Making pig tracks – how to get to your destination by the shortest path

Box Hill pig track

Heading up the west face of Box Hill in Surrey, running in between the zig zag road and the Burford slope is a track, half made and half mud called the ‘pig track’. Not being a native to Surrey, I had heard the track referred to as such, and as is the way of fitting in, I adopted the name and never asked why it was so called. Privately I wondered about the history of the name. I assumed it was an old farm track for herding animals – there are a number of ancient paths that criss-cross Box Hill. It was not an unreasonable assumption, although the escarpment these days is more usually home to fluffy black and white belted Galloway cattle with ne’er a pig in sight.

Then, very recently, I have been researching a phenomenon called ‘Psychogeography’ for another project and learned the following. A pig track is a common name for a ‘desire line’, and a desire line is a path created as a consequence of use caused by animal or human footfall. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between origin and destination. Desire paths are often a rebellion agains the will of the planner, as creators deviate from the path designed for them.

So it turned out that this was not the first time I had heard of pig tracks – although in my defence I had never heard them referred to as such. My old geography tutor used to say that a sensible urban planner would delay setting official paths until the end users had time to explore the space. As people would naturally take the most advantageous routes, plotting paths that planners could then formalise in the more permanent way. When it comes to travel, the path of least resistance appears to be the most favourable.

But then I wondered if the concept of ‘least resistance’ is applicable elsewhere in life, so I had a scout round all the usual media channels. And well, it’s every where. We lay our own pig tracks everywhere we go, both physically and metaphorically. They’re called habits.

In a recent blog post I talked about the problem of waiting for inspiration to drive you out the door. The problem with inspiration, is that the couch is mighty comfortable, and it’s dark and cold outside and there’s an important television program you want to catch up on and there’s always another reason not to do what you would like to do. The trick is to remove enough barriers to get your shoes on.

#thedoorstepmile

You don’t need to do any of this on your own. There is a lot of help out there for people who want to realise dreams – no matter what they are. But in my opinion, the best two to start with are:

James Clear has written a wonderful book on how to break destructive habits and build constructive ones. Start here to get the basics.

Adventurer Alastair Humphreys has devoted an entire website to help you remove the barriers to allow you to take the first step.

Building habits is repetitive but not difficult. You just need to be consistent and improve by 1% each time. Take the path, see how it feels, it takes a couple of weeks to trample the grass down, if it works then great, keep ploughing. If it doesn’t then identify the barrier and either move it or go round it. Make your own personal pig track.

Inspiration

Back in 1988 I was studying English Language. Part of the syllabus of the newly formed GCSE’s included an option for ‘Oral’ English. This was essentially a presentation to the rest of class on a topic of your choice. Some of the topics were eclectic and on occasion even fictional. My friend Terry Holdcroft chose to tell a tale of demise involving a pigeon and a steam roller (although this, like his story, may not be the complete truth. Memory is fickle, especially after all these years).

I chose to talk about Daley Thompson. At the time I was a budding field eventist in athletics and had a reasonable aptitude for them. Well, shot and discus at least. I was too terrified of planting the javelin in the back of my head to do anything really tasty with that. The mastery of two events – essentially following the same technique – was tough. I could barely imagine how decathletes found the time and inclination for ten events.

Thompson was my inspiration. I adored him. As I took my place in front of the class, I did so with pride. Although many in the class described their allotted time as hellish and very long. Mine was quite the opposite. I loved being in the limelight talking about a man I idolised.

I still love Daley Thompson. I’m still greedy for information on him. Often mining social media and my friend Google to see what he’s up to these days. When I do, something strange happens. Those feelings I used to get competing in an event I was actually good at come back to me. I get the urge to pick up a shot and go back to the field. The urge is strong enough for me to check out the results for my age group these days – I reckon I stand a really good chance of winning stuff – but not enough to actually get me out of the chair and do anything about it. Then the dream fades for another day and I go back to living my life of mediocrity.

When we think about inspiration we often think about people. We idolise people we would like to be, use them as a template in the hope it will prize us off the couch. To be fair, it’s a reasonable assumption. Inspiration is defined as ‘someone or something that provides an idea’.

I’ve been curious about inspiration (the initial idea) and motivation (enthusiasm to put the idea into action) for some time. Throughout my time in the running shop, we talked many times about the ‘magic’ ingredient. I’ve often wondered why, when we desperately want something to happen, that desire on its own is not strong enough.

