One life – live it.

One life – live it. Four simple words. Clichéd perhaps? Over-used perhaps?

The first time I saw this as a slogan was as a sticker on a Land Rover. Since then, I’ve seen it hundreds of times as stickers on Land Rovers. Does this mean that in order to live this one life to the full, you need to be behind the wheel of a Land Rover? I think not. I get that Land Rover drivers might go off-roading, therefore getting their kicks, however, most of the ones I’ve seen carrying these stickers are in immaculate showroom condition. The nearest they’ve been to off-road was when they had two wheels on the pavement outside the post office for five minutes.

I imagine it could be a status symbol, or a way of generating envy. I get it when I’m crawling home after work in very slow traffic, and in the ever-so-slightly quicker moving lane there is a camper van with a surfboard strapped to the roof. It’s a symbol to me that says, wow, they’re living their life. In reality, they might not be able to surf, or even, underneath the cover, it could be an ironing board. One life – iron.

Perception vs reality can be a venomous trap. Judging people’s lives and means. What they choose to show you is only the tip of the iceberg. Smoke and mirrors. That’s a big mistake. An even bigger mistake is to take that perception and let it make you feel sh*t about your own life.

On Sunday I competed in a trail run half marathon. On any day it is tough enough, but this year, in 29 degree heat, it was nearly impossible. The field was strung out, and I overtook many runners and in turn was overtaken myself. The instinct to fight back, latch onto their heels and keep with them kicks in, yet you realise you haven’t got much left in the tank and a with few miles to go the mere promise of finishing isn’t guaranteed, so I find I have to carry on as I’m going and just run my own race. Adjusting my gameplan and tactics from comparing myself to another runner is ludicrous. Those runners are probably fitter, or train harder than me. Hitching on to someone faster and fitter is only going to end one way – in a big fat DNF.

Incidentally, in another trail run I was running a few weeks ago, I ran for a stretch with a guy who had an Ironman tattoo on his leg. I see these tattoos a lot. At every event more or less and to me it means they are fit triathletes who have completed a World Triathlon event, as the tattoo bears the event’s logo. I think to myself that these guys and girls are serious, the ultimate endurance athletes and are forces to be reckoned with. At this said event, for the first time, I directly asked the guy a question about the tattoo, and I posed it to him that this event would be easy, given his World Series Triathlon pedigree, to which he responded, “Oh that? I did a sprint (short distance) triathlon last year, I haven’t done a full distance one. I didn’t finish either, I ran out of juice on the final leg”. I was somewhat amused as I’ve been a fool all these years, measuring myself against people, when not all of them are completely truthful. I did appreciate his honesty however.

Like I said, run your own race. What you measure yourself against could be smoke and mirrors. People will show you only what they want you to see, in all aspects of life. That bumper sticker should say One life – yours. Live it – your way.

Modern toss (and the art of Shinrin-yoku)

Despite feeling exhausted on Sunday morning when I woke up (a couple of hours before my alarm), I knew I needed to get out. I set out running just before six, heading off in the bright sunshine, heading in one direction – out of town.

It may be a modern human condition or something deep within us from generations gone by, but a lot of people feel the need to get outdoors to relax, escape and deal with various stresses. It is widely known that green is a relaxing colour, and I can’t help but feel this is deeply wired in us from when greenery surrounded us more than it does today.

Two miles in, and the houses are getting fewer and fewer. Hedgerows appear, copses, circling swallows and insistent skylarks. By the time I get to the woods, the silence and the low morning sunlight flooding in makes me stop and just sit. I sit down on a fallen tree and just soaked up the surroundings, immersing myself in nature and the feeling of breathing in the new day, replacing the negativity.

During the 1980s, the Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, which involves taking in the forest with the senses. You can either sit, or walk in a forest and soak everything up, just as I did. It doesn’t involve any high intensity exercise and has been proven to be very successful. A 2-hour forest bathe helps you to unplug from the working day, laptops, phones and other modern day distractions and stress enhancers.

It is predicted that by 2050, 66% of the planet’s population will live in cities. With cities and towns getting bigger and bigger, this is not too surprising. I always imagine cities like giant octopuses, spreading their tarmac tentacles out into the countryside, swallowing it in chunks and expanding their concrete mass as they go.

