Monday, 16 January 2017

The Finished Article

I was watching the football recently and drifting off as tedious commentators reeled out a barrage of cliches to fill in the gaps of a lacklustre nil-nil draw.  Their observations were largely washing over me until one of them used the well worn line;

'well he's not quite the finished article yet' 

And that set me thinking, what the hell does the finished article look like?

I've been training for about 29 years now, initially for football, then tennis before, at the age of fourteen making some serious, if misguided forays into physical conditioning for cross country mountain biking.  Even during the booze laden university years I continued to push hard on the bike and occasionally jogged through the picturesque suburbs of darkest Swansea.  Since then I kept fit for a decade before finding mountain running and seriously ramping up the commitment and intensity in order to compete at my current level.

As well as training harder I've also become a lot more clued up on the other essential aspects of diet, mindset and running technique and searched hard to find those marginal gains that may keep my ageing body ahead of my rivals.  To maintain this degree of focus takes a dedication and mental fortitude which is always motivated by that search to become better.  But where does it ever stop?

I always thought that the onset of my thirties would signal the beginning of a decline with metabolism slowing and fat appearing in previously toned areas but in actuality the opposite occurred with the discovery of a new sport where malnutrition (or at least minimal non-essential calorific intake) is par for the course among top competitors.  As I approach the exit to that decade the scales are informing me that my default weight is now a stone lighter than ten years ago.

So I'm lighter, fitter, better technically and faster than I used to be but only the totally deluded would consider me anywhere near a finished article.

2015 Mourne Skyline Skyrunner win.  Certainly one of my better days but I still could've gone faster and subsequently have so no finished article there!  Photo Credit: Jayne Bell
So what about true masters, Pele, Beethoven, Kasparov, were they the finished article?  Certainly at a point in time they could all have been considered the pinnacle of human achievement within their extremely narrow fields but to consider they were incapable of further improvement would have been insultingly misguided.

So if true legends, the all time top proponents weren't the hallowed finished article then can it be achievable?

Well, yes possibly it can but you need a high degree of specificity and very clear goals.  To narrow the field and have stated aims at least allows you to be the finished article at one point in time and one very specific achievement.  For example, I hold a couple of record times which I specifically aimed to set whilst racing.  By beating a target set by myself but also all previous competitors I can convince myself that on that day and at achieving that aim I was indeed the finished article.  But it doesn't mean that others can't be infinitely better.  You can only be your own finished article.

I'm not foolish enough to believe I'll ever be the World mountain running champion. That particular boat probably sailed years before I even discovered the sport.  However, at some point I will be my finished article within mountain running, the best me I can ever be.  It may have already happened, my best ever performance where it all felt effortless and flowing may be behind me, I'll find out too late, when the times do get slower despite the effort remaining constant.  A facet of always believing you can get better is the fact that ultimately you'll be wrong, barring a premature retirement or untimely death you will start to naturally deteriorate.

Which could be a pretty depressing thought....

Except it's not at all because you can always be improving at something, working towards being your finished article all over again in a totally different field.

I've been unable to run for twelve weeks now due to injury but have been given a reprieve from mental torture by my incredibly generous physio who lent me his cyclocross bike.  Instantly I set about a new training regime of high intensity turbo training, 'ugly fifteens' and two wheeled drifts round grassy corners on a bike that's definitely not the best designed tool for that kind of behaviour. The learning curve has been seriously rapid and massively enjoyable.  It's so bizarre taking a pastime that is seemingly so close to my comfort zone (as a mountain bike coach) but actually in many ways is miles away.

So a few weeks ago I sped around a local trail centre feeling far too upright with bars too narrow and brakes that barely functioned.  The 80psi in my tyres to ward off pinch flats gave my hands a beating that'd reduce a jackhammer operator to tears.  Initially I tensed up, slid, over braked and did all the things I coach out of beginners on mountain bikes, but pretty rapidly I found the boundaries and started launching the drops and letting it go on the corners before inevitably the front tyre did blow out on one less than finessed landing.

Armed with a decent level of fitness and a very small modicum of specific CX ability I than set about taking on my first race.  Like an idiot I was conned into doing the 'A' class before seeing that the majority of rank amateurs go into the 'B'.  The great thing is that I didn't care!  Obviously I tried to bury myself physically but found that I actually struggled to burn myself out because my lack of skills on the endless sharp bends gave me too much time to recover!  Not being 'gridded' and starting at the back denied me the chance to have a brief flirtation with the quick lads at the front but really it was a lack of technical ability that saw me forced back into a respectable but unremarkable 19th place finish.  When it comes to cyclocross I'm currently so far from the finished article that I'm barely an article at all!
Cyclocross.  Just riding bikes around a field, how hard can that be?  Actually pretty damn challenging!
So the moral of the story for me is that far from being dismayed at the ultimately doomed search for unending improvement, maybe we should instead just focus on being our own finished article every time we compete.  Clear goals allow us the satisfaction of success whilst accepting that another, harder target is then required to motivate us to push on.  When finally we do succumb to the natural decline through age or injury then we can accept it and either keep competing at a lower level or really excitingly take up something new and work towards once again becoming our personal finished articles.  Cue a lifetime of new experiences!








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