And now for something completely different…

It’s a tough life being the pillar of society that I am and role model for the next generation (not), so to unwind, aside from my physical activities, I like to do other less demanding outdoor activities. Photography is one, as well as strolling (this is very different to walking. Walking usually means you have somewhere to go or be. Strolling is just sauntering about at a lazy pace, noticing things). Occasionally I do other things. For example, I had a day off work last Friday so I went alpaca trekking!

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If I had to make one criticism of the whole thing, it would be the title. Trekking, to me, consists of something involving either a long distance or arduous terrain. This was neither. Trekking, by the way is a notch up from walking. A couple of notches up from strolling, just to clarify. The ‘trek’ involved leading a rather keen alpaca from its stable, where it looked pretty warm, cosy, well stocked and quite pleased with itself, out into the cold on a lead. It’s not as cruel as I’m making it sound. These animals are from South America and have fleece coats so thick that they can endure Antarctic conditions, so a chilly British October morning is nothing to them. The trek lasted for all of fifteen minutes and went up the farm driveway and back. Not exactly a trek, but fun all the same. My alpaca, Gareth, was fairly chilled out and friendly so he was no trouble. My experience with large animals up to this point only really consisted of horses. The skills weren’t that transferable. These cute little fleeceballs were a bit more like dogs. Still, it was nice to do something outdoors that didn’t involve exertion, mountains, maps or getting lost.

It was a great way to start the weekend, and I followed it up with a stroll (see, a stroll) around a nature reserve nearby in the glorious autumn sunshine.

It was a momentous weekend really, for on Saturday morning at long last, after three-and-a-half years of trying, I got my Park Run personal best, knocking four seconds off the last one. It proves that age isn’t really anything, and nothing is impossible if you work for it and stay focussed.

As my mindset lately has been about keeping fit, mentally and physically, and pushing comfort zones, I realise that this achievement is not the end of something, in fact it’s the start. The real hard work begins now because I can’t help but wonder, what else is possible? How much harder can I push myself? Let’s see.

Back to it

Following on from my article last week on the subject of essentially losing sight of my passion and purpose, this week, I can gladly say, is about getting it back again.

The weekend started well; a meal out with some of my best friends, where the subject turned to running…and running fast. One of the guys runs the weekly ParkRun event that I also run. The other three don’t run at all. Anyway, he’s been getting much quicker in the last few weeks and is doing well, whereas I have been stalling in the same pit for probably three months now. I understand it to be a hangover from the two ultra marathons I did in May and June respectively. I didn’t realise that it would take so long for my legs to recover, but it has. Around six weeks ago, I began to do the unthinkable – I started to work recovery runs into my training, and you know, I think it’s paying off. It’s definitely given my training a lot more structure. For the first time in years I’m figuring out a plan for each individual run. For the past two years I’ve just ran five times a week, and that’s it. Just lacing up my trainers and going out, sometimes having a distance in mind, other times not. And that was it, quantity over quality. That’s not cutting it anymore. So every run is like a science experiment. It’s fun! Anyway, after a couple of beers, I was talking about trying to run much faster on Saturday morning, and talking about why I used to be so much quicker (four years ago). Turns out, I used to get up in time, have breakfast, a coffee, get down to the park and, deep breath, warm up. I do none of that these days. Get up, turn up, run, struggle, go home.

So in prep terms, I turned back the clock four years and was sensible about it and I finished in 7th place with a time only 24 seconds off my time from when I was 32. I’m going to try again on Saturday. A stronger coffee may be needed though…

Sunday started with a training run over the half marathon distance, and went according to plan, although it made mincemeat out of my legs. Sunday afternoon however was spent walking around a local open space in the wonderful autumn sunshine.

Not too far away are some hills, crisscrossed by paths that pass through grassland, woodland and valleys. It’s an area I’ve visited a few times but I’m not overly familiar with it and its hidden charms and peculiarities. With map in hand, I tried to make sense of where I was going. It’s difficult in places like that because there are official paths marked on the map, yet on the ground there are double that in unofficial paths made by locals and tourists alike over the years. This is mainly because the area is open access giving people the right to roam wherever they please. This generally has been respected I feel, although I have seen examples where it has not. So the map went away, the camera came out and not long after, a pub was found. A quick half pint, then back out to explore. Seeing the leaves coming down in the sunshine was worth the trip, as well as glimpsing the open countryside away to the south through the occasional gap in the trees. In contrast, away to the north revealed tower blocks and minimal greenery. It reminded me of two things. Firstly, my art teacher at middle school who drew a picture to demonstrate perspective. The picture showed a straight road ahead, banked by trees on either side and away over the hill, office blocks and church steeples. It was, he said, an illustration of his drive to home from work from the countryside to urban. The second thing that I thought of was my own predicament at the moment, straddled between the countryside and the city, juggling how and where I spend my spare time.

