  This was going to be my day.  All I had to do was find a little bit more speed and hope the Russian didn’t do likewise and I’d have it.  We didn’t do that much wrong in the race, a well guided run, but there wasn’t very much in my legs.  Whether I was trying that little bit too hard, or whether I was trying to relax so much that I over did it I don’t know.  Whilst it is impossible to determine the effect the previous night’s lack of sleep had on me, it couldn’t have helped.  My time of 11.94 secs was very disappointing, but at least it was a medal, and as it was my first individual medal at world level I had to be pleased.  For completeness, SS again ran 11.73 secs to take the gold medal.  The Ozzie, presumably so upset with his pathetic silver medal, and the other pathetic non gold medals he won in the 200m and 400m, was never seen, heard or smelled of at a championship again.

Our celebrations were a bit muted, and definitely not as wild as the Brazilians.  The flowers I was presented with on the podium were given to I for all her hard work in the physio tent, and I sank a couple of beers; one to celebrate, one to help me sleep.  It was hard to know if CD celebrated or not, as many beers were sunk and he spent the evening with his lady friend as per his standard non-celebratory behaviour.  One thing was for sure, and that was that I felt like I could tear up the track in the 200m as my training had been going so well and my 100m performance showed that I was in tip top shape for the 200m.

We had a couple of days off before the next race we were to compete in, which was the 4 x 100m relay.  By that time I had started to get some sleep.  It wasn’t that it was getting any cooler or less uncomfortable, but I must have been getting used to it.  CD and I were to run the second leg.  The other members of the team were the infamous RL, BR and CJ.  The heats were little more than a formality, but we soon realised that we were going to have to find a little extra for the final.  A bit more practice was called for.

On the day of the final we turned up to the track early to stretch our changeovers to the maximum so as to save us as much time as was possible.  At that time, the rules required the incoming athlete and the outgoing athlete to be in the 10m changeover box at the same time, but the athletes didn’t need to hand over a baton, or even to touch.  The perfect changeover therefore consisted of the outgoing athlete’s foot leaving the changeover box immediately after the incoming athlete’s foot entered the changeover box.  The first changeover we were to practice was the first one, with me being the out-going athlete.  From what follows, you’ll understand why I’m not naming the first-leg runner.  Whilst I shouldn’t have reacted as I did, given that I had two practice two changeovers, as opposed to the single changeover that he had to practice, if anyone had a right to be a bit tetchy, it was me, or so I thought!

CD and I measured out our check marker and took up our position in the relay changeover box.  The first-leg runner retreated around the bend and set off at full pace towards the changeover box.  This was never meant to be our only practice, it was the first of several.  The first run usually gave us an idea of where our marker should be, and only rarely did we leave it where it had been for the first run.  If we did think the marker should be left at the same point, we would try it again to make sure it was right.  If it wasn’t right on the first run, we would play around with it until we got it spot on; that was always the way relay practice worked.

My teammate charged around the bend.  CD looked back as I waited for his command.  When the flying Brit was 10m away from the mark, CD turned to face forwards and said “ok”, which was the signal for our arms to swing back and await the incoming call.  As our lead-off man sped through the mark, a large cross made with white physio tape in the middle of the lane, he called out my name.  CD and I set off at full blast, but  it immediately became obvious that CD had lined me up facing slightly the wrong direction, resulting  in a shoulder charge which nearly knocked CD off his feet; our arms became tangled and we were at risk of serious injury, one way or another.  I must admit I was slightly miffed with CD lining me up wrongly, and probably more so due to generally being unhappy with his night time activities, but I was prepared to grin and bear it.  However, my teammate’s reaction soon made me lose my cool.

“For fuck’s sake!  What are you pissing about at!  I’m not knackering myself out just because you’re fucking it up!”

It was like a red rag to a bull.  He only had a couple of runs to do, I had four to do.  All he had to do was get himself around the track on his own, I had to set off from a standing start with a guide runner who was probably still pissed, certainly not sober enough to drive anyway.  As he came back bitching like there was no tomorrow I didn’t have to ask to be guided towards him.  I stormed towards him, grabbed him by his vest and lifted him up onto his tiptoes and explained my feelings to him on this and several other points in no uncertain terms, and explained what the consequences would be if he continued to abuse me in that way.  After venting my spleen for a handful of seconds I was dragged of by a couple of my teammates and coaches who couldn’t believe their eyes and/or ears.

Eventually he went back to his mark, now (probably correctly wining and squealing about my thuggish behaviour).  He did his runs, and just to make sure I made him do a few more runs than I had wanted to do myself, but I was going to make a point.  The rest of the changeovers went well, and we went into the stadium for the call up procedure; perhaps unsurprisingly, the two of us kept our distance!

When the race got underway the adrenalin was obviously still pumping around my colleague, as he ran an absolute stormer!  Our practice had paid dividends as we nailed our changeover and I set off down the back straight fuelled by 100% adrenalin and aggression.  I felt really strong and really quick.  There was none of the lethargy that I had felt in the 100m final.  I knew that my country’s medal chances were in my hands.  The other three lads were all reasonably quick, but I was the fastest by some way (which in itself was unusual as I was the most disabled) and I was the only one in the team who had ever medalled in individual sprints.  If I didn’t do it, we wouldn’t win a medal of any colour.  As I approached the last 30m of my run I knew that I had run to my best, perhaps even faster than I had ever run before.  Rather than tiring in the final 30m as was usual the power just kept on flowing.  My arms kept pumping, my legs kept driving, and the GB medal prospects kept rising.  If I had to point to a time and a place when I was at my fastest, I’d struggle to recall a date when I felt better over the 100m.   However, the continuing theme throughout my athletics career was that when things started to go really well a spanner was usually not too far away from the spokes.

It was probably this extra speed at a continuing intensity combined with the scorching temperatures, and CD’s lack of condition through alcohol and sex fuelled evenings which finally caught up with him.  As I approached the changeover box CD suddenly cried out.  At first I thought he was shouting to our third-leg runner to tell him to set off, or maybe he was just excited and enjoying the ride as much as I was.  But neither of these were true.  CD had suffered a tear of his hamstring and, rather ironically, his groin.  He did still manage to make it into the changeover zone – to be honest, I’d have dragged his lifeless corpse into the changeover zone if necessary – and amidst his screams he shouted at our colleague to set off, but his championships, and with it my chances of medals in the 200m and 400m, were well and truly over.

The out-going athlete must have ran a good leg as RL took over with a definite chance of a silver medal.  I cannot remember if CD put his pain aside to commentate for me, or whether I forced him to commentate to me, but he managed to describe to me the scene as RL started to be reeled in by his pursuers.  As the line approached, RL’s body started to give up on him.  Again, it was probably a combination of a lack of preparation for sprinting and the weather which was his downfall, and down he went, base over apex, hitting the track with an almighty thud.  However, as the best athletes always seem to do, he must have known exactly where the line was as he landed on the other side of it.  As my Grandma L used to say, it’s better to be born lucky than rich.  Although he had been overtaken by one of the chasing duo he had managed to hold one of them off, and another bronze medal was mine.

The post-race scenes were strange and strained.  I was full of despair as CD’s injury meant that my championships were surely over despite me being in probably the best form of my career.  We must have looked a peculiar sight walking off the track, me physically supporting CD whilst he tried to guide me off the track.  Our first-leg runner still wasn’t talking to me, and our third-leg runner was ecstatic to have won his first ever medal.  Meanwhile RL was being stretchered off the track at the end of the home straight.  I was just glad we hadn’t won the gold medal as it would have been a very anti-climactic lap of honour!

After the walking wounded had collected their medals, and the two combatants started to withdraw hostilities, the physios got to work on RL and CD.  RL’s hamstring tear was a bad one, and he spent the rest of the championships with little or no mobility, so the celebrations and libations had to be brought to him.  CD was also badly injured, and there was no way he would be able to guide me again.  CD was very very upset when the consequences of his injury finally dawned upon him.  He sat on the edge of his bed and burst into tears with the realisation that I was in the best shape of my life and now I wouldn’t get the chance to compete in the 200m, the 400m or the 4 x 400m relay.  I sat next to him, put my arm around him, and told him not to worry, after all, he had saved me from 4 rounds of the 200m, three rounds of the 400m, and two rounds of the 4 x 400m relay, so he’d done me a favour really.  But he knew that I didn’t really mean it, if truth be told I was fuming with him, but maybe not in the way that he would have thought I would be fuming with him.  I wasn’t fuming because he had injured himself, as after all, we all get injured from time to time.  The fact was that I was fuming because if he had thought then he would have known that this was the inevitable outcome of his behaviour.  There is just no way that you can treat a major championships like a week on the lash with the lads and expect to compete in 44 degrees centigrade with little or no sleep and do it to the best of your abilities.  If he hadn’t suffered a major injury he was highly likely to have let me down in some other way; a slow start here, a missed call there, a misjudgement in a heat, or just cramp.  In the long run it doesn’t really matter to me now, and now when I think of CD I do so very fondly and with a great deal of gratitude for the job that he did.  He was only 17, he had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and I could have handled it differently.  However, if I was in the same situation I would still have been left with the same dilemma.  I could have told him his behaviour was not on, which would probably have led to him curbing his behaviour a bit, but he would probably then not have guided me again in the future.  A stronger management would not have gone amiss, but this was pre professionalism.  The balance of power was most definitely with the guides: I needed them much more than they needed me.  At the forefront of my mind from my first run as a blind athlete to my last I was always afraid that my guide would quit and leave me up a certain tributary without a certain implement.

For the next couple of days my mind turned towards socialising as there seemed no chance that I would compete again.  Team meetings were always good fun, but the usual jokes were supplemented by regular intrusions by one of the GB athletes with a learning disability; let’s call him X.  It wasn’t that we made fun of X, it was just the things he came out with were so off the wall that it was difficult not to be amused.  At no time did I feel that he was being abused by anyone in the team, and we all liked him very much.  One particular incident was when X came along to our team meeting to ask one of the guides if he could borrow his Walkman.  G, TH’s guide runner, asked him if he would be safe with it as it was an expensive one.  X said that he was.  G made sure that he knew that he would be very cross if he didn’t look after it, and X said that he was ok with that.  Five minutes later X returned to the team meeting with the Walkman in pieces saying “why did you lend me this Walkman man, its rubbish and doesn’t work.”  No matter what any of us said X swore that he hadn’t touched it and that G must have given it to him like that.

Meal times were also fun.  Being in no rush to go anywhere if you weren’t competing, they often turned into long chats over coffee and much hilarity.  One such occasion was when one of our new athletes, SC, asked us about the drug testing procedure.  This was his first championship, and it was clear that he was exceptionally nervous about drug testing.

“What happens when you are asked to do a drug test?”

NT was the first to answer.  “You get asked to go into a room, you’re given a bottle and asked to pee in it, quite simple really”.

“What if you can’t go” asked SC.

RL saw his opportunity.  “You have to shit in an ice cream tub”.

JW chimed in.  “They can even get you to do that if your pee is a bit cloudy as well”.

“What if you can’t do that either” asked a shocked SC.

The goal was open, the keeper was out of the area and all I had to do was to smack it into the back of the net.  “Well S, you know those knickerbocker-glory spoons…..”

“Bloody hell” exclaimed an astounded SC.  “There’s no way I’m going to win a medal now”, and you know what, he was spot on.

