Physical vs mental toughness

I should stress that I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist, though sometimes I wish I was so I could answer my own questions and actually write a blog worth reading. However, today’s subject is mental toughness and physical toughness, and if there’s a link between them.

This thought has its roots for me going back to 2015 when I was, like I am now, doing a lot of winter training. Back then too I was training with my weighted backpack (see previous posts). I started to wonder if pushing it physically and managing to prevail meant I was mentally tough. My rationale was that I was trying to ignore all of the messages my brain was receiving from parts of my body that were at breaking point, like lactic acid in my quads and calves for example. Training in the dark early mornings when no one else was about and in wind and rain too made me wonder if I was strengthening my mental willpower. To cut a convoluted theory short, I think I was. Partly. I am of the mindset that getting out and training in any weather prepares you for any eventuality conditions-wise, where some people would look out of the window and not bother going out. I call these conditions character building. But just because I am daft enough to hit the trails in sleet, doesn’t necessarily make me mentally tougher than someone who isn’t. It just means I’m more likely to shrug my shoulders on race day if it’s raining and get out there and go, instead of cowering, cursing the conditions that I hadn’t bothered to train in. Better preparation perhaps, not resilience?

One thing in my life makes me doubt that physical toughness has a massive effect on metal toughness, and that my friends, is work. Our jobs, or as some call them, careers. Some of the most physically tough people that I know are stressed out at work. Strung out even, riddled with self-doubt, probably because of a domineering boss or workplace bully. Even though they know they can bench press 100kgs, they still suffer and feel like shit because they get ticked off for missing a deadline or forget to CC someone ‘important’ into an email. In my experience of this situation, it has spurred me on to push myself harder in training and actually was the driving force behind me taking running more seriously in my twenties – but – did it make me mentally tougher to deal with similar scenarios that present themselves these days? No. Whilst physical fitness has helped take the edge off stress and negativity from things I realistically can’t change, and has I believe, prepared my body to better deal with the stress hormones associated with it, it probably hasn’t given me a definitive rule to deal with mentally challenging situations, like stress, self-doubt etc. It has, I believe, altered my perspective on situations though, and people I have met through my outdoors endeavours have helped me through tough times.

Admittedly, most of these situations have arisen for me in the workplace. There are people with more real struggles like illness to themselves or a loved one and have had to be strong for them whether they like it or not. So saying I’m mentally tougher for a 6am run in the snow over a single mum caring her children and juggling a demanding job would be naïve to say the least. Yes I am probably physically tougher because I can devote time to training but that could be where it stops. There are a few aspects of my life where I recognise my own weaknesses and the only thing I can see to develop that is to face up to them, and deal with them.

One of my best friends often has this conversation with me about mental toughness and he is convinced that both he and I are mentally tough people. I am quite doubtful about myself, and until recently, my internal jury was undecided about him. Interestingly, he would justify his claim to this elite strength by discussing all of the horrible bosses he’s worked for. Doubly interesting is the fact that he doesn’t work out. At all. He copes solely on his sedentary lifestyle. I did drop a hint a few lines back if you picked up on it, that something may have changed in his situation. It has. Without going into detail, he’s recently separated from his girlfriend, and on the face of it, he’s coping very well, though not as well as I previously thought. All the same, he asked my advice as to what I would do to combat anger, and the whole spectrum of feelings he has at the moment. Of course, I said straight away, go for a run. I know he won’t, so it would be interesting to see how it pans out. I honestly think he’s got the tools to survive, and he’s got me and other friends to support him too. It’s a very chalk-and-cheese comparison between the two of us. It would be interesting to hear from his viewpoint what it is about me that he thinks makes me strong. It sounds to me that he has worked for some really nasty articles down the years and by being exposed to that day-in, day-out, it’s got to put you through it and put smaller problems in their boxes.

My attitude generally these days is “Fuck it, it’s just a job” and move on, but is that right? Is it weakness to shrug your shoulders and walk away? Yes and no I feel. I believe you suffer for something just as much as you care about it. I don’t have a percieveable dead-end job, and I’ve earned the position I hold today, and I do care about doing the best job that I can, until 5pm at least anyway. So therefore I must accept some suffering along the way.  Having been in brutally stressful work situations before where I could feel my physiology changing because of it, I now recognise the signs and begin to act along the lines of self-protection, and damage limitation. One thing I do now at 36 years old which I didn’t do at 22 years old was to stick to my own path of integrity. Say and do what I believe to be right, and fight my corner when I have to. More often than not it does nothing to change the situation, but it definitely means those feelings of being useless or being walked over don’t get chance to arise and standing tall knowing you’ve followed your instincts prevails and knowing you’ve done all that you can.

