It was all going so well…

After waxing lyrical about the progress made over the last few weeks a few strange things started to happen.

No matter the number and variety of sessions, my VO2 max started to drop and ‘fitness’ age increase. This culminated in a breathless and abnormally tough parkrun at Ludlow a couple of weeks ago. The Garmin rolled its eyes and asked me why I was bothering before telling me I was running like a 63 year old.

Harsh! And disconcerting and demoralising and I couldn’t understand it.

The following Tuesday while at work I felt progressively rough throughout the course of the day, until I called it a day at 4pm and asked G if he would secure a couple of Covid tests. They were a bit like rockinghorse poo, since according to the Zoe app, cases in Torridge (and across the contry) were skyrocketing. But he managed to secure two individual tests and we went home to confirm our suspicions.

Number of people calculated to have COVID symptoms on each day since the 1st Nov 2021

G carried on testing negative until the following Saturday. I was met with a positive test immediately and a gamut of symptoms including a temperature of 38.6, blood pressure of 150/102 and resting pulse rate 20 beats per minute higher than normal.

Over the next few days I rested as much as humanly possible while monitoring symptoms as they slowly dropped back to normal ranges. Things were fairly straightforward other than a trip to A&E to investigate a painful left eye which felt like it was distended. Thankfully this turned out to be a scratch on the eye but nothing more sinister. I’m convinced the doctor thought I’d been gardening and got some grit in my eye, but at that point I’d not moved off the couch for three days so heaven knows how it happened.

The eye is healing slowing and other than a sticky sensation in the lower lid is nearly back to normal.

Once we’d turned a corner, G and I wondered when we would be free to start exercising again. This is not an infection to be taken lightly by any means, the greatest concern is not necessarily the initial infection, but the risk of contracting ‘long covid’. Even so, the level of care required when returning to movement has really shocked us.

Assuming symptoms have dissipated and there are no underlying heart palpitations, severe breathlessness or respiratory, gastrointestinal or rheumatological conditions apparent then a wait of seven days (symptom free) is recommended before commencing very gentle activity (see image below).

BMJ – Suggested return to physical activity after Covid-19

Well knock me down with a sticky wicket, this tale smacked of caution.

But then, it’s not really surprising considering at the end of April 2022 the Office for National Statistics estimated roughly 1.8 million people were suffering from Long COVID. Of those, 1.2 million people said symptoms adversely affected their day-to-day activities (67% of those with self-reported long COVID), with 346,000 (19%) reporting that their ability to undertake their day-to-day activities had been “limited a lot”.

In reality, 10% of COVID-19 sufferers were expected to develop Long COVID.

The numbers are frightening – certainly enough for G and I to take this very, very seriously. Thankfully, we have lots of equipment to help monitor our return. The most valuable of these being a heart rate monitor on our wrists which is proving invaluable.

We’re still waiting for negative tests. A faint line today shows us we’re on our way and hopefully in a couple of days we will be able to start down the line of rehab. It will be a blessing, the lack of exercise has taken its toll both physically and mentally.

Move more

Image shows four times Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington at Woolacombe parkrun taken by Grant McGill

It feels like we have been coping with big life events in this country for several years now. Alastair Campbell described it in his podcast with Rory Stewart ‘The Rest is Politics‘ as ‘ABC’; Austerity, Brexit, Covid. Whatever the cause, people are dealing with a swirling torrent of worry around some big topics that affect us all and it’s impossible to be immune to the constant output of challenges we are all facing as a result.

However, this is not a blog about politics, rather it sets the background scene to the start of this story.

Chronic stress can have such a negative effect on health and it is easy in these crazy days to understand that most of us are experiencing chronic stress on some level. I know I am. Some stress is necessary for motivation but too much can breed inertia. In the last few months, the regular routine of life and world events running in tandem with appalling behaviour from this current government has left me feeling helpless, powerless, dismayed and ultimately bone weary.

And it does take its toll. By weight gain, lethargy, inertia ultimately leading to chronically poor mental and physical health. This is where I recently found myself.

The VO2 Max assessment in the last post was a bleak picture of a starting point. I mentioned I have a special birthday this year and Garmin judging my fitness to be that of a 76 year old, 26 years older than my actual age was a real wake up call.

So, the first stage of this whole process was to get moving again.

James Clear in his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits‘ sets out how to build a good habit seen below:

In early April, this was the route G and I took to start moving more. In the first week we set the alarm for 6am. In the second we set the alarm for 6am and got out of bed. Sometimes a few (or more) minutes after the alarm, but we made it our mission to get up and drink tea. In week 3 we set the alarm for 6am, got up shortly after, made coffee and took it down to the beach to drink it. We repeated week 3 for a few weeks until it felt like a habit.

Once we developed the craving to get up, we set ourselves physical tasks when we got to the beach before we drank our coffee. Sometimes this would be a short swim or walk. Sometimes it was a 15 minute AMRAP. Occasionally it would be a short run (20 minutes). The key is that the workout would be short and the intensity level would generally be set low.

And hey, guess what? It worked! Not every day. Some days we still felt exhausted and all we could bring ourselves to do was drink coffee at the beach. But more often or not we incorporated some kind of movement into our morning routine.

What have the effects been since April?

Well, Garmin thinks I’m 20 years younger. In early April my blood pressure was 142/81 and now it consistently measures 129/78. I’m almost 7 kgs lighter and Garmin tells me that in the last seven days I logged 3 swims, 2 rides, 2 runs, 1 strength workout and 1 yoga session. I have an average resting heart rate of 57 beats per minute (down a couple of beats from April).

Pretty cool huh?