Pretty soon the management realised that they needed me to compete in the 4 x 400m relay as I was the only fit B1 athlete, thanks to RM being injured.  Without me, due to the requirement to have at least one B1 athlete in the team, they would not have a team at all.  Every stone was overturned in search of a guide runner.  The first guide they suggested was probably the fastest 100m runner in the GB squad, let’s call him Y.  However, there was one major drawback with this plan; Y was competing himself in the championships in the 100m in the learning disabled category.  There wasn’t even a chance of me letting him guide me to breakfast, never mind down an athletics track at 20m an hour plus.  He and his fellow learning disabled athletes of that era simply didn’t understand what being blind meant, and I felt sure that he would not be able to undertake what was after all a highly skilled activity.

As a post-script, as I was told by numerous teammates, at a later Paralympics, Y spent a lot of time laid under a caravan pretending to be a cheetah …..

The management didn’t see it my way and continued to try and get me to have a go with him, despite my forthright expressions of fear.  This attitude was all the more disheartening as it was coming from management who themselves were visually impaired.  The attitude seemed basically to be that anyone can guide, it’s a piece of cake.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Eventually they realised that I wouldn’t put my health and safety at risk for their entertainment, and so the backup plan was put into action.

The second victim was RM’s guide called G.  G was a really nice bloke, but he guided RM in the 5,000m and 10,000m and was not known for his sprinting abilities.  I knew that it was a nonstarter but the management thought they knew best.  Therefore, I had to prove to them that I was correct.  G met me at the warm up track and after we went through a full warm up we attempted to do a 400m at my pace.  After about 20m it was obvious that G simply had no speed at all.  I ran very slowly for 200m with him attached to me, and although he could have run it faster on his own he simply couldn’t do it with me attached to him.  This again proved that just by holding a guide rope and having to run at someone else’s stride length made you run slower.  G dropped the rope, totally exhausted at trying to sprint with me for 200m only.  He admitted that there was no chance that he would be able to guide me in a race.

This left us with only one option.  The call went out to the organising committee for a stand in guide runner.  Each organising committee had to provide a squad of guides for those athletes from the less developed countries who turned up without a guide.  The athlete I was introduced to was called Mario, Super Mario to me and my teammates.  He was about 5 feet 8 tall, but built like a brick outhouse.  His English was very good, but his overly excited continental enthusiasm at being given the chance of a lifetime to run with an athlete of my calibre was, to say the least, slightly unnerving.  If I had to pick an actor to play him in the story of my life, I would have no hesitation in casting Sacha Baron Cohen!  Nevertheless, he was my only chance to compete in the 4 x 400m relay.  I hadn’t bothered to look for a spare guide runner for the 200m or the 400m as I knew that it was pointless.  In events where performance is measured in hundredths of seconds, and where the difference between first and nowhere is usually less than 0.2 secs, it would need a miracle for even an experienced guide runner to enable me to run to my full potential.  However, the relay was a different matter.  A 400m of 56 or 57 seconds by a B1 athlete wouldn’t be good enough to get through the first round heats of the individual event, but it just might be good enough to allow my teammates to challenge for medals in the relay.  In short, it was worth a try.

Super Mario and I, along with some of the coaches and management, went down to the warm-up track at the Olympic Stadium and, after a prolonged warm-up, we gave it a go.  After a couple of runs during which Mario became accustomed to my stride length and running action, we turned up the speed and the length of the runs.  By the end of the session, I was able to run at about 95% full speed without losing synchronisation, and we had even safely navigated our way around a full bend, coping well with both the entry to and exit from the curve.  Flat out speed still resulted in a loss of synchronisation, but setting off at 95% in a 400m was perfectly acceptable.  More than that, it was so leisurely that it was enjoyable.

In fact, it all went so well that we agreed to take part in a 100m demonstration race.  The movers and shakers in blind athletics had been ramping up the pressure on the powers that be to take a quantum leap into the modern era and dispense with 100m runners having to race one at a time.  I was asked to take part in this race to show that blind athletes could do the 100m as a normal race, as was the case with the 200m and the 400m.  It was obvious to me and to those who supported the proposition, that if we could run the 200m and 400m as a normal race with bends to negotiate, then why not the straight 100m?

Mario and I practiced a couple of block starts, and everything seemed fine, as long as I didn’t really go for it we seemed to keep synchronisation perfectly well.  The athletes we were to compete against were a couple of Yanks and one of the lesser-known Spaniards.  We ran this race about an hour before the relay, so it was good race practice for us as a pair and good call-up practice for Mario who had no experience of such procedures.

Being a demonstration race, Mario was given a bit more time than usual to set up the blocks, which was useful as he hadn’t done that before either.  Our starts in our warm-up paid dividends, as Mario and I got a good steady start, both reacting in perfect unison at the sound of the gun.  After a steady relaxed acceleration phase, all I did was to stride out steadily, nice and relaxed all the way, just concentrating on keeping synchronised with Mario.  We crossed the line well clear in a shade over 12.0 secs.  All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying experience.  It meant that we should hopefully have no problems in the 400m relay, and it reinforced my view that I was in brilliant shape, as the time was less than 0.1 secs slower than I had run in the 100m final, and I had hardly broken sweat.

However, as a marketing exercise, the demonstration race fell flat on its face.  One of the American athletes had let go of the guide rope and, rather than pull up as one would have expected, he continued to run, darting erratically from lane to lane, causing havoc to those who were trailing in my wake.  Another of the Yanks had pulled a hamstring amidst the chaos, and the fourth runner was completely out of his depth and thus finished a long way behind me.  All in all, the finish resembled a long distance race rather than the hoped for spectacle of four athletes and guides crossing the line within milliseconds of each other. But at least I looked good and Super Mario took his overly excited nature to a whole new level!

Our confidence buoyed by our victory, Mario and I reported to the rest of our 4x400m team in the call up area, enthused about our collective chances of winning a medal.  Mario and I were to do the first leg as it would be easier for me to do the full lap completely in lanes like a normal race, thus avoiding any need for sudden lane changes to overtake slower athletes.  As we entered the arena, the intensity of the sun seemed to have reached a new level.  Those in the team with the best sight noticed that the electronic scoreboard showed the temperature of 44 degrees centigrade, a temperature that would seem to become the norm at many later championships.  However, after removing my knee length shorts, removing my soddened t-shirt and my hat, it soon became clear that the starting officials had some sort of technical hitch.  15 minutes later and we were still stood behind our blocks, absorbing the energy sapping power of the sun, with no breeze at all and my water bottle had been taken away by the officials.

Eventually we were called to our marks and we settled down awaiting the gun.  It went, and so did we.  I tried to relax as I had done in the 100m demonstration race and it seemed to be working really well.  We turned the bend with good rhythm and strode out down the back straight.  As we approached the second bend Mario gave me the correct call and I started to turn.  Although Mario got the call right, he forgot to lengthen his stride to cope with running the extra distance around the bend, and within two strides we had totally lost synchronisation.  Pretty soon we were 180 degrees out of sync.  This meant that as Mario’s left arm came forward so did my right arm, well it would do, what with being tied to his left arm.  The problem was that at the very same time that my right arm was going forwards, so was my left arm, such movement being the natural corollary of my right leg going forward.  For all intents and purposes, I was cross-country skiing with my arms, whilst my legs were trying to run.   This had happened to me quite a number of times in training, but never in a race.

There were two possible methods of coping with this cross-country skiing situation.  I could try to get synchronisation back by putting in a quick hop, which would have the effect of taking two steps on my right leg, which would throw me out by 180 degrees, thereby correcting the problem.  However, this was a high risk manoeuvre, being very tricky at the best of times, and after 250m of a 400m race it was courting disaster to attempt it.  The only other way of dealing with this problem was to try to lessen the effects of skiing by just holding my right arm as motionless as possible, letting Mario run off me in effect.  Being risk averse, and embarrassment averse even more so, I chose the second option.  The problems with this running action were twofold.  Firstly, it slowed me down dramatically, not surprisingly given that in effect I had foregone 25% of my forward propulsion.  Secondly, the twisting action caused by using two levers on one side and only one on the other, bracing my right arm against its natural tendencies, coupled with the build-up of 400m induced lactic acid in a breathless cauldron was almost unbearable.  However, pride and a burning desire for more glory and gold, silver or bronze ware, drove me on.  I refused to let this slight hindrance stop me from finishing in as fast a time as my twisted frame would allow me.

By hook or by crook, we entered the changeover box, not as quickly as we might have hoped for, but at least we had safely passed the virtual baton on to our second leg runner.  As the overwhelming and unstoppable urge to be sick consumed by aching limbs, I knew the chance of a gold medal had completely evaporated in the preceding 60 seconds, but there was always the chance that the boys could pull something out of the bag, and pull something out they did.  Three storming runs by my comrades in arms and a third bronze medal was mine.  I felt a tang of guilt that I didn’t even attempt a lap of honour, if only for Mario’s sake as he was so excited, but the medal ceremony more than made up for Mario’s disappointment.  He absolutely revelled in it.  Never had there been a prouder honorary Brit than Mario on that day.

All that was left was the last night celebrations.  Several of us volunteered to go to the local supermarket for cheap beer.  On the way we found a discarded shopping trolley and ended up bringing it back completely full of beer.  We took the lift to the 15th floor and wheeled the trolley to the team manager’s room and started the party.  After a couple of hours we took the party down to the open air disco.  It had been a successful championships for most of us and we all stayed up all night, drinking with athletes of all nations, after all, there would be no chance of sleep, what with the Brazilians having won another medal on the final day.  Whilst our celebrations were not as exuberant as the Brazilians, we did make a serious dent in the German stores of beer and a great time was had by all.  Even my warm-up track combatant colleague and I properly made up after our handbags at 12 paces incident!

1994: Bronzed in Berlin Part I

 

After returning from my most successful individual championships in Dublin, CS informed me that he wouldn’t be able to carry on guiding me due to his work commitments.  Thankfully, my coach, BS, made enquiries in and around Leeds and a contact found a coach in the area who was willing to give it a go with his group of athletes.  The coach was called MB, and he coached at the track in Wakefield, Thornes Park.  I had never even visited Wakefield before, but Uncle A agreed that he would continue giving me a lift every Tuesday and Thursday night, and on the whole we were usually on time or just a little bit late.

MB’s group was exclusively male and all the lads were in their late teens.  MB had decided to give me a go with several of the lads and see which one suited my running style the best.  Over the first couple of weeks I had a go with three of the lads.  M was a really good bloke, and a strong runner to boot, but his stride length was far too long for me and I found it very difficult to cope with.  A had a more suitable running action, but his range of distances was limited and there was no way on earth I would have been able to talk him into doing a 200m never mind a 400m.  The third musketeer was CD.  He was a very personable lad, the right running action, and was fast enough to guide me over the 100m, yet strong enough to guide me over the 400m which was his own preferred event.  He was also very reliable and always made it to training.  In short, I couldn’t see any problems with him at all, so I offered him the job after only a couple of sessions.  As he had high hopes for his future career prospects he jumped at the chance, as it would look good on his CV.  I think he was also quite excited about the chance to represent his country in the Olympic stadium in Berlin, even if only in a guiding capacity, which was the long term target for the season.