What do we need in order to turn desire into results? In relation to losing weight, or training more or getting faster or running longer or learning that new skill or whatever it happened to be. I figured that if I could just find the secret and write a book about it I’d be famous. Well it turns out that someone did and it wasn’t the answer any of us were expecting.

The problem was, we were expecting inspiration to become something more than a catalyst. For it to morph into motivation and then action. In the way that I would see Daley Thompson and then hope I would leap off the couch to throw a competition winning throw. It was enough to inspire me to check the results but did not contain enough energy to overthrow the inertia that consumed me. We use the same logic when we enter a race in the hope it will spur us into action. We would witness it even on the beginners run groups where we would have a 5% drop off on the night of the course which magnified 10 fold by the time we got to six weeks in. Anthony Moore refers to exactly this phenomenon in his excellent article, ‘If you’re relying on inspiration, you’re doing it wrong’ published on Medium.

The author referred to above who opened my eyes to the reality of inspiration is James Clear and his book, I was convinced would make me a millionaire is called ‘Atomic Habits‘. Clear argues that passive inspiration is all well and good for creating a spark but in order for it to yield the results you want, that initial inspiration needs to be active not passive. In other words, Nike had it absolutely spot on… Just do it!

It seems obvious now that action – as the opposite of inaction – would be the solution. Waiting for inspiration to hit me in the face would just result in more waiting. The right time almost never comes along on it’s own and there will always be barriers to achieving the goals I want to achieve.

In ‘Atomic Habits’, Clear explains that the secret of over riding inertia and building motivation is to take action in small steps while at the same time removing barriers to change and growth.

It’s important to say here that no one expects you to be perfect or nail it at the first attempt. You just have to keep showing up. No one is expecting it to be easy but consistency is key.

As Mark Manson says, ‘Who you are is defined by the values you are willing to struggle for‘.

Training journal | Week 19 to 21| building greenhouses

A few weeks ago G and I started building a greenhouse.

To own a greenhouse again was a dream come true. It means a healthy lifestyle, outdoors, fresh air and possibilities.

It’s been a labour of love. When we moved into new home, the perfect spot for a greenhouse was occupied by a huge camellia. We had to wait until the nesting period was over (we’re blessed with lots of birds in the garden). Then dig out the camellia before preparing the ground to lay the concrete base. I’ll be honest, that bit took quite a long time too. The weather had closed in by then. Storm followed storm turning the ground into a quagmire. We were distracted by other projects until eventually we went to the garden centre and bought the bloody greenhouse. That move sharpened the focus. With the help of our (wonderful) next door neighbour and his cement mixer we got the based laid.

We took delivery of the greenhouse. It was in a million pieces and the most complicated set of instructions I’d seen in a while. But we found a dry(ish) day and set to work.

I remembered the last time I’d built a greenhouse. It was time consuming; painful (those window clips); and took way longer than I’d expected. This experience was not dis-similar.

We started to build. We threaded screws (hacksaw rescues), put bits in back to front, nearly stood on the fragile (but strong) aluminium several times. And swore a LOT. But with perseverance, we got the frame finished just as the sun was going down and the frosty air rendered our hands numb and unusable.

And then the rains got worse.

Over three weeks later we finally married a quiet weather window with time off. (It was called Christmas). We invested another three days. Building windows and doors. Threading glass lining on the frame and finally, gloriously fixed the toughened glasses and pinned everything down (hopefully to survive the glorious Devon weather).

Despite the frustrating moments, it was worth it to see the finished product.

This is the story of building a greenhouse. But it could just as easily be a story about training for an Ironman.

The weather, the apparent lack of progress, the joy when a little part goes well and mostly the time it takes to get anywhere (much longer than you think!)

I have a regular run route I’ve been repeating for my 45 minute recovery run. Apart from parkrun, it’s one of the few sessions that is measurable and consistent. A little while ago I noticed I was getting further round the route in the allocated time. Last week I managed to get to the top of the hill and beyond for the first time ever. I was excited and curious and so I checked my results over the same course going back eight months:

Blimey! Well it was a shock to see such a clear line of progress. And very confidence building.

