40 Days – in the rehearsal room.

an image from Alexendar Kelly's instagram feed of the plan for one of the making days. A red post it says 'run' and a blue one 'science?'

This is a guest blog post from Alexander Kelly of Third Angel – my friend and collaborator on Equations for a Moving Body, here he is talking about his role in the process, and summing up the main work that went on in Stockton, and what’s to come.

Last Thursday we presented the latest work-in-progress of Equations For A Moving Body at the brilliant ARC in Stockton. That’s the last time we’ll show a version of the show before Hannah does the full distance triathlon next month.

One of the really interesting things for me about this process is how the temporal nature of it changes – each time we work on it we’re in a different place in time in relation to the event that the show is (partly) about. Back in February we were a long way off. It still felt almost hypothetical (to me at least). Hannah got her training schedule from her coach during that fortnight at Northern Stage, so the Outlaw was still something Hannah was going to train to do. One of my favourite pieces of material from that stage in the process was Hannah talking about imagining crossing the line. I don’t see my self crawling, she would say, when I picture it, I am running over the line.

For this fortnight at ARC, the Outlaw Triathlon is something that Hannah is training to do. On a practical level it impacts on our making time more (though of course the training is making, in this instance). She trains each morning and we talk and research and make the show in the afternoons and evenings.

Thematically though, it shifts our relationship with the science, and the research, and the narrative. If Hannah gets injured now (check Instagram for the latest knee damage) it could affect her final performance. We’re at the last stage where a serious injury is recoverable from. Early on in the process my assumption was that Hannah will complete the triathlon. As I find out more about the science of endurance sport, more about the world of triathlon (I’ve just read Chrissie Wellington’s A Life Without Limits – which I really liked), the more I discover about what else can go wrong – other than not being fit enough. Put bluntly (look away Han!), it is not a given that Hannah will cross the finish line. So, whilst this probably sounds obvious, we don’t yet know how the narrative we are telling will finish.


On Thursday night the show ran at 95 minutes – and this still wasn’t quite all of the material we have tried out or thought about. If this were the ‘finished’ piece that would clearly be too long, but in this context we have the luxury (thank you ARC) of trying out more than we need. One question we were looking at was how much science the show needs, how much is interesting to us, how much (and what) is interesting to the audience… This latter is an ongoing question. One of the exciting things about this project for me is that it has already demonstrated real potential to attract people who would only rarely go to the theatre; an audience who will come along because it is exloring their interests and experiences (swimming, cycling, running, endurance sport in general…), who won’t care whether we’re calling it spoken word, story telling, contemporary theatre. This is exciting, but it also means we will have different levels of expertise in the audience – which will mean different levels of interest and understanding in the science we’re exploring. Writing this now, I realise that my instinct remains: we can’t pre-empt what the audience will think of the show, how they will respond to the material, what will be the ‘right’ amount of science for each of them. We make a show that says what Hannah wants it to say, so it just needs to have the right ‘amount’ of science for her.


So where has all this material come from? On our previous collaboration A Conversation With My Father, the form of the piece was already set when I came on board; my job was to help Hannah expand on the 25 minutes she already had – to attach building blocks of material to the existing core of the show.

With Equations For A Moving Body, the project was less established, formally. We had talked about the ideas behind the piece, and a couple of proposals and project descriptions had been written for funding applications, which established a territory of exploration. Hannah had also done a try-out of some  related ideas at HATCH in Leicester, which I had seen, so we had an idea of how we would use a computer (screen).

At the start of our two weeks at Northern Stage in February, I set Hannah a warm up exercise. We set the space up with our regular tools: a table, couple of chairs, laptop, projector and screen. We had asked almost arbitrarily for a couple of lighting states (and then Kev and the team at Northern Stage had made Stage 2 look beautiful).

