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.

Time for change

Readers forgive me, for I have sinned. It’s been two months since my last blog post.

My last posts covered the events of my ultra marathon, as well as my third Fan Dance, an achievement that, to be quite honest, hasn’t sunk in yet. Before I know it I’ll be lining up for the next one. Did I just actually write that??! We’ll see.

Yes it’s been two months, and even before that it was a good six weeks since the previous one. It hasn’t been so much out of laziness, or lack of inspiration. It’s just that life took over. To say this year has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. Gladly now I can say things are looking more positive and hopefully moving in the right direction.

It’s just as well that it is now that I attempt to get my proverbial faeces together as it is that time of year where I am most sensitive to the changing of the season. It started this week. Monday morning, off the train, walking through the city streets, feeling the subtle drop in temperature in the breeze. Generally it has been a great summer. I have done a lot, achieved a lot as well. With my life changing, I haven’t yet settled into a new routine, so it’s been a summer of different days out. Another reason for this change of routine has been for the fact that I’m officially injured. A niggling pain that started back in April has got worse. I did mention it in my last post. I said then that I thought it was my hamstring. As shocking as it is, I was wrong. Now you’ve picked yourself up off the floor and revived, I can tell you that yesterday evening I visited a sports therapist and got a formal diagnosis, as well as acupuncture, and, well, mauled. The best news is that I can reasonably continue running with it, so thumbs up. I’m not particularly relishing the thought of running 102 miles with it in two weeks though. Still, let’s call it character building shall we?

This autumn will be a time of transition for me as I’m moving to a new town in a few weeks, so my outdoor routine will change too. Probably for the better I hope, being closer to an area of outstanding natural beauty. I can picture ideal winter walks, pub lunches, and everything in between. Reality might dictate rain, stepping in dog muck and soggy sandwiches.

In the meantime however, it’s prep time for a busy weekend this weekend. I have another Paras 10, where I’m hoping to go under the cut off time again, to complete three for the year (two Paras 10 and the Fan Dance). Retirement now perhaps? Then on Sunday, just what my body needs, a 10km road race. It’ll be a case of suck it and see as to what pace I go at, depending on the legs following Saturday. I’m not sure what state I’ll be in come Monday morning, but that’s what makes life interesting – the test.

I’ve seen hell

Maybe the title of this post is a tad over dramatic. Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet formulated properly how I feel about what I endured last weekend.

I completed my fourth ultra marathon. To date, it is the furthest distance I have ever ran, coming in at 64 miles (100km to those watching in black and white). I would usually enjoy these things, but this one…well, it was different. It wasn’t particularly hilly, just long. It follows the route of Britain’s oldest footpath – the Ridgeway. It runs from Berkshire to Wiltshire for nearly 90 miles, and we were to run 64 miles of those.

The day started at 3 am, after three hours sleep. My ultra buddy picked me up at 4 am and off we went. A farcical start meant we were delayed by an hour, starting at 8.30 am. The weather was warm, bright, dry and sunny. Despite the lack of sleep, I felt ok and was looking forward to the day ahead. The unfortunate thing about starting in a later wave is that you’re trying to run with the guys and girls who either intend to walk the whole thing or are splitting the run over two days of 50k each. Either way, there was a lot of weaving on unforgiving terrain and stop-starting.

In the past few weeks, some of my runs have been hindered by an aching pain just under my left bum cheek and thigh. I have concluded, in my totally professional opinion, that it’s my hamstring. Anyway, about 10km in to this 100km slog, guess what happened. The pain started. And it worsened. And worsened. It spread down my leg, into my foot and became a real problem, almost like a weakness. I got into the routine of stretching it at the pit stops, which were about every 12kms or so.

After pit stop two, some 32kms in, I had a rare moment where I nearly caved in. After leaving the pit stop, I passed a 32kms sign (they mark every, single, damn kilometre), and realising how uncomfortable I felt, how the hot midday sun was now beating down on me, how hard the chalk path surface was and realising I had 68kms still to go, I considered just knocking it on the head and going off for a sleep. I’m not sure where the resolve and resilience came from but I pushed on.

