Running, Hills and Bipolar

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Welcome to Up & Down Runner, a blog about two of the three aspects of my life that have come to dominate all others, running and mental illness, and how I am learning to use the first to get control of the second, and indeed help me be better at the third, fatherhood.

After a disastrous 2014, I am determined to make the following years better, which for me means pushing myself to do things that I never believed myself to be capable of – running up mountains and writing honestly about my life.

The blog is part diary, part training log for my various running challenges, with the odd list, gear review, race report and rambling opinion piece.

NOTE: I do not profess to have any expertise in any of these two subjects, I am very much a middle of the road runner and bi-polar sufferer.  Indeed, the only prize I am likely to win is an award for most boring person with bipolar – the sensible and constantly petrified side of my nature has so far kept me away from spectacularly public displays of mania, or any sparks of creative brilliance (I’m no Byron, Fry, Cobain or even Kerry Katona), but perhaps this blog is my way of addressing the latter.

Pewsey Terminator

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55 days to go…

After a couple of decent but uneventful weeks of marathon training I thought I’d mix it up this weekend with a race.  Many of the training plans advise you to do a half marathon at around this time, but I thought I’d do something a bit different, so entered the Pewsey Terminator.

Although less than 12 miles, it’s definitely a much more challenging prospect than your average half marathon.  Two water crossings, four fairly brutal climbs and lots and lots of mud meant that it more than lived up to its name.

The race starts in the beautiful Wiltshire village of Pewsey, just south of Marlborough, known mainly for the White Horse cut out of chalk on a hill about a mile south of the village.

The first four miles were relatively flat and fast, starting on the roads then running alongside the Kennet and Avon Canal. Except, that is, for the bit where you crossed a stream and quagmire which had one unfortunate runner up to his waist in mud. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or wade in and help him, but ever the team player I chose the former and forged on ahead (although annoyingly he did catch me up after a mile or so).

At almost exactly five miles in the first climb started, which because of the soft ground felt much more than the 77m elevation gain my Garmin says it was.  Just as it seemed to be levelling out, you were then made to go up a grass bank that was at least a one minute crawl to the top.

A very fast, and very slippy, downhill followed, and then another steep ascent and descent, shorter but also sharper than the last. After an undulating mile, the third climb came, which felt even steeper than the last two.  There was then a nice flattish section, before the aptly named “sting in the tail”.  Rather than head down and back towards Pewsey, the course went up another unfeasibly steep hill, around the White Horse (apparently, I was blowing too much to notice), then back down again at break-neck speed.

After the sting, the route home was fairly sedentary, except for one final bit of sadism.  Rather than let the runners cross the little bridge coming into the town, the route instead goes through the river below it, which was at about knee height.  Although tough on the legs, I actually found it quite refreshing, and saved me cleaning my shoes (Salomon Speedcross, in the unlikely event that you are interested).

It was a short squelch home after the river crossing, back to the village school which also hosted the start line and race HQ.

The race well supported given the grey, windy day, and the course was perfectly signposted and marshalled.    In fact, everything about the race organisation was impeccable, from registration, to bag drop, to start and finish.  In many ways it was far slicker than most of the big races I have done, but retained a friendly, homemade feel, which is some achievement given that there were over 400 runners on the course.

Adding to the homely atmosphere were the army of old ladies serving cakes and tea at the end.  Most things taste good after 12 miles, but I’m sure that the cakes were the best I have had for a while (I had three, just to be certain).

If you want to know more about the race, you can see the route map, elevation profile and my timings on my Garmin Connect page, or go to the Pewsey Vale Running Club website for pictures and the all-important results.

As you will be able to tell from the above, I would strongly recommend the race. I’ll be back*, that’s for sure.

*Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Up & Down (again)

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76 days to go…

As is befitting for someone with my condition, the last couple of weeks of training have been up and down. A 34 mile week, then 6 days off with a strained quad, then 30+ miles again, topped off by a fairly quick 15 miler yesterday.

The 34 mile week was a particularly good one, with a strong hill sprint session on Tuesday, and a beautiful, life-affirming Sunday morning run up into the Cotswolds.  Icy and clear, through a nature reserve, across fields and  on quiet country roads.  Along the way I spotted a muntjac (not my first running experience with a deer), and was worryingly followed overhead for a little while by a buzzard.

I also did part of the route with another runner, which never would have happened in London.  Like on the Tube, you don’t talk to strangers in the city while out running, whereas here it seems to be mandatory to talk, or at least say hello to others out on the road or trails.

