Portals to adventure

I have always loved not living in a city. I think if I did, it probably wouldn’t be as bad as I think it would be. Working in the city is enough for me and I can accept the lack of green space, the bustle of people, the various social problems and the constant stream of man made noises, because I get to leave every night.

Sometimes living in a town can feel like a cage too though. For me, there’s nothing better than escaping, even if for a few hours, somewhere rural, quiet, maybe somewhere I can find space and solitude. In the towns I have lived during my life, I have always done this; looked for escape routes out, like it’s a maze. It’s interesting how in some cases, I had to pass through portals where suburbia ended and guaranteed space began. I have yet to find one where I currently live, although on my regular run, I head out into the countryside, usually in the darkness of evening or early morning, and I run past the last lampost of town. I pass under it and then watch my feet as they and the tarmac beneath them get gradually darker and darker.

Where I used to live, one of the exit points was an underpass beneath one of the relief roads. Once I was through that, I was into a magnificent park. Then through that and I was on a single track lane. The most difficult decision then was ‘Which way, left or right?’ It was a great way of shrugging the town off, leaving all that hum and concrete behind, being full of hope and excitement for what I might find.

It just goes to show that if you don’t have the means of travel, the budget or even the time, but have the desire and imagination, you can do this within a few miles of your front door. A good idea to try is the five to nine challenge. This is one for the summer really, unless you have the gear and are really keen. It’s where you finish work at five, and see where you can get to and back from by nine PM. This could be walking, running, cycling. A really adventurous twist on this could be swapping nine PM with nine AM, throwing in a wild camping spot and then arriving at your place of work as if you’ve been home. It all depends on where you live I guess.

I’m sure everyone reading this can think up adventures to have on their own urban doorsteps. Such a world of possibilities, a plethora of wonders to see and feel down every footpath, on every tree and stream. I’m going to set myself a small challenge to find a portal out of town, explore it for an hour or so and see what I can discover.

Rekindled magic

The cold wind blew down platform one as I stood waiting for the next train. My usual train came in a few minutes before but had been too crowded to board, so I let the really desperate-looking commuters get on. For all I know they might have a hot date to get home to be ready for, or something banal like Love Island. Bless. Anyway, so I accepted my fate and waited a few minutes more. With a screeching trundle, in it came. A few rosy red faces pressed up to the glass, though most heads were bowed like there was a minute’s silence for some tragedy. The smartphone tragedy. I hopped on and began to warm up.

An hour later, my understaffed chariot of despair ground to a halt at my stop. “Great!”, I thought. “I’ll get home, and go for that run that I’ve been plotting all day.” Then two things hit me when I stepped off the train. The first was the cold wind, and the second was reality. And they were both inextricably linked. To make matters worse, the house was warm, everyone was pleased to see me, even the cats, though I suspect they thought I’d brought food, and brutally, dinner was ready. As I shuffled past the shoe stand, I’m sure I heard my trainers laughing at me.

I settled down, ate my dinner, caught up with everyone’s day, then… wallop, like a pro, before I knew it, I was upstairs, pulling on my running shorts. A couple of layers to compensate for the inconvenience of cold weather, my head torch and an iron will later, I was gone.

Within a mile I had left the last lampost of town behind. Leaving its circle of light can be both exhilarating and unnerving. As soon as I turned off the main road, I was completely alone. The only thing I had for company was a nearly-full moon. Struck by its beauty and brightness, it took me back to a long-lost memory, one that I was happy to revisit, given my current life predicament. I switched off my torch and navigated by moonlight alone.

My mind stretched back, searching, using the visual clue of the moon as its bait. There it was, perhaps ten years ago, when I was in a much rougher place, my lowest ebb perhaps. Sleepless nights, occasionally glimpsing the full winter moon out of the window. It seemed strangely soothing to be able to see a distant satellite, countless miles away, and although feeling alone, I knew I was one of many gazing up at it at that precise moment.

