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life



Life, the universe and then? 
Sometimes you can guide your life in such a way to make you believe that you have control and other times life simply asserts its dominance over you and gives you a bloody good kicking. I think I’ve had a charmed life, certainly over the past 10 years or so. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s morphed into something I consider very happy but it wasn’t always like that.

Finding happiness? One of the big pieces in the happiness puzzle was running, but unlike others who may have been Olympically or middle-age inspired, I came to running because I was going through the darkest period of my life. 

I’ve said before that I started running in late 2011 but that’s not strictly true – I’ve always run.

At school I ran the 100m, 200m and 400m, I was a decent cross-country runner and I enjoyed it much more than football, cricket or rugby. I was then an intermittent/lazy runner until around 2003 when I took a 3 month stay in sunny Scarborough because I needed to recover from what was effectively breaking down.

I suppose the truth of the matter is that I really arrived at a life filled with running because of this serious lapse in my mental health. I’d been in a relationship with a woman that had turned sour a year earlier and despite an a acrimonious break-up when she came calling, with serious issues of her own, I stupidly returned to try and help her.

This act of affection broke me into a million pieces, the problem I had was that I wasn’t qualified to help with her problems and she dragged me down beyond the point of being able to see clearly enough to prevent myself from drowning. I’m sure I’m not alone in such situations but at the time I felt at my lowest ebb and unable to see anything ahead of me – it felt a lot like I imagine the end of a wasted life would feel.

Though I don’t have a definitive recollection of everything that happened I do recall considering ending my own life, although I had framed it in thoughts such as, ‘what would happen if I wasn’t here?’ ‘Who would care?’ and ‘could a train ever not kill a human being in a direct hit situation?’

However, in reality, suicide wasn’t really on the cards as an option but it lurked as a concept. 

Thankfully I didn’t do that and I made a desperate decision that plays a huge role in influencing my life to this day…

I’d called my uncle.

He and his family lived in North Yorkshire and they kindly offered a place to stay and support. Little did I know his help would manifest itself best in reviving my love of running.

My uncle in his younger days had been a decent runner but as age, life and pies get to you then you let yourself go a bit and he had. It seemed we both benefitted from the fresh Scarborough coast line as we ran daily. The hilly roads and hillier cliff trails of North Yorkshire providing ample respite from my own stupidity. I even saw Jimmy Saville running up and down my hill a few times in the days when he was still ‘Saint Jim’.

My uncle was (and assume is) a pragmatic man and his approach of seaside air combined with exercise might seem a bit Victorian but actually I hadn’t gone so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t be reached and his solution was the right remedy for me.

We didn’t really talk in any detail about what went on, (stereotypically) men don’t, northern men don’t and we didn’t – other than a brief chat on a late night stroll up the hill to his home. I think this left us both a little uncomfortable and neither of us ever really returned to the topic other than in one heated argument (the point at which I knew I was recovering and knew it was time to leave).

But with limited exchanges over my mental wellness I felt the need to balance the support provided by my uncle and his wife by adding in talking therapy as a way of exploring what had brought me to my knees. Unfortunately I found a therapist determined to focus on my parents as the root of the issues I had rather than the slightly more obvious ex-girlfriend fucking around in my head. Thankfully I found the therapist and I got on very well and the conversations quite stimulating which in turn opened up my own ability for assessment with a renewed clarity.

In the weeks that followed I was able to reconnect with myself and through my newly acquired active lifestyle I began to feel physically and mentally stronger.

I started to set out some basic life rules* that (mostly) to this day I live by, but at the heart of that was a promise to myself that I would be active – this would form the cornerstone of ‘me’. I also came to understand that my life rules must be fluid and flexible because it was my own dogma that had made me fragile and vulnerable. However, in my dealings with the ex-girlfriend I had compromised myself and no amount of flexibility should allow that to happen again. 

And so armed with words to live by I did just that and the past 15 years have been (mostly) the best of my life. And in all that time only once have I had a scare that it might all come tumbling down and that was last year during my very public retirement from running.

The Risk of Return? With the GingaNinja disagreeing about how much running I do I found myself in something of a quandary. After many successful years of both good mental health and running I found myself in a position where I was being asked to curtail some of my active exploits.

The danger of this was an immediate downward spiral back towards being less mentally happy which would ultimately (I believe) have endangered my relationship.

I tried to explain this without the context of my experiences in the early 2000s and feel that withholding this information made the problem worse than it needed to be. Thankfully a solution was achieved where I neither compromised the security of my health or my relationship. No easy feat but it was the right outcome.

