Inside Out

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“Life isn’t just addition and subtraction. There’s also accumulation,
the multiplication, of loss, of failure.”

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

It’s been another uneventful running week, which is mainly because I’ve been on a crash diet to shift a few pounds before the serious training starts. I’ve been doing the Clean 9 which, if you haven’t heard of it, is like a hardcore Slim-Fast, where you also drink shower gel (alright, aloe vera gel). You also have to cut out all caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar, the former being particularly difficult for a coffee-addict like me.

I don’t really need to lose that much weight but, as you may have noticed, I am very much an all-or-nothing person, so decided that a short-sharp shock would be the way to go.  Apart being extremely hangry for the first three days, it’s made me feel pretty good, and has definitely worked.

As it’s been quiet, I’ve decided to do my first and last movie review. We took the kids to see the new Disney/Pixar film Inside Out this weekend, which is set in the mind of Riley, an 11 year-old girl, the main characters being her five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear.   The plot revolves around her family’s move to San Francisco, and how her emotions react to the upheaval.

I’m a massive Toy Story fan (genuinely and unashamedly think it is one of the best films ever made), but I think Inside Out may be as funny, exciting and moving, if not more.  It has a brilliant cast (including Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader), is meticulously researched, gorgeously animated, intelligently written and, like Toy Story, has some great set-pieces and one-liners for adults as well as children.

Most impressively though, it expresses some of the most complex abstract concepts, such as the birth and development of human consciousness, personality and the self, explains how important emotions like sadness and fear are and why a person can’t be happy all of the time in an ingenious, simple and truly beautiful way.  If nothing else, it is hands-down the most thought provoking kids’ movie I have ever seen.

Although it seems like all of the reviewers agree that it is a fantastic film, it obviously struck a chord with me, and got me imagining what the inside of my mind would look like, compared to Riley and her parents’.  Each of the three had one controlling emotion, Joy for Riley, Anger for her dad, and Sadness for her mum, although in the adults’ brains all of the emotions had a lot more control over the body’s reactions. For me, I’m pretty sure that in my mind there is a constant power-struggle among Joy, Sadness and Fear, which regularly turns into a punch-up (sometimes allowing Anger to sneak in and take over).

Actually, not long after we first met, Camilla had an iPod case that had cartoon monkeys banging cymbals, dancing and playing drums and other instruments.  I used to tell Camilla that it was a depiction of the inside of her brain (jokingly, of course), so I am going to take some, if not all of the credit for the concept of the film.

One of the most interesting questions that I’ve been mulling over is whether everyone would start out with Joy as the dominant emotion, particularly as the things that make my two year-old Caspar happy include looking at dogs, smelling beer (don’t ask), anything to do with poo and Peppa Pig (don’t get me started on that knobhead Daddy Pig).  From speaking to my parents, however a mix of Fear and Sadness may have been in control of my young mind, and that is certainly true of the teenage me. Mind you, this is probably also the case for most 15 year olds.

As you only see Riley’s development, the film does not express whether sadness or anger had always been in charge of mum or dad’s mind, or whether it changed over time.  What is definitely clear from the film though, illustrated by the increased size of mum and dad’s “control consoles” as opposed to Riley’s rudimentary operating system, is that with maturity comes greater control and balance of all of the emotions.  Unfortunately, some of us just need a little bit of help to keep the status quo…

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Liguria

Ligurian Apennines

“Correr es la mejor medicina que existe”*
– Haile Gebrselassie

I’ve been on holiday with the family for the last couple of weeks in Italy, staying in a tiny village called Velva in the Ligurian Apennines. Unbeknownst to me (honest), the villa we were in was on the Giro d’Italia route, and had well signposted trails, perfect for a trail runner with no sense of direction. What’s more, the trails were as beautiful and challenging as Mont Blanc, particularly as they were overgrown with brambles and full of loose rocks.  In the six mile route I followed, I dropped down into the valley below Velva and back up to Missano, then back to Velva on the road. Velva itself doesn’t appear to have changed since it was built into the hillside in the 13th century, and until I got to Missano, the only semblance of human life I saw were a couple of long-abandoned buildings.  I also ran into a stag again, much more timid this time (still not a sign, you’re not getting me that easily). The photos really don’t do it justice.