Fast forward a year or two, and my troubles at that time required an escape. And that’s where nature came in. This whole other world of places, living things, occurrences, some of which are unexplained. I didn’t get much help from people, so I stopped looking, happy to surround myself in the outdoors. Even when I wasn’t actually in it, I’d be reading about it. And so began the shaping of who I am today.

I remember walking home from town from the pub to the village where I once lived, no street lights, again guided by the full moon. The pavement-less road like a silver ribbon ahead of me.

Everything at that time felt magic. Over the years I’ve lost that magic as there aren’t as many new things to discover; or maybe I stopped searching. From seeing the moon again like that, it rekindled a forgotten fire inside of me, so perhaps it’s time to search again.

Movie time

On the train yesterday morning, I observed something beautiful. It was the simplicity of the fields whooshing by the window, with a low mist settling over them. It was like the landscape was made of layers of paper stretching back to the horizon, and each layer was separated by a sheet of tracing paper. The occasional tree would pop up out of the mist, showing its bare branches, looking like a silhouetted toilet brush trying to clean the sky. I’ve written before about my love/hate relationship with this time of the year, but as much as it’s sad to see the leaves go, it’s beautiful to see the colours of them as they change, and to appreciate it’s all part of a natural process that’s greater than anything us humans will accomplish.

I suppose ultimately, while gazing out of the window, watching all this go by, I was living in the present, in the moment. While the rest of the carriage were busy letting their smartphones make them dumb, I was getting a show for free. Some mornings, I can be the same though. I’ve consciously been looking at how much time I spend on my screen, and while it is quite low, it’s still shocking. Admittedly, it’s looking on Google to see how many appearances Denis Irwin made for Wolverhampton Wanderers, or checking to see when Coldplay last had a top ten single. What I try not to do is scroll perpetually, gazing at nothing. The phone owns me then. So it’s a case of read a book, or select a suitable soundtrack and watch the movie passing by, because by wrapping myself up in an online world, that’s exactly what real life will do – it will pass me by.

The Great Escape

It hasn’t escaped my notice that in recent weeks other than going for a run or an occasional Sunday afternoon stroll about town or somewhere, I haven’t properly ventured outdoors. I’m talking hills, mountains, trails and the like. Being consumed by all things life and work can cause this absence.

After watching my colleague effectively have a breakdown in recent weeks (I haven’t watched him like he’s an ant under a magnifying glass in the sun, slowly dying. I have held out a hand of support), I have been taking on more at work, questioning myself a lot outside of work and it’s led to this general feeling of being somewhat lost, like I was losing my identity. By mid-week I decided something was definitely going to happen: I was packing my bag and going walking on Saturday afternoon, and pretty much nothing was going to stop me.

Maybe some of you can relate if you have a partner, but I tend to feel selfish if I want to do something, even if it’s beneficial for my health or wellbeing. As I’ve written before, I am in a very supportive relationship nowadays where we both can (and do) talk openly about how we feel. So after a chat, I was told I was being daft for feeling selfish and she understood the importance of this event. Of course, I never planned to go alone, so my partner and I and kids in tow went off into the hills together.

The day was perfect: I got my outdoor time in, we all got quality time together, away from the confines of the house and screens, it wasn’t too strenuous for the younger legs, and it actually felt like an enjoyable, mutual adventure. I’d already planned ahead and decided where we could go, and things to show the kids to engage them a little.

It’s an interesting revelation that I can crave the outdoors like you would chocolate, and to feel that it is a way of resetting myself. Getting out there is stimulating and inspiring. If I ever feel despondent (which sometimes happens, more often than not without good reason), I have found being outdoors fills me with motivation to the point where I become almost carefree and annoyingly animated. Having younger minds around me and sharing my knowledge, daftness, and enthusiasm with is a major factor in this upward turn.

As if I ever needed proof that being outside was good for me, this has confirmed it.

To insanity, and beyond!

