Sunrise, and reconnecting

The last time I got up at 3.30am, other than to go to the toilet, was to run an ultra marathon. It’s not the sort of time that people get up to do normal things. In my experience however, normal is a little bit boring. Ok, a big bit boring. My alarm went off at the said time and I rolled out of my pit. Everything was ready, all set out the night before. All I had to do was make a flask of tea and have something to eat. Thirty minutes later, I’m in the car driving to my destination, some four miles away, the new day beginning to glow on the horizon in my rear view mirror. The purpose of my trip was to see something that happens every day, yet we take it for granted despite its beauty and significance – the sunrise.

I have these periods in my life that I go through where I am very conscious of time passing by – through my fingers, like sand. How many times will I be able to see the sunrise in my life? How much more time that is not guaranteed to me, or you, in any way will be taken for granted and flushed down the toilet of life?

I parked up and began my walk. I had no route planned, so I just followed my feet until I found a comfortable spot to sit and watch the show. More often than not when I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets, there has been a bit of disappointment as cloud or haze gets in the way. This time was unprecedented though. Just after 5 am there was a burning orange dot that grew and grew then flashed across the sky. Here it was. The new day. I felt the light on my face and the warmth flooding in. The tea I brewed was perfect, the scene was spectacular and the company was pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Little did I know though that the sunrise was only the starter. The wildlife I saw that morning was the main course and dessert. There were countless deer, in close proximity, hares, kites, skylarks and a lone fox, blissfully unaware of my gaze as he zig-zagged through the crops, hopefully following the scent of an unsuspecting creature.

It wasn’t until 9 am that I saw human beings. Getting home at 11 am, after an already 8 hour day is definitely not practical to repeat very often, but is humbling enough to do again. I am definitely seeing these solo forays into the outdoors these days as reconnection exercises, as I am calling them. It’s all too easy to lose the sense of who you are, where you sit and how you fit in to the world. If getting up at 3 am to watch such an amazing event for free while the rest of town sleeps is all it takes to do that, then I’m happy.

The bit between two normals

I gave out some (no doubt unheeded, dubious) advice to a teenager at the weekend about living in the moment – about not dwelling on the past and not assuming tomorrow is going to happen. Whilst a teenager’s life is vastly different to mine, I feel the advice was relevant and a little nugget of life insight, which undoubtedly was not what they wanted to hear, yet will read all about on Flikflok, or whatever the tripe is called, and then feed it back to me as if it’s a complete revelation that they, nor I have ever heard before.

Living in the moment, so I’ve been reading, is a massive factor in maintaining one’s mental health. It’s something I admittedly don’t do enough of, though probably more than most. Definitely more than the average teenager. I find when I’m outdoors I tend to be more present, stopping to admire a spider’s web, listening out for birdsong, and watching Housemartins sweep and swoop. I’ve probably said it before but lockdown has not brought me down at all, directly. I say directly as factors associated with it have succeeded somewhat, but the whole working from home jazz, and social distancing has, if anything, improved my well being. I’ve always strongly disliked the office environment as regular readers will confirm, so dealing with colleagues on a screen twice a day is bliss. It does pose some serious questions to ask myself though, like why do I need to spend four hours a day commuting in order to fulfill exactly the same job role and feel much better about it too? The time I used to spend commuting is now taken up walking or running in the morning, or out in the garden, watching it grow and feeding the birds. Zero negativity. Zero carbon emissions.

It’s just as well I am enjoying this slower pace of life, having more time to relax and do what I enjoy, reading and attempting to meditate, as I am not sure what I am less enthusiastic about: the old normal or the new normal. I don’t want to sound like I am taking the urine, as I know plenty of people are struggling for many different reasons, and I know I am very lucky compared to some. I just feel that the current situation is not so far from my normal, insular, way of life anyway, and it’s actually allowed me to flourish a little. It was interesting when this all started, weeks ago and comparisons were made to World War Two, as politicians tried to convince them and us that we could all club together and pull through like previous generations did, evoking the war effort. I didn’t see any of that at all. Politicians still had their eyes on money and bending the rules, and the majority of the population went out and selfishly looted bog roll and other essentials that they didn’t actually need. It would have been interesting to see the population cope for just a week under strict rationing. Try six years of it. I can now understand why a large proportion of society were actually caught up in the bittersweet celebrations of VE Day in 1945, as it effectively signalled the end of near socialist, co-operative living, and in the case of the women who kept Britain eating, fighting and moving, potentially the end of their independence and freedom. The men were coming back, and normal roles would be resumed. Obviously, we know it wasn’t the case for long and social reform happened. What will the COVID-19 equivalent be? Let’s wait and see. Probably the doubling of McDonald’s drive through lanes, though I sincerely hope not.

So, as I try to learn more about nature the more I realise how much I, and we, need it. It is flourishing without us. We would not flourish without it. I hope to emerge from this experience with countless more positives than negatives.

The selflessness of #1

The door clicked shut behind me and I turned the key to lock it. The weight of the day gradually slipping away as I wind my way through the streets and alleyways of town, effectively the arteries of a coastal town with the countryside being the sea. And I’m heading to the beach.

It’s early evening, and has been an average day working from home with its usual frustrations and I need to get out for some space to myself. I’m not a sit-in-front-of-the-TV kind of bloke, hence the name of this blog, so my me time is usually outdoors. If day-to-day life is a clattering goods train, these moments are my buffers. Sometimes I have company, though it is not important. I will head out for a walk or a run, or workout regardless, as it is me looking after me. I have lived with me for long enough now to know what I need for myself to stay on track and how only I can be the driving force behind that, no one else. If you live your life to others’ standards, you are probably selling yourself short. Accountability. Be responsible for your successes and failures.