On the table I laid out a series of 24 prompts or questions, written on index cards, face down. These prompts were all born out of our discussions so far, so Hannah was clearly ‘able’ to answer them, but she was to respond in the moment as she turned each card. This is a mode of being ‘put on the spot’ but within a territory you are informed about and comfortable in, that we have used in the making of a number of Third Angel projects. I find it can help performers not worry about whether or not what they’re doing is “any good”, and just get some material and ideas out into the process.

I thought this would fill a couple of hours on the afternoon of the first day, and give us something to talk about on day two. It took a week. A performed live research process that discovered the rules of the space, of the piece. Hannah instinctively started using the internet live, explaining what she was doing, sometimes, just quickly sourcing a reference at others.

On one level the show is formally similar to A Conversation With…: there’s a screen, a projector, some video material, a table and a couple of chairs and Hannah tells a story. But the way these ingredients are used feels quite distinct, to me. Hannah’s relationship to the screen, to us, is different.

Over that first residency we mapped out a territory: what we knew, what we wanted to explore further, what we couldn’t yet know. Then we very deliberately used the work in progress showings as research tools, inviting in sports clubs, setting the space as much like a discussion group as a theatre. Over the two showings, five full distance triathlon finishers came and spoke to us afterwards. We were encouraged by the depth of feeling and interest people had in the work, the generosity of their responses.


When we gathered at ARC for this phase of the process, my instinct was to pick up and ‘finish off’ the index cards game. It felt more like a warm up this time, getting ourselves back into the making. Checking where we were. It threw up a few details to weave in, rather than new material. Because we already had a feeling of where we needed to go, of what the show needed: to get in to the science.

But Hannah is not expert in this, yet, so the cards mechanism doesn’t work – interest isn’t the same as expertise, being put on the spot isn’t helpful. If we’re going to explain this stuff to an audience, Hannah can’t just repeat text, she has to really understand it. She has to understand more than she explains in the show. I feel that we should be in a position where Hannah could stop the show and take questions on the science – and be able to answer them.

So we move to a mechanism of research: returning to the interviews we did with [sports scientists and psychologists] Angela, Phil and Sarah, then reading around the the ideas and theories they talked about; hearing ideas explained by different people really helps. Understanding what science relates to the story we want to tell. We’re still working this out, and some of this aspect of the process inevitably has to wait until we meet again next month.


On Sunday 26 July 2015 Hannah will undertake the Nottingham Outlaw full distance Triathlon. On Monday the 27th she’s got a day off. And on Tuesday 28th, we’ll meet at CPT in London, and I’ll ask her to tell me the story of the race.

77 Days – 12 week training programme

an image from a ride from the intensive week - a sunny day, the road winds away into the distance

77 days to go, under 12 weeks now. I’m so busy with other work fitting around training I mostly don’t have the time to think about doing the Outlaw in July. Lots to do in the meantime so it seems a long way away. But I know I’ll soon be looking at the other end of June and beginning to feel butterflies every other thought. Probably at least once every couple of days I get them at the moment.

I was talking to my coach on the phone, a bit worried about being away for 5 of the next 8 week, and fitting in training, and how hard it was in the tough 20 hour training week I did 2 weeks ago to ride 2 hours and run 1, when the Outlaw is going to be at least 4x that. And he explained that I’ll be rested and psychologically prepared, and that we’d sit down and work out all my availability from now until July, and fit the training and taper around it, that “there are going to be a lot of people less prepared than you”. A ‘taper’ is where you bring training down, after building fitness and endurance, so that you’re really really well rested before the event. That’ll mean no training and generally staying off my feet and eating well for at least 2-3 days before the event. I’m travelling up to Nottingham 2 days early too so I can get used to the bed I’ll be sleeping in, and getting up as early as I’ll need to be up.

Prepared. I like being prepared. It’s the Crystal Palace Triathlon tomorrow – it’s less than 10 minutes from my house, and only a sprint distance, so it shouldn’t take much more than an hour and a half. Last night I wrote out my kit because I was worried I might forget my race belt – a small cheap but vital bit of kit so you can wear your race number easily/properly between disciplines. It’s not a usual bit of kit, so easy to forget. I wrote down what I thought was everything, and then proceeded to have anxiety dreams all night about not being on time or having the right gear to do the event, particularly in the dream I realised I left off ‘sports bra’ on the list. I woke up thinking that.

