How many daft Santas does it take…

Most Monday mornings, I sit on the train, trundling into the city with an uneasy feeling. The feeling is one of bewilderment, wondering to myself, “Where did the weekend go?”, “It can’t be over. There’s no way that was two days” and “I’m not ready to go back to work!!!” Sometimes I try not to say these out loud.

A couple of weekends ago, the two days were spent doing other stuff. Under that header, I group anything other than my core weekend training or off-the-script events, like spontaneous drinks with friends that I haven’t seen for a while, family events and freak weather-related incidents. I do really enjoy these weekends but they do leave me feeling a little unfulfilled by Monday morning as I have grown accustomed to the knackered yet happy feeling as I start the new week, content that I’ve suffered and sweated just enough to justify calling myself ‘fit’. So again, this Monday just gone, I found myself sat on the train feeling a little bit strange. I had an odd, unprepared feeling going to work like I had forgotten something or something was wrong. Railcard? Check. Lunch? Check. Trousers? Oh…check. Remind me never to wear check pattern trousers by the way – unless I become a chef or an early nineties rapper.

This uneasy post-weekend emotiness, as I’m calling it, does anyone else get it? I think it’s maybe because I’ve made exercise and being outdoors such a huge and regular part of my life for so long that it’s second nature to me now, and it leaves its mark when it is absent.

I had to rescue last weekend, as it was slipping away into the disappointing post-weekend emptiness (PWE) abyss. I did my usual ParkRun on Saturday, which to me, has become a vital part of my routine because I have made a few friends there and it’s become my weekly social event. My tolerance for cider and general pub-goers under the age of 25 is somewhat diminished, so bang goes my former social events. Sundays are usually spent doing a long run, or a lengthy slog with my Bergen, followed by a country walk until it’s dark. Last Sunday though, I took part in a local charity Santa Dash. 5k in a Santa costume! This isn’t as fun as it sounds. The cause (Clause?!) is fantastic, but the outfit is ridiculous! The first thing that happens is the crotch splits on the trousers. This normally occurs in the first half mile, but that’s only if you haven’t done the group warm up. That’s where they usually split. Then you have 5k of jogging along, one hand holding your trousers up, the other keeping the beard (yes, beard) out of your mouth. The beard sheds hair too, so you’re picking fluff out of your mouth or in my case, your own beard too. The flimsy plastic belt snaps, meaning the jacket flaps open and becomes a cape. The only saving grace, other than the charity aspect, is the fact that there’s 400 of you, so you’re not alone in your outfit issues. I did think it was funny when I looked around me and saw a sea of Santas and remarked what a problem it would be if you were a lost child and you had to describe your parent to the bewildered marshall. As I was plodding along, I started to feel frustrated as I was stuck at essentially walking pace, but managed to get over myself and relax and just enjoy it. I made as many people laugh as I could, making comments to people who were running with their dogs, saying things like, “If I’d have known you were allowed to bring pets, I’d have brought Prancer, Blitzen and Dancer!” Oh the comedy. I was disappointed when at the end all we got was a bottle of water. I was expecting at least a cookie. Luckily for everyone involved, their cheap plastic belts managed to hold up. If they hadn’t, their sides would have well and truly split.

As enjoyable as it was, I still felt like I’d fallen short of my usual weekend physical efforts. An afternoon walk and pub stop still didn’t tick the boxes, so when I got home, despite it being cold, dark and raining, as well as being at the wrong end of the day for my liking, I loaded up the Bergen and did a 6 miler. That definitely ticked boxes. It was still a surreal feeling on the train to work the next day however, but I felt like I’d achieved a decent balance.

Getting ecotherapeutic

My last two posts, as intriguing and fun as they were to write, I feel moved away slightly from the general purpose of my blog, which is to share my outdoor experiences and hope to inspire readers to immerse themselves in it. Writing about mental toughness and comfort zones do apply here but not in the purest sense of the manifesto, feeling more like they were self-help articles. Despite this, they do reflect my own ideas and motivation which encompasses a lot of what I do outdoors, and why I do it. I thought then, for this week’s fat-chewing session, I would cover the general mental well-being that is provided by exercise, and in particular, being outdoors.