I’ve been in relationships before where after a period of niceness, eyes would begin to roll as I laced up my trainers for an evening run. Seemingly, keeping me indoors and watching me descend into misery for selfish reasons is preferable to me coming back as a better version of me in order to continue to provide humour, advice and support.

So I arrive on that clattering goods train at the station of the point I’m trying to make. Being selfish is creeping out of the door to do something ultimately destructive, despite passionate pleas. It is not selfish to take time for yourself away from life, people, situations or anything that causes you stress for the ultimate goal of health and happiness for both you and those around you. Fact. It is more valid and important than ever during the Coronavirus pandemic with mental health seemingly high on the agenda. Becoming selfish for an hour or so every day could be the difference.

Stay positive. Don’t delay your own well being.

Small tasks, busy mind.

I was half tempted this week to temporarily change the title of my blog to My Indoor Living Room, but realised that this is a nightmare to do, and also that the indoor living room is exactly what I’m trying to escape. I read a very interesting post on social media by one of the few famous people I take seriously enough to respect, and he talked about making choices during lockdown as well as life in general, choosing to do what you should do as opposed to what you feel like doing. So, think of the dilemma of setting your alarm for a 5am run. Then the alarm goes off and the urge to hit snooze is overwhelming. He used a phrase about choosing to meditate than to contaminate his mind with nonsense from social media, the internet in general, and this blog of course. Just read to the end of this post though, and I promise there’ll be a meme of a cat. It made me think about what I’m doing during all this to cope, so I wanted to share a few things that are keeping me going. There have been some incredibly tough moments, mainly to do with my situation and my mental health has taken a few beatings in the past month, so I naturally do what I have trained myself to do – I make an island of myself. I find activities for me to do to keep my head above water. A well known saying that goes something like, “A drowning man cannot save another man from drowning”, dispelling theories of selfish behaviour to a degree. So in order to be all that I can be for others, I need to take care of myself for a while. The world seems to spin fine without me, and most people seem just as happy with me out of the way, so I just focus on finding a place within myself.

One way I do this is setting myself small challenges. Right at this moment in time, I have (mostly physical) challenges going on like seeing how fast I can sprint up a hill I’ve found. Or seeing if I can complete a song doing push ups throughout, seeing if I can complete different fitness tests, and also seeing how low I can get my resting heart rate. I’m also closely monitoring the progress of an oak tree sapling in the garden, and the speed of the decomposition of my compost heap. It’s safe to say I’m busy with lots of things. But lots of little things help me stay on track and stay occupied.

Whilst lockdown has presented problems as well as opportunities to  improve areas of my life, I have generally fared better than the daily grind of commuting and stultifying office environments. It’s made me seriously think about my future, the people I work for (and question their ethics), and showed me hope that something alternative exists.

I do hope that you are all well and coping. I also hope that when we come out of this, all of the promises about the future and regrets about the past that I am seeing on social media are followed through and are not just empty hashtags. This really is an opportunity.

The COVID-19 Effort.

I think it’s safe to say that we are living in a testing time at the moment. Comparisons are being made to World War 2 in all sorts of places – about how people did what they could, made a difference, and stuck it out. The War Effort. It played on my mind a couple of weekends ago when I was out for a run at the same time that I would normally be doing a ParkRun, so I devised a cunning plan during that run to use social media to attract my ParkRun friends (and hopefully their friends, and their friends etc, even non-runners) to a virtual 5k run that I would host every Saturday morning until things are back to normal. I realised that, as noted in my last post, I am happy to be a lone runner, but some people need that sense of camaraderie and togetherness to help them run, and indeed enjoy running. Well I set it up and it is going OK, it gives us something to do, and I’m glad I’ve done it. It is my COVID-19 Effort, or part of it. What sort of ambassador of well-being, fitness and the outdoors would I be if I wasn’t trying something to help people stay fit, healthy, sane and motivated at a time of national crisis?

It’s interesting how in my job, I find the office environment very draining and it usually leaves me feeling bereft in many ways, but working from home, especially the first week, I have found to be very liberating. I am doing exactly the same job, same hours, but without being surrounded by so many things that breed negativity. In a bizarre paradox however, my employers I feel have spotted this ‘lack of motivation’ they call it, and it has surfaced at my many one-to-ones and end of year reviews. They are keen to discover what it is about me that keeps me ticking. Unfortunately for them, the many things that get me motivated are the polar opposite of what they are paying me to do. A few posts ago I talked if how I was politely forced into giving a talk to my team about well-being in the office (my subject choice, not theirs), and how it went. The feedback from that session was overwhelming positive, and many people expressed an interest in seeing more of that side of me. Take the stage COVID-19, and home working. My team have turned to me to lead meditation and mindfulness sessions once a week. I have done one already and now the next session is being made available to the national team. Pardon the distasteful pun, but I’ve gone viral it seems. But I do find it strange to observe that a few weeks ago, the situation that practically had me disengaged, disinterested, looking for the exit, has now filled me with purpose. I’m also now providing home work out ideas for them too. I’m definitely trying to make the negative of this situation into a positive.

I hope all of you are well, and I mean this sincerely (also because I know how unpopular this blog is), reach out to me if there’s anything you need. This is a testing time and it’s showing little signs of returning to normal soon, so drop me a line if you need support in any way, unless it’s to get you a loaf of bread.

Smile, breathe, and go slowly.

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.