Category Archives: Post

CTS Dorset Ultra, December 5th 2015

My final race of 2015 turned out to be both amazing, awful, beautiful and brutal! EnduranceLife sure know how to put on a tough race. They organise their courses according to ‘severity’: (2) Moderate, (3) Strenuous, (4) Severe and (5) Extreme – this one was billed as ‘Extreme’ and it lived up to it for sure.

I arrived the afternoon before the race into the very picturesque village of West Lulworth. The wind was gusting at about 35/40mph when I arrived but it wasn’t so noticeable as the cottage I was staying in was in a cove and sheltered by the hills I was due to run the next day. As the day wore on and evening approached the wind began to pick up quite significantly and was rattling the doors and windows of the cottage. All of us knew that we would be in for a tough day on an exposed course the next day. By the time I was heading to sleep I was already glad that I decided to enter the 54km race instead of the 74km!

L-R: Alan (74k), Adrien (74k), Laura (54k), Me, Romain (Mara), Matthieu (74k), Christina (HM), David (74k)

L-R: Alan (74k), Adrien (74k), Laura (54k), Me, Romain (Mara), Matthieu (74k), Christina (HM), David (74k)

The morning saw all 8 of us up before sunrise. It’s the first time I’ve really left my pre-race comfort zone staying with so many other people beforehand but I have to say it was great fun and I think it made me a little more relaxed to know some of the people I was lining up to start with. I still managed to stick to most of pre-race rituals but they just didn’t feel so important! By the time the race briefing finished at 0805hrs I was buzzing and ready to get a move on up the first big climb of the day so I could get down on the other side to get my first ever up close view of Durdle Door!

Durdle Door

Durdle Door

I wanted to stick to a heart rate based plan which I knew would be difficult because of the hills. I planned to max out at 170bpm tops on cresting any major climbs and then to cruise the early downhills to recover the heart rate into an aerobic zone whilst keeping up to the aerobic level on any gentle descents or flat sections. Later on in the race, over the final 10km or so, I had planned to run or hike everything as hard as possible in a bid to gap anybody behind me and close in on anybody in front. The plan fell apart fairly early on! For the first 10km I ran with my friend Adrien who was racing the 74km event – we had the same kind of race plan for the early stages but after I stopped to refill my Tailwind bottle at the 10km check point he moved ahead and I didn’t catch him again. He finished 9th in the 74k so great work there – he said he felt good heading out of CP1 and decided to push on and push on he did!

Feeling strong somewhere around 25/26km.

Feeling strong somewhere around 25/26km.

I broke with my plan heading out of CP1 because I was also feeling pretty good and pretty solid. I ran a very strong section from 10km to around 21/22km and then decided to ease off a little because I knew that from this section up to around the 44km  point the course would have its steepest climbs and descents and would be most exposed. Heading into the second part of the course I was confident enough. My strategy came back into play and I was doing well keeping my heart rate fairly level. I hadn’t lost any places for quite some time and hadn’t seen any 54k runners ahead for a while either. In hindsight I should have noticed around the 25km mark that I had started to take a dislike to the taste of my ‘unflavoured’ Tailwind mix and instead was solely relying on my plain water bottle. It became very apparent that I was under fuelled when I came to a rare sheltered and flat, runnable section at the 28 to 30km mark. I just could not summon the energy to put in a strong effort and I had to fight a mental battle to keep moving at even a solid hike. It was at this point other 54k runners started to pass me – not many at first but by the time I got out of my long, dark, deep decline at 38km I must have been passed by at least 10 or 12 people.

The long, dark tunnel of despair kicked in at 31km as I was ascending a steep uneven stepped section. I over reached my left leg and pulled a muscle. I thought my race was over as I tried to carry on but found the spasm to be so strong I had to stop, stretch out and then attempt to continue the climb far slower than I wanted to. At this point I cursed the wind which had started to gust up into the 60 to 70mph range and was beginning to take a real toll on my energy level (and that of everybody else out on the course)! My heart rate began to jump around wildly from 31km to the aid station at 37km and I was feeling extremely depleted, at time I was barely managing a slow walk but then at other times I forced myself to run until I felt nauseous – by the time I reached 37km all I wanted was ready salted crisps, jelly babies and more water. I took the decision to dump the Tailwind from my handheld and one of my soft flasks and refilled with plain water. I shoved a huge amount of jelly babies into the pocket of my shorts, ate 2 packets of salted crisps and then steeled myself for the climb ahead.

