Gratitude – in memory

Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.

Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. Through mutual friends, news for to me about volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.

See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it.  Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when he organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).

A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.

First ultra

Previously I threatened to bore everyone stupid with a day-by-day account of my week in the mountains. Fortunately, I completely forgot that inbetween that post and the next planned post, I took part in my first trail ultra marathon.

For my first attempt, I chose the second longest distance available for the weekend, which was 45 miles. It was a beautifully scenic out and back course, with the middle section being the hills that make up the highest ground of my home county. The whole trail followed a long county-wide path that carries the county’s name, so it was quite special to compete on home soil.

It was as much about fact finding as it was about running, having never ran that distance before, it was all unknown – distance, elevation, nutrition – so it was a kind of suck it and see exercise.

It generally went well, I ate to plan, little, often and regularly. Kept hydrated, walked the hills, ran the flat bits. Inevitably, the pace dropped somewhat in the last third. By that point however I had acquired a running pal who was running a shorter distance than me and had fresher legs, but insisted in staying with me. It was nice to have the company, and being honest, he probably indirectly pushed me to run many sections towards the end that I may not have attempted on my own owing to fatigue. On the other hand, as we were chatting most of the time, I wasn’t keeping an eye on the time and missed a few vital feeding slots. As I continued to slow, I instructed him a few times to carry on without me, although he refused, and we finished in tandem, crossing the finish line together.

The worst part, as with most endurance runs, was the end. Dealing with the need to lie down, but knowing that stretching and keeping moving is best. Feeling ravenous but feeling sick at the thought and sight of most foods. Being completely knackered and wanting to sleep but being unable to due to excess sugar consumed in energy foods, muscle fasciculations, and the buzzing of adrenaline still pumping. It’s probably the only time I would happily take a sleeping tablet.

I did manage to finish 12th, although at times I thought I was last. I have another slightly longer, yet more hilly, ultra in a month’s time. I couldn’t bring myself to think about running again until yesterday. Let’s hope I can put what I’ve learned this weekend to good use for the next ultra.

With ultra runs, especially trail ones, the main element for me is enjoyment. Enjoy it, complete it, make friends, learn from it, and come back again, and again.

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.