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normals

  • You’re weird
  • You’re idiosyncratic
  • You’re a dick
  • You’re okay
  • You’re soooo fucking clever
  • You’re an idiot
  • You’re mind numbingly banal
  • You’re my friend…

these are all things I’ve been called over the years and I’ve been called many more but I’ve never been called normal and there’s reasonable reason for that too.

However, if anyone ever called me normal I’d immediately correct them as I don’t believe there is any such thing as normal – only perspective and opinion.

You may now be asking two things, the first is, ‘I thought this was a blog about running – what is this rubbish?’, the second is, ‘why am I reading this?’

Well I can answer at least one of those! I’m writing about ‘normal’ because as a parent I find it one of the most offensive things you can say and that I want to ensure that my child is as far from normal as possible.

I’ve never been a fan of words and descriptions that attempt to create a conformity to some arbitrary standard but what really got me irked was when my daughter, ASK said this, ‘I don’t want an adventure story tonight, I want a normal story’.

Let me add some detail…

Each evening ASK gets a minimum of two stories, one that is from a book and one that the GingaNinja or I will make up on the spot – we refer to these as ‘Adventure Stories’. The reason we have named them so is to create distinction between the two types of stories she receives and more importantly these off the cuff tales are high on adventure and adrenaline fuelled pursuits involving noise, lights, acting and action! I was very saddened when she said, ‘I want a normal story…’ what she meant was she wanted a story from a book. I was quite shocked to hear her say ‘normal’ because it was a wholly inappropriate use of the word and I felt compelled to explain to her that there is no such thing as normal.

I can see that we many of us wish to ‘fit in’ and be normal but to be normal suggests that anything outside of your own opinion of normal is abnormal, different and that is often presented in negative terms – so when ASK asked for a normal story what she was saying to me was that non-book based stories were abnormal.

Now I’m projecting adult sentiment upon a three year old that currently isn’t there. However, and perhaps this is the point, if I don’t challenge ‘normal’ now and prove that there is no such thing then she will accept social normality as right and that is unacceptable to me.

The funny thing is that normal is, in our society, in our language everywhere and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the price of society, though I’ve always been careful about my usage of it in language. But society at large has made something of a beeline for being normal…

  • ‘That behaviour isn’t normal’
  • ‘Normal, hard working families’,
  • ‘Life will return to normal soon’,
  • ‘as normal you can be…’,
  • ‘[s]he had a normal upbringing’,
  • ‘Can you just act normally’
  • ‘I just want to be normal’
  • ‘Delivery is normally between 3-5 days’

I can be, on occasion, as guilty as anybody about being lazy in language, not being as verbally dexterous as I know I am capable of but understanding that I have a responsibility to support my young daughter in being as accepting of things that don’t conform has enabled me to think twice about what is being said and to even further promote diversity, difference and challenge.

This is not a call to arms to unburden ourselves of the shackles of modern life – not at all – we still have to live, it is more that perhaps we have become too blind to the ideas of what is acceptable. I suppose I would ask if we have become lazy about allowing boundaries to be defined for us? Let’s be honest the illusion of freedom still isn’t freedom.

Perhaps it’s a little like this, life has become that prepared, curated music playlist – you’ve listened to 5ive, Slam Dunk the Funk so you’ll probably be interested in Boyzone, but we won’t be showing you any Bach or Beck.

You’ve been spoon fed ‘bread and circus’ to make ‘normal’ acceptable and we, as a society then pass this message on generationally and therefore make a mostly compliant society.

I overheard two middle aged women reading a magazine, or rather browsing pictures, and on several occasions heard phrases like, ‘she just doesn’t look right, it’s not normal’. My grandmother often asks why I don’t dress ‘normally’ or wear ‘normal’ shoes and my answer to that is constant, ‘can you define what a normal shoe looks like?’ What they mean is, both my grandmother and the women I overheard is, ‘why don’t you conform to my idea of life?’

Conforming didn’t give us great innovation, huge creativity or adventurous exploration, following a societal norm puts constraints on us that we might simply not need. Within all of us i am absolutely sure that we have the capacity for great things if we only look that bit further.

At a time when the world is in trouble I’d urge all of us to say ‘fuck normal, be abnormal, be different, think wild, act beyond and accept that you don’t need limits’. The thing about being your own person is there are no guidelines, no rules – except that following a predefined, ordered path is unlikely to get you to where you want to be.

In the end ASK may choose to be a conformist, she may wish to adhere to a social norm but I live in hope that she will demand more from herself and the world around her.

Just something to think about

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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

  
You’re sat around with a group of people and suddenly it comes up that you run, it comes up that you run ultra marathons. You politely answer the question ‘what is an ultra marathon?’ and you answer the follow ups, ‘you run that distance?’ and ‘In one go?’ You are invariably very pleasant when you’re explaining why you do it too and then you get labelled.

