It’s a Kind of Magic

It has been just over nine and a half years since I went for my first run and started to think about what life could be like if I stopped taking drugs and trudging along a path I didn’t really want to be on. The first few years of that journey were filled with discoveries, set-backs and triumphs and many moments of doubt, anguish and struggle but I got through them and found myself very quickly part of the endurance community – first through mountaineering and then through running. Along the way I have tried many different things, learned new skills, been to new places and pushed myself to go past whatever limits I had put upon myself at a given time.

It was not until 2013 that drugs and cigarettes left my life forever, and it was another four years after that until alcohol finally left. Good riddance to all of it! There has been one process, made up of many parts, that has got me to where I am in my career, my life outside of work and in endurance activity. In 2011 I started to use ‘Brief Solution Focused Therapy’ on myself and have continued to use the ‘magic question’, ‘magic wand’ or ‘miracle question’ aspect of this intervention at least once a week and sometimes more when I feel like I can’t see past where I am or to where I’d like to be. I am thankful that my social work training up to April 2011 had taught me this process and I had the chance to put it into practice with clients at the time, myself afterwards and clients once more when I returned to working in mental health after a short break.

What is the ‘magic question’?

As I mentioned above, the magic question forms part of Brief Solution Focused Therapy commonly used alongside person centred approaches in psychology, counselling and front line mental health casework. The question has been proven to help people see for themselves what it is they really want and where they want to be in the near or distant future – the key is to frame the question in such a way that the person being asked realizes it is not a ‘magic bullet’. The question itself won’t resolve problems, challenges and difficulties but it will help to begin the process of identifying the steps that may need to be taken to do that and to reach a desired goal or state.

The question itself can be asked in many ways, for instance:

  1. “If you could wave a magic wand, what positive changes would you make happen in your life?”
  2. “If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened that made your life so much more worthwhile, what would you see differently?”
  3. “If there were no obstacles, what is it you would do to improve your quality of life?”

I have asked myself iterations of those three questions many times over the years, especially when I feel that I’m on the precipice of a depressive episode, or in the early days of my recovery when I felt I just wanted to stop trying to be healthy and ‘good’ and to start taking drugs again. The question really helps to focus the mind away from the problem and towards goals, aspirations and dreams. As you begin to answer the question yourself, either on your own or with a trusted friend, that’s when the magic begins to happen as you can then begin to plot a chart to your desired outcome, goal or future. Plotting the chart, making plans, researching and acting in your own best interests from this point onwards becomes the next step in the process of change. I call the next step ‘magical thinking’ but I guess you could call it anything from blue sky thinking, to brainstorming, to action planning. The magical thinking phase really depends on how you prefer to think and plan and whether or not you have another person or other people to help you start to actualize the outcome, goal or future you have identified for yourself through magic questioning.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Steve Jobs

For me, the answers to my first set of magic questions started off from the base level of “I want to stop taking drugs so I can focus on getting the best out of myself, I want to stop using drugs so I can be myself and not hide behind a chemically altered self. I want to be well, clear headed and I want to see more of the world.”

With the help of my friend from April 2011 to December 2013 I managed to actualize my plan. From then the magic question and the answers to it took on whole new, and wholly positive meanings. Instead of wanting to change my habits, lifestyle and mindset instead I focused on what I wanted to do with my new found freedom, health and clarity of mind. Now when I asked myself “If you woke up tomorrow and magic had passed through your sleep, what would look different on waking? Where would you be? What would you be doing?” the answers have usually turned into races, learning experiences, travels abroad and have often led to concrete moves to make myself fitter, stronger and more adaptable as a person. With that said, this is no fairy tale and the magic question has sometimes led to some not so magical outcomes but I’ll come to that later.

Asking the question regularly helps to expand my thoughts from the here and now and really helps me to feel free; especially when the weight of the world seems to be bearing down through current affairs broadly or just through the usual stresses and strains of work and life. As much as I enjoy the routines of work, life and training sometimes it can feel like the walls are closing in and I don’t tend to do so well mentally when I feel I’m on an sleep, eat, work and repeat cycle. It is at these moments I tend to ask the question and start ‘The Process’. Whether the plans or thoughts coalesce into reality or not, nine times out of ten after beginning the process I start to feel lighter, happier and able to break free of any negative thoughts that may have been closing in.

