Direct from the field

Well this is a first. Usually I write my blog on the train to work, so rather than miss this week’s blog, I thought I’d write it in a tent, in a field, in South Wales.

I’m mostly here to notch up a couple of mountain days for my leadership qualification. Whilst down here I have also had a bash at the Special Forces test march (Fan Dance) that I have written about a few times. It’s not the actual event – that is in July – it’s a complete dress rehearsal for it, wearing the exact kit I will be wearing on the day. I was pleasantly surprised to complete it in under the four hour cut off time. It might not happen on the day, but it’s a positive boost.

My campsite wasn’t able to check me in when I arrived so not one to sit around, I jumped in the car and found a place to do a mountain trail run. A good, hilly 7km jaunt over a mountain. Was great for scenery, and very quiet, apart from my laboured breathing on the climbs.

With all this strenuous activity planned this week, I was looking forward to a rest week next week before my much anticipated first ultra marathon of the year. However. Owing to a massive balls up (popular British phrase) by the organisers, we were informed last Thursday (plenty of notice) that the event was being brought forward a week to this Saturday. Apparently 50% of the field has dropped out because of this error. I can see two things here. Number one: If most of the 50% were faster than me, I could win. Number two: There, in theory, will be half the spectators. Meaning not much support. My Fan Dance result this week has given me a massive boost so my thinking is I’m just going to go for it. I haven’t trained as well as last year, but hopefully I’m fitter than I think. The other drawback is it would appear that food supplies at the feed stations may be low because of the date change. Potentially tricky. Last year I saw them as back up anyway and made sure I had my own with me. This year will be no different.

Despite a tough few weeks mentally, this is one challenge I’m really hoping to test myself on, both mentally and physically. I’m going to go into it refusing to let it break me. It will be an interesting battle.

Everything. At once.

There are a few times in your life when you realise how much stuff you really have. I like to think of myself as straightforward, simple and of few possessions. I fully believed this until I moved house. It was further reiterated over the weekend when I began to sort my kit out for my week away next week.

It’s usually a complex operation anyway, sorting stuff out for the actual hiking, and then the camping too, but this time it nearly blew my head off. I think it’s a gender thing, but my mind can only cope with two maybe three things at once, so imagine me pulling all my clobber out for all of the things I have planned for my four days. I’m hoping to get two hikes in for my mountain leadership qualification (the main purpose for the trip), so there’s a load of gear for each hike, assuming I’m going to get wet at least once so I have to take two of everything, plus spares. Then I’m planning to do a dummy run of the Fan Dance, so there’s everything associated with that, like the boots, Bergen, extra clothing too. Add on all the camping stuff as well as food, and campsite equipment. Then on top of it, I’m hoping to squeeze in a mountain run.

By Friday evening, I couldn’t see the floor for bags, clothes, shoes, and other paraphernalia. I have made lists over the years that I can go to for different scenarios to ensure that I pack everything. This trip is somewhat different though, it is everything, all at once. Four whirlwind days.

All this is actually fun though believe it or not. It’s one of those things that keeps me on my toes, like a midget at a urinal. The easy thing would obviously be to have pre-packed bags that I can just grab and go. This has been considered and is almost achievable except it has the potential to be very expensive, with doubling up of kit and equipment, which I’m not in the position to be able to do. But where’s the fun there??!

Bullshit Bingo and the art of talking

In my working life, I am almost a polar opposite to my private life. At work, like most, I am required to dress smart, and have to pop into meetings, where there are buzzwords aplenty. I like to play a game called Bullshit Bingo, where you tick off as many acronyms and buzzwords and phrases as you can until you get a full row. Hours of fun, unfortunately. In my private life, I’m a shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops kind of guy, but with a huge outdoors attitude. I’ve pondered it before that perhaps I need this contrast in order to appreciate what I enjoy.

Working in a sterile office environment is a strange experience, especially like yesterday morning when I got to work after I’d been out training with my Bergen and an hour and a half later, I’m sat talking about marketing strategies, but with a satisfying ache in my shoulders reminding me of what’s more important to me and what hard work really is.