Times and people change. In the years since I first encountered a mental health problem I’ve become a very different person, so much so that my near 40 year old self would barely recognise the younger me. And even though I’m still a reasonably anxious person it now fails to overwhelm me, I’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘everything will just keep happening so I’ll just get on with my bit’ and this is just fine, but it felt like it was a very long road to get to this stage.

Concluding. I never thought I was a candidate to struggle with mental health and I never believed it would take nearly 15 years for me to talk about it in a public way but perhaps I simply no longer care what anyone else thinks. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen lots of blogs and forums on the topic and feel that my experience may be of use to someone or maybe I just like talking about myself.

However, having discussed other peoples challenges and resolutions in search of greater understanding I’ve come to realise that no two issues or answers are the same. I’m a big advocate for an adventurous, running lifestyle to give yourself breathing space and time to think but I am very aware this isn’t for everyone and need only look to my ex-girlfriend who helped bring my own problems to the fore. Running was not the solution for her but it was for me.

What I would urge anyone who finds themselves in a difficult position, anxious, depressed, sad or some other form of mental illness is to seek support (support information from Mind, click here). There are options and most of all there are ways to navigate around or away from difficultied but your journey will be as unique as you are and recovery takes effort and nothing in life is guaranteed.

But ultimately stay happy and as Bill and Ted said, ‘Be excellent to each other’.

While you’re here below are a few facts from mentalhealth.org.uk 

  • It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem.
  • In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%).
  • Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide
  • Mental health and behavioural problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and drug use) are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.
  • Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

And these numbers from Mind make sad reading (the full survey and information can be read here);

  • Generalised anxiety disorder 5.9 in 100 people
  • Depression 3.3 in 100 people
  • Phobias 2.4 in 100 people
  • OCD 1.3 in 100 people
  • Panic disorder 0.6 in 100 people
  • Post traumatic stress disorder 4.4 in 100 people
  • Mixed anxiety and depression 7.8 in 100 people

*For those interested and still reading I earlier mentioned the ‘Life Rules’ I established nearly 15 years ago. Having found the original list I wrote I have down exactly as was in my sketchbook. It was a good list then and it’s a good list now.

  • Be curious
  • Keep moving
  • Look up
  • Question
  • Listen
  • Fight
  • Never compromise yourself
  • Work hard, earn everything
  • Stand up for your beliefs
  • Learn from mistakes
  • Give people what they need not what they want
  • Have faith in people
  • Live the life fantastic

gptempdownload-20
And the rock cried out no hiding place. And it was correct, in ultra marathons there is no hiding place – especially from yourself.

The question I’m asking myself is, have I stopped hiding and am I making forward progress? Well the last six months are the first real test of that question – so how did I fare?

The 2017 halfway point: I love running, I hate running – it’s a perfect balance and 2017 has, so far, given as much as it has taken at the halfway point.

I’m not going to dwell on two DNFs (I’ve done that enough) instead I’m considering the huge positives I can take from my first six months of the year and look forward with enormous pleasure to my second six months.

The good

  • Finishing my third Vigo 10
  • Running on awesome trails in Barcelona and Madeira
  • Completing the Hockley Woods Challenge, Marlborough Downs Challenge, South Wales 50, Amersham Ultra and Escape From Meriden
  • Running the Westminster Mile twice, once with the family, once solo
  • Managing to get a medical certificate signed
  • Being told my heart is in tip top condition
  • Losing 6kg in weight
  • Deciding that, as a family, we need to move to Scotland and be closer to the mountains

The Bad

  • Failed to complete a race purchase therefore missing out on Winter Tanners
  • Let down by failing Altra Lone Peak 3.0
  • DNF at Madeira
  • DNF at Barcelona
  • Petzl head torch failure at the first time of in race usage
  • Put on 3kg in weight

The good stuff has been really, really good and the bad stuff has been a bit ‘meh’ I mean it’s not like the world caved in – it’s just running.

The South Wales 50 probably serves as the ultra highlight for me because I met two wonderful runners, had an awesome time and finished in a reasonable albeit not exceptional time. But the real highlight was having UltraBaby banging out a mile in a decent time and fully understanding the concept of racing and earning her reward – I was both a proud parent and runner at that moment.

The low point was obviously going to be Barcelona and realising I was going to have to DNF on a technicality rather than for running reasons – I was pretty furious and disappointed.

However, despite my misadventures I feel like I’m making positive progress towards my endgame and I knew before I started on this segment of the journey that failures would be fairly regular.

