Carry that weight

I’m going to start by introducing you to a term that features heavily in my life. TAB. This is a British military term, and is an acronym for Tactical Advance into Battle in case you were wondering. Put more plainly, it is moving as fast and efficiently as you can across mixed terrain, usually a long distance, carrying your kit. Depending on which regiment you are in depends on what is required of you. In some outfits, a long distance forced march (another way of saying TAB) is part of an annual fitness test, kind of like the bleep test, but more fun. The regiment you are in also determines how much weight you should be able to carry but is usually between 15-25 kilogrammes.

This type of exercise has been a part of my life for nearly five years and has affected me positively in so many ways. I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve always admired the camaraderie, fitness regimes and discipline.

I got in to this tabbing lark accidentally. Back in 2013, I was doing long Saturday shifts at the printers where I worked. A guy would walk through twice a day and in a few weeks the conversation ramped up from “Alright?”. “Yeah, you?”. To running, via cycling (I used to cycle to work, so did he). One day, one fateful day, he asked me if I knew any decent cross country running routes in the area. Luckily for him, I did. I shared a route with him which he wasn’t too sure about, so I suggested we run it together one day. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m running on my own down the canal near my old house and who should be coming the other way, but my mate. We stopped and chatted and I noticed he was carrying a backpack. Of course I asked him what it was for, and after correcting me over the name (military backpacks are called a Bergen), he said it was for an event called the Fan Dance. I asked him what it was and he just said “Google it”. Before I could get home and indeed search online for it, we parted. No sooner were we twenty paces apart did he turn around and shout “Don’t tell anyone about this, ok?” Now I was intrigued. It must be good, this Fan Dance malarkey.

When home, once I sifted through visually pleasing images of burlesque dancers, I came to a website explaining the Fan Dance. It is a civilian version of the UK-based SAS regiment’s much fabled fitness test in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 24 kilometres (15 miles in proper money) over the highest peak in southern Britain, Pen Y Fan, TWICE. Easy? Try doing it in military boots, carrying around 25kgs on your back and a 5kg rifle. The civilian version omits the rifle. You have four hours in which to complete it.

To be honest, I looked at it and felt sorry for my mate that he had to do it. I saw it as something out of my gamut as a road runner and something I’d never be able to do. How could someone slim like me carry 25kgs all that way? No chance. My mate played rugby, was ten years older than me and was pretty fit.

Nonetheless, I had to bear his secret too, and assist in training runs. We did one where he had his Bergen at 12kgs and I was just me (clean fatigue). It was embarrassing. I kept having to wait for him while I leapt and bounded like a rutting stag over gates and fields, he struggled along. At the end he suggested that I get a Bergen next time to even it out. Like a tit, I did. I had a rucksack big enough for 12kgs, so I weighed out 12kgs of garden soil into a bin liner and off we went. It was hard, but interesting all the same. Then the mind games started:

“You should sign up for the Fan Dance too.”

For anyone who knows me, especially in this capacity, one thing I rarely miss is the opportunity to take somebody up on a challenge, or to disprove doubters. It didn’t take long for me to find my way to the entry form online.

I was in.

In my next blog, I’ll cover more of the gory details of training, the event and what’s happened since. There will be blood!

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.

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!

Back to it

Following on from my article last week on the subject of essentially losing sight of my passion and purpose, this week, I can gladly say, is about getting it back again.

The weekend started well; a meal out with some of my best friends, where the subject turned to running…and running fast. One of the guys runs the weekly ParkRun event that I also run. The other three don’t run at all. Anyway, he’s been getting much quicker in the last few weeks and is doing well, whereas I have been stalling in the same pit for probably three months now. I understand it to be a hangover from the two ultra marathons I did in May and June respectively. I didn’t realise that it would take so long for my legs to recover, but it has. Around six weeks ago, I began to do the unthinkable – I started to work recovery runs into my training, and you know, I think it’s paying off. It’s definitely given my training a lot more structure. For the first time in years I’m figuring out a plan for each individual run. For the past two years I’ve just ran five times a week, and that’s it. Just lacing up my trainers and going out, sometimes having a distance in mind, other times not. And that was it, quantity over quality. That’s not cutting it anymore. So every run is like a science experiment. It’s fun! Anyway, after a couple of beers, I was talking about trying to run much faster on Saturday morning, and talking about why I used to be so much quicker (four years ago). Turns out, I used to get up in time, have breakfast, a coffee, get down to the park and, deep breath, warm up. I do none of that these days. Get up, turn up, run, struggle, go home.

