Mixing it up

Well the illness that held me down last weekend was starting to dissipate by Wednesday and I didn’t fancy another weekend watching from the sidelines. I ended up by really looking forward to the weekend, and spent a chilled out Friday night catching up with stuff on TV, hoping for a good night’s sleep.

I definitely got a good night’s sleep because I overslept. Unfortunately, Saturday morning is Park Run time and I’m on a pretty good streak at the moment, edging towards completing 100 runs. I’m in an unofficial competition with a mate of mine to see who can get to 100 first. As it stands, I have a distinct advantage but I can’t afford many slip ups. When I got out of bed on Saturday, I wasn’t too worried, just get dressed, jump in the car and head down there. 5 mins, job done. However, it dawned on me as I was getting ready that the car, and indeed the roads, were frozen solid. It would take 15 minutes to clear the car, and I would definitely miss the run. Only one thing for it. I would have to run the two miles to the park, and only had 12 minutes to do it in. Long story short, I did it, but only just. I sprinted across the field to the start line where everybody was lined up ready to go. I must have looked hilarious. I slipped in to the line just in time to hear, 3…2…1…Go! A tough run, silly story, but a good one to recall all the same.

A few years ago, the same friend who introduced me to tabbing, also introduced me to a local-ish 10 mile cross country race that happens every February. A kind of curtain raiser for the year. Sunday just gone was my fourth. I like this event particularly because of its atmosphere and reputation as well as for the fact that you don’t get a medal! I’m not sure about all this medal (or bling) lot. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a few medals that I’m incredibly proud of and are a memento of a great day, but I don’t enter races just to get them. Anyway, given the week I’d had with the black death and all, I knew I wouldn’t be shooting for a personal best on Sunday, so I decided to run it in my military boots, carrying my Bergen. It made it a test of another dimension and I thoroughly enjoyed it, feeling the pressure of another kind. It made me think about doing it with other events like half marathons and 10k races etc.

In a roundabout way, both weekend events required my mindset to switch tracks – to crack on and complete my task in whichever way possible. Granted, a little surreal, but that’s what makes the adventure all the more richer.

How many daft Santas does it take…

Most Monday mornings, I sit on the train, trundling into the city with an uneasy feeling. The feeling is one of bewilderment, wondering to myself, “Where did the weekend go?”, “It can’t be over. There’s no way that was two days” and “I’m not ready to go back to work!!!” Sometimes I try not to say these out loud.

A couple of weekends ago, the two days were spent doing other stuff. Under that header, I group anything other than my core weekend training or off-the-script events, like spontaneous drinks with friends that I haven’t seen for a while, family events and freak weather-related incidents. I do really enjoy these weekends but they do leave me feeling a little unfulfilled by Monday morning as I have grown accustomed to the knackered yet happy feeling as I start the new week, content that I’ve suffered and sweated just enough to justify calling myself ‘fit’. So again, this Monday just gone, I found myself sat on the train feeling a little bit strange. I had an odd, unprepared feeling going to work like I had forgotten something or something was wrong. Railcard? Check. Lunch? Check. Trousers? Oh…check. Remind me never to wear check pattern trousers by the way – unless I become a chef or an early nineties rapper.

This uneasy post-weekend emptiness, as I’m calling it, does anyone else get it? I think it’s maybe because I’ve made exercise and being outdoors such a huge and regular part of my life for so long that it’s second nature to me now, and it leaves its mark when it is absent.