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Here in the UK, over 8 million people suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, and it is rising year-on-year. In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. The reasons for this are many fold, and open up the possibility of a whole new series of blog posts. I’ve already covered the effect of blue light from devices and its damaging properties, and know only too well how positive exercise in the outdoors is. Now we’re in the grip of winter, many sufferers are probably struggling more. The shorter days, and dark, dreary mornings do nothing to boost a low mood, especially when you have to face a long day travelling or shut up in an office.

I’ve suffered stress before and anxiety too at times for various reasons and in those times, I found myself naturally wanting to get outside, either for a relaxing walk, or an insane stress-burning running session. That’s how I’ve always been, and really it’s how I think I’ll always be – I hope. In the times that I did need to visit my GP, I emerged both times with some magic tablets. I wasn’t overly keen to use them, especially after reading the side-effects, as well as the fact that they supposedly took six weeks to start working fully. I reasoned that in six weeks’ time, whatever it was that was bothering me could be cut down to size naturally anyway and wasn’t worth the risk. So I followed my instincts and made a conscious effort to get out and walk more, run more, and immerse myself more in the outdoors. Whilst I can’t confirm it was a cure, it did take the edge off what I was going through. Although this worked for me, I fully accept that perhaps my issues at that time were mild in comparison to a number of sufferers of anxiety, depression, or insomnia.

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There are many things you can do if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety or anything else that’s making you feel low. Some things worth looking at are forest bathing, ecotherapy, mindfulness in nature, green time or the wilderness cure, again, each one fully deserving a blog in its own right. Even in cities, it is possible to find small corners of green solitude. Again, personally, I find urban environments quite relaxing if I stroll about, taking photos and stay out of the hustle and bustle. Just by being in a green, natural environment, you can help combat depression. Working out outdoors instead of a gym reduces anxiety levels and a 90 minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative thinking.

I, for one, have never been winter’s biggest fan, preferring the hope of spring, or the glory of summer. In recent years, I have preferred to stay as active as I can during the darker, colder months, boosting my mood and motivation, and I have learned to enjoy aspects of it. If winter were a pop singer, I still wouldn’t make my way to the front row, screaming like a lunatic, then fling my Y-fronts at it, but I would buy its album.

I have learned that every massive change in my life was the result of many, many small incremental moves, like moving a mountain pebble by pebble. The same goes for improving mental health I feel. In my case, it was trial and error for a while until perseverance and determination led me to a go-to solution that I could apply when things got tough. Making this part of a daily routine, or lifestyle can empower aspects of your life in many ways.

Comfort zones, and why we shouldn’t live within them

Comfort zones. We all have them. The size of that comfort zone varies from person to person. It makes no difference if you’re physically active, or sedentary, comfort zones take many forms.

The definition of a comfort zone is a psychological state in which someone feels in control, relaxed, and in familiar territory with levels of stress and anxiety quite low.

Being a psychological state, it means, I think, that it is subject to change, mostly for the better. In other words, you can increase your comfort zone relatively well. To do this, you first need to know your limits. I imagine, like me, most peoples’ zones are multifaceted. For example, in a physical environment, my comfort zone extends pretty far out, because I enjoy training and do a lot of it. But I can’t do monkey bars, so that is where I would start to feel anxious. In a social setting, I’m chatty and approachable mostly, but small factors could challenge that, like an unfamiliar setting, or people I am wary of crashing the party. So there we have it, two spokes of my comfort zone wheel go as far as monkey bars, and oddballs. Bad term, let’s say, slightly erratic members of our society.

These are just two examples, but maybe you can relate also. You might absolutely smash monkey bars but struggle to run a 5k, and that’s where your anxiety would kick in.