Although that other runner was the cause of my six-day injury layoff.  We met near the bottom of a steep hill, and we were so busy chatting that I didn’t notice how fast we were going.  It was only after she revealed at the top of the hill that her next race was the National Cross Country Championships that I realised that I’d pushed it far to hard.  We went our separate ways not long after, but by then the damage had been done.

Still, the one benefit of the injury was that it allowed me to try out my new training strategy.  Unlike in previous years, where I had a meticulously structured training plan and obsessed over keeping to it, this time I’m just going to listen to my body, push it harder when I feel up to it, but also give myself time to rest if it’s not feeling right.  So far it’s working.

My fundraising has also started to gather pace. I’m now just under £900, with plenty of time left until race day.  If you would like to donate, please follow the link https://team-mq-london-marathon-2017.everydayhero.com/uk/updownrunner.

It Starts

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97 Days to Go

After three weeks off and a typically over-indulgent Christmas period, the hard work has begun, as I’m now two weeks in to my London Marathon training. Last week was slow, but I managed to do 30 miles this week, including a hill sprint session and an icy 11 miler along the river yesterday morning.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lack of damage caused by yuletide festivities, so all in all I’m off to a promising start.

I’ve also started my fundraising drive for MQ, so if you would like to sponsor me please follow this link.  If you do, you will help fund critical research into a wide range of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism and PTSD.

Many of MQ’s research projects relate to young people, including its latest study on the link between bullying and mental health.  Despite the fact that, on average, three children in every class have a diagnosable mental health condition, 7 out of 10 young people do not get sufficient help.

In terms of my own issues, the most interesting statistic is that 75% of those with a mental health condition start developing it from an early age.  It is thought that bipolar (if that is what I have)  can have genetic, biological and environmental factors, so it may be that I have always had it, was always going to have it, or some biological pre-disposition may have been triggered by one or a number of life events.  It certainly became more of an issue after I had my first child, but I’ve always had the feeling that there was something not right with me.

With hindsight, it is tempting to attribute certain feelings or actions to mental illness (in fact, I tend to use bipolar as an excuse for every time that I’ve acted like a dick), but I guess there is no way of knowing for sure.  I definitely should have received medical help before I did, but how early?  Could the breakdown have been predicted, or even prevented, and if so when? The latter seems unlikely, taking into account another MQ statistic – that on average it takes 10 years for an accurate bipolar diagnosis, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

By donating to MQ you can help answer some of these, and many many other important questions on mental health issues, so here’s the link again.

THE Marathon (Finally)

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“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience
a different life, run a marathon” – Emil Zatopek

So, after 10 years of trying my luck with the ballot, I’ve finally bitten the bullet and applied for, and received, a charity place for the London Marathon.

Berlin may be faster, Tokyo more exotic, New York bigger and Boston more prestigious, but for me London has always been THE marathon. I’ve watched the TV coverage every year since I was a kid and it’s never failed to inspire me. Whether it’s the pros running a marathon at a quicker pace than I can run a mile, the touching and often tragic stories of first-timers, the costumes, the incredible support or that one of the busiest cities in the world comes to a standstill for a running race, it’s been near the top of my to-do list even before I became a running addict.

The 2017 race is going to be particularly meaningful for me, as I’ve just moved out of the greatest city in the world, after living there for the whole of my adult life.  Moreover, I’m going to be representing, and hopefully raising large sums of money for, a cause that means a huge amount to me.

I’ve already written a little about my mental health identity crisis – that I’ve not, and probably never will be, definitively diagnosed with bipolar disorder, despite basing a whole blog on it.

It is as fascinating as it is frustrating to me that a doctor can’t do a brain scan or a blood test, give me a label and pack me off with some drugs that they know will make things better, like they can with so many other conditions.  I would love to get rid of the constant self-doubt that comes with not knowing what I’m  dealing with, or whether I’m just putting it all on.

This relative lack of understanding must also be a cause of misdiagnosis, or (at least in my case) non-diagnosis.  For me it has also led to a fair amount of experimentation with different treatments, some of which have made my condition worse.

Although the brain is undoubtedly the most complex organ in the human body,  part of the reason for this lack of understanding has to be down to the comparative lack of research.

Incredibly, despite the fact that one in four people experience mental illness each year, mental health research only receives 5.8% of the UK’s total health research spend.  And it’s not just the State – for every £1 spent by the Government on mental health research, the public donates just 0.3p, compared to £2.75 for cancer research.

This is why I’m running for MQ. MQ is a charity that funds crucial research into the nature, causes, diagnosis, prevention, treatment and cure of all forms of mental illness.  Its vision is to create a world where mental illness is understood, effectively treated, and ultimately prevented.  Set up in 2013, it’s already funding research projects into a wide range of mental illnesses, using a variety of methods, undertaken by scientific institutions all over the world.

