Carry that weight

I’m going to start by introducing you to a term that features heavily in my life. TAB. This is a British military term, and is an acronym for Tactical Advance into Battle in case you were wondering. Put more plainly, it is moving as fast and efficiently as you can across mixed terrain, usually a long distance, carrying your kit. Depending on which regiment you are in depends on what is required of you. In some outfits, a long distance forced march (another way of saying TAB) is part of an annual fitness test, kind of like the bleep test, but more fun. The regiment you are in also determines how much weight you should be able to carry but is usually between 15-25 kilogrammes.

This type of exercise has been a part of my life for nearly five years and has affected me positively in so many ways. I’ve never been in the military, but I’ve always admired the camaraderie, fitness regimes and discipline.

I got in to this tabbing lark accidentally. Back in 2013, I was doing long Saturday shifts at the printers where I worked. A guy would walk through twice a day and in a few weeks the conversation ramped up from “Alright?”. “Yeah, you?”. To running, via cycling (I used to cycle to work, so did he). One day, one fateful day, he asked me if I knew any decent cross country running routes in the area. Luckily for him, I did. I shared a route with him which he wasn’t too sure about, so I suggested we run it together one day. Fast forward a few weeks and I’m running on my own down the canal near my old house and who should be coming the other way, but my mate. We stopped and chatted and I noticed he was carrying a backpack. Of course I asked him what it was for, and after correcting me over the name (military backpacks are called a Bergen), he said it was for an event called the Fan Dance. I asked him what it was and he just said “Google it”. Before I could get home and indeed search online for it, we parted. No sooner were we twenty paces apart did he turn around and shout “Don’t tell anyone about this, ok?” Now I was intrigued. It must be good, this Fan Dance malarkey.

When home, once I sifted through visually pleasing images of burlesque dancers, I came to a website explaining the Fan Dance. It is a civilian version of the UK-based SAS regiment’s much fabled fitness test in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. 24 kilometres (15 miles in proper money) over the highest peak in southern Britain, Pen Y Fan, TWICE. Easy? Try doing it in military boots, carrying around 25kgs on your back and a 5kg rifle. The civilian version omits the rifle. You have four hours in which to complete it.

To be honest, I looked at it and felt sorry for my mate that he had to do it. I saw it as something out of my gamut as a road runner and something I’d never be able to do. How could someone slim like me carry 25kgs all that way? No chance. My mate played rugby, was ten years older than me and was pretty fit.

Nonetheless, I had to bear his secret too, and assist in training runs. We did one where he had his Bergen at 12kgs and I was just me (clean fatigue). It was embarrassing. I kept having to wait for him while I leapt and bounded like a rutting stag over gates and fields, he struggled along. At the end he suggested that I get a Bergen next time to even it out. Like a tit, I did. I had a rucksack big enough for 12kgs, so I weighed out 12kgs of garden soil into a bin liner and off we went. It was hard, but interesting all the same. Then the mind games started:

“You should sign up for the Fan Dance too.”

For anyone who knows me, especially in this capacity, one thing I rarely miss is the opportunity to take somebody up on a challenge, or to disprove doubters. It didn’t take long for me to find my way to the entry form online.

I was in.

In my next blog, I’ll cover more of the gory details of training, the event and what’s happened since. There will be blood!

Looking around me

Nowadays I have the luxury of not having to drive to work, so I get forty minutes at each end of every day to myself (kind of) on the train. This has many advantages, that for the time being, I’m well and truly er, taking advantage of.

The first thing is I can walk to the station so I can listen to some podcasts or music and enjoy being out and about in all the seasons. Not using the car every day and being able to look around me means I can appreciate the seasons changing, and the minute happenings that nature gives, which most of us miss because we’re rushing about mainly. For example, most mornings I see blackbirds and robins. These are notoriously territorial birds, so every one that I see along the way shows the different patches of each bird. Blackbirds’ have an average territory of around 100 square metres, hence why we see so many of them. Autumn is when territories are renewed so there is a lot of activity (and noise).

When I was about ten, I was off school for a few days with an illness. Confined to the house, bored of the daytime TV and before the internet, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw all of the birds flitting about across our garden and the neighbours’ gardens. Being interested in maps (as I still am) I got my writing pad and drew a bird’s eye view of the gardens. I then drew a line in a different colour for each bird that I saw and where it went. Very quickly, a colourful chart appeared. I think techy kids these days would call it a heatmap or something like that. Either way, I learned about territories, as well as nesting preferences for each bird.