‘Magical Thinking’ and ‘The Process’

The process I follow is part of what makes asking and answering the question so helpful to my mindset. Generally when I ask the question and find the answer of what I would like to see or do it starts off as a pretty grandiose ideal and at times can be farfetched! No matter how mad cap or farfetched it might be I begin pursuing the next part of the process which is to think about how I might get to what I want or where I’d like to be. Sometimes this can be a private venture where I mull over the idea, options and permeations in my head over a few hours or even a few weeks, and sometimes I can find myself talking out loud much to the annoyance of my wife and friends at times! This is my magical thinking phase.

I have had a few phases of magical thinking this year. For example I began to feel frustrated at the Covid-19 pandemic hampering my well laid plans to prepare for a Bob Graham Round in the Lake District so I asked myself “What would I do if Covid-19 disappeared tomorrow?” and the answer was “I’d go to the Lakes at the earliest opportunity and attempt the Bob Graham Round.”

Not long afterwards I was mulling over the idea in my head and then messaging a few friends to see if they would be up for supporting me on a ‘blind’ BGR (blind being a round with no recces undertaken prior to starting). A few people were keen so I started to put together a very swift training plan and used GPX maps to recce from afar. Then I got injured and the totally madcap idea came to a halt! However, it had helped me to understand the Bob Graham Round much better than I had before I decided to do it on a whim – I looked at more maps, read more books, blogs and posts on the subject in 2 weeks than I had done in the previous 2 months. I also salvaged the excitement of the idea by heading the Lake District once lockdown was lifted for a camping trip.

Magical Thinking & ‘The Process’

My second magical thinking phase of the year came whilst I was in the Lake District in August. Lying in my tent one night I asked myself “If you were able to do one challenging thing before the end of the year, what would it be?” and the answer came to me the next morning as I walked around the fells. I would like to plan my own ultra-distance route and then run/hike it on or as close to my birthday as possible. I spent the next few days talking over the idea with my friend who I was camping with and further mulling it over in the car on the way home. So it was I came to choose the Black Mountains on the England/Wales border to turn thoughts into a plan, and the plan into action. Magical thinking came good! Over the next couple of weeks I obtained maps, trawled the internet for route inspiration and then began researching and plotting a route. Once that was all done the next phase of actualizing the plan was to get a few friends on board to share the adventure and the costs of accommodation – that was accomplished easily and all being well on October 24th (2 days before my birthday) we’ll be setting off on a 67km circular route around the Black Mountains. Fingers crossed that there are no lockdowns in operation that might prevent this.

Very recently, my final magical thinking phase began and this is what spurred me to write this post. As I mentioned earlier I have been reflecting on my own journey through life and my thoughts kept looping back to my abandoned desire to become a mountaineer and climber in the early days of my recovery. Back then I was very short of money, very short of fitness and fully focused on changing both of those things along with getting my career back on track and becoming a better version of myself. I look at where I am now and I’m happy with my career, happy with who I am and although I’m certainly not wealthy I am also able to afford a life beyond bills and food. So I asked myself “If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened that made your life so much more worthwhile, what would you see differently?”

The answer was “I’d be on my way to summiting a mountain and I’d be challenging my physical limitations in a new and exciting way.”

Mont Blanc

Almost immediately after answering the question I reached over to the bookshelf next to me and plucked Maurice Herzog’s fantastic ‘Annapurna’ and began to read. This was the first mountaineering book I ever read way back in 2011 and it is where I learned about mountains and their excitement, beauty and danger. Very quickly I was hooked on the idea of going for my own Annapurna and began to think of what that might actually be. Given that Annapurna is way, way, way beyond my capabilities along with almost any other mountain at present my mind drifted to one of my favourite places in the world – Chamonix. Chamonix and Mont Blanc. I started talking to my wife about my new found desire to go and summit a mountain under my own power, but not by running, by climbing. She was on board with the venture and supportive of the idea and so I took my magical thinking to the next phase and began talking to other people about the idea.

