“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…
“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.
“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.
““Cowardice was undoubtedly one of the most terrible vices” – thus spoke Yeshua Ha-Nozri. “No philosopher, I disagree with you: it is the most terrible vice””
Conversation between Yeshua and Pontius Pilot. Master & the Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
I would love to say that running has always been part of my life, that I was a junior cross-country champion, or did my first marathon at 16, but actually that could not be further from the truth. I really only discovered running as a sporting activity in my 20th year, because, to be honest, it was the only sport that my supreme lack of co-ordination was not too much of an impediment to, although my action has been described as “chicken-like”. Even then, the first time I could honestly call myself “a runner” was when I was 29, after completing my second ever race, the 2009 Great North Run. In fact, I can even pinpoint the exact moment I became a runner. It was just under a mile from the gloriously sunny finish, after a laboured couple of miles, that I spotted him – a guy, no older than myself, watching the race with his little boy. I probably should have said earlier, but four weeks before race day I found out that I was going to be a father. It’s fair to say that to that point I had not handled the news very well, in that I did not speak at all for four days after I found out. It was not that I was disappointed or upset by the news, just that I could not see how I could ever look after another person. I would love to say that it was at this point that I realised that it was the best thing that could have happened to me, and that I sprinted to the finish as if on air, sure in the knowledge that I would make a great father. However, this could not be further from the truth. What actually happened was that I stopped, and did everything I could not to throw up on the course, and/or curl up in a ball and cry. When the worst of the nausea passed I started running again, and the further I went, the better I felt, so much so that when I got to the finish line, I felt the way I should have done when I first got the news. Except of course for the sweating. From that point I was hooked, and since then I have completed 8 half, 3 full and 1 ultra marathon, as well as a 20 mile race and numerous 5 and 10kms. This may not sound like a lot, but with a wedding, two children, two house moves, a breakdown and countless injuries (more on which later), it has certainly felt like a lot. When someone asks me why I run, I generally have a list of things that I love about the sport: the simplicity (although to be honest this isn’t that much of a driver for me as I have pretty much every running gadget there is); the way it lets me explore new places and improve my terrible sense of direction; the fact that if you stick at it you continue to make progress; being able to eat extra guilt-free calories; because it is the only time that I am left alone; to acquire Marukami’s runner’s void; the stats; the competition and the fact that I do not have to rely on Southern Rail to get into the office. But really, the main reason for me is that it allows me to run away from the person that I am, and towards the person I would rather be. As I mentioned above, and no doubt will do again, I have always been a cowardly person, shying away from confrontation and being paralysed by the fear of failure, and to an extent that is still the case. What running has taught me is that it is possible to fight my natural urges, ignore the dominant negative side of my personality, and that I am capable of doing things that I feel I am not built for. The quote at the start of this post is from one of my favourite books, but this exchange only properly clicked with me after I had read Murakami on running mantras (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, one of the best books about the love of running). I tried out a few phrases, but the one that stuck, and the one that I now try to use every time I face something difficult, is “cowardice is the most terrible vice”. It has become so much of a part of my life, that I have had it tattooed on my arm, in Russian for extra pretentiousness. Mine is the slightly less puny of the arms pictured above, the other arm is my eldest son’s, who made mummy write a less poncy version on his arm (in felt tip, we have not given our four year old a tattoo), to be like daddy. Running CV:
- First Race – Silverstone Half Marathon 2004 – not the most picturesque introduction to distance running, although I was able to amuse myself by making racing car noises when going round corners
- Best Race – Royal Parks Ultra 2013 – my (gentle) introduction to the world of ultra running: beautiful course, my only perfectly paced race, coming face-to-face with a stag in Bushy Park and a surprisingly decent finish Runner-up – Shakespeare Marathon 2013 – well organised, well supported, pretty, flat 2 lap course and comfortably my marathon PB
- Worst Race – Marathon du Paris 2012 – nothing to do with the race itself (although I could have done without the bananas in skins at the aid stations), but running my first marathon five days after having food poisoning, with a fractured ankle, was never going to be a good idea Runner-up – Great City Race 2012 – torrential rain and a partially caved-in road surface on the first corner made for a very slow 5km
- Greatest Achievement – Great City Race 2013 – beating Paula Radcliffe by 15 minutes. She was leading a blind person around, but I am claiming it as a win. Runner-up – Marathon du Paris 2012 – getting to the finish (see above)
Like many addicts, I am now itching to try the hard stuff – mountain and ultra running, starting with the Mont Blanc Marathon at the end of June, and then to the Cappadocia Ultra Trail 60k in October.