Mind Control I: The Last Human Freedom

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“Between stimulus and response is a space. In that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”
– Dr Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Of all of the quotations that I have, or will, post on my blog, this is probably the most powerful.  Dr Frankl was an Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor, who lost his father, mother, brother and pregnant wife to Auschwitz.

The German title of the book gives a much better idea of what it is about: “trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager”, which roughly translates to “…to say Yes to life none the less: A psychologist experiences the concentration camps”.

The main message that I took from the book is that situations, circumstances or people can take away everything a person has, except the “last of human freedoms”; the ability to choose his or her attitude, to be “worthy of their suffering”.

To even survive what Dr Frankl had to endure, to rise above the unimaginable horror, let alone use it to create a school of psychotherapy that is still used today to treat a number of illnesses, is incredibly empowering. One of the main tenets of his theory, logotherapy, is that life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

It was only while reading the book that I realised that I had received this message before, and in the context of running.  In 2012, I ran the Paris and Edinburgh Marathons in aid of the fantastic charity Freedom from Torture (http://freedomfromtorture.org). Many of its clients have been through horrific experiences, yet were able to establish a new life, and use what they had been through to help others, much like Dr Frankl.

I have used their example to get me through many a race or training run: to ignore the feeling that I can’t run another step or that I should never have started in the first place, and to remind me that whatever it is that I am experiencing, it is most definitely not torture.

I am reluctant to link the suffering of concentration camp inmates and torture survivors to running around two of the most beautiful cities in the world.  What makes me do so is one of the other powerful messages from Man’s Search for Meaning, which has been instrumental in helping me come to terms with my illness.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of depression seems to be that a person needs to have a reason to be depressed.  Compared to most, I have nothing to be “depressed” about. I have a stable, supportive family, a good job, nice house, great friends, a beautiful, loving and supportive wife and two boys who I could not love any more.  If people can live through persecution, torture, poverty and other extreme physical or mental suffering, how weak and cowardly must I be to be unable to cope with another day?

This does of course ignore the fact that depression is an illness, and in my case most likely caused by a chemical imbalance, so is in a way a “physical” rather than “mental” disorder, like diabetes or asthma.  At times I find it very difficult to remember or even believe this, particularly when I am feeling low, but I cannot argue with Frankl’s conclusion that:

“…a man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas.  If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.  Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.  Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

This seems to me to be essential in combatting depression, both for the sufferer and those around them.  For the sufferer, one thing that he or she should never do is feel guilty or ashamed, or compare his or her situation to anyone else’s. As importantly, no-one should assume that an objectively “good” life makes a person immune from depression or suicidal thoughts.  Spotting the signs can be very difficult, particularly for long term sufferers that have become adept at hiding the inner turmoil, but talking openly, and reducing the stigma around depression and suicide, can, and indeed have been incredibly effective.

As described in the Guardian last week (http://bit.ly/1FohyM4), the NHS is running a number of pilot schemes to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide, based on the incredibly successful programme in Detroit, which has reduced suicide by 82%.   What someone suffering from depression needs most is professional medical assistance, in many cases (such as mine) it will take a family member, a friend or a colleague to get this.

Moreover, even a stranger could be the catalyst needed for a sufferer to get help, or to divert him or her from taking the final step.  The details of my darkest hour are for another post, but what I can say is that a woman who I had never met, and am very unlikely to meet again (particularly as I can’t really remember what she looked like), saved my life with the smallest act of kindness.

Training Weeks 3-4 Faster Than a Speeding Train

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“A weird time in which we are alive.
We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets.
And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope”
Philip K. Dick – The Man in the High Castle

Last week was a very important step in my training and my recovery, both from the hip injury, and the breakdown. For the previous 18 weeks or so, I had spent most mornings sitting, and declining in morale and hope.  In other words, I had been trying to get to work, through London Bridge, travelling on Southern Rail.

I am about as certain that I will get to my destination relying on a train to London Bridge, as I was when driving in my aforementioned Nova.  Not only did it have difficulty starting, but the wheel once snapped clean off the axle.  Thankfully, no-one was hurt, although the flying wheel did bisect the central post of a wooden fruit & veg stall at the side of the road.