It’s not all been sunlight and roses and the downwards trajectory has not followed for everything. Stress levels have been rising over the last three or four weeks. I’ve experienced a flair up of my eczema – which I think may be diet related so I’m tracking that with a food diary at the moment and I’m still struggling to recovery after a longer run/bike session last Saturday. So monitoring the length and intensity of sessions and their effects has become more important to ensure sessions contribute to fitness and do not jeopardise consistency.

It’s a work in progress, and not surprisingly so as I adapt my training to an aging body that is entrenched in its peri-menopause state. But I am grateful for it and what it can still do and the progress made so far.

Seven years on…

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Source unknown.

It has been almost seven years, sandwiching a global pandemic (we know, right?) I am almost 50kg overweight and in 356 days I hope to be on the start line of Ironman Lanzarote with a fighting chance of getting to the finish.

The odds are low – but it is possible.

At the start of this year, Garmin told me my fitness age was 76. I turn 50 in December. It was a psychological blow and a reality check, bolstered by the fact I couldn’t run for more than a couple of minutes without walking. Earlier this month I scored a resounding victory by running for 2.5km without stopping and managing to keep my heart rate steady at the same time.

Tomorrow I weigh in and the fight begins.

Care for Kids 10k – A ‘race’ report

It’s been fifteen months since G and I relocated to North Devon from Sussex in search of an outdoor lifestyle.

On the face of it, the move would seem a bit rash since Devon was a stranger to us both. Neither of us has spent any time there other than the odd trip to Torquay and a brief cycle through the county a few years ago but the lure of living by the sea on a coastline dominated by stunning beaches and a thriving outdoor culture persuaded us to at least give it a go.

Devon presents a very different landscape to what we were used to. It has a wonderfully diverse and varied geography. Dominated by the Atlantic Ocean to the North and English Channel to the right it is predominantly built on sandstone, limestone, granite and clay. Exmoor to the North and Dartmoor to the South are key geographical features as is the South West Cost Path which runs along both coastlines. Although in fairness, the whole county is littered with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Conservation Areas. It’s a compelling area to inhabit.

When we confirmed the move, one friend (who had been brought up in Devon) mentioned that we were certainly not moving for the weather. It turns out he wasn’t kidding. North Devon is buffeted by storms rolling in off the Atlantic. The exposed areas can be a bit exciting but thankfully, the area is blessed with pockets of ancient woodland and deep gorges which offer shelter when the storms are blowing in. The area is also consistently hilly, much more so than Surrey, making it a good test of our #hillsarefriends philosophy.

With so many wonderful areas to explore, we reasoned there is no better and more efficient way to discover new run routes than to utilise local knowledge via races. In the latter part of 2019, it paid dividends with beautiful runs at Arlington Court and Castle Drogo.

We just got into our stride then the pandemic hit and we had to rewrite everything.

Like everyone else we have stumbled around the last few months, working to form a new narrative and using the time productively to listen and learn. This time of renewal has opened our mind to looking for new experiences. So when a colleague from G’s work suggested we sign up for a virtual 5k run organised by a local charity he supports called Care for Kids, it seemed like a really nice idea. On completion of the 5k, the charity contacted us about a 10k they were hosting in July, so we signed up for that too. And that’s how we ended up stood in the car park at Woolacombe last week ready to explore.

Since we discovered the parkrun at Woolacombe Sands, it’s become one of our favourite places to run. The beach itself is edged by low cliffs to the North (Morte Point) and the South (Baggy Point). Morte Point we had explored many months ago and while Baggy was on the list we never seemed to find the time to get there.

Woolacombe looking North from Baggy Point

Although the virtual event was meant to be self timed with awards for the fastest runners, neither G nor I had any interest in running at speed. The event was a way to motivate us to get off the couch and run around a reputably stunning part of Devon. We were more inclined to explore and if that meant we were last, so be it.

Starting out from the Porthole cafe, the toilets were open thankfully, we headed South along the paved road towards the South West Coast Path.

The path undulates along the edge of the cliff for a time, offering tantalising glimpses of Putsborough sands below until it opens out onto the land mass. To go on would take you over the hill towards the village of Croyde and Saunton Sands. We were to turn right.

We decided to follow the South West Coast Path along the northern edge of the headland. The path is narrow and cursed with a natural camber. Simon Armitage describes the path in his book, ‘Walking Away’ as ‘and the path a narrow and occasionally precarious tightrope down the middle that has to be watched and negotiated. Also, the natural camber of the coast means that my right leg is always further down the hill than the left and is theoretically doing more work… I might even end up with one leg longer than the other, like people who live on the side of mountains’.

The path is so narrow in places and over grown with gorse – a pernicious shrub if you have the misfortune of coming into contact with it – that you are forced into a one foot in, one foot out hobble slowing us immensely. We were passed by several runners who had the seasoned look of experience. Interestingly they consistently shunned the path altogether and took their chances on the slope above and made much better progress than we did, so we give it a brief go before sliding back to the path.

In any respect the slower pace was worth it to enjoy the views and we took the opportunity to look up and take in the panorama as well as the sounds and smell of the sea. It was blowing quite a breeze along the headland, a refreshing and life affirming wind that makes you feel alive and happy to be so.

The whole headland is undulating but has a prevalence to climbing out to the point. It means that running should be easier on the way back (although it doesn’t always work like that) and we set a steady run/walk as we make our way along the coast. We we’re mindful the distance we need to achieve was only 10k and we’d already clocked a mile to get to the foot of the headland. A quick calculation revealed we should hit half way on the ‘point’ of Baggy Point and while it was tempting to explore the whole area, we would save that for another day.

