It’s interesting continuing a series about limits, when I’ve recently become so intimately acquainted with my own. I sprained my back in May, and I’m currently forbidden from considering even a gentle jog. My laptop is the upper limit of the weight I’m allowed to bear and at 27 my life is literally that joke about kneeling to tie your shoelaces and thinking “what else can I do while I’m down here?”It may seem, then, a bizarre time to be thinking about endurance sport – yet I’m actually beginning to understand just why it is that we want to push at our boundaries. I’m a very active person, but I’ve never been terribly fit, beyond doing a half marathon a few years ago. Yet being suddenly snapped back to a level of activity more befitting someone recovering from major surgery than a busy twenty-something has made me realise how much more I want to inhabit my body when it’s well. My bookshelf is becoming progressively less Theatre & … and more Born to Run and The Anatomy of Stretching. Part motivation, part obsession, wholly unexpected. I don’t just want my body back the way it was before – I want something that can go further, do more, be better.
Game designer and theatre maker Hannah Nicklin’s performance Equations for a Moving Body is, in one way, about testing your own physical limits. It’s about completing the Outlaw triathlon; 140.6 miles of endurance in a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run. It’s about hitting the wall and then running a marathon afterwards. But it’s also about who gets you there, how you spend that time in your own head, and what you really gain from having done it at all. Questioning what it is that makes us want to be more than we are.
Mary Halton: I’ve been looking at extremes and how we encapsulate those in the work that we make. You mention in Equations for a Moving Body that in part the reason athletes push themselves is because of an awareness that they are telling their own story. How much did this affect you on the day of the triathlon, knowing that the outcome would impact the story you’d be telling?
Hannah Nicklin: So that feeling really affected the making of the work. It didn’t affect how I did the sport. The point was that we would make some of the show before I did The Thing, and we’d make the last bit of the show after I’d attempted The Thing. We were aware increasingly of the things that could go wrong and I was pretty happy that I would be able to tell a story either way. But it was going to be a much more difficult personal story if I were to not complete [the Outlaw] for some reason. But I also can’t imagine not completing it for any reason other than illness or injury, and illness or injury I also feel like I can consolidate with my sense of identity.
So yeah it affected intimately making the show… but with regards to actually doing the sport. I was just doing the Outlaw. I kind of quite happily put it out of my head entirely that I was going to be telling a story about it afterwards. Those 14 hours, they were just… mine, I guess. They didn’t belong to theatre. They belonged to me.
Hey my brother got footage of me crossing the finish line pic.twitter.com/WidOyPiLlw
— Hannah Nicklin (@hannahnicklin) July 27, 2015
MH: I was listening to an episode of The Conversation recently that was about two female endurance athletes. When they were asked why they did what they did, the answer was the same for both of them; “Because I can”. Where you do you think the divide is between saying “Ok, I want this level of strength and fitness” and “No, I want to absolutely push the furthest I can push”. Why not just the regular triathlon that everyone else does? Why the Outlaw? Is it just because it’s there?
HN: I mean I can only answer this personally I suppose, so I wouldn’t want to say that this is how all triathletes feel, or all women feel… But swimming for a club at quite a young age had a really big impact on my approach to the world. If you went to a swimming meet, on the coach home you’d get some little trophy for the person who got the most wins, but there’d also be a trophy for the person who got the best personal best. Me and my brother, whenever we do a thing, I think because of what swimming gave us, we’re always just interested in being better at it. Always. So how can I push myself to learn that thing or do that thing. Or if you show us a skill, we really will not be happy until we’ve mastered it.
And in triathlon you have these really clear different distances. So there’s one of two things I could do after doing a sprint triathlon; I could either spend some time getting better at sprint triathlon or I could try an Olympic distance, and that is a different kind of personal best. But I think wanting to go further was just about going – I can, so why not. I know that I can, so let me prove it to myself. People often come up to me at the end of shows and think “oh, I could never do that” and my answer is always that it’s about personal bests. If you run 5km for the first time without walking, then that is as astonishing to me and as important to me as me crossing the line in the Outlaw.
So initially what I thought was, right – I’ve done that now, I’ve done the furthest thing that you can do. I’d like to do another one, maybe in 2018. I’ll do a half next year. So maybe the same psychological impulse has found me at that finish line and gone ‘well now, what next?’. And cycling is currently the thing that’s caught my interest. And there’s some talk about a [racing] team maybe recruiting me even though I’m in my first season. Which is really exciting.