I think I stopped for about 5 or 6 minutes and that was enough to lower my body temperature enough to warrant putting on my water and windproof coat for the rest of the race. As I power hiked out of the station a smile began to appear on my face as I felt my energy levels picking up thanks to the steady stream of jelly babies I was feeding myself at the time. At 38km my race was back on and I was running again…until I hit a very open and exposed cliff path where the winds gusted up to 80mph at times. Everybody I saw along that section down to the 40km mark was just doing their best to keep moving forward. Some opted for a run/walk strategy – running when there was a gap in the wind and practically walking on the spot when it was blowing. Some opted to just keep running, head down as hard a possible the entire way and others, like myself opted for a head down, arm swinging power hike along the whole section. For me this worked wonders and I began to feel stronger and stronger knowing that from 40km to the checkpoint at 44km it was going to be mostly downhill with a bit of running on a pebble beach. The thought of more ready salted crisps and a cup of hot, black tea kept me going!

A stone's throw from CP4

A stone’s throw from CP4

I stopped again at the final checkpoint with 10km to go. I knew that up ahead there were two very steep climbs waiting for me and one fairly long, steep and exposed climb before I could turn off the coast line and begin the final 4 miles to the finish line along pretty flat terrain, finishing on a very steep (and fun) downhill! I stayed at the final checkpoint for about 5 or 6 minutes again and drank two cups of coke and a black tea along with a packet of salted crisps. I power hiked the first uphill as hard as I could as per my original plan and then hammered the downhill on the other side. My A-Goal of a 6:15/6:25 finish was done with a few minutes after leaving the checkpoint and I knew that given the conditions it would be unlikely I would reach my B-Goal of 6:30/6:45 either but I didn’t want to let go of a racing mentality and so I pushed hard.

The Jurassic Coast Line.

The Jurassic Coast Line.

On the second climb I was passed by one person and I passed about three which made me feel pretty good but I was being pushed by someone about 200 metres back! The racing instinct was really kicking in at this point (as it always does for me over the last 5km of any race) and I just wanted to put as big a gap as I could manage between myself and the two runners behind. As I crested the second climb I knew there was a short downhill section that would help me to build the gap I wanted if I just took the breaks off, forgot about my quads and threw myself downhill! Unfortunately the wind had other ideas and I was literally blown off my feet by a very strong gust toward the bottom of the hill. It knocked my confidence and I had to struggle into the wind to get moving again at this point knowing I was heading into the final, long climb of the race. One of the runners behind me managed to catch up as we began to the final climb and we exchanged a few brief words – he told me his quads were killing him and he was having difficulty figuring out whether to run more or hike more. Shame on me – I wished the guy well and then threw in a little mind spanner by telling him my legs felt great before heading off uphill at a very strong pace!

From the top of the last climb with 5km to go I was only passed by one other person and it wasn’t the guy I left struggling uphill. I ran the majority of the last 5km in 32:31 – not very fast but it was enough for me to catch three people approaching the final descent and one on the descent itself. I had to check back a few times as I knew there were two pretty strong runners around 500m back from me at the 5km mark but I loved the feeling of being pushed into a strong downhill finish and it felt great to descend into the cove with the wind dying off with each step. I finished the race with a huge smile and running hard off the descent – I was 30 seconds back from the guy in 43rd and only 24 seconds in front of the guys in 45th which put me in 44th place with a time of 7:12:31!

BEER ME!

BEER ME!

Although I didn’t manage to reach my A or B goals I am proud of the achievement. I struggled again with nutrition, and again it was around the same point on the course where I struggled at the Ox Ultra in May and Thames Meander in November but this time I didn’t let it completely kill my race – I ran or fast hiked wherever I could and I only had one or two extended walking sections where I could have or should have been moving a little faster. I will continue to use Tailwind for the time being but from now on during races I will carry my own supply of salted crisps and jelly babies. I honestly think that with lighter winds I would have definitely been able to reach my B Goal but after careful consideration I may have been overreaching with my initial A Goal…but then again, I always do!

I’m already looking forward to racing next year but, for now, I’m going to enjoy a week off from running and structured training before heading into a short 10 week block for Grizedale Trail Marathon on February 7th.

Thanks for reading!

Peace & Blessings

NOMAN: the end of an adventure

I have been struggling with how to approach writing about my experience of the NOMAN race and ocean rowing. It was so much more than a race and in some ways a much bigger and profound experience of life than I was expecting.

