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
- 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
No matter how prepared you are you can never tell what will happen on the day and I’ve had some epic failures in running. Off the back of my most recent failure I wanted to revisit some of them to try and better understand how I’ve achieved responsibility and hopefully get myself back in the right headspace for MIUT.
Perhaps also in light of the awesomeness of John Kelly and Gary Robbins last weekend I think it’s ever more important to understand that ‘I’m responsible for me, nobody else’.
With that in mind this is what I’ve learnt…
What: No training, still injured
Race: Winter 100
Distance: 45/100 miles
It’s one of the few races I’ve never reviewed in full because this one still rankles nearly 3 years later. I’d been running injured for months and months prior to the start line – making the hip injuries I had ever worse and my physiotherapist made me promise that if she could get me to the start line that I’d have a few months off after this.
It didn’t help that UltraBaby arrived 6 weeks before the race and so I turned up to the start line having not done any training for around 8 months, having completed, badly, a handful of ultra events in that period and having had a very busy time as a first time parent in the run up to the start line. I managed to run the first 25 miles reasonably well but the second leg was nothing but agony and at around 45 miles the pain in my hips was so severe that I had to quit.
I recall sitting quietly in the village hall as the volunteers discussed their upcoming races and I found myself filled with rage that I wouldn’t be able to join them on any of these exciting adventures. I remember seeing Susie Chan coming through the door at the main central aid station and greeting me, sympathy being poured upon me, but I just wanted to leave and get away. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful I just knew that I was responsible for the mess I was in, I alone had caused this and I alone could fix it – but not here and not while I was so filled with rage at myself.
The Winter 100 caused me to understand that running while seriously injured has long term implications and it took a long time to return to being able to to run even halfway well again (and I’ll never recover properly it seems). Intensive physiotherapy and lots of rest allowed me to return to running only six months later and I’ve been much better at seeing the signs ever since but these and this race are mistakes I do regret.
What: Titting about
Race: National Ultra
Six months prior to the W100, having flown in from Budapest less than a dozen hours earlier I rolled up to the National 100km, in the early days of my hip injury and on a third of four ultras in 42 days.
I was tired when I heard the bell sound at the start and I decided as it was a cycle track I’d take it relatively easy. By about 20km I was bored and started messing about, joking with the spectators and basically being a bellend. In hindsight it comes as no surprise then that at about 27km I slipped off the track and twisted my knee in a bizarre and ridiculous accident.
Expletives rang out around the track but this was own stupid fault and so rather unwilling I dropped down a distance and cried off at 50km having hobbled slowly the 23km to the finish. The GingaNinja had no sympathy for me when I relayed my sorry tale of woe to her and quite rightly she let me stew on my own juices.
2014 was a year of massive mistakes and huge learning but it wouldn’t be until 2016 that I’d learned to mostly cut out the self inflicted mistakes.
What: 12 inches? No just a foot
Race: White Cliffs 50
Distance: 54 miles (and about 6 extra miles)
This remains my favourite ultra marathon story – probably one that has been embellished over the years but is very much based in truth.
- I did roll my foot at mile 14
- I was titting about for the cameraman
- I did break my toes
- I did hobble 2 miles to the checkpoint
- I did change into Vibram FiveFingers
- I did then manage to finish the race
The incident here would set an unfortunate precedent that no Ultra would occur without incident, injury or plain old poor fortune. I probably should just have retired here – become a ‘one and done’ but I didn’t and when I reflect like this it drives me mad at the level of stupidity and lack of respect I’ve shown to the races I’ve attempted. It’s only in more recent times that I’ve found myself turning up to events and showing the required level of dedication and mostly this is being rewarded with better running and better results, although still with a huge chunk of improvement to be made.
What: Shoes too small
Race: The Wall
Distance: 69 miles
The Wall was a bit like ‘I know best’. I didn’t need fitting for shoes, I didn’t need help sourcing kit, reading routes, I didn’t need any help at all. Well the truth of the matter is that having done one ultra marathon when The Wall came up I was in no way prepared to take on a jump of nearly 20 miles in distance.
And when I rode in at mile 47 to be greeted by the GingaNinja I knew that my feet were in a bad way – we removed my shoes Adidas XT4 (or something) and inside, screaming out in agony, were two feet with more than 25 blisters adorning them in every possible place. It turns out I was wearing shoes that were 2 sizes too small and about 6 inches too narrow. My arrogance and self belief ensured that the final 22 miles of The Wall were simply the most painful I’ve ever faced. It’s fair to say I probably deserved those 22 miles.
