Surviving Ironman

Site Manager at Designer Group, John Blake, bares his soul on a personal journey to mental health awareness...

A voice from the past provided John Blake with the inspiration. It had reappeared out of the blue on Danny and Mero’s What’s the Story? podcast from south Dublin. It was Saturday, January 6, 2018, and John tuned in to a highly-charged, on- air testimony by stabbing victim Keith Kelly. That day, he found his training accompanied by a voice familiar from his youth, a man he regarded as a bona fide tough guy, only now he was laying bare a descent into mental health hell. Kelly spoke of how surgeons had managed to save his life, to stitch up the five stab wounds he’d received in a vicious attack on his home a decade earlier, but that had only been the beginning of the battle.

Keith Kelly’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as it would later be diagnosed, manifested itself in flashbacks, depression, anxiety, and anger. He attempted to self-medicate with booze, drugs, and the adrenalin rush of gambling. The downward spiral hit rock bottom when he attempted to take his own life. The way back began when an old friend recommended contacting a local charity in south Dublin called Suicide or Survive (SOS).

John heard how Suicide or Survive had helped turn Keith’s life around, how he was now an integral part of the SOS family as it strives to break the stigma of mental illness. Right there and then the former professional goalkeeper found a cause he felt compelled to rally around. A meeting was arranged between the two, the upshot of which was a commitment by John to undertake a demanding Ironman Tour Challenge that would combine his need for a physical challenge with the desire to raise funds for Suicide or Survive. Using your fitness to fatten a local charity’s coffers, what’s not to love about that idea? The irony is not lost on John Blake that in the process of helping Suicide or Survive he was forced to confront his own mental health demons.

“I was physically fit, had a thriving career, a loving partner and was father to two wonderful kids – always had a smile on my face,” said John. “I thought my life was perfect and that I had no issues at all. But all those hours I would spend alone training for the Ironman took me deeper than I’d ever been before. It was a mental journey I just didn’t see coming.”

Anyone who has trained for an Ironman event, or has even a passing knowledge of what it entails, will be aware that the physical demands are matched, perhaps exceeded by the mental. Forget the ripped physique or impressive lung capacity, the real examination takes place in your grey matter.

In order to reach the elite fitness levels required to even line-up for an Ironman event you must first survive the journey. Then, to earn the designation IRONMAN you must complete a 3.86km (often sea) swim in under two hours 20 minutes; followed by a 180.25km cycle in less than eight hours ten minutes; and finish with a marathon, yes, that’s 42.20km in no longer than six and a half hours. Even the Half Ironman distance is beyond most mere mortals, comprising a 1.9km swim, 90km bike ride, and 21.5km run. Contemplate taking part in either of these endurance events and you know well in advance that there will be no substitute for miles under the belt.

For John that meant endless hours peddling through the Wicklow Mountains with, save for the odd wild sheep or deer, pretty much his own thoughts for company. What started out as splendid isolation eventually revealed a darker side.

“Pitch black mornings and a half five start, torrential rain, empty roads and deserted fields and time to reflect, too much time. I sensed that inside my head there was a real battle brewing. Despite the obvious positives in my life, it was the regrets – unfulfilled potential as a goalkeeper, lofty career expectations I felt hadn’t been achieved – that dominated. Being able to reflect now on my life from a place of good health and wellbeing, I can see that I was actually struggling with so many aspects of my life that I hadn’t recognised or just ignored.”

Suffering in silence 
As John’s mental health deteriorated, he found himself unable to practice what he now preaches. “I’d listened to Keith on the podcast talk about not wanting to, or not feeling he could talk to anyone about what he was going through. I was exactly the same. I really felt that I couldn’t open up to family or friends, that I had to maintain this manly façade to all those close to me.”

It’s dealing with the stigma, or perceived stigma that results in so many people, especially blokes, suffering in silence. John became more and more withdrawn, fighting on occasions to emerge from beneath the duvet. “I was never at the point where I contemplated taking my own life, but there have been a lot of days when I’ve woke up in the morning and not wanted to do anything, wanted to stay in all day, to not interact with people, because it’s just easier not to talk.”

Stare into the abyss long enough and you’ll eventually succumb to its darkness. Fortunately for John, his partner, Eibhin, was never going to let that happen, pushing and supporting him to make the crucial first step. It’s one they then made together.

“Being able to speak to the people at Suicide or Survive, to be able to use the amazing professional resources that are available for those suffering from mental health issues, became my support. I engaged with a professional counsellor and began the process of addressing all the emotions and issues that had surfaced during my Ironman training.

It is by no means an easy process, and it is hard to face some of your personal issues, but it is a process I have committed to. I’m trying to better understand myself. We need to embrace the fact that mental health is every bit as important as physical. I was lucky and blessed to be in the position to talk to a professional twice a month and I will never forget the support SOS gave me.”

Personal goal
Armed with some coping mechanisms and the safety net of those fortnightly meetings, John kept his fund-raising foot to the floor. Kicking things off with a hometown Half-Ironman in Dun Laoghaire [he’s a former pupil of Cabinteely Community School] the then 39-year-old added to his legs HARDMAN Bantry, part of a triathlon Wild Atlantic Way Series.

Back in Cork on June 23rd, John Blake reached a personal goal. He earned the right to call himself an Ironman by successfully completing (and in the requisite time) an event won at Elite level by double Olympic Triathlon champion Alistair Brownlee. Still not satisfied, John went on to produce his best performance of the year at HARDMAN Waterville, a race he has entered again in 2020. Thousands of euros have been raised for Suicide or Survive as a result of this determination to carry on, not just with the Ironman Tour Challenge, but the inevitable introspection.