I took that confidence into parkrun later that week and buoyed ran a stonker of a pb, taking another 45 ish seconds off my time. So, I checked my results there too… since May this year I’ve achieved four PB and chipped 4 minutes and 16 seconds off my original time. Happy days. 😊

I’m half way through my coached sessions with Jon and while progress has been slow, it is there. I’ve laid the foundations, it’s now time to start building the greenhouse.

Happy New Year!

Accountability (and discipline)

In a previous blog post I talked about consistency. It is universally acknowledged that consistency is the back bone of achievement. But there is another facet that helps to achieve consistency and that is accountability.

I’ve never quite been able to reconcile in head that people are so willing to neglect their own best interests in favour of just about anything.

Myself included.

I can’t speak for others but it’s frustrating just how willing I am to lie to myself (and believe those lies knowing them to be such), despite many of the trite quotes hurled my way. Although, a quick search of the internet reveals that many people apparently lie to themselves and not realise they’re doing it! Alas, I’ve never had the bliss of such ignorance.

So, when we talk about accountability, to be accountable to oneself should be top of the list, but sometimes it’s good to have a backup. I think that’s why I enjoyed lots of success with my goals when I had Pete to do the hard work for me. Having to sit opposite him each week and justify my decisions meant that I was much more likely to make good choices.  

Ditto having a coach now. I know Jon is checking in on a daily basis. As a result, I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing that every time I upload a completed session it turns green. Finally, a use for my almost obsessional desire to please.

Accountability in the form of self-discipline reared its head on Saturday at parkrun. Occasionally at runs one would witness a poor child being coerced around a run course. And yes, I realise I’m on slightly dodgy ground here and yes I also realise not having kids makes me an reluctant expert.

But on Saturday I witnessed it twice. And I will be frank – it’s very uncomfortable to watch a child, clearly not enjoying themselves and in some cases visibly distressed – being dragged by one arm and shouted at to run quicker because ‘it’s what we do’. I wondered to myself whether for some, parkrun has replaced the dreaded school cross country runs of the 1970’s and 80’s.

Later, I heard that parent talk to a friend about how children had to be coerced. That behaviour was necessary because they were not yet adults who had learned discipline and could recognise the benefits of regular running. They were congratulating and self satisfied. I felt slightly nauseous and moved away so I couldn’t hear them.

But, it did get me thinking about discipline and accountability to ourselves and here we are now. 

One of the attributes I sadly lack is discipline. So, I was interested in an article published in the Farnham Street blog ‘brainfood’. You can see the whole article here.

In the article the author quotes Scott Peck, who in essence argues that people generally want an easy time of it, but in doing so they make life harder for themselves. That it is in the ’whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.’ They further quote Benjamin Franklin who was more succinct ‘Those things that hurt, instruct.’  Which is the essence of my blog post earlier this week.

But hurting yourself isn’t enough. It needs to be accompanied by the desire to learn from the experience. I fear those kids mentioned above may only learn that running is not enjoyable and will walk away from the sport at their earliest convenience (no pun intended). While for those who wish to learn discipline. One may need to understand what the lesson is and why it is important. 

In the Farnham Street blog, they cite delayed gratification; accepting responsibility; dedication to reality and balancing as the four pillars to achieving discipline. So, don’t expect it immediately, accept that success or failure is in your hands, don’t lie to yourself and understand that flexibility is essential to achieving greatness. I would add one other, understand the why of what you are trying to do.

I’m working on all of those things but until I achieve them, I’ll carry on enjoying turning those sessions green. 

Consistency

One of the best parts of owning a running shop was having so much opportunity to talk about running. People from all different walks of life, with varying goals and a vast array of experience, would approach us for advice and guidance as well as getting a shoe fitting or sourcing the latest bit of kit.

When people came in searching for the answer to improvement, I would talk to them about consistency.  

It didn’t matter what their starting point was, whether they were a beginner or experienced runner or a three hour versus a ‘just wanting to get round’ marathoner. The key to running longer or faster or even on some occasions both, is consistency.

It feels a bit phoney to write about rediscovering consistency for myself. After all, as a personal trainer and having owned a running shop for ten years, it’s almost engraved on my soul. I believe in the concept wholeheartedly. I’ve rattled on about it more than I care to mention, but since my fibromyalgia diagnosis, had forgotten what consistency looked and felt like.  

