How many daft Santas does it take…

Most Monday mornings, I sit on the train, trundling into the city with an uneasy feeling. The feeling is one of bewilderment, wondering to myself, “Where did the weekend go?”, “It can’t be over. There’s no way that was two days” and “I’m not ready to go back to work!!!” Sometimes I try not to say these out loud.

A couple of weekends ago, the two days were spent doing other stuff. Under that header, I group anything other than my core weekend training or off-the-script events, like spontaneous drinks with friends that I haven’t seen for a while, family events and freak weather-related incidents. I do really enjoy these weekends but they do leave me feeling a little unfulfilled by Monday morning as I have grown accustomed to the knackered yet happy feeling as I start the new week, content that I’ve suffered and sweated just enough to justify calling myself ‘fit’. So again, this Monday just gone, I found myself sat on the train feeling a little bit strange. I had an odd, unprepared feeling going to work like I had forgotten something or something was wrong. Railcard? Check. Lunch? Check. Trousers? Oh…check. Remind me never to wear check pattern trousers by the way – unless I become a chef or an early nineties rapper.

This uneasy post-weekend emotiness, as I’m calling it, does anyone else get it? I think it’s maybe because I’ve made exercise and being outdoors such a huge and regular part of my life for so long that it’s second nature to me now, and it leaves its mark when it is absent.

I had to rescue last weekend, as it was slipping away into the disappointing post-weekend emptiness (PWE) abyss. I did my usual ParkRun on Saturday, which to me, has become a vital part of my routine because I have made a few friends there and it’s become my weekly social event. My tolerance for cider and general pub-goers under the age of 25 is somewhat diminished, so bang goes my former social events. Sundays are usually spent doing a long run, or a lengthy slog with my Bergen, followed by a country walk until it’s dark. Last Sunday though, I took part in a local charity Santa Dash. 5k in a Santa costume! This isn’t as fun as it sounds. The cause (Clause?!) is fantastic, but the outfit is ridiculous! The first thing that happens is the crotch splits on the trousers. This normally occurs in the first half mile, but that’s only if you haven’t done the group warm up. That’s where they usually split. Then you have 5k of jogging along, one hand holding your trousers up, the other keeping the beard (yes, beard) out of your mouth. The beard sheds hair too, so you’re picking fluff out of your mouth or in my case, your own beard too. The flimsy plastic belt snaps, meaning the jacket flaps open and becomes a cape. The only saving grace, other than the charity aspect, is the fact that there’s 400 of you, so you’re not alone in your outfit issues. I did think it was funny when I looked around me and saw a sea of Santas and remarked what a problem it would be if you were a lost child and you had to describe your parent to the bewildered marshall. As I was plodding along, I started to feel frustrated as I was stuck at essentially walking pace, but managed to get over myself and relax and just enjoy it. I made as many people laugh as I could, making comments to people who were running with their dogs, saying things like, “If I’d have known you were allowed to bring pets, I’d have brought Prancer, Blitzen and Dancer!” Oh the comedy. I was disappointed when at the end all we got was a bottle of water. I was expecting at least a cookie. Luckily for everyone involved, their cheap plastic belts managed to hold up. If they hadn’t, their sides would have well and truly split.

As enjoyable as it was, I still felt like I’d fallen short of my usual weekend physical efforts. An afternoon walk and pub stop still didn’t tick the boxes, so when I got home, despite it being cold, dark and raining, as well as being at the wrong end of the day for my liking, I loaded up the Bergen and did a 6 miler. That definitely ticked boxes. It was still a surreal feeling on the train to work the next day however, but I felt like I’d achieved a decent balance.

Getting ecotherapeutic

My last two posts, as intriguing and fun as they were to write, I feel moved away slightly from the general purpose of my blog, which is to share my outdoor experiences and hope to inspire readers to immerse themselves in it. Writing about mental toughness and comfort zones do apply here but not in the purest sense of the manifesto, feeling more like they were self-help articles. Despite this, they do reflect my own ideas and motivation which encompasses a lot of what I do outdoors, and why I do it. I thought then, for this week’s fat-chewing session, I would cover the general mental well-being that is provided by exercise, and in particular, being outdoors.

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Here in the UK, over 8 million people suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, and it is rising year-on-year. In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. The reasons for this are many fold, and open up the possibility of a whole new series of blog posts. I’ve already covered the effect of blue light from devices and its damaging properties, and know only too well how positive exercise in the outdoors is. Now we’re in the grip of winter, many sufferers are probably struggling more. The shorter days, and dark, dreary mornings do nothing to boost a low mood, especially when you have to face a long day travelling or shut up in an office.