My question is this, what labels have you been given and what do you think they meant?

Below are some of the ones I’ve had levelled at me over the years.

Machine: this I believe is meant to be a compliment, trust me it isn’t. This labels is intended to indicate that you are well oiled, well engineered and efficient. Machine to mean suggests something that breaks down, runs automatically, doesn’t feel, is controlled by someone else. I’m not a machine.

Crazy/Mad/Bonkers: ultrarunners are often referred to as mad or bonkers or similar. I like to think of us in a different way, what’s more mad? Being sat on the sofa eating Jaffa Cakes all weekend watching Simon Cowell waiting for the inevitable heart attack or going long distance running, staying healthy, getting fit and earning internal respect. We are so far from crazy for being ultrarunners, I’m crazy for some very different reasons.

Knobhead: I’ve been called a knobhead a few times as an ultrarunner. This label is probably more accurate than bonkers as ultra runners can be a little blinkered about their sport but I think it’s an internal thing – I don’t need an outsider to label me a knobhead because that’s just someone whose vocabulary isn’t robust enough to think up something wittier as I race past them.

Time Waster: I’ve had ultra running described as a waste of time and therefore that makes me a time waster. I was told that I’d get the same benefits from training for 10km races – this was someone that really didn’t get the concepts of adventure, scenery, passion or running. Apparently if I did shorter running I’d have more time in my life for other things. I’ll be honest lives pretty good (mostly) why would I reduce the amount of running to conform to someone else’s idea of normal

Legend: this one is meant as a positive but it really only applies to the few – you look at Roz Glover, Naomi Newton Fisher, Susie Chan, Bryan Webster, Louise Ayling or Dan Park – they are legends*. They are the people who defy every ache to deliver in regular outstanding results. The rest of us are ultrarunners and that’s pretty damn brilliant but these guys and their like have taken it that step further and all credit to them for that. 

Unnatural: this is the strangest label I’ve had levelled at me and it was in relation to my mental state. It was explained to me that I’m unnatural because I have a desire to compete in ‘stupid’ distance running races. This label is the stupid thing because to my mind ultrarunners are very assured in their mind, they have to be in order to commit to the idea of running long distances in the cold, wet and mud. There is nothing unnatural about wanting to push the human body to as far as it will go – it’s an honour to use the body and mind we’ve been given and to test it. Let’s remember we have the gift of life – there’s no sense squandering it so to me – Ultrarunning or any test of human endurance (mental or physical) is the most natural thing you can do.

So I have only one label for myself 

‘ultrarunner’

and I like it.

*Not a definitive list of legends

Friday had been a hectic day for reasons that I shan’t go into on a public forum, it had been a 4.30am start and I was tired by the time I got home (around 8.45pm). The problem was I had done no preparation for the Ranscombe Challenge, no kit ready, no food ready, nothing.

I fumbled in the running wardrobe at about 10.30pm quickly grabbed an old pair of OMM 0.5 flash tights, some Salomon Exo compression tights, a favourite Eco top from the Snowdonia Marathon and a couple of other bits – I threw two fun size twix bars into my Oxsitis pack and I was done.

Sleep.

At midnight though UltraBaby had things to say that just wouldn’t wait but thankfully The GingaNinja dealt with her queries.

Anyway, race morning came and #UltraTeam took the relatively short trip to the Ranscombe Farm, a beautiful part of the Kentish countryside with great views in all directions (well except the bit next to Eurostar). I was being dropped off with the plan that my progress would be regularly checked to ensure that I wasn’t over doing it or worse ‘running injured’.

I rocked up the hill to the start point and waved a cheery good morning to the ever fantastic Rachel and Traviss – making sure I congratulated Rachel on her brilliant performance at TransGC. These two guys really never cease to amaze with how much energy, enthusiasm and personal care goes into their events and that started with their generous and warm welcome to raceday. I grabbed my number, put my   ‘Drop bag’ on the tarpaulin and then started nattering away to some of the runners, Steve, Mel, Clive and many more – some of whom I’d ‘met’ just the day before on Twitter.

With a few minutes to go Rachel called the rabble of runners to order and gave us our instructions and we all able to the line up. Perhaps that’s what I like about these – the gentle, no pressure nature – though I did disappear to the back.

As the race started I cracked open the Suunto and headed off – but the pace was a bit slower than I’d imagined at the back so I wiggled forward a bit and set myself out at a reasonable pace knowing I could slow later. The good news was that the course was dry, weather was crisp and the wind wasn’t too bad either and so I thrust myself up the first minor incline and then hurled myself into the first decline before being faced by what I knew would be the energy sapping hill.

