First ultra

Previously I threatened to bore everyone stupid with a day-by-day account of my week in the mountains. Fortunately, I completely forgot that inbetween that post and the next planned post, I took part in my first trail ultra marathon.

For my first attempt, I chose the second longest distance available for the weekend, which was 45 miles. It was a beautifully scenic out and back course, with the middle section being the hills that make up the highest ground of my home county. The whole trail followed a long county-wide path that carries the county’s name, so it was quite special to compete on home soil.

It was as much about fact finding as it was about running, having never ran that distance before, it was all unknown – distance, elevation, nutrition – so it was a kind of suck it and see exercise.

It generally went well, I ate to plan, little, often and regularly. Kept hydrated, walked the hills, ran the flat bits. Inevitably, the pace dropped somewhat in the last third. By that point however I had acquired a running pal who was running a shorter distance than me and had fresher legs, but insisted in staying with me. It was nice to have the company, and being honest, he probably indirectly pushed me to run many sections towards the end that I may not have attempted on my own owing to fatigue. On the other hand, as we were chatting most of the time, I wasn’t keeping an eye on the time and missed a few vital feeding slots. As I continued to slow, I instructed him a few times to carry on without me, although he refused, and we finished in tandem, crossing the finish line together.

The worst part, as with most endurance runs, was the end. Dealing with the need to lie down, but knowing that stretching and keeping moving is best. Feeling ravenous but feeling sick at the thought and sight of most foods. Being completely knackered and wanting to sleep but being unable to due to excess sugar consumed in energy foods, muscle fasciculations, and the buzzing of adrenaline still pumping. It’s probably the only time I would happily take a sleeping tablet.

I did manage to finish 12th, although at times I thought I was last. I have another slightly longer, yet more hilly, ultra in a month’s time. I couldn’t bring myself to think about running again until yesterday. Let’s hope I can put what I’ve learned this weekend to good use for the next ultra.

With ultra runs, especially trail ones, the main element for me is enjoyment. Enjoy it, complete it, make friends, learn from it, and come back again, and again.

Reconsideration. Reconciliation.

After a couple of weeks despairing over losing what we have, I thought I’d lighten the mood a little today by writing about my weekend where I got out and enjoyed what we have instead. After all, if I spent all my life fighting for something I’d probably neglect to enjoy it during the process too, leading to an awkward paradox.

In preparation for my ultra marathon in a few weeks time I went and ran some of the route on Sunday morning. It was the best day weather wise of the long Easter weekend, a little chilly but bright.

The route is a hilly one, but the paths, trees and views help you forget all of that in no time.

The woodland that I ran through were flooded with spring sunlight and birdsong. The brown woodland floor starting to turn green in the glades and a few wildflowers popping up, such as the Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa). 

Among the many highlights were hearing the woodpeckers drilling, seeing buzzards soaring and seeing the first bees of the year. My favourite part was glimpsing a fox across the field as it nonchalantly trotted away, occasionally pausing to glance back at me as if he were daring me to pursue him.

It truly is a beautiful part of the county, if not the country altogether. After considering the countryside we have lost, I’m proud we’ve managed to keep hold of some – and may it always be so.

 

Four snow storms and a cancellation

It’s been a funny old week. Four days of snow brought things to a standstill. I, and a few others still managed to get out for a run or two. For me, the snow is a great chance to use some of my winter and mountain kit. My fell running shoes got a good run out, resulting in easy traction and bone dry feet. Much less stressful than trying to drive in it too I might add.

A half marathon that I was entered into was cancelled too, which was probably wise, given the risk of safety for not just everyone competing, but also everyone getting there to compete, marshall or spectate.

Only a few days prior to all this I entered an ultra marathon in May and my thoughts drifted towards summer days, heatstroke risk and staying cool. Next thing, I’m digging my car out of a snow drift. All this happens at the same time that my studies cover weather fronts, so I can go some way to explain this Siberian atmosphere to myself as best I can. It’s not the sort of weather I’d like to be caught up in on the hills though, even if it does make for beautiful photographs.

Outdoor life goes on though. In the snow, I have always loved the silence. The ghost-like qualities of a busy town shut down by mother nature jamming her spanner in the works. Us humans can have a snow day, moan incessantly, watch TV and turn up the thermostat. I couldn’t help but notice the tiny tracks in across the path, made by a small bird, no doubt looking for food. They can’t have a day off. Imagine that, your whole life is your job. No leisure time, just survival from dawn til dusk, birth to death. Would we still have so many ‘problems’? Would our lives have more purpose, satisfaction and meaning? Think of things from nature’s point of view and they might start making sense.

Roaring dreams take place in a perfectly silent mind.

Sit down children, today’s subject is mindfulness.

For various reasons close to my shrivelled, unworthy heart, I chose mindfulness as a cause for 2018. It is a topic I touched upon in studying Buddhism over the years but didn’t truly embrace it or appreciate its importance. I find the word ‘mindfulness’ everywhere now – mindfulness cafés, mindfulness colouring books for adults, mindfulness potty training for children, mindfulness chocolate bars. I exaggerate of course, but hopefully you get the idea. It seems to be ‘trending’ which is something I hear and tend to switch off from because it usually means as many money-makers as possible hitch up to it and distort it. Protein is another one. Protein this, protein that. I’m ranting, I apologise.