When you know your comfort zone, if it bothers you, you can take steps to work on making it bigger. I could do more pull ups, then hit the bars in the gym more, making gradual improvements. Or I could just avoid monkey bars forever. That makes me feel unhappy however, like I’m taking the easy way out, like I haven’t tried. By just attempting to push our comfort zones, we are growing as people and challenging ourselves. By facing challenges or difficut situations as often as we can, we can effectively immunise ourselves to those feelings by making them more commonplace. Of course, when we do that, our horizon changes and something bigger will be our nemesis for a while. That is progress.

Pushing comfort zones destroys our fears, cutting them down to size. You can say, “Wow, I DID that”. You faced it, and beat it down to size, taking the wheel of your life’s journey for a while.

Becoming more comfortable and confident in more situations shows others around us how self-assured we are, and they may in turn look up to us as inspiration to go out and face their own limits. When I say self-assured, I’d like to point out that I mean quietly confident, not brash or cocky. I know although some people admire that trait, for me it sets alarm bells ringing and actually undermines their claims to being confident (over compensation).

One of the biggest wins for pushing our comfort zones is the fantastic feeling of achievement. As adults, when our school days are long gone, it’s easy to slip into routine – work, eat, sleep, repeat, die. Making great achievements is a brilliant way of staying fresh and giving us purpose, which also has great benefits to our lives as well as those around us. We would probably feel less envious towards other people, more content and more likely to be supportive perhaps.

If you’re reading this, and can relate, I want you to think back to a time as recent as possible to when you felt out of your comfort zone. When you have, take a piece of paper and write down the feelings you had at that very time, not the next day with hindsight, but in the moment. In another area of the paper, write down words that you would use to describe your feelings now. How different are they? Are you looking at the feelings of two different people? Which feelings do you prefer? I think I can safely assume what your answers might be.

When I am out of my comfort zone, I seem to regress somewhat feelings-wise to the six-year-old lad who hated school and didn’t want to go. I’m not a psychiatrist so I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing it’s a heightened sense of vulnerability, and I also guess that around the age of six is when I would have experienced that for the first time.

Back in April, I spent some time in the mountains and had a challenging experience in the mist on unfamiliar ground. This was definitely one of the most challenging moments for me in recent years in terms of comfort zones. I was way out of it, and there I was trying to negotiate the conditions with my six-year-old self. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically and I was dealing with a challenged, threatened version of myself as I am now. But out of those three days, that one was the most rewarding and I will always remember it. It made most training days look like feeding bread to the ducks. That’s another beauty of pushing yourself – with every achievement you look back at times when you struggled to do something smaller. An upgrade of your courage hardware if you like.

All of this combined is what forms my opinion that living inside our comfort zones is a big mistake. We should be pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves. Comfort zones are like muscles, you have to keep working them harder and harder so they keep growing and getting stronger. Untrained muscles atrophy and grow weak, and one day when you need them, they’re not ready. Make it your routine to embrace something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I take cold showers quite often. Go for a run in the snow or rain. Attend dance classes if you’re shy. Conquer these and you’re growing. Shying away is not an option. We all have it in ourselves to be braver still, but we seem afraid to find out how brave. Make a list now of your limits. Then smash them out of orbit.

Disconnect

You know you’re in for a good few days away when your backpack doesn’t fit out of the door properly.

That is what really happened.

Last week, being in-between jobs, with a bit of time on my hands, I wondered what I could do to fill the void. It didn’t take long at all to figure it out. Practically as soon as I resigned from my previous job, my map was out on the floor and I was measuring up. I probably knew the solution before the problem even arose. I was going to head to the hills and mountains.

I knew it was going to be a different trip to anything like I’ve done before. In front of me lay two days, and a few peaks as yet unexplored by me. In addition to this was the idea of wild camping near one of the summits at the half way point of the trip.