As if I’d go out having forgotten to put one on.

I like being prepared. Except proper prepared is really ‘having done this before’. Which I won’t have. I can’t really do anything but deal with that.

Anyway, I thought I’d share the general shape of my next few weeks with you.


Type of training week



Moderate week

Maintain fitness levels


Recovery week

Recovery from previous weeks and prepare for next big weeks


Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k


Moderate week

Less training focussing on higher intensity to help you through a busy week


Recovery week

Recovery from previous weeks and prepare for next big weeks. Also helps you with a busy period of work


Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k


Big week

Lots of endurance work

Key sessions are 

long ride (5-6hrs), long run 2 1/2 hrs, long swim >4k


Recovery week

Start of Taper. Unload fatigue from previous weeks


Moderate week

Aim to maintain fitness without adding fatigue. No more really long workouts

Max Ride = 4hrs

Max Run = 2hrs

Max swim = 4k


Moderate week

Aim to maintain fitness without adding fatigue. No more really long workouts

Max Ride = 3hrs

Max Run = 90 mins

Max swim = 3k


Race week

Minimal training. Some higher intensity but only to maintain top end.

Key goal is to remove remaining fatigue and mentally prepare for the event

122 Days – The Storied Self


As part of the research for this project I was lucky to have the chance to work with 3 academics at Northumbria University – two sport scientists and a sports psychologist by the name of Dr Sarah Partington.

I asked her a series of questions about the psychology of endurance sport and her area of study, I was particularly interested in the limiting factor of psychology; how studies have shown that it is our psychological and neural processes that limit us much more than our cardio-vascular ones in endurance settings. I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab episode which set me along this thought path. The episode highlights the ‘central governor theory’ – that we have a fail-safe in our brain that can force the body to stop exerting itself, but that does so well before we have actually entered dangerous levels of exertion – that we can push ourselves much further than we think. Do listen to the episode if you have a moment.

This led me to investigate the performance modifying capability of the brain further. I discovered discussion around other ‘centrally acting performance modifiers’ beyond the combination of physiological factors; nutrition and hydration, training and genetics. This diagram here describes several of the types of psychological and circumstantial factors than can affect our physiological performance.

From “Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis” published in in Frontiers in Physiology 2012; 3: 82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3323922/

And so I asked Dr Sarah Partington about the psychology of endurance sport – specifically how – and why – we carry on, psychologically speaking, how how we think, affects us.

Sarah explained that the central governor theory etc., was more linked to physiological studies, but that she could certainly answer from the point of view of her own specialism – the Storied Self. She explained that this was a theory amongst a context of complex behaviours and environments – it was a strong theory, but (ever the academic) wanted to stress it was one among many approaches to the psychology of sport.

She explained that we are creatures of narrative – that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling – we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts. For an example in sport, you can look to a paper she co-wrote called “Mid-life nuances and negotiations: narrative maps and the social construction of mid-life in sport and physical activity” (2005) and consider the storied self of mid-life athletes:

“The findings revealed a master narrative for mid-life in sport, which is that ‘age is a state of mind’. In addition two further narratives were apparent. One, ‘life begins at forty’ was a counter-narrative, which depicted mid-life as a time of rejuvenation and an opportunity to revisit the experiences of youth. The other was an antithesis narrative, which focused upon acceptance of the ageing process and the notion of ‘growing old gracefully’. Sportsmen and women linked their own stories to these idealised narrative types, but via a process of narrative slippage, created their own personal narratives of sporting mid-life.”
http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248975365 [accessed Mar 24, 2015].”

The day to day grind of training is part of building a narrative of self-who-does-sport. All well and good, but what about in the context of extreme feats of endurance?