The race began at 1030hrs on Saturday 18th July and I started off in high spirits and felt very strong. I was looking forward to rowing into the sunset and through the night which I did. It was great to see the Milky Way and at one point we could still feel the bass lines from the clubs in Ibiza even though we couldn’t see land. It was amazing to be out in the middle of nowhere without e-mails or phone calls or much to worry about apart from eating, drinking and rowing. That said, I did have some auditory hallucinations around 0400hrs on Sunday 19th July – I could hear various ringtones all around for a couple of hours!

As the day dawned on the 19th we realised it was going to be extremely hot and temperatures rose quickly from 30 degrees at sunrise to 41 degrees by lunch time! I was feeling very strong but very hot – in fact we were all feeling strong so we rowed hard into the morning. One of my team mates came off shift feeling quite ill so after a half hour break myself I got back on the oars to give them an extended rest. So it was that I rowed from 0900hrs until 1030hrs, took a 30 minute break and then rowed from 1100hrs to 1300hrs during the hottest part of the day.

Unfortunately things took a turn for the worst shortly after I came off my epic shift and this led me to abandon the race after 35 hours. The 3 hour shift in 41 degree heat made me pay the price about an hour later with some pretty bad dehydration which led to disorientation, illness and an inability to function on my own. I found out the other crew were rowing half hour shifts at this point whereas we had no discernible shift pattern from the get go.

It was a learning curve for sure and I was picked up by our support boat Rozamar at 2100hrs after making a call on a satellite phone to my girlfriend – apparently I was slurring and not making a lot of sense. On board Rozamar I made a recovery after drinking a lot of water and getting some sleep. From about 1600hrs on Monday I pitched in where I could as support crew – it felt the right thing to do, I was still on an adventure and my crew was still out there rowing. I learned a lot whilst rowing and also as part of the support crew and I can say with conviction that this won’t be the last time I head out to sea!

I got back on land Tuesday 21st July at around 1930hrs and the world still seemed to be pitching and rolling as if I was on board a ship (or an ocean rowing boat). It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all and reminded me, for a few days, of how much I loved it out there in the middle of nowhere. The sea was like no place I’ve ever been and I already find myself thinking about other ocean going adventures I could have.

I’m going to wrap up the prose there and turn to answering some of the more common questions I’ve heard since getting back into the world of phone reception, e-mails and other humans!

Peter Bird quote

  1. What was the highlight or best memory of the adventure?

The highlight was definitely losing sight of land during the first night. I was rowing and watching the light from Portinatx lighthouse on the northern tip of Ibiza when all of a sudden it disappeared. At that moment I really felt like I was at sea, just like at dawn on Sunday 19th when the sun just seemed to appear in the sky from nowhere – all around was water and I realised just how small and insignificant we are as a species and how vast the world is. When you look at the Mediterranean Sea on a map it’s so small compared to the Pacific or Atlantic but when you’re on a tiny boat in the middle of it you really feel as if you’re on another planet. A great memory is also being on shift with Stephanie during the first night and hearing over the VHF that we were passing very close to a speeding cargo ship with another following quite closely behind – we both scrambled to clear the deck, batten down the hatches and strap into our life vests before clipping onto the jack stay to prevent us from being washed overboard should we be swamped by the wash from said ships! It was truly exhilarating.

  1. What was the lowest point?

The lowest point definitely came during a moment of solitude in the cabin after my ill-fated long shift. I sat there and began to hear a bit of ringing in my ears, my hands felt quite numb and I was having difficulty drinking all but the smallest amounts of water. I realised at this point that I was extremely dehydrated and, as much as I wanted to eat and relax before my next shift I just couldn’t seem to accomplish either task. I sat there trying not to cry and I looked out of the cabin door at my team mates and sensed that they knew what was coming. It was tough. I don’t remember too much detail from that point until a good few hours later when I came round a bit and after I had spoken on the satellite phone.

  1. If you were to do it again and change one thing what would it be?

There is a very simple answer to this and I think my crew mates would agree. In fact, anybody who has rowed an ocean would agree – set a shift pattern and stick to it well in advance of the row. This was pretty difficult as we only found who we would be rowing with the day before the race. There wasn’t much time for a real in-depth discussion of strategy and tactics.

  1. What did you like most about the experience, what do you miss the most?

It was great to be away from social media, telephones, text messages, e-mails and all the pressures of modern life. It really is quite a simple life at sea be that on an ocean rowing boat or on the support boat. You wake up, you cook, you clean, you drink, you eat, you do your shift either on watch or on the oars and then you sleep. It was pretty cool to spend so much time with like-minded people talking about things we’ve already accomplished, life in general and the plans being hatched by each of us for the future.

