Limits, or invitations?

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I’ve been rather pre-occupied with ‘stuff’ of late, much of which I couldn’t write about, but should have done, because this blog is useful for clarifying my thoughts sometimes. However recently I’ve had the space for some pondering and I can now put them down for your consideration and comment (which I welcome, by the way).

A week ago I arrived at ‘The Academy’ in Barrow, Suffolk, to begin my attempt at ‘The Great Barrow Challenge’, which is 10 marathons in 10 days. This was a deferred entry from last year, due to an Achilles injury, and one year on I was bringing the same injury to the start of the Challenge. Not only that, but two days earlier my body mounted a full-on protest at the prospect of this challenge, when I found that even just a few paces of a gentle jog was agony, and it felt as if my ankle had been stripped of all its cartilage and I was running bone-on-bone. However, having already paid for the event and the camping on site, I wanted to at least come down and see what I could do, even if that was just two miles of walking on day one before I pulled out in pain. My wife and I knew that it was likely I would not finish day one, and that only a minor miracle would see me completing all 10 days of the Challenge.

I’m not afraid of failure, and I wanted to try, but with open eyes and a readiness to quit early if the pain was too severe.

The body is a curious thing, and ‘maranoia‘ is even curiouser. There’s a nice little post-graduate study for someone out there on this phenomenon. How can a person have pain so severe that even turning over in bed is agonisingly slow, despite reduced mileage and an absence of any trauma, and then twenty minutes after the first race starts two days later, the cartilage seems to magically regenerate leaving no ill effects whatsoever. Not only that, but despite all the literature I’d read on Achilles injuries, the pain in my tendon was only a 2/10 on day one, and then seemed to be benefiting from over six hours of pounding, and was getting better day after day.

Adrenaline helps, of course, and I certainly experienced a bit of a rush before the start of the race on Day One. The HQ at the GBC is wonderful, and despite this being a relatively small-scale event, there’s a buzz about the place, with music and flags, a grand finish area, race admin buildings, a warm-up/stretch area, a bar / café and a stage. Coupled with the friendly, family feel of the event team, I instantly felt happy in this place, and wanted Day One to be a good day.

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And it was … after starting very gingerly, I was chuffed when I began to realise that yes, I am running relatively pain-free, in a lovely part of the English countryside. I had company, good weather, and a slow, steady pace I could sustain and that I knew would get me to the last checkpoint on time.

I finished, and was chuffed to bits with my medal.

I was even chufftier (yes, it is a word, I just made it up) to be starting Day Two feeling ok and  in fact rather full of beans.

By Day Three I was starting to indulge in the thought of perhaps managing to complete all 10 marathons, and half way through Day Four I had committed to this. I was hungry for it – I wanted to ‘graduate’ as one of the really hard-core runners here, with their impressive CV of multi-day marathon achievements. I was ready to play with the big boys.

Day Five was a longer, more challenging route with three miles of hard-packed trail at the end. I had allowed myself to be pulled along by two other females I’d become friends with, who were pushing a bit harder than I would have done if I’d have been on my own. I’d enjoyed my day a great deal, and had energy left, so worked hard to keep up a decent pace across the harder terrain and back towards the village. It was only when we approached the Academy again that I noticed my shin seemed a bit sore.

I’ll omit the next bit because its boring, but the upshot was that the ‘shin thing’ really was a thing, and meant that I quit after three miles on Day Six 6. I was in pain, and I knew this was not one I could ‘run off’, it was a pain that demanded my attention.

As I write we are nearing the end of Day Seven and the injury remains, so instead of pounding through the Suffolk countryside, I’ve stretched, iced and rested, and therefore I’ve had time to ponder.

I’ve wondered about limits, goals and drive. I failed at 10 in 10, and that’s fine. A lot of my friends hate that word, but I am not afraid to fail. If we never fail then the successes mean less and less. Failures for me make the successes sweeter. Of course I’m proud of achieving a personal best of 5 marathons in 5 days, but I’m not going to use this to dress up a failure to do 10 in 10. In a way I’m glad I failed, because it shows me that GBC really is a Challenge. But what I’ve been pondering is what this means.

If you want to find out where your limits are, then you must be prepared to go beyond them. This is what I have done, and I have learned that my limit is therefore 5 marathons in 5 days. Does this therefore mean that in future I should look for events that do not go beyond this limit, because by remaining within my limits, I can be more confident of an enjoyable run and a successful finish?

Or does it mean that actually the drive will come from looking to extend that limit, and achieving a 10 in 10 next year. That 5 in 5 is not actually my limit, because with a bit more commitment, training and experience, a 10 in 10 is possible? A failure now is an invitation to succeed next time?