Autumn is becoming one of my favourite seasons. From going from dreading it up to about ten years ago, to not dreading it now has been the result of one thing really – just getting out and immersing myself in it. Whatever the activity. Sunny autumnal days are probably more beautiful than summer days. Not sure if they can top spring though, that’s my number one still.

Live your life well. Just remember to close your curtains.

September is that time of year. One of my favourite times of year to run. You’re probably expecting me to reel off a load of scientific reasons why early autumnal running is beneficial. Aside from the cooler conditions, I can’t think of any other reason. The non-scientific reason why I like running this time of year is because of the fact that if I run in the evening, it’s not dark enough for people to close their curtains, but it’s dark enough inside for them to put their lights on, meaning, I can have a good old nose in as I run past. Romantically, I enjoy it so I can imagine what it would be like to live there, or see how cosy it is while I’m out pounding the pavement, but recently I have been remarking to myself how the people inside are interracting with oneanother, or not, as the case seems to be. The first thing that strikes me is the size of the TV screens, especially when compared to the size of the room. The usual scene tends to be: huge, oversized TV at one end of the room and at the other end, as far away as physically possible in a ten foot square room, the family and pets, wide eyed. The other scene is a family of two, three or four, oversized TV blaring away, yet all concerned are all being swallowed whole by their smart devices, their thumbs scrolling up and down in a motion that Fran Healy of the Scottish rock band Travis, described as ‘stroking the hamster’.

It’s one thing I didn’t have when I was a kid – the whole world at my fingertips, all the time. We never had a computer, no internet either. WiFi to the majority now is comparable to me finding a lawn big enough to play football on when I was younger.

The damage all of this does to our health is multifaceted. Firstly, there is the high level of inactivity that comes with vegetating in front of a screen, although this is not the case always. Bolt on food consumed while doing so, and that leads to the second issue. Depression, heart disease, diabetes to name three. Thirdly, and not widely documented, is the damage caused by blue light.

Blue light is a natural occurrence, being one of the colours emitted from the sun and carries more energy than, say, red, orange and green. It is everywhere, most notably in the screens of televisions, mobile devices and computers, which emit huge volumes of the stuff. Compared to the blue light emitted by the sun, they give off next to nothing, but the proximity of the blue light next to our faces, and the time spent in this way leaves us open to eye diseases, many doctors think. Blue light penetrates all the way through to the retina and can damage the light sensitive cells. The changes this causes are similar to macular degeneration, which leads to sight loss. More research is needed on the subject, especially surrounding just how much blue light exposure is too much. It is worth pointing out however, that not all blue light is bad for you. Some exposure to it can reduce symptoms in people who suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

Blue light exposure, along with the other health conditions brought on by sedentary lifestyles can probably be considered a modern problem. It is my opinion that a continuation of it can undoubtedly lead to social problems. I think society as a whole is becoming less sociable and more insular. I see it every morning on my work commute. Heads down, looking at phone. People having conversations get glared at and tutted at. I’m a sociable guy, but I find nobody really wants to talk. I too get sucked into my phone, and ironically you’re reading this on yours, but I do belong outdoors.

It’s not right to preach, only to educate and guide people, which is kind of the mantra of this blog and my message to as many people as possible, just saying, we have one life, let’s live it as long as we can, as fully as we can, as healthily as we can, and share our experiences.

The tide.

I went back to the rough ground today for the first time since autumn. Very much like last time it was very sunny and bright, with a piercing blue sky, and shades of yellows and browns. The one noticeable absence however was the greenery. Back in the autumn there was still a fair amount of leaf cover and the whole area still felt quite private, but today, there were none to shield the outside world away. It felt very open and exposed.

As well as the world’s eyes creeping in, so too were the sounds of the urban surroundings – a cacophony of emergency service sirens, the hum of the motorway passing overhead nearby, the clang of lorries as their wheels find the weathered potholes on the carriage way. The increased noise, combined with being able to see more cars and people whizzing by, makes me feel, I notice, vulnerable. The rough ground isn’t the hidden sanctuary it once was. A guy wobbles by on a push bike that is far too small for him, weaving through the abandoned shopping trolleys, burned out car, and dumped boiler. People walk by going about their business. It just feels…less private.