Perhaps my regret in my racing over the last six months is that Meriden killed off any chance I had of taking part in the South Wales 100. But this did set me up for a truly outstanding experience on the 50 with Ryan and Pete. South Wales was also a really good finishing point for the end of the first half of the year as it felt like I have properly succeeded at something and it means that mentally I go into preparations for my coming races and training with a positive attitude.

Upcoming
It’s a bit weird really, much like the start of the year I’m effectively having two months off where I can focus on training and family without the interruption of racing.

Therefore July and August will have a series of long runs on the outskirts of London and across Kent to prepare me for racing again which begins in early September with the return of the London to Brighton race.

The time off from racing will I hope get me through the summer without a case of serious dehydration or further DNFs as I found last summer and the one before to be a dreadful time for racing.

Ultimately I have reduced the amount of racing I do and I am seeing some benefits but there’s still much improvement to make, the challenge now is to improve my results in the second half of the year and continue to have a bloody good time.

Testing myself 

September London to Brighton will be a test of pace. Can I knuckle down enough to complete the 100km in under 14hrs? And can I navigate the course well enough to end up where I need to be. Given that I’ve clearly lost ‘half a yard’ to use a football reference and my navigation skills, although improving, are still not amazing, I will be very pleased to get through this unscathed. 

October Ultra Trail Scotland: Arran was the final race in my 2017 calendar to be confirmed and I can’t wait. At only 75km this should be a fairly simple test but with a little over 5,000metres of positive elevation this is set to be as brutal as the section of MIUT that I ran and anything but simple – the difference is that this will be autumnal Scotland not a pleasant spring day in Madeira. 

November The Rebellion sees me head to Wales again in November for a bit of a bimble through the hills. At 135miles this will be the longest distance I’ve tackled and I’m not intending to be quick but I’m also not planning on using the full 72hr time allocation. I signed up for this after the bitter disappointment of dropping from the SW100 to the SW50. Looking forward to this one.

December SainteLyon is my favourite race and I’ll be returning for more midnight shenanigans in Lyon. I’m sure I’ll still be a giant puddle of mess after The Rebellion but this glorious race fills me with unexplainable joy. I’m hoping to improve on my time from my first attempt but I’ll simply be pleased to returning a city and an event I really did fall in love with.

So that’s my second half of the year – four races left that cover mountains, speed, distance and love – you can’t ask for much more really.

But what about you? How has your running been so far this year? All going to plan? None of it going to plan? What’s left in the race calendar? and most importantly are you having fun? 

Happy running. 


Periodically I write about the adventures of my daughter (aka UltraBaby/ASK) and I, this blog post will update regularly and provide links to the tall tales that formed those adventures because we don’t just run… we just mainly run.

Climbing: We rolled back the years when we visited Evolution Climbing and it turns out ASK is a natural. Click the link to read more

Being Funky: Tales from the dancefloor at Rave-a-Roo and GrooveBaby. Click the link to read more

Taking to the ice: some festive fun and our first experience ice skating. Click the link to read more

Chislehurst Chase: ASK rocks up to the Chislehurst Chase and gives it some welly on the trail. Click the link to read more

Cultural Lanzarote: capturing some of the cultural delights of Lanzarote. Click the link to read more 

Rancho Texas: YeeHaa as we saddle up for a bit of light theme parking in the Canary Islands. Click the link to read more

MeeMeep, buggy runner coming through: how ASK and I get to go racing together. Click the link to read more

Dartford Bridge Fun Run: nothing like being 3 weeks old and competing in your first race. Click the link to read more

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Does this look like a man with a heart condition?

Sometimes as ultra runners we are required to prove that we are fit to race, sometimes it’s enough to highlight your experience over a specified distance or terrain and sometimes it’s to prove that you have no health issues that might affect you on the course. I don’t have any trouble confirming that I can run distance and ice covered most of the available terrains now but there is a medical problem and has been since my idiot brother died about 6 years ago.

Let’s not bother with the sympathy about my brother, we did not get along, hadn’t spoken in years and when he died I really wasn’t moved by it at all. Why am I telling you this? Well because from the grave my brother haunts my running and this is how.

It was early 2015 and I needed to get my medical certificate signed for the CCC – I was just returning from a stint on the sidelines it’s some glute problems but this seemed to be working its way into the background. I went along to the doctor and asked if she would sign my mandatory form.

‘I see that your brother died of “heart complications” at the age of 29’ she said. It was here that I knew I was going to have some trouble, ‘and your father has some heart conditions?’

I confirmed that both of these were true but that my brother died because he lived on frozen pizza, beer and a range of unhealthy activities that ultimately lead to him dying young. My multiple marathon running father I explained had developed relatively minor heart problems in his early 60s but was still hiking and running to a reasonable level and had even completed large swathes of a 96 mile walk less than a year previously.