It is at this phase I find most plans either come to fruition, fall apart under scrutiny or change to a lesser or greater degree depending on the vision. So, a few days after picking up ‘Annapurna’ and talking to my wife I had found another person who was interested in sharing the adventure and we had bounced around the idea that we could conceivably attempt it in September 2021 – it is quieter on the mountain and around the Chamonix valley, and it would also be 10 years since my first trip to the Alps and my first [failed] attempt at summiting a mountain.

The Dark Side

It is at this point I’ll break from what comes next on that plan to talk about some of the pitfalls and challenges I have found when I’ve put magical thinking and ‘the process’ into play since 2011. As I mentioned earlier the magic question and the process are not magic bullets that makes things happen or make things better. They are just parts of a process that attempts to improve one aspect or another of life.

Over the years I have created great experiences and seen some fantastic places because of it, but many times I have been blinded by the desire to do things as quickly or as soon as I can. I believe this is because I have a fear of missing out, a fear of losing my chance or an opportunity and it is also because I am still, in some way at least, unhappy with how my life panned out in my teens and how I chose to live my life in my twenties. It is important to acknowledge who you are and how you feel when you start the process of magical thinking as this can be a good way to put in some checks and balances to stop the planning stage going awry. The next thing to acknowledge, and early on in the planning stage, is what resources you have access to or the resources you could reasonably acquire to get a plan off the ground. I would say that prior to 2017 I did not do either of these things very well.

Swiss Alps, September 2011

When it came to acknowledging who I am and what I felt, in the early days I largely ignored that. As far as I was concerned I was on a mission to change my life for the better and all I really wanted was to be somebody else, a different version of me. My plans always leaned towards pushing myself mentally, physically or both especially when it came to applying the process to endurance and adventure. This led me overreach a few times and to putting a lot of time and effort into things that were more than likely not going to lead anywhere, lead to failure or lead to disappointment. A few examples I can give here are planning to a run a sub 3 hour marathon for my first ever marathon with very little idea of how to train or what it might actually entail to push hard for more than 16km. I ran the Pisa Marathon in 2013 and crossed the line in 3:23 – not bad for a first attempt but as I had set my goals so high, and put them out there to the world I felt a bit deflated. It wasn’t the experience I expected when I crossed the line and it left me searching.

Pisa Marathon, 2013. 200m to go.

Another example is the time I put a lot of time, energy and money into pursuing a yoga teaching course (2016-17). I ignored myself almost from the start. Within two months of starting the course I began to question whether I actually wanted to become a teacher of something I had no real, long term experience in and I began to like a fraud going through the motions and putting myself out there as an expert. I dropped the course after about 10 months and fell out of love with yoga for quite a long time but I did learn a lot about anatomy, physiology and I did learn a lesson that perhaps I need to think and plan a little longer before diving in to everything that I think I want to do.

There was also the time, back in 2012, that I tried to plan an ‘expedition’ to Island Peak in Nepal with a view summiting that and a neighbouring peak. I don’t know why I thought this was even feasible at the time – I had zero climbing skills or abilities, I definitely didn’t have enough money and I had no contacts in the mountaineering, climbing or trekking community. I was so jumbled at the time that I was researching and learning, whilst also at the same time getting a couple of friends on board who had more faith in me than I had in myself. Needless to say, I found organizing such a thing unfeasible and I am glad that I pulled the plug before any of us put any money anywhere important – it hurt my ego but it didn’t hurt my bank balance.

So, we come to the bank balance! Up to 2016 I financed the vast majority of my races, experiences and projects with credit but what I didn’t do was plan how I would pay back that credit. My thinking from 2012 to 2017 was along the lines of “You only live once”, “There are no shops in the graveyard” and “There are no bailiffs in the next life.” I think we can all agree that line of thinking is magical thinking gone awry. Since 2017 I have managed, for the most part, to fund travels and adventures to Ibiza, India, Turkey and places a little nearer with up front payments or with very solid, secure repayment plans figured and mapped well in advance. But yes, prior to that I went a bit wild with 0% purchasing!

My biggest outlaying was my bid to become an ocean rower. This started with magical thinking. I asked myself much the same question I asked myself recently “If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened that made your life so much more worthwhile, what would you see differently?”.