It’s been just under three weeks since I’ve been following a training plan under my coaches beady eye. A bit like PT Pete, Jon isn’t emotionally affected by the fibromyalgia. He doesn’t judge it or accept ‘excuses’ (not that I’ve tried). I respect his experience and his fairness too much to play that card. 

At the moment the whole point of the training is to instil habit via consistency. A message Jon has reiterated throughout our communications so far. It’s an important message to receive and gives me confidence that what I’m doing is worthwhile. He summed it up rather nicely the other day. ‘All we want to achieve at the moment is routine… hit the session as best you can then before you know it, fitness, pace, power, strength, recovery and weight loss all follows.’

The repeated message helps to reduce the barriers to achieving a consistent behaviour. Forgetting the ‘why’ for example or getting distracted in a session by combining it with other tasks. Cycling and shopping anyone? (Actually I did that one and got a little rap on the knuckles for it).

I understand why. Training needs to be specific and focused. Unless I plan to go shopping in Lanza while cycling around the island, stopping to shop does not represent specific, focused training. Consistency also helps to stymie excuses; ‘the pool is too hot or the wind is too strong’. There’s a reason why my triathlon group’s mantra is ‘just f**ing do it’.

Consistency is important. It allows you the space to focus on what you want to achieve and more importantly it takes away the need for perfection. If you don’t hit your session today, well don’t worry – you’ll get another chance tomorrow.

It helps develop routine and builds momentum. It offers a way to measure. It generates accountability via reporting mechanisms, either to Jon directly or to friends via my Strava account or event to follows on Instagram – there’s always a training photo opportunity.

Consistency also offers reassurance. Against the fear of starting or inertia or the goal being too big, or too looming. After all, little steps are much easier than big steps, especially when you have a metaphorical hill in front of you that needs climbing. 

I’ve surprised myself, that by taking the pressure off, I’ve been able to start every session I’ve been set. And if I start, my likelihood of hitting the session improves tremendously.

I’ve also surprised myself by enjoying the routine and discipline of consistency. I’ll still be singing its praises, but now with a little more understanding.

Investment

About 25 years ago I bought a pair of bowls from a department store in London. They were fine bowls, ceramic, cream coloured with dimpled squares on the outside. I was looking for bowls for soup. The hearty kind, full of meat and vegetables. I ate a lot of soup in those days – a by product of a weight watchers diet where vegetables were ‘free’. The bowls were tactile, looked great and the perfect size for a hungry girl. They made me look forward to eating soup.

I hadn’t noticed the bowls were made by Wedgwood until I got to the checkout when the assistant asked me for £32.  Thirty two quid was a lot of money in those days and a whole lot more than I would ordinarily have been willing to pay for two bowls. But, by then I was in the queue and rather than cause a scene, I paid the money and took them.

Those bowls are one of the best things I’ve ever owned. I’m glad now that I hadn’t checked the price before I bought them, as undoubtedly I’d have put them back on the shelf.  Twenty five years later – they’re still going strong – and still look as good as the day I bought them.  

What an investment they turned out to be.

I often think about investment when I look at the bowls. The initial purchase was a luxury, born out of a desire to be healthier. I had joined weight watchers and had committed to it heart and soul. Those bowls were an integral part of that commitment. An enabler, physically and psychologically to be able to eat the soup that was in my mind, fundamental to success. I was successful in the weight loss, attaining a healthy weight and the confidence to be able to join the police service.  

Those bowls indirectly changed my life. All for £32.

I’m convinced that if I had known the price before purchase, I would have hesitated. Probably put them back and looked for other, lesser (and cheaper) crockery. It makes me wonder, in a world where we are constantly prioritising, why do we always put our health and wellbeing bottom of the pile?

I’ve started working from home. It’s primarily a desk job for a company who are based in Surrey. I’m so grateful they allowed me to bring the job to Devon and work from home. That gratitude makes me feel like I need to spend almost every minute of my working day at the desk… well working. I’m invested in the job, at the moment more than I’m invested in myself. I know that not moving from the desk is bad for physical health, concentration even performance.  And yet I don’t move, often for hours at a time.  Even though it causes me physical discomfort.

G and I have been talking a lot about physical and mental wellbeing in the last few weeks. Even today, G quoted the ‘Supple Leopard’ by Kelly Starrett at me. Starrett states that in order to practice good posture, it is essential to move from the desk every 15 minutes.  Structural muscles, responsible for good posture, fatigue in that time and need a break to rest and reset. In essence, being sat at the desk is muscular endurance. And we expect those muscles to perform for several hours at a time without a break. It’s no surprise that desk work is bad for our health!