As the path runs up and down it also weaves in and out, sometimes hugging the edge of the coast to an almost precarious point before drifting back inwards. It was an interesting path to run and one which draws you along to see what is over the next hill. The island of Lundy was to our right, sitting like a dumpling in a bowl of stew and clearly visible in the clear air.

As we crested the climb, the view opened on the bay to the South. In actual fact, we could see beyond the beach to Northam Burrows and along the coast past Clovelly right to Hartland Point. It was stunningly beautiful and exciting to see the geography laid out before us after obsessively studying it on maps and visiting various points in piecemeal.

Looking South towards Saunton Sands

We stood for a little while, taking in the sights, sounds and living in the joy of being present in the moment before turning back to head back along the path, in a reverse of the direction we had come.

We had spent quite a while lollygagging and so confident our time would not present a threat to the top of the results table, we enjoyed the return journey at a similar pace.

One of the things I love while running is enjoying the movement of my body. The inherent strength that indicates, should I need to, I can rely on my body to do what it needs to and get myself out of trouble. This terrain is perfect for that. A classic trail run in which no foot strike is really the same and attention needs to be held at all times. There is a kind of meditation in this type of running that switches off all excess thoughts other than where the next foot strike will go. So despite the howling wind around us, I was entrenched in a meditative peace.

A view of Woolacombe beach from Putsborough

We steadily made our way along the path, loosing elevation until eventually we dropped down onto the beach. We plodded along for a short while until we reached the point where the parkrun route reaches the beach. We picked up the path heading into the dunes and ran the route in reverse until we were back at the Porthole in time for coffee.

Lose yourself

I was one of those kids that really liked school. I wouldn’t go so far to say they were the best years of my life and all that, but I was blessed with wonderful teachers and interesting subjects and I just loved the formal process of learning. It was obvious that once, I’d finished school I’d want to continue with studies, so I headed off to university to carry on where A levels left off.

I chose Geography because it was diverse and I didn’t like being pinned to a particular genre of study. The course was fundamentally split between human geography – the study of people and physical geography – the study of ecosystems. Although the physical geography was interesting I was compelled by the human element.

Of course one of the obvious attractions of Geography was the faculties predilection for field trips. When it came to our field trips, the humans and physicals separated. Physicals headed to Mallorca to study sand ecosystems and we headed to the Netherlands to study integrated transport in an urban environment. It sounds like we got the raw deal (and certainly there was a LOT of gloating when Mallorca was mentioned as a destination) but I think that actually, the Netherlands turned out to be a result. We got to explore Utrecht, Rotterdam and Amsterdam and all of the tourist attractions available there and play on bicycles while we explored the cities. We had a wonderful time with lots of giggles and learned a lot.

One of the stand out lessons was regarding the use of space and humans interaction with place. We were sent out to a suburb of Utrecht and urged to take a seat on a bench in a local park. While there, for a minimum of 10 minutes we were to use all of our sense to map the surrounding environment and its ways of being used.

We mapped out the landscape through political influence, urban development and redevelopment, housing policy, transport infrastructure and most importantly the relationship local people had with the space. It opened up my eyes to the information available if we just took the time to stop and look, really look.

Since that time I have been intrigued with people and our sense of place. Of what place means to us, our relationship with it, how it identifies us, how it pulls our memories and tugs at our emotions. Why, when we go to the place where we grew up with our loved one for the first time we insist on the memory tour entitled ‘this is where…’.

In the last few years I have done most of my exploring on foot. Although I like to vary my routes, invariably I would run the same few over again. Sometimes clockwise, sometimes anticlockwise to vary the view (and goodness it’s amazing how the scenery and topography can change just by running a route in reverse). I liked to think of the lines being drawn on a map, over and over again. As I got more familiar with the landscape, I started to map a memory trail.

I was amazed at how this memory trail would then make me feel each time I ran it. The time I stopped for a ‘stretch’ at the top of the hill that then became an ingrained habit. The trails that would make me feel safe, the one that felt like the woods were haunted and ever since I would try to avoid – or at the very least pick up my pace. The corner where I had a post split conversation with my ex that would forever induce a feeling of sadness.

The phenomenon can be utilised for a positive benefit. Running is as much a mental sport as physical. Over the last ten years or so, I guided an annual run for London Marathon entrants running for the Children’s Trust in Tadworth. Usually held a week or two before the event proper, the aim was to recreate a positive memory trail in the last few miles of the race, traditionally when it the starts to get really tough.

London Marathon – Tower Bridge

London is undoubtedly one of the most iconic marathon in the world. It follows an interesting course but invariably all of its great landmarks are encountered in the last few miles of the run, when the pain and fatigue had accumulated enough to slump shoulders and cast eyes downwards to the road ahead. The plan here then was to enjoy the landmarks while fresh and hopefully help runners feel a little better on race day.

We would start from London Bridge, cross the river at Tower Bridge and pick up the route at around 22 miles. We ran the route slowly with frequent stops for a chat, the odd anecdote and to visualise feeling strong and in control at these points. Occasionally I would ask them to attach a song (that they loved and never failed to uplift them) to a landmark they would pass en route, in the hopes it would reawaken that feeling as they passed on race day.

Visualisation is an efficient way to build up a link with your route and is a very strong (and under-utilised tool) tool to pop in your running kitbag when you are training for a big event. However, it does not substitute mapping out the environment yourself by actually being there. I have run London six times in the last fifteen years and each run builds upon the memories left by the previous attempt. Creating subtly different layers to make it multi-dimensional experience. It helps that despite the route being the same, no marathon experience is ever the same and so the trail left behind adds texture in a subtle yet tangible way.

