Sorry, I’m still here.

It’s been a month since my last post. I was getting sick of the hundreds of emails flooding in every day, begging me to write another world-righting, life-saving, pity-inducing blog post, that I felt I needed to resurface. Then I woke up.

In one month, look at what’s happened. It sounds strange to say but none of this C-word stuff affected me until a fortnight ago when the marathon I have been training towards was cancelled. My running motivation has spiralled somewhat since then. I do sincerely hope that anyone reading this is coping well, both mentally (huge aspect of this) as well as physically.

I myself am working from home and have been for two weeks, and I’m actually thriving. The grind of getting up early to go into the city to a job (or colleagues?) that I’m not particularly thrilled about is no longer there, I’m working in my own space, dealing with people over the phone, email and video calls. Very manageable.

Other than the inconvenience of, for want of a better word, looters, grabbing everything under the sun from the shops and having to work from home, my life has changed very little. I’m naturally a lone wolf anyway. I run alone (not really out of choice, but more on that later), I generally keep in touch with friends via technology, as busy lives dictate, and I’m not what you’d call a social butterfly, so being told to stay indoors, go out alone, don’t mix, is actually OK with me. Really, it is. I do love a good chinwag and I do love having friends, but I prefer to be in control of the stream of contact.

As aforementioned I train alone. Historically, it has been like this for years mainly because I’ve given up trying to recruit training partners. I suffer from what I call, at the moment, reverse elitism. It’s a theory I have about the way I am treated generally. It goes a little like this: people assume that because I am quicker than most, I am therefore too fast for them to run with me, therefore I will get bored/make fun of them/shout at them/make them feel like shit. So I am usually a victim of a kind of reverse snobbery. It’s almost like it is thought that it’s not worth even bothering with me because I’ll just turn around, sneer, look said person up and down, kick dirt in their face and run off (at a easy five-and-a-half minute mile pace of course). This is disappointing as nothing could be further from the truth. I openly accept and encourage runners of all abilities, speeds, ages, whatever and enjoy sharing a hobby with them. The only elitism or attitude of any description you’ll get from me is if someone is too cocky, or elitist themselves, or is pretty much an arsehole, then you’ll see the not so welcoming side of me. In my experience, I’ve ran with people who have basically turned round and shouted at me, when I’m just trying to encourage them. I wonder if it’s more them than me (self conciousness). In turn, it’s made me very self conciousness about my attitude if and when I run with someone. I’m so used to having my head bitten off for trying to motivate (“Yes it’s alright for you though isn’t it???! You’re a good runner!!!”) that I don’t really feel comfortable giving encouragement anymore. It is a shame but I guess that’s how it is. It’s easier to give encouragement to complete strangers as I pass them at my local ParkRun.

As an ambassador of outdoor things, it suddenly dawned on me last weekend that I have done absolutely nothing to encourage people around me to stay active as best they can during this period. So I took to social media and set up my own virtual alternative to the ParkRun, with the aim of giving us all a sense of community and achievement on a Saturday morning. Fingers crossed it has the desired effect.

As a tip if anyone is struggling mentally during this strange time we are now living through; structure your day as best as you can. Stick to a routine, no matter what it is. Follow the best guidance you can (health authorities), and if you can, avoid social media and too much news. Stay positive, have faith.

Take the stage…

I often mention my job in my posts, but only in passing, usually in the context of it being a nine to five office-based one. I have also probably mentioned how I am becoming less and less engaged with it the older I get and the more engaged I become with my other life, namely the outdoors, fitness, this blog, you lot and general well-being. I used to think that one of the few talents I possessed was in managing to hide it from the people who pay my salary and generally bluff my way through each day. Unfortunately this is not the case. My current job is, by a bloody long mile, the most corporate I have ever had to circulate in. Without dragging my political beliefs into this (a sure way to gamble with respect) it’s not an environment I enjoy or thrive in and has accelerated my disinterest, and combined with a seemingly never-ending plethora of unnecessary meetings, I am well and truly adrift. Put simply, it is not my arena.