Just shy of the last pit stop before the half way mark, I caught up with a French guy called Antoine. We had a great walk mostly as I was knackered and he had twisted his ankle in an amusing incident at his aunt’s house. He has recently became a father, and being the same age as myself, it was easy to draw parallels with our lives. A truly animated, interesting, funny and endearing guy, we went our separate ways at the half way point and I didn’t see him again. For that hour or so, it was great to chat with someone like that, it helps distract you from the pain and the distance ahead. These events do hand you little gems like that that you end up cherishing more than any medal.

The first half was pretty hellish. The huge task ahead weighing me down, pushing hope away. The present very painful and completely unenjoyable. If there was a devil, he was behind me, driving me on by prodding me with his trident.

I decided I would attack the second half, so I took some pain relief at the half way point, had a quick wash, then hit the trail again, without eating, as I had enough on me to sustain me to the next pit stop. It’s so easy to hang around for an hour at base camp, but I was concious of my finishing time, so ten minutes was it, and I was on my way again.

The second half was as relentless as the first one. Some beautiful scenery though, especially as the sun was setting. The leg pain subsided, maybe due to the pain relief, or maybe because of the fact that everything was warmed up properly and stretchy. I found myself setting myself targets of covering 8km sections in an hour, then rewarding myself by texting replies to supportive friends and relatives. It seemed to work fine, and I even bypassed the last pit stop. With 10km to go, I had to get my head torch out to guide me. The chalk path in front of me looked an unbelievable bright white. The moon was up and in fact, without the torch, I could still see where I was running.

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As with most hellish experiences, hope gets dangled in front of you and then unceremoniously whipped away. Some mile or two away to the right I could see and hear the finish line, only to realise we were to be taken past it for a kilometre or two so we could pass through the Avebury stone circle. It was here that my GPS battery failed, thus losing all my data. That aside, I pushed on for the finish, becoming a two minute hero to the expectant crowds, ultimately waiting for more important people, then passing through the officials to receive the medal.

Once that’s done, you apologetically weave through people behind the finish line, then go back to being a nobody again. Unrecognised, despite the life changing experience you’ve just endured. Limp back to the car. Eat crisps and sleep. Wake up in the early dawn, thinking you’ve dreamt it all. Get home at 6 am feeling like you’ve crept in from a night out, but with something more than a hangover – the knowledge you’ve seen hell, ran through it, and survived to see another day.

 

Mission complete…for now

My journey into tabbing has been well covered in previous posts. Some five and a half years from being a runner and cyclist, I moved onto running with a backpack. It has helped shape who I am today and has allowed me to find strength and determination I never believed I possessed.

Also in other posts I have bored the socks off you with references to the Fan Dance. I will assume you are either (a) a regular reader and know what I’m talking about, or (b) intelligent enough to use a certain famous internet search engine (which now seems to be a verb) to find out more.

Anyway, after five years and two attempts, I was back in the Brecon Beacons on Friday night to register for my third attempt on Saturday. With many things going on in my life this year, my relevant Fan Dance training was practically zero compared to the previous attempts. I had two reasons to be quietly positive though. Firstly, I bought a better pair of boots last year and they were proving to be a winner. Secondly, at the end of April, I did a solo Fan Dance exercise and did it within the four hour time window, but with a slightly lighter backpack (19kgs).

Registration is an interesting arena. Mixtures of quiet competitors, mean looking ones, terrified ones, and worst of all, in my opinion, loud cocky ones. In the middle of it are the Directing Staff, giving out instructions, and organising everything in precise military fashion. One key thing is to listen carefully. Even then, you can go wrong.

The other purpose of registration is to get your Bergen weighed, checked and tagged. I got mine out of my car, weighed it with my trusty luggage scales and it came in at 16.5kgs, which is half a kilo over, which I can live with. So over to the weighing tent I go. Put it on theirs and it’s underweight. Shock. They weigh it in pounds, so it turned out it was a pound and a half under. So, back to the car to find some dead weight to go in it. I was tempted to nick a stone off a wall nearby, fully intending to replace it later, but thought better of it and used my rubber mallet instead. Back to the tent and who should be at the scales, but my Fan Dance nemesis. He remembered me from the Paras 10 in May and we had a pleasant chat. The bag was bang on. Relaxation time. It did make me think though that if my scales are wrong, my 19kg practice Fan Dance could have easily been 18kgs perhaps. Making me wonder if I could really do it in under four hours with 22kgs.

The campsite was fairly lively, which was great, but not when your alarm is set for 5 am. So, in with the earphones and off to sleep I went, and frustratingly woke up at 4.40. So I got up and started boiling water for breakfast. All admin sorted, and got to the start at 6.15.

