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.

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.