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.

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.

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

Cappadocia

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“Struggling and suffering are the essence of a life worth living. 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

And what an extraordinary trip it was.  After 11 months of planning, training, stressing, talking, blogging, tweeting and generally going on about it, I finally got to line up at the start line for, and (spoiler alert) complete, the Cappadocia Trail 60km.

It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this as I wanted to do it justice, and to be honest I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe the experience. I think that I’ve also been putting it off because the reason for starting the blog in the first place has now gone, so this post is an ending of sorts, and I hate saying goodbye.

This is a bit silly really, as I’m going to keep the blog going, and am already planning what I am going to do next, including looking at races in exotic locations like Patagonia, Andorra, the Canary Islands and, er, Evesham. but they all seem very far away now.

Anyway, back to Cappadocia.  The weekend started very well, if not a little dauntingly, as I met two Brits that were hoping to win the 110km Ultra Trail – Robbie Britton (@ultrabritton, pictured below) and Paul Radford (@PaulJRadford), together with seasoned trail runner Ben Cox (aka Papa Ferret, @trailferret) and potential winner of the 60km Natalie White (@natsmountain).  A great thing about participating in a niche sport like ultra running is that you get to rub shoulders with, and get tips from, seasoned pros, and rather than looking down on newbies, experienced competitors always seem genuinely pleased that another person has found the sport.  There also appears to be wonderful camaraderie among ultra runners, perhaps because of the difficulty of the challenge ahead, with professionals in most cases finding the race as tough as first-timers.

So, with my head filled with sage advice, and belly filled with carbs from the pasta party laid on by the organisers the night before, and the breakfast laid on by the hotel at 5am, I set off for the race of my life, thankfully avoiding the spectacular, and probably very expensive drone crash just after the start line.

The first few miles were fairly gentle, particularly as I stuck with some 110km runners (the 110km Ultra Trail started at the same time and followed the same course as my race) to avoid the temptation to go off too fast.  Things got a lot tougher about 45 minutes into to the race though, in large part because it started tipping it down.  The course got progressively more difficult too, with wide open plains turning to tight wooded trails. That said, it would have been nowhere near as challenging as Mont Blanc, had it not been for the rain, which turned parts of the course into fast running streams and put many a better runner than me on their arse.

Unlike many such better runners, I actually really enjoyed the rain, and definitely now understand why kids, and Peppa Pig, love splashing in muddy puddles (still don’t get me started on Daddy Pig though). I also felt very smug that I took the organisers’ advice and wore proper trail shoes (Salomon Speedcross 3, in case you’re interested).  The terrain during this part of the race also made it interesting, with the odd cave to crouch through, fallen tree to climb over, ladder to climb up or down or crying dog to avoid.

Before I knew it I was past the third checkpoint at 35km and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I couldn’t work out whether I was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of ascent and descent, or missing the up & down of Mont Blanc. By this time it had stopped raining though, my thoughts were diverted by the breathtaking and other-worldly scenery.  Although the internet tells me that it is not the case, and the internet is always right, I still can’t quite believe that Tatooine is not Cappadocia (Tatooine being Luke Skywalker’s home planet, in case you’re not a Star Wars fan).

CSI4drlWcAAiTxo.jpg-largeShortly after checkpoint 4 I definitely was not missing uphills, as they had kindly laid on a monster hill for us. Thankfully, I met another experienced and inspiring ultra runner, Lucja Leonard (aka Running Dutch, @Runningdutchie), who took my mind off my aching legs and kindly took the photo on the right.

Once the climb was over with there was a fairly long but stunning stretch along a ridgeline, and then an uninspiring few kilometres into Urgup.  The finish line somewhat crept up on me, so I barely had time to look for Camilla and make my sprint finish.

I completed the race in 8 hours and 22 minutes, well under my 9 hour estimate, which I am incredibly proud of.  More importantly, I can now properly call myself an ultra runner.  Perhaps I am not so much of a fraud after all…

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Out of the Darkness

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So, that’s it.  I’ve just completed my last long run before Cappadocia – now it’s all about tapering and rest.  If I’m not ready now, I never will be.

As this week marked Bipolar Awareness Day, World Mental Health Day and National Poetry Week, I really wanted to write a post about all three, but have struggled.  Not that I didn’t have any ideas, I’ve just been wrestling over whether to share something very personal, and very difficult for me to write, but I’m going to as I think it illustrates how difficult living with mental illness can be, and why many people never get the help that they need. Particularly, the brutal wake-up call that I had at my last appointment with my psychiatrist shows that I, like most depression sufferers, am a terrible judge of my own mental state.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that things weren’t great for me for at least a couple of months after the race, but I had no idea how bad things were until just a few weeks ago when Dr. Craig read out an email that he received from my wife, in which she expressed her concerns about my behaviour. It turns out that this summer I probably experienced a hypomanic phase (a less serious form of full-blown mania); something I still don’t have much recollection of, although on the bright-side it supports my bipolar diagnosis. Listening to Camilla’s email was one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do, mainly because I was so unaware of how bad things had become, and its taken a lot for both of us to decide to reproduce even a sentence of it on the blog, but here goes:

Over the last, I would say, two months or so, Russ has become increasingly erratic, irritable, aggressive and forgetful. Not in a very extreme way, but enough to worry me, and his temper has been putting a strain on me/our relationship…This really isn’t like Russ – he has a strong temper, but used to be a gentle and patient person….I hope you can see why this is hard to raise with him, because trying to discuss it usually leads to him being quite evasive / claiming I’m exaggerating or him simply not being aware of quite how angry he becomes in these situations – it is as if a kind of rage takes over. This makes it hard to reason with him, even though he seems very rational most of the time.
If I live until I’m 100 I don’t think that I will even begin to repay the debt I owe to Camilla for saving my life last year, and always believing that the “real” me was somewhere inside. To anyone reading this who may have been told, by people they trust, that their behaviour has been giving cause for concern, please do listen. It’s been hard for me to do, but I’m slowly learning that when dealing with mental illness, you really have to trust the instincts of those close to you.
I am determined to try and show Camilla that I will keep fighting this, starting by dedicating the below extract from a beautiful poem that appeared in this quarter’s Like the Wind Magazine, written by Alex Van Oostrum:
I run…
but never away from you
away from dark places
when life has me in a corner
with its hands around my neck
when thoughts start to choke me
and I need to breathe
so my mind isn’t a jigsaw of voices
that don’t fit together any more
to find a flame
when the candle is burnt out
away from fear
towards the light at the end of the tunnel
but never away from you…

P.S. if you would like to read more about Camilla’s experiences, you can read her article in the wonderful Standard Issue Magazine:

http://standardissuemagazine.com/voices/living-with-bipolar/.

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