A few weeks ago, I had an ‘end of year review’ where supposedly anonymous colleagues tell a supposedly neutral colleague confidentially what they think of me. The neutral colleague then has to break the news. It may come as a shock to the reader that I emerged as a generally all-round smashing chap, except for one thing – I don’t speak enough in the pointless meetings I have to attend. What a flawed character I am. The shame. Anyway, so my line manager (horrid term), decided that, instead of respecting my nature for how it is, I should pick a subject of my choice and be forced to deliver a talk on it at one of these hot-air meetings. I could have told her to stick it, dug my heels in, kicked up a stink – but no. I’m rarely one to back away from an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone, so I accepted. In honesty, mostly when I push my comfort zones it’s physical, so this would be interesting; me in front of a good few people, both in the room and on video call.

I saw this as an opportunity in more ways than one. My first thought was to talk about something that I feel informed about, and enthusiastic enough about so as to come across as engaging and confident. My second thought was to talk about something that would spark conversation and shed light on a me that they didn’t know. I have to be careful there because a bit advice I tend to give out is to keep a little bit of yourself back, just for you, that no one knows and can touch, so the extent to which I was willing to go to had to be carefully thought out. I definitely didn’t want to talk about myself for twenty minutes, prattling on about marathon training and heart rate zones, so I decided to write about well-being in the workplace. Trying to avoid another rant here, but I thought about writing about little (big) tips (or hacks as they’re known amongst millennials and dickheads) for people who either don’t want to discuss their problems openly (despite what the company says is possible) or whose struggles are daily and reaching out to helplines all the time is not feasible. I focused on three things that I hoped would be beneficial tips to people; breathing techniques, screen breaks and exercise. I won’t bore you with the details, but whilst I was out of my comfort zone in one sense, and feeling like I was rambling at a room of blank faces, the reality, it turns out, is that I came across as very articulate, knowledgeable and confident. More surprising was the feedback that my voice and demeanor was very relaxing – who knew. I always thought I had a voice like a goose farting in the fog. And now, just when I thought I had pushed myself and got the experience out of the way for good, my apparent success has bit me in my derriere. I have been asked to deliver the talk again – twice. Could be the start of a short career as an unmotivational squeaker, coming to a village hall near you soon.

Sod it. It’s an adventure.

My Friday morning started as it usually does – get into dress-down attire for work, get on the train and thank my lucky stars it’s the end of the working week. This one was somewhat different however. The normal exchanges with my partner on text were not our usual style. She floated the idea of going away for the weekend. “Great”, I thought. It sounded brilliant. One thing niggled me though, and that was the fact we hadn’t booked anywhere. Camping probably wasn’t a good idea, given the cold weather and approaching storm front, and judging by the places were were looking at going to, hotels were a no-no. Our chat tennis went on for an hour or so, even when I was at my desk, getting the death stare from my boss. Eventually the day ended, and we had a shortlist of places to go, just nowhere to stay. So over dinner we raided a well known accommodation site and found a nice looking solution.

We had a low budget, and didn’t really fancy occupying a room in a house, so our search rapidly reduced and left us with only a few options. Guided by the photographs, I suggested a tin shepherd’s hut on the side of a hill overlooking a valley. Granted, the photos looked superb – clear blue sky, sunny day, greenery and scenery. So we went for it, and booked it. In correspondence with us, the vendor said something along the lines of, “So, you’ve definitely checked all of the information and you’re happy with it?”. Of course we had…not. It turned out, this summery retreat offered no electricity, a compost toilet, and an outside shower. And it was February. And there was going to be one hell of a storm.