‘You’ll need tests,’ she said and with that sent me on my way.

I assume I’m going to die pretty hideously, a bus smashing into me, falling off a cliff edge, one of the nastier cancers and I’ve always been okay with that because I’ve not waited for life to find me – I’ve gone out and found life. I’ve fought to have my life and in my opinion I’ve earned it but I’ve always said that when my time comes then my time will have come and I don’t need any forewarning.

This doctor wanted me to have forewarning of any health problems I may have, what she failed to realise is that death doesn’t scare me, I’m into making positive life choices that aren’t determined by the boundaries set out for you.

However, she wouldn’t sign the form without the tests and so they ran a decent set of tests and told me to give it 10 days. Turns out, despite abusing my body for years doing all the things I’ve done, I was fine.

Signature, medical certificate and stamp acquired.

With those I disappeared off to the CCC. This same certificate covered me for the SainteLyon as well but had run out by the next time I needed one.

I assumed that it would be a fairly simple process to get a second one signed. Roll up, pay the fee, get the certificate, run. This was not the case. I was told that not signing my medical certificate was not about me, but about the doctor – he didn’t want to be held responsible for approving someone with a heart condition to race.

I don’t have a heart condition

He cited Fabrice Muamba as the reason why – the footballer who collapsed in a game between Tottenham and Bolton. I explained that the echocardiogram he was insisting I have would be no were near the levels of medical care that a professional footballer received, therefore surely we should consider the other more relevant evidence. He stood firm that he wouldn’t risk his career on a man whose family have heart problems.

Bellend

My immediate thought was to go out the car park and take my fists and the rocks liberally littered around the place to his Mercedes but instead I settled for shouting abuse at him from outside the surgery ‘useless cockbag’ and ‘cunty features’ were certainly issued. The truth is that had he looked at me at all he would have been able to see that I was in no way up to running. I had limed into the surgery as I’d injured my calf pretty badly the week or two previously and I’d put on weight after my retirement. Both of those alone should have been enough to disqualify me from running but no he used the ‘family heart problem’.

I went home and resolved the issue. I signed my own certificate and produced my own stamp – the benefit of being a graphic designer – then I submitted it.

About three weeks before the race start I received my echocardiogram date and of course I went because otherwise I would struggle to get a medical certificate anywhere. They prodded and probed my like I was a lab rat and I lay there angry that I was going to be given information I really didn’t want either way. I’d also missed the cut off for submitting another less fraudulent medical certfiicate and so I was feeling a little down when I left the hospital.

The hospital told me to call my doctor in a day or two. I did so and I did so for a further 12 days until the receptionist said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss this with you, the doctor will need to see you’. By now I was the kind of fucked off that I reserve for those times in my life that I’ve actually had to hit someone and I responded rather curtly, ‘that is unacceptable’. Little Hitler told me the doctor would call me, I said that would be ‘acceptable’.

I don’t sleep well at the best of times but I really didn’t sleep well that night and spent much of it wondering if I would get to see UltraBaby run her first ultra or even her first 10km. I could hear the sound of my heart, I was listening for anomalies and I was replaying in my head over and over the letter of complaint I was preparing.

At 9.07am the doctor called, ‘You’re heart is as strong as an Ox’.

I assumed that was a good thing.

And so in theory I should be clear to have my medical certificate signed for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and I know that the doctor was only doing his job, attempting to give me peace of mind while at e same time sating his own appetite for security that he was sending me to my doom in the best possible health. The problem for me comes in that I didn’t want to know whether my heart was healthy or not, part of me likes that idea that one day on a trail or a mountain somewhere I’m just going out drop dead and yes that possibility still very much exists but not so much from my heart failing me.

Ultra running and my health are deeply connected but I like to face them as an unknown – too much knowledge really can stifle you and in my case at a time where I am trying to up the ante this medical drama seemed pointless, I don’t feel better for the information that my heart is strong, I feel like something has been taken from me.

I know that the response to this I will receive is that the doctor was simply doing his job and I can accept this but his rationale was way off, he didn’t appear to adequately take into account my experience, training or my own lack of health issues. When I pressed him about the 40+ other marathons or ultras that I didn’t need a medical certificate for he seemed disappointingly nonplussed, he admitted he was covering his own arse and that says a lot about the way the world is these days.

Perhaps we should all be able to take a little bit more responsibility for ourselves and then I/we won’t run into a chain of red tape that was more about filling out forms, crossing ‘t’s’, dotting ‘i’s’ and avoiding legal action than it was about my health. Humph.

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