First things first. I’d spent the larger part of the last three months umm-ing and aah-ing like someone with haemorrhoids over what to get – a one man tent, or a bivouac. I opted for a tent after much deliberation, reasoning that full cover was better in the long run for potential all year round use. Then the fun began – deciding which tent to get. The internet can be a minefield to the indecisive and those on a budget. Searches threw up a few suitable candidates, but I had to weigh up suitability with cost and, yes, weight. With the impending trip, a fast decision was needed, and make one, I did. I am not one for dropping in brand names, or writing an ostentatious review of kit I use, so I will say that Brand X’s one man tent ticked all the boxes. Plus, I managed to find it on a reputable website for a reduced price. Too good to be true? I hoped not. Anyway, it turned up, I tested it on the lawn and was impressed with its ease of erection (I remember those days), weight and build quality. Just enough room inside for me and Ingrid (my Bergen). A bivouac would not be sufficiently spacious enough for Ingrid and I and she would have to go outside. If it rained, it could be a depressingly damp day two. In addition to the tent, I needed to find a smaller cooking system as my usual stove is large, awkward and heavy. The best way to go in my opinion is a gas cylinder with a screw in burner system. In case this fails, I have my trusty multi fuel burner, which brews up tea in a frightening time, usually at the expense of eyebrows, fingertips, and sometimes, tent.

All of this deliberation was conducted at the same time as I was planning the actual route. I must confess, I got summit greed. I counted all of the summits I could see in the given area, and measured the distance between them as the crow flies to give me a rough idea. From this I could plan a route. My idea was to avoid main footpaths and cut across open ground as much as I could, the prime reason being to test navigation skills. The final route came out at over thirty miles.

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The funny thing about planning a route from a map is that you read the landscape from the contours (the swirling lines, indicating rises and falls in the land) to give you a picture of what it will look like. In my experience, what I perceive as steep on a map is actually really steep in reality. The other thing gained from certain maps is their ability to tell you what the ground will be like underfoot. In my two days of this trip, the majority of the ground was damp and in places, boggy. The drawback of straying away from the main paths unfortunately. In one or two places, my whole boot (which are military boots, high up my leg) disappeared into the mire. This wouldn’t normally be a problem as bodyweight is generally on my side, except when my backpack weighs 24kgs and I could easily sink like a stone.

I could write a whole blog entry about the trip, and probably will, but here I will cover briefly the sleeping arrangements. There was a farce surrounding the tent (my life is peppered with farces), which I will have to go into at some point, but the pitch up and night spent up in those hills was near perfect. The only downside was a cloudy sky. After walking 18 miles on day one, setting up the tent and getting the (safe) stove cooking away couldn’t come quickly enough. So as my boil-in-the-bag pasta and meatballs was er…boiling in the bag, I swiftly got the tent up. Warm meal down, it was into the sleeping bag. I read a couple of pages of my book and…zonk…I was gone. I did have to get up in the wee small hours for a wee small wee, and witnessed blanket fog slipping into the valley below me like marsh mallow.

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There was no wind as such so it was really still and quiet, so all I could hear was the occasional bleating of sheep. No cars, no people, no mobile phones. Nothing. It was two days of mental clarity from a modern life aspect. I just thought about problems arising in the trip, hour by hour, that’s all that’s real for that given time. Being an extremely remote and quiet part of the world, I glimpsed one farmer on a quad bike over the two days. The only words that passed my lips were words said to myself, usually in wonder at something or cursing as I nearly got sucked into another mire.

This definitely needs another post. Too much to cover to do it justice. If you do get the chance, go and try wilderness wild camping. It is a must I feel in this him we call modern life.

The freedom of the mountains (after careful planning)

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post. There is a legitimate reason for this and it is relevant. It’s not an excuse, honestly.

Radio silence was the fault of spending four days and three nights in the mountains. I’ve been trying to get away since winter really and booked a week off work to get some quality hikes in. The planning of the trip was quite full on. Booking the campsite was easy, but it was the three or four days leading up to the trip that required the most organisation. I like to think I’m well organised, but I have been known to forget obvious things. Example one; there was the time I drove 20 miles to watch and photograph a friend’s band, only to discover as they walked out on stage that my camera battery was at home, still charging. Example two; the time I drove 100 miles for a weekend away taking part in a civilians version of a military test march, only to discover that the bag with all of my (quite expensive) nutrition for the march was still at home.

