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!

Bloody foreigners

A couple of weeks ago, an email popped in to my inbox, entitled ‘Volunteer day’. Curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. It was an invite to a corporate volunteer day at a local nature reserve. This is right up my proverbial autobahn so I registered my interest and as luck would have it, I was accepted. The day was to be spent on an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, and was not specific about what work we would be doing. I imagined it would be putting up bird nesting boxes, or if I was very lucky, standing in the lake up to my nicky-nacky-noos in rubber waders clearing it of unwanted filth and algae.

A few years back, I really looked into changing career to conservation work. I chatted to a few people in that sector and the general feeling was the same – stay in the job you’re doing and volunteer whenever you can. The reason for this is that in order to be paid a decent wage to do it, you more or less have to be desk-bound, carrying out site surveys and risk assessments, while all of the hands-on, mucky, fun bits get done by volunteers.

When the day arrived, we were all gathered together and given a brief overview of the organisation, the reserve itself and the work required. We were then put to work raking up grass cuttings in the wildflower meadow on the edge of the lake. No waders in sight. The purpose of this raking is so the nitrogen rich grass cuttings don’t lie around enriching the soil. Enriched soil isn’t as good as it sounds. It is a breeding ground for common, more dominant plants like netyles, dock leaves and dandelion. Impoverished soil is the stuff that the more rarer, interesting and diverse flowers love, and they will thrive.

A good example of wildflowers taking over is a hundred years ago. In November 1918 when the armistice was signed, bringing (at that point) a ceasefire on the Western Front in World War 1, the landscape was completely destroyed. Shell holes pocked the farmland, and some villages and roads were completely wiped off the face of the Earth. The four years of shelling, marching and trekking in the mud had churned the ground over and over again. By the following spring, these Flanders Fields were bright red. The red of the poppy. Poppies, you see, love impoverished soil, and the seeds will lay dormant for years waiting for exactly the right moment to germinate. In 1919, the conditions were perfect.

Well, we raked up all the grass cuttings until mid-afternoon while someone got on and burned them. We then moved on to the next task in hand. Between the meadow and the lake, there is an area usually called a scrape which is where the wading birds can potter about and is usually quite shallow. At low water, it was fairly evident that all was not right. What was usually muddy with occasional vegetation, but it looked more like a lawn out there. It turns out it is a plant from New Zealand, called Crassula, or New Zealand pygmy weed. Like most invasive species, it found its way over here because some idiotic explorer thought it looked ‘pretty’ and wanted to spruce his rockery up. A century later and it’s everywhere because firstly, it doesn’t belong here and secondly, it has no predators or parasites here to control it. This carpet of foreign trouble was in the process of being scraped up and destroyed while we were there, using a digger. All equipment used, including boots, tyres, buckets etc needs to be jetwashed immediately after use so none of the plant can spread elsewhere. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We were put to work cutting down willow trees that have gone beserk and taken over on the fringes of the water. We all looked like beavers, scurrying across the scrape dragging huge branches behind us that were three times the height of us. These all went on the fire, that I swear some people were becoming obsessed/enchanted by, almost a primeval urge, a calling from our ancestors. Man’s obsession with fire still reigns despite the new age of smart devices, money and fast cars.

Crassula is only one offender on the unwanted (and costly) foreign invaders list. Here is a list, in no order, of what we are facing in the UK. To any international readers, it would be great to hear your lists too!

  • Signal crayfish (no, it doesn’t improve 4g reception)
  • Himalayan balsam
  • Rhododendron
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Pirri-pirri burr
  • Floating pennywort
  • Brown rat
  • Mink
  • Grey Squirrel

There are countless others that belong on this list, which can be covered on another post. Whilst some of these are nice to look at, it is at the expense of our own flaura and fauna, and ultimately, our ecosystem, which is already at crisis point as well as practically every country on the planet. Restoring a natural ecosystem should be high on every environmental agency’s list. I just hope it’s not too late.

Thanks Benny

I feel sometimes in the developed world we take a lot of things for granted. Sure, everyday things like running water, sanitation and a largely accessible health service are probably what spring to mind first. Some things are the result of an individual’s idea, a war, or a similar struggle somewhere and can easily be forgotten as generations come and go or not even questioned as to why we have certain privileges. I think that global events like the two world wars will not be forgotten in a hurry although the sacrifices made by millions on either side, as well as civilians, all in the name of the freedom, it can be argued, could be seen as taken for granted nowadays. A prime example is the right to vote. The percentage turnouts for recent general elections have been low, yet a hundred years ago, women were willing to die or go to prison for that privilege.

All of these are massive, world-changing events, but there are seemingly smaller things in our lives that we owe to people who have sacrificed something, or stood up and fought for something not just for them but for everyone. I bet you’re wondering firstly, where this is going, and secondly, what the hell it has to do with the outdoors. Worry not, I’m getting back on track.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re an outdoors lover, or nature enthusiast then you’ll surely be (if you’re in the UK) able to access green, open countryside where you can escape and enjoy your interests at will. You can do this most of the year and even enjoy a picnic in the hills, or by a mountain lake. But a hundred years ago, you would have ran into big trouble attempting it. That all changed, and here’s how.

On 24th April 1932, three groups of walkers (one group as large as 400) set out to walk across open countyside on Kinder Scout, the highest peak in England’s Peak District. They were led by Benny Rothman, a Socialist, and Conservationist. A man after my own heart. Today, this very same route is walked each weekend in the summer by walkers in their drives, however the 1932 excursion was in order to highlight the fact that walkers weren’t allowed to do it. The three groups walked Kinder Scout and along the way were involved in a few altercations, mainly with gamekeepers. On the return journey, a handful were arrested, not for the act of trespassing, but for the violent nature of the altercations, and some served jail terms.

What followed was a constant campaign, spearheaded by the Ramblers’ Association. It paved the way for the National Parks Access and Countryside Act of 1949, which addressed the access issue, as well as essentially setting up National Parks in England. Eventually, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was set up, defining open access land and rights of way for everybody. If you’ve ever heard of the ‘right to roam’ in England and Wales, this is it. We all have the right to access open land (defined on a map) and remain as long as we wish in the pursuit of leisure, as long as respect for both the land and other users is adhered to.

Because of this, we are pretty lucky in the UK to have this in place. When compared to other countries, we are privileged. For a mountain lover like me, I am indebted to the campaigns that have gone before me to give me, essentially, an escape, a way of life, a reason to think beyond the realms of capitalism and gadgets. So thanks Benny Rothman, we all owe you one.

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.

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.

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.

cof

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.

IMG_20180828_155423_628

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.