As the torch light flickered, the woodland track ahead of me flickered too, in and out of the darkness. I looked down at the map. My thumb placed strategically where I was. All around me I could hear absolutely nothing. The occasional rustle, but no cars, no people, no running water, nothing. I knew I was in last place. Bringing up the rear, alone in the woods in the dark, trying to make checkpoint 4. “About 6 miles to go”,  I said to myself, already knowing I was slowly grinding to a halt on anything more than a slight uphill slope. Barely five minutes ago, I had stumbled up a practically vertical climb where I had to stop at the top and sit down. The only positive from that was looking down across the expanse of darkness below over to the twinkling lights of a nearby town, wondering who was still awake, who was looking up at the hill wondering what that light was, moving around. A hundred thoughts went through my mind. Why was I struggling? Was I failing? Just what would Jesus do?? I thought about my support team, loved ones, friends, the charity I was running for. I dug deep – seriously deep. Alas, however, at 12.55am, after 47 miles, I had to retire from the race.

I have never not finished a race, either as a runner, tabber or cyclist. It was therefore unfathomable to me that despite my best efforts, I’d not made it to half way. Here, I could list all the reasons and theories why. To some they would sound like excuses, to others, legitimate reasons. This isn’t an investigation, a witch hunt of sorts though, so I’m going to look at it from the other end, which luckily, many of my fans have.

My initial thoughts were that I had not even made it half way. In reality I had almost ran two very hilly marathons back-to-back. Now, this year has been very strange, and a lot has happened to me. One of the big things that has happened is that I have found a little support network in unconventional places, and not necessarily from people already in my life. The wave of support from all these people surprised me and saved my mind from visiting some iffy places. One such message of support came from Krister, the subject of a blog post whom I met on a previous ultra marathon. He had a similar experience attempting a 100-mile race where he had to retire. He started by congratulating me on not finishing. Interesting perspective. His view was that it showed I had pushed through and shown strength in doing so. I really hadn’t thought of it like that. Very refreshing. A vital thought process for us all. The first port of call for most is feelings of failure.

The other positive from this event was my on-the-day support. Two of my oldest school friends came to support me from the word go. A friend whom I’ve ran and cycled a lot with over the years and fellow ultra marathoner also surprised me at the second checkpoint. Biggest of all though was my partner and her kids. The biggest change of all this year has been meeting someone who, for some reason, loves me unconditionally. She’s never far away and just radiates support despite the fact that these events I do are a tad insane. When I was approaching checkpoint one, which was at the top of a pretty meaty hill, I was, as most of the time, thinking about her and the kids. Then, all of a sudden, her eldest daughter sprang into view and leapt and bounded down the hill towards me. The first thing I did was ask her to pinch me to check I was actually there and not unconscious under some hedge a few miles back. Once at the top, my two friends were there, and the youngest daughter. I started to jog, and passed a photographer. When the photos became available, one in particular summed up the day and my life nowadays. There I was, in focus, running. Behind me were four people and a dog, rooting for me, supporting me and wanting me to succeed. The only person missing was my partner, but naturally, she was at the feed station getting food ready for me. I can honestly say, as she and the kids stayed with me until my 1am retirement, I would not have made it that far without her.

It was at checkpoint one that the phrase that forms the title of this blog first appeared. The eldest girl remarked that the colours on my vest of the charity I was running for made me look like Buzz Lightyear. So, as I stood up, after thirteen miles, to attempt the next stretch in hot conditions, I exclaimed, “To insanity, and beyond!” Not exactly a million miles away from the truth.

102 not out. I hope.

When I was at school, I hated tests, unless it was a spelling test. The dreaded T word (which luckily, I could spell). Tests are funny things. They either prove to you and others that you know your stuff, and give you a feeling of confidence, or they highlight a gap in knowledge or a weakness, potentially setting you back, depending on your mind set. This weekend, I face an interesting test.