So in prep terms, I turned back the clock four years and was sensible about it and I finished in 7th place with a time only 24 seconds off my time from when I was 32. I’m going to try again on Saturday. A stronger coffee may be needed though…

Sunday started with a training run over the half marathon distance, and went according to plan, although it made mincemeat out of my legs. Sunday afternoon however was spent walking around a local open space in the wonderful autumn sunshine.

Not too far away are some hills, crisscrossed by paths that pass through grassland, woodland and valleys. It’s an area I’ve visited a few times but I’m not overly familiar with it and its hidden charms and peculiarities. With map in hand, I tried to make sense of where I was going. It’s difficult in places like that because there are official paths marked on the map, yet on the ground there are double that in unofficial paths made by locals and tourists alike over the years. This is mainly because the area is open access giving people the right to roam wherever they please. This generally has been respected I feel, although I have seen examples where it has not. So the map went away, the camera came out and not long after, a pub was found. A quick half pint, then back out to explore. Seeing the leaves coming down in the sunshine was worth the trip, as well as glimpsing the open countryside away to the south through the occasional gap in the trees. In contrast, away to the north revealed tower blocks and minimal greenery. It reminded me of two things. Firstly, my art teacher at middle school who drew a picture to demonstrate perspective. The picture showed a straight road ahead, banked by trees on either side and away over the hill, office blocks and church steeples. It was, he said, an illustration of his drive to home from work from the countryside to urban. The second thing that I thought of was my own predicament at the moment, straddled between the countryside and the city, juggling how and where I spend my spare time.

Autumn is becoming one of my favourite seasons. From going from dreading it up to about ten years ago, to not dreading it now has been the result of one thing really – just getting out and immersing myself in it. Whatever the activity. Sunny autumnal days are probably more beautiful than summer days. Not sure if they can top spring though, that’s my number one still.

Losing my touch

The other morning, I was in the kitchen and I heard a familiar, yet somehow, strange sound. I knew that I knew it, but couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. It eventually dawned on me that it was a Nuthatch singing. It was one of those moments where you feel both happy and sad at the same time. Happy because it’s such a lovely bird, and in spring this year, I learned that the very sound I could hear most days was indeed the Nuthatch, and then sad because it became apparent that I had very nearly forgotten what the sound was. A likely reason for this is that it is autumn and for a few weeks, the dawn chorus returns as birds mark their territories out for winter. Its not as profound and intense as spring, but it’s still a spectacle all the same. Another reason, which is the main one for feeling sad, is that perhaps I am not in touch with nature as much as I used to be. I live in a town these days, not far from a busy, noisy road, and on most of my training runs, I rarely manage to get out of suburbia. Even somewhere semi-rural, you can be amongst quiet lanes and busy fields and meadows within minutes. To obtain that, I need to drive 15 minutes. Some mornings, dark and dreary ones in the mire of winter, a robin can be heard singing easily and hour before dawn usually because his proximity to an unnecessarily bright street light.

Now, I am a self-confessed outdoor and nature junky. In case you hadn’t guessed. And this revelation this week to me is a warning sign. Living in a town and commuting to a city every day is killing my outdoor hunger. I’m enjoying my job at the moment, and I’m not in a position to move house either, so it means one thing; making a concerted effort to get out more. Obviously, autumn is here, winter is around the corner also so daylight is becoming scarce. It’s this time of year that the struggle against the elements becomes more commonplace. I saw a good quote / meme the other day that basically said something like:

It’s forecast rain for the weekend?

Then we hike in the rain!