There is a saying that goes, “Don’t drown yourself to save a drowning man”, which in this context means that if I choose to avoid really negative situations based on past experiences, means I can stay completely focussed on my goals and priorities of being the best person I can be for my friends and family and the world as a whole. It’s not running away, it’s seeing the bigger picture.

I don’t know if I’m mentally tough, but I definitely know I’m tougher than I used to be and that’s got to be the next best thing.

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!

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.

Leap of faith

My life is changing. I have a new job. Regular readers will remember well my blog meltdown a few weeks ago where I typed the immortal works “I hate my job”. Since then I’ve been through a few job applications, a few interviews, a lot of self belief and what do you know, some fools have decided I’m the best of the bunch to fill their vacancy. Only time will tell how it will turn out, but the main thing is, everything feels positive so far and I haven’t felt like this for years. No matter how cheerful I become, and how full my life feels, there’s always this snagging thought slithering through it all like a venomous snake in the grass, like a permanent Sunday afternoon, going “yoohoo, yes, yoohoo, it’s me, your job. You know you can’t outrun me, so make the most of this outdoors malarkey cos tomorrow, your arse is mine”. So I am looking forward, for a while at least, to not dreading Monday like I used to when I had PE with Mr Raisin (yes, that was really his name) in his pink shellsuit, screaming at us, going all red in the face because we couldn’t quite grasp the concept of basketball at the age of 10.

No, from now on, Mondays will be spent riding a glitzy unicorn called Derek all the way to work and bloody well enjoying it from start to finish.

But.

There’s always a big, oversized, pulsating but. And this is it. While regular readers may remember my meltdown, they would be wise to remember one of the positives I somehow managed to extract from my misery-inducing job. It was the fact that my job and the handful of inept lunatics I had to answer to actually drove me to spending more time outdoors, planning outdoor trips and daydreaming about great walks, trails, runs and mountains. What if I enjoy my new job so much that I forget all of that. Gulp. I can’t see it happening personally. But anything is possible. I am at a dangerous age where I could just give it all up for a less energetic lifestyle and after work drinks. Never say never. But I hope not.

In-between my two jobs, I will be taking off for two days on my most ambitious mountain trip yet. A two day walk, ticking off some six (I think) mountain summits, and about 27 miles, with a night wild camping in the middle.

Not that I need many excuses, but I’ve simply had to buy some new kit for the trip. A ultra light one man tent being on the list, a new pair of boots (this was a perfectly legitimate purchase as the old pair finally gave up the ghost on the last trip after NINE years service), single stove pots and pans, and best of all, some new maps.

With the route all planned, the last major task for the trip was to pack all of my gear into my backpack. My backpack is a 66 litre military Bergen which has been on quite a few sorties with me, but even at 66 litres, it heaved under the strain of the kit and supplies. The tent had to be attached on the outside, as well as the rollmat. Everything else has to be packed carefully depending on weight, size and most importantly, access. Objects that you are less likely to need can go at the bottom, working to the top for the more frequently used bits, like extra layers. The outer pockets contain things that I will definitely need, like food, waterproof, and hat. Some of the more luxury items can stay behind usually. I was hoping to take my camera to get some landscape shots, which is still possible, just that I’ll have to carry it outside of the bergen. To take decent landscape shots, it’s handy to have a tripod. Mine is far too heavy, so will definitely have to stay behind.

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After a pretty much miserable day at work today, despite the finish post being in sight, I found work being on my mind on the way home in an unacceptable way (more the people I have to work with than the job), and the only thing I found in my mind that lowered the pulse rate and brought more Zen-like calm was a mental image of myself, compass in hand, walking away from it all in to the vast all consuming beauty of the mountains. And there, movers and shakers, is where you will find me. Don’t wait up.

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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Flip flops for all

Have you been on holiday?

That’s what a few of my colleagues have been saying to me lately.

Have you been away?

I’d like to think it’s because something terrible has gone wrong and their first thought is that it can only have occurred because I wasn’t there. As I haven’t been on holiday relatively recently, if anything has gone boob up, chances are it happened because I was there.

No, of course, they are referring to my natural tan. Being fair in complexion, I am prone to sunburn. When I used to burn, I burned, then peeled, then went back to pale again. But over the last eight or nine years since I seriously ramped up the running, hiking, cycling and alotmenteering, I have began to look decidedly grubby. I am proud of my cyclist’s tan, runner’s tan and general tan. Spending more and more time outdoors has made me look a bit more healthy. It’s not just on the outside however. Being an outdoorsy type is good for your mind. It’s no secret anymore that sunlight equals vitamin D which is good for your happiness levels amongst other things.