I sent Sarah a video, before I spoke to her – it was one I found following that Radiolab episode. Two women, competing for fourth places at the 1997 Ironman world championship.

I asked her “what makes us do that, though? What makes someone put themselves through that, when their body is so clearly screaming ‘stop’.”

Sarah explained to me that when we set goals for ourself, we add to our story. We build them into our storied self. Stories extend into the future as well as build from the past. It might be that you need to be part of that Ironman ‘club’, it might be that you always finish, no matter what. It might be that you do the things you set out to do – these are stories about yourself that are integral to your identity, they build it.

Sarah said to me that not completing those goals – failing to complete your story – it can “shatter your identity”. She used those exact words a few times.


“Self-determination experts would talk about a sense of autonomy and agency and purpose: engaging in something that you have chosen to do for a purpose that is important to you. The other part of that theory would be about connectedness, maybe connected to a broader you know, social network outside of you or something bigger so I guess for you it would be about feeling like part of that Ironman fraternity […] there’s a social group and a social identity beyond your personal identity. This sort of self-actualisation, it’s very reinforcing. [But] it may backfire. You keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing and it becomes very difficult and if you’ve set your heart on these particular goals and that is part of you identity to then not complete the goal could actually shatter your identity. […] It may become autotelic it may have some elements of self-determination in there and it may be linked to an identity and if you aren’t able to maintain this goal or this competence that drives you, it’s really like your identity is going to be shattered. It becomes so important that you can’t fail, you have to keep going no matter what.”

This combines the theory of the stories self with ‘flow’ – which Sarah has also researched (in big wave surfers particularly [2009]). This is a theory of intrinsic pleasure and motivation (that you also hear about in game design, interestingly). Sarah explained that flow, autotelic, intrinsic motivation were all terms used sometimes interchangeably and sometimes to mean distinct things, but that generally all refer to the kind of activity that is its own reward.

“It’s really just when the activity becomes reinforcing in and of itself. So there’s no sort of external reward or anything that is triggering you to do that activity, it’s just the sheer activity itself that […] the easiest term for it to be would be to say that it’s an activity that is reinforcing in and of itself generally hough the joy, the pleasure and enjoyment that it brings from just actually doing the activity without having any external rewards associated with it”

It’s the pleasure of mastery you experience of progressing through levels in a video game, it’s the pleasure of improvement as you feel certain speeds or correct techniques become easier, it’s the feeling of crossing a finish line, or a personal best, or a great run in Spelunky. Intrinsic motivation, Sarah explained, can get you so engaged in activity you can lose awareness of self and environment.

Hannah_Nicklin___hannahnicklin__•_Instagram_photos_and_videos-2 3

Finally, we talked about psychological techniques for endurance sport – visualisation was heavily favoured by sport psychologists (it’s a form of telling yourself the story often enough that it becomes a more possible future), and also the difference between elite and amateur athlete’s thoughts when they compete: associative vs dissociative behaviours. Where amateur athletes will tend towards dissociative behaviours – distracting themselves from the pain, listening to music, thinking about other things, external motivations, elite athletes will tend to concentrate their thoughts around performance, associative behaviours – they will understand their pain, concentrate on their technique, pace, previous experience, hitting certain goals and distances within the larger race.

This made me think about the feeling of doing the Cotswold 113 last year. The middle distance ‘half ironman’. I did it in a much quicker time that I expected. And I remember… I remember really enjoying it. I remember the feeling of everything just settling, of just being wholly in the moment and concentrating on the very next, thinking about my pedalling, pushing a little harder, holding back so I had enough for the run, counting the laps, watching the distance markers.

hannahnicklin_on_Instagram 2

In 122 days when I do the Outlaw, I will not (by British Triathlon guidelines) be allowed to wear headphones. Every triathlon I do is done in only in the company of my own thoughts. Just me, and myself, for 12-16 hours.

There is not another point in my life where I am every quiet with myself like that. Not ever for that amount of time. Not in our world, with the way I live. Never.