I’ve suffered stress before and anxiety too at times for various reasons and in those times, I found myself naturally wanting to get outside, either for a relaxing walk, or an insane stress-burning running session. That’s how I’ve always been, and really it’s how I think I’ll always be – I hope. In the times that I did need to visit my GP, I emerged both times with some magic tablets. I wasn’t overly keen to use them, especially after reading the side-effects, as well as the fact that they supposedly took six weeks to start working fully. I reasoned that in six weeks’ time, whatever it was that was bothering me could be cut down to size naturally anyway and wasn’t worth the risk. So I followed my instincts and made a conscious effort to get out and walk more, run more, and immerse myself more in the outdoors. Whilst I can’t confirm it was a cure, it did take the edge off what I was going through. Although this worked for me, I fully accept that perhaps my issues at that time were mild in comparison to a number of sufferers of anxiety, depression, or insomnia.

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There are many things you can do if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety or anything else that’s making you feel low. Some things worth looking at are forest bathing, ecotherapy, mindfulness in nature, green time or the wilderness cure, again, each one fully deserving a blog in its own right. Even in cities, it is possible to find small corners of green solitude. Again, personally, I find urban environments quite relaxing if I stroll about, taking photos and stay out of the hustle and bustle. Just by being in a green, natural environment, you can help combat depression. Working out outdoors instead of a gym reduces anxiety levels and a 90 minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative thinking.

I, for one, have never been winter’s biggest fan, preferring the hope of spring, or the glory of summer. In recent years, I have preferred to stay as active as I can during the darker, colder months, boosting my mood and motivation, and I have learned to enjoy aspects of it. If winter were a pop singer, I still wouldn’t make my way to the front row, screaming like a lunatic, then fling my Y-fronts at it, but I would buy its album.

I have learned that every massive change in my life was the result of many, many small incremental moves, like moving a mountain pebble by pebble. The same goes for improving mental health I feel. In my case, it was trial and error for a while until perseverance and determination led me to a go-to solution that I could apply when things got tough. Making this part of a daily routine, or lifestyle can empower aspects of your life in many ways.

Comfort zones, and why we shouldn’t live within them

Comfort zones. We all have them. The size of that comfort zone varies from person to person. It makes no difference if you’re physically active, or sedentary, comfort zones take many forms.

The definition of a comfort zone is a psychological state in which someone feels in control, relaxed, and in familiar territory with levels of stress and anxiety quite low.

Being a psychological state, it means, I think, that it is subject to change, mostly for the better. In other words, you can increase your comfort zone relatively well. To do this, you first need to know your limits. I imagine, like me, most peoples’ zones are multifaceted. For example, in a physical environment, my comfort zone extends pretty far out, because I enjoy training and do a lot of it. But I can’t do monkey bars, so that is where I would start to feel anxious. In a social setting, I’m chatty and approachable mostly, but small factors could challenge that, like an unfamiliar setting, or people I am wary of crashing the party. So there we have it, two spokes of my comfort zone wheel go as far as monkey bars, and oddballs. Bad term, let’s say, slightly erratic members of our society.

These are just two examples, but maybe you can relate also. You might absolutely smash monkey bars but struggle to run a 5k, and that’s where your anxiety would kick in.

When you know your comfort zone, if it bothers you, you can take steps to work on making it bigger. I could do more pull ups, then hit the bars in the gym more, making gradual improvements. Or I could just avoid monkey bars forever. That makes me feel unhappy however, like I’m taking the easy way out, like I haven’t tried. By just attempting to push our comfort zones, we are growing as people and challenging ourselves. By facing challenges or difficut situations as often as we can, we can effectively immunise ourselves to those feelings by making them more commonplace. Of course, when we do that, our horizon changes and something bigger will be our nemesis for a while. That is progress.

Pushing comfort zones destroys our fears, cutting them down to size. You can say, “Wow, I DID that”. You faced it, and beat it down to size, taking the wheel of your life’s journey for a while.

Becoming more comfortable and confident in more situations shows others around us how self-assured we are, and they may in turn look up to us as inspiration to go out and face their own limits. When I say self-assured, I’d like to point out that I mean quietly confident, not brash or cocky. I know although some people admire that trait, for me it sets alarm bells ringing and actually undermines their claims to being confident (over compensation).

