Planning to escape

It’s so easy to establish a routine. Especially if you have a day job. I find that my evening routine changes through the seasons. Through summer it is spent outdoors unsurprisingly, sometimes at the allotment. But through winter, it’s tough. I say tough but what I mean is it’s so easy to tune into the crap that fills the TV schedule these days. I mean, seriously, how many dance-off, or ‘reality’ programmes is there room for?! Not wanting to turn into a couch potato, I try to do constructive things. As new year comes around, I feel like we are well over half way through winter, so I start looking hopefully forward to spring. Just this morning I spotted green shoots coming through the soil.

Nothing fills me with more hope than planning things for the warmer, brighter days. Setting out a plan for the allotment, choosing seeds, where to plant everything, gives a strange remedy.

Sitting on the train this week, I have been flicking through a mountain walks guide for Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons to do in the spring and summer. This gives me the greatest pleasure. I love planning a walk from a map of an area that I am not overly familiar with. I read the contours like it’s a novel, and picture the mountains, valleys and every knoll and sinkhole, imagining what it all looks like. Inevitably, when I get there I’m completely wrong. It’s funny because just like when I read a book, I make the film of it in my own head as I’m going through it, and as in the case of The Hobbit, I am perpetually disappointed when the real thing is released. The version in my head as a ten-year-old was much more magical and charming and Bilbo Baggins was not the tit from the mobile phone adverts. It can be the same with my walks. I always picture them taking place on a warm, sunny, spring day but in my experience, especially in Snowdonia, I’ve frozen my manhood off and got wet through to my Dennis the Menace boxer shorts. Unlike the film’s though, I’m never disappointed. I think this is one of the reasons I can sit and look over a map for hours, and the feeling of escape is probably why I used to draw so many of my own when I was very young. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings works by Tolkien to me was a kind of escape that I envied. I still do. Tolkien was a walking enthusiast and spent the mammoth part of his life trying to escape his reality. Drawing maps of distant fantasy lands, elven characters and Norse-like languages. To say he was away with the fairies was an understatement, but what a place to be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m switching the box on to watch somebody eat a live scorpion, whilst blindfolded, surrounded by dancing midgets. Fascinating.

Happy New Year!

I want to start this post by wishing you all a very Happy New Year, and carrying on with the positive hope that you all achieve what you are hoping for.

It’s that time of year where everything can feel brand new, like the reset button has been pressed and we all have another go at it to be better. The gym car park this morning was full of people with that fitness or weight loss intention!

As I make my way to work this morning, there is a strange other worldly, almost zombie-like stream of people wandering about, trying to remember what they do for a job, vaguely knowing they’re in the right place after ten days off. The Christmas lights still adorn the lamposts, the shops still have festive window displays, and littered around are hints at what may have happened with new year revellers – a bit of tinsel blowing across the street, smashed glasses and pieces of discarded clothes.

New year can also be a time of reflection. For me it was looking back at everything that I achieved in 2018, not just physically, but mentally as well. Following this comes the thinking of how it can be built on, continuing the momentum. I’ve found in my life that major changes can come from small adjustments made over time. Like when I started reducing the sugar I had in my tea, slowly until I began having it without. It’s better than just going cold turkey. That will be the same for me this year, making small tweaks to what I did last year, making everything part of the routine.

Small changes does still mean you can dream big though. They give you the confidence and impetus to push on through to get what you’re looking for. One thing I try to remember though is to stay as humble as I can throughout, instead of bulldozing my way towards a goal, treading on other people along the way.

So if you’re reading this, maybe on your way back to work, have a think. What are your aims for 2019? I wish you the very best!

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.

mde

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.

cof

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.

The word ‘failure’ fails me

In my last post, I introduced you all to the world of tabbing, if indeed you didn’t know what it was, and covered how it was introduced to me.

The post ended with me signing up for the gruelling Fan Dance, a civilian version of the SAS test march over Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons.

Training for it was tough. Being a runner, the heaviest thing I’d ever had to carry was a hydration pack of about 5kgs. Now here I was plodding around the countryside with 12kgs to begin with (eventually tabbing with 27kgs in 2016). I mixed up the training a bit, having varying the many factors like weight, distance and terrain. Ultimately the actual event was all three turned up to the max – muddy and rocky paths, two giant mountain ascents, and around 22kgs Bergen weight. Some days I’d run 5 miles carrying 15kgs, other days 12 miles cross country with 12kgs, chopping and changing and gradually building up weight and fitness.

Eventually in the July, it was race day. We rocked up at the start for an informal gathering. There was no loud music, no group warm up like you get at large events, not even a claxon to signify the start. Everyone just started off up the mountain in single file, no whoop-whooping, no fanfare, just the shuffling of feet.

To cut a long story short, I fell short of the mark. Notice how I don’t use the word failure. In this sort of environment, there is no such thing. There is a four hour benchmark that is the hallowed SAS pass time. I came in eighteen minutes over that. I know there were stretches where I could probably have pushed harder, and an incident at the halfway point set my mind in a downhill spiral of self doubt.

The halfway point is an unremarkable car park, where you join a queue to tell the DS (Directional Staff) your name and number so they can track your progress. This particular day was getting fairly hot, despite an overcast and drizzly beginning, and the staff were keen to make sure everybody had enough fluids to keep them going for the next half. Twelve months prior to this, the Brecon Beacons, and the SAS regiment in general, attracted a sudden burst of interest, as usual, spurred on by a negative event. Tragically, three recruits died on a similar exercise to the Fan Dance in very hot conditions, so partly due to this, hydration was being given a lot of attention. There I am in this queue, thinking ahead from an admin point of view, like getting into a dry t-shirt and transferring water from one of my bottles to my hydration pack etc. Then along comes the DS and stops right by me, looks me long and hard in the face and says, “Are you ok?”. “Yeah”, comes my reply. “Got enough water?”. “Yeah” was again the unambiguous reply. “Show me”, he insisted. So I did. “Well make sure you keep hydrated”, then off he walked. It may not sound like a terrifying exchange and in all probability was out of routine care and concern, but in those conditions, where I was already starting to feel like I was flagging, it set off doubtful thoughts in my mind. Was I ok? Would I be sufficiently hydrated? Would I finish the test? Would I collapse? I’d been slowly slipping behind my mate towards the halfway point and now I decided to let him carry on at his own pace and I would sort myself out and limit the damage.

Now, I’ve thought about that day a lot since and I maintain I made the right choice. I finished in a respectable time and learned a lot. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood.

Two years later, I was back. Finished below par again, but quicker than the previous attempt. I’m planning to go back next year and finish it once and for all. Oh, I nearly forgot. I did promise blood. On both attempts, after runningin my military boots, I bruised my toes so badly on the downhills that my big toe nails fell off. Not nice.

In the September of that same year, I attempted the Paratroop Regiment version of the test, on different terrain, lighter weight and shorter distance, but by no means easier. I fell short that time, but returned three years later and kicked its arse. Determination is clearly a major factor!

Whilst I fully expect to be visiting a chiropractor at some point, I don’t regret the day I first put on my Bergen. It’s opened up a whole new plateau of self discipline, determination, fitness, belief and confidence. It does leave me thinking though, what would be a bigger challenge if the day came where I got too comfortable with it? A day to relish.

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!

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!

img_20181026_130448.jpg

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.