Not sure whether it was the new medication working, the trails or being on holiday (probably a mix of the three), I’m feeling much better than when I last posted.  Far be it from me to question Haile, but although I’m not sure that running is the best medicine, it is definitely a very effective one.

Velva SunsetVelva, Liguria Velva, Liguria IMG_8872 Velva, Liguria Velva, Liguria Velva, Liguria Blackberries Velva, Liguria Grapes IMG_9015 Velva, Liguria IMG_9006 IMG_9010 IMG_9042IMG_9035 Ligurian Apennines Velva war heroes Ligurian Apennines Velva, Liguria Moon

* Running is the best medicine

Just a Marketing Gimmick?

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“Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean
Arden paradise and expect  to see nymphs and fluteboys, then
suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of
hell and dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life”
– Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

As you will have noticed, I’ve not posted for a while.  Alright, you probably haven’t, I’m not getting delusions of grandeur, at least not regularly.

After the race I took a training break, so apart from a run in Seattle (I only managed the one – the beer is too good there), and blacking-out in Sydenham while trying to run off a virus, not much has happened in the last few weeks.

I did do a sub-19 minute 5km race at the start of July (The Great City Race, again), which I should’ve been happy with, but as I missed out on a PB by 8 seconds, despite starting near the front, I’m still a bit annoyed about it.

I also won an entry into the Snowdonia Trail Marathon, and race gear from Scott (massive thanks to Scott and Climbers Shop in Cumbria), but annoyingly I forgot that I’d entered and couldn’t make the race, so gave the place to James and shared the kit with him.  I did keep the free shoes though, mainly because they were called “Trail Rocket”, and from what I’ve seen so far this is a fair description.  I wasn’t that sorry to miss the race, particularly because of the torrential rain (see picture of James below) and because James, as a former local, got a far better time than I ever could, which I’m claiming as a result for team Up & Down Runner, and therefore me.

To be honest though, the main reason for not writing is that I’ve not been feeling great recently; a combination of inevitable post-race comedown, not looking after myself properly and, well…if I knew exactly why then I wouldn’t need the drugs.

Talking of drugs, I was corralled by Camilla into seeing the psychiatrist again, because of my volatile moods, extreme forgetfulness (see above) and because I’ve developed a side-effect (whether of the meds or old age) of falling asleep at the slightest provocation.  Great on long haul flights, not so good in meetings, or while driving…

The outcome of my session was more medication on top of the two that I’m already taking, which I think now means I’m officially on a “cocktail” of drugs.  On the other hand, maybe I already was, as, after all, a martini, screwdriver and snakebite only have two ingredients. Perhaps the latter is stretching the definition of “cocktail” too far – can’t see Bond ordering it shaken or stirred, unless he was in a student bar Bristol in 2000, and it was my round (unless he fancied a Southern Comfort and Lemonade instead).

Sorry, got side-tracked.  Actually, the most important thing that came from my session with the doctor was that he has, CONFESSION ALERT, never definitely diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

Although many of my symptoms support the diagnosis, and I am on medication used to treat bipolar, which seem to be working on the whole, I am not quite bipolar enough for a certain decision.

This is the story of my life – got the basics right, work hard and show a lot of promise, but don’t quite have the flair to get to the top.  As I said in my first post, if I do indeed have bipolar disorder, I am the most boring sufferer in history, unless my “Maserati moment”, as Dr. Craig calls it, is still to come.

The other issue, which is more general, and far more interesting, is that in many cases a definitive identification of a mental illness is very difficult, or even impossible.  There’s no test or scan that you can do for depression, so doctors may only have the testimony of others, or evidence of the most unreliable witness possible, the sufferer, on which to base the diagnosis. It also seems, at least to a psych-idiot like me, that very little is known about the workings of the brain compared to every other part of the body. A good example of this is that two out of the three drugs that I’ve been prescribed are predominantly used to treat other ailments (epilepsy and psychosis, respectively), and although there is apparently lots of evidence to prove that they ease bipolar symptoms, it’s not yet been fully established why this is so.

Maybe this is also why it can make mental illness difficult to understand; at times there can be no sign that anything’s wrong, and even when there is it can just seem like an over-the-top, but not completely unwarranted, reaction to an everyday situation.