Occasionally in the office, people break out of their professional shells and reveal something really interesting about their outside work self. That’s where real relationships are forged I think, especially at work. That common acknowledgement that goes beyond the seemingly aloof world of business. Granted, there are some dull people, as well as people who just live and breathe their job, though I respect them all the same as I don’t know what they are going through or have been through to get to that point.

I work with many different nationals and cultures, which leads to great conversations, mutual banter too. On Monday this week, I found out that two people whom I have frequent conversations with (not about work I should add!) are both outdoor enthusiasts too. One is a well travelled Bulgarian girl who has been to more countries than I’ve had hot dinners. It turns out, she’s going to North Wales in May to sample Snowdonia because she misses the mountains. I then mentioned my Mountain Leadership Training, and she practically volunteered herself and her group of friends as guinea pigs, and asked for advice about the best paths and summits to tick off.

Talking about your own country to people from other countries reignites the fire that made you fall in love with the hills, fields and mountains in the first place. Almost like you’re seeing it for the first time through fresh eyes. They probably feel the same way as they tell you about their own country.

Given the point at which my life is at the moment, talking about things I love take my mind away from everything for a few minutes, especially if it’s a mutually enthusiastic conversation. A kind of therapy, without being in the outdoors.

I suppose the conclusion is, like with the old adage that you shouldn’t judge anyone as you don’t know what they’ve got going on, you should make the best efforts to chat to people as they may help you and in turn, you may help them.

Lone Wolf

It has suddenly occurred to me that we are already in April and in less than a month I’ll be running in my first ultra marathon of the year. Since the last ultra I completed last June, my training went through a distinct change, when after years of just running miles after miles, I deliberately built in recovery runs to my weekly plan. For any non-runners (or non-obsessed runners I should say), recovery runs are typically deliberately slow runs designed to help the legs recover from big efforts, but better than just resting. Easy miles. With these recovery runs, I quickly reaped the benefits. In two consecutive weekends I smashed both my half marathon personal best as well as my 5k too. Since then however, the training switched to Bergen runs on Sundays for a while, and mixed runs during the week. The Bergen runs have slipped this year, but more importantly, I haven’t been doing the long distance runs in preparation for the ultras.

With this in mind on Sunday, I headed down to my local hills and ran a section of the upcoming ultra. It could have gone better, but could have gone much worse. Lately the struggle has been state of mind. It’s not often I’m so honest about my present feelings, but lately I have faced a struggle where everything feels like it’s dragging me down, turning a pressure screw. So it’s not easy to get up and go and do a trail run that I once enjoyed, when your mind is a pretty dark place and coping is like an ultra marathon in itself. It just becomes so hard to enjoy things. I think my close friends don’t know how to deal with me because I’m the clown of the group, the one dishing out the sought after advice and support, so it’s difficult for them to see me struggle, so therefore I don’t turn to them. It’s just me and the road (or trails).

I’m thankful for the outdoors. I’m thankful for the ability to run. In a month when I’m at the start line, I know I will be focused solely on the task in hand, though my thoughts will wander. I know I will be out there supporting other runners, but not asking for any from others. Funny how my running style reflects my life style.

The 4th toughest ParkRunner

I often think of some sports in the same vein as boxing. In boxing, if you hold a certain belt, or title, and are defeated, the winner inherits them (more often than not), but football is not the same. For example, if world champions France lose in a friendly to Ivory Coast for example, surely as Ivory Coast have beaten them, they should be the new world champions. It’s a logic that I think could make sports more interesting, though it would upset a lot of merchandise manufacturers as their products would be likely out of date pretty rapidly, even before they’re made.

I’m applying this new-found logic to crown myself the 4th toughest ParkRunner in the UK. Actually, I should technically be the 3rd toughest ParkRunner in the UK. Bear with me while I explain. Last Saturday and the previous Saturday, I did my sister’s local ParkRun, which happens to be ranked as the toughest ParkRun in the UK. It achieves this crown based on the average time each finisher takes to complete it. It should be pointed out that it’s all through farmer’s fields, and is constantly up and down. Two weeks ago, I turned up hoping to support my sister in her first ParkRun, but she let me down like a cheap sex doll and didn’t turn up, so I ran it anyway, and came 3rd. Not bad considering the 8 pints the night before. Last Saturday she showed up and I ran again. This time, no hangover, I ran 40 seconds quicker, but finished 4th. So now you see why I’m celebrating my new title. 4th place in the UK’s toughest ParkRun makes me the UK’s 4th toughest ParkRunner. I’m waiting for the official notification to come through. Apparently it’s in the post. Along with my award for Straw Clutcher of the Year.