I know I will always favour the outdoors as therapy. It works for me in many ways to cope with modern life. Plus it’s much more interesting than 99% of what’s on television and spending hours reading silly blogs online. Oh, hang on…

{Insert suitable sullen emoji here}

A neighbour told me a story about one of his school friends who moved out of town, went down south, started windsurfing and now makes a living out of teaching it around the world. “Git”, thought I. He’s barely twenty.

Whilst I’m still lagging far behind where I’d like to be in my life, I’m a bloody hell of a lot closer to it than I’ve ever been. I hate my job. I live for my hobbies. I’m a little too old to start looking for new careers (as I mistyped careers then, autocorrect suggested carers instead. Apt.) I’ve got tonnes of interests, if only I could be paid to do them. Twenty minutes at my allotment is more rewarding than a week of my job. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not career driven. I’m quality of life driven. Having a crap job that makes me feel pointless is all well and good, but sticking at it until I’m too old to go to the toilet alone is unacceptable. It’s this kind of thought process that keeps me physically fit, keeps me outdoors, keeps me writing, keeps me daydreaming and keeps me searching for something I’ll never find.

Gratitude – in memory

Eighteen months ago, I made a routine phone call to the walking coordinator of the organisation where I volunteer as a walking leader to review the walks we had done between us and discuss plans for the coming year. I knew he had been unwell, so I asked him if he was ok. Expecting him to say he was fine, he replied, in a matter-of-fact way that he had cancer. An inoperable brain tumour. I was taken aback by the news and tried to keep the rest of the conversation as positive as possible. He was planning walks and trips and sounded like he was going to make the most of the time he had left.

Sadly, I found out last week he has finally lost the fight. Whilst we were never close friends, we always had lengthy chats about the outoors, and would see each other four or five times a year for group walking duties. He was, however, one of the most important figures in steering my life towards the path I’m on now. Through mutual friends, news for to me about volunteering opportunities, and his number was given to me. After a long chat on the phone, we met face to face and I began to organise and lead walks for his groups. That was 2011, and since then, I’ve carried on with my ambitions to spend more time outdoors.

See, in 2010, a previous voluntary opportunity had disappointingly wilted away to nothing. When this one presented itself, I fully took it.  Steve took me on (probably because he was desperate) but I like to think I paid him back. Together we introduced a winter walks programme that operated in the off months when he organisation wasn’t so keen to put on any walks, but had interested parties. Numerous pub lunches all over the place, and great memories like the flighty pony that chased him down and stole his hat, which I then had to retrieve, despite having an 18kgs backpack on. I managed to get it, while he and everyone else hid in the next field (I couldn’t jump the gate – my bag was too heavy).

A great guy, as always, taken away too soon. His enthusiasm and energy will mean he will live on in the stories told about him.

Finders, keepers. A strange story.

On my last mountain walk, I experienced a very strange happening near the summit. I was thinking about other peculiar things that have happened to me when I’ve been out walking. Too many oddities have occurred to mention when I’ve been running or cycling.

I suppose the weirdest thing happened last last May. I was away camping and went on a fairly tough long walk. On the return leg, the footpath briefly joined a lane, which was banked on either side by high hedges. Being late spring, the leaves were really starting to cover the hedge, yet all of a sudden my eye was drawn straight to something that didn’t quite look right. There was a patch of hedge where the green growth was slower and the woody workings of the hedge inside could be seen. In the middle of the patch was a the tip of a thick piece of wood and I felt compelled to grab it. Sure enough, I pulled on it and it lifted right out of the hedge like a dagger out of its sheath.

In my hand was a staff, essentially. Probably three feet tall, and very smooth around the thicker end, presumably from years of use. Its texture and colour reminded me of a wooden chair that my nan used to have, which also had smoothed out tips of its arm rests. I walked with it for the last couple of miles of the day. I ended up taking it home and I still have it, although I haven’t used it since then.

Having an overactive imagination, I began to think up all kinds of ideas. Where had it come from? Who put it there? How old was it? How long had it been there? It wasn’t casually leant against anything; it had in my opinion, been deliberately placed there.