The second major advantage to this commute is the amount of reading, writing and sketching I can get done on the train. I try not to absorb myself too much into what I’m doing on public transport, like I try not to walk along gawping at my phone when I’m out and about. Part of it is because I’m far too inquisitive and like to look about me and people watch. The other thing is everyone is glued to their phone! Head down, gawping. An atomic bomb could go off away on the horizon, and they’d miss it, only to see it flash up on their phones a minute or two later. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I can easily see a terrorist attack happening on public transport all too easily in plain view of all the victims, who saw nothing of it coming, only their ‘smart’ devices. Before this turns into a typical rant of mine, I’ll steer course toward something a little more positive. In the mornings, the station where I get on is the end of the line, so it gradually fills up the closer it gets to the city, so I have the pick of most of the seats. I always choose a window seat that looks out across the open countryside. Again, I’m usually the only one looking at it as everyone else is scrolling away like zombies. The low winter sun this time of year casting long shadows over frost covered fields is still one sight I can’t resist gawping at. And it’s not on my phone.

If any of you are reading this blog, ironically, on a train, or bus, or somewhere else that you could be appreciating better, it won’t hurt my feelings if you put the phone away. Well it’s the end of the post anyway!

And now for something completely different…

It’s a tough life being the pillar of society that I am and role model for the next generation (not), so to unwind, aside from my physical activities, I like to do other less demanding outdoor activities. Photography is one, as well as strolling (this is very different to walking. Walking usually means you have somewhere to go or be. Strolling is just sauntering about at a lazy pace, noticing things). Occasionally I do other things. For example, I had a day off work last Friday so I went alpaca trekking!

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If I had to make one criticism of the whole thing, it would be the title. Trekking, to me, consists of something involving either a long distance or arduous terrain. This was neither. Trekking, by the way is a notch up from walking. A couple of notches up from strolling, just to clarify. The ‘trek’ involved leading a rather keen alpaca from its stable, where it looked pretty warm, cosy, well stocked and quite pleased with itself, out into the cold on a lead. It’s not as cruel as I’m making it sound. These animals are from South America and have fleece coats so thick that they can endure Antarctic conditions, so a chilly British October morning is nothing to them. The trek lasted for all of fifteen minutes and went up the farm driveway and back. Not exactly a trek, but fun all the same. My alpaca, Gareth, was fairly chilled out and friendly so he was no trouble. My experience with large animals up to this point only really consisted of horses. The skills weren’t that transferable. These cute little fleeceballs were a bit more like dogs. Still, it was nice to do something outdoors that didn’t involve exertion, mountains, maps or getting lost.

It was a great way to start the weekend, and I followed it up with a stroll (see, a stroll) around a nature reserve nearby in the glorious autumn sunshine.

It was a momentous weekend really, for on Saturday morning at long last, after three-and-a-half years of trying, I got my Park Run personal best, knocking four seconds off the last one. It proves that age isn’t really anything, and nothing is impossible if you work for it and stay focussed.

As my mindset lately has been about keeping fit, mentally and physically, and pushing comfort zones, I realise that this achievement is not the end of something, in fact it’s the start. The real hard work begins now because I can’t help but wonder, what else is possible? How much harder can I push myself? Let’s see.

Operation: Middle-age

Now I’m the dark side of 35, I find myself looking back more often on my athletic exploits of the past. Mulling over Park Run personal bests of 2015, marathon personal bests, or just general physical well-being. It’s fairly subjective, but I would say that I am approaching middle-age. Assuming I’ll live to at least 70 and anything after that being a bonus, I am in the middle-age region. Not saying I am middle-aged, but it’s not far away. As I am recognising this, the more I am planning to do something about it.

The main bulk of this one-man crusade is pushing my comfort zone, physically and mentally. I’m not sure which one is harder, yet they seem to come hand in hand. That 6am alarm telling me I’ve got to go to the track and run sub 6 minute 30 miles never gets any easier mentally, and that’s before I’m at the track doing it, feeling quite unwell. For me, fitness is a huge part of it, but I understand that the term comfort zone is probably more a mental thing.

All of this, I presume, is part of this stupid human condition. A complex cauldron of fears and feelings. I still feel like I’m 18 and I’m probably as guilty as the rest about struggling to accept the aging process, acting like I’ll live to 100 but still expecting to arrive there in pristine condition.