Its tempting to keep pushing against the limits, to set challenging goals, because this is where one’s drive will come from. This, I think, is especially the case in a society like ours, that seems hell bent upon setting target after target, and a relentless obsession with improvement and progress.

Or do I, in fact, reflect on the joys of running, and focus just on that. These for me include good company along the way, lovely views, peace and solitude, the ‘flow’ of concentrating on nothing else other than putting one foot safely in front of the other, coupled with a better appetite for a good feed in the evening. I don’t need to do 10 in 10 to find that.

However if I’m completely honest, I am a tiny bit scared that if I settle for running that is enjoyable but not challenging, then I’ll lose interest in running altogether. I’ve come close to that in any case recently, with all the ‘stuff’ that’s happened for me earlier this year. Maybe that’s ok, though, and if I quit running because its become boring, then I can enjoy doing circuit training instead, or karate perhaps, or some other activity. I will still be fit and healthy, if I do something else. This does mean shedding my identity as a runner, … but perhaps I’m already part-way towards that now anyway, having lost my identity as a club runner? I’m getting a bit deep now, but I have had a lot of time on my hands the past couple of days!

The attraction of goals and testing my limits is the motivation that they generate in me. I see myself as inherently lazy, and the only reason I run so much is because I have goals, or projects to focus on. I do believe that once I achieve a certain intention I’ll just stop without anything else to set my mind and my body to. So what would motivate me to keep attending a circuits class, for example?

I find goal-setting fun, especially since I don’t mind missing them. Its fun to try to succeed, and every time I cross the start line is itself a little win for my health and well-being anyway.

So will I quit the big challenges and stick within my newly found limit of 5 marathons in 5 days, knowing I’ll probably get to the finish line, will probably have enjoyed myself along the way and will hopefully have avoided injury, or will I continue setting goals I may miss, simply for the motivation that comes with them to make sure I do actually keep doing something?

I shall continue my pondering on that one …

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The Great Barrow Challenge

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Shropshire Way Ultra

  • Where? Ellesmere, Shrophire
  • Distance? 50 miles
  • Why? Last training run before London 2 Brighton next month (100k)

The race brief said to arrive by 6:15 to register, for a race briefing would be at 6:45 and then a 7:00 start. I arrived at the HQ at 6:10 and saw only two other athletes. Clearly this was going to be a low key event, understandably, as it was an inaugural race on a grotty day so it has yet to establish itself on the racing calendar. I wandered about and gradually other athletes appeared, all looking very hard core and serious. I wondered about how much experience the race director had at organising races – he seemed very young. He went through his notes for the briefing, and once we’d been briefed on what to do if we fell in the canal (which included ringing him!) we were off.

The route was a 7 mile loop to the East of Ellesmere and the rest of the route around Shropshire on the West. Much of the first and last parts of this main loop was on canal towpaths, with all the big climbing during the middle stages. The full route had been marked two days previously with orange arrows sprayed on roads, trees and the paths … in many but not all places. This meant that there were times where we’d get to the end of a path and be wandering about looking for the next arrow. Unfortunately there were some yellow arrows already there from a different event, and some of the faster runners followed these instead, adding to their distance a little – oops! On the initial seven mile loop we lost the path two or three times. I say ‘we’ – that was me and this fella who had a great deal to say – about his Run Britain rankings, his 25 London Marathons, his GoPro battery, his GoPro data card, his GoPro upgrades, his GoPro well everything really, and our progress. He talked a lot about whether we were last or not, about what our average pace should be, and how we might pick up the pace once we got onto the canal – these are not the thoughts I would normally have on a race.

I put my Garmin away two years ago – I run to listen to the birds and the running water, to smell the wild garlic in the woodland, to soak in the beauty of the bluebells in the woodland and the forget-me-nots in the meadow. His fretting about performance got into my head but he was determined to run with me – he’d stop off to change his GoPro battery but then fifteen minutes later he’d catch me up again. If I stopped to walk, he did too. In the end I tried the blunt approach, ignoring much of his chatter, and he did quieten down a little after a couple of hours.

This was not going to be my day of glory …

We completed the first seven mile loop, got back to the start for checkpoint one and some food. My run buddy’s wife was greatly relieved to hear that he had a companion ‘for the whole race?’ … I snuck off before he’d finished eating, but of course he quickly caught me up again.

The next checkpoint was at 23 miles, but the race details said there’d be a water-only stop half way. This leg was 16 miles of flat canal towpath into a head wind. It was pretty in places, but I needed to be more relaxed, and in my own space in order to really enjoy the countryside, the peace and the solitude … and by solitude I don’t mean being on my own, I mean being away from hum drum and having the freedom just to let your mind wander as it will. I did get some of this, each time my companion stopped for a wee, to change his GoPro memory card, to eat some flapjack.