I did quite a bit of my training with M and A and some of the other lads in the group, especially if CD had his own sessions to do, or if he had other commitments.  One such occasion was one cold and damp Yorkshire evening a month or so before the season started in earnest.  MB asked one of his star middle distance runners if he would have a go at guiding me.  Although he was an 800m and 1500m runner, he had a good sprint so MB thought it would work quite well.  The only problem was that, probably due to his middle distance status, the lad in question had hardly any coordination.   The session was a couple of sets of 150m runs, starting at the water jump and finishing, as was somewhat traditional, at the finishing line.  We stood as usual in lane 3 as I explained the finer points of guiding.  We walked through a standing start, and I showed him how we had to stay synchronised, and it seemed to go well.  However, as soon as we tried to do it, even at a fairly slow speed, we lost synchronisation immediately.  After several attempts I pointed out the bleeding obvious that when your left leg goes forward your right arm goes forward, but he disagreed with this.  He was convinced that when your left leg went forward your left arm went forward.  I got him to jog along to see if this was the case, and he soon realised that it was not.  It seemed that although he could still run on his own, as soon as he started to think about it he lost the plot; in short, I’d blown his mind!  I told him to stop worrying, he wasn’t going to hurt me, and to just concentrate on running naturally and it would easily slot into place.

Pep talk over, we returned to the water jump in lane 3, and set off.  It worked a treat and we had perfect syncronisation.  The only problem was that while he had managed to run in syncronisation with me, he had totally forgotten everything else I had told him.  The first time I realised that this was the case was as I felt a pain like never before in my left ankle.  Apparently I had landed on the metal temporary curb which ran along the inside of the track.  This curb was removed when a steeple chase race was in place, and thus unlike the permanent curb it was only an inch or so thick, and about two inches high.  This meant that as my foot landed on the curb my ankle cockled over.  I laid on the track in a great deal of pain as the rest of the group and coaches ran up the track to my rescue.  They helped me off the track where ice was applied and I tried to reassure my guide that it wasn’t his fault.  To be true, it wasn’t entirely his fault as I should have inducted him into the ranks of guides on the straight, far away from any curbs.  Painful lesson learned, this was the last time I ever started a new guide runner off on a bend.

Over the next couple of weeks I spent most of my spare time, and most of my wages, at M the physio’s.  Sprained ankle ligaments was the diagnosis.  Treatment was working, but not quickly enough for my liking, so M ordered me an angle brace.  It was basically like a boxing boot, reinforced with metal strips running through it, with no sole.  This was worn over the socks but inside the running spike.  Without this brace my ankle just gave way, but with it my ankle was stable enough to allow me to run, even if this did mean enduring a lot of pain.  It was one of those funny injuries which was difficult to walk on, but through gritted teeth I was able to sprint.  In this case there really was no gain without pain.

After a couple of weeks M and I decided that as my rehabilitation and treatment had been going well it was time to have a go without the brace.  With the benefit of hindsight, doing our usual warm-up jog on the road which went through the park was probably not the best idea we had ever had, but it was only a very tiny stone, barely bigger than a grape, which I stood on after a couple of strides which left me sprawled on the floor clutching my ankle again.  After another week’s intensive treatment the brace was reapplied, and there it stayed until the end of the season.

Work remained far from satisfactory.  I was still basically just answering the phone and then getting one of my colleagues to do the job for me, before I passed the answer back to the caller.  I had no job satisfaction whatsoever, and I couldn’t stand the thought that this was going to be how my working life was going to be forever.  Something had to be done.  All my options were discussed and it was decided that drastic steps were necessary if I was going to make the most of the talents I possessed.  In the end we decided that I should leave work and go to university, get a degree and then see how the land laid.  The only question was which subject should I study?  Two options stood out: physiotherapy and law.  Both careers were ones which had historically been suitable for blind people to undertake, and I had an interest in both.  My interest in physiotherapy had been developed through my hours of treatment during my sporting endeavours, and my interest in law had existed since I had studied law as part of my banking exams.  In the end, the deciding factor came down to an assessment of the long term job prospects for each career; we decided I was less likely to be struck off as a lawyer than I was as a physio, as it would only take one misplaced hand in the latter and it would be game over.

I looked into the institutions were I could study, and practicality was the most important factor.  Hull University at the time was ranked sixth in the country for law, and it would be possible to get there from Bridlington easily enough, so I applied to Hull to study law.  I applied to UCAS in the usual way, but I was invited along for an interview in the meantime.  Being a “mature” student my ‘A’ level results were not vital, but as they were quite good the university was quite pleased with this as well.

When I attended the university for my interview the admissions tutor asked a colleague of his to attend.  His name was Professor CB and he was totally blind, so his interest was obvious.  During the interview he told me that he had been involved with training many blind people in the past, including an Air Force Pilot.  He wasn’t too amused when I asked him where his guide dog sat.  The outcome of the meeting was a place on the course which started at the end of September 1994.  Thrilled at the news, I handed my notice in at the bank, and I think they were a bit relieved that I had taken the step rather than forcing their hand.

Preparations for Berlin went as well as could be expected, if not better.  CD settled into his guiding role like a duck to water.  In one of our first races we ran a personal best in the 200m, running 24.6 secs at Cleckheaton.  Our last race before the World Champs was at Wakefield on men’s’ final day at Wimbledon.  While Pete Sampras was beating Goran Ivanisevic we competed in the 100m.  We were drawn in the lane next to A from our training group.  A usually ran somewhere in the low 11 seconds, so if we could get reasonably close to him we would be extremely pleased with that.  It was a red hot day and there was no wind, so we were confident that we would run well.  The competition was as hot as the weather, and although we finished in the middle of the pack, we hadn’t finished that far behind A, probably only about a metre and a half, which we thought would equate to about 0.2 secs.  However, A was given a time of 11.8 secs and we were given a time of 12.2 secs, which was not what we were looking for.  We would have been very happy with a straight 12.0 secs, as I had never dipped below 12.0 secs in the UK, so we focussed on the fact that we had only been a bit behind A which is where we thought we’d be, rather than on the time given; being an amateur sport, with amateur officials, timing was not always the most exact of sciences on the Northern Men’s’ circuit!  With this in mind, we left for Germany with our hopes high that we were in form to give everybody else a good run for their money.

The accommodation in Berlin was different to anything we had stayed in before.  The main part of the accommodation was a high rise block of flats, about 17 storeys, very similar to a large hotel, but there were no facilities on the ground floor apart from a pay phone in the reception area.  A separate building about 100m away housed a canteen style dining area, the serving area down one wall, with the rest of the room taken up with tables and benches.  In between the two buildings was an open area which was being used as a disco/bar, with lots of plastic seats and tables for us all to use.  Apart from this strange set up, the biggest difference to what we had been led to expect was the weather.  We had expected Berlin in July to be fairly warm, but not the 44 degrees centigrade that we were welcomed by.  Berlin was in the midst of a scorching heat wave.

At major championships, due to the vast numbers of athletes who needed training facilities, each team was allocated a specific training venue.  The training track we were allocated was within walking distance.  The walks to this track were very revealing.  Our accommodation was in East Berlin, and thus the standard of living was very low.  As described to me by CD, all the buildings were plane concrete, the cars were of very low quality and very old, and there were no signs of good living anywhere, it seemed that they were still suffering from years of Communism.

Whilst CD and I had to put up with bad track etiquette from our fellow athletes which resulted in CD having to take evasive action on a number of occasions to avoid both stray athletes and stray starting blocks, my teammate MW was dicing with a far more serious injury.  He had been busy working on his discus technique along with another couple of athletes.  It had been working well and he was regularly hitting over the 40m line, which he was pleased with.  MW wandered out onto the field after throwing a couple and scoured the grass at around the 40m mark in search of his discs, which often took quite a while due to his visual impairment.  Whilst searching, head down concentrating on the contrast between grass and discus, he heard something fly over his head.   He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but when it landed with a familiar thud at around the 70m mark he realised that it must have been a fellow discus thrower launching one.  His mind began to race; had one of his competitors improved massively, or had a new athlete emerged on the scene?  Was it an athlete from a different category that he didn’t have to worry about?  The answer to all these questions was no.  It turned out to be the world number one woman discus thrower training at her local track.  MW did comment after this that he had slightly recognised the big woman he had bumped into earlier.  It was a good job she was on form that day, or alternatively it was a good job F hadn’t let one go a bit further, or he might have had to start competing in a different disability category!

As the heat was relentless and the hotel rooms devoid of air conditioning, evenings were spent relaxing in the open air bar.  Most of the team members were having at most a couple of beers, or German premium strength self medication as some of us called it, even those of us who didn’t usually drink prior to a championships, just to help us sleep; it was so horrific, we’d try anything to get some sleep.  However, CD was not just having a couple of drinks, instead he was drinking like it was a good Saturday night out with the lads.  Most of us will recognise the kind of evening; at the start he was a good football player when he was younger (remembering that he was only 17 anyway); later he was one of the best players when he had his trial with Manchester United; by the end of the evening he could have been one of the best if he had got the breaks.  He was also walking a tight rope which would lead to disaster.

I had become friends with one of the physio staff.  Her name was I and she had helped me with a few minor injuries earlier in the year at her place of work in York.  Therefore, as soon as I got to Berlin I managed to get straight onto her list for treatment.  CD took me down to the physio tent at the track for my appointment and left me there for my allotted time.  Whilst having my treatment I introduced me to the rest of the medical team, most of whom I had not met before.  By the end of my appointment we were all getting on like old friends, which is what I often find happens when you spend the best part of an hour wearing only pants in a tent full of ladies.  After several more sessions some of the medical staff started to show more than just a passing interest in CD.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that one in particular had developed a severe case of the hots for CD.  I thought that she would get over it, especially as she sounded to me like she was older than him.  However, this was not to be and she pursued her man, or rather her boy.

I decided that I’d better nip this in the bud and asked her how old she thought CD was.  “About 28” was her answer.  Needless to say, when I burst out laughing she knew she had got it drastically wrong, but you could still have knocked her over with a feather when I informed her that he was only 17.  Eventually she came round, and after receiving the appropriate medical attention she resumed her work.

I told CD of the conversation and that I thought she had the hots for him.  I thought that he would comment about how she was too old for him anyway, but he didn’t.  Apparently, the attraction was mutual.  CD didn’t really need any dutch courage to close out the deal, but he did anyway, and as the games approached CD took to spending most of the evenings in his sugar-mummy’s digs, usually trying to sneak back into our room just as I was getting up for my early morning shower.

If only I’d have known him a little bit better, just enough to know how far I could take the piss out of him without him packing up his bag and going home.  The jokes just made themselves.  “Don’t forget to make sure she takes her teeth out before you go to bed”, “don’t reach out for a drink in the middle of the night, you’ll choke”, “ask Ms X if she can lend me some money, or hasn’t she cashed her pension yet”, “do you need any help with undoing her corset or taking off her support stockings”, etc, etc.  If I hadn’t been so scared about upsetting him, after all guide runners were in very scarce supply, I would have brought him to heal and demanded that he took his role a bit more seriously.  I did have words with him, but he swore that he would be fine, and as I had no real choice I had to take his word on it.

I had been struggling to get to sleep in the lead up to the games, not because of nerves, but just because it was too hot in the rooms.  I clearly remember one night at about 4:00 am lying awake, trying not to wake CD up (this being prior to his nocturnal activities period) just waiting for that wave of sleep to crash over me.  I had been trying all the relaxation techniques I had been taught, but nothing.  Occasionally the wave of sleep lapped at my feet, sometime even made it to my knees, but just as I expected it to crash over me and envelop me in sleep it would retreat.  Frustration made me cry out “please.. just let me sleep”.  Maybe, on reflection, it was this type of behaviour that drove CD to sleep in someone else’s room rather than sex appeal.