And so it proved – my ascent up the first major hill was slow but not without merit and I managed to keep going without over-exerting. Glad to see the top though I took a few seconds to admire the view of Kent and then set back into my ultra trundle. We were crossing a field with a delightful curvature to it and again I knew this was going to be a bit of a bitch after a few laps. The fun though started here, as you dismounted the hilly camber of the field you were greeted by a heavily ploughed field and a chance to really ‘Bomb it’ and in my new Hoka Challenger ATR that’s exactly what I did.  I hurtled down the ploughed field at full pelt (and would do so many times over). It was a nice test of sure footedness and both the Hoka and I were happy about our performance but as we approached the bottom of the ploughed field it was much more a trudge to the top and for much of the next section which was moist but runnable.

Having never really run here I found each turn hugely exciting and so when I discovered that the second half of each lap was a nice fast downhill I took great pleasure in ‘going for it’.

Of course It remained undulating but here I was able to regain some traction  and push on a bit – leaping from muddy mound to muddy mound and happy in the knowledge I had the grip to do it.

I rolled into the aid station after about 35 minutes or so and stood around conversing and eating. As always at these events the aid stations are a star attraction – a lot of care and effort goes into ensuring we aren’t missing out on cake or fudge or little American chocolates (3 musketeers) and there were Emily’s delicious biscuits – which I ate a shedload of – yummy.

I shan’t go into too much more detail of my race as it was laps but there are some things and people to mention. Clive, doing his 50th marathon looked the mutts nuts as he belted out another brilliant run. Karl, who had to pull up at 5 laps because of injury – I walked back with him the last bit of lap 5 and explained that he had no reason to be dejected. He was a great runner and will be back soon – thanks also to his family who made me laugh several times as I was going round. Elaine who was speed walking the distance and always looked brilliant as we met up at various point on the course. A little mention to Amy who came along to support and ran a lap with me towards the end and hopefully got her competitive running mojo on track for SDW50.

There are a few other brilliant things though that happened here – UltraBaby joined me for my ultra distance lap and enjoyed every single second of it (those of you that follow my Instagram feed will be able to see the video footage). Interestingly despite the weight we ran most of it including the hills and got lots of ‘cutesy’ glances and comments 🙂 annoyingly though I’d had a 25 minute wait for UltraBaby to be ready for her starting role, so this did have an affect on final times. Though I confess that we did give it a bit of riz to the finish line as nothing says ‘hand me that bell’ like a sprint finish.

As for day two? That was tough and I’d decided I was only going to do one lap but I ended up doing three laps in the much muddier but probably more fun conditions 🙂 Traviss and Rachel continued with their excellent hosting and offered up the best cake in the land – I think I ate about five pieces. I did run half a lap with beloved hound (who at Fowlmead ran a half marathon distance) but this time he was restricted to just a cameo appearance for the final couple of miles and ThunderPad helped pull UltraBoy up that final hill.

So I ran about 69km this weekend, I’m not too sore and I had a lot of fun.

My thanks go to four truly brilliant people (and one hound) – obviously the GingaNjnja, ThunderPad and UltraBaby but also Traviss and Rachel who do so much for the running community in both events and inspiration. However, we shouldn’t forget the legion of supporters either – especially the lovely ‘band or bell’ ladies who made me smile at every visit to the checkpoint.

If you haven’t done Ranscombe yet then you need to, it’s hard, fun and achievable.

Organisation Some events seem to need all the organisation in the universe, partly because they are bloated and partly because they’ve gone a bit mad. The Ranscombe Challenge is an example of how to properly run an event – for runners by runners. You simply couldn’t mark this down 10/10

Course The course had hills, it had flat, it had mud, it had views, it had pretty much everything you would want from a  trail run. As we understand it The Ranscombe Challenge is ‘Rachel’s baby’ and she should be congratulated on producing a truly winning course – I loved it so much I’m thinking of the Ranscombe Summer Challenge for my last warm up race before the CCC 10/10

Goodies Don’t get me started! I have come up with a theory that Traviss makes the goody bags so good just so that he can look even better as a runner on the days when he lines up next to us. In my goody bag included beers, matchmakers chocolate, a full chocolate orange, 100 marathon club smarties, mini chocolate orange segments, a kit kat chunky and so much other stuff that I can barely remember it all. The medals are as you can see amazing and I will wear them with pride – you can really see that a Saxons, Normans and Vikings event is an event laden with treasure 10/10

Atmosphere A few weeks back I moaned about the atmosphere at Brands Hatch which had lots of people, at the Ranscombe Challenge there are a lot less people but you really feel the love of it all, the love of the runners, the organisers and the spectators out on the course. To put all of this into context, my partner, The GingaNinja, enjoys coming to these events because they have such a positive vibe to them 10/10

Marshals There aren’t really any out on the course as such but the checkpoint every 4 miles provide a timely intervention if you ever need it (along with some toilets). The cheerful, helpful and smiling marshals were brilliant and seeing Traviss coming towards you as he prowls around the course always inspires you to push on a little bit (and then walk the moment you get out of his visual range). 10/10

Overall Brilliant 10/10

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