Do I need a label?  It would certainly makes things easier, and I could pretend that I was a misunderstood creative genius, but it seems, at least medically, that it really only makes a difference in the drugs prescribed, and I’m fine with trying anything that works.

So, there you go, “Up & Down Runner” may be a complete fraud; a cheap marketing gimmick. Please forgive me, but “Up & Down, But Not Consistent with a Diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, But Then Again Maybe It Is, Runner”, would not be quite as catchy, or fit on a t-shirt.

Right, I’m off to buy a Maserati.

NB: I know that the photo at the top does not really relate to the post, it’s just the best photo of me that I have…

James Hampton - Snowdonia Marathon finish

MdMB Part III: The Race of My Life

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“If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone,
if you’re not demanding more from yourself – expanding
and learning as you go – you’re choosing a numb existence.
You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
– Dean Karnazes, Ultra-Marathon Man:
Confessions of an All Night Runner

Three weeks after completing Marathon du Mont Blanc, I’m still struggling to put the experience into words, but it’s about time that I gave it a go. To be honest, I’ve been struggling with a post-race downer, and I need to re-focus with Cappadocia only 12 weeks away. In fact, Alan has well and truly re-surfaced, although as I’m in Norwich this weekend (complete with incorrectly pedestrianised city centre, and giant Nazi-saluting copper “dogs”) that was inevitable.

In my last post (MdMB Part I) I described the festival atmosphere of the weekend, and some of the many reasons why I fell in love with Chamonix.  What was surprising though was that my favourite part of the weekend wasn’t the build-up, watching the other races, or the post-race celebrations, but the race itself.

Just in case it isn’t already clear, I love running, and spend most of my life doing or talking about it.  Mont Blanc is however the first race that I have enjoyed the whole way through. In every race before MdMB the negative side of my brain had at some point, no doubt egged on by my feet, legs, back and chest, ruined the fun for the rest of me.  It always started with polite questioning – “Are you sure you’re ok?” “Aren’t your legs starting to hurt? Haven’t those gels made you feel a bit sick?”, but then developed into recriminations, histrionics and threats of strike or reprisals. These questions were never even asked during MdMB.  In fact, when I finished I had exactly the same feeling as I did at the end of our wedding, that it ended too quickly and that I wanted to go back and do it all again.

The race started in the centre of Chamonix at 7am, just as the sun was rising above the mountains. The start area was packed with the 2000+ runners and their supporters, together with a surprising number of committed locals waking early on a Sunday to cheer on the runners.  With only a limited amount of faffing, we were off heading through the narrow streets of the town. It felt great to start, after three days of watching other people run and 8 months of build-up.

I tried to make the most of the flat pavements, but we were soon onto the gently undulating fire tracks and out towards Argentiere. Although uphill, the first few miles were fairly gentle.  Rather than stick to my original plan of taking it very easy, I took the advice of a MdMB veteran (more on which shortly) and tried to get as far forward as I could, to avoid the worst of the traffic when the course got narrower.

Actually, this was my only gripe of the weekend; there were just too many people on the course.  It was very difficult to keep to your own pace, as you were either stuck in a bottleneck or getting jostled from behind. It actually became dangerous at a couple of points where you had people trying to overtake on single-track paths where one wrong step could end your race, or in some places, your life.  Although it was great that there were so many people doing the race, in my humble opinion they have to start in waves next year, just as they did with the Vertical KM.

Apart from twisting my ankle on possibly the flattest section of the course, the first 11 miles flew by, and before I knew it I was at the aid station at the bottom of Aguillette des Posettes, faced with the 1km vertical climb that I had been dreading since I entered the race.

Thankfully, you could only see the start of it from the aid station, and because of the tree cover you did not at any point have to look from bottom to top.  It was undoubtedly the toughest hour or so of my running life, and every time I thought I was at the top there was another slope in front of me.  Bewilderingly though, I really enjoyed it.  There was no question of being able to run up it, so it was simply a matter of putting hands on knees and slowly edging up and diverting my attention from my burning glutes, quads and calves.

As this was the slowest part of the course, I could chat to the other “runners”, which definitely passed the time.  This was particularly the case with Charlotte, who I had met the day before at the Expo.  As well as being a veteran of the race and Chamonix resident, she is also one half of the team behind Sky Lines (http://www.sky-lines.eu), who had the simple but ingenious idea of making temporary tattoos containing all of the details of the race (see above, modelled by my puny forearms), so she quite literally knew the course like the back of her hand.