  1. What did you dislike most about the experience?

One thing that I found quite difficult at times was the close proximity to others. There really is not much space at all on a boat and it was nigh on impossible to have some time to yourself or to be out of the line of sight of another crew member. At times I really just wanted to go for a long swim or a run – obviously there’s nowhere to run in the middle of the ocean and there’s barely room to walk properly on a boat. As for swimming, well, it’s not the most advisable past time as most of the time the ocean rowing boat or support boat is moving and when it’s not there’s work to be done! In hindsight though, harking back to question three, if I could do anything else differently it would be to take or make the time to swim in the deep blue…maybe next time!

  1. What did you learn from the experience?

I learned that just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean you should. By that I mean I knew I could row the long shift I did but I really shouldn’t have – if I’d have slowed my thought process down enough and not got myself into a racing frame of mind I might have been able to look ahead to what might happen if I continued on the oars. I also learned that communication on an ocean rowing boat is very important and that even the smallest detail that isn’t passed around to every member of the crew can make a big difference – we had a couple of navigational issues early on because of this fact.

  1. Any advice for anybody wanting to give ocean rowing a try?

In honesty I would say if you want to race more than enjoy the experience of being at sea for a long time then sign up for NOMAN. If you want to genuinely experience what nature has to offer and to enjoy the company of your crew then I’d look for something longer and without so much of a tight deadline to row too. The build up to the race and the early stages of the race itself were actually quite stressful for a number of reasons so, even if you’re going to go for the NOMAN, I would suggest signing up as a team of 3 or 4 friends who want to row as a crew – plan your shifts, plan your nutrition and hydration strategy and train together as much as possible. I also think it’s really important to spend a fair amount of time lifting weights in the gym and strengthening the upper body. One thing that struck me was that ocean rowing is most definitely more about the upper body than the legs as is the case with flat water rowing.

  1. What’s next?

I’m going back to running ultras, make no mistake! In fact, this Friday I am running the Grim Reaper 70 Miler which I had planned to do all along regardless of how the NOMAN race went. In the longer term, well, I’ve been talking to a few people I’ve met along this ocean rowing journey about possibly forming a four man crew and planning another, longer, colder climate ocean row but that is very much in the concept stage – this could be something that happens in five or ten years but certainly not in the very near future. When it comes to next year and the years to come I’ve got my eyes set on an Ironman, a few one hundred mile endurance runs, the Tor des Geants, UTMB, TransAlpine and hopefully some adventure racing and sea kayaking! Who knows really, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to test my mental and physical limits and there are so many amazing experiences out there that you never know what might be around the corner…keep reading ‘26.2 & Beyond’ and we will see what happens!

Peace & Blessings x

Have Fun, Enjoy Life and Run Ultras!

Training for ultras can and should be as varied and wide as the sport itself. There really is no ‘right’ way to train for running ultras; there is definitely no ‘one size fits all’ training plan for 50km, 50 mile, 100 mile and multi-day events!

How could there be? You could be running a 50km like Speedgoat that is at altitude and records 11,000ft of elevation loss/gain, or you could be running the Royal Parks Foundation 50k that is run through the relatively flat and benign parks of London.

You might be training to run a 50 miler in the middle of summer in the heat and humidity of South East Asia, you could be training to run a 100 miler in Alaska…in winter, oh, and you might have to navigate too! As for multi-day events they can throw anything and everything at you over the course of 3, 6 or maybe more days – you may have to carry all of your own food, you may have to set up your own camp at night, you might be at altitude for some or all of the event, you might be traversing a desert or crossing the Italian Alps!

Anyway, you get the point – ultras cover all type of terrain, in all kinds of weather and under all kinds of conditions. This post isn’t meant to be a ‘how to’ because I think I’ve made it clear that there is no one way to go about this! I mean, obviously, research your race and train specifically to deal with the conditions you might find as best you can, with what you have but in general what you need to run an ultra of any kind, anywhere is strength, determination, an endurance base and the mental toughness to say ‘This will not beat me today’ (sometimes over and over and over again for 50 or more miles!).