As long as the pathway markers left behind are positive rather than that of a breadcrumb trail left by Hansel and Gretel, this mapping can also make each run easier. Although, even if you did have a bad experience, as long as we are willing to question and learn from the experience it can be a valuable lesson for next time. Jessie Zapotechne in a recent online edition of Huck Magazine explains this phenomenon rather well:

‘There’s a topographical awareness that happens when you run distance through the city. Running not only creates a deep engagement with a sense of place, but also with ones self’.

Zapotechne is talking about her experiences of running in New York but this could just as well be applied to London or even a rural area if that’s where you run regularly.

Beachy Head marathon – climbing Beachy Head

For example, I have also run Beachy Head marathon six times and like London, each time has been very different. Even if the topography here remains the same, the weather invariably makes it a different experience each time. Nevertheless, I know the route well enough now to be able to recreate it in my memory.

The map of this route is enriched with the ghosts of the people I have run or had conversations with. The feeling of the changing surface under my feet, the shoes I have run in, the views (or in the case of the heavy fog year) the smells of the earth around me. Memories of being too hot, or freezing cold.

All of these sensations accompanied by an internal dialogue plotting the experiences of my life at the time of each of the runs and particularly how my life was changing across them. Beachy Head marathon inexorably links my old life and new. In that time of turmoil each run helped to slough off the mental health illness that threatened to overwhelm me, generating the strength to keep going. The challenge of this topography was reflected in the struggle of shedding of the person I had become. Being outdoors in this tough environment with time to think and feel, like a phoenix reborn, I came alive again.

When I hear people talk about the benefits of running, my thoughts nearly always turn to physical fitness. To an improved cardio vascular system, lower risk of co-morbidities like diabetes, obesity, or maybe better body image. But we’re missing a trick. Running, and particularly our relationship with where we run can create a place in which we can lose ourselves, and in which we can find ourselves again.

Goal setting?

A friend of mine contacted me recently to ask a question. Prior to lock down he had been training for a long distance endurance event. ‘The journey and adventures getting to an event are the memories I love’ he said before asking ‘What if we removed the goal?’

It is an interesting and timely question.

Goal setting is synonymous with SMART objectives. And according to the ‘mind tools‘ website, the first known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T Doran. So goal setting as we know it has been around for just under forty years. And goodness has it been around. From it’s inception in 1981 the concept managed to embed itself so successfully that by the time I entered the world of training and development in the mid 90’s, ‘SMART’ formed the building block of every training session we delivered.

I entered training and development in Public Relations before moving onto Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital where we taught non clinical skills such as conducting interviews and time management. SMART followed me from the hospital to the police service training unit and was still around when I commenced personal training ten years later.

By the mid noughties many of us were suffering from SMART fatigue. To the extent that I’d given up teaching it in my classes. Most students had seen it a thousand times by then and I was losing confidence in its worth in both the classroom and beyond. This was partly because I believed goal setting to be an inappropriate professional tool in the police service or indeed in any public sector services.

When I started my personal trainers course in 2007, ‘SMART’ was wheeled out once again. I embraced it with a heavy heart, as it was made perfectly clear it was not possible to pursue fitness without a goal attached to the concept.

At least in the fitness world, goal setting made sense to some extent. It provided a purpose to the daily sessions and governed the type, intensity and duration of those sessions. In the context of PT we were taught to question the purpose of each session and make sure our clients understood why they were doing what they were doing. Having a goal, made it easier to understand purpose.

Actually, at this point in my life, goal setting had become a bit more of a priority. Three years prior to this course I had started ‘racing’. This previously unbeknown world had been brought to my attention by colleagues in the police service. In Surrey (where I lived at the time) existed a huge race calendar featuring a variety of runs over various distances and terrains. A secret world where you could pit yourself against people your own age and gender as well as the rest of the field.

Racing was not all about winning of course. It was often about improvement or in some cases not coming last. What I learned most is that people can run no matter what shape or size they are and the majority of those people were in front of me. Racing is often a lesson in humility.

What I also discovered is that running quickly became a lesson in goal setting. I ran my first 10k in around 54 minutes and instantly wondered if I could break 50 minutes. Not understanding either the concepts of pacing or the exponential effort of running faster, I tried to go sub 50 in my next effort and got my arse handed to me on a plate, limping home to scrape in just under 60 minutes.

I obsessed over training plans and played with strength and endurance work, which admittedly yielded results, until a stress event at the end of 2005 left me with fibromyalgia and subsequently unable to run. I never regained the pace of those early days so I decided to change focus and go longer – where I perceived people would be more impressed with the distance and less focused on what time it took me to complete it (that tells you a lot about motivation but more of that soon).

Eventually, entering events (that were physically challenging) became the motivation (the goal) for training. Or at least I convinced myself it did. I used event entries to try and scare me off the couch and into exercise to questionable results. As the years went by I notched up more ‘did not finishes’ which then migrated into not even starting.

When I did finish, those performances were slower and more painful. And yet I carried on entering events in the belief that I needed that goal, stuck in an ever decreasing circle. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how much toll the fibromyalgia had on my physiology and mental health.

I also don’t think I’m on my own with this phenomenon of trying to use goals as motivation. I have seen this pattern repeated numerous times by others and their experience of failure often matched my own. So, it has come as something of a relief to to see numerous publications over the last couple of years starting to question goal led motivation. That’s why my friends question was so pertinent.

It’s also slightly more complicated than this simple explanation of carrot and stick.

Between 2008 and 2017 I managed a running shop and events company. During that time I came into contact with thousands of people who had invested a lot of time, money, emotion, hopes and dreams into completing an event. Everything from a beginner targeting the local parkrun to long distance triathlons via countless marathons. The process is the same regardless of the distance.