We were more than half way between checkpoints and didn’t get to the water stop, and when the orange arrows took us in the opposite direction to the next checkpoint, I decided to ring the race director to try and work out what was happening. He said the route had changed and there was now no water stop. The wheels started to come off for me at that point. Inadequate signage I can cope with, as I had the full route on my Ordnance Survey app, but if that route was wrong, I had no plan B to know where to go. We arrived at a crossroads with no orange arrows at all … another phone call … straight on, apparently, and indeed there was another orange arrow – about 200 metres later on!

By this time my body was getting a bit creaky – my right hamstring was pulling, and I was feeling very tired – more tired than I should have been after just 22 miles of running. I thought about bailing at the next checkpoint … should we ever actually reach it. My companion launched into a lecture about pacing, working through low points and finding a way to get to the end. I tried to explain to him that race day isn’t like that for me – its about enjoyment. If I’m not enjoying a race, I stop. I don’t think he understood that. He wondered how anyone could do a whole 50 mile race on their own, since without me, he wouldn’t be able to catch the person in front and would be on his own. I suspected he may be about to find out …

We finally reached the second checkpoint, I dropped my race vest and went for a leisurely toilet visit – never underestimate the restorative power of a long sit down mid-race!!! Its guilt-free, too, because its a call of nature, not a rest!

My companion then announced he’d stocked up with food, rang his wife and was ready to go – he’d been waiting for me. I told him to carry on … I insisted he carried on … he took some persuasion, but I said I didn’t know if I was going to retire or not. He left. I took stock. I chatted with the two volunteers there – I knew I didn’t really want to carry on all day, trying to find arrows and wondering whether I’d make the 13 hour cut off. But I also knew that for me, 23 miles wasn’t quite far enough to justify my journey to Shropshire, and that all the climbing was in the next section, making it a harder section, but a prettier one and with more variety with so much elevation. I was persuaded to keep going, and so mentally I withdrew from the race, but decided just to go to the next checkpoint, just to have experienced some climbing on Offa’s Dyke.

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I’m so glad I did. With the pressure off and no more GoPro natter, I could go into my happy place, and loved the variety of the next section. The climbing was fine – because it meant some lovely descents on the other side. Although I was high up, much of the route was in a strip of woodland and so I was protected from much of the wind. The sound of it in the trees around me was pretty intimidating, mind, and I hope they’d all stay upright until I’d passed by. At one point there was a break in the trees and a great view, but the gusts of wind nearly blew me over, so I rushed away and back onto the safety of the path.

 

 

And so Offa’s Dyke continued, but then I’d miss an arrow, and have to get my phone out to get back on track. By the time I’d done this two or three times my new found enthusiasm with being on my own was wearing off. Moreover using my phone so often for route finding was starting to drain the battery – it was already on the second re-charge, and I doubted my portable recharger would last long enough to keep my phone working for the full 13 hours.

My Dad is 82, and he’s my hero – he had driven 80 miles from home to see me en route, bless him. He’d arrived four hours before I was due to meet him in Chirk at checkpoint four, around mile 40. I decided to ring and ask him to come to checkpoint three to pick me up. He agreed and asked me to send him directions. Now my Dad is normally quite techy – he was a design engineer and now builds and flies radio controlled airplanes. Carol and I had both emphasised the need to have his mobile switched on and charged up that day, but we didn’t think to tell him to ensure he had credit on his phone as well, so that we could actually communicate! This day was turning out to be a real adventure – (this is me trying to put a positive spin on this part of the day … it wasn’t positive at all at the time).

I’d sent Dad a screenshot of the place where checkpoint three would be, with an arrow pointing to the exact spot. I had two miles to go to get there, and he had 10 miles to drive. That was my longest two miles ever – I had lost any drive to run, but as the weather got worse, I got colder, and needing to use the phone for navigation when there were no orange arrows meant taking my gloves off, often. The colder my hands got, the harder it became to put my gloves back on again. I arrived at checkpoint three – no Dad, and no mobile signal. I ambled towards the crossroads as a better place for him to find me, and struggled to contact Dad – cold hands, no shelter and a very limited signal. When I finally got through, he was still at checkpoint four, because he’d no mobile credit for receiving picture messages or contacting me. My location was established and I now just had to wait for him to come and get me.

This was the most difficult part of the day – I was so cold it took every ounce of effort to get my race vest off, access my extra layers, remove my jacket, put the extra layers on and the jacket back on, with only a tree for shelter. My hands wouldn’t work properly and I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. Even using my phone was becoming difficult. Still, it was a useful distraction, though, and used up about twenty minutes while I waited for Dad. I felt so isolated and was beginning to fret about being so cold and exposed. Eventually my wonderful, wonderful father arrived, and very gradually the warmth of the car meant I stopped shivering, my breathing slowed down, and my muscles started to relax … blissfully my day ended in a country pub with a roaring wood burning stove!

