Physical vs mental toughness

I should stress that I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist, though sometimes I wish I was so I could answer my own questions and actually write a blog worth reading. However, today’s subject is mental toughness and physical toughness, and if there’s a link between them.

This thought has its roots for me going back to 2015 when I was, like I am now, doing a lot of winter training. Back then too I was training with my weighted backpack (see previous posts). I started to wonder if pushing it physically and managing to prevail meant I was mentally tough. My rationale was that I was trying to ignore all of the messages my brain was receiving from parts of my body that were at breaking point, like lactic acid in my quads and calves for example. Training in the dark early mornings when no one else was about and in wind and rain too made me wonder if I was strengthening my mental willpower. To cut a convoluted theory short, I think I was. Partly. I am of the mindset that getting out and training in any weather prepares you for any eventuality conditions-wise, where some people would look out of the window and not bother going out. I call these conditions character building. But just because I am daft enough to hit the trails in sleet, doesn’t necessarily make me mentally tougher than someone who isn’t. It just means I’m more likely to shrug my shoulders on race day if it’s raining and get out there and go, instead of cowering, cursing the conditions that I hadn’t bothered to train in. Better preparation perhaps, not resilience?

One thing in my life makes me doubt that physical toughness has a massive effect on metal toughness, and that my friends, is work. Our jobs, or as some call them, careers. Some of the most physically tough people that I know are stressed out at work. Strung out even, riddled with self-doubt, probably because of a domineering boss or workplace bully. Even though they know they can bench press 100kgs, they still suffer and feel like shit because they get ticked off for missing a deadline or forget to CC someone ‘important’ into an email. In my experience of this situation, it has spurred me on to push myself harder in training and actually was the driving force behind me taking running more seriously in my twenties – but – did it make me mentally tougher to deal with similar scenarios that present themselves these days? No. Whilst physical fitness has helped take the edge off stress and negativity from things I realistically can’t change, and has I believe, prepared my body to better deal with the stress hormones associated with it, it probably hasn’t given me a definitive rule to deal with mentally challenging situations, like stress, self-doubt etc. It has, I believe, altered my perspective on situations though, and people I have met through my outdoors endeavours have helped me through tough times.

Admittedly, most of these situations have arisen for me in the workplace. There are people with more real struggles like illness to themselves or a loved one and have had to be strong for them whether they like it or not. So saying I’m mentally tougher for a 6am run in the snow over a single mum caring her children and juggling a demanding job would be naïve to say the least. Yes I am probably physically tougher because I can devote time to training but that could be where it stops. There are a few aspects of my life where I recognise my own weaknesses and the only thing I can see to develop that is to face up to them, and deal with them.

One of my best friends often has this conversation with me about mental toughness and he is convinced that both he and I are mentally tough people. I am quite doubtful about myself, and until recently, my internal jury was undecided about him. Interestingly, he would justify his claim to this elite strength by discussing all of the horrible bosses he’s worked for. Doubly interesting is the fact that he doesn’t work out. At all. He copes solely on his sedentary lifestyle. I did drop a hint a few lines back if you picked up on it, that something may have changed in his situation. It has. Without going into detail, he’s recently separated from his girlfriend, and on the face of it, he’s coping very well, though not as well as I previously thought. All the same, he asked my advice as to what I would do to combat anger, and the whole spectrum of feelings he has at the moment. Of course, I said straight away, go for a run. I know he won’t, so it would be interesting to see how it pans out. I honestly think he’s got the tools to survive, and he’s got me and other friends to support him too. It’s a very chalk-and-cheese comparison between the two of us. It would be interesting to hear from his viewpoint what it is about me that he thinks makes me strong. It sounds to me that he has worked for some really nasty articles down the years and by being exposed to that day-in, day-out, it’s got to put you through it and put smaller problems in their boxes.

My attitude generally these days is “Fuck it, it’s just a job” and move on, but is that right? Is it weakness to shrug your shoulders and walk away? Yes and no I feel. I believe you suffer for something just as much as you care about it. I don’t have a percieveable dead-end job, and I’ve earned the position I hold today, and I do care about doing the best job that I can, until 5pm at least anyway. So therefore I must accept some suffering along the way.  Having been in brutally stressful work situations before where I could feel my physiology changing because of it, I now recognise the signs and begin to act along the lines of self-protection, and damage limitation. One thing I do now at 36 years old which I didn’t do at 22 years old was to stick to my own path of integrity. Say and do what I believe to be right, and fight my corner when I have to. More often than not it does nothing to change the situation, but it definitely means those feelings of being useless or being walked over don’t get chance to arise and standing tall knowing you’ve followed your instincts prevails and knowing you’ve done all that you can.

