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!

Operation: Middle-age

Now I’m the dark side of 35, I find myself looking back more often on my athletic exploits of the past. Mulling over Park Run personal bests of 2015, marathon personal bests, or just general physical well-being. It’s fairly subjective, but I would say that I am approaching middle-age. Assuming I’ll live to at least 70 and anything after that being a bonus, I am in the middle-age region. Not saying I am middle-aged, but it’s not far away. As I am recognising this, the more I am planning to do something about it.

The main bulk of this one-man crusade is pushing my comfort zone, physically and mentally. I’m not sure which one is harder, yet they seem to come hand in hand. That 6am alarm telling me I’ve got to go to the track and run sub 6 minute 30 miles never gets any easier mentally, and that’s before I’m at the track doing it, feeling quite unwell. For me, fitness is a huge part of it, but I understand that the term comfort zone is probably more a mental thing.

All of this, I presume, is part of this stupid human condition. A complex cauldron of fears and feelings. I still feel like I’m 18 and I’m probably as guilty as the rest about struggling to accept the aging process, acting like I’ll live to 100 but still expecting to arrive there in pristine condition.

Back in the summer, I decided to start pushing myself again, like I used to, back in the old days when I felt more motivated to do it. Out went mediocre plodding runs and in came hill sprints, recovery runs, tempo runs and interval sprinting sessions. It had structure and it reignited my interest in being fit and staying motivated. The greater part was, it didn’t come from outside of me. My motivation was myself and the phrases going through my head pushing me on weren’t from songs or books, they were my own.

It has worked too. I ran a personal best over the half marathon distance last Sunday, and comfortably too.

I think everyone has a comfort zone and to permanently dwell within it means a slow death. A famous song says:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

For some it will be the dread of getting up and sprinting around a track. For others, getting on a bus. For many, spending an afternoon with their mother-in-law. But the idea is that pushing yourself, or fearing something can actually make you acutely aware of just being and makes you feel alive.

In recent years, I’ve looked around me at my peers and observed their mindsets, habits, outlooks and general appearances. I’ve seen mates’ beer guts at 27 years old, had conversations about receding hairlines at 31, listened to my friends talk about ‘slowing down’ at 33. I’ve also listened to people twenty years older than myself and paid attention to their advice, life choices, fears and realities. I am planning to grow old gracefully, but be in the best shape mentally and physically as I can while doing it. I’m gathering a dossier if you like, of information to future proof aspects of my own life, having a general plan to keep going for as long as I can, as I am now, on this integer. Living to 100 would be great, provided I can still laugh, go for a walk, and do 20 push ups. This is unrealistic though. There’s a lot to be said about living fast and dying young without the whole fading away business.

One thing that pushes my mental barriers and comfort zones is being alone in the mountains, pitted against nature. More than once I have been in situations that I felt out of my depth, uncomfortable, and stretched to the limit. When things turn on their head like that, and the adrenaline is pumping, the fall out afterwards is massive. The feeling of accomplishment, knowing you’ve survived, and feeling that your comfort zone got a lot bigger. It’s essential to feel like this these days, especially in the face of nature. I’m never going to expand any comfort zones on the sofa watching TV. It’s interesting how our ancestors (who would laugh hysterically at us now) would navigate in the outdoor, in all conditions no problem at all as it was their livelihood, yet it is out of most of our comfort zones.

Let’s do a little experiment. There are no wrong or right answers, so nobody should feel ashamed of sharing anything, but it would be great to gather together what you guys and girls last did that pushed your comfort zone, and what is it in your lives that keep you fresh? Share!

Thanks Benny

I feel sometimes in the developed world we take a lot of things for granted. Sure, everyday things like running water, sanitation and a largely accessible health service are probably what spring to mind first. Some things are the result of an individual’s idea, a war, or a similar struggle somewhere and can easily be forgotten as generations come and go or not even questioned as to why we have certain privileges. I think that global events like the two world wars will not be forgotten in a hurry although the sacrifices made by millions on either side, as well as civilians, all in the name of the freedom, it can be argued, could be seen as taken for granted nowadays. A prime example is the right to vote. The percentage turnouts for recent general elections have been low, yet a hundred years ago, women were willing to die or go to prison for that privilege.

