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.

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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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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Freddie

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“Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman.
Then, always be Batman” – Unknown

19 May 2010 was the day that my life changed completely.

I became a father two days later, but only because Frederick Peter King took 40 hours to make an appearance. This is nearly as long as it now takes him and his brother to leave the house.  Presumably, he just had to find his shoes, finish whatever it was he was making out of Lego, decide what he NEEDS to take with him, and argue about whether it is a good idea to wear a snowman jumper in 20°C sunshine before leaving, or whatever the in utero equivalents are.

Overall, Freddie’s arrival, and the arrival of Caspar 2½ years later, were the best things that could ever have happened to me. But they were not a solution to any of the issues that I had been dealing with my whole life (children rarely are), and in many ways exacerbated my symptoms, stopped me from getting help (when I finally saw my GP she diagnosed it as “baby blues”) and put me on the downward spiral to the breakdown.

Before I go any further, I want to make two things clear.  Firstly, I was not the one that had to go through the nearly two days of pain and terror that was Freddie’s labour, and I know for sure that any ultra-marathon I sign up to in the future will be nothing compared to that, even if it lasts as long.

Secondly, I recognise how incredibly lucky I am to have a child, let alone two healthy (most of the time), beautiful, happy (most of the time), loving and wonderfully weird boys.  This has been thrown into sharp focus in the last year through the experiences of four people that are very close to me, including one of my Mont Blanc running partners. James’s story is his own to tell, but I can’t talk about the subject without asking you to follow this link, and donate to another incredibly important cause http://bit.ly/1Sna5C8.

Back to my own story. It seems to me that there are two types of parent, the ones that find parenting hard, and convincing liars.  The worry, bewilderment, exhaustion and sheer repetitive drudgery that comes with having a child can at times overcome even the most patient, rational and well-supported parents.

For me it was much more than this though, and I know that I’m not alone.  I’ve already described how spectacularly badly I handled the news of Camilla being in the family way (http://bit.ly/1IT153l), and how I felt completely unprepared to look after another human being.  As the due date approached, the pressure became greater, and I became consumed by more worrying thoughts.

One of the most frequently used words in therapy to describe myself was (and in many ways still is) “fraud”.  Ever since I was a teenager I’ve been convinced that one day I would be found out; exposed for the feeble, weak-minded weirdo that I am; that my ability to conduct a normal life was just a flimsy facade.

As a father, the consequences of my true identity being unmasked were exponentially increased, and I lost my only escape route.  Without wishing to sound self-pitying, before Freddie came along I felt that I could always disappear, whether temporarily or permanently, if it all got too much, or if my deception was exposed.  Although my family and friends would obviously be very sad, they would, in time, get on with their lives, and Camilla would find someone that wasn’t punching so much above his weight.  Perhaps this is the reason why so many people with depression feel the urge to distance themselves from those close to them, and why it is so important to spot the signs of this as early as possible. The further the gap, the harder it is to come back.

When Fred arrived, there was someone in my life that couldn’t replace me, that would depend on me for love, support, money, and as someone to look up to. As will now be clear, I felt completely unqualified for this role.

I also started experiencing unsettling bouts of manic obsession, and became even more convinced that something would go wrong.  As a baby, Freddie had a number of issues that disturbed his sleep, the worst of which being the idiot who woke him up every time he was still, to make sure that he was still breathing.  I also spent a whole week cleaning and disinfecting every wall, floor, fixture, fitting and moveable object in the house.  Camilla had to force me to stop in the end, persuading me that it would be a few years before Freddie would start reading my pretentious collection of Penguin Classics.

What was most difficult to deal with was the all-consuming fear that Freddie would turn out like me. Although he is definitely very sensitive, single-minded to the point of obsession and prone to pretty extreme mood swings, even for a five year old, things will be different for him for two reasons. Firstly, even if he does suffer from mental health issues, he’s got me and Camilla, who are now more experienced than we would ever want to be in dealing with the highs and lows of bipolar depression, and perhaps I can be a role model by showing him how depression can be controlled much of the time, and that it is ok to seek help when it can’t.

Secondly, and most importantly, he is also more self-assured than I will ever be, as demonstrated by the exchange I had with him around 18 months ago:

FPK: “Daddy, you know that man?” [Points at his kid’s encyclopaedia]
UDR: “That’s Usain Bolt, Freddie”
FPK: “Is he really the fastest man ever?”
UDR: “Yes he is.” [Natural pedant that I am I wanted to say “fastest recorded man, over 100 and 200m”, but I was late for work and couldn’t spend the next hour giving him the history of running (that will come later)]
FPK: “He’s not faster than me though is he?”
UDR: “He’s the fastest man in the world, which means that no-one is faster than him, even you.”
FPK: “Yeah, but if I was on my scooter, wearing my Batman costume there is NO WAY that he would beat me.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my eldest son in one conversation. If I can be a part of creating someone like Freddie, with so much confidence in his athletic ability that he calls out the world’s greatest sprinter, then maybe I’m not that bad after all.

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Training Weeks 5-7: He’s Like a Piece of Iron

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“All I do is keep running in my cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And that is a pretty wonderful thing, no matter what anyone else says” – Haruki Marukami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This quotation says everything to me about why I run, and my response to anyone who says that running is boring.  Granted, it’s not for everyone, and sometimes it is frustrating, exhausting and painful, but once you can find that void, that feeling of all of your problems lifting from your shoulders, you can run forever, if only your legs would let you.