Anyway, where was I? Mindfulness! Yes. I’ve began to work mindfulness in to my outdoor life. Maybe I’m guilty of distorting mindfulness too, because in my pursuits I am trying to live for the moment while doing them. Paying attention to sensations while running is one. The feel of rain on your face, the warm sensation of being two miles in and finally thawing out. The wind in your hair. It is probably best illustrated while hiking, especially if I take my camera. Paying attention to minute details like dewdrops on grass, ripples in streams, or listening to bird song. I love listening to bird song of common birds. Even though you hear them every day, it is important to never take them for granted for one day them or you will be gone. Watching sunsets and the like tend to be cliché but they’re simple and free to access. The other day, I stopped in the street to appreciate a murmuration of starlings. Who knows if and when you’ll see one again.

Mindfulness, when completely mastered is a kind of meditation, tuning in to the moment, and sounding out the everyday noise in our consciousness. There are health benefits too. Combining this with outdoor pursuits therefore seems to me to be ideal. Just got to keep practicing!

Does anyone out there have any experiences to share, or tips, or ideas? Please share!

The quote in the headline of this blog might not be completely appropriate, but the thinking is, if you can silence the thoughts whizzing through your mind, your real dreams might speak a little louder.

Out in the cold

Opening the curtains this morning brought no surprise but a test all the same. Ever had that feeling of having a monumental task looming over your head? That’s what I felt today.

The sky was grey, and it was snowing. It was the snow that surprised me. Straight away, the task in front of me grew in stature, like a playground bully. The task I’m talking about was an 18 mile run. The first ‘proper’ run on the road to my ultra marathon running goals for this year. I knew I was definitely going to go, I just wasn’t relishing the thought of it.

I thought it might be a huge mental victory to get my arse out of the door, but soon came to the conclusion that it might be the opposite. I had set my alarm early so I could fuel up and get out and back before mid-morning. This romantic notion of being up and out before anybody else, with the elements bashing me, shot in grainy black and white with (what the youth call) ‘grimy’ soundtrack playing over the top. In reality, the grimy music was snuffed out when I switched the alarm off and went back to sleep, shot in glorious Technicolor, with a decidedly un-grimy Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty floating over it.

Two hours later than advertised, I got out of the door. Not so mentally strong after all, but still strong enough to leave the warmth of the house and get soaked.

The run itself was good until the 14 mile point where my gloves got so wet it was warmer to take them off. A mile later, my hands froze. A mile after that I had lost all feeling and dexterity in them. Luckily for me it was only confined to my hands, and not my bodily functions. Wetting myself would have iced the cake. I did end up doing a mile more than planned, so not too bad. Out of the blocks. Bring on the challenges of 2018.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-challenges

Another long run in the bag on Sunday. Three and a half hours by myself out on the road. Quite unimaginable really. The human body is amazing. Compare the time spent on that run with other things that you could do. You could watch two films or two football matches. It’s half of the average working day. And yet, even without music to listen to, I didn’t get bored, or negative. I thought about a lot of things, a kind of therapy. Definitely not a meditation though. I think in order to do that, I would have to focus on my feet. By definition, meditation is the art of focusing on a single (hopefully virtuous!) object or thought, so rolling countryside and lanes don’t tick the boxes. It’s a great way of getting to know yourself though, seeing where your thoughts go, and finding out what you’re capable of. I don’t talk about my running at work unless I’m asked about it mainly because most people find it difficult to understand why I would want to do it. Equally, I find it difficult to understand why they want to spend their free time in bed until lunchtime, then switching the TV on for the rest of the day. If pushed, I always reveal that I’m just happy doing it and constantly pushing my ageing body to achieve things I never dreamed of. In other words, finding out what I’m capable of.

I think a life testing yourself in any way is a virtuous life. A meditation I guess. Challenge yourself to run a marathon, walk every street in your town, spot every species of wildflower that you can, count every star – whatever it is. It will fill you up. It will help you to dream. It will give you something to talk about when other things fail. And guess what? Keep doing it! Keep reinventing challenges. You’ll discover the outdoors, yourself and your next big move.

Small things. Baby steps.

Fresh off the back of the weekend came the inevitable Monday morning blues. The mental kicking and screaming tantrum informing me it’s time to go to the circus again.

How many of us genuinely love our jobs? I’d guess it’s a minority. My job is OK. Tolerable. Maybe I take it for granted. If I did find a job that I loved, however, would I still seek the physical and mental escapes to balance it out?

The dangerous thinking is that (assuming we live to current life expectancy) we spend about 80% of our life at work. Add on all the time we spend asleep, and we’re left with…well…not a lot.

I went running yesterday. It was a long run. I just set myself a time target to see how much distance I could cover in three hours. I enjoyed being out; the weather, the scenery, the solitude. I also loved the challenge. A fair way in to it, I began to tire and it became a case of putting one foot in front of the other. I began to think of how each step, although small, was part of something massive and the end goal wasn’t possible without the smaller parts. Just like moving a mountain. It’s done pebble by pebble. Or a beach, grain by grain.

This led me to wonder. The time spent at work, coping with stress, hoping for better days, more money, ‘clean desk’ policies, unjust promotions, coffee break gossip et al, is worthless. But we all need a job. Filling your marathon-length life with lots of small things adds up to a happy life. Making the most of the the small things. Small things add up to big things. Do more small things. I’m hoping to do some voluntary work, picking up litter. What I pick up will be a minute segment of the litter in my town, not to mention the planet. But it’s a little step towards a much bigger goal. Baby steps. Not just for babies after all.