Training Weeks 8-10: The Final Push

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Training Weeks 1 and 2: From Boston to Bognor

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 “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon”
Kathrine Switzer – 26.2 Marathon Stories

Although my preparation started 10 weeks later than I wanted because of my dodgy hip, I could not have picked two better places to begin training – New York and Boston. I was only in town to work/study/socialise, and it was below freezing for most of the week, so not perfect conditions, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run in two of the most hallowed places for distance runners, particularly so close to the Boston Marathon. Indeed, the quote above is from possibly the most famous Boston winner, and a true running pioneer.

Whenever I go away I try to fit in at least one run, especially in the U.S. where there is too much of a temptation to over-indulge (pizza and American craft beer are my kryptonite). It is also normally the only chance I get to see the place that I am visiting apart from the inside of a hotel / conference room / airport.

At 10 days, this trip was by far the longest that I had been away from my family since the breakdown. It involved giving presentations, socialising with people that I didn’t know well (or at all) and intense study in an intimidating environment, all situations that I struggle with, particularly without much sleep. This made it all the more important to switch off my mind the only way I know how; by running.

The runs were gentle and not particularly far, which I was actually proud of as it is very unlike me to show such restraint during recovery from an injury.

The first run was along the Hudson River Greenway, up the westerly side of Manhattan.  The second was not technically in Boston, but in nearby Cambridge – “From Cambridge to Bognor” did not have the same ring to it.  I was attending a course at Harvard for the week (check me out), and one of the pre-course materials they provided was a running map.  Despite the map and obvious landmarks, I almost became the first person to visit Cambridge and not see the river.  I was very glad that I did though – my photo does not do justice to the life-affirming beauty of the sun setting over the frozen Charles, mainly because I went out in short sleeves so had lost all feeling in my arms by that point.

For week 2 I was in the slightly less glamorous location of Butlins in Bognor Regis.  From a running perspective, the two places did however have a lot in common, as I was again able to run alongside water, on flat and predominantly car-free routes, in the sunshine.  If you are looking for Murakami’s void, or need to blow away the cobwebs, then you can’t get much better than a run by the sea.

My diet and alcohol consumption were also similarly unhealthy, so much so that I was craving wholemeal bread and plain vegetables by Friday. I’ll stop drinking next week I promise…

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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.

Running, Hills and Bipolar

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Welcome to Up & Down Runner, a blog about two of the three aspects of my life that have come to dominate all others, running and mental illness, and how I am learning to use the first to get control of the second, and indeed help me be better at the third, fatherhood.

After a disastrous 2014, I am determined to make the following years better, which for me means pushing myself to do things that I never believed myself to be capable of – running up mountains and writing honestly about my life.

The blog is part diary, part training log for my various running challenges, with the odd list, gear review, race report and rambling opinion piece.

NOTE: I do not profess to have any expertise in any of these two subjects, I am very much a middle of the road runner and bi-polar sufferer.  Indeed, the only prize I am likely to win is an award for most boring person with bipolar – the sensible and constantly petrified side of my nature has so far kept me away from spectacularly public displays of mania, or any sparks of creative brilliance (I’m no Byron, Fry, Cobain or even Kerry Katona), but perhaps this blog is my way of addressing the latter.

Running

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““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.

07/02

“a man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has
ceased to belong to the future”
– Albert Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays

Friday 7 February 2014, around 18:00.
Sitting at my desk (not unusual), staring at my screen.
Looked around, surrounded by piles of paper and coffee cups (also not unusual).
Photos of my wife and two boys looking back at me.
Got to focus. But on what?
Why are my hands so cold?
Right, no more messing around, just get this done and then go home.
Why is my hair wet, and what the hell is wrong with my hands?

Trying to get myself to concentrate, or think about anything at all, was like trying to start my first car (an H-reg Vauxhall Nova Flair). Turning the key pumping the accelerator, adjusting the choke, a splutter, then silence.  Try again, still no luck. Panic setting in, what if it never starts?

Like my beloved Nova, all of a sudden my brain kicked into life with a roar.  As soon as the noise died down it hit me, I had just come back to the office, but had no idea where I had been, or for how long.

It was at that point that I was forced to admit, for the first time, that something was very wrong, although I would only fully understand how wrong when I eventually worked out where I had been, and what I nearly did.

Up until 18:00, 7 February 2014, I had been convinced that I was a perfectly healthy, and very lucky person, the only problem being that I was too weak, too stupid and too selfish to function as a normal human.

And so it was, after 36 hours of blind panic, I found myself in bed, violently shaking but otherwise convinced that I could not move, even if the bed spontaneously combusted.

One of the best descriptions I have read of depression is that it is not the presence of sadness, but the absence of hope. For me though, at this point, it was the absence of anything at all, except for alternating feelings of panic and exhilaration that I had completely lost control of my own mind.

There has been a lot written about the state of mental health care on the NHS, but for me there is no better illustration than the conversation I had with NHS Direct, while I was lying in bed, shaking and terrified.  I was really only asked one question by the nurse and the doctor, and that was whether I was imminently going to harm myself or my family.  My honest answer to this was no, but this was not because I did not want to, in fact hurting myself was all I could think about, but because I felt incapable of getting out of bed.

I was thus informed by the doctor, and these words will stay with me forever, that NHS Direct “can only deal with urgent cases, and yours is not a priority…”. I was told to that I would have to wait to see my GP, despite the fact that my appointment was nearly two weeks away, and my wife had already asked for urgent help due to her concerns about my mental state and my denial of the situation.

From that point on, thanks to a swift intervention from my incredibly compassionate employer, and Bupa’s fantastic mental health team, my “non-urgent” case was taken out of the NHS system altogether.

I am painfully aware how lucky I am for this, and for the unerring support of everyone around me, particularly as many who suffer from mental health issues, particularly men of my generation, are not so lucky.  I am prone to melodrama, but in this case I do not think that it is in any way an exaggeration to say that it saved my life.

In addition to lots of running geekery, I am going to write a bit more about how I got to this point, and what I am doing now to stop myself from getting there again, which is really unavoidable, as running and my mental state are now fully intertwined.