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I’ve DNF’d twice (Thames Gateway 100 and Winter 100) and DNS’d twice (North Downs Way 100 and Race to the Stones), all were for very different reasons and all in my mind perfectly valid but at the time it really mattered to me that I hadn’t raced or worse had failed to complete the distance.

I really struggled to overcome the negative outcome of these events and it haunted me for quite some time – especially the W100 which I was angry and upset about.

Then I was chatting with a fellow runner via Twitter a few days ago and she was incredibly worried and panicked about her big 2015 challenge – so much so that I was concerned she was going to miss out on the pre-event highs as you prepare to face your road to euphoria. This got me thinking about the times I’ve stopped or failed to start, had I panicked too much, had I ruined my own experience and convinced myself I was doomed to failure? Probably.

But what was important was how I have evolved the mental attitude I have to (endurance) running.

I get nervous in the weeks coming up to a big event – sleep deprivation, over eating, starvation, my bowels do weird of wonderful stuff and I flap around like a headless chicken.

But with 2015 now well into the second half of the year I’m on a drive to my final events which include five ultra marathons – two of which are in France (my first foreign race forays) –  I’ve had to spend a lot of the last few months building up my mental strength for these events. I’m very conscious I’m doing things that I’m not 100% convinced my old knackered body is ready for and basically I’ve been working to prepare for the possibility of the DNF and ensuring I don’t hit dark and gloomy places in the aftermath of such an event.

You might ask ‘isn’t that defeatist?’

The answer to that is ‘no’ and the reason is that a year ago I was in a properly bad way, the injuries I was ignoring were getting progressively worse and the events I was running were going badly. It’s taken a long time to get to a point were those injuries and problems are intermittent rather than constant and that’s why I’m much more sanguine about my race day prospects.

When I line up at the start of the CCC in a couple of weeks time I know absolutely that if on the day I can’t make to the finish I will stop. The harsh realities are that I haven’t been near a mountain in training for the CCC and so if my body refuses (it’s inclines it struggles with) then I have worked on my capacity to say ‘that’s enough’ and I won’t beat myself up about it or eat a years worth of Dominos pizza.

So does it matter if I DNF a race? Very much so, because if I DNF I’m making a choice and listening to my body.

So how have I been improving my mental run strength?

  1. Distraction: When I’m not running I do something else entirely different, it stops me thinking about aspects of running I can’t control.
  2. Avoid too much social media: social media is awesome but it can add a level of peer pressure that won’t help any anxiety you’re feeling and so I’ve been avoiding it a little bit more than I usually might – dipping in rather than giving it too much attention.
  3. Train consistently: staying focused on me! I don’t be try to beat anyone but myself and I feel better about what I’m doing because I’m reducing the competitive element and saving that for race day.
  4. Make lists: ordering myself helps me feel more relaxed about my event – they can be in my head lists but they allow me to check off aspects of an event.
  5. Don’t compare: I used to compare myself to my peers now I just look on at them in awe and congratulate them on their achievements because we are all uniquely gifted and we all do very different things. If I get caught up in worrying what other people are doing (either generally or on a race day) then I’m not focusing on my own efforts.

And what of the constant need to panic and ruin my own pre event experience? Has this all helped? Is my pre CCC party started?
Well my mental (and physical) training is yielding some decent results and I have faith in myself. And let’s not forget if I were going to have faith in a fictional character to get me round a mountain it wouldn’t be God it’d be Batman. Ultimately I’m enjoying running and the pre-amble and I’m ready. Well as ready as I ever get.

Happy running

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I was looking down at my bruised and battered OMM 25litre commuting bag recently thinking ‘it might be time to retire you my faithful old companion’. The elasticated cord on one side is gone, the other worn, one of the belt pockets has a hole in it and the webbing on one of the side stuff pockets is definitely the worse for wear. On the inside it looks tired – fabric that has been pulled and stretched in all directions and generally covered in sweat, blood and tears from dozens of races and thousands of miles. Strangely though it never gives up and my OMM bag reminds me a bit of my running journey.

1. We both started shiny and new in late 2011
2. We both started running just 3.24km per day until we worked our way up the White Cliffs 50 Ultra.
3. We both carry far too much stuff everywhere we go
4. We both look a bit the worse for wear

Late in 2014 I seriously considered retiring from running completely because of injury and my own stupid behaviour but much like with my much loved OMM running bag it just wasn’t time to enter the great running club house in the sky. I had the thought that it could be one last ‘hurrah’ a final year of running the ultra distance but as The GingaNinja reminds me ‘you become unbearable when you’re not running’. And I am unbearable at the best of times. So there can be no ‘last hurrah’ if running is what helps make me bearable!!