I have an idea that it was a walking staff of a well travelled man, who nearing the end of his days, left it there on a final ramble to be picked up again to give it a new lease of life.

Or it put itself there and has a mind of its own. I do know that I regarded it with suspicion for a long time and left it at the top of the stairs waiting to walk past it one morning only to find it gone. I did think about putting it back where I had found it, but realised that fate had brought it to me and fate must take it back again. I feel the story is only just beginning…

The warmth of the sun

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

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

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

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

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

Misty Mountain Hop

Last month, I spent three days in the mountains. It was a solo trip,camping, and completing three quality mountain days. Each day would be a specific route, meticulously planned, and hopefully, safely completed.

Day one was to be a little over 10 kilometres, with plenty of ascent, and bagging two summits, before descending and retiring to the tent to enjoy a well earned biscuit and flask of tea.

The planning stage was quite fun. Poring over the map weeks ago, looking for the minor paths (and therefore, more interesting) picking a route was followed by working out distances, elevations, timings and navigational details like bearings. To be a bit more assured, I used satellite images online of the area to help me to visualise the terrain. Printing these off and adding them to the route card was a handy idea. The one false sense of security that the satellite imagery lures you into is that they were all taken on bright, sunny, cloud-free days, and for good reason too.

At ground level, I realised the satellite images and map contours were quite easily underestimated. What looks steep on the map is actually practically vertical.

The day forecast rain, but it was quite bright and sunny as I set out. As I started my climb onto the ridge, I noticed two walkers ahead of me. There was only one path, pretty well established, and I was gaining on them. Eventually they stopped and began looking at their map. I caught them up and we worked out that we may have lost the path. So together we struck off straight up the hill through heather until we found the path again some one hundred metres further on. By this time, we were up in mist that clung to the hill side. One thing in my mind was clear however, was to keep climbing until I hit the top of a ridge with a sudden drop the other side. The older of the two guys (turned out to be father and son) revealed he’d walked up there a few times, but he didn’t recognise where he was. After a bit of muttering between them both they decided it was too risky to continue. I said I would carry on and try my luck. They turned, and went, disappearing into the mist like ghosts, and then I was all alone, not knowing exactly where I was and not knowing exactly where to head. I decided to start out in a North westerly direction, steadily climbing. On this tangent I kept on until I saw something huge lurking ahead in the mist. It looked like a mountain. In that morning, one of the many things I learned was how the mist distorts sizes of objects and distances. It turned out to be a large pile of boulders, still big enough to scramble up, but not a mountain.

A couple of times I became convinced I knew where I was, but was proven wrong. Still I remembered what I’d learned and followed instinct, knowing what slope aspect to expect, and terrain. And so this continued for over an hour until something happened that made me stop in my tracks.

I knew I’d need to start descending at some point to hit the path home, so when the land began to fall away, I was a little suspicious but rolled with it anyway. I lost a lot of height until I slipped below the mist. As the mist cleared, dead in front of me, some two hundred feet below, was a road. Immediately I felt relief, which almost instantaneously changed to anguish. A road should not have been in front of me. It should have been a valley with a lake. I turned and looked back the way I’d came. Surely I couldn’t climb back up all that way again. There was no way down as I quickly realised I was on the grassy upper slopes of a cliff effectively. I sat down and contemplated my next move. I had something to eat and within moments I had a mental second wind. I orientated the map, and picked out some features on the road below me – two significant bends and a waterfall, found them on the map and bingo. For the first time in over an hour I knew where I was. From there on in it was a case of setting a compass bearing, following it, and finding the path down.

Getting my feet back on tarmac felt great. Getting out of wet clothes and into a dry car even better. I learned more from those three hours up there than I have in 10 years of lowland walking. I still wonder where exactly I was up there among the mist and I still wonder how the other two guys got on. I wonder if they wonder how I got on?

A few days later, I bought a 1950s guidebook to the area and it stated in there in no uncertain terms not to go where I did in the mist. I’m fully aware it could have ended much differently, but I’m still glad I did it and I’m proud I got through it.