It’s 1997, at the Ironman world championship triathlon. After 226.31 gruelling kilometres of swimming, cycling and running, competitors Wendy Ingraham and Sian Welch – exhausted, legs buckling – fall within metres of completing the race. They drag themselves to their feet, fall again, and finally crawl across the finish line.
You might wonder what motivates a person to push themselves to the limits of their endurance. You might be one of those people yourself. Athlete, author and theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin certainly is. Fast forward to August 2016, and her solo performance-lecture Equations for a Moving Body is a thoughtful discussion of the physical and psychological resources needed to excel. It is also an account of her journey to completing her own triathlon last year, and a tribute to the people who make such trials possible.
A real one-woman show, the piece is run entirely from Nicklin’s laptop. Throughout the performance, she pops open a flurry of tabs, bringing up YouTube videos and visual aids, maps of running routes and endless Facebook photographs.
It is a scrappy, occasionally awkward process, which matches Nicklin’s conversational style, fragmented and full of tangents as it is. While the delivery lacks precision, there is a sense of meticulous organisation to it all. Neat rows of cue cards cover the stage. There’s talk of spreadsheets, training plans and the exhaustive statistics – so many statistics – by which Nicklin measures her achievements.
At one point, she tells us, she was the 12th highest scorer on fitness-tracking website Fitocracy. She grins when she relates the tale of equalling the best recorded time – held by her ex – cycling up Croydon Road. She keeps checking her Garmin, almost by reflex.
All these details are vital parts of the tale’s texture, as are the many people who have supported and inspired her. Characters drop in and out of the narrative, seemingly at random. There are coaches and sports-scientists, family and a tragically lost friend. His part of the story – the show’s most affecting moment – unfolds in self-effacing silence, marked by a stopwatch, an equation, an Instagram selfie.
For all the show’s mathematical approach – the burden of dates, figures and exact times – this is at heart an emotional undertaking. We’re storytelling animals, defined by the narratives we construct around ourselves. When we set a goal, it becomes a chapter heading in our lives.
There are moments when Nicklin gets misty-eyed evoking the rush of competition, and there’s no disguising the smile on her face when she describes a really good running surface or a pool heated to the perfect training temperature.
Nicklin evidently relishes the chance to tell this story, as she relishes any opportunity to test herself to the edges of her abilities, and beyond. There’s a sense that this is exactly what this show represents – a flawed, occasionally faltering, but deeply human attempt to exceed limitations. While it might lack momentum, and a clear goal, it still retains a power to move.