43 started the race, 34 finished – I was one of THE NINE …!

Lessons learnt –

  1. Put on extra kit before you’re too cold to be unable to put it on
  2. Don’t trust a race organiser that says a route is marked, especially if its an inaugural trail event
  3. Carry more than one phone charger for a race longer than marathon distance
  4. Pork pies are great race nutrition
  5. Be assertive with companions whose conversations are not good for your head
  6. Always have a plan B and don’t be afraid to use it
  7. A DNF is fine is there is a treat at the end – mine was a hot chocolate and cauliflower and broccoli soup with my Dad

 

 

 

 

 

Cheryl K. strikes again …

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When I was 12, I was good academically, but was overweight and unfit, and lacked confidence socially. I didn’t find it easy to make friends. Paula Harvey lived next door-but-one, and although as a fit, attractive and slim girl she was out of my league, she still walked to and from school with me, which I liked. We got on and I liked her.

Cheryl K. was slim, fashionable and confident. She wore a pencil skirt with a slit in it, which I thought was so cool. Paula was friends with Cheryl, and eventually, Cheryl decided I had friend potential and she ‘let me in’. I felt like I’d arrived – I was in the group, the one with the attractive, sporty girls. At that time I made it onto the hockey team as well – life was sweet. I even went to the fair with Cheryl, three nights in a row, and flirted with a guy, while Cheryl flirted with his mate.

I had arrived.

I was starting to feel like a ‘somebody’.

And then one day she fell out with me. I don’t remember why, but today I remembered what it had meant, both at the time, and what it continues to mean today. As usual, Paula and I had gone home for lunch, and when we arrived Cheryl was sitting on the wall, with the others in the group. She looked up and in a jolly voice said, “Hello Paula, hello Paula”. Paula joined her and the rest of her group and I was left …  lonely and isolated. There was no way I would have had the guts to have challenged Cheryl about what she was doing and to have looked for a resolution. All I remember now is the feeling of my aloneness and this group moving further away … Amanda T., Carol M., Jennifer S., and now Paula as well.

Some moments in life remain … they may even revisit under a different guise.

Thirty eight years later it is happening again. Not one school girl now, but ‘The Nine’ – nine of my running buddies that had a meeting and decided to remove me from our running club, … from their running club. The reasons why is a post for another day, I think, because this post is just about how I’m feeling. Just like my 12 year old self, I still have no voice because a ‘disciplinary hearing’ was held in my absence, without my knowledge, and my request to meet face to face was declined. I did not see this coming at all.

I’m not alone, because some friends have reached out and spoken out – and these are the salt of my earth right now.

Others have said how sorry they are, expressed their concern and their confusion, while others have said nothing. And why should they? In the general scheme of things, I’m not that important, any more than anyone else is. One person said they didn’t want to get involved, and I understand that response too.

The trouble is that like the 12 year old me, I am not managing my feelings and thoughts very well. Every person that has said nothing is a gap I can only fill with negativity – they think I’m a trouble-maker, they don’t trust me, they wouldn’t want to run with me even if I got the chance, that’s another friend I’ve lost …

Every happy memory adds to my sense of loss – the chatter on training runs, the snacks and natters after races, the shared journeys, the Christmas do, the club’s presentation evening, the ‘buzz’ before a race, the ‘let’s go for a run then come back to so and so’s for flapjacks / lasagne / cup of tea after’s, the ease with which I tune into club colours among a throng of athletes to find ‘my tribe’. The place where I felt like somebody.

I will appeal, because I’m already almost too scared to face other club members for fear of being judged, blanked, or worse still, politely acknowledged and then ignored. I want someone to say this was all a big mistake – I am not a bad person, I am worthy and I am wanted. I want to delete this blog post and delete this episode … I want to enjoy hanging out with ‘my tribe’ again, smiling, laughing, consoling, celebrating, belonging.

But right now I am so very, very sad and consumed by this. Its the last thing I think about before I go to sleep, and its on my mind as soon as wake up – every night. I’m terrified that The Nine were right – I am a bad presence in a club, and therefore I should not join another club in case the same thing happens again. How could I have not known that my conduct was so damaging? How could I have been so short-sighted? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

My adult self knows that these thoughts are completely irrational, but its little me that keeps winning over in my head at the moment.

Am I a quitter or a committer?