One of the biggest wins for pushing our comfort zones is the fantastic feeling of achievement. As adults, when our school days are long gone, it’s easy to slip into routine – work, eat, sleep, repeat, die. Making great achievements is a brilliant way of staying fresh and giving us purpose, which also has great benefits to our lives as well as those around us. We would probably feel less envious towards other people, more content and more likely to be supportive perhaps.

If you’re reading this, and can relate, I want you to think back to a time as recent as possible to when you felt out of your comfort zone. When you have, take a piece of paper and write down the feelings you had at that very time, not the next day with hindsight, but in the moment. In another area of the paper, write down words that you would use to describe your feelings now. How different are they? Are you looking at the feelings of two different people? Which feelings do you prefer? I think I can safely assume what your answers might be.

When I am out of my comfort zone, I seem to regress somewhat feelings-wise to the six-year-old lad who hated school and didn’t want to go. I’m not a psychiatrist so I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing it’s a heightened sense of vulnerability, and I also guess that around the age of six is when I would have experienced that for the first time.

Back in April, I spent some time in the mountains and had a challenging experience in the mist on unfamiliar ground. This was definitely one of the most challenging moments for me in recent years in terms of comfort zones. I was way out of it, and there I was trying to negotiate the conditions with my six-year-old self. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically and I was dealing with a challenged, threatened version of myself as I am now. But out of those three days, that one was the most rewarding and I will always remember it. It made most training days look like feeding bread to the ducks. That’s another beauty of pushing yourself – with every achievement you look back at times when you struggled to do something smaller. An upgrade of your courage hardware if you like.

All of this combined is what forms my opinion that living inside our comfort zones is a big mistake. We should be pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves. Comfort zones are like muscles, you have to keep working them harder and harder so they keep growing and getting stronger. Untrained muscles atrophy and grow weak, and one day when you need them, they’re not ready. Make it your routine to embrace something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I take cold showers quite often. Go for a run in the snow or rain. Attend dance classes if you’re shy. Conquer these and you’re growing. Shying away is not an option. We all have it in ourselves to be braver still, but we seem afraid to find out how brave. Make a list now of your limits. Then smash them out of orbit.

Physical vs mental toughness

I should stress that I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist, though sometimes I wish I was so I could answer my own questions and actually write a blog worth reading. However, today’s subject is mental toughness and physical toughness, and if there’s a link between them.

This thought has its roots for me going back to 2015 when I was, like I am now, doing a lot of winter training. Back then too I was training with my weighted backpack (see previous posts). I started to wonder if pushing it physically and managing to prevail meant I was mentally tough. My rationale was that I was trying to ignore all of the messages my brain was receiving from parts of my body that were at breaking point, like lactic acid in my quads and calves for example. Training in the dark early mornings when no one else was about and in wind and rain too made me wonder if I was strengthening my mental willpower. To cut a convoluted theory short, I think I was. Partly. I am of the mindset that getting out and training in any weather prepares you for any eventuality conditions-wise, where some people would look out of the window and not bother going out. I call these conditions character building. But just because I am daft enough to hit the trails in sleet, doesn’t necessarily make me mentally tougher than someone who isn’t. It just means I’m more likely to shrug my shoulders on race day if it’s raining and get out there and go, instead of cowering, cursing the conditions that I hadn’t bothered to train in. Better preparation perhaps, not resilience?

One thing in my life makes me doubt that physical toughness has a massive effect on metal toughness, and that my friends, is work. Our jobs, or as some call them, careers. Some of the most physically tough people that I know are stressed out at work. Strung out even, riddled with self-doubt, probably because of a domineering boss or workplace bully. Even though they know they can bench press 100kgs, they still suffer and feel like shit because they get ticked off for missing a deadline or forget to CC someone ‘important’ into an email. In my experience of this situation, it has spurred me on to push myself harder in training and actually was the driving force behind me taking running more seriously in my twenties – but – did it make me mentally tougher to deal with similar scenarios that present themselves these days? No. Whilst physical fitness has helped take the edge off stress and negativity from things I realistically can’t change, and has I believe, prepared my body to better deal with the stress hormones associated with it, it probably hasn’t given me a definitive rule to deal with mentally challenging situations, like stress, self-doubt etc. It has, I believe, altered my perspective on situations though, and people I have met through my outdoors endeavours have helped me through tough times.