I had to rescue last weekend, as it was slipping away into the disappointing post-weekend emptiness (PWE) abyss. I did my usual ParkRun on Saturday, which to me, has become a vital part of my routine because I have made a few friends there and it’s become my weekly social event. My tolerance for cider and general pub-goers under the age of 25 is somewhat diminished, so bang goes my former social events. Sundays are usually spent doing a long run, or a lengthy slog with my Bergen, followed by a country walk until it’s dark. Last Sunday though, I took part in a local charity Santa Dash. 5k in a Santa costume! This isn’t as fun as it sounds. The cause (Claus?!) is fantastic, but the outfit is ridiculous! The first thing that happens is the crotch splits on the trousers. This normally occurs in the first half mile, but that’s only if you haven’t done the group warm up. That’s where they usually split. Then you have 5k of jogging along, one hand holding your trousers up, the other keeping the beard (yes, beard) out of your mouth. The beard sheds hair too, so you’re picking fluff out of your mouth or in my case, your own beard too. The flimsy plastic belt snaps, meaning the jacket flaps open and becomes a cape. The only saving grace, other than the charity aspect, is the fact that there’s 400 of you, so you’re not alone in your outfit issues. I did think it was funny when I looked around me and saw a sea of Santas and remarked what a problem it would be if you were a lost child and you had to describe your parent to the bewildered marshall. As I was plodding along, I started to feel frustrated as I was stuck at essentially walking pace, but managed to get over myself and relax and just enjoy it. I made as many people laugh as I could, making comments to people who were running with their dogs, saying things like, “If I’d have known you were allowed to bring pets, I’d have brought Prancer, Blitzen and Dancer!” Oh the comedy. I was disappointed when at the end all we got was a bottle of water. I was expecting at least a cookie. Luckily for everyone involved, their cheap plastic belts managed to hold up. If they hadn’t, their sides would have well and truly split.

As enjoyable as it was, I still felt like I’d fallen short of my usual weekend physical efforts. An afternoon walk and pub stop still didn’t tick the boxes, so when I got home, despite it being cold, dark and raining, as well as being at the wrong end of the day for my liking, I loaded up the Bergen and did a 6 miler. That definitely ticked boxes. It was still a surreal feeling on the train to work the next day however, but I felt like I’d achieved a decent balance.

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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.

 

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.

Hold on tight to your dreams

Life catches up with all of us. Dreams become forgotten memories if you are not careful enough to water them and tend to them. My mind these days is like a perpetual carousel of ideas and trains of thought, very much as though I am spinning plates. So far I haven’t smashed any…though it’s been a close call a few times. One day, my priority is my training, the next day it is revision, the day after it’s planning a trip. Add in places to be, things to pay (‘orrible grown up stuff) and it’s no wonder things get unceremoniously shoved down the crack of life.

It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I haven’t spent nearly half as much time out in the mountains this summer as I’d like to. So I decided to plan a day walk. Pencil to paper, I came up with a pretty full on 10 mile slog which included five mountains. Now, let me just clarify what a mountain is by British definition before any international readers get the idea that I’m some sort of athlete. In Britain, as decided by the Queen (I call her Lizzie as that is how she signs off her Christmas card to me), a mountain is defined as any area of high ground, grassy or rocky of a decent area, with an elevation of 600 metres or more. By this definition, I planned five, although really, it was only two, but they are so close together, you could count them as one. So, let’s say five anyway.

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The whole experience was magnificent. The weather perfect, if a tad too hot. In the space of five hours I saw four different species of birds of prey. One was effortlessly soaring on the thermals over the summit of the highest peak. It will be one of those days that will live long in the memory. That is what it’s generally all about, and up until now I thought all it was about was putting one leg in, one leg out, in, out, in, out and pretty much shaking it all about.

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On Sunday evening, whilst enjoying my dinner al fresco, I couldn’t help but overhear my neighbour speaking very loudly to his daughter on the phone. This guy is mid fifties perhaps, leaves the house well before me each morning and is seemingly in a prestigious job. When we do speak, it’s often about my latest exercise escapades, for which he calls me the “mad man”, which then turns to all the things he used to do. He was obviously very active until work took over. He’s a living warning to me about the pursuit of “success” and what it means in later years. Anyway, the gist of this loud conversation was that he is going away to spend a few days in a log cabin by a Loch in Scotland. In his words, he said it was time he started making some memories before he’s too old, and it’s been work, work, work for too long. I’m pleased he’s making choices like that, as he’s spot on.

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Back on the mountains, the day was filled with pleasant chats with other walkers, busy footpaths followed by deserted ones, views to kill for and just that satisfying knowledge that you’re here. If there’s nothing else at all, you’re here. It’s great to be in the present, seeing it, appreciating it and living it. It’s the way I want to be in all aspects of life. Back to plate spinning again.

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One life – live it.

One life – live it. Four simple words. Clichéd perhaps? Over-used perhaps?