So a decision has been made, acted on and lived with for a week or so, and it feels ok, more than ok, in fact – I’m feeling good and ready to share …

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This is a blog of two halves and colour coded … one is about work (and is in blue) and one is about relationship (and is in purple), so if you’re not in the mood for worky talk on a Monday morning, or if that ‘mushy stuff’ just leaves you cold, then feel free to look away now …

(Forgive me for skipping to and fro here – both of these themes have played an equal part in my decision, so I didn’t want to put one before the other)

Work  – I loved teaching young people, but teaching ‘A’ level broke me – I can see that now. I recognise the scars because when there is any sniff of my having failed to complete a task or forgotten to do something, however trivial … that familiar tightness reappears in my stomach, that little wave of panic reemerges and unseats me. And it happens every time. This shows me that my robust, resilient, secure self esteem cannot make up for the damage that teaching ‘A’ level has done to my sense of competence. Being found to have failed with even the slightest expectation has become something of a phobia.

Relationship – Carol and I have been together for twenty years, and yes, that does make me feel old! I can’t even say we’ve had our ups and downs, because we haven’t. We did split up, about nineteen years and fifty weeks ago, for about eight hours, but I missed her so we were back together by the evening, and since then its been a solid, stable relationship. I love that – she’s a good egg, she really is, and we seem to have stuck it out, so nothing broken there.

So I quit teaching, for the sake of my mental health, and with my part time work from the Open University to prop us up financially, I was lucky enough to get the chance to train for a whole new career. I knew physiotherapy resonated with my values and interests, and I had a hunch that I’d be able to do it and had a fighting chance at being good at it, but I didn’t know how this hunch would develop once I started my training. It didn’t though, and now I understand the reason for this.

I’ve been reflecting recently on how relationships develop and what ‘staying together’ means – do you say ‘well done’ to a couple who have ‘stuck it out’ for so long, or ‘congratulations’ because they’ve been really lucky to have just clicked and then stayed clicked? We talk and share and challenge and ask and give as a couple, but I’m not conscious of much of this being a big task or having caused any emotional upheaval … I mean emotional at times, yes, but not big emotions or dramas – nothing that would cut it for a TV series, even just a three parter. So its been quite an easy ride, I think – and I’d call that ‘luck’. 

I do think sometimes that only the slightest throwaway comment or action can change a person’s life. And if this is true, then we should be so mindful of what we say to people because one careless comment and we could throw them onto the wrong trajectory, completely unintentionally. OR … just as easily we could lift them right up and set their faces to the good side, almost without realising what we’ve done. I’ve been on the receiving end of this, and I’d like to share a couple of examples …

It was my first appraisal as an Open University associate lecturer, and not knowing what to expect, I prepared as best I could, which, if it was anything like my previous experiences in teaching were to go by, meant choose your targets wisely, because one’s standing / salary / job security depended on meeting them. One target I’d thought of was to do more student support on the phone. I explained that I didn’t feel so confident talking on the phone so had tended to support students via text or email, and that perhaps I should try to address this. My staff tutor simply said, “Well you are playing to your strengths, aren’t you?”, and saw absolutely nothing wrong with this at all. I was dumbfounded, to encounter such a supportive, blanket of warmth and affirmation – and thought what a wonderful organisation the OU is to work for. This set my face to the good side and I haven’t looked away since. 

When we first starting seeing each other, Carol invited me round and cooked dinner – it was a mild curry dish with tomatoes and chick peas, and I thought it was really new and exciting – to get my main meal in a bowl, not on a plate, and it wasn’t meat and two veg or a pizza. I knew right then that life with Carol would take me onto a different path to that I’d been used to, and it was a path I wanted to explore. I’ve liked her cooking ever since, and chick peas.

In fact the hot meals that she produced all those years since, when I was coming home, starving and shattered and yet bracing myself for marking until midnight, were such a gift from Carol – she knew how revived I was (still am) by food. Each evening I would come home, and she was like my desk – a strong, stable support I could lean on, place all my ‘stuff’ on and know that this support was unwavering and undemanding. And its been like this for years. I served in the army and went away leaving her with the kids, I studied, marked, tutored, trained, and always she would provide, listen, cook, shop, massage, make tea … be my rock. How lucky was I, am I, to have that in my life?

Having been encouraged and supported so consistently as an associate lecturer, my commitment to the university has grown more and more. I have always loved the ethos of the Open University – there to include and nurture and find a way, for even the most challenged or unlikely or unwilling. I love that – the OU fits with my values about education. I can mark work really thoroughly, and I can plan tutorials slowly and carefully, without fretting about having to demonstrate X, Y, Z criteria (in fact it was an A3 sheet of boxes to be ticked) every twenty five minutes if someone ‘dropped in’ for a ‘learning walk’. I have time to do the job really well, and I doubted whether that would have been the case as a physiotherapist. Moreover I doubted if I’d achieve excellence at all in a new career that I was only seeing as a safety net.

My father didn’t raise me to be a risk taker, though. I had learned that you work hard, create a secure income and then work hard some more. Life wasn’t about winging it, quitting or following a whim. So I should pass the course, qualify as a physiotherapist and have something ‘to fall back on’ if the OU doesn’t work out. Safety nets are good.