Admittedly, most of these situations have arisen for me in the workplace. There are people with more real struggles like illness to themselves or a loved one and have had to be strong for them whether they like it or not. So saying I’m mentally tougher for a 6am run in the snow over a single mum caring her children and juggling a demanding job would be naïve to say the least. Yes I am probably physically tougher because I can devote time to training but that could be where it stops. There are a few aspects of my life where I recognise my own weaknesses and the only thing I can see to develop that is to face up to them, and deal with them.

One of my best friends often has this conversation with me about mental toughness and he is convinced that both he and I are mentally tough people. I am quite doubtful about myself, and until recently, my internal jury was undecided about him. Interestingly, he would justify his claim to this elite strength by discussing all of the horrible bosses he’s worked for. Doubly interesting is the fact that he doesn’t work out. At all. He copes solely on his sedentary lifestyle. I did drop a hint a few lines back if you picked up on it, that something may have changed in his situation. It has. Without going into detail, he’s recently separated from his girlfriend, and on the face of it, he’s coping very well, though not as well as I previously thought. All the same, he asked my advice as to what I would do to combat anger, and the whole spectrum of feelings he has at the moment. Of course, I said straight away, go for a run. I know he won’t, so it would be interesting to see how it pans out. I honestly think he’s got the tools to survive, and he’s got me and other friends to support him too. It’s a very chalk-and-cheese comparison between the two of us. It would be interesting to hear from his viewpoint what it is about me that he thinks makes me strong. It sounds to me that he has worked for some really nasty articles down the years and by being exposed to that day-in, day-out, it’s got to put you through it and put smaller problems in their boxes.

My attitude generally these days is “Fuck it, it’s just a job” and move on, but is that right? Is it weakness to shrug your shoulders and walk away? Yes and no I feel. I believe you suffer for something just as much as you care about it. I don’t have a percieveable dead-end job, and I’ve earned the position I hold today, and I do care about doing the best job that I can, until 5pm at least anyway. So therefore I must accept some suffering along the way.  Having been in brutally stressful work situations before where I could feel my physiology changing because of it, I now recognise the signs and begin to act along the lines of self-protection, and damage limitation. One thing I do now at 36 years old which I didn’t do at 22 years old was to stick to my own path of integrity. Say and do what I believe to be right, and fight my corner when I have to. More often than not it does nothing to change the situation, but it definitely means those feelings of being useless or being walked over don’t get chance to arise and standing tall knowing you’ve followed your instincts prevails and knowing you’ve done all that you can.

There is a saying that goes, “Don’t drown yourself to save a drowning man”, which in this context means that if I choose to avoid really negative situations based on past experiences, means I can stay completely focussed on my goals and priorities of being the best person I can be for my friends and family and the world as a whole. It’s not running away, it’s seeing the bigger picture.

I don’t know if I’m mentally tough, but I definitely know I’m tougher than I used to be and that’s got to be the next best thing.

Flip flops for all

Have you been on holiday?

That’s what a few of my colleagues have been saying to me lately.

Have you been away?

I’d like to think it’s because something terrible has gone wrong and their first thought is that it can only have occurred because I wasn’t there. As I haven’t been on holiday relatively recently, if anything has gone boob up, chances are it happened because I was there.

No, of course, they are referring to my natural tan. Being fair in complexion, I am prone to sunburn. When I used to burn, I burned, then peeled, then went back to pale again. But over the last eight or nine years since I seriously ramped up the running, hiking, cycling and alotmenteering, I have began to look decidedly grubby. I am proud of my cyclist’s tan, runner’s tan and general tan. Spending more and more time outdoors has made me look a bit more healthy. It’s not just on the outside however. Being an outdoorsy type is good for your mind. It’s no secret anymore that sunlight equals vitamin D which is good for your happiness levels amongst other things.

I like having an outdoor mind set too. If you’re the same as me, you will know where I am coming from. That kind of train of thought throughout the day that thinks in terms of contour lines, places to go, the fresh air in general. Conversation in the communal kitchen with me can soon turn to stories of weekend adventures, not what has been happening on the already-slated-by-me Love Island.

I find l loving the outdoors guides my decisions and even my wardrobe. I work in an office. Not a very creative environment, although it is meant to be and is viciously sold to our clients as one, and every bloke there wears pretty much the following: smart shoes, jeans, checked shirt. Attack of the clones. I, and one more guy, who incidentally is NOT an outdoorsy type (unless you count beer gardens and barbeques) wear shorts, and, wait for it…flip flops. Yes, in our minds, we are outdoors on the beach. We get stick for it, but I’d rather break rank and have an identity than cower in the safety of dressing like a lumberjack.