There are many times that test couples. This potentially could have been one of them, and it was definitely an indicator as to if we were on the same page. Luckily, we looked at eachother as if to say, “Sod it, it’s an adventure. Let’s do it.” We arrived in fairly pleasant weather, no sign of the impending storm, and had lunch in the local pub. We found our digs and settled in. Just one room – a cosy-looking sofa bed, sink, gas cooker and a wood burning stove. First things first, the stove was lit. Candles lit as it gradually got darker. A few cups of tea, quick dinner and a game of chess later, it was dark outside yet still only 6pm. This is how it must have felt for Victorian farmers. It was perfect to switch off, go off grid and just spend uninterrupted time together, away from people and technology.

As the wind and rain battered us from outside, inside was a warm haven, sheltered from it all. Constantly feeding the fire meant that after a few hours I was down to shorts and t-shirt and we had to open a window. The only brave venturing outdoor we had to do was to use the toilet, which was a composting loo – an advanced hole in the ground effectively.

We had planned to get up in the morning and go for a walk into the hills. This was looking less and less likely as the night wore on with the wind whistling around us and the rain lashing the windows. It actually sounded like we were in a car wash.

Morning came and just like the way we decided to stay in an electricity-deprived tin shed, we decided to head out anyway. An hour later we were battling just to get out of the car with the wind pummeling us from each direction. The local sheep, unfazed by such conditions, seemed to look on amused. All in, we managed a three mile trek up to the ridgeline and back. The high wind on top, combined with horizontal hail, effectively forced us to retreat the way we’d came. The real fun began when we had to get changed in my five-door hatchback. Never before has my yearning for a campervan been so strong. The warm buzz from being exposed to the elements then slowly drying out and thawing lasted for a couple of hours, helped by a Sunday roast in the pub. It’s funny, it’s probably on a par with the buzz I get from a really good run.

I think it’s safe to say, we’re not ones for backing away from adventure. Bring it on.

Lifted.

Everyone needs a break every now and then, be it from a hectic life, a stressful situation or just a multitude of negative feelings. These breaks can sometimes be deliberate, like a Sunday afternoon walk, a meal out or a spa weekend being rubbed up and down by a bloke with an indeterminate sexual preference. Or, sometimes it’s accidental, like a few posts back where I wrote about walks that unexpectedly turn out to be great. An accidental break came for me on Sunday. I’ve had, quite honestly, a testing few weeks, the last two being particularly full on for many reasons and finding myself flung out in the face of adversity. Luckily, for the most part I have stayed true to my beliefs but I’m also very aware of the long-term implications. It’s worth pointing out that this break was more of a break from a spiralling mental state than a day trip down to Weston-Super-Mare.

On Sunday morning, in the grip of the washing machine that has been my life for a while, I had my first running event of the year; the test to see if my fitness has held up over winter. The early signs weren’t good as I was in pain during the warm up, so just decided to do it and see how I ended up, and accept it. Before the race I spotted a friend of mine through the crowd, and was amazed to see he was talking to a guy who works in my office, whom I only know by sight. To put it in perspective, there’s a thousand people at my place of work, so it is a small world indeed. During a brief chat on the start line, my friend turned to my distant colleague and said, “This is the guy I tell you about who runs in the military fatigues!”. My reputation is spreading.

This particular race is cross country, very muddy, and has a very challenging start, with steep hills. Feeling in pain from the starting gun, by mile five I’d consigned myself to the fact that I was just going to have to suck it up and go with it and just float along and see where I ended up. I had an energy gel, moved slightly over to the left to allow runners to overtake and plodded on. Shortly after, my mate from the start caught me up. We had a chat, comparing ailments and apparent plummeting fitness levels, whilst being overtaken by the race’s fastest female (who, incidentally, had a chest infection). I’m not entirely sure what happened after that, maybe it was the energy gel working, or maybe it was a second wind, but either way, I found myself tightening the screw, dropping my friend and overtaking all the people who had sailed past me. Long, boring story short, I finished with a narrow personal best and finished 42nd out of nearly 500 people.