I think the basics of training for ultras, without race specificity, are pretty simple and will be familiar to anybody who has run a marathon, competed in triathlons or been involved in adventure racing:

  1. Hills, hills and more hills. Up and down, up and down. And…repeat!

Hill repeats are great for strength, power and endurance and they are also great for mental training – it’s hard to keep motivated when you’re running up and down the same hill section over and over! Good, because it’s hard to stay motivated to keep moving at mile 40 of a 50 mile race when the aid station looks so comfortable, well stocked and inviting! Ultras often have hills and often they can be fairly long ascents – it’s good to know you can keep your legs turning if you’re feeling good but it’s also good to have practiced the power hike, if the going gets tough or it’s too steep to run then lean forwards put your hands on your quads and get moving! Also, what goes up must come down and often in races this is going to happen over and over and over again – UTMB or CCC are good examples that I hear often – if you’re not used to running downhill then you really should start practising because when your quads blow it makes the remaining miles that much harder!

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5.

Taking a breather at the top of the biggest climb of the day out of CP5, South Downs Way 50 2015.

  1. Round and round you go!

Intervals are great for building speed and an endurance base. You don’t have to use a track, I don’t. A looped stretch of road or trail will do just fine or even an out and back. The more you do them the more confident you’ll feel to push it later on in a race – you might be racing for a certain time or you might be racing to see where you can place but when you’re tired it’s good to know you have a bit of extra speed saved up.

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

40 miles done and I still mustered a sprint finish somehow!

  1. Run far. Find a route, take your gear and off you go.

A staple of anybody’s training plan be that for 10k or 100 miles. Long runs are particularly important for ultra training in my opinion. They are a great way to test out what works for you when it comes to kit, hydration and nutrition and they are also good indicators of fitness and endurance levels. Long runs don’t have to be super long either, if you’re training for a hundred miler then maybe 35 to 40 miles in one shot could suffice but then again maybe that’s not for you – in that case back to back long runs could be the way to go. For instance you might run 20 miles at above race pace on Saturday and then on Sunday you’ll go out for another 20 miles but this time your legs are going to feel tired and heavy and you might find it difficult to go the distance mentally – good! This is how it may feel at mile 80 of your 100 mile race or on day 3 of 5 at your multi-day stage race!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run...running back up later is the challenge!

Heading out for the downhill section of my long run…running back up later is the challenge!

  1. Do you even lift bro? No? Well, you should. Not much but enough to strengthen the core and the legs.

Good runners don’t just run. They look after their bodies and strengthen those parts of it that are likely going to take a sustained battering of the course of a racing season! You don’t have to do too much; you’re not looking to bulk up! In fact you’re pretty much looking to tone what you have. A strong core and strong legs will help you to keep good running form as the miles (or days) go by. I only recently started regularly working on this and the difference I’ve noticed is quite spectacular – mentally my last 50 miler was tough but my body felt so much stronger and less battered than the 45 miler I ran a few months before! I would recommend taking up a gym membership, even if it’s short term, just to get advice from somebody who knows about strength and conditioning and then either keep on gyming it or apply your learning at home (as I do).

Dost Thou Even Hoist?

  1. That’s right, not only should you be strong but bendy too! Take up yoga and/or pilates.

Flexibility is important when it comes to avoiding injury. Again, this is something I only took up recently but over the past few months I have not suffered so much with tight hamstrings, hip flexors or any of the associated aches and pains that come with racing often and training regularly. I put this down to yoga and pilates practice! I cannot recommend it enough, the best thing is you can do it from home and it is great to practice on rest days or during down time – not only does yoga and pilates increase flexibility it can also help to relax the mind and give it a rest from worrying about training and, indeed, life in general! Oh, both yoga and pilates are great for core strength too.

Namaste

  1. Enter races of varying distances; it’s good to be diverse!

I’m not saying race an ultra or endurance based event every weekend here! That would be unsustainable for most mortals! What I would suggest is picking an A-race or maybe two in the year and then adding in a few races prior to that. For instance, my A-race this year is a 70 miler at the end of July and to train for it I have entered a 56km race at the end of May that is over similar terrain and then a five mile race about a month before which is over similar terrain – the idea is that it will keep my mind and body in racing shape. Not only that, let’s face it, going to races is fun! It’s a chance to go somewhere new and to meet and hang out with people who have similar interests!