There is a saying that goes, “Don’t drown yourself to save a drowning man”, which in this context means that if I choose to avoid really negative situations based on past experiences, means I can stay completely focussed on my goals and priorities of being the best person I can be for my friends and family and the world as a whole. It’s not running away, it’s seeing the bigger picture.

I don’t know if I’m mentally tough, but I definitely know I’m tougher than I used to be and that’s got to be the next best thing.

The word ‘failure’ fails me

In my last post, I introduced you all to the world of tabbing, if indeed you didn’t know what it was, and covered how it was introduced to me.

The post ended with me signing up for the gruelling Fan Dance, a civilian version of the SAS test march over Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.

Training for it was tough. Being a runner, the heaviest thing I’d ever had to carry was a hydration pack of about 5kgs. Now here I was plodding around the countryside with 12kgs to begin with (eventually tabbing with 27kgs in 2016). I mixed up the training a bit, having varying the many factors like weight, distance and terrain. Ultimately the actual event was all three turned up to the max – muddy and rocky paths, two giant mountain ascents, and around 22kgs Bergen weight. Some days I’d run 5 miles carrying 15kgs, other days 12 miles cross country with 12kgs, chopping and changing and gradually building up weight and fitness.

Eventually in the July, it was race day. We rocked up at the start for an informal gathering. There was no loud music, no group warm up like you get at large events, not even a claxon to signify the start. Everyone just started off up the mountain in single file, no whoop-whooping, no fanfare, just the shuffling of feet.

To cut a long story short, I fell short of the mark. Notice how I don’t use the word failure. In this sort of environment, there is no such thing. There is a four hour benchmark that is the hallowed SAS pass time. I came in eighteen minutes over that. I know there were stretches where I could probably have pushed harder, and an incident at the halfway point set my mind in a downhill spiral of self doubt.

The halfway point is an unremarkable car park, where you join a queue to tell the DS (Directional Staff) your name and number so they can track your progress. This particular day was getting fairly hot, despite an overcast and drizzly beginning, and the staff were keen to make sure everybody had enough fluids to keep them going for the next half. Twelve months prior to this, the Brecon Beacons, and the SAS regiment in general, attracted a sudden burst of interest, as usual, spurred on by a negative event. Tragically, three recruits died on a similar exercise to the Fan Dance in very hot conditions, so partly due to this, hydration was being given a lot of attention. There I am in this queue, thinking ahead from an admin point of view, like getting into a dry t-shirt and transferring water from one of my bottles to my hydration pack etc. Then along comes the DS and stops right by me, looks me long and hard in the face and says, “Are you ok?”. “Yeah”, comes my reply. “Got enough water?”. “Yeah” was again the unambiguous reply. “Show me”, he insisted. So I did. “Well make sure you keep hydrated”, then off he walked. It may not sound like a terrifying exchange and in all probability was out of routine care and concern, but in those conditions, where I was already starting to feel like I was flagging, it set off doubtful thoughts in my mind. Was I ok? Would I be sufficiently hydrated? Would I finish the test? Would I collapse? I’d been slowly slipping behind my mate towards the halfway point and now I decided to let him carry on at his own pace and I would sort myself out and limit the damage.

Now, I’ve thought about that day a lot since and I maintain I made the right choice. I finished in a respectable time and learned a lot. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood.

Two years later, I was back. Finished below par again, but quicker than the previous attempt. I’m planning to go back next year and finish it once and for all. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood. On both attempts, after runningin my military boots, I bruised my toes so badly on the downhills that my big toe nails fell off. Not nice.

In the September of that same year, I attempted the Paratroop Regiment version of the test, on different terrain, lighter weight and shorter distance, but by no means easier. I fell short that time, but returned three years later and kicked its arse. Determination is clearly a major factor!

Whilst I fully expect to be visiting a chiropractor at some point, I don’t regret the day I first put on my Bergen. It’s opened up a whole new plateau of self discipline, determination, fitness, belief and confidence. It does leave me thinking though, what would be a bigger challenge if the day came where I got too comfortable with it? A day to relish.

Carry that weight

I’m going to start by introducing you to a term that features heavily in my life. TAB. This is a British military term, and is an acronym for Tactical Advance into Battle in case you were wondering. Put more plainly, it is moving as fast and efficiently as you can across mixed terrain, usually a long distance, carrying your kit. Depending on which regiment you are in depends on what is required of you. In some outfits, a long distance forced march (another way of saying TAB) is part of an annual fitness test, kind of like the bleep test, but more fun. The regiment you are in also determines how much weight you should be able to carry but is usually between 15-25 kilogrammes.

This type of exercise has been a part of my life for nearly five years and has affected me positively in so many ways. I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve always admired the camaraderie, fitness regimes and discipline.

