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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Perpetual winter and learning

This winter seems to be never-ending. Slowly, the mornings are getting lighter as well as the evenings. Pretty soon, the clocks change and everything accelerates further. Those are the best days yet often taken for granted. Whilst I no longer hate winter I still prefer spring and summer. Spring is unbeatable for the feeling of hope, warmth and the buzz of nature at work.

Whilst the bad weather and extreme temperatures can be devastating to our wildlife, it can bring rarely seen species into our neighbourhoods and gardens. Just the other day I saw a Redwing in extremely close proximity. These are winter visitors to our countryside and are usually seen from afar in flocks. This one seemed to be very tame and alone. ‘Tame’ in that situation is more likely to be representative of desperation. All the same it was great to admire one so close – the red on the wing, the Thrush-like feathering, and the distinctive flash of colour above the eye.

Snow in gardens reveals its secret story. Look at the tracks making their way across the lawn, follow them. See where garden visitors enter and exit your patch. The power and accessibility of the Internet and its wealth of information means you can look up track marks to help identify animals and birds.

Maybe I don’t want the winter to end after all.

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.

The tide.

I went back to the rough ground today for the first time since autumn. Very much like last time it was very sunny and bright, with a piercing blue sky, and shades of yellows and browns. The one noticeable absence however was the greenery. Back in the autumn there was still a fair amount of leaf cover and the whole area still felt quite private, but today, there were none to shield the outside world away. It felt very open and exposed.

As well as the world’s eyes creeping in, so too were the sounds of the urban surroundings – a cacophony of emergency service sirens, the hum of the motorway passing overhead nearby, the clang of lorries as their wheels find the weathered potholes on the carriage way. The increased noise, combined with being able to see more cars and people whizzing by, makes me feel, I notice, vulnerable. The rough ground isn’t the hidden sanctuary it once was. A guy wobbles by on a push bike that is far too small for him, weaving through the abandoned shopping trolleys, burned out car, and dumped boiler. People walk by going about their business. It just feels…less private.

But this area is not mine. I don’t own it. Is that what we want from the world? A place just for ourselves and a select group of people that we hand pick? No riff raff. No undesirables. No strangers. By doing that, we cease to grow as people and our horizons begin to shrink. We become set in our ways and spoilt by routine. If this rough space were mine, and only mine, who would join me to fight for it if the need rose up? Nobody would see it like I do because they would never be given the chance. Like a walled secret garden.

In amongst all this, I could actually hear a hive of bird song. Very spring-like. A volery of long tailed tits fluttered overhead from leafless branch to leafless branch, taking me completely by surprise. I would have expected them to be blue tits, or something equally as common. Back in the summer, I noted how quiet it was here for birds. Now it’s coming to life.

I start to make my way back to the pretty much pointless exercise that some would call my career. I note the old pavements I am walking along, revealing, beneath all the growth, the rough ground’s urban heritage. The samsara of ruralisation, urbanisation and then ruralisation. How quickly nature reclaims what man sees as a waste. The decaying fallen branches lying around, releasing their carbon back into the atmosphere shows that everything is a cycle. Birth, death, prosperity, decay. The tide giving and taking. What goes up, comes down. And every dog, always has its day.

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.

Winter walk

It has been radio silence on the blog front for a number of weeks now. I’m not sure why. I suppose it is down to being busy ‘living’ as we call it nowadays. In other words, losing yourself in work and trivial matters, forgetting the way.

Life is like a winter walk in the woods: occasionally losing the path, having to brave the elements, trying to find beauty amongst so much monotony. So very much like a winter walk, I have lost my path recently. I had been planning some wild camping trips, which I will need to crack on with in the new year, as well as some ultra marathons.

Today was all about getting out and getting some fresh air and getting back to nature. A six mile slog through the muddy woods on the hills ticked the boxes. I have found myself feeling a bit restless recently, getting the feeling I should be getting outdoors more despite the weather. Its the only way to survive winter. Get out and face the elements, don’t become a prisoner to them. See winter as an occupation not a season. The more you can get and do everything you plan to do, the more you grow accustomed to it and its normal. Unless you have a chronic health condition, sitting in all winter with the heating turned up full is not good. Wrap up, waterproof yourself and go!