So Carol pointed out that I was thinking with my head – and challenged me to go with my heart. She was right, in fact she usually is, and she is my safety net … 

But at this point I’m wondering if this post is all getting a bit mushy … where’s the grit, the challenge, the edge, amid all the ‘my wife is wonderful, my boss is wonderful’?

Well I guess the challenge lies in payback. My wife has been the air I breathe for so long – I do love her so much, I love our life together and I love all the support she gives me, so freely, so often … and now its time for me to make up for this. Carol wants to get fit, but struggles to motivate herself … now I can help her with that. She’s working herself now, she got a job so that we could afford for me to do my masters … which means that now she’s the one coming home, tired, flagging and hungry – and so now I can feed her. I want to enable Carol to take sometimes, and I want to help her to grow, seek fulfilment and work out what her passions are and to follow them.  So Carol – lean on me, my love, its time for me to commit to you …

So work wise, whilst physiotherapy ticked the boxes of a being secure job that I could probably have become competent at … still I have been an educator my whole life and education really is where my heart is, however insecure it may be at the moment. When the next modules start in October I could be working full time or not at all, but its time to stop being so afraid of risk and to make a commitment, regardless. Therefore, I’m ready to close the doors to me ‘portfolio career’ so that when the next person asks what I do, I can say, “Me?, I work for the OU, and I love it”.   

So I have quit my course – I’m not going to be a physiotherapist. I love the OU and what it has done for me. Teaching broke me, but the Open University has put me back together, so thank you, Janine and Carol, for helping me to decide, and now the Open University is what I will commit to.

(Plus a bit more running, too, I suspect) 

 

 

 

‘Should I stay or should I go?’

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Hey! Its been a while, a long while. I’ve thought about this poor neglected blog quite a few times over the past few months, but haven’t quite found either the time, the topic or the tenacity to post some of the things I’ve been wondering about …
… until now
Life for me is very good these days, very good indeed, in fact – since I quit teaching, actually. I have started to learn what ‘feeling well’ actually feels like, and it feels wonderful. That constant knot of panic in my stomach has gone away and serenity has descended … bliss
That’s not to say that I’m floating around in a meditative state of nirvana all day, no, because since I started my MSc in January I’ve been studying or working all the time. By ‘all the time’ I mean that I’ve done a couple of running events, a few Parkruns, caught the odd News at 10 and shared a couple of meals with friends, and the rest of the time I’ve been grappling with sternocleidomastoids, vestibulospinal tracts and ischaemic hypoxia or doing my Open University work, which I decided to keep going with to pay for, well, living.
There have been tears, but I’m not afraid of emotions and I knew it would happen at some point, and there haven’t been many. They came about twenty minutes into the ‘Shoulder’ lecture, where, despite my very best efforts, the glenoid fossa, coracoid process and serratus anterior were just running away from me … the tutor raced through, my fellow students were seemingly racing with him (I know that not all of them were, but it felt like they were), and the session started to feel like it was disappearing into the distance while I was still working out what he meant by a scapulo-humeral rhythm that was 6 slides ago. I was plodding along at my 12 minute / mile pace and in the wrong race.
And that was ok, actually – I have learned much about how to deal with really challenging material and what it feels like to be at the bottom of the class. For example, I know now to buddy up with different students who are not afraid to say what they don’t know. I know too that after 4-8 more hours of study I will get it, and eventually I might actually remember some of this stuff as well. I could actually explain to you a V/Q mismatch and I can describe the function of all 12 cranial nerves now, without my notes!! I know that I will probably know enough to get through the course and become a physio …
What I don’t know is whether I want to,
And I’ve been toying with the idea of quitting the course for quite a while now … more so now that I have a bit of time out for the Easter break (although I’m still getting up at six to work and study because I have so much to do!).
The thing is that since I left teaching I have also learned to be gentle with myself, with all manner of things. These days I never start a race determined to finish, for example – instead I decide to show up, start and then see how far I fancy carrying on for. Last weekend I started an event in the Peak District, and not only did I not complete the distance I’d entered, I met Carol for a coffee and a brownie in a local brewery with two miles still left to go – my certificate said ’20 miles in 7 1/2 hours’, and I’m actually quite proud of that. Failure is fine, in fact, because for me it just means that I’d stopped enjoying myself, so I stopped. I’m not in the business of trying to re-frame failure, because let’s be honest – not doing the 27 mile distance you’d entered means you failed to complete that distance, but its ok.
So I’m not concerned about my self esteem if I quit, my self esteem is pretty secure these days – that’s one of the advantages of being of maturer years! No, its about more than that. There are so very many ifs and buts going on in my head right now, although I think there are probably three key pros and cons …
I have an NHS bursary and I feel obliged to make good use of such a valued opportunity, that in fact no one else will ever get, because we were the last cohort to get it. I feel like I will have taken that opportunity from someone else.
My work with the Open University is insecure – each contract depends upon enough students signing up for my course. Not only that, but with more competition from other distance learning providers I’m unsure what the future holds … so physiotherapy is my Plan B.
Despite the fact that its so demanding and taking up all of my time, I am actually enjoying the academic stimulation of doing something so hard – if I quit how else could I challenge my brain and stave off dementia for a few more years?
BUT …
I failed to finish my event last weekend because I haven’t been out running and I’m not on form – I miss running, and I really enjoy running, I REALLY ENJOY IT, like loooaaads.
I really enjoy working for the Open University – if I quit my course I could take up extra work with them, cover for absent colleagues, do more professional development (But probably not a PhD, I know it makes sense, but I just can’t get my head around doing one ‘topic’ for so long, so don’t think I haven’t considered this … !). I could be a really good Associate Lecturer, make it my career.
I could clean the house, have meals on the table when my wife comes home, sew, fix things, read for pleasure, play the piano, listen to music … and while we’re on the subject of music. Music is a rare pleasure for me, its like chocolate, the less I have it the more I enjoy it … and today I was looking for the lyrics for the blog post, and I actually listened to this … (yes I know, I should’ve been working, but today’s been a bit of an off-day) … and now I can’t get it out of my head
Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
It’s always tease, tease, tease
You’re happy when I’m on my knees
One day it’s fine and next it’s black
So if you want me off your back
Well, come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
This indecision’s bugging me (esta indecision me molesta)
If you don’t want me, set me free (si no me quieres, librame)
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be (digame que tengo ser)
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me? (no sabes que ropas me queda)
Come on and let me know (me tienes que decir)
Should I cool it or should I blow? (me debo ir o quedarme)
So there it is … I’m not even sure what I’d like readers to do now –
Tell me what to do?
Yes, if you like
Offer another factor that I may not have thought about?
Yes, please, that’d be good
Tell me I can do it, I’m a fighter, I’m amazing?
No, I know I can do it, and fighting doesn’t really float my boat these days
Just read it and wonder what my decision will be?
Yes, probably that too …