Indeed, just as I was starting to struggle up the hill Charlotte pointed out to me that once we were at the top, we were on the home stretch.  Seemed an odd thing to say with just under half of the race left, but with the hardest part over, it made sense at the time.  If that wasn’t enough of a kick, the view at the top, massive cliché alert, made all of the effort worthwhile.  The rolling green slopes, uninterrupted view of the Mont Blanc Massif, thin clear air, the snaking line of runners and the old man on top of a trailer playing an electric guitar is now the place I go to in my head when things start to get too much.

We then headed downhill, at the same steepness as we came up. It was absolutely petrifying, but also incredibly fun.  It felt great to be travelling fast, and because I was concentrating on every step, it made the time pass even quicker.

With the most challenging part of the run over with, we headed back to civilisation and through Le Tours. It felt very odd (and not in a good way) to be back on tarmac, but it wasn’t long before we doubled-back on ourselves into the tree line and to the very welcome aid station at Tré Les Champs. The station was buzzing, and I would have quite happily stayed and chatted to the crowds, eaten cheese and saucisson and listened to the band playing Bob Marley.

But I had a race to finish.  Next came a much shorter, but deceptively more technical peak than the first, with unstable rocks, twisted tree roots and other potential race-enders. Apparently, this section was included this year after previous complaints about the race not being technical enough. Thanks for that, last year’s runners.

With the tricky peak at Le Bechoz dispensed with, there was a long, slow climb to the final aid station at Le Flégére. This was the only part of the race that dragged.  There was less to look at, it was baking hot with no shade, and I’d run out of water.  But, near the top of the climb, I caught up with my cousin, mate, and Bear Grylls, James (he of the Rocky training regime), who I’d lost at mile 10.  We made it to the final aid station together, and after a quick coke (cola, to be clear), sit down and jug of water over the head, we went out together for the final 6km to the finish.

In previous races, I have been accused of abandoning previously made plans to finish as a team in search of personal glory.  But this time it really was by accident, honest. As James and I set out from the aid station we agreed that it would be brilliant to cross the line together.  James, for different reasons, also had a horrendous 2014, and it was just as much of an achievement as it was for me to be on the start line.

After a little time to let the coke go down, I gave James an inclined nod to the front of us, being the universal sign for, “let’s push on”.  I am pretty sure that James nodded back, so for the first time I took the lead and overtook a couple of people in front of us.  I’d suddenly got a massive burst of energy, buoyed by the fact that we could now see and hear the finish line in the distance, so kept overtaking at every opportunity.  I was concentrating on this so much, however, that I forgot to check behind me.  By the time that we got to the final switchback up to the line at Planpraz, I realised that I couldn’t see James anywhere.  The path was too narrow to stop, so I could do nothing else but push on.

Before the race, I’d warned Camilla that I’d be a mess, physically and mentally, when I crossed the line, and fully expected the last 18 months of awfulness to come flooding out. As is nearly always the case in life, it did not conform to expectations, and all I felt was elated, the only negative thought being a sense of disappointment that it was all over, 06:54:10 after it started.

Thankfully too, James crossed the line a couple of minutes later, so we were able to head into the recovery tent together, where some genius (in fact the geniuses at Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (http://www.mbchx.com)), put a beer tap at the end of the line of bottles of water and recovery drinks.  It was hands down the best beer I have ever tasted, although disappointingly they refused to fill up James’s 500ml flask, or my hydration pack with the stuff.

Charlotte, my race companion/pacer/coach also came in just after us, so hit her target of sub-7 hours.  Rev, the third member of the UDR trio, also had a great race and came in well below the time he was predicting, and loved the experience almost as much as I did.