Back in the summer, I decided to start pushing myself again, like I used to, back in the old days when I felt more motivated to do it. Out went mediocre plodding runs and in came hill sprints, recovery runs, tempo runs and interval sprinting sessions. It had structure and it reignited my interest in being fit and staying motivated. The greater part was, it didn’t come from outside of me. My motivation was myself and the phrases going through my head pushing me on weren’t from songs or books, they were my own.

It has worked too. I ran a personal best over the half marathon distance last Sunday, and comfortably too.

I think everyone has a comfort zone and to permanently dwell within it means a slow death. A famous song says:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

For some it will be the dread of getting up and sprinting around a track. For others, getting on a bus. For many, spending an afternoon with their mother-in-law. But the idea is that pushing yourself, or fearing something can actually make you acutely aware of just being and makes you feel alive.

In recent years, I’ve looked around me at my peers and observed their mindsets, habits, outlooks and general appearances. I’ve seen mates’ beer guts at 27 years old, had conversations about receding hairlines at 31, listened to my friends talk about ‘slowing down’ at 33. I’ve also listened to people twenty years older than myself and paid attention to their advice, life choices, fears and realities. I am planning to grow old gracefully, but be in the best shape mentally and physically as I can while doing it. I’m gathering a dossier if you like, of information to future proof aspects of my own life, having a general plan to keep going for as long as I can, as I am now, on this integer. Living to 100 would be great, provided I can still laugh, go for a walk, and do 20 push ups. This is unrealistic though. There’s a lot to be said about living fast and dying young without the whole fading away business.

One thing that pushes my mental barriers and comfort zones is being alone in the mountains, pitted against nature. More than once I have been in situations that I felt out of my depth, uncomfortable, and stretched to the limit. When things turn on their head like that, and the adrenaline is pumping, the fall out afterwards is massive. The feeling of accomplishment, knowing you’ve survived, and feeling that your comfort zone got a lot bigger. It’s essential to feel like this these days, especially in the face of nature. I’m never going to expand any comfort zones on the sofa watching TV. It’s interesting how our ancestors (who would laugh hysterically at us now) would navigate in the outdoor, in all conditions no problem at all as it was their livelihood, yet it is out of most of our comfort zones.

Let’s do a little experiment. There are no wrong or right answers, so nobody should feel ashamed of sharing anything, but it would be great to gather together what you guys and girls last did that pushed your comfort zone, and what is it in your lives that keep you fresh? Share!

Bloody foreigners

A couple of weeks ago, an email popped in to my inbox, entitled ‘Volunteer day’. Curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. It was an invite to a corporate volunteer day at a local nature reserve. This is right up my proverbial autobahn so I registered my interest and as luck would have it, I was accepted. The day was to be spent on an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, and was not specific about what work we would be doing. I imagined it would be putting up bird nesting boxes, or if I was very lucky, standing in the lake up to my nicky-nacky-noos in rubber waders clearing it of unwanted filth and algae.

A few years back, I really looked into changing career to conservation work. I chatted to a few people in that sector and the general feeling was the same – stay in the job you’re doing and volunteer whenever you can. The reason for this is that in order to be paid a decent wage to do it, you more or less have to be desk-bound, carrying out site surveys and risk assessments, while all of the hands-on, mucky, fun bits get done by volunteers.

When the day arrived, we were all gathered together and given a brief overview of the organisation, the reserve itself and the work required. We were then put to work raking up grass cuttings in the wildflower meadow on the edge of the lake. No waders in sight. The purpose of this raking is so the nitrogen rich grass cuttings don’t lie around enriching the soil. Enriched soil isn’t as good as it sounds. It is a breeding ground for common, more dominant plants like netyles, dock leaves and dandelion. Impoverished soil is the stuff that the more rarer, interesting and diverse flowers love, and they will thrive.

A good example of wildflowers taking over is a hundred years ago. In November 1918 when the armistice was signed, bringing (at that point) a ceasefire on the Western Front in World War 1, the landscape was completely destroyed. Shell holes pocked the farmland, and some villages and roads were completely wiped off the face of the Earth. The four years of shelling, marching and trekking in the mud had churned the ground over and over again. By the following spring, these Flanders Fields were bright red. The red of the poppy. Poppies, you see, love impoverished soil, and the seeds will lay dormant for years waiting for exactly the right moment to germinate. In 1919, the conditions were perfect.