No Stressin’ … so far, so very good

 

naked wrist

Now I’m over half way through my ‘No Stressin” year, its time for an update. (And yes, I missed the ‘g’ off on purpose, its part of the slap dash theme for this year!)

In short, I’ve learned a lot about my running and that of others, and I’m feeling quite excited about the next few steps.

Quick recap – after committing all of last year to rehab and getting my knee back and my running back, only to DNF at Hull marathon at 11 miles last September, this year I decided just to rock up and run, run where I want, with whom I want, as fast and as far as I want and just see what happens. Therefore this year I have been ‘numberless running’ – no Garmin, no number crunching either before or after a run or a race, and no relentless obsession with average pace, PBs and that extra lap around the car park to round the mileage up. (Notice the naked running wrist … scary stuff, eh? 🙂 )

I have been liberated, truly – and whilst I should factor in that I have finished teaching now as well, I can recommend a ‘no stressing” year wholeheartedly. It doesn’t mean I’ve been lazy, because I really like running, and I miss it if I don’t get out several times a week – it just means that I am running to feel and not to a plan. Sometimes I feel like running really fast, or up hills, and at other times I just want to take it steady and focus on my form, or my breathing, or just, well, stuff.

So what have I done? A couple of 10ks and 1/2 maras, not for a time, but just to enjoy the atmosphere of race day – running through red traffic lights, taking over the road, seeing my pals, and seeing how my knee is, minus all the rehab that I’d been doing last year. I figured if a 10k went ok, then I’d turn up for the 1/2, and if that was still ok, then I’d go longer. And that’s what happened – each time I finished a distance, pain free, smiling and happy, then I’d decide to do the next one.

By July that meant I would have another go at 26 miles, but this time it was a Long Distance Walking Association event, so no fretting about times, and I could walk when I wanted, and eat cake along the way. This was wonderful – just a day out in the countryside, with a bit of running, chatting, eating, and even a sit and a rest at one or two of the checkpoints. I loved it.

In fact I’ve just done another LDWA event – along the canals in Birmingham. This way of running suits me wonderfully because I get to run in lovely places (no really, trust me on this, Birmingham’s canals are really pretty), meet new people, and not eat gels. I like Torq gels on a road marathon, but quite honestly, quiche, ginger cake and boiled eggs are way better, given the choice, and what road race offers baked potato with chorizo stew and a cup of tea at the end … for £15???