All I can hope is that I will be kind to myself.

Before this project, before looking at videos like the one above,  it never occurred to me that I might not finish. It never occurred to me that I might fail. It is a plausible outcome, one I now need to consider because I’m making a show about it – I need to think about all the narrative possibilities. And yet, it just doesn’t come into my head.

I see myself cross the line, and I see my mother there, at the end, like she always is, red cheeked with pride. I see her arms wide, and the feel of the carpet under my feet. I do not crawl across it. Though I suspect if I had to, I would.

I hear her tell me “well done”.



134 days – Faith

a print out of some strength and conditioning exercises and materials

“Training is about faith”

Simon said to me, sitting across a falafel salad in Horsforth.

He had just described to me the ultra run across the Sahara Desert that him and his partner Fiona were doing in 3 week’s time, laden with all of their food, water, and camping gear. It’s a race of between 150 and 156 miles, over 6 days.

I had just asked “do you think I’ll be ready in time?” And that’s when he told me that he had 3 weeks to go until the Marathon de Sables. “If you put a gun to my head tomorrow, I could do it” he said “but there are still bits, still bits of training to do, it’s not complete”.

Simon is a fan of metaphors, he’ll use one and then he’ll explain it. I think it’s a useful way to talk as a coach, because if he talks about the thing visually, and then about why the visual works, mostly what he’s doing is taking time to find the way the idea fits into your head. This time it’s cake.

“It’s like a cake, it’s not ready yet, it’s not done, it doesn’t have the candles, I haven’t iced it, sure it looks like a cake, it’s baked, it’s got the two bits and the filling, but there’s none of the bits that makes it complete.”

Training is like a cake, he tells me – later on when he’s telling me to have a rest day because of my cold, it’s a brick wall (one missed session, one missed brick, it’s ok, it’ll hold) – “if I put a gun to your head tomorrow, you could do it, you could do the Outlaw”.

I tell him it just had never entered my head that I wouldn’t be able to before now

“What changed?”

“Honestly”, I tell him, “I think it was deciding to make a piece of theatre about it. Before now I didn’t have to think about how to tell the story if I – if I failed”.

He echoes a sentiment I tell myself – that it’s about the journey, that’s the story I’m telling, “and that’s what training is, it’s the journey”

Some days I feel like I could do the race tomorrow. Some days I feel like I could at least get to the end of the ride. Some days I feel like the prospect of it is sat on my chest like my little brother did when we fought when we were little except that it’s now and it’s my 28 year old little brother who is 6’7” and can benchpress a whole lotta kg.

Simon tells me it’s about faith. Training is about faith – I might do all of the distance for the Outlaw separately, before attempting it – maybe not the marathon, but certainly the bike and the run, but I won’t put them together before. I won’t know that I can do it, not for certain. It would be foolish to try – training is not about doing the thing but preparing the thing – if I were to try before I could injure myself, exhaust myself leaving myself without enough time to recover and train, I would be trying to do the thing before I was ready; light the candles with only batter to stick them in.

Simon explains how there’s not really any way to train for the Sahara run, not really. That it’s about training and strength and conditioning. It’s about faith. And it’s about being strong, in your mind.

“I think I’m very strong”. I say this, and it feels… I’m used to apologising for that kind of sentiment. It’s a bald thing to say, like an invitation for the world to try and knock me down.

He says that like in real life there are bad days and good days, when I do the Outlaw, there will be moments when it feels like the best thing, and moments when it feels like the worst.

You know I still don’t believe that I might not do it. Some days I don’t know what to do with being that kind of person.

I scrat around for a piece of paper and a pen. I want to write down ‘training is about faith’. “It’s OK,” Simon says, “you’ll remember it”.

184 days – Coach


Yesterday (technically 185 days before I attempt the Ironman) I had my first conversation with my Coach – Simon Ward. A 45 minute chat over Skype for him to get a sense of how my training will fit in my life, and to begin to answers some of the questions I have about training.