It became evident that a lot of those people had invested so much in realising the actual event that deviation from their expectation resulted in catastrophic consequences. Especially when people placed less value in the training than the completion of the event.

What would happen if the event needed to be altered or the weather wasn’t ‘right’ or they picked up an illness or injury or worst case, the event did not go ahead. Another friend of mine, a proficient 2 hour 30 minute marathon runner is still waiting for his perfect race, and he’s run lots of them. Asking for everything to go perfectly on race day is asking a lot.

More often than not, things can go wrong enough to derail the whole experience. Here are some examples:

* London Marathon 2007 was unseasonably warm. Temperatures reached over 30 degrees resulting in a massive increase in casualties. Many suffered cramps or collapsed due to heat exhaustion. Interestingly both Rotterdam and Chicago marathons were abandoned during the actual event in 2007 as climbing temperatures posed a danger to slower participants.
NB If you want a lesson in how heat affects pace google chef Gordon Ramsay’s result for this race. He had declared prior to the race that he would be aiming for a sub 3.30 marathon and crossed the line over an hour later than planned. Each 10 kilometre split considerably slower than the last.
*Ironman Nice in France had unseasonably hot weather in 2008 resulting in the water stations at the top of the mountain running out.
* In 2012 I travelled to New Zealand to compete in Ironman New Zealand. The event was cancelled due to a freak storm hitting the North Island.
*Ironman Nice (still in France) in 2014 suffered unseasonably cold weather on the bike route resulting in many competitors being withdrawn due to hypothermia.
* In 2017 Brighton Marathon experienced very hot weather resulting in the water stations running out of cups and water. Many participants had to go without water for over 13 miles.

The last two years has seen significant challenges in the event industry:
*2019 was a wash out for a number of global Ironman events resulting in the swim portion being shortened or in some cases cancelled. This was not restricted to Ironman branded events. Outlaw organiser One Step Beyond were forced to abandon the cycle portion of their long distance triathlon while athletes were in the swim. This was due to torrential rain flooding the course rendering it unsafe.
*2020 has seen a universal cancellation of events from March onwards. It’s highly unlikely that any mass events will be held this year.

Having experienced a few issues of our own while participating in events, we began to tell people to view the event as a victory lap. Something to be enjoyed. A day to revel in the training completed. The facilitator but not the purpose. Then, if the event did not go as planned all is not lost.

And perspectives are shifting. In the last few years I have witnessed a shift away from goal setting. James Clear in his book ‘Atomic Habits, an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones’ argues strongly against goal setting. Advocating building habits to effect change and instil healthy regimes. This includes exercise.

Many who have followed Clear’s path argue those who use the ‘goal’ theory to find motivation generally fail. Google ‘habits not goals’ and see how many would be philosophers have bought in.

‘The Daily Stoic’ for 14 May preaches that ‘our well being lies in our actions’. ‘If your happiness is dependent on accomplishing certain goals, what happens if fate intervenes?’, it asks. Quite! Even the actor Matthew McConaughey in his 2015 commencement address at the University of Houston states ‘joy is always in (the) process. It’s under construction…alive and well in the doing’.

The recent lock down has provided a real opportunity to burn down our thinking around goal setting and build something much more sustainable instead. In the immediate aftermath after the lock down, a number of wonderful things happened. Many experienced people (including a number of ‘celebrities’ (I’m guessing in a quest to establish their own good habits) have offered regular fitness sessions. And they have been incredibly generous with their time. This, coupled with the evaporation of the racing season on a global scale, has resulted in many would be athletes paring back their training. Moving and relishing in that movement without goal or agenda.

Here, I abandoned Ironman training in March and started to do Qi Gong with Mark Shayler via Instagram every day and Yoga with Adrienne via Youtube three or four times a week. G and I have walked and explored and sometimes ran and have lifted lots of weights. Purely for the joy of doing it and the freedom to explore what feels right. Ironically I am now stronger and fitter than I was after 30 weeks of Ironman training.

So, to go back to the original question, what if we remove the goal? Well, I think for some the chase of a medal will always be too great an opportunity to miss. But for the rest of us, the opportunity of building habits that will contribute to physical and mental well being and ultimately bring us joy sounds just fine.

London Marathon 2005

I’m reading a book by Rob Macfarlane called ‘The Old Ways’. It’s a book about journeys on foot, essentially an exploration of walking both physically and metaphorically. Macfarlane is passionately interested in place, the use of space by humans and their interaction with the environment. He is also interested in ghosts, not in the traditional haunting sense but rather as companions on our own journeys. Old wayfarers travelling old pathways. Somehow we have an awareness of those who have walked the path before us.

As well as the ability to recall metaphysical travellers, in The Old Ways, Macfarlane argues we can take those landscapes with us; ‘we tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn from actuality, and such places – retreated to most often when we are most remote from them – are among the most important landscapes we possess’.

I’ve long suspected both to be true. Many times over the years I have felt companionship while travelling paths alone, both urban and rural. Companionship that is ethereal not animal or vegetable and in some of my loneliest times, has been a source of comfort to me.

I also love to recall routes of runs I have done. They create a backdrop to my conceptualised happy place, (the dentist is never quite so scary when I can recreate the London Marathon in my head). I can while away hours, travelling virtually while on lockdown. And the mind is so clever, I can recreate emotions, smells, sights and other events happening in life at the time of running the event.

I started running with my father when I was small, it has been a faithful companion ever since. I’ve not always run regularly but I’ve always held the possibility of it in my heart. I picked it up again after I moved to London and wanted to train for the Metropolitan Police fitness test and then gradually increased distance. It was through work I learned of the local race circuit that existed in both running and triathlon.