Keeping fit used to be my other thing. The thing I did when I wasn’t at work, and the thing I talked about and thought about when I was at work. Then a change happened. The more I kept fit outdoors, the more time I spent outdoors. Soon enough, the outdoors became my thing. It’s like a disease with next to no cure at all. But what a disease to have! Imagine if it was an epidemic, what do you think the world and its people would be like? Would we still be money and status driven? I think it would be a world where nature and environmental issues would take precedent, with the majority protecting their favourite spaces, and their decisions being driven by their love of the outdoors. It sounds a bit hippy-like, but can you picture a whole people wearing flip flops in high powered jobs? I can!

The freedom of the mountains (after careful planning)

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post. There is a legitimate reason for this and it is relevant. It’s not an excuse, honestly.

Radio silence was the fault of spending four days and three nights in the mountains. I’ve been trying to get away since winter really and booked a week off work to get some quality hikes in. The planning of the trip was quite full on. Booking the campsite was easy, but it was the three or four days leading up to the trip that required the most organisation. I like to think I’m well organised, but I have been known to forget obvious things. Example one; there was the time I drove 20 miles to watch and photograph a friend’s band, only to discover as they walked out on stage that my camera battery was at home, still charging. Example two; the time I drove 100 miles for a weekend away taking part in a civilians version of a military test march, only to discover that the bag with all of my (quite expensive) nutrition for the march was still at home.

For this reason, I am quite methodical in the way I pack for trips. I pack in stages, after a few days making lists of what to take. If I don’t pack in stages, or leave those stages half complete, I’m that scatty that I’ll return to the task and completely lose my train of thought and overlook something blinking obvious. Think walking boots, maps, tent.

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This trip was particularly difficult to pack for because it involved three things – the tent and all the camping paraphernalia, the clothing and equipment for three separate hikes, and clothing and other items for the day-to-day activities. I had to start very slowly and be very thorough, and I am proud to say, didn’t miss a thing.

The biggest part of the planning process was actively planning each hike. And we’re not talking about grabbing a map, choosing where to go, and following it without getting lost. Those simple days are behind me! Those wonderful lowland walks. Gone. No, in the mountains, every step must be planned, distances, expected timings, speed, elevation climbed, compass bearings and weather conditions. Not everything goes to plan however, as my account of the week will reveal.

Whilst the hills and mountains can’t be made 100% safe, the risks we take while there can be minimised. One way of doing this is having a contactable person elsewhere who knows exactly where you are and where you last were, so if you’re not back when you said you were going to be back, the appropriate action can be taken.

I had a very pleasant, but at times, testing, three days, which I will describe in the following three blogs in the coming weeks.

Progress – part 2

In my last post, I covered different aspects of what constitutes progress. I should probably say that I believe that humanity as a whole is regressing not progressing. I see progress in the form of its definition:

“development towards an improved or more advanced condition.”

Call me old fashioned but I feel that compromising the environment is in no way progress for us at all. After all, how do you measure progress? Inevitably it will be facts and figures, numbers and profits, not general human state. If you could capture that, I think it would be a different story.

I do admit that the planet is becoming overcrowded and we all need somewhere to call home. That can’t be disputed, but the manner in which it’s tackled is generally deplorable. For example, a few hundred acres of prime agricultural land is given up for housing. That for me would be more easy to accept if it was to have 500 suitable, sustainable family homes built on it. However, more often than not, the majority of houses are 3, 4 or 5 bedroom houses that don’t accurately fit in with the needs of that community’s housing needs. It is clearly down to the greed of developers and local authorities.

I have always been critical of HS2 here in the UK (a high speed rail link, that is cutting through the countryside including irreplaceable ancient woodland and wildlife corridors). It is wreaking all this destruction for what? So business users can get to the north for something ridiculous like 30 minutes quicker than they are now. Again, I ask, what for? Well it’s money and that word again, progress.

I was amused a long time ago by post I saw on social media. It hit the nail on the head for me about the general human state vs the environment. It said this:

“Imagine if trees gave off a WiFi signal. We’d be planting trees all over the place and we’d probably save the planet too.

Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe”.

The crying shame is, it’s true. If only we had the same attitude towards environment and nature as we have towards high speed broadband, high speed rail links, high speed everything.

Our human state is ultimately unhappy, and probably will continue on this path, but at least we can get there quicker.