But this area is not mine. I don’t own it. Is that what we want from the world? A place just for ourselves and a select group of people that we hand pick? No riff raff. No undesirables. No strangers. By doing that, we cease to grow as people and our horizons begin to shrink. We become set in our ways and spoilt by routine. If this rough space were mine, and only mine, who would join me to fight for it if the need rose up? Nobody would see it like I do because they would never be given the chance. Like a walled secret garden.

In amongst all this, I could actually hear a hive of bird song. Very spring-like. A volery of long tailed tits fluttered overhead from leafless branch to leafless branch, taking me completely by surprise. I would have expected them to be blue tits, or something equally as common. Back in the summer, I noted how quiet it was here for birds. Now it’s coming to life.

I start to make my way back to the pretty much pointless exercise that some would call my career. I note the old pavements I am walking along, revealing, beneath all the growth, the rough ground’s urban heritage. The samsara of ruralisation, urbanisation and then ruralisation. How quickly nature reclaims what man sees as a waste. The decaying fallen branches lying around, releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere shows that everything is a cycle. Birth, death, prosperity, decay. The tide giving and taking. What goes up, comes down. And every dog, always has its day.

Falling leaves

It’s a bit of a cliché, but the autumn really is a pallette of colour. I myself have long preferred spring as I feel it is full of promise. But the autumn brings colour of a different kind, coupled with melancholy. Technically it is now winter here, but the leaves are still falling and are beautiful.

This is one of the most rewarding times of the year to get out and about. It is mild enough to get out, yet cool enough to be comfortable. From a photography point of view it is the best time of year.

I enjoy country walking at this time of year. With the seasons changing, and less leaves at the trees you can see more birds. Autumn also heralds the return, of sorts, of the dawn chorus, and bird song in general as many overwintering species contest their territories before the cold weather hits.

Don’t be put off by the falling mercury of your thermometer (if you have one). Wrap up and get out. You’ll be amazed at how quick you warm up. Take some photographs, share them! Don’t fall (pun intended) into the hibernation mentality. Cold weather can invigorate too. I take cold showers. It’s a great way to feel buzzing and alive. Consult your doctor first though!

Another summer’s promise almost gone

After a week away from it, I decided I would make the most of the early autumnal sunshine and walk down to the rough ground. I find September to be a melancholy time of year. The end of summer, impending winter, watching things die back. I used to dread the end of August. But in recent years, I’ve grown to embrace it. Not like it, just embrace it.

One advantage to shorter days is you get more time to catch up on any reading. I especially like reading books about natural history and reading about spring and summer flora and fauna leaves you looking forward to the new year, giving hope. Autumn and winter also help me to get out more, as strange as it sounds. The cold doesn’t bother me, it’s more the wet and grey that gets me down, so if there’s a sunny day, it’s a great chance to drop everything that can wait, and plan a last minute trip to the hills, lanes, rivers and fields.

I get reflective at this time of year. I used to get depressed that another summer had drifted by without much thought and appreciation but nowadays I’m not like that so much, probably because I do more things that fill my imagination and needs, things I love doing, so when August comes and goes and that fluttery panic feeling creeps in, I smack it back with memories of the past four months. Walks, runs, camping trips, time at the allotment. Basically, less time on the sofa, in front of the TV.

The rough ground looked different yesterday. It was bathed in sunshine. The greenery slowly turning yellow and red. I heard more birds, a couple of crickets and began looking at what trees grow there. I noted a few maples more than anything.

I started to imagine if I could take ownership of the rough ground. What would I do with it? Would I close it off and leave it to mother nature or actively manage it? I thought first and foremost that I’d manage it. Remove non-native trees and plants, and encourage young saplings to grow up to regenerate the area. I pretty much worked out that I was more or less taking things away, not adding anything, which sounds unproductive but in the long term, it’s adding new trees and plants. It’s hard to work out what is ‘natural’ for an inner city scrub. Invasive species thrive. Being near a river, in flood, seeds will wash up. Damp ground fauna will survive over ill-planted species. I did definitely decide to keep it as open access, I mean, what’s the point in creating an urban wild patch that no one can appreciate also? Other that the obvious litter problem and the burned out car, and trolleys, there’s no sign of vandalism. If I showed care for it, would other people? Would I even mention it to friends? I haven’t even told my friends about this blog.