Dan Fance

From reading previous blog ramblings of mine, you’ll probably see a few references to me running with a weighted military backpack (Bergen) and why I do it. Not sure if there’s a better reason to go back through my posts and feast your eyes. I’ve probably mentioned that it’s largely training for an organised event called the Fan Dance, which is a civilian version of one of the key test marches for the UK Special Forces.

It is called the Fan Dance because it is held, like the real thing, in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales, and involves summiting the mountain Pen Y Fan twice, which is the highest peak in the south of England and Wales. Typically, the course is 15 miles (24km) and is out and back (along the same route each way, not circular). Recruits are given 4 hours in which to complete the march and pass it. It is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not keen on the muddy obstacle courses. They’re fairly boring and most allow you to skip some of the obstacles if you can’t do them, usually with a penalty. There is no choice with this march. You either complete it – or withdraw. No halfway house.

I have completed this event twice, in 2014 and 2016. The closest I have got to 4 hours is about 4 hours 15 minutes. Close but no vape. I’ve said on numerous occasions that I’d keep doing it until one of two things happened: One, I pass; two, I die. I don’t intend on trying number two anytime soon so let’s try number one shall we?

Having trouble sleeping the other night, I took the plunge and entered the event. I did quite a lot of training before Christmas, but haven’t done a hell of a lot since, so the effort level needs to be ramped right up. Possibly until it’s flipping vertical. I always forget, I was younger when I did it last and it’s harder to train these days. I train for so many different events I think I probably spread myself a little too thin across the disciplines.

Yesterday morning, instead of doing my customary Tuesday hell-for-leather 10k blast, I put my boots on, grabbed my Bergen and went out and did some hill repeats. It’s a start. I think getting inspired is a huge push to help you to get motivated for anything, so this will be no different. I’ll be hoping to get that click where it all drops into place and becomes easier. I also need to sleep better. It’s dangerous for entering races I’m not quite ready for.

Je ne suis pas Jenson Button

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, hence missing last week’s blog. As mentioned at the end of my last post, I spent the weekend before last in France. Being as the subject of this blog is about getting outdoors, it won’t surprise anyone that I explored the local vicinity on foot as much as possible, mainly in the medium of running.

Having a keen eye for anything pain inducing, I spotted there was a hill on the edge of the city, not far from the Air BnB. There was a fort on top so it had to be quite high. It wasn’t as high as the mountainous foothills behind it, but they were out of range really. I mean, I go on holiday and run to relax, not run hilly half marathons, that would be insane (tuts, rolls eyes).

On day one, off I went up the winding coast road, getting lost more than once. On one of these occasions, I found myself on the main road from Nice to Monaco. Stopping to look at the map, my navigation was disturbed by a rabble of French tourists, enthusiastically making their way across the road towards me looking both incredibly pleased and excited. My first thought was, “Crikey, don’t ask me for directions because firstly, I’m lost, and secondly, my grip on the French language is so loose I sound like I’m doing a bad impression of Officer Crabtree from Allo Allo.” Anyway, through the alien words that they said, I heard the phrase, “C’est Jenson Button!”. For years, my sister and countless others have remarked on a slight resemblance to the former Formula 1 champion, so as soon as they said it I thought, “Oh no, not this again”. Basic year 9 French left me only with the phrase, “Je suis Anglais”, which of course is probably exactly what he would say. Now I did something I’m not particularly proud of. I went along with it. I posed for photos, and stopped short of signing autographs. I mean, that would just be fraudulent and upset innocent people. I managed to gesture towards my watch, and pointed to the summit of the hill, and promptly legged it, chuckling to myself.

Despite the language problem, I found Nice to be very warm, vibrant, friendly and safe, despite its terror problems in recent years. I’ve now added the Nice marathon to my bucket list, as well as the surrounding mountains, and have even started learning French again for the first time since 1996. Particularly the phrase, “I am NOT Jenson Button”.