All of these are massive, world-changing events, but there are seemingly smaller things in our lives that we owe to people who have sacrificed something, or stood up and fought for something not just for them but for everyone. I bet you’re wondering firstly, where this is going, and secondly, what the hell it has to do with the outdoors. Worry not, I’m getting back on track.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re an outdoors lover, or nature enthusiast then you’ll surely be (if you’re in the UK) able to access green, open countryside where you can escape and enjoy your interests at will. You can do this most of the year and even enjoy a picnic in the hills, or by a mountain lake. But a hundred years ago, you would have ran into big trouble attempting it. That all changed, and here’s how.

On 24th April 1932, three groups of walkers (one group as large as 400) set out to walk across open countyside on Kinder Scout, the highest peak in England’s Peak District. They were led by Benny Rothman, a Socialist, and Conservationist. A man after my own heart. Today, this very same route is walked each weekend in the summer by walkers in their drives, however the 1932 excursion was in order to highlight the fact that walkers weren’t allowed to do it. The three groups walked Kinder Scout and along the way were involved in a few altercations, mainly with gamekeepers. On the return journey, a handful were arrested, not for the act of trespassing, but for the violent nature of the altercations, and some served jail terms.

What followed was a constant campaign, spearheaded by the Ramblers’ Association. It paved the way for the National Parks Access and Countryside Act of 1949, which addressed the access issue, as well as essentially setting up National Parks in England. Eventually, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was set up, defining open access land and rights of way for everybody. If you’ve ever heard of the ‘right to roam’ in England and Wales, this is it. We all have the right to access open land (defined on a map) and remain as long as we wish in the pursuit of leisure, as long as respect for both the land and other users is adhered to.

Because of this, we are pretty lucky in the UK to have this in place. When compared to other countries, we are privileged. For a mountain lover like me, I am indebted to the campaigns that have gone before me to give me, essentially, an escape, a way of life, a reason to think beyond the realms of capitalism and gadgets. So thanks Benny Rothman, we all owe you one.

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.

cof

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 warmth of the sun

Steeped in folklore and adventurous tales, there is a valley. Overlooking this valley are hills and mountains, with lakes high up in the clouds and steep, winding paths. It was this valley where I decided to spend my last full day in the mountains.

As usual, the walk was well planned, maps studied, satellite images printed off and compared to the map. Having never been to this area before, I was apprehensive. As soon as I set off though, I could sense something special here. The first leg of the path took me to a long lake, higher up than the valley floor. It was surrounded on three sides by what felt like a rock-made amphitheatre. It almost did feel like a huge room. The path around the lake was calm, peaceful and sheltered. It was a shame to leave it behind, as I made my way up and over one of the sides, to be greeted by another lake much higher up. Looking down on all of this was the mountain summit I was here to climb.

I’ve always thought how walking, running or cycling hills teaches you a lot about yourself, and these hills were no different. You can draw endless analogies between life and moving uphill. Far too many to cover here. It’s true I think, that the outdoors provide pathways to answers to any number of life’s problems and questions. Maybe it’s the simple act of being outside, back to basics, facing the elements. My first day in the mountains this week cut some of my problems down to size, I can tell you that much.

Once at the top, the descent was along a gently sloping path, high up, but sheltered from the wind and by this point of the afternoon warmed up by the sun, radiating from the rocks. It felt very spring like and quite serene. It will have to be covered in a further post but I did have a strange experience up on this path. One of two strange experiences to recount from walking in the last twelve months I dare say.

It was the perfect end to the week and it left me feeling hungry for more, so it won’t be long until I’m back in the clouds once more.

Is there such a thing as an easy mountain day?

On the second day of my mountain trip, still recovering from the previous day (emotionally and physically, as well as mourning the loss of a decent pair of walking trousers which ripped at the crotch), I fancied an ‘easier’ walk. There was no better way to spend the day than on the highest peak in the area, some 3500 feet. Being a popular mountain, there were a few well marked (and busier) paths to use. It was the complete opposite of the previous day, with not much need for navigation, and plenty of opportunities to chat to other walkers. The weather was also worlds better.

I got a sinking feeling in the car park when a car screeched to a halt, and five loud twenty-somethings jumped out, claiming they were “going to smash it” and if they didn’t go hard, they would inevitability have to return home. I’m not sure what they meant, but I assume it was perhaps a sexual mountain fetish. I got the feeling they were a retail team attempting a charity mountain climb. Nonetheless, I checked my pack, layered up and hit the path before they’d even started taking gratuitous selfies. #smashedit.

Compared to the non-existent paths I was on the day before, these were relatively a six lane carriageway. Before long I was chatting to new friends, taking in the views and enjoying myself. I felt somewhat lazy just meandering along a marked path, but felt I’d earned it. To counteract the feeling of a stress free day, I did ponder over the idea of doing a different descent to what I’m used to, but thought I had better wait to see what the weather was like on the summit.