The first day of the championships came round and the competition started in earnest.  As I was to compete on the second day, I retired to bed at an early hour eager to get on with the 100m that commenced the following morning.  That was my first mistake.  Despite it being late at night, the weather was still in the mid forties, and it seemed even closer than it had been on previous days and nights.  The second mistake that I made was not having a beer to help me sleep.  The third mistake I made was not to have stolen the Brazilian’s instruments!  They had won a medal on the first day, and by golly they were going to celebrate it.  Even though I was fifteen floors up, their celebrations were still very noisy.  The dilemma was either to have the window open for a bit of breathable air and be deafened, or to have the window closed and melt.  In the end I chose window open, and even went so far as to leave my bedroom door propped open to try and create a through draft.  It did improve the air in the room, but not to any comfortable level.  The Brazilians must have had to compete the following day, as their celebrations were brought to a premature end at about 3:00 am.

My thought process at that time was that if I could get to sleep soon I would still get about four hours before I had to get up, so that wasn’t too bad, but sleep was still not even on the radar.  I was just too hot.  I remembered the advice that MW had given me, as he too was struggling to get any sleep at all.  He had suggested getting a cold shower and then laying down on the floor on a towel.  He apparently had fallen asleep like that the previous evening.  I tried and failed to fall asleep but at least it passed half an hour or so.

Five o’clock came round, as did six, and by that time I had totally given up any hope of sleeping that night.  Typical I thought, in the best shape of my life and lack of sleep was going to deprive me of a good performance.  I gave up trying and laid down on my bed.  The next thing I knew my alarm clock was waking me up at 6:45, so at least I had got half an hour or so, better than nothing.  This was followed shortly by CD returning from his assignation, and by the sound of him, he had got even less sleep than I had.

Desperate to remain hydrated, I took on board a considerable amount of water before leaving for the track.  The buses to the stadium left every half hour, and the journey took between 45 minutes and an hour.  This meant that I needed to time my last trip to the toilets very carefully.  The worst thing was timing it perfectly, but then sitting on the bus until it set off 5 minutes late.  So as the armed guard slept on the front seat of the bus, rifle flopping about on his lap, and the Kenyan athletes sang at high volume, I sat pensively wondering how much the lack of sleep would detract from my performance.  My pensive state was soon replaced by agitation as my bladder became fuller and fuller, and still half an hour to go.  Through the Brandenburg gate and we were almost there.  Why did such journeys always take longer than they should?  The resulting quick sprint from the bus to the toilets became a regular part of my warm-up routine.

As was usual at the time for the 100m, all the competitors were given the chance to race against the clock with the fastest six going on to compete against the clock in the final in reverse order.  The only problem with this was that there had been a record entry for this the first ever IPC World Championships, and more than 20 athletes would take part in the first round.  We were split into two groups of 12 or 13 and allotted about 45 minutes for each half.  I was in the second half, and so I timed my warm up accordingly.  However, it was never an exact science.  The ability to do fast work in the warm up area under the stadium was always different.  Facilities differed vastly, and any failings in the facilities were heightened by the fact that there were so many blind athletes, all with guide runners.  Therefore, I liked to be ready to go when we were called up 45 minutes before race time.  I would then keep loose in the warm up area through extensive stretching, and a short sharp stride or two if CD felt able to navigate me between the swarm of athletes and guides.

Just before we were due to go out onto the track with the other 12 athletes in our group, I visited the toilet for the last time, confident that I had timed it correctly.  Safe in this knowledge I kept on consuming my water happily, cramp was definitely not going to affect me.  When we got out onto the track the heat hit like walking into a sauna.  We took the opportunity to do some strides on the back straight, and waited for our run to come around.  We waited patiently, then not so patiently, and after over an hour of waiting we were waiting quite angrily.  Apparently, the problem was caused by the athletes from the under developed countries who had turned up without guides and had to be called.  They did not know how to set up starting blocks, and so this took a lot of time.  When they did start running it wasn’t much better, as several of them disappeared off the track.  So much for German efficiency.

By the time an hour passed, I was absolutely busting for the toilet, but the officials would not let us leave the track, and it was still about half an hour or so until my turn.  As I assessed the situation, I had two choices:  first,  I could do nothing, be in great discomfort for that time, not concentrate on my race fully, with the result that at best I would be risking compromising my race, and at worst risking compromising my reputation by wetting myself; secondly, I could find a way to relieve myself.  I chose the latter option.

CD and I strategised for a while and we arrived at a plan.  CD moved me over to the outside of the track, at the back of an area behind all the other athletes who were busy watching/listening to the other athletes taking their turn.  I must have looked weird to everyone else.  They do say mad dogs and Englishmen, so it may not have seemed too strange to anyone watching when I took my track suit bottoms out of my bag and put them on.  I then took out my now empty water bottle and placed it inside my track suit bottom leg.  My manual dexterity came in handy as I managed to manoeuvre myself into a position to relieve the tension.  Luckily the bottle was a litre one, so capacity was not an issue, and the neck was a wide one, so again, capacity was not an issue.

It was at this point that CD pointed out to me that there was a television camera which had been panning around the stadium and producing its pictures on the large screen in the stadium.  Stories had been circulating about how people had been caught at the most inopportune moments, and my heart lurched.  But once you’ve started….. Luckily for me, the camera was otherwise engaged with someone’s cleavage… thank goodness for the Germans fascination with busty women.

When I eventually ran I did so with a great deal of relaxation, not surprising in one sense, but given all that had happened to me I was absolutely thrilled with a personal best performance of 11.83 secs.  As was becoming the norm, I had finished second behind SS, the Russian world record holder.  He had run 11.73 secs, and the third placed athlete was a long way behind my time as we had been the only two to get under 12 secs.  I was confident that I could run faster than that as it had seemed so easy, and I’d done it on no sleep, so with a good night’s sleep….  Gold was a real possibility.

1993 Part IV: why didn’t he keep his mouth shut!

Celebrations after the 100m had to be put on hold for at least a couple of days as I still had loads more races to get through, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw away my chances of more medals just for a quick hit of alcohol.

The 200m was going to involve the same athletes as had competed in the 100m, plus a couple of 400m guys who had dropped back in distance to the 200m as well.  As a general rule, because the 200m was made up of both 100m and 400m runners it was always more competitive, so it was going to be tough.  I cruised through the heats in about 25.1 secs.  Although this time was nothing out of the ordinary it was the way that I did it that started people talking.  I blasted around the bend in lane 7, and after easing off a bit for 20m down the straight I basically jogged for the last 60m or so, chatting with CS about how far clear I was.  My team mates were buzzing with how easy it looked, and predictions were being made about how low they thought I could and would go in the next round and the final.  The main inquisitor was RL, and knowing what I know now he was probably trying to get inside information in order to win himself some money by betting on me.

I had been drawn in lane 1 for the semi-final, and the heat looked like a good one for me.  If I had run a bit faster in the heats I would have got a better lane draw, but that’s always the problem: a balance must be struck between conserving energy and securing a good lane draw.  Warm up had gone as well as could be expected; I was soaked to the skin, but I had managed to get my muscles warm so I couldn’t really complain.  CS set up my blocks and we tried them out to make sure they were in the correct position.  We didn’t do a practice start, but I was happy with my settings.  The starter called us to our marks, and we settled down on our blocks.  The gun went, and CS and I flew out of our blocks in perfect unison, but unfortunately we did not fly out in the same direction.  CS took the correct direction, just running on the outside of the line between lane 1 and lane 2, whilst I tried to take a short cut across the infield.  The feel of grass under my feet provoked a rather rude enquiry as to just what exactly was going on, and CS to nearly suffer a dislocated shoulder.  My initial reaction had been to slow down just in case I was going to crash into someone or something, but my competitive instinct kicked in almost immediately and I jumped back onto the track.  As I attempted to accelerate back up to speed and catch up with the quickly disappearing competitors CS had to crudely barge me to keep me in my lane as by this time I had lost all sense of direction.  After 30m or so I had regained my directional sense and was starting to get up to full speed.  Adrenalin must have been blasting through my veins as I flew down the home straight, for once hardly tiring at all.  I had picked off one of my fellow competitors, but I hadn’t managed to make it into the single automatic qualifying place for the final.  It would all depend on my time.    24.85 secs was at that time my fastest ever 200m as a blind athlete, but as it was the fifth fastest time overall I would not be running in the final.  I had missed out by just 0.01 secs.  If I had managed to scrape through to the final, and if I had managed to take the correct route, I’m sure I would have won a medal, but it was quite clearly not meant to be at that time.  I would have to wait for another day until I would win a 200m medal and do myself justice in the process.

At least not qualifying for the final gave me a bit of a rest, and I was extremely grateful for that small mercy as the next event looming large on the horizon was the 400m.  I had prepared reasonably well for the event, although nothing like how prepared I would be in later life, but it was a daunting prospect due to the horrors of the timetable.  The programme had set the heats for the morning, with a semi-final straight after lunch, and the final only an hour or two later.  I wasn’t really that bothered about how close the final was to the semi as there was little or no chance of me getting through, as a flat out heat would mean that 3 hours recovery would probably not be enough for me to perform to my optimum in the semi.  Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a go.  Yorkshire men are not renowned as giving up easily, and I wasn’t about to break tradition.

On the day of the 400m the weather changed.  Driving winds were added to the steady downpour to make pace judgment vital.  I found it very difficult to judge the pace correctly, as the howling wind blew directly into our faces down the back straight, which meant that by half way round the final bend in my heart I was completely knackered.  I struggled down the home straight with the wind pushing me onwards to scramble over the finishing line in a time of 56.5 secs.

I was disappointed with the time, but I drew consolation from the fact that I had given my all, as could be judged by the fact that I laid flat out on the track for a good five minutes before I could scramble to the side for my usual 40 minutes of trying my hardest not to vomit.  The only thing that can possibly make feeling that ill any worse is being told that you have to do it all again in just a couple of hours’ time, and that is what happened as I had just scraped into the semi-finals as the second slowest qualifier.

Once I was able to stand up, I staggered to the dining hall where I sat and pushed some rice around my plate, knowing that whatever I did manage to swallow would surely re visit me shortly.  Of all the things that I miss about athletics two things clearly stand out that I do not miss even slightly:  warming up, especially stretching, and trying to eat a meal prior to running a 400m.  You know that you need the energy, but it’s just so difficult to force anything down due to feeling so sick.  As usual, myself and CS analysed my chances of getting through to the final.  I thought I had absolutely no chance, but CS, as all good guide runners do, spent the meal time trying to convince me that I was in with a chance of winning the event, never mind just getting through to the final.  This kind of attitude of my guides always rubbed me up the wrong way.  Why couldn’t they just let me wallow in self-pity, and why did they always have to be so enthusiastic?  All I wanted to do was go back to bed with a couple of pain killers for my aching back and legs.

Having managed to swallow a couple of grains of rice, a drink or two and some bread, we wandered off back to the muddy field to warm up for the next round of torture.  I say warm up, but basically it was just a matter of trying to get used to the pain from my hamstrings.  It was always the case by this stage of a championships, hamstrings so tight that touching toes was possible but it hurt like never before, so it was avoided at all costs.  I had convinced myself that I only had this one 400m left to go on the day as I was only faster than one of the other qualifiers for the semi’s, and thus 6 others were faster than me.