  1. Cross train…or cross race!

Running is great for the mind and the soul and to some extent it’s great for fitness. But sustained training and racing can and likely will impact on your body over time. A lot of ultrarunners have come from an adventure racing or Ironman/triathlon background and I think it would be safe to say that their varied focus in training for these particular events promotes longevity in the sport of running! Once in a while it’s good to mix it up – variety is the spice of life after all. I would highly recommend building in some kind of aerobic/cardio cross training either as part of your weekly workouts or maybe on a less frequent basis. Take up swimming, hit the trails on a mountain bike, visit your local climbing wall or commute to work on a road bike – it’s all good training for strength and endurance and it keeps things interesting!

  1. Listen to your body – it’s always talking to you and it has a lot to say!

This really is a given. It’s a standard piece of advice given to everybody who starts training seriously for any kind of endurance event. It took me many years to take up the advice and as a consequence I suffered from burnout, constant tightness in my muscles, a trapped L3 spinal nerve and a stress fracture! Since I decided to actually listen to my body I have suffered from none of these things – if my body is giving me signs that it needs a rest, some massage or some time away from running then I listen to it and focus on the area that needs attention!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

Acupuncture: who would have thought strategically placed needles could relieve so much discomfort?!

  1. Experiment with what works – talk to other runners, make friends but go your own way!

As I said at the start of this post, this is not a ‘how to’. It’s a guide. I’m sharing what works for me and you’re welcome to see if it works for you – if it doesn’t then don’t be afraid to change it up and explore a bit. Read articles, read blogs, talk to other runners but don’t take anyone’s word as gospel! Just because it works for me doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for you. There are training plans out there for ultra-distance races but, for me, they’re too rigid and formulaic for a sport that is so fluid and diverse! I train on feel and through trial and error and that works for me, I enjoy it but you might like the rigidity of a set plan – give it a go, see what you think. The same can be said for shoe choice, pack choice – any kind of choice from gels to socks, water bottles to bladders, sunglasses to hats. Try different stuff, experiment in training, experiment in your races (but don’t try anything new on race day!) and enjoy the learning experience!

  1. HAVE FUN! ENJOY LIFE!

If you want a sport that will constantly challenge you, give you experiences and opportunities then ultrarunning is the way forward, it’s a sport for life. You’ve got time to find what works for you; you’ve got time to learn from others and from your own mistakes and you should embrace this side of it. Don’t rush! Ultrarunning is certainly not about instant gratification – it’s about the joy of movement, of being outside, of seeing new things, meeting new people and pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. It’s about redrawing your boundaries year on year.

Running Towards Recovery

I’m going to make an assumption that we all know that running is great, not just for our physical but also our mental health. A lot of runners took to the sport as a way to escape the stresses of everyday life and it seems there are a fair amount of ultrarunners out there who have, at one time or another, struggled with depression and even addiction.

I know this because I am one of those runners. I took up running in April 2011 after realising my life had become a little chaotic – on the surface it looked like I was doing okay but inside I was hurting and to deal with that I was increasingly turning to drinking too much, smoking too much pot and taking other recreational drugs just to cover up my real feelings. At the beginning of that month I walked away from a Social Work masters degree unsure that I would ever return to complete a masters program, let alone one in Social Work. It turns out that I did return to my career path and to a modified social work masters programme, eventually graduating in July 2012 with an MSc in Social Studies and now, as this blog attests, I am happy runner so this post is certainly not all doom and gloom!

I had been smoking cannabis, heavily and pretty much everyday, since I was sixteen years old and then around my 21st birthday I discovered I had a penchant for taking recreational drugs like ecstasy, speed and later on cocaine. With the drugs came drinking and with a family history of alcohol addiction I was on a slippery slope by the time I walked away from my original masters program in 2011 but looking back I was on a pretty slippery slope from the moment I took my first ecstasy pill and began chasing the weekend – I’m not saying I was your ‘typical’ addict (there is no typical addict) but I was definitely addicted. I found the competing pressures of study, family strife, girlfriend, work, bills and rent far too much to handle unless I had a joint in one hand and a beer in the other with a decent plan for the weekend’s stimulant based activities in place. I really struggled with automatic negative responses and thoughts to life’s smallest problems and that was with or without a drink, a joint or some other drug!

