Looking around me

Nowadays I have the luxury of not having to drive to work, so I get forty minutes at each end of every day to myself (kind of) on the train. This has many advantages, that for the time being, I’m well and truly er, taking advantage of.

The first thing is I can walk to the station so I can listen to some podcasts or music and enjoy being out and about in all the seasons. Not using the car every day and being able to look around me means I can appreciate the seasons changing, and the minute happenings that nature gives, which most of us miss because we’re rushing about mainly. For example, most mornings I see blackbirds and robins. These are notoriously territorial birds, so every one that I see along the way shows the different patches of each bird. Blackbirds’ have an average territory of around 100 square metres, hence why we see so many of them. Autumn is when territories are renewed so there is a lot of activity (and noise).

When I was about ten, I was off school for a few days with an illness. Confined to the house, bored of the daytime TV and before the internet, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw all of the birds flitting about across our garden and the neighbours’ gardens. Being interested in maps (as I still am) I got my writing pad and drew a bird’s eye view of the gardens. I then drew a line in a different colour for each bird that I saw and where it went. Very quickly, a colourful chart appeared. I think techy kids these days would call it a heatmap or something like that. Either way, I learned about territories, as well as nesting preferences for each bird.

The second major advantage to this commute is the amount of reading, writing and sketching I can get done on the train. I try not to absorb myself too much into what I’m doing on public transport, like I try not to walk along gawping at my phone when I’m out and about. Part of it is because I’m far too inquisitive and like to look about me and people watch. The other thing is everyone is glued to their phone! Head down, gawping. An atomic bomb could go off away on the horizon, and they’d miss it, only to see it flash up on their phones a minute or two later. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I can easily see a terrorist attack happening on public transport all too easily in plain view of all the victims, who saw nothing of it coming, only their ‘smart’ devices. Before this turns into a typical rant of mine, I’ll steer course toward something a little more positive. In the mornings, the station where I get on is the end of the line, so it gradually fills up the closer it gets to the city, so I have the pick of most of the seats. I always choose a window seat that looks out across the open countryside. Again, I’m usually the only one looking at it as everyone else is scrolling away like zombies. The low winter sun this time of year casting long shadows over frost covered fields is still one sight I can’t resist gawping at. And it’s not on my phone.

If any of you are reading this blog, ironically, on a train, or bus, or somewhere else that you could be appreciating better, it won’t hurt my feelings if you put the phone away. Well it’s the end of the post anyway!

Operation: Middle-age

Now I’m the dark side of 35, I find myself looking back more often on my athletic exploits of the past. Mulling over Park Run personal bests of 2015, marathon personal bests, or just general physical well-being. It’s fairly subjective, but I would say that I am approaching middle-age. Assuming I’ll live to at least 70 and anything after that being a bonus, I am in the middle-age region. Not saying I am middle-aged, but it’s not far away. As I am recognising this, the more I am planning to do something about it.

The main bulk of this one-man crusade is pushing my comfort zone, physically and mentally. I’m not sure which one is harder, yet they seem to come hand in hand. That 6am alarm telling me I’ve got to go to the track and run sub 6 minute 30 miles never gets any easier mentally, and that’s before I’m at the track doing it, feeling quite unwell. For me, fitness is a huge part of it, but I understand that the term comfort zone is probably more a mental thing.

All of this, I presume, is part of this stupid human condition. A complex cauldron of fears and feelings. I still feel like I’m 18 and I’m probably as guilty as the rest about struggling to accept the aging process, acting like I’ll live to 100 but still expecting to arrive there in pristine condition.

Back in the summer, I decided to start pushing myself again, like I used to, back in the old days when I felt more motivated to do it. Out went mediocre plodding runs and in came hill sprints, recovery runs, tempo runs and interval sprinting sessions. It had structure and it reignited my interest in being fit and staying motivated. The greater part was, it didn’t come from outside of me. My motivation was myself and the phrases going through my head pushing me on weren’t from songs or books, they were my own.

It has worked too. I ran a personal best over the half marathon distance last Sunday, and comfortably too.

I think everyone has a comfort zone and to permanently dwell within it means a slow death. A famous song says:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

For some it will be the dread of getting up and sprinting around a track. For others, getting on a bus. For many, spending an afternoon with their mother-in-law. But the idea is that pushing yourself, or fearing something can actually make you acutely aware of just being and makes you feel alive.

In recent years, I’ve looked around me at my peers and observed their mindsets, habits, outlooks and general appearances. I’ve seen mates’ beer guts at 27 years old, had conversations about receding hairlines at 31, listened to my friends talk about ‘slowing down’ at 33. I’ve also listened to people twenty years older than myself and paid attention to their advice, life choices, fears and realities. I am planning to grow old gracefully, but be in the best shape mentally and physically as I can while doing it. I’m gathering a dossier if you like, of information to future proof aspects of my own life, having a general plan to keep going for as long as I can, as I am now, on this integer. Living to 100 would be great, provided I can still laugh, go for a walk, and do 20 push ups. This is unrealistic though. There’s a lot to be said about living fast and dying young without the whole fading away business.

One thing that pushes my mental barriers and comfort zones is being alone in the mountains, pitted against nature. More than once I have been in situations that I felt out of my depth, uncomfortable, and stretched to the limit. When things turn on their head like that, and the adrenaline is pumping, the fall out afterwards is massive. The feeling of accomplishment, knowing you’ve survived, and feeling that your comfort zone got a lot bigger. It’s essential to feel like this these days, especially in the face of nature. I’m never going to expand any comfort zones on the sofa watching TV. It’s interesting how our ancestors (who would laugh hysterically at us now) would navigate in the outdoor, in all conditions no problem at all as it was their livelihood, yet it is out of most of our comfort zones.

Let’s do a little experiment. There are no wrong or right answers, so nobody should feel ashamed of sharing anything, but it would be great to gather together what you guys and girls last did that pushed your comfort zone, and what is it in your lives that keep you fresh? Share!

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.

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.

The warmth of the sun

Steeped in folklore and adventurous tales, there is a valley. Overlooking this valley are hills and mountains, with lakes high up in the clouds and steep, winding paths. It was this valley where I decided to spend my last full day in the mountains.

As usual, the walk was well planned, maps studied, satellite images printed off and compared to the map. Having never been to this area before, I was apprehensive. As soon as I set off though, I could sense something special here. The first leg of the path took me to a long lake, higher up than the valley floor. It was surrounded on three sides by what felt like a rock-made amphitheatre. It almost did feel like a huge room. The path around the lake was calm, peaceful and sheltered. It was a shame to leave it behind, as I made my way up and over one of the sides, to be greeted by another lake much higher up. Looking down on all of this was the mountain summit I was here to climb.

I’ve always thought how walking, running or cycling hills teaches you a lot about yourself, and these hills were no different. You can draw endless analogies between life and moving uphill. Far too many to cover here. It’s true I think, that the outdoors provide pathways to answers to any number of life’s problems and questions. Maybe it’s the simple act of being outside, back to basics, facing the elements. My first day in the mountains this week cut some of my problems down to size, I can tell you that much.

Once at the top, the descent was along a gently sloping path, high up, but sheltered from the wind and by this point of the afternoon warmed up by the sun, radiating from the rocks. It felt very spring like and quite serene. It will have to be covered in a further post but I did have a strange experience up on this path. One of two strange experiences to recount from walking in the last twelve months I dare say.

It was the perfect end to the week and it left me feeling hungry for more, so it won’t be long until I’m back in the clouds once more.

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.

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.