I’ll be setting up a fundraising page shortly, and will be posting, tweeting, texting, emailing and shouting the link.  I’ll also be posting training updates and further information about MQ, together with my usual meanderings.

New Beginnings

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The splendid thing about falling apart silently…
is that you can start over as many times as you like

– A Thousand Flamingos, Sanober Khan

Despite promising (threatening?) to write more often in my previous post, it’s been six months since I even checked my blog.  Why? The short answer is that I’ve had a lot on, but never one to give a short answer, here goes.

Although I’m currently laid up with an injury after another epic stunt of mal-coordination (more on which later) I’ve just started an exciting new chapter in my life, which also marks a new era for my favourite hobby/obsession.

As a result of a change of job and a move to the Cotswolds, for the first time since I started running I have access to a wide variety of routes and terrains, and have the stability and time to commit to a running club.

Rather than the mean streets of Peckham, my closest route is along the unspeakably beautiful Thames Path, not far from the source.  I’m now dealing with stinging nettles and cows, rather than traffic and scallies with fighting dogs. My new employer also has a very active running club, including free fitness classes tailored for runners.

The change of lifestyle (including more sleep and regular routine), and finally getting my medication right, has made me feel better than I have in as long as I can remember.  Although it’s early days, and being all too aware that my condition means that I am always one very small step away from things seeming too great, or very very bad, life is good.

So far, so positive. However, the reason for the gap in writing is that things have been pretty bad, both in life and in terms of running, for the majority of the intervening period between posts.

In fact, as far as running is concerned, only a couple of months ago I was not sure that I wanted to run again.  I had completely lost the love, only putting my trainers on when I had no choice, mainly due to Southern Rail’s complete ineptitude.

As a result, I pulled out of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Trail and the Marato Dels Cims, despite being in the best physical shape than I had ever been, and just stopped running.

It all started so well.  The training plan from my coach, Robbie, was brilliant; I saw an improvement in my fitness and performance after pretty much every run.  I found the structure and flexibility of the personalised plan more beneficial than I thought I would, particularly the tempo sessions.  Doing sprint work was, for me, like a trip to the dentist – unpleasant, very likely painful but ultimately very good.

As the race got closer, however, I started to use training as a stick with which to beat myself. I became obsessed with running further and faster, so much so that even Robbie told me that I was doing most of my sessions too quickly.  And although he was on hand to adapt my training plan on a daily basis I convinced myself that I could not afford to miss a session.

As my mental health is so intertwined with running, it’s difficult to tell whether this was a cause or just a symptom of a wider problem.  It was certainly adding to the anxiety caused by a possible job and house move, and to the normal stresses of modern life, all of which I was not coping with very well.  I was becoming increasingly withdrawn, my moods erratic, and to be honest it almost proved too much for my incredibly understanding and supportive wife.

Thankfully, we did not let history repeat itself. Rather than let the problems spiral out of control we hit them head on, admitting that something drastic needed to be done. So we spent a lot of time overhauling the way that we worked together as a family, I left the only career that I have ever known, and we moved out of London for an altogether different life.  No less radically for me, I also took a break from running.

As will be evident from the above, it seems to have worked.  As with the rest of my life, I’m now enjoying every run. Well, almost.

On only my third run in the country, I was coming up to the final gate before heading back onto the short stretch of road to home.  Distracted by a large black and white animal that I think country folk call a “cow”, I put my foot on a loose rock, sprained my ankle and went head first into the metal gate.  I limped home, blood pouring from my head and knees, and my ankle swollen to about three times the size. A week later I’m still limping, and sporting a particularly fetching black eye, which would be embarrassing at the best of times, but being only two weeks into a new job I look particularly ridiculous.

But, despite the mishap, I’m now feeling super-motivated, and ready for the next challenge. Once I can walk again, of course.

It’s Been a While…

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I run because I am a runner. I am a runner because I run
– Paula Radcliffe

As I am sure you’ve noticed (I assume it’s all you’ve been thinking about), this will be my first post in over two months.  To be honest I’ve been struggling a little, both physically and mentally.

As I mentioned in my last post, the December to February period is always tough for me, like many others that suffer with depression.  I guess it is no coincidence that the breakdown occurred around this time of year.

It’s also no coincidence that for the last three winters I’ve been struggling with injuries, although this year’s has to be the most irritating, despite being the least serious.  Every  time I ran, I’d get a sharp pain in my left knee, which would carry on for a day or so, and then disappear.

As the eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed, the last sentence was in the past tense, as it looks like I’ve finally got over what was diagnosed by Mike (my ever reliable and ever patient physio) as an overloaded patella tendon. I managed 30 miles this week, and now I’m starting to get into serious training for the Endurancelife Pembrokeshire Coastal Trail Ultra at the end of April.