I don’t have much recollection of how I got through my undergraduate years and came out of the other side with a 2:1 but I did, even after a year’s academic suspension at the end of my first year. In short the drugs and drink masked my underlying depression, my sense of being worthless and having no direction even though, as I mentioned above, on paper and on the surface everything looked like I was doing okay; friends, social life, good degree, career path. I kept my inner turmoil to myself and the bits that I did let slip I did by making light of. That pent up turmoil came to a head whilst I was undertaking my final social work placement in children’s services. I had 30 days to go until the end and it looked like I was going to fail. For the first time in my academic life I was going to fail and I could not handle that idea. I had a conversation with myself and asked why I was going to fail. The answers were many but two stuck out: I said to myself I was going to fail because I didn’t want to pass, I didn’t want to become a social worker and when I asked why that was the answer I got from myself was unexpected and profound. I said to myself you don’t want this because it’s stressing you out to the point where you are drinking four to six cans of beer every night, to the point where all you can think about most days is when you can go home and have a joint (or two or three), to the point where you’re consuming more cocaine on the weekend than you ever have. What are you going to do about this then Al? The answer at that point was to walk away. Fuck it I said. The process was pretty quick and I found my university to be very supportive – I thank them now for not letting me throw it all away completely. They could obviously see I was troubled and needed some time and space to either address my issues or reconcile myself to a different life.

Well, I did a bit of both. I took time from April 2011 to January 2012 to address a whole heap of underlying issues and then whilst in the process I reconciled myself to the idea that my life was going to be different but in a positive way. This didn’t happen overnight. One of the driving factors behind this was a friend of mine reaching out to pull me out of the malaise – there was no sympathy, no indulging of my wallowing in self pity – he just came into my room one afternoon and said something along the lines of “You had better sort yourself out because we’re going to climb a mountain in Switzerland in September.” He then handed me a return plane ticket and left! This was the kick I needed – I now owed my friend for a plane ticket and had a challenge laid at my feet that I didn’t really know how to get my head around. April went from being a black hole into which my life was disappearing to an opportunity to turn my life around. I got a job as a Caretaker towards the end of the month and began looking at how people trained to go to the mountains. This is how I found running. I hated it at first, I had never in my life done any strenuous physical activity and it took me a good while before I could run 5km without stopping, throwing up or getting cramp!

Anyway, I’ll move it on. Once I settled into running I began to love the quiet time it gave me to reflect on life and to plan for the future. I relished the sense of accomplishment I got during and after each and every run. I gave up smoking cigarettes and realised that running became instantly more pleasurable – I could run further and faster and it was great. I went to Switzerland in September of that year feeling fitter than I ever had, I’d kicked cigarettes and I had bought my drinking right down to an acceptable level. I still drank but I wasn’t drinking to forget, to ‘cope’ or to get drunk – I was drinking socially, at home over meals and moderately and at weekends (but less moderately). On returning from Switzerland I decided that I really wanted to focus on making my life work and for me that meant I embraced running wholeheartedly. Those of you who are regular runners and those of you who race will know that when you embrace the sport it becomes a lifestyle and one that returns that embrace whether you run solo, with friends or with a club! It was from here that I changed my diet, I stopped eating processed crap, I cut out dairy and I began to eat as much whole food as possible – I didn’t assign a label to myself like ‘vegan’ or ‘paleo’, I just ate whatever was good for me and I continue to do that to this day. After running my first 10k race in May 2012 I got the racing bug, I ran my first half marathon in June and then finished 12th at my local 10k in July! It was at this point that I really, really embraced the sport. I began to think about which races I wanted to run, I briefly joined a running club (club running isn’t for me I’ve found) and I spent a lot more time training. Although I had turned my life around and it felt like I was on the right track I still had a love/hate relationship with drugs.

Towards the end of 2012 I managed to stop using ecstasy and MDMA and this started a chain reaction. I tried and failed a number of times from this point to stop taking cocaine and to stop smoking cannabis but the point was the longer I abstained the better my running became and the better I felt mentally. I can’t remember my last ecstasy pill, MDMA ‘bomb’ or line of cocaine – the ecstasy thing was sometime around December 2012 and I finally kicked the coke to the sidelines in August 2013. I do remember my last joint though because it was my one and only relapse. I stopped smoking cannabis for what I thought was for good in April 2013 but on Christmas Day that year I ‘had a smoke’ and pretty much instantly regretted it so I haven’t touched it since! So, when I finally did stop taking drugs altogether my world changed and that was difficult to deal with – I found it tough being around people on drugs and so I stopped visiting friends who recreationally and habitually took them at weekends or smoked cannabis during the week. My circle began to shrink but the running community was right there on the roads, the trails, at the track, at races and through blogs and the internet! What I’m left with is a core of friends who respect my decision to be drug free, friends who share my passion for running and with the people I learned to make friends with at work as I found I had something more to talk about other than ‘the weekend’ or what was on TV any given night of the week. Not all of my friends are runners, in fact few of them are but I know for a fact that we’re friends because we understand and respect each other for the people we actually are and not the people we present to ourselves through the haze of drugs, drink and depression.