I guess I did The Thing. And I moved on. And I’ve found another thing I want to get better and better and better at. So the impulse to push further is definitely to me connected to a sense of personal best.
MH: You mention in the show that your friend Emily was excited to push her limits, but you were frightened to find out that you had any… has that happened?
HN: I think she was expressing the same thing in a way that helped me hold that thought better. In that – of course I have limits. You can have a relationship to those limits which is gentler and friendlier than the hard relationship which I think I always imagined. In the transcontinental race that she did, she actually had to stop 2,500km in because she started having heart palpitations. She is able to care for herself, and I suppose I feel like it’s no accident that I learned that from a female athlete as well.
Which is I guess also the quiet thing that the show is about, that it doesn’t ever say explicitly – that it is a woman talking to you about these things, and that there is a female influence in there is really important to me.
MH: How have people have engaged with the show? Obviously you’ll have a theatregoing audience and you’ll also have people who’ve done triathlons, and there’ll be crossover within that, but have any of the responses surprised you?
HN: Most people respond really warmly to it. I made a show that was for everyone, I don’t think you need to have had that specific experience to relate to it.
But you do get people who have done super long distance stuff and they always want to come and tell you their stories… like this one woman in Newcastle who told me about how she hallucinated that she was a bear for a certain amount of her run. I think what I find most interesting is I can tell who in the audience is and isn’t an athlete, usually. Particularly with couples where one person is and one person isn’t; the point at which I say rest and recovery is really important, you get one of the couple elbowing the other and giving them a look!
MH: Speaking to sports scientists obviously came about as a result of putting the show together – how did you approach them?
HN: Yeah, so I wanted to work with people who knew their stuff! I started making this in Newcastle and the University of Northumbria is a pretty well known sports science department. All I’d done was just explain the themes of the piece and the ideas that we had at the beginning of it, because you want to give [researchers] room to understand how their expertise applies to it, rather than me assuming who it is that I should speak to. And [three of them] spoke to me which was very kind. So Angela had done performance analysis of footballers, Phil specialised in working with endurance runners and Sarah was generally interested in the theory of identity and its relationship to sport. All of them also were people who did sport.
The other thing to say is that I did ask them all about women in sport. Sometimes women don’t quite like talking about being a woman in sport because they get a bit bored of it, and Angela’s definitely one of those. She’s like ‘I can do as well as the men, so I just do’, and doesn’t think about it from a particularly activist context. Phil said something interesting in that almost all the studies are done with men, so there’s actually very little research done into endurance sport and women’s experience of it, and women’s psychology and women’s biology. And I did not find those answers, and I think that they’re just not out there.
MH: It’s been interesting to hear you speak about it in this way because I know you primarily as an artist and a maker, but it sounds like you consider sport to be your primary identity. So with this possibility of being recruited for a team, do you think you’d still want to make work about what you’re doing and experiencing?
HN: My identity is pretty mixed anyway, because I work in games now as much as I work in theatre and performance, and that’s been an intentional move. I don’t think I’ll ever stop making stuff. And women’s teams in particular are kind of about as poorly paid as performance is, even at the top of the field, so I think I would just really relish the opportunity to step back from some of my work. Part of diversifying into games is it pays a living wage quite often.
So I’m going to experiment from September/October onwards, after Edinburgh, with only doing one thing, because I’m also really exhausted. Performance has exhausted me. I often talk in the show about rest and recovery and how important that is to training and the adaptations that your body makes… I cannot find the room in performance,
I guess I always will be trying to find a way to tell stories, but I don’t know if performance is a sustainable one. I think it treats me too harshly, I think it doesn’t give me time to recover, I don’t think I can survive it any longer.
MH: There’s almost a sense in which working in performance/the arts also pushes us to our limits, but not in a way that we can control.
HN: It’s full of self-exploitation, and there’s a difference between pushing yourself and exploiting yourself. And one is rewarding and the other is damaging. I suspect that… I’m definitely at a point in my practice now where I feel like I’m moving on, and I don’t know in what direction, and I don’t know to what end. But putting the book together definitely felt like wrapping up an era as a practitioner.
Niall Coffey’s documentary about Hannah’s triathlon journey is available in full on YouTube:
This is the fifth in a series of columns exploring the art of science and the science of art, and (hopefully) breaking down the idea that they are discrete and unrelated.