So serious in fact, that I’ve even got myself a coach.  As a result of the best present anyone has ever given me (thanks to Mrs Up & Down Runner), I’ve got a bespoke training plan and all the advice I need from one of the UK’s best ultra runners, Robbie Britton.

In just six years Robbie has gone from running his first marathon to finishing third in the IAU 24 Hour World Championship, which involved 24 hours running around a track (he did an insane 261.14km, in case you’re wondering).  It will be five years since my first marathon in May, so he has (and I guess I have) a lot of work to do in not a lot of time. That is me and Robbie above, at the start line of the Cappadocia Ultra Trail back in October.

Robbie took time out of his hectic schedule between winning the Arctic Ice Ultra and competing in a cross-country skiing race to talk to me on Friday night, and I now have the first two weeks of my training plan.  Although it must mean a lot more work for him, designing my plan in two week chunks, and constantly adapting it in the meantime, rather than just giving me 12 weeks worth of training runs to get on with, has to be the best approach, and the only one that can work with a busy work and family life.

He’s started me off pretty steadily, so only time will tell whether I am as positive about the whole thing after I do the promised continuous 1 minute hill reps later in the plan…

So, after what seems like forever, I’ve finally re-discovered the love of running, meaning that you will hopefully be hearing much more from me over the coming months.

Before I sign-off for now, I just wanted to say a big thank you for everyone that voted for me in the RunUltra blogger awards.  Although I didn’t win, I am incredibly proud to even have been shortlisted, particularly given the quality of the other blogs.  You can find more details about the awards, and the very worthy winners, here.

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New Challenges

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice
And to make an end is to make a beginning
– Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

It’s been a month since my last post, the longest gap since I started the blog, and to be honest I’ve lost my mojo a little, both for writing and running.

The running is easy to explain, as I’ve actually been injured since completely the Ultra at the end of October.  I shouldn’t complain really, as it’s nothing serious, just an inflammation of the knee, and some kind of protest from my body was inevitable after Cappadocia. It is a very annoying niggle though, as it seems fine until about two miles in and then hurts for the next three days.

This also partly explains the lack of writing, so affected by a lack of exercise is my mental state.  As I’ve said before, running is a big part of my coping mechanism for depression, and is also a bona fide addiction. I’m always a terrible patient, but the timing of the injury is particularly unfortunate.

This time of year is tough for many people, and is a common issue for sufferers of depression.  For me, it’s a decidedly unholy mix of lack of light, miserable weather, pressured work environment, bad diet and too much mandatory socialising. Not being able to run off the stress, mince pies and booze makes me anxious and sluggish, both mentally and physically, which then makes me want to eat and drink more.

I think that I’m also still struggling with a bit of post-race comedown.  Isn’t it ironic (to quote Alanis Morissette), that the thing that is instrumental in keeping me sane also contributes to my downfall.  This is the inherent contradiction for me with running, as I tried to explain in my article for the CALM website; part cure, part problem, part symptom and part positive side-effect.

Before every race I’m fooled into thinking that a post-run break from training will be a relief, that not having to worry about miles and what I’m eating and drinking will be relaxing.  I’m not sure whether it’s the same for everyone with depression in general, or bipolar in particular, or whether it is just a personal thing, but what I have come to realise is that I need the structure and the discipline.

Anyway, now that I have filled you with Christmas spirit, I have at least used this time to plan my races for next year.  I’ve decided to go for the ultra and mountain marathon combo again, and I’m already excited about both races.

The first, on 30 April, will be the Endurancelife Pembrokeshire Coastal Trail Ultra. It’s 34.8 miles through the UK’s only coastal National Park. On the day there is also a marathon, half and 10km, and the event is part of a nine race series across the UK. Endurancelife has a great reputation as an event organiser, so I’m expecting big things.

The second race is the Marato Dels Cims, at the Andorra Ultra Trail Vallnord. Like the Marathon du Mont Blanc, it’s an alpine marathon, but with over 3,000m of ascent in the 26.4km course, it is going to be quite a bit tougher. It looks flippin’ beautiful though, which will hopefully get me through.

Before I go, I also wanted to shamelessly ask you to vote for me in the 2016 RunUltra Blogger Awards, which I have made the shortlist for. I’m very proud of this, as RunUltra is a fantastic website (check it out if you haven’t already), so thank you to everyone for reading this blog and helping me get this far. You can vote by following this link: http://www.runultra.co.uk/News/December-2015/Shortlist-for-the-RunUltra-Blogger-of-the-Year-Awa.aspx