Dealing with Loss as an Athlete by Daniel Hill
📸 by Jodi Hanagan
For the sake of being concise, I’ll start my story in 2017. That year was the high. I'd gotten married, I’d won my second British Masters M35 title over 200m with a lifetime PB, and then gone on to the European Champs later that summer – where I’d picked up an individual bronze and a relay gold.
It felt like vindication; for all the training, for all the hard work. But, most importantly, it felt like a victory over my mental health – that I could accomplish something despite the all-consuming darkness which had followed me since childhood. It was no longer about just being functional, I could actually achieve.
But progression is never linear – especially with mental health. That little parasite that sucks on your life force is always there. It’s just about the degree.
At this stage the signs were there for what would follow. I was training more than my coaches had assigned as I was pushing my body in the only way I’d ever known: 100% effort. Pedal to the floor. 'The grind', that which social media portrays so favourably, is corrosive and, as with much that is force fed to us these days, lacking in nuance.
I finished that season injured, and going into winter training I struggled to repeat the volume or intent I’d put into previous years – despite the prospect of a Masters World Champs in Malaga to motivate me.
But I still had my winning mindset: problem – solution, problem – solution. That had been how I’d made my ‘miraculous recovery’ from mental health issues. It would get me through this dip, surely?
It slowly became clear that this mentality was not a fix all for everything life was going to throw at us – especially when my wife and I went through two miscarriages in the space of a few months. I wasn't equipped for that uniquely heart-rending experience. It just didn't fit the functional form of problem solving I'd trained my brain for. Before another six months was up, we would experience a third such loss.
Before that, however, came a day that would break me…
On a Sunday in July 2018, I got the worst phone call of my life. One moment I was stood in the kitchen with my Mum – a fellow masters athlete – going over the minutiae of our latest training session, the next I was rushing to my brother's home. He’d had a heart attack.
I sometimes ponder such moments in life: the juxtaposition of light and dark divided by mere seconds...It's such emotional experiences us athletes are uniquely ill-prepared to confront - it implies there are variables out of our control.
As I sat in my brother's front room, with the paramedics working on him upstairs, I could only minutely sense the walls of denial being built as my psyche struggled to comprehend the enormity of what was happening.
I was the only one not to visit his body before it was taken away. I just thought it would make it easier for me to process if I didn’t. My familial rock - the closest thing I had to a male role model in my life - was gone, and I couldn't say goodbye.
The next six weeks went by in a haze. Both my Mum and I used training and the World Champs as a distraction from reality - a way to postpone our grief. I don’t know how but I made the 200 metres final in Malaga. By the time my heats got underway I was a shell, fuelled entirely on nervous energy and some vague, created notion that this is what my brother would have wanted. I finished 7th, but in many ways it was my best achievement. I only wish I'd had any emotional energy left to appreciate it.
But that was blown out of the water by my Mum, who won a bronze medal in the hammer. I watched that competition fighting back the tears every time she walked into the throwing circle. Those moments concentrating on technical proficiency were probably the only respite her mind had gotten in weeks. It’s hard to comprehend the strength it must have taken to compete, and thrive, in such circumstances.
I returned from those Champs mentally numb and for such a long time after them I continued to treat my mental health, and my grief, like it could be fixed with some magic elixir. I felt as if I just needed to take the right path as I set about this quest.
As I battled with low energy and motivation, I strove to find my holy grail. One week it was breathing techniques, another it was a barrage of blood tests to check for nutritional imbalances. Books, articles, YouTube gurus. I disappeared down every informational rabbit hole I could find. I longed for the contentment of a few years before. I just thought I needed optimising. If I could just change the oil and fill the tank up with the right petrol I’d be running smoothly again.
I wanted to be that person again – the one who could train like a Rocky montage and win medals. Getting back to that, and being an athlete again, would be another victory. My sense of worth would be restored. I’d have fed whatever demon it is inside that keeps feeding off the need to achieve. That’s where I would find my contentment again...
It took about two years and numerous false dawns to realise that was nonsense. I’d love to be able to tell you there was a magic bullet that got me there – one purveyor of knowledge whose wisdom set me straight. But it was everything and it was nothing. It was a little bit those breathing techniques, and it was a little bit nutrition.
But, what I really needed was acceptance – the capacity to let go of the things that were not in my control.
I can’t bring my brother back. I can’t fill the hole that he left. But I can try and learn to accept the natural cycle of life. I can realise that my worth is not defined by a time. I can learn to enjoy the journey of training: starting a rep with a controlled breath and a present mind, rather than an expectation based on irrational thought. Only then can I relax and absorb the sensation of running fast, flowing through my transitions to upright running and feeling the uniquely transcendent experience when you slingshot from curve to straight. It's the closest I'll ever get to flying without aid, and it's the reason why I run.
It also helps that life has given me a reason to change my perspective, as we welcomed our healthy, characterful, daughter into our lives just over eight months ago. It's given me a greater appreciation for small moments - a laugh, a smile, a ray of sunshine sneaking through the clouds as I lace up my spikes at the track.
I now realise that while I can learn from the past, I don’t need to lose myself in it. And, lastly, the future is not the threat my subconscious perceives it to be.
I can’t and don’t realise these things every day. My mental health journey is not linear. It's just about degrees. But I can learn to accept that…
Featured Image by Henrik Enemark
Dealing With Loss As An Athlete
Written by Daniel Hill
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