As a result, I was very relieved to get back to running into the office last week.  The route, from my home in East Dulwich to my office near St. Paul’s Cathedral, is between 6-7 miles, and after three years of experimenting, I have found a way to keep off as many main roads as possible, use pedestrian crossings where I can’t avoid them, and even learn the phasing of the traffic lights.  A map and stats from my normal route can be found by following this link at Garmin Connect, if you’re interested.

There are a number of other advantages to run commuting, most of which are listed in the May edition of Runner’s World, and are fully covered on the fantastic Run2Work website (https://www.run2work.com/), where you can also find tips, suggested routes and can even find a group to run commute with.  I think that they are worth repeating, even though it breaks my own site rule of not giving advice:

  • easy training miles – a few people have asked how I find time to train with a busy job, two children and a blog, and the answer is simply that I run to work.  It takes me less time than it does to use public transport (hence the title to this post), so is actually a net time saver, and I can get up to 30 miles a week in just by getting to work;
  • great start to the day – I can get to my desk feeling awake, relaxed and smug, rather than claustrophobic and irritable;
  • it’s cheap – not only do I avoid paying expensive train/bus/tube fares or fuel for the car, but my suits, work clothes last much longer as I don’t have to wear them to and from the office;
  • it’s consistent – I know that on an average day I will get to the office in 52-54 minutes from home, but if I need to get there  a bit quicker it is (almost) completely within my control;
  • it’s good for the environment and stuff;
  • improves my sense of direction – which, as I have mentioned before, is very important; and
  • get to take the scenic route – I get daily reminder of what makes London the greatest place in the world. I have posted a photo gallery of my run into work (although admittedly I did not take all of the photos while running), which shows how I get to experience natural beauty, the most multicultural and diverse 1/2 mile in the world (Rye Lane), a large cross-section of Londoners, both human and non-human, historic, iconic buildings and a developing hyper-modern city.

Admittedly, run commuting is not without its drawbacks. It takes some forward planning to make sure that you have the right attire in the right place.  Thankfully I have not yet had to wear trainers to a meeting, or go trouserless, but I now have a very large collection of cheap cufflinks, and a few hastily purchased shirts. You obviously also need showers at or near the workplace, unless you really don’t like your colleagues.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in two offices that have decent facilities, apart from a dodgy lock on a bathroom door, which once left me face to face with the head of my office, wearing only a mortified expression. Needless to say he never looked me in the eye again.

The other drawback, at least as far as my current training is concerned, is that there aren’t many mountains between East Dulwich and the City.  With Mont Blanc now only 9 weeks away, I should really try to run up some hills.

Training Weeks 1 and 2: From Boston to Bognor

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 “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon”
Kathrine Switzer – 26.2 Marathon Stories

Although my preparation started 10 weeks later than I wanted because of my dodgy hip, I could not have picked two better places to begin training – New York and Boston. I was only in town to work/study/socialise, and it was below freezing for most of the week, so not perfect conditions, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run in two of the most hallowed places for distance runners, particularly so close to the Boston Marathon. Indeed, the quote above is from possibly the most famous Boston winner, and a true running pioneer.

Whenever I go away I try to fit in at least one run, especially in the U.S. where there is too much of a temptation to over-indulge (pizza and American craft beer are my kryptonite). It is also normally the only chance I get to see the place that I am visiting apart from the inside of a hotel / conference room / airport.

At 10 days, this trip was by far the longest that I had been away from my family since the breakdown. It involved giving presentations, socialising with people that I didn’t know well (or at all) and intense study in an intimidating environment, all situations that I struggle with, particularly without much sleep. This made it all the more important to switch off my mind the only way I know how; by running.

The runs were gentle and not particularly far, which I was actually proud of as it is very unlike me to show such restraint during recovery from an injury.

The first run was along the Hudson River Greenway, up the westerly side of Manhattan.  The second was not technically in Boston, but in nearby Cambridge – “From Cambridge to Bognor” did not have the same ring to it.  I was attending a course at Harvard for the week (check me out), and one of the pre-course materials they provided was a running map.  Despite the map and obvious landmarks, I almost became the first person to visit Cambridge and not see the river.  I was very glad that I did though – my photo does not do justice to the life-affirming beauty of the sun setting over the frozen Charles, mainly because I went out in short sleeves so had lost all feeling in my arms by that point.