“I’m a very structured person. I need structure to manage my mental health. When the COVID-19 lockdown kicked in, I was off work. I still got up at 5.30 every morning. For me personally, structure is the key to juggling family, work, and training.” Organised or not, some days are just better than others. Some days you lose the mind games. Some days it takes the intervention and honesty of an old friend.

“It was on my training schedule to complete a 21k run, but I was looking for a way out. That day was the anniversary of my brother’s passing, I had a lot of things on my mind and I was looking for an excuse. It took a stern word or two from a respected friend to re-set my mindset. Being able to take criticism on board and implement changes is another part of my recovery. I got up early the next morning and ran the 21k. I suppose I’m trying to have an open mind to what the next day could bring. I don’t try to control the uncontrollable. I don’t worry about tomorrow until today is over with.”

Worked wonders
Ironman training may have brought issues to the surface, almost brought John to his knees, but he is adamant it has also worked wonders for his life. “The race is the cherry on top. It’s have you got the mental capacity to finish a training camp that lasts for six months or a year? Can you regimentally put in the work, knowing you’re going to be dragged into the depths of hell? I learned not to shy away from asking myself questions. During those long hours of training I would write down what cropped up, and that became the subject matter of my sessions with the counsellor. We would go through different scenarios, work to let go of the past and live in the here and now.”

Staying mindful is important, but for goal-setters like John there will also be the urge to impact the future. A future where the stigma surrounding mental health no longer existed. To a time when blokes could believe that coming forward about their struggles was a strength, not a weakness. To an industry now aware that mental and physical health deserved equal billing. It was a vision shared by his employer, Designer Group.

Pushing boundaries
“At the Designer Group mental health and well-being is not a box ticking exercise,” John explained. “They are pushing the boundaries more than any company I’ve worked for with highly visible mental health support. I have a Designer Group Strava account (a social fitness network using GPS data) that a lot of the employees joined. They compete against each other, maybe over a cycle to work. It creates a competitive spirit and a bit of craic amongst the lads. Since the lockdown, it has created a good buzz within the company.”

Unfortunately, Designer Group remain the exception, rather than the rule. Things are improving in the industry, but there’s still a very long way to go. Mental health in the workplace has certainly moved up the industry agenda, but not everyone is genuinely convinced.

“When it comes to the Town Hall ‘Toolbox Talks’ there is the mention of mental health, but often not many indicators of passion to change. There’s definitely a generation there who don’t feel comfortable with it. We need to get past that, to get to the point where we can talk, we can tell a colleague without fear of ridicule. I wouldn’t need a script to read off if called to speak about mental health and what needs to be done. I don’t know it all – far from it, but I’m passionate about the subject and want to see change.”

Once embroiled, it’s hard not to take everything personally. “When I hear about a suicide now, even if its someone I don’t know, I find it gut- wrenching. A young lad died by suicide in Bray only recently, and I thought, Jesus Christ, if only that lad knew the support that’s out there, the people that are out there and want to help. It’s the shockwaves it creates after it, for his family and friends, all of them asking why? Asking could I have done this, could I have done that?”

John Blake is one of three Mental Health First Aiders within the Designer Group. “We are there to help identify issues. An employee can come to us as the first point of contact, and we can then try to steer that person to the relevant support. Gambling, drinking, drugs, you just never know how many lads or girls in canteens are struggling in silence with. Designer Group now has a Wellness Committee and an EAP programme. It’s definitely something that has come on leaps and bounds. When the company saw what I was doing with the Ironman challenge, they brought me on board to team up with HR and have some input in the direction we needed to go.” It’s a strategy that has clearly struck a chord.

“You asked me if I thought there were many blokes out there struggling? I know there is! Only this morning, I woke to a message from a friend of mine who I haven’t spoken to in years. She’d seen what I’d been doing on social media and it inspired her to come forward and say that her man is suicidal and needs help. At least I can put them in touch with people who can help.”

So, what’s next? “I didn’t want to do the same things as last year. I also wanted it to be more of a shared experience. I approached Suicide or Survive and told them I wanted to
find 20 people willing to take part in a 20-4-20 Challenge. The aim is for this group, drawn from all ages and fitness levels, to raise €20,000 for Suicide or Survive and facilitate further support, suicide prevention and mental health workshops in communities. Starting in February, the target has to be reached in time for World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, 2020. The response has been incredible.”

John is not mentoring 20, but 30 like-minded people who have joined the group. Some are suicide survivors, some are from the construction industry, one a prominent figure at the Construction Industry Federation. “I’m just a coach and mentor to them, if they need to chat. The WhatsApp group between us started out as a platform for training advice, but that has become a feelgood chat room. I’ve never once asked anyone why they want to be part of the challenge. It was the members who started bouncing their stories off one another.”

John’s leadership role has not dented his desire to take his personal fitness to new heights, to keep challenging himself. He will be back in County Kerry next month, proving that you can be extremely fit at 40 with another crack at HARDMAN Waterville. He will continue to pound the pavements and peddle the roads as he plots a path towards October’s Ironman Barcelona.

There, in the picturesque surroundings of Calella village on the eastern Mediterranean coastline, John Blake will aim to improve his Ironman PB and raise every possible euro to help answer the mental health SOS.