I got in to this tabbing lark accidentally. Back in 2013, I was doing long Saturday shifts at the printers where I worked. A guy would walk through twice a day and in a few weeks the conversation ramped up from “Alright?”. “Yeah, you?”. To running, via cycling (I used to cycle to work, so did he). One day, one fateful day, he asked me if I knew any decent cross country running routes in the area. Luckily for him, I did. I shared a route with him which he wasn’t too sure about, so I suggested we run it together one day. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m running on my own down the canal near my old house and who should be coming the other way, but my mate. We stopped and chatted and I noticed he was carrying a backpack. Of course I asked him what it was for, and after correcting me over the name (military backpacks are called a Bergen), he said it was for an event called the Fan Dance. I asked him what it was and he just said “Google it”. Before I could get home and indeed search online for it, we parted. No sooner were we twenty paces apart did he turn around and shout “Don’t tell anyone about this, ok?” Now I was intrigued. It must be good, this Fan Dance malarkey.

When home, once I sifted through visually pleasing images of burlesque dancers, I came to a website explaining the Fan Dance. It is a civilian version of the UK-based SAS regiment’s much fabled fitness test in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 24 kilometres (15 miles in proper money) over the highest peak in southern Britain, Pen Y Fan, TWICE. Easy? Try doing it in military boots, carrying around 25kgs on your back and a 5kg rifle. The civilian version omits the rifle. You have four hours in which to complete it.

To be honest, I looked at it and felt sorry for my mate that he had to do it. I saw it as something out of my gamut as a road runner and something I’d never be able to do. How could someone slim like me carry 25kgs all that way? No chance. My mate played rugby, was ten years older than me and was pretty fit.

Nonetheless, I had to bear his secret too, and assist in training runs. We did one where he had his Bergen at 12kgs and I was just me (clean fatigue). It was embarrassing. I kept having to wait for him while I leapt and bounded like a rutting stag over gates and fields, he struggled along. At the end he suggested that I get a Bergen next time to even it out. Like a tit, I did. I had a rucksack big enough for 12kgs, so I weighed out 12kgs of garden soil into a bin liner and off we went. It was hard, but interesting all the same. Then the mind games started:

“You should sign up for the Fan Dance too.”

For anyone who knows me, especially in this capacity, one thing I rarely miss is the opportunity to take somebody up on a challenge, or to disprove doubters. It didn’t take long for me to find my way to the entry form online.

I was in.

In my next blog, I’ll cover more of the gory details of training, the event and what’s happened since. There will be blood!

Looking around me

Nowadays I have the luxury of not having to drive to work, so I get forty minutes at each end of every day to myself (kind of) on the train. This has many advantages, that for the time being, I’m well and truly er, taking advantage of.

The first thing is I can walk to the station so I can listen to some podcasts or music and enjoy being out and about in all the seasons. Not using the car every day and being able to look around me means I can appreciate the seasons changing, and the minute happenings that nature gives, which most of us miss because we’re rushing about mainly. For example, most mornings I see blackbirds and robins. These are notoriously territorial birds, so every one that I see along the way shows the different patches of each bird. Blackbirds’ have an average territory of around 100 square metres, hence why we see so many of them. Autumn is when territories are renewed so there is a lot of activity (and noise).

When I was about ten, I was off school for a few days with an illness. Confined to the house, bored of the daytime TV and before the internet, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw all of the birds flitting about across our garden and the neighbours’ gardens. Being interested in maps (as I still am) I got my writing pad and drew a bird’s eye view of the gardens. I then drew a line in a different colour for each bird that I saw and where it went. Very quickly, a colourful chart appeared. I think techy kids these days would call it a heatmap or something like that. Either way, I learned about territories, as well as nesting preferences for each bird.

The second major advantage to this commute is the amount of reading, writing and sketching I can get done on the train. I try not to absorb myself too much into what I’m doing on public transport, like I try not to walk along gawping at my phone when I’m out and about. Part of it is because I’m far too inquisitive and like to look about me and people watch. The other thing is everyone is glued to their phone! Head down, gawping. An atomic bomb could go off away on the horizon, and they’d miss it, only to see it flash up on their phones a minute or two later. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I can easily see a terrorist attack happening on public transport all too easily in plain view of all the victims, who saw nothing of it coming, only their ‘smart’ devices. Before this turns into a typical rant of mine, I’ll steer course toward something a little more positive. In the mornings, the station where I get on is the end of the line, so it gradually fills up the closer it gets to the city, so I have the pick of most of the seats. I always choose a window seat that looks out across the open countryside. Again, I’m usually the only one looking at it as everyone else is scrolling away like zombies. The low winter sun this time of year casting long shadows over frost covered fields is still one sight I can’t resist gawping at. And it’s not on my phone.

If any of you are reading this blog, ironically, on a train, or bus, or somewhere else that you could be appreciating better, it won’t hurt my feelings if you put the phone away. Well it’s the end of the post anyway!