For week 2 I was in the slightly less glamorous location of Butlins in Bognor Regis.  From a running perspective, the two places did however have a lot in common, as I was again able to run alongside water, on flat and predominantly car-free routes, in the sunshine.  If you are looking for Murakami’s void, or need to blow away the cobwebs, then you can’t get much better than a run by the sea.

My diet and alcohol consumption were also similarly unhealthy, so much so that I was craving wholemeal bread and plain vegetables by Friday. I’ll stop drinking next week I promise…

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Injury

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“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”
Unknown (but definitely not Buddha)

Particularly if you are me (at least the first part)…

In addition to the idealistic reasons for writing this blog, one of the main drivers has been to stop me climbing the walls while recovering from the latest in a long line of injuries. Despite Mont Blanc Marathon only being 10 weeks away, I have managed no more than a dozen runs since October 2014, after giving myself capsulitis (basically a frozen hip), in a vain attempt to build a rudimentary level of upper body strength after slipping mid-way through a single-leg press up. The picture above is an x-ray of the cortisone injection that I had in my hip joint, on my birthday, earlier this year. It was by far the most pain I’ve ever experienced, at least physically. Hardened athlete that I am, I cried a little, almost passed out twice, and had to hold the nurse’s hand for most of the procedure.

In fact, this picture, or at least my attitude to it, was what finally made me start the blog. I happily posted the x-ray, of an intimate part of my body, during an incredibly painful procedure, on social media without a second thought.  However, at that stage I had not mentioned anything about my breakdown or struggles with depression. I felt compelled to share a great article by Yvonne Roberts about male suicide (http://gu.com/p/45t9n/sbl), particularly as it was written almost exactly a year after my breakdown, but it took me three hours to pluck up the courage to post it. As a strong believer that mental illness shouldn’t be talked about any differently to physical illness, I realised that not re-posting or telling people about my experiences would be hypocritical in the extreme.

Unfortunately, capsulitis was not my first injury, and definitely will not be my last. Except for an unavoidable IT band inflammation, and plantar fascitis, most of my injuries have been self-inflicted.  I have managed to do the following while exercising:

  • fracture my ankle and go face-first into a pavement while working out how to get past a slow moving bus (the bus was full so the embarrassment was as painful as the fall)
  • sprain my other ankle in confusion at seeing a parakeet on Peckham Rye Common
  • bruise my foot by kicking an umbrella on the sidelines after missing an open goal
  • hit myself in the face with a kettlebell
  • cut the bottom of both of my feet in an attempt to avoid a dropped milk bottle
  • trip over after being surprised by a family of racoons in Central Park
  • run crotch-first into a bollard after shouting at some teenagers for purposefully getting in my way

Like many amateur running obsessives, I am a terrible patient. I am grumpy, irritable and as soon as I am able to get back to it, I ignore doctor’s/physio’s/partner’s advice and try to pick up where I left off with my training.  One of the few advantages having an illness like bipolar disorder is that I can blame faults like this on the illness, rather than my own natural impatience and lack of discipline.

PS – I was tempted to write this week about a certain former Apprentice contestant and Hitler impersonator’s tweets about depression but: (1) I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of mentioning her name, or by repeating her abhorrent and potentially dangerous opinions; and (2) Jenny Bede has already published a much better response than I ever could in her brilliant Marathon Woman blog in the equally brilliant Standard Issue magazine: http://standardissuemagazine.com/health/marathon-woman-weeks-11-12/.

This post is brought to you with massive thanks to Mike Davis and the rest of the team at HFS Clinics (http://www.hfs-clinics.co.uk/), for getting me back to running as quickly as possible on a regular basis.

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.