Whatever my motivation or thought processes which led me to concentrate on such negative facts it always had the effect of relaxing me.  Despite weeks and months of training where my focus was always on giving every last bit of effort to help me secure my dreams of gold medals when it came to the races themselves I always reverted to the same thought processes:  it didn’t really matter, who cares if I don’t win, I’ve always got next year and the year after that.  I don’t think that at that stage in my career I would ever have been positive about my chances unless I had the best time by a mile, enough to cope with a bad run or a massive improvement from my competitors.  Even though this mental approach would not have been recommended by any professional psychologist, the fact was that I always performed at or near to my best at championships, which to me meant that I wasn’t doing too much wrong.  What I could have achieved with a positive attitude prior to stripping off my track suit who knows.  But one thing was for sure: as soon as my track suit came off and I got ready to start the race the vast majority of my negative thoughts left my mind and I became the ultra-competitive running machine.  Maybe it was this balance between being very negative whilst warming up and then suddenly switching to ultra-positive which protected me from burning up too much energy before it was necessary but still allowed me to perform when push came to shove.

It was still very windy and wet when we were called on to our marks for the semi-final.  We set off as one, as was now becoming the norm, and as we ran I could hear the footfall of my competitors around me and knew that we were not doing too badly.  However, by the time we reached half distance I was beginning to struggle.  No matter how much I was hoping that I would not make it through to the final so that I could get out of this painful activity the competitive side of my mind wouldn’t allow such feelings to stop it from pushing me on.  I struggled and worked as hard as was possible for my aching limbs, but as my legs and arms got progressively heavier I started to slow.  The crowd, again made up purely of my brilliant team mates and supporters who braved the conditions, tried their best to cheer me on, but I had nothing left in my legs.  I could tell that at least one athlete was in front of me, and by some way I thought, and knew it was close between myself and the other guys.  As I crossed the line I knew I had not made the automatic qualifying position, and presumed that that was the end of the 400m for me this time round.  I bent over, hands on knees, and then managed to make it to the edge of the track where I laid flat out on my back, eyes tight shut, gasping for breath.  CS knew I had given my everything as usual, and was pleased but disappointed as like me he felt we hadn’t made it through to the final.  Several of my team mates eventually wandered over to commiserate with me, and found it highly amusing that my face was exactly the same colour as the running track.  I laid there, in a little puddle (not created by me!), in just my shorts and vest for 20 minutes or so, not caring what time I had run, just looking forward to a shower and a lay down on a comfortable bed.

I could hear a bit of a commotion near to the finishing line and I hoped that it wasn’t news of a competitor being disqualified, thus elevating me into one of the final positions.  There was no way on earth I would be able to do that again in less than 90 minutes time.  I heard MW dashing over to us to convey the news.  No athletes had in fact been disqualified, but it didn’t matter, as my time of 55.5 secs meant that I had qualified for the final.  When would this pleasure ever end?  I had the energy to swear, and to get up onto my hands and knees and throw up.  Then I laid back down and cursed my luck.  The slowest qualifier: someone up there really didn’t like me.  I would have to give my all again and would probably still come last and finish up with nothing for all my efforts.  Why couldn’t I just give up now?

CS was ecstatic, partly at the thought of a potential medal, and partly at the thought of putting me through it all over again.  Everybody in the team was also pleased, especially MW who knew how I reacted to running 400’s, and he found it highly amusing.  He just kept on giggling as I laid there in my puddle which was getting quite warm now, and he kept patting me on my head and shoulders, content that it was someone else who was suffering and not him.  This is the kind of camaraderie which exists between those who find 400m just beyond their bodily limits.

As the slowest qualifier for the final I was given lane 1.  This would mean that if as I predicted I finished last I wouldn’t hear any of my competitors at all, so at least I wouldn’t know just how far I had been beaten by.  Warm up was non-existent, just a couple of jogs and strides and I was as ready as I would ever be.  By that time the wind had really picked up.  It was blowing an absolute gale so after the first 50m or so the wind would hit me until we had got to 250m.  Trying to battle against the wind was futile, the only thing to do was to relax into it and save as much energy as was possible.  However, I was so tired and apprehensive about having to put my body through that pain again that I didn’t care about tactics.  I could hardly get out of a jog in my warm up, so worrying about tactics was the last thing on my mind.  If I made it to the finishing line that would be an achievement.  Everything is relative, and for me running three 400m races within 4 hours was something I had never done, and just finishing them all in reasonably good times would be something to draw upon in the future.

I vaguely recall being introduced to the crowd, all 12 or so who knew me personally anyway as it happened, and then limping to my blocks.  The gun went and CS and I ambled out of our blocks and started around the bend.  Forget setting off fast, I wanted to finish the race after all.  I couldn’t do with the embarrassment of slowing to a walk in the home straight, that would be too much to bear, especially if I was miles behind the others.  So damage limitation was most definitely the order of the day.

The wind hit us as expected half way round the bend.  It was really disorienting: not only could I see nothing but now I could only hear the wind screaming in my ears.  Occasionally I could hear CS trying to encourage me on, but at that time I didn’t care how fast he wanted me to go, I was just interested in getting around.  There was no way I was going to put any more effort in, I was going along quite nicely and that was all I cared about.  By the time we had hit the end of the back straight I had heard no other footfall apart from our own, and I quite vividly recall feeling that this was potentially going to be very embarrassing as I was surely miles behind.  Maybe I had been taking it far too steadily in an attempt to ensure I completed the course, and maybe that was why CS had been shouting at me.  I decided that I’d better put in a bit of effort, so from about 190m from the finish I tried to accelerate.  My legs responded as best as they could, but there was no immediate response, so after 20m or 30m I eased off the extra effort and just settled for relaxing through to the finish line.  Who cared how far I was beaten by, I had given my best and it just wasn’t good enough.  There would be other championships and hopefully I’d be fitter by then.  As long as I didn’t get beaten that far I truly didn’t care where I finished, or in what time.

I could tell that we were approaching the straight as the wind had started to get behind us, and I started to hear things other than myself and CS again.  The first noise that registered with me as we hit the straight was the vast amount of noise that the crowd were making.  It must be a really close exciting race up ahead I thought, and just kept on working hard but relaxing through to the line.  Milliseconds later a thought hit me: it was horrible weather, so the only people in the crowd would be the GB team, and it wasn’t like my team mates to get that excited about other countries’ athletes, which obviously meant that the other three athletes were line abreast across the track with little old me bringing up the rear.  I recall thinking that I couldn’t wait to hear a description of the race from someone as it was typically my luck to miss out on what was going on in the most exciting race of the championships.

A further millisecond later another thought hit me: perhaps, just perhaps, the crowd may be getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal, but surely not.  I decided that my original thought was the correct one: it must be really close as they were going absolutely mental.  A second or two later CS seemed to be getting a bit excited as well.  “come on, come on” he started shouting out.  I must admit I was a bit annoyed that he was concentrating on the race up front when he should be concentrating on me, but as long as he was enjoying himself I didn’t care.  I just kept focusing on working as hard as I could without busting a gut and tried to relax through to the finishing line, and it seemed to be working quite well as I didn’t feel like I was slowing or tiring that badly.

My second thought began to re-surface: maybe he was getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal after all, but that can’t be what’s happening, can it?  Then, one of those pivotal moments in an athletes career happened.  It will stay with me forever, and how I wish that it had never happened.  CS shouted out, at the top of his voice, and most excitedly “come on, come on, you’re going to win!”  It was like one of those cartoon moments where the character’s eyes pop out of their head with surprise.  You could quite literally have knocked me over with a feather.  Surely this couldn’t be happening, CS must be mad.  But then my ears searched the surroundings for supporting evidence, and suddenly loud shouting in foreign voices came into focus just behind me.  I could hear no noise coming from in front of me.  Bloody hell, he was right!  Within two strides I went from a laid back relaxed athlete who was not feeling particularly tired to the exact opposite.  My arms and shoulders became tight and difficult to move, and my legs became heavy and stuck to the track.  My fairly flowing stride quickly became short and quicker.  All I had to do was get to the line, but suddenly it seemed an impossible task to make it to the end of the race.  My stride shortened drastically, and in an attempt to keep my forward momentum I started to lean, desperately in need of the finishing line.  As the line refused to come to me, my lean became more pronounced and my form more erratic.  It was a close run thing, but eventually Mr Newton and his gravity won the battle and I crashed to the ground.  So much for doing everything to avoid embarrassment!

CS had bravely tried to keep me on my feet by taking my weight through the guide rope.  The effect of this made me go down left shoulder first as my right hand was held in the air.  As my weight became too much for CS to bear, my hand slipped from the rope as my back slapped onto the soddened track.  My right arm smacked with great force onto the concrete path which surrounded the inside of the track, and for a couple of seconds all I could focus on was the pain in that wrist.  I had broken that wrist when I was 13 playing rugby, so I was concerned that I might have broken it again.  Once I realised it was not broken I returned to my current predicament.  Yet again I was laid flat out on my back, in a puddle, feeling like immediate euthanasia would be a blessing.  The only thing different from usual was that this time I had adopted this position before the race had finished.  I knew this was the last race of the day, so I was blown if I was going to move in any great hurry, after all, if I did move, I would only adopt this same position a few yards further down the track, so why bother?

I heard a set of feet walk over to where I lay.  It was the Irish track referee, who was well known to our team.  He asked me if I was alright, and I replied that I thought I was.  Just as I was expecting him to ask if I didn’t mind getting up and finishing the race he said “at least you’ve won the bronze”.  CS and I couldn’t believe it, and I think I almost broke out into a smile.

CS deserved a rest and so KA, who was at the championships as one of the coaches, took me on my warm down, which basically involved slowly walking two laps on the track and discussing my performance and how I could improve.  The next time I would come across KA in a coaching sense would be in 2002.  If only I had realised in 1993 the knowledge that this man carried around with him I am sure my performances throughout the nineties would have been greatly improved.  By 2003, when he influenced how I trained, prepared and even ran my races, although I was willing to listen and do everything which he asked of me, my body was not able to give KA everything which he asked and which I tried to deliver.  This is one of the few regrets I have from my athletics career.

The medal ceremony, although very damp and miserable in one sense, was a very pleasurable experience.  I ached from head to toe, and my sprained wrist was heavily bandaged, but I didn’t care.  It was now all worth it.  The bronze medal in the hardest of events for me meant so much.  I would learn many a lesson from the experience, especially the benefits of relaxing and taking no notice of what is going on around you.  I would also learn to warn my guides not to come out with such outbursts in the future, and let them know that if I was going to win I could wait until after the finishing line to find that out.  The Guinness flowed that night, but only to reasonable levels as we still had the relays to take care of on the last day.

The last day arrived and the weather finally relented and mild and dry was the order of the day.  It didn’t really matter though as my kit was soaking wet, and my spikes had retained most of the water from the previous day as well.  Whilst we had both the relays to compete in, others in our team also had finals to deal with.  The marathon lads were out in force.  Due to the predicted scorching temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade the marathon was to be run at the ridiculously early hour of 9:00 am.  Two of our apartment mates were competing in the race, so they had to rise at 4:30 am in order to get their pre-race meals down and digested by race time.  They were up and off down to the track before I had even started my daily routine of waking CS from his drunken stupor.  Our pre-race routine was exactly the same as usual with one slight difference.  On the way to the track we took our usual short cut through a copse of trees, but whereas normally this passed without incident I managed to stand in a massive pile of poo.  No amount of dragging my feet along the grass could get rid of it from my trainers, and the smell followed me around all day, much to my great annoyance.