For this reason, I am quite methodical in the way I pack for trips. I pack in stages, after a few days making lists of what to take. If I don’t pack in stages, or leave those stages half complete, I’m that scatty that I’ll return to the task and completely lose my train of thought and overlook something blinking obvious. Think walking boots, maps, tent.

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This trip was particularly difficult to pack for because it involved three things – the tent and all the camping paraphernalia, the clothing and equipment for three separate hikes, and clothing and other items for the day-to-day activities. I had to start very slowly and be very thorough, and I am proud to say, didn’t miss a thing.

The biggest part of the planning process was actively planning each hike. And we’re not talking about grabbing a map, choosing where to go, and following it without getting lost. Those simple days are behind me! Those wonderful lowland walks. Gone. No, in the mountains, every step must be planned, distances, expected timings, speed, elevation climbed, compass bearings and weather conditions. Not everything goes to plan however, as my account of the week will reveal.

Whilst the hills and mountains can’t be made 100% safe, the risks we take while there can be minimised. One way of doing this is having a contactable person elsewhere who knows exactly where you are and where you last were, so if you’re not back when you said you were going to be back, the appropriate action can be taken.

I had a very pleasant, but at times, testing, three days, which I will describe in the following three blogs in the coming weeks.

Between a bivvy and a great place

Cutting a very long story short, I’m currently trying to plan my first solo walking/wild camping trip – just as winter is drawing near!

There is a lot more to consider, due to the time of year, the remoteness (and therefore lower number of other walkers) of the area and I guess the strangeness of being completely and utterly alone. It’s a bit like my birthday every year: looking forward to it and terrified of it at the same time.

The main word today is bivvy. Which type to get. What size. A lowland one or Alpine one. I spent an hour at lunchtime today ping-ponging from site to site, forum to forum. And I still couldn’t come up with the goods. A bivvy, by the way, is a sleeping bag. But a more weather resistant one. Effectively a one man tent, but small enough and light enough to carry in a backpack. Cost is a big thing too. A top of the range bivvy will set you back three hundred quid. A cheap one might not be suitable for most weather types and could put you at risk. It is only really the rock of the bivvy that is between me and adventure. Once the equation is solved, that’s it. Gone.

 

Fun time camping with friends

My weekend started early. I left work at lunchtime, with the car already packed, and drove 80 miles up the road to go camping with a bunch of friends. We have been planning this trip for a few months and it felt great to get there. The campsite was like a festival; burger vans, music, beer tent, pop-up bars, and masseuses. It’s probably a good time now to mention that the festival is actually a 24 hour endurance running event. A couple of thousand people turn up and run on their own, or as part of various sized teams on a hilly, cross-country 10km (6.2 miles) course as many times as they can in 24 hours. And camp.

We graced this event last year, so we knew what to expect and where and how much to push ourselves. We set a target of 31 laps, worked out a strategy and started strong. It is starting to sound very serious and technical, but the main aim above all else was to enjoy our time together, working towards a common goal, sharing the experience. We didn’t sit around talking endlessly about heart rate zones, negative splits and rivalry. We did laugh a lot, live a lot and made memories. We also fell short of our target – but only by three laps. Next year, we kept saying. Next year.

It goes to show that we had a great time without ruining it by being overly competitive. Everybody suffered, but it was part of the fun.

I find competition a healthy aspect of improving. It’s important though to compete with the clock, or yourself. If you do pick out a rival, hopefully it’s a mutually respected rivalry. I have had rivalries in the past, most of them unspoken, but still oppressive. They took away the enjoyment and purpose of what I was doing. A negative strategy. Now my main rival is myself. My own worst critic too, thankfully. So just get out there and do what you enjoy doing, because one day you might no longer be able to do it, and taking away positive memories should really be the goal.