It’s lucky I did. The summit was cloudy, windy and wet. The climb up there was fairly pleasant though and I  thought it funny how 12 months ago the same climb I thought of as tough seemed quite easy, especially in comparison to the day before. I had a tea and a chat with a fellow walker at the deserted summit who recommended an alternative route up the mountain and also confirmed my feelings about the other descent I had in mind. With conditions up there pretty unpleasant, I set off back down. Once below the cloud, it again became mild and dry.

The relaxed nature of the return gave me chance to reflect on my goals for the future, and how I could go about achieving them. Things felt harmonious for the first time in a very long time. It is a comfort to know that no matter what happens in your life, there is always the outdoors. Always nature. Neither will judge you, respect you or castigate you. And that is fine with me.

Misty Mountain Hop

Last month, I spent three days in the mountains. It was a solo trip,camping, and completing three quality mountain days. Each day would be a specific route, meticulously planned, and hopefully, safely completed.

Day one was to be a little over 10 kilometres, with plenty of ascent, and bagging two summits, before descending and retiring to the tent to enjoy a well earned biscuit and flask of tea.

The planning stage was quite fun. Poring over the map weeks ago, looking for the minor paths (and therefore, more interesting) picking a route was followed by working out distances, elevations, timings and navigational details like bearings. To be a bit more assured, I used satellite images online of the area to help me to visualise the terrain. Printing these off and adding them to the route card was a handy idea. The one false sense of security that the satellite imagery lures you into is that they were all taken on bright, sunny, cloud-free days, and for good reason too.

At ground level, I realised the satellite images and map contours were quite easily underestimated. What looks steep on the map is actually practically vertical.

The day forecast rain, but it was quite bright and sunny as I set out. As I started my climb onto the ridge, I noticed two walkers ahead of me. There was only one path, pretty well established, and I was gaining on them. Eventually they stopped and began looking at their map. I caught them up and we worked out that we may have lost the path. So together we struck off straight up the hill through heather until we found the path again some one hundred metres further on. By this time, we were up in mist that clung to the hill side. One thing in my mind was clear however, was to keep climbing until I hit the top of a ridge with a sudden drop the other side. The older of the two guys (turned out to be father and son) revealed he’d walked up there a few times, but he didn’t recognise where he was. After a bit of muttering between them both they decided it was too risky to continue. I said I would carry on and try my luck. They turned, and went, disappearing into the mist like ghosts, and then I was all alone, not knowing exactly where I was and not knowing exactly where to head. I decided to start out in a North westerly direction, steadily climbing. On this tangent I kept on until I saw something huge lurking ahead in the mist. It looked like a mountain. In that morning, one of the many things I learned was how the mist distorts sizes of objects and distances. It turned out to be a large pile of boulders, still big enough to scramble up, but not a mountain.

A couple of times I became convinced I knew where I was, but was proven wrong. Still I remembered what I’d learned and followed instinct, knowing what slope aspect to expect, and terrain. And so this continued for over an hour until something happened that made me stop in my tracks.

I knew I’d need to start descending at some point to hit the path home, so when the land began to fall away, I was a little suspicious but rolled with it anyway. I lost a lot of height until I slipped below the mist. As the mist cleared, dead in front of me, some two hundred feet below, was a road. Immediately I felt relief, which almost instantaneously changed to anguish. A road should not have been in front of me. It should have been a valley with a lake. I turned and looked back the way I’d came. Surely I couldn’t climb back up all that way again. There was no way down as I quickly realised I was on the grassy upper slopes of a cliff effectively. I sat down and contemplated my next move. I had something to eat and within moments I had a mental second wind. I orientated the map, and picked out some features on the road below me – two significant bends and a waterfall, found them on the map and bingo. For the first time in over an hour I knew where I was. From there on in it was a case of setting a compass bearing, following it, and finding the path down.

Getting my feet back on tarmac felt great. Getting out of wet clothes and into a dry car even better. I learned more from those three hours up there than I have in 10 years of lowland walking. I still wonder where exactly I was up there among the mist and I still wonder how the other two guys got on. I wonder if they wonder how I got on?

A few days later, I bought a 1950s guidebook to the area and it stated in there in no uncertain terms not to go where I did in the mist. I’m fully aware it could have ended much differently, but I’m still glad I did it and I’m proud I got through it.