It could have been negative feelings and thoughts pushing me to dig deeper, or it could have been sheer determination. I know that after a couple of weeks floating in a wilderness of self-doubt, ever-lowering self-esteem and wobbling life compass, it was just what I needed to lift me up and help me feel useful and purposeful again. Knowing what I have ahead of me this week also, feeling like I’m standing in the shadow of a huge cliff wondering if I have the necessary kit to get me up and over it yet again. Remains to be seen.

Hope on the hill

This winter seems to be dragging on. I think it just feels that way because it has been absolutely featureless – no snow, only a couple of cold days, maybe three frosty mornings – just mild, wet, rubbish. It was on one of these mild, wet, rubbish days that we went walking on a pretty prominent hill near our new home. This hill, from a distance, would probably fall into the featureless category. It almost looks man made, like a hill out of a children’s fantasy novel. No dramatic summit, precipices, or ridgelines, just…a….hill.

It was a Saturday, grey, windy, and full of pub lunch we set off on a four mile round trip around a hill that I know little about. Having visited it only three times before (and having got lost up there once), it was going to be an interesting afternoon. Straight away, the path looked different. “Oh”, I said, “I think they’ve built that house there since I was last here”. It may have been so, but it made little difference – we were still on the wrong path. Being an aspiring mountain leader, on a mole hill in comparison, I set us off on the wrong path, and left my mobile phone in the car. But I DID have an OS map, and bloody well knew how to read it. Minor glitch over with, I planned us a new route from the map and a splendid, if not wet and windblown, day was had by all. As I am experienced in these matters, I timed it perfectly so as we made the last bit of our descent, it got dark. This of course is a lie. It was a sheer fluke. And before you wonder, I did have a torch.

Now I’ve successfully criticised my skills and abilities, the English weather (Note the use of “English” as I know my Welsh friends actually experience winter), and berated the poor hill itself, I feel some redemption is required. The hill somehow captured my imagination again. That tingle of excitement about somewhere new, especially given that it’s on my doorstep. I could, and have continued to, imagine all the adventures I could have up there – trail runs, mountain biking, wild camping, tabbing, walking. Also entwined within this is knowing I can become intimately involved with it, learning its every copse, wall, meadow. Maybe some of you get this with a place in your locality. It becomes yours. You give your own names to places. What you once thought of as featureless, becomes abundant in details of interest. Seeing the seasonal changes, being familiar with the wildlife. It’s the stuff to fill notebooks with, becoming the Gilbert White of your locality. These things, if done properly, and with love and care, become vital to both ourselves and our communities in the future.

A mere thought of all this is enough to chase the slightest pathetic glimpse of stress back to where it came from. I hope you find hope wherever you are and it gives you what it gives me.

Ten years gone

I shall start this first post of the year by wishing both of my readers a very happy New Year. I hope you enjoy reading this one. I can guarantee it’s the best thing I’ve written this decade so far.

Christmas and New Year were very enjoyable and different to what I’m used to, but in a good way. In the midst of all the festivities also was a house move, which, truth be told, is still ongoing. Towards the Christmas break however, I could, and still can, feel my general confidence level plummeting. There are probably many reasons as to why this is happening. One thought might be that so much happened to me last year, mostly in the summer, as well as achieving so many of my goals. By the end of September, I had had my first ever DNF and was almost definitely at the mercy of a potentially long-term injury. Two very unusual events for me as I’ve lived a seemingly charmed life in my physical activity existence. Being injured has held me back a little and I do feel out of shape, feeling reluctant to push myself like I used to.

My new tradition (second year) is competing in RED (Run Every Day) January. I headed out for run number two and felt up against it so decided to push it a bit and by the time I got home, I felt like I used to years ago when I first started to run seriously – fairly sweaty, suitably pushed and most importantly, buoyant on endorphins. It left me very satisfied and feeling raring to go for my next session, so I am able to see the positive in my fitness slipping.

