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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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.

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* Running is the best medicine

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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Keep Your Money in Your Shoes – Running Gear

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“When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes, always keep your money in your shoes, put your trouble behind” – R.E.M. Good Advices

It’s been a fairly uneventful couple of weeks on the training front, except for a couple more comedy injuries; a bruised shin after tripping over a rowing machine in the gym, and strained neck from brushing my teeth.  It has of course been a very eventful week in the UK generally, and it has all been very serious on the television, media and on Facebook and Twitter. So I thought that this week was the perfect time to put on my most superficial, trivial post of all, and in any case it was about time that I got down to some running geekery – my “essential” running gear.

I’m not sure whether this is the “advices” that Michael Stipe was intending to give, but there could not be a better summary of the approach to take to buying running kit.

Whether or not you are a fanatical “natural runner”, or believe that shoes should be “prescribed”, it is undeniable that the wrong pair of shoes can ruin a race, or even a season. My view, for what it’s worth, is that barefoot running is great if you have perfect running form or are biomechanically built for it, but for flat footed, awkward, heel striking hypochondriacs like me, support and cushioning is essential.

I have tried so many different brands and styles over the last 10 years, all of which have given me issues except for one: the Brooks Adrenaline GTS.  I am now on my 7th pair, with the latest incarnation, the GTS 15 (http://bit.ly/1Et324V), being the best yet.  Impossibly comfortable, supportive and stable, but still light and springy.  For a running shoe, it also has pretty good green credentials, with its fully biodegradable BIOMOGO midsole.

Now I could, and some would say should, stop there.  One of the best things about running is that it is accessible, uncomplicated and cheap, with the only mandatory kit being the right pair of shoes. This is true, but another great thing, at least for a fool that likes parting with his money like me (I blame the bipolar), is that there is an ever growing list of things that you can buy to be safer, faster, better looking and armed with more stats than you could ever use.

Below is a list of my running kit, roughly in descending order of importance:

  • socks: almost as important as the right shoes.  I don’t need to tell you how painful blisters are, and how they can ruin, or even stop a run (or a night out).  I can honestly say that since I started using specific running socks, I have never had a blister.  My current favourites are X-Socks (http://bit.ly/1HIquO6) and Hilly (particularly their trail line http://bit.ly/1HIqNIW), and am no stranger to a knee-length compression sock;
  • “technical” t-shirt: i.e. one that wicks away sweat.  Nothing worse than wearing a top that gets heavier the further you run, except perhaps chafed nipples (speaking of which, these are great http://bit.ly/1OY1abj).  I tend to wear a lot of Nike tops (http://swoo.sh/1GwuVv9), which look good as well as being as technologically advanced as a t-shirt can get.  Many people will scoff at the former, but I have always found that the more I look the part, the more I act it;
  • foam roller: (http://bit.ly/1J0y6sv) just buy one. “Foam rolling is huge. It’s a more powerful tool than stretching” – not my words Carol, the words of Top Gear magazine* David McHenry, Nike Oregon Project physio;
  • GPS running gadget: If you have a smartphone, there are great apps like Strava, Runkeeper and Nike+ that you can download for free, although if you are a stats geek like me, you may want to go for a running watch like the Garmin Forerunner 620 (http://bit.ly/1OUwDWB), particularly if your cadence, vertical oscillation ground contact time are important to you;
  • tights: not only am I a big fan of lycra (which I admit only in the interests of complete honesty), but getting a good pair of running tights gives you less of an excuse not to go out in the cold, and although the medical evidence for compression wear is inconclusive, I find that the added support and extra warmth to the muscles helps with recovery. Also, in case you want to know where I stand on the age-old question, shorts go over the top of tights – the Ken doll look is not a good one for me;
  • MP3 player: not everyone likes running to music, but I find that it helps me relax, and running is about the only chance I get now to listen undisturbed. I just use my iPhone, as I can also use maps or the phone if I get lost or injured (a frequent occurrence, as you know by now);
  • headphones: until recently, I’ve been loyal to the Adidas/Sennheiser neckband headphones, as they are comfortable, reasonably priced and sound as good as most other “premium” cans I’ve listened to, but also because I’d never been able to find in-ear headphones that stayed in place.  However, The neckband means that it is difficult to use them in the gym, and they can get in the way of sunglasses.  A couple of months ago I discovered the Bose SoundSport (http://bit.ly/1H7slu9), which aren’t cheap, but sound great, are so light that they are barely there, and haven’t fallen out yet.  The feature that they both share, which for me is absolutely necessary in running headphones, is that they are “open-backed” – running with noise cancelling headphones is the surest way to get run over; and
  • camera: unless you are writing a blog, this is probably the least important piece of kit, but also the coolest.  I have just entered the world of the GoPro with a Hero4 Silver (http://gopro.com), it is flippin’ awesome.

As to where to buy all of this stuff from, I’m very lucky to have the two best running shops I’ve ever been to within 10 minutes of the office.  Sweatshop (http://www.sweatshop.co.uk) deserves all of the awards it wins, and the Trump Street branch is the best of them all.  The Running Works (http://www.therunningworks.net) is not just a running shop, but also a runners’ library, meeting place, club and yoga studio.

Right, I’d better start writing something serious for next week…

* Sorry, I can’t keep Alan at bay all of the time (http://bit.ly/1KHcZga)

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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.