I couldn’t find much about the race online, so here are the main questions that I had before the start:

  • Will road shoes do? NO. Even though it was dry this year there is no way that I would have stayed on my feet without my heavy duty Salomon Speedcross 3s.
  • What about poles?  A controversial subject. I have never tried them, and coped absolutely fine without. I was pretty fed up by the end of the race at being jabbed in the leg by them though, or by people turning a dual-track path into a single-track by spreading their arms as much as possible.  So if you get on with them, use them, but be prepared to be hated by the people that don’t (mainly at jealously during the uphills).
  • Should I do much hill training?  As I’ve mentioned before, I only did one real mountain run before the race, so you can cope without, but the more you do, the more confident you will be on both the up and downhills.
  • What about the altitude?  From our collective experience, it’s definitely a good idea to do some altitude training if you can.  James really struggled, and actually had to stop at some point. As I was lucky enough to work next to, and be supported by, The Altitude Centre, it didn’t bother me at all.
  • How hard is it? Very, particularly the first climb, but if you can do a flat marathon, and get some practice on hills, it’s definitely doable.
  • Should I do it?  If the answer is not obvious already, YES YES YES.

I’ll see you next year, although I may well be doing the 80km.

Next up – Cappadocia Trail 60k, T-12 weeks. It’s got a lot to live up to…

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MdMB Part I: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

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“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”
Sir Edmund Hillary

As a kid, I was obsessed with Christmas.  I’d plan it for the family in February, invite Nan and Granddad in March, and then start my letter to FC by June at the latest.  By November it was all I could talk about, but every year, without fail, I would get sick the week before.  I normally spent the 22nd and 23rd in bed or throwing up, and the rest of the family would worry that I’d ruin Christmas.

I always made a miraculous recovery on the 24th, and by Christmas Day it was like I’d never been ill. I’d been so nervous and excited about the big day, that I made myself sick.

After all of that, you would think that 25 December would be the best day of the year for me. After the initial excitement it was actually when I was most miserable.  I’d built it up so much that it was always going to be an anti-climax, and by the time lunch was finished, I was already mourning the fact that it was over, and that by the time next Christmas came along everything would be different.

As you will know if you have read any of my previous posts, my approach to the Mont Blanc Marathon was very similar, so both Camilla and I were worried that the event would not live up to expectations, and that the comedown would be sharp and severe, as it was after my first Ultra in 2013 (Falling Feels Like Flying).

Thankfully, it went better than I ever could have imagined, and was one of the best experiences of my life.

As soon as we got close to the Alps I understood what Lizzy Hawker had said to me a few weeks before (Training Weeks 8-10), as I instantly fell in love with the mountains, and the only negative thought I had was to question why the hell it had taken me so long to get here. I was completely mesmerised by Mont Blanc, and could have quite happily sat and watched it for the whole weekend, if I had not found myself in a running geek’s paradise.

Every other shop in Chamonix seemed to be a sports shop, and it’s the only place where I haven’t had funny looks for wandering around in quad guards, calf guards and long socks, particularly as so many people were here for one of the races. There was also a good chance of bumping into an ultra-running legend with Seb Chaigneau, Max King, Emelie Forsberg and Killian Jornet, among others, in action.  I think I may have gone a little tweenager at a One Direction concert at one point, as Camilla threatened to make me an “I’d go gay for Killian Jornet” banner.

The events started at 4am on Friday with the 80km and the Vertical Kilometre in the afternoon. Saturday was the mini-cross (cutest race I have ever seen), 23km cross and the 10km, with the marathon finishing off the weekend on Sunday.  Every race was impeccably organised and incredibly well supported, even for the pack of 80km finishers running through the town at 10:30pm, the 7-year olds on Saturday morning and the start of our race at 7am on Sunday.

The six of us that made team Up & Down Runner (I got them t-shirts so they had no choice), were involved every day, with Charlotte and Charlie doing the Vertical Kilometre on Friday and joining Camilla in the 10km on Saturday, and with me, James and Andy doing the marathon on Sunday.  This helped my preparation greatly, as it not only kept me busy, but seeing the incredible support at each race and sharing the relief and elation of finishing made me even more excited, and less nervous about the challenge itself.

Admittedly I did let the nerves get the better of me on Saturday night, but when I woke up at 4.30 on Sunday to eat breakfast they had all gone.  Aided by an unexpected and touching note from our host for the weekend (who also happens to be my boss), I succeeded, possibly for the first time in my life, to block out all of the negative thoughts; the panic that I had not done enough training, the likelihood of breaking an ankle or falling off a ledge and the inevitable post-race crash.  Whatever had happened before, and whatever was going to happen during the day, was irrelevant, all I could do was start at the start, and keep going until I stopped, and try to enjoy myself while doing it.

