Hobbled and humbled

Humbled: even a decade ago I was a hopeless runner

If, early on Tuesday morning, you witnessed an overweight middle-aged man hopping up and down in the middle of Newcastle’s Toon Moor and swearing, I’m afraid it was I. On average I puff around the Moor three times a week (my wife accompanies me, but doesn’t seem to puff). On Tuesday, without warning, I pulled a calf-muscle: suddenly it was hurting like hell, and I couldn’t run any more. Just when I thought I was getting a bit stronger and fitter, and possibly even thinner, I found myself in an instant hobbled, and humbled.

It wasn’t, in truth, the discomfort that gave rise to my imprecations, but the furious sense of frustration at the fact that my pathetic attempts at fitness would be on hold for a month. I may have vented my feelings more than was warranted. Sorry.

Mrs Trafford, it has to be said, did not follow the sterling example of Olympian Alistair Brownlee supporting his brother last Sunday: she failed to carry me home. But then, I am about twice her weight. No, she went ahead while I limped on, receiving helpful advice (which I managed to accept with reasonable grace) from passers-by who saw me hobbling homeward in my running-gear: at least, when I arrived, the morning tea was made.

I’ve been cudgelling my brains how I can make a useful and educative story out of this, and out of any parallels I can draw with the Bradfordian Brownlee brothers. Since the school term started, teachers up and down the country will have been drawing moral lessons from Olympian and Paralympic successes.

We’re careful with praise in schools nowadays. We don’t laud sheer talent: this isn’t the X Factor! For those of us in education, it’s all about the determination and resilience needed to achieve that success (we could also add stories about the losers, and how they cope with that failure: but it’s less glamorous). So we trot out the amazing stories of people who have come back from injury or illness, or battled a disability to achieve world-class status.

I guess all of us watching the Brownlee episode could empathise with it on several levels. Jonny, on his way to a world title in Mexico, had given so much, too much indeed, that he began staggering and was on the point of collapse when Alistair, already out of the running for the World Series title, grabbed him and helped him to the line. He could have won gold: he sacrificed both gold and silver for his brother.

Jonny’s collapse in itself demonstrated – to those of us who find top athletes make it look just too easy, so supremely are they prepared – how unbelievably tough it is. Alistair claims that he needed to help Jonny to the line, where the medics were, as his impending collapse could otherwise have been dangerous. Dangerous or not, the incident illustrates how much these athletes put into competition – particularly in events as long and gruelling as the triathlon.

A bit of local interest slips into my tale here. One of my students at the RGS (I don’t often mention my place of work on Voice of the North) was also in Mexico, for the Junior (Under-20) event. Kate Waugh, 17, came eleventh overall in her event, and won silver as part of the GB women’s U20 relay triathlon team.

Next Monday in assembly I’ll present her with that silver medal, and I know the reception will be rapturous: what a role model her fellow students have among them! Jonny Brownlee showed how much that degree of sheer bloody-minded determination can cost a body: but he remains a very ordinary and likeable young man. And it’s much the same with Kate.

How proud it makes us all!

You know what? It all puts my injury and foul temper on Tuesday in proportion. Indeed, that episode is now back in its box and dealt with: not least because the physio assures me that it’s only a strain, not a tear, and that I should be moving properly within a week.

Did I get the merest hint of what these athletes go through all the time? I think perhaps I did.

In any case, I feel humbled by the comparison, and a bit silly for making such a fuss. And that’s probably very good for the soul of someone as bumptious as I’m prone to be.

This episode was rather like when I took up running thirteen years ago: I went public about it at the school where I was then head – so that I couldn’t give up without suffering intolerable shame. One of my deputies, always a sincere man, commented warmly, “Bernard, you’re an example to us all.”

“Why?” I asked delightedly. “Because I’m getting so much better at it?”

“No,’ he replied, with devastating honesty. “Because you’re so bad at it that everyone can feel it’s worth having a go!”






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