I love the sentiment! Getting out no matter what. Most of my outdoor time is spent training, not really immersing. It’s so easy to take things like slow walks with my camera for granted, but it’s these slower, quieter outdoor experiences that allow us to see more, hear more and appreciate more. I couldn’t live in a city, however, walking through them, it’s hard not to be inspired by them in some way. I think I will never be a city man though. Too fast, and usually for nothing real. I much rather enjoy exploring towns and cities, with a camera or notebook.

As soon as I publish this post, I’ll be planning my weekend walk.

Disconnect

You know you’re in for a good few days away when your backpack doesn’t fit out of the door properly.

That is what really happened.

Last week, being in-between jobs, with a bit of time on my hands, I wondered what I could do to fill the void. It didn’t take long at all to figure it out. Practically as soon as I resigned from my previous job, my map was out on the floor and I was measuring up. I probably knew the solution before the problem even arose. I was going to head to the hills and mountains.

I knew it was going to be a different trip to anything like I’ve done before. In front of me lay two days, and a few peaks as yet unexplored by me. In addition to this was the idea of wild camping near one of the summits at the half way point of the trip.

First things first. I’d spent the larger part of the last three months umm-ing and aah-ing like someone with haemorrhoids over what to get – a one man tent, or a bivouac. I opted for a tent after much deliberation, reasoning that full cover was better in the long run for potential all year round use. Then the fun began – deciding which tent to get. The internet can be a minefield to the indecisive and those on a budget. Searches threw up a few suitable candidates, but I had to weigh up suitability with cost and, yes, weight. With the impending trip, a fast decision was needed, and make one, I did. I am not one for dropping in brand names, or writing an ostentatious review of kit I use, so I will say that Brand X’s one man tent ticked all the boxes. Plus, I managed to find it on a reputable website for a reduced price. Too good to be true? I hoped not. Anyway, it turned up, I tested it on the lawn and was impressed with its ease of erection (I remember those days), weight and build quality. Just enough room inside for me and Ingrid (my Bergen). A bivouac would not be sufficiently spacious enough for Ingrid and I and she would have to go outside. If it rained, it could be a depressingly damp day two. In addition to the tent, I needed to find a smaller cooking system as my usual stove is large, awkward and heavy. The best way to go in my opinion is a gas cylinder with a screw in burner system. In case this fails, I have my trusty multi fuel burner, which brews up tea in a frightening time, usually at the expense of eyebrows, fingertips, and sometimes, tent.

All of this deliberation was conducted at the same time as I was planning the actual route. I must confess, I got summit greed. I counted all of the summits I could see in the given area, and measured the distance between them as the crow flies to give me a rough idea. From this I could plan a route. My idea was to avoid main footpaths and cut across open ground as much as I could, the prime reason being to test navigation skills. The final route came out at over thirty miles.

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The funny thing about planning a route from a map is that you read the landscape from the contours (the swirling lines, indicating rises and falls in the land) to give you a picture of what it will look like. In my experience, what I perceive as steep on a map is actually really steep in reality. The other thing gained from certain maps is their ability to tell you what the ground will be like underfoot. In my two days of this trip, the majority of the ground was damp and in places, boggy. The drawback of straying away from the main paths unfortunately. In one or two places, my whole boot (which are military boots, high up my leg) disappeared into the mire. This wouldn’t normally be a problem as bodyweight is generally on my side, except when my backpack weighs 24kgs and I could easily sink like a stone.

I could write a whole blog entry about the trip, and probably will, but here I will cover briefly the sleeping arrangements. There was a farce surrounding the tent (my life is peppered with farces), which I will have to go into at some point, but the pitch up and night spent up in those hills was near perfect. The only downside was a cloudy sky. After walking 18 miles on day one, setting up the tent and getting the (safe) stove cooking away couldn’t come quickly enough. So as my boil-in-the-bag pasta and meatballs was er…boiling in the bag, I swiftly got the tent up. Warm meal down, it was into the sleeping bag. I read a couple of pages of my book and…zonk…I was gone. I did have to get up in the wee small hours for a wee small wee, and witnessed blanket fog slipping into the valley below me like marsh mallow.