In hindsight I’ve come a long way in a little under four years I’ve gone from geeky designer and all round uncool dude to unbearable and geeky uncoolio ultra running designer. From not being able to run 5km without wanting to puke to going 104miles in a single hit and then back again.

It’s true that running has been my most frustrating time but it’s also been my best time and my strongest ally. I’ve improved my fitness, my interactions, my willpower, my energy and everything else – maybe that’s why my life is infinitely more settled today than when I wasn’t running. Running for fun rather than running from life?

So when I look at my OMM running pack and I see a piece of kit that’s had the shit kicked out of it I actually think, ‘what a ride’ not ‘poor bag’.

Injury, apathy and lethargy will pass but running (or whatever you love) can stay with you and help provide direction. I think my message would be ‘don’t give up’

So how far have I come?
A very long way in the time since I started running.

How far have I fallen?
Just the odd stumble really.

Why do I persevere?
Because the person I’ve become in the period I’ve been running is better than the one I left behind and I’m not 100% sure it was all the running but i’m sure it played its part.

We hear a lot about broken society, we hear a lot about obesity, a fattening culture, a lazy culture, we hear about a disenchanted youth and a disinterested electorate and then I saw a tweet from @jedirider asking how many ultra runners have been called mental for the kind of distances we run. And this got me thinking – who is the more mental, the one who pushes themselves or the one who asks why you would push yourself?

So I’m asking myself ‘am I mental’ or is there something else that is going on? I wonder why this seemed to grate on my nerves and and the answer was to do with my opinion that as a society not enough of us push the boundaries of our limits.

Let me start by telling you about my grandmother. My granny is 85 years of age, she’s from a generation that survived, from a generation that ‘got on with things’. She comes from a time and place where traditional stereotypes are still okay and whenever I speak to her and tell her I’ve just completed a race she tells me ‘you run too much’. This is a woman that has never done a days exercise in her life, she would say she’s been active – she isn’t. She’s from a time that thinks that cleaning the crockery counts as calorie burning. She finds exercise for pleasure abhorrent and rather than congratulate me, her grandson, on successes she berates me. She’s the kind of person that thinks because I didn’t become a doctor I wasted my life – she doesn’t consider that my work as a designer has in some projects helped save lives, communicated important messages or simply played pivotal roles in ensuring success. I pushed myself to become a designer, I forced my way through university at a time when it was not the norm in my family. I struggled to get to the place I needed to be in order to achieve – but I did do it. And despite my grandmothers assertions that I draw pictures for living I’ve actually been a reasonably successful, occasionally well profiled designer but she doesn’t see the value – I’m not a doctor or a lawyer.

She thinks I’m mental, bordering on a failure.

My answer to her suggestion is that what is ‘mental’ is on a Friday or Saturday night I could go out and drink myself so stupid that I’d think Hollyoaks was worth watching and then spend the rest of the weekend recovering from my own inability to handle my beer. Not only is it an incredibly time consuming and expensive past time but it also runs counter to my desires to be a better runner. So does the not drinking in favour of running make me mental? I don’t think so, in fact I think it makes me more sensible. The point though is lost on her and I can understand why, it just wasn’t her thing, but aspiring to better things shouldn’t be a concept beyond anyone – regardless of age or whatever the excuse. And to my career choices my answer has been that I’ve worked and profited for my entire career – even during some of the slumps I’ve always managed to work my way through it. She was wrong about and I find that culturally there is too much of this negative attitude. I should point out I do actually love my granny!

And so to our broken society and why runners aren’t mental.

I grew up reading Batman and Superman comics, I grew up dreaming that I could be a hero, make a difference, challenge perception, lead by example. I grew up knowing that I should reach as high as it was possible to imagine and then imagine further. So when I finished my first marathon I knew I could go further, longer and harder. I knew that I could imagine further and that instinct to achieve, to push myself, to see barriers and say ‘fuck you’ was very much intact.

So when someone says you’re mental that shouldn’t hurt because you can be smug in the knowledge that you are simply fulfilling your promise, striving to go beyond and never give up. You’ll fail sometimes but I’d rather fail than never try.

Maybe our society is broken because we don’t chase dreams as vigorously as we perhaps once did, or perhaps more accurately, not enough of us do. Perhaps it’s also that our dreams have been softened to account for a celebrity and technology based culture where we need instant gratification.