When we reached the track the talk was all about the finish to the marathon.  My good friend MF had been leading all the way and was a minute or so clear of the second placed athlete when he followed the lead motorcycle into the college campus for the final few hundred metres.  A turn left, then a turn right, then another right and the bike stopped.  MF stopped alongside and asked what was going on.  The driver told him that he was lost and didn’t have a clue where the finishing line was.  As MF had got to know the area fairly well through his early morning runs he set off on his own to try and find the finish.  It didn’t take him long to find it, but unfortunately for him several of the other athletes had found it before he had.  Luckily, unlike many other sporting events around the world, common sense prevailed and he was in fact awarded the gold medal.  Any other decision would have been to make a mockery of the event.

Other problems occurred on that day, notably the women’s 3000m race.  The red hot favourite was RP from Russia.  RP always won, whatever the distance, and so interest in the event was the kind where you kept asking how far is RP clear, etc.  However, there was a twist in the tail.  After 7 laps of the race RP took up the lead and committed to a blistering sprint finish for the final 200m of the race.  This took her 30m clear of the other girls, and as she crossed the line she raised her arms into the air to be greeted by the clanging of the bell.  The only people in the stadium who thought that she had a lap to go were the officials.  The other athletes, although knowing it to be a mistake, had the benefit of hearing the bell whilst they were approaching the finishing line and so carried on.  RP, after arguing with the officials, set off after them once it became clear that they were not going to change their minds.  She caught them up and was back challenging.  Despite her heroics, the efforts of winning the 3000m race meant that she was forced to settle for minor honours in the 3,400m race.

The relays went well for us, a bronze in the 100m relay and a silver in the 400m relay.  Although we were hoping for a gold in the 400m relay we were without NT who had competed in the marathon, so we were quite happy to settle for silver behind the very strong Spanish team.  I was personally pleased with my haul of two silvers and two bronzes.  I would definitely have settled for that prior to the championships.

While some of us were busy winning medals in the relays, RL had been busy borrowing money and placing a bet on the St Leger.  As a keen racing fan RL borrowed a small fortune to place on Bob’s Return which duly won the final classic of the season at 7-2, thus giving him a fair amount to blow on the final night.  The rest of us had to make do with copious amounts of beer, RL treated himself to a skin full.  It was probably well deserved, as his body had taken the usual battering from his jumping exploits.  He managed to do his usual of jumping too early and landing on the run way and suffered the associated injuries, and also gave one of the judges the shock of his life by taking off at a funny angle and landing with his legs either side of the judges waist.  It was probably the case that RL had heard a lovely Irish voice and was aiming for that person but got his take off angle wrong.  It was at least an original chat up line though.

During the last night I met up with MF and caught up on his marathon experience.  He descried his misfortune in great depth, and I for my part threw in my misfortune at stepping in the pile of poo on my way to the track.  MF seemed to take a great deal of interest in this event, and asked where exactly I had stepped in it.  I described the route we had taken, and the trees where I had stepped in it.  He burst out laughing and confessed that he had been taken short whilst waiting to start the race and those trees were the only reasonable hiding place as the toilets at the track were not open at the time.  He didn’t even offer to clean my trainers for me.

One of our number, who shall remain nameless, had an interesting last night.  Having danced himself to a standstill he took a Russian girl up on her offer of returning to her room.  Activities of a certain nature were entered into, but the poor Brit thought that something wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t quite put his somewhat drunken poorly coordinated finger on exactly what.  Eventually he sussed it out, there were two girls in the room with him, and double the enjoyment.  I think he may have enjoyed it more if he had realised earlier, but he didn’t complain.  Whilst the rest of us sat on the coach waiting to go to the airport and tried to piece together the vague recollections of the night before, the Brit in question was found wandering around outside the Russian quarters, stickless and clueless, with a large smile on his face!

1993 Part III: European Championships, Dublin

Training and competitions went as well as usual, and work didn’t seem to be having any effect on my performances. Rather unsurprisingly, I was selected to represent great Britain and Northern Ireland in the European Championships which were to be held in Dublin in September of 1993. Acclimatisation was going to be difficult, but I took every opportunity to train and compete in the pouring rain, and this paid dividends in the end. We were to fly from Leeds directly to Dublin, which meant quite a short journey to the airport for a change. The only members of the team to fly from Leeds were myself and CS, MW, MB (our marathon runner), and the team manager BS.

The plane was a propeller job, and MB, who was a very inexperienced flier, was slightly nervous. He was so nervous that the name of Captain Pooh Stripes stayed with him for some time after the very bumpy flight. I must admit that it was not a pleasant experience, bumping around at 30,000 feet whilst trying to drink a coffee and eat a Danish whilst MB kept asking if it was supposed to do that, and to top it all there was a strange grinding clinking noise behind me that didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard on a plane before. MB’s nerves, my anxiety and the turbulence led to some very colourful language passing backwards and forwards across the aisle. It was only after we had disembarked from the plane that MW saw fit to inform me that the strange grinding clinking noise behind me was a similarly nervous and anxious nun busily doing her thing with her rosary. I can only hope that her thoughts were so focused on prayer that she did not hear our language.

When we landed at Dublin we were greeted by rain, but we were assured that it was only a passing shower. To give the weather men credit, they were right, it was a passing shower and sure enough after a week it did pass. If I had my time again I would definitely have taken more clothes with me. Our kit was an interesting combination of colours. Black, gold, red and green made us look like we were from the European branch of the African National Congress rather than Great Britain, and just to make a change, whereas usually the kit was so big we could fit a friend in our track suit with us, this kit was decidedly snug fitting. I had imagined that the kit would be of questionable quality and therefore I took a lot of my kit from Barcelona with me. One item of kit from Barcelona which I did take, and thank goodness for that, was my water proof tracksuit, which I ended up wearing every day. I also wore my lycra all in one from Barcelona, which turned out to be a good idea as well, as being made of lycra it dried out easily every night after my daily drenching.

We were housed in Dublin University accommodation, four single rooms and a sitting room/kitchen in each apartment. The track was at the other end of the university campus, and by the time we had walked down there we were well and truly on our way towards being warmed up. Like all good athletes, we visited the track at the first opportunity to loosen off and see what the facilities were like. We decided to make camp at the shallow end as the organisers had seen fit to place a small tent at that end, which was where we attempted to warm up. As soon as I started to do anything fast it became clear that the combination of the cold wet weather and the vast amount of speed work I had been doing had left my fragile hamstrings in a delicate state. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to compete at my best, if at all. The call went out for medical help, and although it looked for a long time like I would have to rely on the local horse doctor, an Irish physio stepped into the breach. He was well known to some of our team as he had studied at the same physio college as they had in London several years previously. Although he had received the same academic training his social development had definitely gone in a different direction to that of his British colleagues, as he turned out to be something of a prude. I told him what my problem was and he decided that the traditional treatment of ultra sound and interferential treatment was the way to go. However, there was one small problem to this. He insisted that I did not remove any of my clothing. This resulted in him administering ultra sound treatment with his hand up my tight trouser leg, and the way in which he placed the interferential pads on the top and bottom of my hamstrings with the attached wires was a feat of manual dexterity and electrical engineering. The ironic thing was that he was partially sighted, the athletes who may potentially wander in would be either blind or partially sighted, and it was so cold that a fully sighted person would have struggled to see anything of any interest anyway. Although this kind of treatment was a bit of a farce, it did work as I made it through all my races without a problem.

As I usually struggled to sleep at championships I took to having a half of the black stuff each evening, and it seemed to help. I think the 10 or 11 pints CS had every night must have helped him to sleep as well if the length of time it took me to wake him in the morning was anything to go by.

The first event of the championship was the opening ceremony. According to those of my team mates who attended the opening ceremony in Barcelona it was almost an exact replica of that extravaganza, although I don’t remember them mentioning being knee deep in mud, soaking wet and with only two men and a dog watching them at the time. One thing that was better than Barcelona was the announcer. It is difficult to describe him, but if you can imagine an Irish cross between David Coleman, in one of his less lucid states, and Alan Partridge in one of his more ludicrous phases then you’re somewhere near.

My first track event was the 100m. The weather, as it was all week, was heavy rain with spells of intermittent light showers. Warming up was a nightmare. There was no indoor area in which to stretch, so I had to resort to jogging around a muddy field, and lying down in one of the shallower areas of the field to stretch. We found a path that wasn’t too muddy to do our strides on, and by the time the race came around I had managed to get a bit of blood flowing to my legs. We all had a chance to post a time in the first round, and the fastest six went through to the final.

During the first round I became aware of the slightly bizarre judging methods that were to be employed at the championships. Not that I should have been surprised, after all these were the same judges who had measured a 3m 60 cm long jump as 6m 40 cm due to holding the wrong end of a 10m tape measure at a previous championships. One of my competitors was called to his blocks and went through his starting routine. The gun went and off he sped. Within a second the recall gun had gone followed by a call of “ah, you didn’t look like you got a very good start so you can have another go if you want”. As it turned out, the second time round he didn’t have a very good start, middle or end and ran a terrible time, so nothing was lost. It’s a good job the starter didn’t follow that policy for every athlete or we could have been there all day.

I must have got a good start, followed it up with a good middle, and ran a reasonable end as I managed to make it into the final as the fastest qualifier. It felt good, I was very excited and felt sure that I could go a lot faster in the final. After all, I had run the heat so relaxed, even managing to stick my tongue out half way down to make sure I stayed relaxed, a trick I often tried to execute for that purpose, and it had worked well. If I gave it everything in the final who knew what I could achieve.

I ate a healthy lunch and then followed my same warm up routine for the final in the afternoon. The weather was still the same, and I hoped that this would play into my hands, as at least the athletes from Southern Europe would find these conditions completely alien to them. I had run in the region of 12.1 in the heats, and although that was slow for such a championships the conditions meant that it wasn’t that bad, but I was convinced I could dip under 12 secs. All the athletes from Spain struggled, and it became clear that it was between myself and the Russian world record holder SS. He was the penultimate athlete to go, and he ran a time of 12.1 secs, so I knew it was mine for the taking. This was where I was going to fulfil my potential and bring home the gold medal that I desired so much.

As I settled on my blocks I knew that I was going to explode like never before, I just hoped that CS could keep up with me. If anything, the start was what I thought would be our Achilles heel, so I was very nervous. The gun went and we came out well. As I accelerated and started to get fully into my running I put everything in to it, and thinking back, probably too much into it. I drove my arms like never before, gritted my teeth like never before, and tried to move my legs like never before. The crowd, all 12 of whom I could name personally, were going crazy. I didn’t stick my tongue out this time, I had to put everything into driving my body forwards. As I crossed the line I felt that I had done enough, but unfortunately the clock did not agree.

I had managed to run slightly slower than in the heat, and thus I had to settle for a silver medal. Mixed emotions surged through my body. I was annoyed that I had thrown away the chance of a gold medal, but on the other hand I was pleased to have at last won my first individual medal. Initially the annoyed emotion was the strongest, which I suppose is why athletes like myself manage to find the drive to achieve as much as we do in the long run. My desire to win was so strong that second best was not good enough. It was only after several minutes that I noticed I had ripped my number down the middle, a sure sign that I had been trying too hard. If I was going to win gold medals I would have to learn to harness my drive and desire in a more controlled and productive way. Within a couple of hours the satisfied emotions started to win through: after all, I had beaten everybody apart from the world record holder, which was nothing to be ashamed about.