I’m going to put a detailed race report in a separate post, as there is far too much to say here, but as many of you will know already, I completed the race in 6:54:10, a devilish 666th out of the 2012 finishers, and I enjoyed every single minute.  Me, the person that had never been near a mountain before, runs like a chicken, hated running up hills, consistently found new and more stupid ways to injure himself (Injury), that is scared of “mushrooms and Moomins and hedgehogs”, at least according to Freddie* and that, less than 18 months ago, would have ended his life if he was not a prisoner in his own bed.

I hope that this doesn’t come across as a lame attempt at false modesty, as I only mention these things to show that you should never underestimate yourself – if I can do this, imagine what you can do.

Admittedly, I could not have done any of this without the right medication, therapy, and the support of friends, family, and indeed all of you that are reading the blog.  But, on the start line and for those 7 hours, it was mainly just me against myself (or Alan, to be precise).  Have I beaten him? No. But with each step I was winning, and all that matters now is that I keep focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.

*He’s right about the Moomins.  What the hell are they, why does Little My live with them and what is the big-eyed fisherman all about?

Falling Feels Like Flying

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“Falling feels like flying, until you hit the ground.
And everything is beautiful, until you take a look around.”
– Walking to Hawaii, Tom McRae

With only one week to go until Marathon Mont-Blanc, I’m in a reflective mood, so thought it was worth reminding myself, and everyone else, why I’m doing it in the first place.

On paper, 2013 was a pretty good year for me. My family was completed in November 2012 with the arrival of Caspar, who was thriving.  He’d arrived at the perfect time, as I was able to extend my paternity leave across Christmas and New Year, so for the first time in 7 years I’d had 5 weeks off work in a row. We were settled in our first proper house, and after falling out of love with it for a while, we had made the firm decision that London was the best place in the world for us to be.

In 2013 I also managed, after 7 months of interviews, tests and other complications, to get a new and very sought after job.  Because of the change in employment, I wangled an even longer 6 week break, and was Blackberry free for the first time since 2006 (it felt like I had lost a limb, but in a good way).

As far as running was concerned, I was in the form of my life.  I trounced the 2012 me by improving my marathon personal best by over 20 minutes, and scored half marathon, 10km and 5km PBs. In October I completed my first ever ultra marathon, on a beautiful day, in the greatest city in the world.

As I’ve said before, the Royal Parks Ultra is the best race I’ve taken part in.  Faultlessly organised, brilliantly supported and a gorgeous route through or alongside some of London’s best assets, the Royal Parks and the Thames Towpath.

My personal race also could not have been better; my only sensibly paced start, hydration and food just right, and an endorphin kick just when I needed it at 30 miles.  The only slowdown was the most, if not only, spiritual moment in my life.  Just after entering Bushy Park, I turned a corner and saw something blocking my path – a huge, magnificent stag.  I stopped dead.  Runner’s World has not yet covered what the hell to do in this situation, so I was a bit lost for ideas. He looked me straight in the eye, shook his head, and to my relief disappeared into the trees.

A sign? An omen? Did he know where my life was headed?  Of course not, this isn’t a bloody novel. But a powerful experience nonetheless.

After all of this, a free massage and getting to cross the finish line again, this time with Freddie (we finished last in the kids race, but they gave him a medal so he still insists that he won), it turned out that I finished 36th, which I am still very proud of.

So why wasn’t I happy?

Starting a new job the next day was definitely not the best idea, but it wasn’t nerves I was feeling, it was dread. Not about work, not because my legs were hurting, just a general feeling that something wasn’t right. Did I sense what was coming, at least subconsciously? Definitely not, but I should have.

At the time, I thought that I was in great shape, but looking back I was a stone underweight, and my eyes were blank. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the weekend after the Ultra is when I should have admitted to myself that I was ill.

I’ve talked before about depression not being the presence of sadness but the absence of hope, and this is exactly how I felt. For the first time in my adult life, I had nothing to blame for being down. For as long as I can remember, I had a focal point for anxiety, bleakness, and intermittent lethargy and extreme energy: school, being a teenager, girls, moving away from home, girls, university, girls, getting a job, moving to London, girls, buying a house, proposing to and marrying girl, working abroad, marathons, being a parent, lack of sleep, moving job, moving house, being a parent again and family illness and death.

With nothing in particular to focus on or worry about, with the rest of my life in front of me, I felt nothing.