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In a world of people getting offended by things, the race brief was not for the easily offended. A very frank, to the point speech about giving it your all and to politely start at the back if you weren’t going to go hard. I had no intention of bring intimidated and made my way to the front. The rapid march started just after 7 am and off we set. Finding myself in touch with the front runners and rapidly overtaking other marchers. Being careful not to blow out in the first two, and arguably most brutal, miles. Over the summit and down Jacob’s Ladder, I could see very little in front of me in terms of competition. Within one hour and forty minutes I was at the halfway point, refilling my water carrier and hitting the trail home. It’s always a great feeling knowing that you’re over half way. I set myself a seemingly unrealistic target of reaching the summit, some four miles away, within one hour of the half way. This four miles including the Roman Road, predominantly uphill and the infamous and punishingly brutal Jacob’s Ladder. I knew it was near impossible but I needed something to aim for. As unbelievable as it sounds, my right hand touched the very last rock to scramble over at the top of the ladder only one hour and ten minutes from the half way point. At that moment I realised my dream was possible. Just two miles down the mountain lay the red telephone box and the culmination of five years’ training, thought and possible obsession. I began to think how bittersweet it felt. On one hand, my dream of completing the march in four hours before I’m 40 very much assured, barring any disasters, yet on the other, the void of having potentially no dreams or further aspirations to motivate me coming up.

So it was head down, brain off, legs striding down the hill to finish in three hours and thirty-five minutes. To be told I was 9th overall and my time was elite, was very humbling, and the emotion of surprise support at the finish line made the experience even more special.

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Four days later, I’m still struggling to take it in. Today at lunchtime, I entered the next big target so the motivation continues. The Fan Dance still has a huge draw for me and I will definitely return in some capacity either supporting or competing. Self belief going through the roof, it’s hard not to wonder what else I’m made of.

The revenant

According to rumours, I’ve ran off into the mountains to live alone in a tent, explaining the radio silence for a few weeks. As much as I wish that was the truth, unfortunately for you and I, it is not.

While the events of the last few weeks are an in-depth blog subject by themselves, they are not for disclosure here, so I’ll spare you the boredom.

The main push to get motivated to write a post this week is that this coming weekend is the Fan Dance that I have written about and referenced many times. The prep leading up to it has not been brilliant to be perfectly honest. No specific training since the Paras 10 at the end of May, and the running has suffered too of late. But it’s too late now to change the course of fate. The only advantage I can see is that my legs will be sufficiently rested going into the event, especially after the ultra marathon at the beginning of May.

So for the third time in three attempts, I go into the Fan Dance facing adversity with plenty of personal stuff on my mind, some good, some bad. I’m definitely going to draw on the good and the bad for motivation throughout, and leave the bad stuff on the mountain. It can keep it, and the next rainfall can wash it out to sea.

Door to the river

Let’s have a show of hands. How many of us would love to give it all up and go and live the dream? I’m guessing if you’re reading this blog, your dream will involve at least something outdoor related. Or perhaps you’re already doing it. If that is the case, kindly tell us how you did it, or sit in the corner smugly while the rest of us despair.

It’s always bloody rotten going back to work after a long weekend. This week has been no different. The weekend was fairly normal, just doing normal stuff, ParkRun, outdoor time, and I surprised myself with a ten mile run on Monday.

I can’t help but think (again) however as I climb onto the early morning branded and mute commuter-packed dream dampener that can only move in two directions, that there’s more I feel I could and should be doing. Meetings alienate me. Conversation with my superiors leave me wary and terrified. As my friend commented about my last blog, and mentioned synchronicity, it’s very apt here to quote from the Police song of the same name;

Every single meeting with his so-called superior is a humiliating kick in the crotch

And man, is my crotch bruised. I exaggerate. My job isn’t humiliating at all. It could easily be if I let it, and saw it as my only reason for existing. You’re only hurt by the things you love and care about the most. I guess I just find the world a little confusing.

So this whole idea of giving up normal life to do something else comes in and out like the tide, getting higher each time. Having a life of contradictory feelings added to the general fear of cutting the supply cord sends me into an insanity loop. There’s the part of me that would happily backpack, who then gets beaten up and left for dead by the part of me that wants to get back on the property ladder.