The lesson was learnt – being assured is one thing but over confidence will chew you out!
What: Slip sliding away
12 miles in and I was confident that after I had conquered the first major ascents that the race down to CP1 would be fast and carefree. Sadly the race to CP1 was fast but it wasn’t so much carefree as ‘loose’. I lost my footing once, then twice and then with control out of the window my legs buckled under me and I flew down the descent on my back, arse, head. I rolled and slid far enough for the runners around me to stop and check I was okay and while the immediate agony was my ego I knew I’d hurt myself. I stumbled along for another 25 miles before calling it a day but once more my over confidence had been my downfall.
What: Blisters, Blood, Vomit, Poo
Skye Trail Ultra
Distance: 75 miles (and a few extra)
I don’t want to paint a picture of a tortured ultra runner in this post, I’ll ultimately take responsibility for my own failures and hopefully find strength from the times I overcame adversity.
Skye is my ultimate triumph of overcoming that adversity. Even if you take out the hideous travel sickness I had on my 18hr journey up to the island and my efforts to recover from that with just 12hrs before the race started and only focus on what happened in the race – then my finish at Skye is still one of my greatest achievements.
However, it all looked likely to unravel when at 25 miles in I stopped running, I simply couldn’t continue – bent double in pain. My stomach had become what Obi-Wan might describe as a ‘wretched hive of villainy’. I made the assault of the final climb (or so I thought) of the ridge and I lay dying in the sunshine. I puked up the contents of my stomach and a few feet in the other direction my arse exploded a putrid green and neon yellow Jackson Pollock. I used the last of my water to clear my mouth out and simply lay back waiting for the DNF to take me.
Thankfully that fateful moment never came and I proceeded to spend nearly two hours lost looking for checkpoint one, but having survived the nightmare of my own body rebelling against me – I ploughed on with a determination to finish.
And I did… finish that is, I was finally starting to understand what it would take to be an ultrarunner.
What: Burning Balls
Race: Ridgeway 86
Distance: 54/86 miles
My infamous bollocks of fire where an issue at the Ridgeway and is second only to the even more infamous burning bullet hole of ultras when we are taking about running pains. Stood on the trail in the dark with my shorts round my ankles attempting to Vaseline them up and place a buff around my red raw testicles is something I’ll never forget.
I plan on returning to the Ridgeway to complete this event as I enjoyed it a lot, was well organised and genuinely scenic event – I simply made some poor kit choices and that’s easily remedied.
What: Turd Emergency
Race: Mouth to Mouth
Distance: 28 miles
The need for a poo on the trail is something that has dogged me for a while, so much so that a decent amount of toilet tissue always joins me for a race.
When possible I use the ‘Pre-race Flat White Coffee’ solution, as for some reason this delicious hot beverage has the ability to offer the clean as a whistle requirement my bowels like pre-race.
The lack of cover at the M2M meant I needed to run several kilometres before nature overtook me and I had an urgent rush to the worlds smallest spikiest bush and created a mountain on the South Downs!
In subsequent races when I’ve felt the urge I have resolved that little problem more quickly and found that doing that has incurred better running – lesson learnt.
What: Head torch failure
I was running really well at the UTBCN, strong, relaxed and, while unlikely to win anything, I would go home with a medal I could be proud of and a feeling that I was on the right road to my ultimate running aims.
The debacle with my head torch failing at the start line is an annoyance and, while I was angry with Petzl, ultimately it’s my fault for not carrying sufficient spares (I did have a spare head torch – it just wasn’t powerful enough). I let myself down by and while the kit fail shouldn’t ever have happened – it did.
The solution has been to buy new head torches and they will be fully tested before they go into battle and more importantly there’s two of them, both over 200 lumens, both adequate to see me through most ultra marathons.
By accepting responsibility for my actions I’m hoping that I can go to MIUT and beyond, giving my all as I run. I’m trying to drive myself to accept that I can do The harder races, the real challenges and that if I fail then I simply need to pick myself up, find the useful parts of whatever happens and continue my running journey.
I’ve found this post quite therapeutic, reminding myself about failure and the lessons I’ve taken from them (and indeed the successes). I’m hoping that information I’m gathering is influencing my performance and enhancing the recent progress I’ve been making in distance, endurance, speed and attitude.
So, with the disappointment of the UTBCN all I can say is, ‘come on MIUT – let’s see what you’re made of’.