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1993 Part II: A change of guides

With such an unsatisfactory work life, I was pleased to have my running to rely on for motivation and a sense of purpose in life. After Barcelona, JW told me that he didn’t feel that he was able to commit any more time to Team Curtis as his own sport was suffering. CS, another training partner and friend for many years, agreed to step into the breach. CS was a very good 400m hurdler, and only just slower than JW over the flat 400m, so he had absolutely no difficulty keeping up with me. The only problem was that CS had a very long stride length, even longer than JW’s which was long enough, and mine was still very short. This meant that CS had to seriously cut his stride length, which had the effect of making him feel like he had run 500m when in fact we had only run 400m, and made him feel like he was River dancing rather than track running. CS also struggled to keep up with me out of the blocks, but with lots of hard work we managed to come up with a method of lessening the damage that this might do to our overall performance – basically I took it easy on him for the first 10m or so.

I had taken my multi gym with me to Grandma M’s house, so twice a week, after my post-work coffee and daily dose of Neighbours, I would work on my strength and power in the garage for an hour and a half. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I would go to the track in Hull and do a track session with CS. I took up my Uncle A, a Leeds resident, on his broad offer of whatever help I needed and he drove me to Hull. He was a lovely man who would do anything for you, never got cross and was always cheerful. This was such a kind offer and very gratefully appreciated that it seems disrespectful to flag up the shortcomings in this arrangement, but looking back it was very funny. In theory my sessions were to start at 7:00 pm, and Uncle A was well aware of this fact. Therefore it seems fair to question why he insisted on picking me up from my grandma’s in Leeds at 6:40 pm. It would also seem to be fair as a follow up question to ask why he then insisted on driving on the motorway at no more than 55 mph. The choice of radio station wasn’t to my particular liking either, radio four or three, but as this didn’t affect my athletic performance I didn’t really have an issue with it. As a result of this, we would usually turn up at the track in Hull at 8:00 pm at the earliest, where we would be greeted by a politely smiling CS.

At first we tried to combine both our training sessions. CS would guide me, drop me off on the way, and then continue to his designated finishing point. In theory this should have worked. Dropping me off at 200m in a time of 26 or 27 secs or so was about the correct sort of target time when he was doing a 400m run. But this didn’t take into account the fact that he had to change his stride length half way round, which caused him great difficulties. I would always manage to find my way back to the starting line, even without my stick as I knew the track like the back of my hand, where more often than not I would find CS laid flat on his back, or on all fours reacquainting himself with his lunch.

In the end we decided to go for a split session, which also seemed to tie in nicely with Uncle A’s laid back approach to time keeping. We would turn up at 8:00 pm, I would stretch for a bit, and then wander onto the track just as CS was either finishing his last run, or finishing being sick. By the time I finished my sessions it was usually approaching 10:00 pm, and thus I often didn’t get back to Gran’s until 11:30 pm. No matter at what time I returned home, I would be greeted by a cooked tea and glass of milk. After a warm bath I would collapse into my bed well after midnight, usually wrapped up in pyjamas, lumberjack shirt, dressing gown and woolly socks as my bedroom, devoid of central heating, was like an ice box in winter.

Living with my Grandma M meant that I had moved a lot of my stuff across with me, and so I started to think about taking out contents insurance. My Grandma M obtained a good deal with Help the Aged or Saga or some other such organisation, and so we applied for more cover from them. I had taken my two silver medals with me from Barcelona as I didn’t like to be parted from them. As they were rather strange valuables the insurance company insisted that I got them valued so as to ensure I had the correct level of cover. Gran took one of them down to a reputable high street jewellers in the city centre for them to value them. They said they would be able to insure them but their head office would need to see them for a valuation to be obtained. Rather than send both, they decided just to send one, thank goodness …

Several weeks passed and we still hadn’t had the call to tell us that my medal was ready for collection. The reason for this was simple, it wasn’t ready for collection. In fact, it wasn’t ready for anything as it had gone missing in the post. “how can a registered delivery go missing” I asked. The answer was simple: they hadn’t bothered to send it recorded delivery, just through the normal first, or more probably second, class post. My initial response was to feel like my stomach had been ripped out, I had worked so hard for that medal and now I’d never hold it again. Anger turned to despair, followed after a while by a need for compensation. After all, I’d seen the adverts and where there’s blame there’s a claim. I thought this could be a tasty little earner indeed, after all, such medals are unique and irreplaceable.

I told this story to my colleagues at the bank and I was soon put in touch with the bank’s lawyers, a local firm by the name of Booth and Co. I spoke to a lawyer in the litigation department who I was told would be able to help me. I was extremely disappointed to learn that the law does not take account of value in its subjective sense, but merely in its objective sense. In other words, the law would ask how much would it cost to make a replacement medal. It soon became clear that the jewellers were also aware of this advice, and were quick to tell me that they estimated that it would cost around £600 to make a mould from my other silver medal, and then create a replacement using the same quality silver. No mention was made of where they would get the same kind of ribbon from. If I wanted a medal this was the only way to do it, as enquiries had revealed that the International Paralympic Committee did not keep extra medals and were not in the business of replacing lost medals, even at a cost.

The jewellers ended up offering me £1,000 to settle the matter. On the basis of the advice I had received I decided that this was the best I would do. I then had three choices. Firstly, I could use the money to have another medal cast. Secondly, I could spend the money on wine, women and song. Thirdly, I could just waste it. Having a replica medal made did not excite me: it would not be the medal that was handed to me whilst I stood on the podium with my mates having a great time: it would not be the medal that I slept with around my neck that night and for weeks afterwards: it would not be the medal that I had looked forward to showing off to my kids in the future. So, instead, a Fiat Panda was purchased! Several of my friends thought that I had been very lucky and stated that they would gladly swap their medal for a grand, but interestingly none of them have tried to sell any of their medals.

One of those who had bemoaned my luck was MW who lived with his wife in nearby Bingley. He had kept asking me to come over and stay, so I accepted his offer and got Uncle A to give me a lift from work to the train station. The train journey took 26 minutes, and I had found out how many stops there were before I had to get off at Bingley. I counted the correct number of stops and got off the train and waited for MW to greet me. However, MW did not greet me, and after a couple of minutes I started to wonder if I was out of MW’s range with his poor sight. I had my stick with me, but as I was on an unknown train station I didn’t really know which way to go. I stood for a while and listened. There was no sound which gave me a clue as to which way I should go. I knew where the track was, but I didn’t know which way the exit was. I called out MW’s name, but there was no answer, either from him or anyone else. At least if the station was deserted there was no chance of me making a fool of myself. I started to feel around and found the wall away from the track. I decided that as I had been sat at the rear of the train I should go in the direction of where the front of the train had been.

I started to move off in that direction, doing the widest longest sweeps of my stick as was physically possible in order to remove any possibility that I might end up on the track. My progress was painstakingly slow, but eventually I sensed by echo location that I was approaching the foot bridge which passed over the track, so I must be near the exit. However, I had a feel around but couldn’t find the exit.

I decided to wait and see if MW turned up when the next train arrived. He must have got the time wrong. The next train came, but MW didn’t. I was starting to get cold. I thought of asking someone for help, but this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I hate train stations as the trains are so loud that it is impossible to hear what people are saying, and footfall is difficult to make out, and by the time I had realised someone was walking past me they had already gone. I decided that when the next train came in I would follow any footsteps which I could make out, and after half an hour waiting I put my plan into action. Luckily I managed to make out the noise of a pair of high heels exiting the station, and although I soon lost the trail I had managed to follow them for long enough to find the steps off the platform. When I reached the top of the steps I took a gamble and went left. After a short walk I heard the open air of the street. I stood, waited, and contemplated my next move.

After several minutes I heard footsteps and before I could ask for assistance the person asked me if I needed any help. I told the person that I was supposed to be met by a friend but he had failed to turn up and I didn’t know the area at all. He took me over the road to a phone box and I tried to ring MW, but there was no answer. As I tried to decide whether to cut my losses and try to arrange my return journey the passer-by asked me who was supposed to be meeting me. I told him it was a partially sighted friend of mine who lived locally. He asked me if his name was M, and I said that it was. He asked me if he lived on FD, and I said that he did indeed live there. He said he knew him and would take me there if I wanted. After making a split second decision to take him up on his offer, he led me to his car which was parked in the station car park.

As I sat down in his car and put my seat belt on I immediately started to panic and feel vulnerable. All I could think was that my mum would kill me for getting in a strangers car, he could be a murderer or anything. I clenched my stick in my hands, and my buttocks as well. The main thought running around my head was “just try it on mate and you’ll be pummelled to death”.

Luckily this passer-by was a good Samaritan and he took me to MW’s house. He knocked on the door and MW opened it. After exchanging greetings he asked MW if he was supposed to be meeting anyone at the station, “not until tomorrow night” was his answer.

Several minutes of expletives later I was sat in MW’s lounge swilling vodka and lemonade to calm my frazzled nerves, and after several, the whole experience somehow seemed to have been a lot less harrowing than it felt at the time – funny that!

1993: return to work

1993 was a big year for me because it was the year that I was invited by the Inland Revenue to start to make contributions to the nation through a long forgotten concept to me of income tax.  The reason for this was that the bank had finally found a position for me.  After 28 months on sick leave I was to hand in my £38 a week benefits book and become the first blind employee of the bank.

The bank had identified a position on their flagship internal help desk where they thought I would be able to do a job with the help of the technology which was available to me.  The Help Desk was situated in the Yorkshire bank computer centre behind the Yorkshire Bank branch in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, so I would have to move to Leeds, and I would have to go on a one week refresher course to remind me of the job I was supposed to have been qualified to do when I left the Bridlington branch.

However, I was extremely sceptical as to whether this plan would work out.  Under normal circumstances it was only the best people in the bank who managed to be selected to work at the help desk as they were the font of all information within the bank; they were the trouble shooters for the organisation.  If somebody rang up they didn’t just hope you knew the answers, they expected you to know the answers, sometimes without even explaining the problem fully.

Most of the queries came from the person within the branch with the lofty title of In Charge of Data Processing (the ICDP).  I had done my ICDP course in the summer of 1990, but due to me not being able to see the reports which were an integral part of the job I had only ever done it for about 3 days, and to be honest, I was terrible at it.  When I went on the refresher course it was all double Dutch to me, but I kept on smiling politely and saying that I was sure it would all come flooding back to me, but the truth was it was never there in the first place for it to come flooding back.  If the help desk operatives did not know an answer then they could always refer to the manuals which had every bit of information required for every operation in the bank, so if I didn’t know I needn’t worry, or so I was told.

I was told that the bank didn’t want to cause me any distress re adjusting to working life, so they only expected me to work for three days a week until I was ready to step it up to four days, and then eventually, if I felt I could cope with it, they would like to think that at some point in the future I would be able to work a full five day week.  Well, being 23 years old and an international athlete this was music to my ears.  Just to make matters even better, they would pay me full salary whatever hours I worked.

I was introduced to my colleagues to be.  Apart from my manager, PE, all my colleagues were female, you could almost smell the estrogen in the air.  They were all very pleasant but somewhat over powering at first, and it didn’t help that I don’t think that any of them had ever met a blind person before, so I could sense their eyes burning into me no matter how small the task I was trying to do.  It took me weeks before I dare eat a yoghurt in front of them; I don’t think either I or they were ready for that spectacle.  I knew these feelings would subside as I got into it, and in the end I got on well with them all and they were very helpful.