Running

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““Cowardice was undoubtedly one of the most terrible vices” – thus spoke Yeshua Ha-Nozri. “No philosopher, I disagree with you: it is the most terrible vice””

Conversation between Yeshua and Pontius Pilot. Master & the Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

I would love to say that running has always been part of my life, that I was a junior cross-country champion, or did my first marathon at 16, but actually that could not be further from the truth. I really only discovered running as a sporting activity in my 20th year, because, to be honest, it was the only sport that my supreme lack of co-ordination was not too much of an impediment to, although my action has been described as “chicken-like”.  Even then, the first time I could honestly call myself “a runner” was when I was 29, after completing my second ever race, the 2009 Great North Run. In fact, I can even pinpoint the exact moment I became a runner. It was just under a mile from the gloriously sunny finish, after a laboured couple of miles, that I spotted him – a guy, no older than myself, watching the race with his little boy. I probably should have said earlier, but four weeks before race day I found out that I was going to be a father.  It’s fair to say that to that point I had not handled the news very well, in that I did not speak at all for four days after I found out.  It was not that I was disappointed or upset by the news, just that I could not see how I could ever look after another person. I would love to say that it was at this point that I realised that it was the best thing that could have happened to me, and that I sprinted to the finish as if on air, sure in the knowledge that I would make a great father.  However, this could not be further from the truth. What actually happened was that I stopped, and did everything I could not to throw up on the course, and/or curl up in a ball and cry. When the worst of the nausea passed I started running again, and the further I went, the better I felt, so much so that when I got to the finish line, I felt the way I should have done when I first got the news. Except of course for the sweating. From that point I was hooked, and since then I have completed 8 half, 3 full and 1 ultra marathon, as well as a 20 mile race and numerous 5 and 10kms.  This may not sound like a lot, but with a wedding, two children, two house moves, a breakdown and countless injuries (more on which later), it has certainly felt like a lot. When someone asks me why I run, I generally have a list of things that I love about the sport: the simplicity (although to be honest this isn’t that much of a driver for me as I have pretty much every running gadget there is); the way it lets me explore new places and improve my terrible sense of direction; the fact that if you stick at it you continue to make progress; being able to eat extra guilt-free calories; because it is the only time that I am left alone; to acquire Marukami’s runner’s void; the stats; the competition and the  fact that I do not have to rely on Southern Rail to get into the office.  But really, the main reason for me is that it allows me to run away from the person that I am, and towards the person I would rather be. As I mentioned above, and no doubt will do again, I have always been a cowardly person, shying away from confrontation and being paralysed by the fear of failure, and to an extent that is still the case.  What running has taught me is that it is possible to fight my natural urges, ignore the dominant negative side of my personality, and that I am capable of doing things that I feel I am not built for. The quote at the start of this post is from one of my favourite books, but this exchange only properly clicked with me after I had read Murakami on running mantras (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, one of the best books about the love of running).  I tried out a few phrases, but the one that stuck, and the one that I now try to use every time I face something difficult, is “cowardice is the most terrible vice”.  It has become so much of a part of my life, that I have had it tattooed on my arm, in Russian for extra pretentiousness.  Mine is the slightly less puny of the arms pictured above, the other arm is my eldest son’s, who made mummy write a less poncy version on his arm (in felt tip, we have not given our four year old a tattoo), to be like daddy. Running CV:

  • First Race – Silverstone Half Marathon 2004 – not the most picturesque introduction to distance running, although I was able to amuse myself by making racing car noises when going round corners
  • Best Race Royal Parks Ultra 2013 – my (gentle) introduction to the world of ultra running: beautiful course, my only perfectly paced race, coming face-to-face with a stag in Bushy Park and a surprisingly decent finish Runner-up – Shakespeare Marathon 2013 – well organised, well supported, pretty, flat 2 lap course and comfortably my marathon PB
  • Worst Race – Marathon du Paris 2012 – nothing to do with the race itself (although I could have done without the bananas in skins at the aid stations), but running my first marathon five days after having food poisoning, with a fractured ankle, was never going to be a good idea Runner-up – Great City Race 2012 – torrential rain and a partially caved-in road surface on the first corner made for a very slow 5km
  • Greatest Achievement – Great City Race 2013 – beating Paula Radcliffe by 15 minutes.  She was leading a blind person around, but I am claiming it as a win. Runner-up – Marathon du Paris 2012 – getting to the finish (see above)

Like many addicts, I am now itching to try the hard stuff – mountain and ultra running, starting with the Mont Blanc Marathon at the end of June, and then to the Cappadocia Ultra Trail 60k in October.