Well, we raked up all the grass cuttings until mid-afternoon while someone got on and burned them. We then moved on to the next task in hand. Between the meadow and the lake, there is an area usually called a scrape which is where the wading birds can potter about and is usually quite shallow. At low water, it was fairly evident that all was not right. What was usually muddy with occasional vegetation, but it looked more like a lawn out there. It turns out it is a plant from New Zealand, called Crassula, or New Zealand pygmy weed. Like most invasive species, it found its way over here because some idiotic explorer thought it looked ‘pretty’ and wanted to spruce his rockery up. A century later and it’s everywhere because firstly, it doesn’t belong here and secondly, it has no predators or parasites here to control it. This carpet of foreign trouble was in the process of being scraped up and destroyed while we were there, using a digger. All equipment used, including boots, tyres, buckets etc needs to be jetwashed immediately after use so none of the plant can spread elsewhere. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We were put to work cutting down willow trees that have gone beserk and taken over on the fringes of the water. We all looked like beavers, scurrying across the scrape dragging huge branches behind us that were three times the height of us. These all went on the fire, that I swear some people were becoming obsessed/enchanted by, almost a primeval urge, a calling from our ancestors. Man’s obsession with fire still reigns despite the new age of smart devices, money and fast cars.

Crassula is only one offender on the unwanted (and costly) foreign invaders list. Here is a list, in no order, of what we are facing in the UK. To any international readers, it would be great to hear your lists too!

  • Signal crayfish (no, it doesn’t improve 4g reception)
  • Himalayan balsam
  • Rhododendron
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Pirri-pirri burr
  • Floating pennywort
  • Brown rat
  • Mink
  • Grey Squirrel

There are countless others that belong on this list, which can be covered on another post. Whilst some of these are nice to look at, it is at the expense of our own flaura and fauna, and ultimately, our ecosystem, which is already at crisis point as well as practically every country on the planet. Restoring a natural ecosystem should be high on every environmental agency’s list. I just hope it’s not too late.

Thanks Benny

I feel sometimes in the developed world we take a lot of things for granted. Sure, everyday things like running water, sanitation and a largely accessible health service are probably what spring to mind first. Some things are the result of an individual’s idea, a war, or a similar struggle somewhere and can easily be forgotten as generations come and go or not even questioned as to why we have certain privileges. I think that global events like the two world wars will not be forgotten in a hurry although the sacrifices made by millions on either side, as well as civilians, all in the name of the freedom, it can be argued, could be seen as taken for granted nowadays. A prime example is the right to vote. The percentage turnouts for recent general elections have been low, yet a hundred years ago, women were willing to die or go to prison for that privilege.

All of these are massive, world-changing events, but there are seemingly smaller things in our lives that we owe to people who have sacrificed something, or stood up and fought for something not just for them but for everyone. I bet you’re wondering firstly, where this is going, and secondly, what the hell it has to do with the outdoors. Worry not, I’m getting back on track.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re an outdoors lover, or nature enthusiast then you’ll surely be (if you’re in the UK) able to access green, open countryside where you can escape and enjoy your interests at will. You can do this most of the year and even enjoy a picnic in the hills, or by a mountain lake. But a hundred years ago, you would have ran into big trouble attempting it. That all changed, and here’s how.

On 24th April 1932, three groups of walkers (one group as large as 400) set out to walk across open countyside on Kinder Scout, the highest peak in England’s Peak District. They were led by Benny Rothman, a Socialist, and Conservationist. A man after my own heart. Today, this very same route is walked each weekend in the summer by walkers in their drives, however the 1932 excursion was in order to highlight the fact that walkers weren’t allowed to do it. The three groups walked Kinder Scout and along the way were involved in a few altercations, mainly with gamekeepers. On the return journey, a handful were arrested, not for the act of trespassing, but for the violent nature of the altercations, and some served jail terms.

What followed was a constant campaign, spearheaded by the Ramblers’ Association. It paved the way for the National Parks Access and Countryside Act of 1949, which addressed the access issue, as well as essentially setting up National Parks in England. Eventually, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was set up, defining open access land and rights of way for everybody. If you’ve ever heard of the ‘right to roam’ in England and Wales, this is it. We all have the right to access open land (defined on a map) and remain as long as we wish in the pursuit of leisure, as long as respect for both the land and other users is adhered to.

Because of this, we are pretty lucky in the UK to have this in place. When compared to other countries, we are privileged. For a mountain lover like me, I am indebted to the campaigns that have gone before me to give me, essentially, an escape, a way of life, a reason to think beyond the realms of capitalism and gadgets. So thanks Benny Rothman, we all owe you one.

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.