In those days, before Ironman gained the popularity it has in recent times, running a marathon was the pinnacle of sporting prowess for the ‘average’ person. The London Marathon application process was still via ballot, but instead of online, a paper application needed to be completed and posted to Marathon HQ in London, then the long wait began.

London Marathon cashed the accompanying cheque before notification. So, instead of waiting for the magazine announcing the result to arrive, you could tell by checking whether your cheque had been cashed. My bank statement arrived the same day my friend rang to see if I had heard anything. I sat on the floor with phone wedged between ear and neck while I opened it. I saw it immediately, the line on the statement showing a cheque for £23 had been cashed.

I laughed and threw a few ‘Oh fucks’ to the sky, I was in.

The lead up to the first marathon is dominated by uncertainty. At that point, you genuinely don’t know whether your body can withstand being dragged around 26.2 miles. It turns out, that actually the dragging (as such) is not the hard part. The difficulty rests in having a reason to do so knowing it’s going to hurt. But in those days I was still naive so I downloaded a training plan from Runnersworld and followed it pretty much to the letter. (It’s the only time have ever really done so – but that’s another story for another day).

Running the marathon is much more of a mental than physical feat. When hosting my marathon training seminars, even now, I always start by telling the audience if they had to run a marathon the following day, they could. Sure, it would hurt, and they wouldn’t necessarily achieve their best performance and almost certainly would struggle to get out of bed the following day. But the key point was they COULD.

All they would need is a good enough reason to do it. So the training is about making the run more enjoyable and getting out of bed the next day a less exciting and painful experience. I would advise them to make sure they knew why they were doing it. The ‘why’ is the most important part of the whole bloody thing.

In truth, before the race I couldn’t have answered the why with any real altruistic reason. In the year or two before I had ridden John O’Groats to Lands End before running my first half marathon in the New Forest the weekend after. I ran too fast in the first half and so struggled over the last three miles but it didn’t feel terribly difficult. So, I felt enticed by the challenge of the marathon, the thought of which scared me.

The training went ok actually. I did most of the prescribed runs, even during a trip to New Zealand over the Christmas period. I was lucky enough to be working in Kennington in London at the time and took advantage of being able to run on a significant portion of the last four miles of the course.

I was starting from the blue pen, my conservative finish time putting me into pen eight of nine. One of the first things that strikes you when entering the start area is the energy. A latent flow with the potential to be either nerves or excitement depending on your interpretation.

There is an immediate sense of having a common goal. But instead of competitive it is supportive. As though the energy regardless of its original intent, is being concentrated on a specific direction (from start to finish) and is as powerful as a tsunami.

Other marathons have a similar feel, but none is so explicit as London. I suppose this is partly due to the narrow streets of London concentrating the flow of the runners and bringing supporters into close proximity. It is a life affirming place to be.

The first few miles from Blackheath were dominated by a sense of the mundane, expressed in the street furniture, the road humps, signs for schools and zebra crossings. I felt the domesticity of the place and felt out of sorts, a blot on the landscape.

The urban environment surprised me. One comes to assume the route is a plethora of landmarks. In fact the first 12 miles are made up of a cacophony of residential streets, car parks and high streets in the less salubrious parts of London, broken up by a fleeting view of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

I was extraordinarily excited to hit Tooley Street at the twelve mile mark. It was the first time I knew where I was and my own mind map kicked in with ghosts of my past visits.

Those were in the days before an upgraded London Bridge Station, drinking extortionately priced wine in Hays Galleria in the early nineties and earlier still, visiting the London Dungeon before it moved to the Southbank.

The eagled eyed among you will notice the sponsorship banners from Virgin. This photo was actually taken in 2013.

Of course, we didn’t get as far as London Bridge as the route turns right off Tooley Street and onto Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, iconic and undoubtedly recognisable. Once off the bridge the route turns right again and onto the Highway, the out and back section leading to the docklands, Isle of Docks and the city.

I was fascinated to get to this part as it was an area of London I had barely explored. People often describe the Isle of Dogs as a difficult part of the run, as then it was devoid of supporters (that’s not the case today, the route is wall to wall spectators from start to finish).

Personally, I loved it. After the sensory overload of the previous miles, the quiet was welcome and provided a pause, time to regroup and refocus. There was no doubt it was starting to hurt now.

In later marathons, I have always thought that if you can get to half way in a reasonable condition then the finish is in the bag. But in this run, I set my ‘get to’ distance at 16 miles, figuring beyond that I was in single figures and could walk it if required.

Once out of the Isle of Dogs, the route meanders into Canary Wharf. Tall buildings and lots of turns, it was really difficult to get a sense of of where I was. Lots of people have since reported a similar experience.

I don’t remember much about the first time through here, other than a sense of weekday workers streaming in and out of the buildings. They were represented in my mind as a blur of colour around the building entrances. It felt frantic and claustrophobic and I was very relieved to get out.

The last four miles of the London Marathon is a showcase of iconic skylines. Once off the highway, the route passes the Tower of London for the second time and then hugs the river along the north bank along the embankment towards Big Ben.

I was exhausted but supremely excited. I knew where I was, I had trained on these streets. I had walked and cycled along these roads a hundred times and they felt like old friends. It was here I felt the pull of the finish. Like a magnet strong, powerful and impossible to ignore. Despite my fatigue and drawing energy from the crowd lining either side of the road, I picked up the pace.

Just before Big Ben and the turn right across Parliament Square to Birdcage Walk, I bumped into a colleague from work. Strangely, in subsequent years I was to bump into him in practically the same spot twice more. It happened so often, I would wonder whether it was a coincidence or he was stalking me or indeed, I was seeing a repetition of our first meeting in my mind. We exchanged a few words and then I lost him in the crowd.