I took him through what I’ve done so far, current injuries, and what my life is like in terms of fitting in training.

This is what I told him:

I’ve been doing triathlon for 3 years now, last summer I did the Cotswold 113 middle distance event, and finished in a time of 05:36:45 (Swim 30:55.5 Transition 1 04:52 Ride 02:58:08 Transition 2 03:57 Run 01:58:51)

I’m a swimmer from a county level from ages 8-13 and am pretty competent still. I picked up riding proper distances on a road bike much more recently – I’ve been riding above a commute distance for the past year and half now. I’m no great shakes at running but I can keep going at a steady pace for a really long time. I’ve done a trail marathon in the Lake District, and regularly train a 5000m swim distance. The furthest I’ve cycled was 134km from London to Whitstable as part of the Rapha Womens 100. I train between 10-15km runs, 50-100km rides and 3.5-5km swims and do one of those every day. I don’t take rest days. I work from home a lot although work erratic hours and am sometimes away from home for work so some days it’s really hard for me to fit in anything but a run.

I’ll be doing the Nottingham Outlaw ironman in July 2015.


  • Left Plantar Fascia strain – from stress/overwork, currently only minor but it’s been both feet before, and it takes about a month to be ok again. I’m not running where possible right now to try and let it recover.
  • Right shoulder ligament strain – aggravated by front crawl. This was sustained coming off my bike on a 14% descent at a surprise hairpin bend. My shoulder took the brunt of the impact. I was unscathed otherwise.

Simon laughed at the idea of a ‘surprise’ hairpin bend “was it not signposted?”

I suggested that I might have learnt the hard way about useful ways of braking on a descent that day.

  • A hamstring injury – right leg. Mostly healed. Injured almost 9 months ago now, sustained trying to beat my ex’s time on Strava over a hill in South London between Richmond Park and Lewisham. I equalled the time. I injured my leg. I’ve seen a physio about the shoulder and hamstring, and I have a general assessment with the physio booked in

Simon said that was a good idea. And then he replied to some of my concerns. I said I don’t like rest days, he asked why, “because they make me feel rubbish, like the feeling of your tongue when you’ve just woken up, they make my mind feel like that.” He replied “believe me, when I’ve structured your training, you’ll be thanking me for the rest days”

He said that the thing was not to aim for a time for the Outlaw event, but just to finish, he said it won’t just feel like two middle distances, I can’t take my time from the Cotswold 113, double it, and add 10%, “it’s a different beast” he said. He said ‘just finishing, that’s the success”

And then he tackled my final concern – how to structure training around a freelance workload that is a constant moveable feast – sees me working from home, but also (this month, for example) Hull, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Lincoln, plus my personal life taking me to Nottingham and the North York Moors. For a lifestyle that sometimes includes no days off, and rarely weekends.

He said “Did you know that this week, statistically speaking, is the week that New Year’s Resolutions fail? You know why that is? Life. It gets in the way. It’s human, we’re human. You can play make believe, but it’s messy, complicated and unpredictable, you have to train in that context. Fine, you’ve planned a 5 hour ride but if it’s snowing, too dangerous, then you’ll just have to get on your turbo and put in 3 hours. What if you’re stuck in an airport with a delayed flight? Run up and down the corridors. You’re not a professional athlete, you’re not the Brownlees, you’ve got a handicap, everyone has them, it might be your family, your work life, your erratic hours, a physical handicap. We all have obstacles and challenges, and that’s what makes crossing the finish line that bit more impressive. My job as a coach is to be your GPS, while you have your head down, my job is to help you negotiate a smooth path.”

And then we laughed about how it will be weird for me to be accountable to someone, I’ve been self-employed/working from home for nearly 6 years now. “It’ll be weird for you to have to answer to someone.”

Normally that would make me feel uncomfortable – having a boss, but it doesn’t feel like that. So far, it feels like having Alex in the room with me, as a director. The big picture, working together.

I’m looking forward to it.