The first time I saw this as a slogan was as a sticker on a Land Rover. Since then, I’ve seen it hundreds of times as stickers on Land Rovers. Does this mean that in order to live this one life to the full, you need to be behind the wheel of a Land Rover? I think not. I get that Land Rover drivers might go off-roading, therefore getting their kicks, however, most of the ones I’ve seen carrying these stickers are in immaculate showroom condition. The nearest they’ve been to off-road was when they had two wheels on the pavement outside the post office for five minutes.

I imagine it could be a status symbol, or a way of generating envy. I get it when I’m crawling home after work in very slow traffic, and in the ever-so-slightly quicker moving lane there is a camper van with a surfboard strapped to the roof. It’s a symbol to me that says, wow, they’re living their life. In reality, they might not be able to surf, or even, underneath the cover, it could be an ironing board. One life – iron.

Perception vs reality can be a venomous trap. Judging people’s lives and means. What they choose to show you is only the tip of the iceberg. Smoke and mirrors. That’s a big mistake. An even bigger mistake is to take that perception and let it make you feel sh*t about your own life.

On Sunday I competed in a trail run half marathon. On any day it is tough enough, but this year, in 29 degree heat, it was nearly impossible. The field was strung out, and I overtook many runners and in turn was overtaken myself. The instinct to fight back, latch onto their heels and keep with them kicks in, yet you realise you haven’t got much left in the tank and a with few miles to go the mere promise of finishing isn’t guaranteed, so I find I have to carry on as I’m going and just run my own race. Adjusting my gameplan and tactics from comparing myself to another runner is ludicrous. Those runners are probably fitter, or train harder than me. Hitching on to someone faster and fitter is only going to end one way – in a big fat DNF.

Incidentally, in another trail run I was running a few weeks ago, I ran for a stretch with a guy who had an Ironman tattoo on his leg. I see these tattoos a lot. At every event more or less and to me it means they are fit triathletes who have completed a World Triathlon event, as the tattoo bears the event’s logo. I think to myself that these guys and girls are serious, the ultimate endurance athletes and are forces to be reckoned with. At this said event, for the first time, I directly asked the guy a question about the tattoo, and I posed it to him that this event would be easy, given his World Series Triathlon pedigree, to which he responded, “Oh that? I did a sprint (short distance) triathlon last year, I haven’t done a full distance one. I didn’t finish either, I ran out of juice on the final leg”. I was somewhat amused as I’ve been a fool all these years, measuring myself against people, when not all of them are completely truthful. I did appreciate his honesty however.

Like I said, run your own race. What you measure yourself against could be smoke and mirrors. People will show you only what they want you to see, in all aspects of life. That bumper sticker should say One life – yours. Live it – your way.

Modern toss (and the art of Shinrin-yoku)

Despite feeling exhausted on Sunday morning when I woke up (a couple of hours before my alarm), I knew I needed to get out. I set out running just before six, heading off in the bright sunshine, heading in one direction – out of town.

It may be a modern human condition or something deep within us from generations gone by, but a lot of people feel the need to get outdoors to relax, escape and deal with various stresses. It is widely known that green is a relaxing colour, and I can’t help but feel this is deeply wired in us from when greenery surrounded us more than it does today.

Two miles in, and the houses are getting fewer and fewer. Hedgerows appear, copses, circling swallows and insistent skylarks. By the time I get to the woods, the silence and the low morning sunlight flooding in makes me stop and just sit. I sit down on a fallen tree and just soaked up the surroundings, immersing myself in nature and the feeling of breathing in the new day, replacing the negativity.

During the 1980s, the Japanese developed Shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, which involves taking in the forest with the senses. You can either sit, or walk in a forest and soak everything up, just as I did. It doesn’t involve any high intensity exercise and has been proven to be very successful. A 2-hour forest bathe helps you to unplug from the working day, laptops, phones and other modern day distractions and stress enhancers.

It is predicted that by 2050, 66% of the planet’s population will live in cities. With cities and towns getting bigger and bigger, this is not too surprising. I always imagine cities like giant octopuses, spreading their tarmac tentacles out into the countryside, swallowing it in chunks and expanding their concrete mass as they go.

I know I will always favour the outdoors as therapy. It works for me in many ways to cope with modern life. Plus it’s much more interesting than 99% of what’s on television and spending hours reading silly blogs online. Oh, hang on…