I had also become very intolerant and short-tempered, but denied it every time someone (usually Camilla) brought it up, making me even more intolerant and short-tempered. More worryingly, I had also been forgetting whole conversations, which led to more anger when the person I was speaking to (usually Camilla) insisted that I had already told her or she had already told me about whatever it was we had or hadn’t discussed.

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Camilla stayed.  Although at the time she was convinced that I had depression, I was still denying there was anything wrong, so refused to get help.  More than that, even if I was suffering from depression, I was, and still am at times, impossible to talk to calmly and rationally about myself.

Also, I guess it would have been difficult for her to recognise whether it was Alan talking, or me just being a dick.  Although I would hope that it was 80/20, it was probably more 50/50, and now 40/60 in favour of me being a dick…

As this is my last post before the race, I would like to ask you one last time to please donate to my fundraising efforts, in aid of CALM and Mind, by going to my fundraising page here. If you don’t know them already, you can read all about the fantastic work they do on their respective websites (hyperlinked above), or on my first post (Running, Hills and Bipolar).

 Wish me luck, I’m going to need it…

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Training Weeks 8-10: The Final Push

Tryfan

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Last week was my first break from posting since I started Up & Down Runner in April.  I’m in my final training push for the Mont Blanc Marathon, which is now 14 days away, so every minute counts.  After today it will all be rest, recovery and avoiding anyone that looks like they have even a little sniffle.  Seriously, if you are going to come near me, make sure you’ve used some hand gel.

And what a final push it has been. I went over 20 miles for the first time in more than a year, met one the greatest ultra-runners in history, spent a lot of time in the Altitude Centre, and, dear readers, finally managed to run up and down a mountain.

As The King of Hearts suggests, I will begin at the beginning. Week 8 involved lots of road miles, and what I thought was a hilly long run up and down One Tree Hill and the roads around Forest Hill, followed by flatter sections around Dulwich and Brockwell Parks and Wandsworth and Clapham Common.  It’s only by running that you realise how close everything really is in London, and how many beautiful open spaces there are.  I have now also realised that London is not very hilly.

Week 9 was the big one. On Tuesday I went to an event held by Like the Wind Magazine (if you have not checked it out yet, do http://www.likethewindmagazine.com – It’s Not How To Run, It’s Why We Run); a talk by, and Q&A session with, Lizzy Hawker.

Lizzy Hawker is unquestionably one of the greatest ultra runners in history. Among many other achievements she is five time winner of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, current 24 hour road-running record holder, first female outright winner of the 153 mile Spartathlon and record holder for the 320km route from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu.  Her new book, called Runner – A Short Story About a Long Run, is an inspirational read, whether you are interested in running or not.

Among her many other talents (she has a PhD in oceanography from Cambridge), she is able to encapsulate why something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other means so much to so many, and, much like Frankl (Mind Control I: The Last Human Freedom), to show that most, if not all, people underestimate their capabilities and potential.

In the first chapter of Runner, Lizzy (we’re on first name terms now) explains how she whole-heartedly took the King’s advice for her first UTMB – she started running and just kept going until she stopped, which happened to be at the finish line, before any other woman.  As you may have already noticed, particularly if you’ve met me, I have a tendency to over-think things and assume that any new challenge is beyond me.

As a case in point, before Tuesday I’d been very worked-up about the planned trip that weekend to Snowdonia, my first ever mountain run.  After the talk, I asked Lizzy for a tip, and all she said was “enjoy the mountains”.  So, for possibly the first time in my life, I ignored my natural instincts and just went with it.

And enjoy the mountains I did.  I went with my friend, cousin and all-round Bear Grylls*, James, to Snowdonia National Park.  Starting in Capel Curig, up 650m to the top of a very windy Moel Saibod, back down then up another 600m or so the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, then a loop round back to Capel Curig. The toughest, but most fun 16.5 miles I have ever run.  Much like my illness, the first up was tough but manageable, but the down was petrifying.  Trying to keep up with a human mountain goat, look where I was going and avoid peat bogs, holes and sharp rocks was almost too much for me to cope with.

However, at the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, after some sage advice from James, I remembered the words of Lizzy Hawker, and possibly the greatest philosopher of our times, Master Yoda – “Do. Or do not. There is no try”.  So I cleared my mind and just did it. Not only was it so much easier, but I also bloody loved it. Granted I was still not able to keep up with James, but I did look more goat than Bambi.