My career has been back on track (pun intended) since August 2012 and my current role has put me in a position where I work with people in long term recovery from addiction – mostly alcohol but also crack, heroin and other drugs. Sometimes drugs and alcohol. Sometimes with other lesser known addictions thrown into the mix too. On Thursday morning I will be chairing ‘Thought for the Day’ which is a forum for staff members to share thoughts on recovery strategies and sometimes anything which might come to mind with clients – it’s a place where people in recovery learn to manage disagreements and to harness their communication skills. I was going to broadly speak about running as a strategy for good mental health and addiction recovery using the examples of Timmy Olson and Nikki Kimball amongst others when it dawned on me that as well as these guys I could really use my own story as an example of transition and change through running. I’m looking forward to the discussion and I’m hoping that at least one of those present might consider lacing up and going for a run over the weekend!

Peace & Blessings

The relationship between me, running and my profession…

I’m never really sure how much I should write about my work but sometimes it’s unavoidable to mention it as, like so many of us, it plays such a big part in my day to day existence. This will be the first post where I have written at any length about my work and about how it goes some days.

I got up knowing that I would be attending a meeting later in the day with a client, his community psychiatric nurse and a psychiatrist – in all likelihood this meeting was going to end up with my client going for a stay in a mental health hospital either voluntarily or under section. It’s never nice heading out to these kind of things with the knowledge that what your client is experiencing is very real for them and that no amount of explaining on their part is going to avert the almost inevitable stay in hospital. The meeting went ahead. It was quite tense for all concerned and emotional for the client (and to some extent myself as I can be quite sensitive). The inevitable did come about after around an hour of discussion and thankfully my client chose a voluntary admission with a view to accessing some psychological counselling as well as trying out a different course of medication in an environment where, to a large extent, the variables can be controlled.

I cannot begin to imagine how this makes my client feel as it seemed to me, as it so often does, that he was faced with a rather impossible choice – ‘voluntary/informal’ admission, or admission by section under the Mental Health Act thus curbing his freedoms greatly. In the end, my client knew that it would be in his best interest to submit to a voluntary admission thereby allowing him a greater freedom of movement and also a greater say in what medication he would or would not allow to be used. As the working day was coming to an end for the psychiatrist and community psychiatric nurse a bed was found for my client and, because I’m subject to a shift pattern, we were sent away to prepare for an evening admission. On the way back to the Project where I work and where my client resides it became apparent that he had given up all hope of seeing out the year in relative freedom and it was very strange to see this usually intelligent and thoughtful man become quite withdrawn and submitting to a fate he felt he had no control over.

It was quite a quick turnaround on getting back to the Project, I had about an hour to process what had just occurred whilst my client packed a bag and prepared to travel over to the hospital. I wrote a quick report and before my client and I both knew it we were on a bus taking us to the unit where he will now be staying for anywhere from a week to six months depending on how things go. Whilst sitting on the bus my client sat quietly and contemplated his thoughts and watched everything go by. I sat nearby and couldn’t help but notice all of the night time runners out on the pavements of London – some obviously training for something or other. I began to feel jealous of them out there running freely and happily, I often get like this when I’m injured and I can’t run but it held an extra significance today – I began to wonder what my client must be thinking and feeling as he watched the London populace go about their business freely whilst he headed towards yet another hospital admission that will likely see him unable to go about his own business so freely for some time. If I’m jealous of seeing people running and I’m only out of action temporarily and due to a physical ailment, how must my client feel sitting on the bus burdened by the weight of a clinical diagnosis that will be hard for him to shake for the rest of his life – how difficult must it be for him to see ‘normal’ people go about their business day in, day out?

I’m going to abruptly halt talk of my working day right there. I think I’ve conveyed quite adequately the reasons why I often need time to run freely and, consequently, to have some time to process thoughts and feelings that can sometimes become slightly overwhelming! I wish that running was a simple solution to all of life’s problems and I really wish that sometimes my clients would even give it a go and try to free their minds – even if it is for half an hour, once a week. Running has saved me from myself a number of times, that much I know. I just wonder, would it help some of my clients free themselves from the mental prison they find themselves in some days? It probably would but the sad thing is, for the vast majority of them, the moment is not now and I don’t know if the right moment will ever present itself for some of them.