I’m conscious that, as I get older, investment in self is much more important that it used to be. Sleep, mindfulness, saying no to things that do not positively contribute to your life, eating well, moving more and all of the day to day stuff that’s easy to ignore but does add up.

It feels – almost selfish – to put oneself first.  But I’m getting to age now where if I don’t start, I never will. Or if I do, it will be too late to make a real difference.    

Actually, G and I are much better at it than we give ourselves credit for. We left situations that were bad for our mental health, gave up careers that were asking too much for little return, relocated to a different county with a much bigger focus on being outdoors and have started to change our lifestyle to incorporate more self care.  

But now I need to ask for help.  

So, I’ve enlisted the help of a coach to focus on fitness (and weight loss) for a period of nine months. Actually this is my very clumsy way of telling you I’ve entered Ironman Lanzarote (again) and this time I’m going to get to the start line. As bizarre as it sounds, I genuinely don’t care if I finish it. I’m focussing on the process of getting to the start line in one piece (which as we know from previous experience is the hard bit). What I’m actually doing, in the same way I bought those bowls, is investing in a way to facilitate change.  

So my advice? Go and seek those metaphorical bowls and start prioritising yourself. In hindsight, it will be worth it.

Sisu

This was going to be a blog about Woolacombe parkrun.  Come to think of it, it may still be in a little while if the following idea does not go anywhere…

While I was in blog planning mode, an e-mail arrived into my in-box from James Clear entitled ‘Sisu: how to develop mental toughness’.  You can read his full blog post here. In it Clear explains, Sisu is the concept of carrying on when all hope appears to be lost.  ie it is not so much about the achievement, rather more about facing challenges with determination and valour. He gives an example of Sisu as the last two miles of the marathon when you are absolutely exhausted and sums up the concept saying “we all experience failure, but mentally tough people realise that failure is an event, not their identity”.

But what if you stepped off the path with two miles to go. What if that becomes habit. What if your identity is as a runner or triathlete and you fail enough for the label to become more reminder rather than a series of events? Or even worse, the DNF’s become part of your identity so much so, they engender inertia and the inability to even start, never mind finish.

I started to ponder this.  

Earlier this week I started a book called ‘Landmarks’ by Robert Macfarlane.  I’m only a smidgen of pages in but he has already introduced the topic of how people become landmarks through the story of others lives.  I’ve talked about this briefly in a blog post before.  Recently, I’ve been ’accountant’ lady, ‘crochet’ lady and ‘running’ lady, I’ve been ‘siren’ and other labels much less complimentary.  I’ve been drawn towards ‘radiators’ and run away (literally on occasion) from ‘drains’.  No-one wants the moniker ‘failure’.

Once the mantle of ‘failure’ is donned, in theory to achieve even the slightest hope of success, Sisu is required at every single event undertaken.  Well, that’s hard.  Really hard.  It also backs up what Matt Fitzgerald asserts in his book ‘How bad do you want it’. Here, he suggests the key to success is to make things feel as easy as possible.  When things feel hard, even the best can fail. 

Ever decreasing circles.

And yet, in the real world, I’ve seen examples of this over and over again.  People trapped in the same cycle for years despite protestations of ‘this time it’s going to be different’ and then setting themselves up to fail by not really changing anything.  You know it, the ‘always doing what you’ve always done, and always get what you’ve always got’ syndrome but this time expecting a different result despite having changed nothing at all.

Of course, it’s highly possible that I could be overthinking this.  But the above paragraph definitely applies to the last four years of my life.  Clear’s e-mail struck a chord and I know at present I’m struggling to achieve consistency.  Primarily because every time I head out it’s too damn hard.  Even with half an eye on Fitzgeralds view of keeping the perceived exertion ‘easy’.  

I could argue that many times since 2015, my Sisu had been employed fire fighting in other parts of life. But really, that argument doesn’t wash anymore.  

So, it’s time to change and this time (with fingers crossed and a fair wind that help will be forthcoming) I have asked for it.  This time with the view firmly towards success.  

Well, there you go.  Woolacombe will have to wait for another week and I didn’t expect this to come out as another ‘start again’ blog but I guess one has to start somewhere.