Rather ironically on the subject of instant gratification I look through my twitter feed and there I see so many ‘insane’ people. I see people who have started virtual running challenges because they couldn’t find a race in January, I see people who’ve started micro bakeries to make beautiful crumbles, I see people who challenge the MdS and come back conquerors, I see asthmatics challenging marathons, I see people running 10 marathons in 10 days or 26 marathons in a year, I see people battle back from injuries to startle themselves. These are the types of people who should be making up the future and in these people and those like them I am confident that the world will always dream, we will always dream of going further and I don’t just mean running, I mean in all aspects of society. I don’t just push myself in running but in all aspects of life and maybe I am an extremist but I’m an extremist with a streak of common sense, ain’t that a contradiction.

I once heard Stephen Fry say that he treasures curiosity, the need to be curious. What are we without that drive to find, discover, uncover, eek out. How very true Stephen and it’s something I’ve always promoted – curiosity. So, in ultra running I am curious about how far I can go, how far my body will take me and what would I do to earn that medal. With UltraBaby arriving later this year I am keen that this sense of curiosity, wonder and imagination are at the cornerstone of their childhood, I would hate for them to settle for a life less ordinary and if I achieve nothing else as a parent, runner and dreamer if I can ensure they are curious then I’ll be happy.

As a side note to all my ranting… I’m very conscious that we all have pressures that surround us, for some people it’s financial, for others family, work, health or whatever – but within each of our own individual bubbles shouldn’t we be looking to make the best of what we have and then make the push to do it better or more complete? Pushing yourself doesn’t mean you have to be doing big things, just trying is enough.

I wonder if a society en masse could learn a thing or three from people with a mental attitude, because bonkers or not – they’re awesome. Just a thought.

I was reading a blog post some months ago about running and depression and how running can’t solve depression, further it talked extensively about the attitude of some runners who claimed that going for a run could clear the mists that cloud the mind of one who is depressed, it was a fascinating piece written by someone whose partner did/does have depression and at the time it really got under my skin. I’d meant to write something at the time but as with all things you get caught up in life, etc. but as I’m sat on the unmoving train this evening I was thinking about this very topic again and so I’m writing and I’m writing about two particular periods in my life when running was the thing that probably made the difference between surviving and not.

I go back to 2002 when I was at the end of a relationship, this was fine, I’d been upset but actually had moved on rather easily – met a new girl, was having a jolly old time in London and I’d started running again, not much but about 5 miles every couple of days and feeling really positive about it. I was running around the country lanes of Surrey like a man possessed some days, I remember the exhilarating feeling of having the wind in my hair and a good feeling all around me.

When the ex returned to the scene needing some emotional support it threw things into chaos, my whole life was, to put it mildly, flushed down the shitter.

I found myself in a situation of reliance, something I hadn’t been in since before I was at university. I found getting up in the morning, I had no motivation to do anything, even running had turned to crap and I couldn’t see beyond the end of the day, this was one of the darkest parts of my adult life. I had nothing positive to hold onto and wasn’t quite sure what was going to become of me and at that point I’m not convinced I cared. Even had I been able to run during this period nothing could have alleviated the despair.

Seeing the serious nature of things I joined my uncle in North Yorkshire for a little while to help remove me from the rat race and just let the wind beat against my face. It was a combination of him (a bit of a running legend in his home town) and later my father (just a legend) that coaxed me back into picking my life back up.

What they both knew was that the thing we all shared was a love of running and by making me join them on the road or in a field, in the cold and the rain that I could be forced to think about my physical condition rather than mope about my mental one. The running returned to me a sense of normality and strangely self worth. I eventually started going out on my own and running along the Yorkshire coast, often starting up in Scarborough and ending up 20 miles away somewhere new. The running invigorated me and as I would pound the deep, long hills of the north I was able to come to terms what I felt, at the time, had been treachery, deceit and my own stupidity. The running gave me the space to open up to myself and regain my self reliance. The running certainly hadn’t cured me of the issues I was going through but it did offer respite from the downward spiral and also gave me a goal.

However, it wasn’t until incident 2 that I realised that I can never give up running.

The second incident involved a relationship with a very particular lady – you perhaps are seeing a pattern here (although not all of my relationships have ended up being bonkers)? Anyway… my two year relationship was pretty damn rosy, we enjoyed each other’s company, had a couple of cats and even bought furniture together, we saw lots of RomComs, ate out at all you can eat buffets, played Nintendo Wii, dieting when not eating buffet, saw lots of Lloyd Webber musicals and lived in the east end of London.

When I look back at this time I realise I’m not a fan of Lloyd Webber musicals, I prefer dogs to cats, I don’t like all you can eat buffets, nor Pizza Hut, I’m not a big fan of computer games, didn’t need to see so many RomComs and never really got into the swing of East London, always preferring the south and most importantly I really hate diets.

