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!

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.

Mizzly Dick

Feeling fully pumped up following last week’s statement of intent to keep my greying temples above the rising water level of middle age, I rocked up to my local Park Run on Saturday and ran an almost personal-best-equalling time, coming in one second slower. That personal best I should add was set three-and-a-half years ago. It was the sort of performance that would demand a urine test. For now middle age can do one.

Following this effort, came the satisfying glow of achievement. You know, the sort of one you get when you manage not to pee on the bathroom floor. No? Just me then. Usually on Saturday mornings after the Park Run, the time up until midday is spent loafing about the house, uploading results to Strava, making breakfast part two, having some inane crap on TV blaring away in the background. This does feel like wasted time but wasted well. By twelve though, it’s time to mobilise and do something with the afternoon, especially if it’s as mild and sunny as this Saturday just gone was.

The only thing that could be done to tick the must haves on my Saturday autumn afternoon list was to go for a country walk. Somewhere olde world, with a bit of charm and seasonally colourful to boot. As luck would have it, many of the villages surrounding the town where I live match this criteria.

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Ever since discovering books about countryside folklore a few years back, and taking an interest in the social aspect of days gone by, I have loved visiting picturesque villages, imagining the people that would have lived there, and the tales that could be told about the village characters. It’s easy to imagine that time to be easier, more carefree. I bet it wasn’t, it was just different. People had problems and worries just like us, they were just different ones. They probably had more at stake, but I guess they had more of a community around them to help out and make everything seem less of a burden whereas today, we are encouraged more to rely upon the state in tough times, being convinced we can go through life alone if we need to. What you think of this depends upon many factors, like upbringing, current situation and general demeanor. I can look at the life of a farm labourer and feel envious of his lifestyle back in 1870, but I wouldn’t have known his concerns. He would probably laugh at mine.

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Passing through villages, past old cottages, pubs, war memorials and farms, I get the sense of community and my mind starts to write stories and poems. One of my favourite pastimes.

The low autumnal sun allowed me to take some interesting pictures due to the abstract long shadows. I love the golden light bouncing off the fading summer colours in an almost sympathetic way, like it’s summer being given one last victory lap before winter takes over properly for a few months. In surreal moments I find myself imagining that it actually could be the last autumn ever and it’s time to be in the present and appreciate fully the colours, the light, the smells, the chill in the air, the ripening of the fruits. I do actually get like that in every season given enough time. In the distance, a flock of large-ish birds was spotted, most likely Fieldfares or Redwings. Maybe Mistle Thrushes. One of the nicknames for the Mistle Thrush is Mizzly Dick and its song is a sure sign that autumn is in full swing and colder weather is just around the corner. Folklore also says they speak seven languages and grow a new set of legs every ten years!

It was one of those gorgeously bright days that will live in the memory for a very long time.