The plan was that I would get a feel for work again at the help desk for a couple of months and then they would find a permanent position for me within the bank to utilise my management potential, as they were still aiming to treat me as a management trainee.  However, despite the positive sounds, the only job they had identified mainly involved answering the phones, and they were supposedly looking at utilising my abilities in their developing telephone banking operations.  I don’t think they intentionally wanted to give the impression that I was only good for answering telephones, I just don’t think they understood my abilities.  Looking back, it’s not that surprising; 1993 seems like a different age compared to how things are now for disabled people.

An average minute in my working life for the first 6 months or so went as follows.  The phone would ring.  I would answer it with the following Stetford bank clerk’s response of “good morning/afternoon help desk” with all the fake enthusiasm of a millionaire octogenarian’s young bride on their wedding night.

The caller would respond with “oh, I wasn’t expecting a man”, and then soon get into their problem, which could be anything from a complete computer failure to questioning where they got their toilet rolls from.  As soon as they had told me their problem I would say “if you could just hold for a minute I’ll find the answer” and I would put them on hold as promised.  I would then immediately shout out “could somebody help me please” and one of my colleagues would rush to my assistance.  I would then relay to them the problem as I remembered it, and more often than usual they would want more details which I would then have to get from the caller before placing them again on hold.

As I had to type the caller details into my computer, as well as the question and the response that I gave them, I needed to use a headset so that I could type at the same time as speaking to them.  My calls would then be printed out and checked by my supervisor.  The phone and the headset that had been provided for me did not have a hold facility, so all I could do was to put the phone on mute so that to the caller it sounded like they were on hold, but I could hear every word they were saying.  This was soul destroying.  It’s bad enough to suspect you are bad at your job, whether or not this is because of disability issues or not, but to hear your clientele telling all within earshot just how bad you actually are cuts deep.

From what nearly every caller candidly said whilst they were on hold, or rather what they thought was being on hold, they were amazed that a man had been given a job on help desk as everyone knew that men were rubbish at the ICDP job.  They could all tell as well that I didn’t have a clue about any of their queries if their frank comments to their colleagues were anything to go by.

“Eh, Tracey” a caller once called out to her colleague in her branch, “you’ll never believe this.  They’ve got a fella on the Help Desk and he’s bloody useless, he doesn’t have a clue.”

At first I tried to ignore it and not let it bother me, but as such comments became commonplace I got more and more frustrated with feeling inadequate.  If they had been particularly vicious with their comments, I would slip it into the conversation that as I was blind I was having to get some help with reading the manuals, and you could almost hear their jaws hit the desk.  This was especially so if I also managed to slip into the conversation a response to something they were saying whilst they thought they were not able to be heard.  My favourite way of doing this was to say something along the lines of “thank you for your patience while I placed you on hold, but the reason the idiot, as you referred to me, couldn’t find the answer to your problem was because it is the first time I have come across this problem in my short career here on the Help Desk, and being blind makes it a little bit awkward for me, but thank you for your patience”.  I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I’m only human.

After a few months I had begun to remember some of the responses to the usual queries.  However, these consisted mainly of asking “have you tried switching it off and on again?”!  There were a few other responses I had learned, such as if the ICDP could not get the cash at the branch to balance at the end of the night there were a couple of suggestions I could make, but if they didn’t resolve the problem I had to pass the call on to a competent member of staff.  I had remembered a couple of error codes and how to deal with them, and a number of regularly occurring problems with filling in forms and inputting data into the computer, but I simply didn’t have the tools to deal with any bigger issues.  In short, after many months I was nothing more than a glorified answer machine.

There was another job which I was given to do to keep me busy, probably to keep me from annoying more branch staff than was absolutely necessary.  This involved copying computer discs to send out to the branches.  These discs were not the three and a half inch floppy’s that I used in the late 90s, or even the slighter bigger forerunners to those little beauties.  These were discs that were about nine inches square, and the disc copying machine was the size of a small cupboard.  Very state of the art at the time, but not at all suitable for use by a blind person.

I had to stick the relevant master disc into the correct slot (the master discs helpfully having been labelled with Braille), then place a blank disc into the other slot, and then start the copying process.  Sounds simple enough, but when you have a desk full of discs and no way of determining which are the yet to be copied blanks and which are the already copied blanks (apart from stacking them neatly in separate piles) then it is a recipe for disaster.  The only way I could cope was to avoid any distractions, such as talking to other people, which isn’t a good way to help the hours pass at work.

The other problem with the system was that the machine often hung whilst copying.  If this occurred without the operator being aware of this, the disc which was sent out to the branch would be useless, and the operator’s name would be mud.  Fail-safe devices were available though.  The operator was informed of a hung machine through a series of lights being displayed, but this was obviously of no use to me, and so I had to come up with a work-around.  My solution was to sit and count the clicks that the machine made whilst copying.  If it successfully got to the required 132 clicks, which took about 3 ½ minutes, then it had copied correctly, if it didn’t then I binned that attempt and started again.  I wouldn’t say that it was mind numbingly boring – talking was a sure way of losing count – but if anyone had asked I would have told them so …  as long as the clicking had finished!  Thinking about it, my colleagues probably didn’t need to ask if I was bored as I’ve always been useless at hiding such feelings.

To make it interesting I developed a game – always important in office jobs I have found.  There were two copying machines, one of which was slightly faster than the other.  The game was to load up the slowest machine, start it going, and then see if the faster of the two could catch it up.  The days really did fly by after I had invented this game I can tell you.

The undisputed highlight of the working week was Friday lunch time, as we would either go down to the head office in Leeds for fish and chips, or we would go to one of the local pubs for a pub lunch.  On one such occasion at the Mustard Pot in Chapel Allerton, I ordered my usual cheese burger and chips.  Half way through I stabbed into where I knew the chips to be on my plate and transferred the food to my mouth.  As I bit into my chips I was greeted by the sour taste of a slice of lemon.  I had a simple choice, spit it out and let everyone know what I’d done, or eat it and hope no-one saw me.  The avoidance of embarrassment always being at the forefront of my mind, I opted for the latter, and as no-one mentioned it I thought I must have got away with it.

However, a few weeks later, I did the same thing.  As the strategy had served me well, I ate it as before.  I was becoming accustomed to the taste and it wasn’t that bad, as long as you ate it really quickly.  Another stab and another piece of lemon.  How unfortunate I thought.  Never mind, at least I won’t get scurvy.  A third stab and a third piece of lemon was greeted by hysterical laughter, after which the girls let me in on their joke, them informing me that they noticed me eating my lemon the previous occasion and that they had been waiting for a suitable opportunity to strategically place all of their lemon slices on my plate to see what I would do.  I very rarely eat the lemony surprises nowadays, either asking someone to remove my lemon for me or opting to spit it out should I manage to find it with my fork.

The girls in the office were great and didn’t complain, but I still felt like a burden, as everyone else seemed to be doing the majority of my job for me.  No wonder they hadn’t wanted me to work every day.  To add to my frustration, my prospects of a long term career at the bank were looking bleak.  No progress had been made on finding me a permanent position, and thus I was still temporary staff, being paid a fair wage for passing on messages and copying discs.  For the first few months I didn’t mind though, as after all, beggars, and especially blind beggars, can’t be choosers.

Apart from the job itself, the only thing that did annoy me was the ruling that due to my special situation I did not qualify for the usual relocation expenses and cheap mortgages.  So I was left living with my Grandma M in Cross Green, near East End Park in Leeds, who at the time was a mere 83, with a wage in the region of £8,000 a year.  I think me and Grandma M did rather well living together in that small house.  M loved to fuss, and was always asking questions about what did I want, what I was doing, what I had been doing, what I was going to do, and was forever reminding me not to be late, etc, the sort of things grandmas do.  At times it drove me crazy, and at times I know I drove her crazy and acted like a spoilt brat, but I loved her to bits and knew she was only doing her best to look after me.  And to give her credit she did do a good job of looking after me, even walking me up to the off license on a couple of occasions when I was thoroughly fed up with work.  My granddad had died about 10 years earlier, so you may think she would have been glad of the company, but I think she used to look forward to the weekends when I would return home to Bridlington and she could get a bit of peace again.  She also must have found it very difficult to be at home for 48 weeks a year, as I now realise that at that time she would otherwise have gone on holiday 7 or 8 times a year at least, so she gave up a lot for me.  I would return to live with her in 2005 for the best part of three months, and we would fall back into step like I’d never been away.

Racing fans will know that throughout the summer Monday night means Windsor racing night.  So every Monday I would return home from work to find Grandma waiting with a daily express to read the racing page to me before I put a few bets on.  It was either that or sit and watch soap operas with her at full volume, what with her being a bit deaf.  I thought that betting might be bad for my pocket, but at least it didn’t make my ears bleed.  I would watch the betting shows and racing results on Teletext through my computer in my bedroom, whilst listening to the soaps on my portable telly at a sensible volume.  When I had won or lost a fortune I would go down and watch a bit of telly with her, but she would always reckon she had seen it before or I would sit there cringing in case anyone swore or worse still someone might get their boobs out, which was always followed by a torrent of outrage about how such behaviour could be allowed on her television.

Breakfast was always ready when I got up, my trousers and shirt would be on the clothes horse in front of the fire warming up for me, my packed lunch would be bursting out of the box when I left the house, a coffee would be ready for me when I came in, and my tea would be on the table at any time I liked, even if it was 11:30 pm when I returned home from Hull on track nights.

However bearable home life was, work life was starting to get very tedious.  It was clear that I was never going to be fully competent at the job, due to the failings in my support structures, and the progress on finding me a job that I would be good at was non-existent.  It appeared that the bank had hit a brick wall in their task of finding me long-term employment.  As a result, my commitment to the bank started to wane over a period of months.  Whether I did my job or not didn’t seem to matter to anyone: the girls on the Help Desk could answer calls quicker and didn’t get distracted by having to help me from their other jobs if it wasn’t their turn to answer calls on any given day.  In short, I think everyone was happier, including me, if I wasn’t there to do my job.  Looking back, I believe I was suffering from mild depression at the time; I hated going to work, I hated being so dependent upon others and there seemed no end to it.  Starting work again was supposed to make me feel better about myself, but all it did was make me feel worse because my limitations were so exposed.

As these feelings developed, a slight sniffle or stomach ache was all that was required for me to take the day off, and it was amazing how many times I had a slight stomach ache if there was any sport on the telly that day.  I didn’t even have to put on that fake “I’m not feeling very well” voice that anyone who has ever worked in an office will recognise.  I could almost sense the relief in their voices when I told them I wasn’t coming in, and I’m sure on occasions I could hear the cheering in the background.  With me out of the way the girls were free to talk of all things below the waist which for the most time they refrained from discussing in front of me.

But at least I had my athletics to keep me going, and thank goodness I did …..

Poor Old Postie

A short piece that I had intended to post prior to Christmas …

As I stepped out of the front door at work today on my way home, a moron in a performance car slammed his foot down.  The resultant noise drew from me what is fast becoming an automatic response over which I have no control:

“W*nker” I blurted out, with an unimpressed aggressive scowl.

At that very moment, a bemused looking postman, who was entering the building,  had been sidestepping me in order to avoid being wiped out and carried down the steps – I can only imagine what he must have thought!

If I had known he was there, I would have explained the target of my abuse; but I didn’t know he had been there until my PA told me, which was after he’d disappeared – poor fellow!