It wasn’t until she had started cutting me off from my friends, had me going to bed by 10pm (the witching hour) and insisting that I give up running that I realised I wasn’t in a relationship I was a slave to somebody else’s personal tastes.

Funnily though it was really over the fact that I loved running that the relationship was ended, looking back both then and now I realise I would go for longer and longer runs because I was at peace hammering the streets of Ilford, Barking and West Ham. The thought of having running taken away from me showed to me how low my spirit had become around her because it was all I had left. You don’t see it until you are free but I was being turned into something she thought she wanted and what she neglected to remember was the me she originally met she liked because I was active, I ran, I watched foreign movies, I read classic books as well as absurd ones and I looked good in a pair of short shorts 😉 When she stripped away all the things that she did she removed my personality and I’m not sure she even liked the end product.

So one insignificant evening I left behind the furniture, the cats and a woman that wanted to take away me from me. I spent a lot of running time afterwards wondering if I had done the right thing and never once did i look back on it as a mistake. After the first incident I knew that if I wanted to avoid losing myself again then I should continue just the way I had been.

So running saved me mentally

Now, before anyone talks about personal responsibility, in both of these cases I am 100% aware that I had some very serious faults – most of which I shan’t be publishing here.

I’m also very pleased that both the people involved have gone on to find love, success and happiness and I’m pleased for them. These were complex situations though that left me emotionally and mentally drained and without the continuous presence of running I’m not sure what I would have turned to. Drink? Sex? Overeating? I have a over developed sense of anger and so maybe I’d have been violent? But running played a very major part in me surviving and so we come to today, why have I not fallen into a pit of my own self angst? is that down to running?

Simply put, yes.

Today I’m lucky my partner understands why I run, understands the phrase ‘I run to keep me balanced’. She comes to the races and sees my beaming face on the finish line, she appreciates that the occasional Sunday morning sacrifice stops me tipping over some imaginary edge. I don’t drink, don’t do drugs, nor do I smoke. I don’t even regularly attend nightclubs anymore (just occasionally). I run because it makes me happy.

Running is my vice and my friend, it offers both solitude and listening and I’ve been heard to say that if I ever declare ‘I’m giving up running’ that there is something seriously wrong or there soon will be. Running can’t cure depression but in my case, a man who is deeply emotionally charged, it keeps the possibility of depression and mania at bay.

Running makes me a better person, I’m 100% convinced of that.

So, when you find yourself in a difficult situation you must find and do whatever it takes to get yourself out of it but don’t be afraid to find crutches to ensure you make those first steps to a better life. I chose running and running chose me and I’m glad it did, what did you choose?

‘My legs still ache’
‘From?’
‘Bournemouth Marathon, not sure why I does these races…’

And that got me thinking, ‘why do I race?’ Which then brought me back to the cost of racing, the value of racing, the merits of racing versus running and mainly my own personal ambitions in running terms. It was pretty clear to me from a young age that I was never going to emulate my original running hero Steve Cram. Nor will I ever run a sub 10 second 100 metres – my 11.47 is the fastest I will ever get. So I’m clearly not running because I think I’m a potential champion, perhaps I’m running simply for something to do, let’s not forget that running is my primary hobby and quick fix when things go wrong. After my epic failure at the TG100 I came home and actually was really rather upset, more upset than I had to be over a race perhaps but this is hindsight showcases to me just how valuable racing has become to my personal wellbeing. The day after the race my running mojo had left me and showed no signs of returning, I removed my plethora of medals from their normal home and hid them away in a drawer, I stopped looking at races to sign up for and I didn’t even think about visiting a running shop just incase I was recognised as a fraudulent ultra runner or just fraudulent runner. The TG100 broke my runners heart.

But a stern talking to by a friend who is not a runner reminded me that the reason I run and the reason I race isn’t for the bling, it isn’t to be a champion, it’s to stave off the inevitable heart attack or piling the weight on after binging on all the chocolate in the world and I was told to ‘shut the fuck up and just get out there’. With the help of my lovely physio, Joe Rodgers I get back out on the trail and started running again! only shortish distances but then races started coming and my desire has been working its way back into my life and perhaps just in time.

When I ran the Royal Parks Half just over a week ago I still wasn’t buzzing with enthusiasm, infact I was a little bit too emotionless about it on reflection. But in the last week I’ve been hitting good times across 5km and noticing a general increase in pace – although there have been bad days too. Therefore I come into my next event Xtreme Beach, not filled with confidence, but filled at least with the desire to perform and that I hope will set me up for a better performance at the Snowdonia Marathon.

So what’s your reason to race?

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