I like having an outdoor mind set too. If you’re the same as me, you will know where I am coming from. That kind of train of thought throughout the day that thinks in terms of contour lines, places to go, the fresh air in general. Conversation in the communal kitchen with me can soon turn to stories of weekend adventures, not what has been happening on the already-slated-by-me Love Island.

I find l loving the outdoors guides my decisions and even my wardrobe. I work in an office. Not a very creative environment, although it is meant to be and is viciously sold to our clients as one, and every bloke there wears pretty much the following: smart shoes, jeans, checked shirt. Attack of the clones. I, and one more guy, who incidentally is NOT an outdoorsy type (unless you count beer gardens and barbeques) wear shorts, and, wait for it…flip flops. Yes, in our minds, we are outdoors on the beach. We get stick for it, but I’d rather break rank and have an identity than cower in the safety of dressing like a lumberjack.

Keeping fit used to be my other thing. The thing I did when I wasn’t at work, and the thing I talked about and thought about when I was at work. Then a change happened. The more I kept fit outdoors, the more time I spent outdoors. Soon enough, the outdoors became my thing. It’s like a disease with next to no cure at all. But what a disease to have! Imagine if it was an epidemic, what do you think the world and its people would be like? Would we still be money and status driven? I think it would be a world where nature and environmental issues would take precedent, with the majority protecting their favourite spaces, and their decisions being driven by their love of the outdoors. It sounds a bit hippy-like, but can you picture a whole people wearing flip flops in high powered jobs? I can!

Fighting

I think I’m getting old. The tell-tale signs are there. I won’t go into detail on all of them, but I think it’s healthy to admit it. One of the reasons I have for thinking this is that I seem to be fighting a lot nowadays. I don’t mean going down the pub and smashing a bottle over somebody’s head. Those days are well behind me. Luckily, last time, the victim didn’t press charges anyway, so I was quite fortunate. She was my mother-in-law after all. Anyway, I digress. By fighting, I mean standing up for things. People with flash LinkedIn profiles probably call this passionate, if at all they know what passionate means. I’ve discussed my job before here, and I think the main reason I hate it and seemingly suffer there is because I try to do my job right, and thoroughly, and I seem to be the only one. Everyone else has a wonderful day scraping by on the bare minimum required so they don’t get sacked. Whilst this mentality causes me to suffer at work, it does give me the strength and determination in other areas of my life to fight for something I feel is right, and is more likely to be a worthwhile cause, unlike my job which is feeding fat cats so they can get even fatter and do ridiculously unethical things with their money.

The point I’m getting to is as I’m aging, I’m realising that you suffer the most for things you fight for the most. Love Island would bore the living crap out of me, so I don’t watch it, but this same piece of asinine “entertainment” (can you tell I don’t like it?) could be the cornerstone of somebody else’s life. They could be involved in brawls over it. It bothers them, so they suffer for it. Football supporters are the same. Manchester United fans don’t give a rodent’s rear end about how Bristol City are getting on and vice versa but they will fight tooth and nail with City and Rovers fans all the same.
What is important to me are things like the environment, conservation, my own health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of my family and closest friends. I will stand up and fight for those when needed. I hate to forget my principles. I don’t feel they’re shallow and they are for the greater good.
I also believe that every little step in the right direction, no matter how small, is worth it. I’ve talked before about litterpicking and plastic pollution. Very small efforts everyday to fight these is still better than giving up. I sign petitions even though the odds are stacked ridiculously against the petitioners winning. I guess it’s called integrity.
Fighting is good, as long as it’s for the greater good. That definition is still too ambiguous to me however but it’s the closest I can get to a definitive one. Most of the problems we have in the world today are conceived from people fighting for the greater good until they work out their visions of the greater good are different. Then they fight each other.
My 18 year old self would look at me now and call me a miserable old git. I look at my 18 year old self and ask him why he didn’t fight enough for real things. That’s maturing though. I probably fall into the grumpy category. I struggle to recognise much today that I deem real enough to form an opinion on. The environment and self development are two big factors for me, and they go hand in hand. The environment and the state we leave it in will be our legacy in centuries time. It is a selfish act to harm our planet knowingly, saying “It’s not my problem because I won’t be around in a hundred years”.
If you’ve read this far, I think it’s worth mentioning that despite all of this, I do actually enjoy Christmas.