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There was no wind as such so it was really still and quiet, so all I could hear was the occasional bleating of sheep. No cars, no people, no mobile phones. Nothing. It was two days of mental clarity from a modern life aspect. I just thought about problems arising in the trip, hour by hour, that’s all that’s real for that given time. Being an extremely remote and quiet part of the world, I glimpsed one farmer on a quad bike over the two days. The only words that passed my lips were words said to myself, usually in wonder at something or cursing as I nearly got sucked into another mire.

This definitely needs another post. Too much to cover to do it justice. If you do get the chance, go and try wilderness wild camping. It is a must I feel in this him we call modern life.

Leap of faith

My life is changing. I have a new job. Regular readers will remember well my blog meltdown a few weeks ago where I typed the immortal works “I hate my job”. Since then I’ve been through a few job applications, a few interviews, a lot of self belief and what do you know, some fools have decided I’m the best of the bunch to fill their vacancy. Only time will tell how it will turn out, but the main thing is, everything feels positive so far and I haven’t felt like this for years. No matter how cheerful I become, and how full my life feels, there’s always this snagging thought slithering through it all like a venomous snake in the grass, like a permanent Sunday afternoon, going “yoohoo, yes, yoohoo, it’s me, your job. You know you can’t outrun me, so make the most of this outdoors malarkey cos tomorrow, your arse is mine”. So I am looking forward, for a while at least, to not dreading Monday like I used to when I had PE with Mr Raisin (yes, that was really his name) in his pink shellsuit, screaming at us, going all red in the face because we couldn’t quite grasp the concept of basketball at the age of 10.

No, from now on, Mondays will be spent riding a glitzy unicorn called Derek all the way to work and bloody well enjoying it from start to finish.

But.

There’s always a big, oversized, pulsating but. And this is it. While regular readers may remember my meltdown, they would be wise to remember one of the positives I somehow managed to extract from my misery-inducing job. It was the fact that my job and the handful of inept lunatics I had to answer to actually drove me to spending more time outdoors, planning outdoor trips and daydreaming about great walks, trails, runs and mountains. What if I enjoy my new job so much that I forget all of that. Gulp. I can’t see it happening personally. But anything is possible. I am at a dangerous age where I could just give it all up for a less energetic lifestyle and after work drinks. Never say never. But I hope not.

In-between my two jobs, I will be taking off for two days on my most ambitious mountain trip yet. A two day walk, ticking off some six (I think) mountain summits, and about 27 miles, with a night wild camping in the middle.

Not that I need many excuses, but I’ve simply had to buy some new kit for the trip. A ultra light one man tent being on the list, a new pair of boots (this was a perfectly legitimate purchase as the old pair finally gave up the ghost on the last trip after NINE years service), single stove pots and pans, and best of all, some new maps.

With the route all planned, the last major task for the trip was to pack all of my gear into my backpack. My backpack is a 66 litre military Bergen which has been on quite a few sorties with me, but even at 66 litres, it heaved under the strain of the kit and supplies. The tent had to be attached on the outside, as well as the rollmat. Everything else has to be packed carefully depending on weight, size and most importantly, access. Objects that you are less likely to need can go at the bottom, working to the top for the more frequently used bits, like extra layers. The outer pockets contain things that I will definitely need, like food, waterproof, and hat. Some of the more luxury items can stay behind usually. I was hoping to take my camera to get some landscape shots, which is still possible, just that I’ll have to carry it outside of the bergen. To take decent landscape shots, it’s handy to have a tripod. Mine is far too heavy, so will definitely have to stay behind.

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After a pretty much miserable day at work today, despite the finish post being in sight, I found work being on my mind on the way home in an unacceptable way (more the people I have to work with than the job), and the only thing I found in my mind that lowered the pulse rate and brought more Zen-like calm was a mental image of myself, compass in hand, walking away from it all in to the vast all consuming beauty of the mountains. And there, movers and shakers, is where you will find me. Don’t wait up.