I read prolifically in the run up to the marathon. I tried to absorb as much information as I could and in the end, there was only one piece I retained sufficiently to use. It came to me in Birdcage Walk as I mentally prepared to run across the front of Buckingham Palace to the finish. The advice, was to ensure you check around you in the final minutes to make sure a bloke in a rhino suit wasn’t preparing to sprint past and ruin your photo. I had heard horrendous stories involving wombles, bananas, fridges and several groups carrying boats. I did not want to be a statistic!

So, I glanced over my right shoulder and to my eternal horror, saw the grim reaper with full scythe looming just beyond. Whether this was an omen or just fancy dress can not be determined. But I refused to accept being beaten by either. So I put my head down and sprinted for home, ruining forever the first ‘glory hands aloft as I cross the finish line’ shot.

The medal and post run comedy walk were not my only mementos of the event. A few days after the pain subsided, I was left with a budding passion for ‘going long’ and a feeling that soon my life was to change forever as a result of it.

Flora were the sponsors that year. Their ‘thank you’ advert featured an exhausted runner, lying on the grass under a tree. His shoes had been taken off and discarded next to him. The caption read ‘your heart loves you but your feet think you’re an idiot’ and that pretty much summed up what it was like to run my first marathon.

Stay strong

These are tough times. Life has turned into a roller coaster ride of changing perceptions, based on supposition and guesswork and increasing frustration and impotence. Almost universally people state the world will not go back to its previous incarnation, but none at present can describe post restriction reality.

This situation is undoubtably difficult, but it is also a time of great opportunity. It is now possible to practice activities covering almost all aspects of life. Want to practice yoga, learn to cook, bake, sew, knit, crochet, speak a new language, get fit, learn algebra from a celebrity? No problem.

Happily, one of the new habits that seems to be sticking is exercise. The Office for National Statistics ran a survey for the week of 27 March to 6 April ‘to understand the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on people, households and communities in Great Britain’.

According to the survey, exercising away from the home and at home ranked fourth and fifth of activities helping people to cope with the stay at home measures. These were close behind social activities such as speaking to friends and family and spending time with family based at home. Sandwiched between those was ‘watching films’, definitely an opportunity to catch up on the classics that you feel you should have watched. G and I have certainly been doing that in between binge watching the Tiger King and Glee.

The outcome of the survey is not surprising, the mental benefits of exercise are well documented.

One of the great things about exercise is that you don’t need to do lots of it to get a benefit. A regular routine of low-intensity aerobic exercise for 30–35 minutes, 3–5 days a week is sufficient to see an increase in both mental and physical wellbeing. You can read more about this here.

But what activity to choose? The trick is to find movement that you find enjoyable and fun but also doesn’t feel immediately too challenging. The more confident you are with an exercise when starting, the more likely you are to stick with it.

The brain craves certainty. Improving confidence is somewhat about the dialogue of certainty in an outcome. Focusing on what you can control and what you can influence – as well as acknowledging what you can’t change – develops confidence.

Confidence is also controlled by your inner monologue and so, if you are comfortable in your activity, your inner monologue is much more likely to be positive.

Somewhere along the line, probably because in my youth I excelled at field events and sports heavily reliant on strength and power, my inner dialogue around weight lifting has become really positive. At the moment I’m loving lifting weights, especially now they are starting to get heavier and the activity has now become more challenging.

For once I have actually followed my own advice. As the conditions of furlough and the lockdown became apparent, I promised myself I would start lifting regularly and have used the five x five app as a template setting guidelines.

I’m lucky enough to have an Olympic Bar, weights and a squat rack at home. I bought it a few years ago when I was introduced to Olympic lifting by PT Pete. That purchase is worth every penny and I’m grateful to have them now.

The app is based on the execution of five exercises; squat, overhead press, upright row, bench press and deadlift. It works progressively. A successful completion of five sets of five reps means the weight is increased for the next session.

In week one of lockdown I started at the very beginning of the app. This meant the weights were light and I was confident I could execute the session easily. I wanted to start in a comfortable zone and build up slowly. A month later, the weights are now starting to feel heavy and I will start to fail some of the sets soon.

Week 1
Week 4

Having confidence in my ability means that I have achieved progress and consistency and I’m loving the challenge.

I’ve committed to Ironman Lanzarote for 2021 (goodness knows what the world will look like then but for the moment I’m just going with it). Ironman training will start in August but for the moment, this time to work on strength and conditioning is invaluable.

Whatever it is you’re into, consistency is king and there has never been a better time to start.

Serendipitous Mindfulness

I have often dreamed of a temporary respite from work. Just a couple of months away to have time to think, to identify and draw a line under bad habits and most importantly to work out what to do with the next stage of my life. To find my reason to be.

In the days leading up to social isolation, I considered ways of spending the time constructively. I promised myself I would write every day and exercise regularly. I researched online learning courses around a variety of topics. After six months of heavy rain, the garden plan was behind schedule. I wanted to crochet more and get the sewing machine out again. And the thing I was most looking forward to, putting aside a quiet time to think.

Most have come more or less with ease. A regular routine helps to keep the mind calm and it works. Despite the ongoing crisis and plethora of unknowns, I’m more at peace than I have been in recent memory.

But the writing, that has been a struggle. Do I talk about Covid-19 or not, or gardening maybe or baking. These questions have been circling my mind sufficiently enough to cause inertia. But then, in the end, these musings are for me and I feel it’s probably important to document these times as well as we can.

For the last few weeks I have been tuning into a Monday morning Zoom meeting run by Mark Shayler. A sort of communion for creatives to share thoughts. It’s become a real lifeline to the outside world. Although I have a serious case of imposter syndrome when I’m there (I would definitely not refer to myself as a creative). But it’s a wonderfully safe place to share ideas and more importantly listen to others and I really like it.