Despite my recent injury diagnosis (with the blessing of my sports therapist, whom I guess will profit from it anyway), I have decided to push on with my intention to run an ultra marathon. It’s not just any ultra marathon though. It’s been two years in the planning, and is probably the furthest distance I will ever run in one hit. At 102 miles (164 kilometres), it’s not a short stroll. With over 12,000 feet of elevation, it’s not easy.

It will be a huge test, mentally and physically. I fully expect my injury to give me grief pretty early on, so I’ll need to deal with that and push through. As mentioned, it’s also my monthly mile tally in one 24 hour blast. 

This race in particular has been on my mind for two years. I can’t recall if I heard about it and just decided to go for it like I do, more often than not, or if I accidentally stumbled upon it. Either way, when I attempted to enter it, it was apparent that I needed to qualify, to prove I could go at least half the distance. Because of this, I began running ultra marathons, and thus discovered a lot about myself. I ran two in the first year, but allowed myself to talk myself out of entering the big one in the final two miles. My reason being, the way I felt then, after 53 miles, would I have the credentials to run another 50 on top of that? The echo chamber of my mind returned a unanimous no. So I had to start again.

One thing I did differently this year was entering the race before I ran my second ultra. That way, it was on my mind throughout the run, and talking myself out of it was not an option.

This week has been last bits of preparation. Marking up maps (the run is self navigated), looking at kit, reducing it down, looking at the route, working out pacing, ETAs at checkpoints – all exciting stuff. It’s also looking like I might have some support along the route, which believe me, on something like this, is a huge boost.  I also decided to run for a mental health charity, so it’s not just myself I’m running for.

I’m trying not to see this as the end of a chapter as I feel in many respects my ultra marathon days are numbered (one smaller one next year potentially), it just means a shift in goals again. It’s been a huge year, and I’ve achieved so much that I’m immensely proud of yet can scarcely believe still.

Thank you for reading my blog. Below are some links that you may be interested to read.

See you on the other side.




I just need a sunny day in the mountains

The title of this blog post is from a phrase that sprang to mind on Monday afternoon, whilst dealing with the unnecessary hardships of 21st century office working. It might be a good thing that I can’t remember the exact scenario that herded me into that particular direction, so it clearly hasn’t bothered me too much. The worst thing about situations like that is how they stay in your mind, and negativity sticks to them like mud on a wheel, getting bigger and bigger over time, catching more. So in my experience that day it was kind of a case of stepping away from the situation and just thinking where I’d rather be, and that, it turns out, was a sunny day on some mountain somewhere, not sat in an open plan office listening to buzz phrases like Tissue meeting and and watching the titanic clash of egos.

It’s funny. In my last blog, I wrote about how my life is changing. New goals, new plans, new hopes. I can categorically say that I’m happier now and more positive than I have been for years, which I think everyone would agree is a good thing. But there is a but (two buts there). All this positivity, and being surrounded by so much love and support from friends both near and far still cannot keep negative thoughts at bay. In fact, does it exacerbate them, as when you find yourself in a negative space, you all of a sudden feel guilty because you should be happy now, shouldn’t you? A couple of things have happened this week that have aggravated my insecurities. Yes, I have some, and so do you. We all do, and it’s healthy to admit it. Anyone who says they have none is probably insecure about admitting they have insecurities (in short, liars).

Being in a time of change for me, I’m very conscious of how I’ve dealt with challenges in the past and how they’ve affected my life. I’m not saying I dealt with them in completely the wrong way, but I think it’s now time to take a different path at the junction, trying different approaches instead of my default, go-to reaction to things. We can’t always be on an insanity loop, there’s got to be some personal development in there from every situation.

I find it difficult to fathom out how one day, I’m storming to a personal best time at the Paras 10 test march, then two days later, feeling negative about something that inevitably the cause of is out of my control. That’s part of modern living I guess, and dealing with people in an hectic workplace. It does emphasise my love of the outdoors, spending time with the like minded people whom I click with and understand. Those sunny days in the mountains can’t come soon enough.