Being liberated from the Garmin has created a bit of head space for seeing where others are at with their running, too. First a caveat – we see what we want to see, so what follows is what I’ve seen through my own lens, and that doesn’t mean I’m right, so I’m happy to be challenged on this. I’ve seen the thrill of progress – watching people get PBs at Parkrun, and other distances, and I’ve seen people losing weight, getting faster, running further, and I’ve seen the praise they receive for that. I’ve also seen people plateau, performances drop, and the races that didn’t go according to plan. I’ve seen runners in tears when a race didn’t go well, or remark on a race being their ‘Personal Worst’, and I’ve seen runners prefer not to race at all in case others notice how slow they’ve become. I’ve become a bit of a philosopher and talked a lot about this – (which you can, at Parkrun, say, when you’re not busting a gut for a new PB) … about the focus, can I say ‘obsession’ (?) with progress. I have wondered whether we are a little bound up with progress in our society in general – public services, companies, employees  are judged on how much progress they can show they are making. As a society we expect  to see that things are getting better – we getting shorter waiting times, less crime, more Olympic medals, better rates of interest, upgraded phones and better customer service. Are we as a society never, in fact, ever satisfied? Has this tipped over into our running? Have we become so obsessed about running further, faster, with better trainers, and a better Garmin, on a better training plan that we’ve forgotten why we started running in the first place? There’s a fine path to tread here, because progress feels great, and its a great motivator, but it is finite as well. At some point a PB will be the last PB. Therefore I am interested to learn about other ways that runners can feel the love when progress stalls or stops.

To that end I’ve experimented a little this year with other ways to make an ‘event’ out of running without racing and timing. I’ve tried adding other rewards – like breakfast after Parkrun, so we can talk more. I’ve tried a version of geo-caching, by getting runners to follow a new route on an app, that takes them on different routes, at different paces, via a cake pick-up point to a café at the end. The latest version of this had some runners taking up mindfulness invitations along the way, while other runners took up ‘hard core episodes’ instead. No timings, except getting to the café in time to meet up with everyone else at the end. This was fun – time-consuming to prepare, but fun nevertheless. Cyclists have sportives, where you ride, you stop for cake, you finish, you eat … I wish running events could be a bit more like that without having to gate crash the walkers’ events.

I’ve also learned to listen really carefully to what I want. Its so easy to get caught up with what club mates are doing, and to go with the flow, but I’ve learned to step back and notice how I’m feeling first. It takes a while to ‘tune in’ to what really makes me happy … we’re so used to letting other people dictate our pleasures sometimes, aren’t we? Do I really want to spend 24 hours running around in circles, just because my friends say its fun? Do I really want to bust a gut trying to get ‘Good For Age’ – I am good, by my definition in any case? I’m good at pacing myself, at making new friends, at enjoying the whole race-day experience, at always having safety pins at the beginning, and Wet Wipes at the end … There’s a lot about running that I am good at, so this year I’m not placing a lot of faith in other definitions of ‘good’, other than my own, thank you very much.

But is ‘good’ good enough? For this year, yes, most definitely, I’ve been a very happy bod pottering around in my trainers and shorts this year. But I’ve also had the odd taste of ‘better’ (?) … further, harder, longer, more disciplines … and it has really got me thinking about whether more challenge is good, for me, anyway. And the point I’ve arrived at now is, well I’d like to find out, I think. I’m interested to know whether I’d enjoy ultra running more than marathon running, and whether I’d enjoy my little deviations on a bike and in a wetsuit more if it was harder, with a time limit and a medal at the end. The thing is I’ve done both, and I was really disciplined with my training and despite loads of challenges on race day, I did enjoy ironman triathlon and a 100k ultra. The difference between then and now, though, is that I had a different agenda then, as I was driven by all kinds of needs and motivations that I just don’t have now, so this time around I’d have to be driven purely by enjoyment. So to train for an ultra trail run I’d have to do back-to-back training runs in a really fatigued state because its enjoyable to feel fatigued … to run in all weathers because its enjoyable to get wet and cold … and so to push myself out of my comfort zone because its enjoyable to not be comfortable?

Really? that’s a bit incongruent, isn’t it? Well perhaps not – when I am on a run and am cold , wet, smelly, hungry, tired, aching, or fed up … I fixate upon how good it will be when I am warm, dry, clean, fed, rested, with my mojo back. In fact being in the first state makes the second state doubly enjoyable. So maybe ‘harder’ could equate to ‘more enjoyable’, if the the enjoyment takes the form of delayed gratification, for when the training stops, then I enjoy it? I’d like to explore that concept, I think.

So am I entering a load of challenging stuff next year? Well, I have one or two events in mind, and a couple of tabs open on my computer so I can watch how near they are to selling out, but my plan is to see how the rest of this year goes, and then, well – who knows? More of the same? Less? Lots more? … I’ll wait and see, but temptation is never too far away these days.