In many ways my life is changing. I feel I’m either on the cusp of greatness or a complete breakdown. It feels like I’m sat in a deep woodland, and in the distance I can hear a roaring river but have no idea where it is. Wandering about aimlessly in a dreamlike state proves fruitless, and yet somewhere there’s a door in the trees that leads to the river and who knows where.

Who are you?

Seven days ago, I proclaimed that your only certainty, in most difficult events, was pain. In fact, on the ultra marathon a couple of weeks ago, myself and Krister came up with a mantra about holding it together, checking you were still ok, and it was basically along the lines of counting what you still have left when you’re at your lowest ebb and what, or whom, were your ‘friends’. We concluded that when your friend strength leaves you,  you still have humour. When humour leaves you, you still have pain. When pain leaves you, there’s only death left! Such was our black humour that day.

Of course, the motto of Pain is your only certainty was borrowed from a t shirt for the Paras 10 event, which I took part in at the weekend. My third one, but my first one at the Colchester barracks.

In a nutshell, the Paras 10 is a 10 mile loaded (16kgs Bergen, plus food and water) speed march over mixed terrain. In Colchester’s case, it is mainly fields, woodland tracks, two rivers and a swamp. And there is machine gun fire too (blanks, I hope) and smoke grenades. Recruits will be put through this test, amongst others in order to make selection and enter the coveted paratroop regiment. The selection time is 1 hour 50 minutes, and at Catterick, the other Paras 10 venue, I passed in 2017, scraping in at 1 hour 49 and 19 secs! Seat of your pants time.

I didn’t know what to expect on Saturday, but went into it feeling positive and buoyed by my Fan Dance mock run a few weeks ago. It suddenly got warm at the start and a few people started looking nervous. Nothing to be nervous about, just get going and get the job done, even if it is a slower time than you’d like, it’s still a huge achievement.

So off we went and I quickly set into a steady pace, running comfortably with the bag weight less than what I’ve trained with. My boots felt great, everything perfect. Not unusual for running with my military boots, I started to get a dull muscular ache up the front of both shins. I’ve had this many times before so just ran through it, as painful as it is. After about three miles, there’s the first river crossing. About a mile previous, the dull ache in my right shin suddenly became a sharp, concerning pain, like I’d been scratched or stung. This continued up to the water crossing. Maybe it was the shock of the cold water, but the pain quickly disappeared afterwards. The route continued, winding its way through woodland and open fields, through another river, and along some tracks. At one point, I was running with a guy who I recognised and I knew exactly where I knew him from. He is one of the ex-SAS DS Members on the Fan Dance. Every time I have done it, he has been a bit of a nemesis to me. Telling me off for addressing him as mate, not staff. The other time was when he managed to get me to doubt myself and planted the seed in my mind, thus scuppering my sub four hour attempt. So as you can see, he’s played a big part in the story. So I mentioned this to him, to which he revealed his true nature. Unsurprisingly he’s a great guy and has a front to manage. For an older guy too he was churning the miles out. I pulled away from him and although he overtook me later at a drinks station, I finished five minutes ahead of him. He congratulated me at the end. Not sure he’ll be the same person I’ll see on July 6th.

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So, years ago, when I was training for my last Fan Dance, I found myself doing hill repeats with my Bergen at 5.30 am. I used to to 5 bursts. I’d normally be knackered after three. One morning, I found myself really struggling half way up and as if I was a ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by someone else, I uttered the words, “What are you f*king made of??”. I repeated it, and bang, up a gear and off I went. That has been my self talk mantra ever since, though I rarely need to use it, and always check if there are impressionable children nearby. On Saturday, on a bit of the course which doesn’t need describing due to its name of “The Hill”, I broke into a walk. The sun was beating down on the dusty trail and made it blindingly bright. I could see guys I’d fought so hard to catch up to, still running and pulling away. So I did it again. I clenched my teeth and said, “Who are you?” It was this probing query into my own identity that suddenly had me running again. Who indeed am I? Was I saying to myself, “don’t you remember who you are and what you’ve achieved in the past?”. Either way, it is another mantra.

Two hours later, after finishing 38th in a field of 600 and beating the selection time by 10 minutes, one of my best friends and I began our journey home. “What do you want to listen to, mate?” I asked. “Dunno”, came the reply, “any old crap”. So I hit the shuffle button on my phone and it began playing The Who, Who Are You.