Each week, we are asked to consider a couple of questions. We have examined how this process is changing us, what facets of our previous life we are happy to give up and what activities started during this time we will carry on. This week we were asked to consider joy, specifically what acts are bringing us joy in the current situation.

The answers were both compelling and mundane. Growing vegetables cropped up a lot (sorry). One chap had spent the last month dedicating his time to converting ‘every square inch of his lawn’ to growing veg. His intention was to grow produce to give to his neighbours in times of shortage.

There were views on whether a lack of structure or construction and implementation of one is better – people generally fell into a specific camp here. One chap has taken his intent to write a book to the planning stage. There was a lot of de-cluttering and in response to a lack of open shops (and a reluctance to trade with Amazon), a return to ‘make do and mend’.

Serendipitous mindfulness was used to describe the phenomenon of tinkering with the challenge that presents itself to you in that moment. We have used it ourselves, utilising top soil our neighbour was looking to dispose of for our new raised beds and using timber from our broken fence panels (a consequence of the winter storms) to construct bean poles for the runner beans.

I love that I get to lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling in the middle of the day. Seeking warmth in the house like a cat sat in the sunshine. I’ve taken to sitting on the back step with a cup of tea and relishing in the fact I have absolutely nothing to do other than drink tea and stare at the garden. The other day I spent 15 minutes lying on the paving outside looking at the clouds floating overhead, something I’ve not done since I was a teenager.

I’ve also spent a lot of time living vicariously through the internet, exploring places and ideas that are not possible to effect right now, but may well be in the future.

On that point, so many people are stating that the world will be a different place post virus. It is certainly true our frame of reference will be different to that which preceded isolation. It is still too early to predict what this future will look like but I am not scared. In fact, I’m hopeful many opportunities will present themselves once we have all recovered from the shock of a change that integrated itself so rapidly.

The childhood belief that adults know what they are doing and more importantly, are in control has never felt further from the truth. That has always been the case. The benefit of getting older, of living a life that has been examined, is that every challenge overcome contributes to a tool box for dealing with life. And as we acquire those tools, we also acquire the strength to apply them when we need to.

The first marathon is always the hardest, because the physical challenge is married to the possibility of mental failure. The unknown is a significant adversary and really, completing a marathon is a test in problem solving and defeating adversity. Because of this, the second, third and so on are easier. You know it will hurt, but you also know it is possible, because you have already done it.

So, despite being social creatures, we are strong enough to get through this time in solitude and come out the other side even stronger, even if we are emerging into an unknown world.

For now, we have been given the gift of time, to rediscover the small things that really count and that brings me joy.

Moments of impact

So there we have it. Official confirmation has finally arrived in my inbox confirming the inevitable. They have offered a couple of alternatives for this year or an automatic transfer to 2021. We could play the guessing game as to what will happen next or play it safe, so I’m going to play safe and opt to transfer to next year.

I’ll have to confess I would be ecstatic never to see a bloody turbo trainer again but with the government guidelines being what they G and I will persist a little longer. The last thing I want is for one of us to have an accident and cause even more stress to a stretched NHS. In any event a break from the relentless Ironman training is due and has been effected immediately. Although we’ve not quite swapped it for cake and pizza yet.

In the meantime, and I feel embarrassed to say this since so many are struggling, but this change of routine is genuinely a gift. It’s like divine intervention has pressed pause on the treadmill of life, that recently has been getting faster and faster (which seems to result in more fatigue than fitness). Now we’re able to jump to the side rails and rest for a while. Stretch maybe and even when we get going again, alter the setting to something less strenuous and more rewarding.

I realise this is not everyone’s reality right now and being in this position is a luxury that in allowing the onset of panic could be easy to ignore.

A couple of days ago I had to go into hospital for an investigative procedure. The ward was incredibly quiet, one nurse explained that most of the staff had already been seconded to other departments already in need of help. He also said that any further referrals to the ward would likely be postponed or only open to the most urgent cases, as the ward was likely to be converted to an ITU soon. I could hear one nurse on the phone to procurement trying to locate some protective equipment for the staff but it appears there is none to be found anywhere.

And even in testing circumstances the staff were nothing but kind. As I went in for the procedure, the staff apologise to me for having to wear face masks. It’s unbelievable that people can work in such circumstances and still be so lovely. So please don’t take the piss with the freedoms we have at the moment. The restrictions are there for a very valid reason, these people need protecting as much as we can.

G and I have been enjoying setting new habits since the restrictions of movement came into force. With the earlier sunrises and recent nice weather we’ve been waking before the alarm. So instead of staying in bed we’ve been getting up and out for our permitted exercise. For much of it we see no one, accompanied mostly by the rising mists from the bodies of water that surround where we live. It feels like the landscape has been evacuated in a post apocalyptic world and it is only the glimpse of an early morning dog walker that brings us back to the modern world.

Apart from those brief interludes (and in the interest of making the most of the current opportunity) I’ve been enjoying more exploration online where so many opportunities are being presented. I’ve already joined a Zoom discussion group for creatives and business owners – I am neither at present but have plans in the pipeline – and blimey, who had even heard of Zoom two weeks ago? I’ve set aside a set of lessons to learn (revise) how to sew and most deliciously of all, have saved a series of You Tube videos of Jennifer Ehle reading ‘Price and Prejudice’.

While trying to process to speed to change this week, I was reminded of a quote by Australian poet Cindy Cherie.

This moment of impact will not be limited to defining our lives, it will define a new world in which we live. We have a marvellous opportunity to redefine humanity.