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.

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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.

Hold on tight to your dreams

Life catches up with all of us. Dreams become forgotten memories if you are not careful enough to water them and tend to them. My mind these days is like a perpetual carousel of ideas and trains of thought, very much as though I am spinning plates. So far I haven’t smashed any…though it’s been a close call a few times. One day, my priority is my training, the next day it is revision, the day after it’s planning a trip. Add in places to be, things to pay (‘orrible grown up stuff) and it’s no wonder things get unceremoniously shoved down the crack of life.

It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I haven’t spent nearly half as much time out in the mountains this summer as I’d like to. So I decided to plan a day walk. Pencil to paper, I came up with a pretty full on 10 mile slog which included five mountains. Now, let me just clarify what a mountain is by British definition before any international readers get the idea that I’m some sort of athlete. In Britain, as decided by the Queen (I call her Lizzie as that is how she signs off her Christmas card to me), a mountain is defined as any area of high ground, grassy or rocky of a decent area, with an elevation of 600 metres or more. By this definition, I planned five, although really, it was only two, but they are so close together, you could count them as one. So, let’s say five anyway.

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The whole experience was magnificent. The weather perfect, if a tad too hot. In the space of five hours I saw four different species of birds of prey. One was effortlessly soaring on the thermals over the summit of the highest peak. It will be one of those days that will live long in the memory. That is what it’s generally all about, and up until now I thought all it was about was putting one leg in, one leg out, in, out, in, out and pretty much shaking it all about.

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On Sunday evening, whilst enjoying my dinner al fresco, I couldn’t help but overhear my neighbour speaking very loudly to his daughter on the phone. This guy is mid fifties perhaps, leaves the house well before me each morning and is seemingly in a prestigious job. When we do speak, it’s often about my latest exercise escapades, for which he calls me the “mad man”, which then turns to all the things he used to do. He was obviously very active until work took over. He’s a living warning to me about the pursuit of “success” and what it means in later years. Anyway, the gist of this loud conversation was that he is going away to spend a few days in a log cabin by a Loch in Scotland. In his words, he said it was time he started making some memories before he’s too old, and it’s been work, work, work for too long. I’m pleased he’s making choices like that, as he’s spot on.

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Back on the mountains, the day was filled with pleasant chats with other walkers, busy footpaths followed by deserted ones, views to kill for and just that satisfying knowledge that you’re here. If there’s nothing else at all, you’re here. It’s great to be in the present, seeing it, appreciating it and living it. It’s the way I want to be in all aspects of life. Back to plate spinning again.

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Alone, yet not alone

Three months ago I spent a week in the mountains. The weather, as documented in blogs at the time, was bad on the first day, getting gradually better as the week progressed. The experience I am about to relay relates to the final walk of the week. The original blog can be read here:

https://wordpress.com/post/myoutdoorlivingroom.blog/274

If you haven’t followed the link and read it, in a nutshell, the weather was perfect, warm and bright and was a great day.

Now. I am fairly open minded. This applies to anything really, existence of God, life in space, ghosts, and whether Elton John wears a wig. Whilst I am open minded, experiencing things that I can’t explain disturb me just a little. When I was younger I saw a shape move across the top of the stairs. There were also times when loud bangs would be heard upstairs while we’re all in the living room. There were probably other examples during my life when odd things have happened. The latest thing is what happened to me on this mountain.

It was on the last leg. I’d climbed out of the valley onto the highest point of the walk. On the saddle of the ridge, it was very windy. So I took advantage of a drystone wall to shelter behind to check the map. Bearings found, off I set on a gently sloping path, a terrace, clinging to the eastern slopes of the mountain. Luckily, it was out of the wind, baked by the sun, and covered in heather and other vegetation. The first half of the slow descent was fairly lonely, just a couple of girls coming down from the summit, crossing my path on their way straight down to the valley floor. A five minute chat and we were all on our way again. I have to say, mountain chats are by far the best ones. I just know I’m going to have some utterly positive and uplifting conversations with complete strangers. I guess it’s because it’s so easy. It’s clear that the fact you’re all up there on a weekday shows you all have a mutual love of the outdoors and uplands.

After my new friends had left me, I stopped occasionally and turned to watch them disappearing down the hillside until after twenty minutes or so, I could no longer make them out. I continued my slow descent until a strange uneasy feeling came over me. I can only describe it as just feeling a little nervous, on edge (pun intended), and hurried. This feeling was then followed by what I first thought was the wind whistling through a buckle or toggle on my bag, but there was no wind. It then became apparent that it was a humming sound. A tuneful female humming sound. I checked about me and was definitely alone. It was like the sound of a mother soothing a child to sleep.

It was strangely soothing to hear after the initial uneasiness. It probably only lasted for twenty or thirty seconds in the first instance. A couple of minutes later I heard it again. The next hour was spent in a very technical descent which required concentration, yet I found myself listening carefully for the lady’s voice again. It never came and I reached the car, heading out of the valley, occasionally looking at the path and mountain in the rear view mirror.