The answer came very much out of the blue and surprised and excited me. I wanted to try and row an ocean. To this day I still don’t know where the idea or inspiration came from! As ever, the answer led to some grandiose thinking at first and plenty of reading and research into the subject. It became apparent I wouldn’t be able to row the Atlantic or Pacific anytime soon due to the phenomenal costs involved, and what seemed at the time an impenetrable sub-culture of hardcore rowing folk. Then I saw an opportunity to row across the Mediterranean and I jumped at it immediately. At first glance the costs weren’t massive like the Atlantic or Pacific but they weren’t insignificant either.

Before I knew it I’d signed up and committed to doing it. It was at this point I realized I was going to need to pay for many different courses to meet the minimum safety requirements and I was going to need to pay for flights and accommodation at the start and finish ports. Obviously, of course, I would also need more research material and training material. I would say 80% of those costs were paid on credit. This all happened very early in 2015 and to cut a long story short I would say it took me until late 2017 to clear that pot of debt. The worst thing about that one is I’d overestimated my endurance ability and experience and underestimated the financial cost and in the end I didn’t complete the row. Not my finest hour.

Life, Learning & The Pursuit of Happiness

Back to 2020 and my newly rekindled desire to take on mountaineering and climbing challenges. One big difference, perhaps the biggest, in my life since 2016 has been the inclusion of the woman I love into my magical thinking process. Sarah has really helped me to step back (many, many times) and to really assess where I am going once I get going.

I think early on it terrified her that I was so willing to throw myself head first into my fantastical plans and to hell with the consequences both physically, mentally and financially. Over the years she has really helped me to at least acknowledge I am not, and likely never will be, a millionaire with endless financial reserves to do with as I please. But I know I still manage to raise a little bit of fear and despair once I set off on the process!

In this instance I know that I got ahead of myself very early doors, got excited and started to make plans for a big 2021 adventure with very little (no) thought to costs and she gently and patiently pointed this out to me as I chatted away with someone from my running club who was interested in the adventure.

Turkey, 2019

I am still learning, after four years, how to work this new aspect of the process into my thinking and planning. Often times I refuse to listen and plough on regardless until about a week or maybe two later, I find that “Oh, yes, my wife was talking complete sense. Perhaps I should slow this down and think about how feasible this is on my self-imposed short timescale.”

My process for Mont Blanc, on reflection, reminded me of my nonsense attempt at getting a trip to Island Peak off the ground. Once I actually started looking beyond what would be physically, mentally and materially required to make a successful trip and started looking at how much everything outside of that realm cost, I quickly came to the realization it was pie in the sky for a short term venture.

Thankfully I have a lot more experience and knowledge of what is required physically, mentally and materially when it comes to endurance gained over the years so this time my thinking came to costs much, much earlier. The fact is I could get to Mont Blanc in 2021 but it would be to the detriment of the other plans my wife and I have for life and family. However, unlike 2012, I know that I have the resources, capacity and patience to make this a longer term goal and the key to success in this instance is patience and perseverance – two things I lacked when I set out to get to Island Peak and then when I set out to have a go at ocean rowing. Back in the day it was always go, go, go and do it now and as I’ve outlined above sometimes it’s worked out well but often times it’s added stress to my life outside of the actual adventure.

India, 2019

This time I’ve adapted my process to my life as opposed to adapting my life to the process. It is fair to say adaptability to pressures, challenges and constraints is the key to success in most areas of life from work, to family, to endurance.

Nine and a half years after my first magic question process I have finally learned that although life is short and time is not infinite, there is still plenty of it to be able to slow down a bit and to enjoy a longer, more engaging and thoughtful journey towards a lofty goal.

So it is that I have made the summit of Mont Blanc my long term goal. I don’t think I have ever had a long term goal in endurance, one that I have taken my time with, one where I have acknowledged my shortcomings and need to adapt – everything up to this point has been pretty short term. Maybe a year at the most from idea, to plan, to action. This time I am giving myself three years. Three years to save up the money I need for a longer trip to Chamonix with my wife (and maybe even a child at that point?!). Three years to learn how to climb both indoors and out, three years to gather the materiel and equipment I will need to feel comfortable in the Alps roped up to a guide.

If you have made it this far, you have reached the end of the longest post I have ever written! I hope you have enjoyed it and maybe you have even learned something new that you can take away and use to plan your next race, trip, adventure or even career move.

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