The problem with this of course, at least for the blog, is that silence is not very interesting to write about, so I’ve condensed three weeks of training into the one post.  I’ve made a breakthrough, and am discretely eating up the miles. I’m definitely not back to 2013 form yet, but for the first time since the Royal Parks Ultra, I feel capable of running a marathon.

Also, although I have not found any mountains to run up yet, I’ve got as close as a soft city-dweller can, as I’ve joined the Altitude Centre (https://www.altitudecentre.com). Headquartered above my gym off Gresham Street in London, they are the premier altitude training specialists.  I did my first session on a treadmill in the altitude chamber last week, and am already feeling the benefits.

In a sealed room, on a treadmill and hooked up to a heart monitor and oximeter and spending increasing amounts of time in the gym (http://www.cityathletic.co.uk), I’m starting to feel like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.  If I’m Ivan Drago (minus the flat top, steroids and Brigitte Nielsen), James and Rev, my two running partners, are definitely taking the Rocky Balboa approach. To be fair though neither the New Forest nor the Cotswolds is quite Siberia, but I don’t care, Drago and Balboa ended the Cold War, after all.  Just to be clear, the below are screenshots from the film, and not me in the gym, although the resemblance is startling.

This week, I also spent a few days working in Brazil, so sweated out more than half my bodyweight running up & down the beach, and recovered with my recommended 1-3 protein to carb intake with beef and caipirinhas.

I’m actually feeling a little guilty about the trip, as for the first time I passed up an opportunity to get some extra cash for my fundraising efforts. Although an extra £100 would have been great, it was not worth putting everyone off looking at the blog ever again by posting a picture of myself on the beach in green Speedos, just to win a bet.

Today is also a very big, and intimidating day in our household, as it is the day that I introduce son no. 1 to the world of cycling. Embarrassingly, it is not Freddie that is intimidated, but me.  I do not have anything against cycling or cyclists (except anyone that rides on the pavement), it is just that I should be really into cycling, but I most definitely am not.  I have enough lycra, and I keep getting told what great cross-training it is, but I’m just rubbish at it.  Last time I went mountain biking I ducked out of the afternoon session, and the time before that I fell off my bike in the car park, and went over the handlebars on a downhill after confusing the back brake with the front. So I’m off to the two very cool bike shops in Peckham, to pretend that I know what I’m talking about.  Wish me luck…

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Mind Control II: Overcoming Alan

“If you have HIV or cancer or athlete’s foot you can’t teach them anything.
When Ashley Stone was dying of meningitis, he might have known that
he was dying, but his meningitis didn’t know. Meningitis doesn’t know
anything. Buy my illness knows everything I know. That is a difficult
thing to get my head around. But the moment I understood it, my
illness understood it too.” – Matt Holmes, from The Shock of the Fall
by Nathan Filer

Since I read Man’s Search for Meaning (http://bit.ly/1Eag3f6), I have been trying to work out how I could use it to combat my own depression.  The thing that I have struggled with is whether, when I am at my worst, I retain the last “human freedom”, or can depression be defined as the inability to choose one’s response.

In my first post (http://bit.ly/1zGnn78) I described my breakdown as a complete loss of control of my own mind.  How could I have had a choice, if I had no control over my own thoughts?  Then again, I also felt that suicide was inevitable, that I would not be able to stop it.  If that was really true, then how am I still here? Did I still have the ability to choose? Was I able to regain control, even for a split second, or did I have control all along?  The problem is of course that I have no way of ever knowing for sure what happened, let alone what I was thinking at the time.

The quote above, from Nathan Filer’s moving and uplifting novel The Shock of the Fall, is written by the 19 year-old schizophrenic narrator Matt Holmes. Not only does this seem to describe one of the inherent problems in diagnosing, treating and even understanding mental illness (i.e. the fact that it is impossible to be objective about, or sometimes even describe your symptoms), it has been a useful weapon in my constant battle to stay in control.

Obviously, schizophrenia is very different to depression, but thinking of my illness as an “it”, or even better a “he”, can be very helpful in recognising when I am suffering, and most importantly giving me an early warning to seek help.  This idea was brilliantly articulated by Niall Breslin, well-known Irish musician and former gaelic football and professional rugby player, in a powerful and brave speech about his experience of general anxiety disorder.  If you have not seen it yet, you really should: http://bit.ly/1A50rIL.

In the speech, “Bressie”, as he is better known, explains how he personalised his illness, gave it the worst name he could think of, and fought back by doing things that he knew “Jeffrey” would hate, which, as Jeffrey was a part of him, meant facing his own fears.

I have fully adopted this approach, although my depression is called “Alan”.  Not only is this an incongruous name for something so powerful, but I imagine my depression having the voice, social skills and worldly experience of Norfolk’s most famous son, Alan Partridge. Although I am not going to buy a Mini Metro, or support the pedestrianisation of Norwich City Centre, I know that the two things that my Alan hates most are writing openly and creatively about himself, and running up mountains.

This is perhaps why the blog has been such a release for me, and a massive turning point.  Like Bressie, my life has become so much brighter as a result of telling the world about my experiences, and the incredible response that I have received has only made me wish that I had done it sooner.

This is not to say that anyone with mental health issues should do this.  Everyone’s story is different, and all I can do is tell my own.  More importantly, this is only a very small part of my treatment.  I am very, and unashamedly, reliant on fairly high doses of medication, regular therapy, and having so many people looking out for me.

Moreover, there is not, as far as I am aware, a cure for my illness, and my life will be a constant battle for control. At the moment, I seem to have the upper hand, but can I promise that I will never be back to where I was at around 5:30pm on 7 February 2014? No. But what I can promise is that I will do everything in my power to keep Alan from Bouncing Back.

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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.

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.