With last year being pinned down by three ultra marathons, a Fan Dance and two Paras 10 races, I feel 2020 should be a return after a three year absence to road marathons to rediscover why I run to begin with. In true me style, I have set myself the goal of running a marathon in April in under three hours and fifteen minutes. I think currently, I’m in the four hour mark, and my personal best from my peak is three hours twenty-something, so I have a lot of work to do. Symbolically, the marathon will be exactly ten years since my first marathon, so there will be plenty of parallels to be drawn on many fronts. It’s definitely been ten years of complete change so I will more than likely be quite reflective throughout the whole thing.

I am hoping the marathon will be exactly what I need to put me somewhere near halfway to feeling like I’m actually good at something.

Great days are all in the mind.

Last Sunday was a strange day. We went out for a walk, and it was cold, wet, muddy and flooded – but it was perfect.

It’s funny, when I imagine a “perfect walk”, even in winter, I picture clear blue skies, the sun shining and nice, easy paths to tread. But I have been on walks like that and they haven’t always lived up to the expectation. I’ve found over the years that the walks – and indeed, days out – can only be measured by the way they make you feel. If you’re not quite with me, let me elaborate.

Say, for example, you’ve had a difficult, stressful week and all you want to do on Sunday afternoon is put your boots on and go for a long ramble somewhere. You decide to do a route you’ve never done before and you see from the map that it passes through a quaint little chocolate box village, takes in a wooded hillside, and a meandering river. Your imagination – rightly so – goes into hyperdrive, concocting images of it all, and building expectation. You probably imagine perfect weather and even imagine the way it will make you feel, lifting your spirits after the five day slog you’ve endured that week. Then, reality. It’s muddy, cloudy, cold. The village is ugly, the pub is closed due to hygiene issues in the kitchen, and the woods aren’t exactly enchanting because some of the trees have been felled. Disappointment reigns supreme. Or it could be that your state of mind spoilt the day for you. If I am distracted in my mind, I fail to take things in properly, failing to be mindful.

Well, Sunday came around. It had been a difficult week, and I knew that being outdoors would go some way to compensate for it. Saturday had been spent largely going round the shops, so it was high time to get back to nature. I got up really early and went for a long run, got back and showered. Then, the unimaginable happened – the kids got up, unprompted. At first I thought they were sleep walking, but it turned out they were genuinely awake. After a little persuasion, they were dressed for a day outdoors. I already had a route in mind, and off we drove.

Having kids around me these days has changed me in many ways, especially my experiences in the outdoors. For years I have accumulated knowledge of all sorts of bits about nature, geography, folklore and the like, and have imparted it on people, but there is nothing better than sharing it with kids. I have the heart of a kid (it’s in a jar on the mantelpiece) so I can easily get lost in a game or story that I, or we, are weaving. It has also led me to re-discover my love of pooh sticks.

Once parked and dressed appropriately for the potential conditions, we set off. I got my phone out and did some geocache hunting, which proved successful. The sun came out in the woods, and despite the mud underfoot, we had a great time. By the time we got to the halfway point, the rain had set in. I knew a couple of places we could go to get out of the rain and enjoy a hot drink and something to eat. It quickly dawned on me however that these places were seasonal and therefore, bloody shut. There was a tearoom down the hill in the village, and as we drew closer, it was apparent that the light was on. Imagine our joy when the sign on the door said, “Open”. Stepping inside, we were met by a member of staff telling us they were about to close. I laughed out loud. Of course they were, we were destined to be soaked. Then she said, “But you’ve just made it in time. What can I get you?” Unbelievable. So we enjoyed a pot of tea (hot chocolate for the young ones), cake and a view out of the window of the rain, feeling safe, snug and warm. All this guaranteed the second half of the walk quite magical. The path followed the river, which in places had flooded the path so we had to (hilariously) get creative. It was getting dark, it was raining, it was muddy – and we were all still laughing and stopping to look at things. Eventually we returned to the car after what should have been, by description, a miserable day out, but turned out to be one of the best walks I’ve had.

It just proves it can be down completely to company, conversation and state of mind. These, in combination, can save.