Although maybe that was wishful thinking, particularly after a fell runner who ran past me said “thanks love” as I let him past.  I may have been wearing tights and a headband, but I would have thought that the beard would have cleared up any ambiguity about my gender.  There is an obvious joke here, but I have two beautiful friends from North Wales, so I won’t make it.

The start of week 10 mainly consisted of resting my poor quads and knees, but by the middle of the week I was feeling great, and have managed to get in some good miles.  In her brilliant article in the equally brilliant Standard Issue Magazine (standardissuemagazine.com/living-with-bipolar/), my wife questioned whether I was just repeating all of the mistakes I made in the lead up to the Royal Parks Ultra in 2013 (more on which next week). However, rather than feeling scared and stressed, focusing on all of the training days that I have missed, I feel ready to stand on the start line.  I don’t know whether I will make it to the finish line, but I no longer care, the fact that I have got to the beginning is enough.  After that I will just keep on running until I stop.

*To be honest, anyone that has ever put up a tent is Bear Grylls compared to me.

Like the Wind Magazine and Runner by Lizzy Hawker DCIM100GOPROG0080329.  DCIM100GOPROG0040228. The Cantilever, Snowdonia

My Running Playlist

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“Can you hear the road from this place? can you hear footsteps? voices? can you see the blood on my sleeve? I have fallen in the forest. did you hear me?” – The Loneliness and the Scream, Frightened Rabbit

Running with music is an oddly controversial subject, with purists believing that it’s an unnecessary distraction, and ruins the detachment from the modern world that running brings.  Whilst I’m not averse to this, it doesn’t really apply when you’re going past lines of buses, people talking needlessly loudly on their phones and yoots playing whatever it is they listen to nowadays at top volume out of their phones (alright, Granddad).

I also love music, but don’t get enough time to enjoy it, so listening while running through London allows me to drown out the noise of the city, and combine two of my favourite things.  The trouble is that my preferred genre would most accurately be described as “miserable men with guitars and beards” (being a miserable man with a beard myself), which is not really conducive to prolonged physical exertion.

While there is definitely a time and a place for cheese, and I completely understand why Eye of the Tiger is on so many people’s exercise playlists, it doesn’t work for me for two reasons.  In the interests of brutal honesty, I’ve got nothing against a bit of S Club 7, Daniel Beddingfield or a fat slice of Thin Lizzy*, but they are not songs that I would choose to listen to without booze, friends and terrible dancing. As I’ve said, running for me is all about isolation, and getting into my own cozy homemade void.

Secondly, for me a running playlist needs to strike a delicate balance between relaxation and distraction, and focus and motivation.  This is why my chosen songs are a mix between euphoric, melancholy, angry and adrenaline-inducing.  Again, I blame the bipolar.

So, after much experimentation, I’ve come up with a list of songs that work for me, and some of the highlights are below.

A few have made the list because they are suited to running: Slow Hands by Interpol appears on a few running compilation albums, as does Enter Sandman, and apparently Where I End and You Begin has close to the optimal 180 beats per minute for running.

Although it’s definitely not about running, The Loneliness and the Scream really could be, and I’ve been known to let out a scream while listening to it.  Particularly the above quote; “falling in the forest” accurately describes my approach to trail running.

Other songs are there because they have personal significance.  From Born Slippy triggering reminiscences about my teenage years, My Number being perfectly timed with a massive endorphin rush near the end of my first Ultra (more on which later), to The ’59 Sound, which was playing on the radio when I left hospital for the first time after Freddie was born. You don’t need to tell me what a terribly inappropriate song this is to remind me of my son being born, as I’m the guy that wanted Fistful of Love by Anthony and the Johnsons as the first dance at our wedding (even his collaborator Nico Muhly [namedrop alert] told Camilla that it was a really weird choice).

The third category comprises of songs that are simply brilliant. I don’t need an excuse to listen to New Order, R.E.M., The National or The Twilight Sad, and I would happily listen to Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm from start to finish at any time.

Right, I’m off to do some falling in the forest, speak to you next week.

* Alan again, sorry (https://updownrunner.com/2015/05/04/mind-control-ii-overcoming-alan/)