Planning to escape

It’s so easy to establish a routine. Especially if you have a day job. I find that my evening routine changes through the seasons. Through summer it is spent outdoors unsurprisingly, sometimes at the allotment. But through winter, it’s tough. I say tough but what I mean is it’s so easy to tune into the crap that fills the TV schedule these days. I mean, seriously, how many dance-off, or ‘reality’ programmes is there room for?! Not wanting to turn into a couch potato, I try to do constructive things. As new year comes around, I feel like we are well over half way through winter, so I start looking hopefully forward to spring. Just this morning I spotted green shoots coming through the soil.

Nothing fills me with more hope than planning things for the warmer, brighter days. Setting out a plan for the allotment, choosing seeds, where to plant everything, gives a strange remedy.

Sitting on the train this week, I have been flicking through a mountain walks guide for Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons to do in the spring and summer. This gives me the greatest pleasure. I love planning a walk from a map of an area that I am not overly familiar with. I read the contours like it’s a novel, and picture the mountains, valleys and every knoll and sinkhole, imagining what it all looks like. Inevitably, when I get there I’m completely wrong. It’s funny because just like when I read a book, I make the film of it in my own head as I’m going through it, and as in the case of The Hobbit, I am perpetually disappointed when the real thing is released. The version in my head as a ten-year-old was much more magical and charming and Bilbo Baggins was not the tit from the mobile phone adverts. It can be the same with my walks. I always picture them taking place on a warm, sunny, spring day but in my experience, especially in Snowdonia, I’ve frozen my manhood off and got wet through to my Dennis the Menace boxer shorts. Unlike the film’s though, I’m never disappointed. I think this is one of the reasons I can sit and look over a map for hours, and the feeling of escape is probably why I used to draw so many of my own when I was very young. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings works by Tolkien to me was a kind of escape that I envied. I still do. Tolkien was a walking enthusiast and spent the mammoth part of his life trying to escape his reality. Drawing maps of distant fantasy lands, elven characters and Norse-like languages. To say he was away with the fairies was an understatement, but what a place to be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m switching the box on to watch somebody eat a live scorpion, whilst blindfolded, surrounded by dancing midgets. Fascinating.

Happy New Year!

I want to start this post by wishing you all a very Happy New Year, and carrying on with the positive hope that you all achieve what you are hoping for.

It’s that time of year where everything can feel brand new, like the reset button has been pressed and we all have another go at it to be better. The gym car park this morning was full of people with that fitness or weight loss intention!

As I make my way to work this morning, there is a strange other worldly, almost zombie-like stream of people wandering about, trying to remember what they do for a job, vaguely knowing they’re in the right place after ten days off. The Christmas lights still adorn the lamposts, the shops still have festive window displays, and littered around are hints at what may have happened with new year revellers – a bit of tinsel blowing across the street, smashed glasses and pieces of discarded clothes.

New year can also be a time of reflection. For me it was looking back at everything that I achieved in 2018, not just physically, but mentally as well. Following this comes the thinking of how it can be built on, continuing the momentum. I’ve found in my life that major changes can come from small adjustments made over time. Like when I started reducing the sugar I had in my tea, slowly until I began having it without. It’s better than just going cold turkey. That will be the same for me this year, making small tweaks to what I did last year, making everything part of the routine.

Small changes does still mean you can dream big though. They give you the confidence and impetus to push on through to get what you’re looking for. One thing I try to remember though is to stay as humble as I can throughout, instead of bulldozing my way towards a goal, treading on other people along the way.

So if you’re reading this, maybe on your way back to work, have a think. What are your aims for 2019? I wish you the very best!

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 emptiness, 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 (Claus?!) 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.

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.

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.