Posts Tagged ‘mountaineering’

Yesterday I watched a video on my iPhone. Nothing unusual there (except it was the first time I had done it) and it had a profound impact on me. So much so, that I found myself wiping away a tear from my eye whilst trying to not let anyone see… after all I was standing on a platform packed with commuters at 8am in east London. Then later I read an email from a friend and fellow athlete and something he wrote really resonated with me. And then I watched another video this evening and something in that tied all the thoughts from the first movie and the email together… so here goes.

The most important thing we can do for ourselves is decide what we want as far as work-life balance is concerned and then make that a reality. Oh and I believe that at the moment I have it wrong.

Here is the first video I watched, whilst waiting for a train to take me to another day of relentless and probably pointless grind doing something that I am well paid for, but which ultimately I do not get any joy from. It is a TED talk by a chap called Nigel Marsh.

I think the reason the video affected me so deeply was because everything Nigel Marsh says is so blindingly obvious. I went cold when he said that if we do not design the life we want for ourselves then someone else will and we might not like their idea of balance – and moreover that if that ‘someone’ is a company it will be to our detriment. I realised that I spend almost all my time worrying about, thinking about, resenting or trying to be passionate about doing things for other people that I don’t really care about. And what makes it worse is that in theory I work 4 days a week – at least that is what I am paid for.

Then I got an email from my friend Neil. Neil and I used to work together and we had a shared passion for endurance sport. Neil is a triathlete, but I won’t hold that against him. In a corporate environment I was delighted to meet someone else who was as passionate as me about endurance sport. Sadly we no longer work together but occasionally exchange emails and in his last message Neil told me that he had negotiated a couple of days a week working from home to avoid what I imagine is at least an hour commute to work each way, every day. He wrote that this would have a very positive impact on his ability to train and bring him closer to his dream of a podium place in the World Triathlon Championships. A bold ambition but I have no doubt that he will succeed. Why do I think that? Because of his dedication – physical dedication, mental dedication and the the fact that he is taking responsibility in his life for creating the opportunity to make his dream come true. Those three together make for a very, very powerful combination.

And tonight, while my fiancée was out having dinner with a friend, I found an Alex Honnold video on a Chinese version of YouTube where this incredible climber was free soloing the face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, California. A truly amazing feat. But what struck me more during the video was the lighthearted comments that Alex made about living in a van and not having a girlfriend. His dedication means that he is prepared to live with minimal comfort in pursuit of his dream. He knows that meeting a girl is unlikely when ‘home’ is a shelf in the back of a Transit sized van full of unwashed clothes and a ton of climbing gear. But Alex is prepared to forgo the comforts that he could have (not to mention the career and earnings he could have if he had a ‘normal’ life) in order to dedicate himself to his passion.

So what does all this mean to me? Well I think it is all pretty obvious really. Fairly soon (although I hope not too soon) I will be lowered into the ground. And on that day I would like to think that I will have had a good and interesting and useful life and that people will have something to say about me that is not that I worked hard or that I was a responsible person or some other bullshit banality. I would like people to remember me for being the best runner I could be. For giving triathlon and climbing and hiking and cycling and many, many other things a go. For pushing myself to test myself and do more and be better. Because more than anything I believe more passionately than I can explain in words, that (to paraphrase Nigel Marsh) life is not a game of ‘who the fuck has the most money when they die’… so live on friends and follow your dreams.


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My girlfriend and I share a lot of passions, especially for the outdoors. We both love running (lucky, that!) and hiking and cycling. There are also things that we don’t share a passion for – she loves raw tomatoes (eurgh!) and I love outdoor swimming, for example. We also share a passion for climbing albeit that we are both very new to the sport. When I was asked what I would like for my last birthday by my parents I think I surprised them somewhat by asking for climbing lessons at the local climbing wall. My girlfriend organised it all and six months ago I went on a three session course which Mum and Dad paid for. My girlfriend came along – after all I needed someone to belay me, right?!

This morning we went to our local climbing wall together to register (we have just moved to a new area in east London) and to do some climbing. I had a really fantastic time; great fun, great atmosphere, many many walls to climb and it was also tougher than I remembered it being.

Why am I writing about this in a blog about running? Well, apart from the fact that it is my blog and I’ll write whatever I like, climbing is a something that I am drawn to do for very different reasons than the reason I love running, but perhaps they have a similar root.

In my last post I wrote about Matthew Syed’s book, Bounce, and the impact it has had on me. In the book Syed writes about skill based activities as well as endurance sport and discusses the 10,000 hour rule which theorises that if one dedicates oneself to something for 10,000 hours of purposeful practice, then one is almost certain to become very, very good at it. This well documented phenomenon is one of the mainstays of Syed’s argument that talent is a myth. There is no such thing as natural ability (or talent) only hard work and dedication… 10,000 hours of it in fact.

Running, I believe, is not an activity that can have the 10,000 hours rule applied to it – put simply, running is not a skill-based activity and therefore the rules governing why some people excel and others don’t are slightly different (although not that different – it still boils down to putting in the hard work).

However climbing is not like running. Certainly climbing is an activity that benefits from fitness and strength. But there is a skill element (and a psychological element that I shall come on to in a moment) that running doesn’t really have. Today at the wall I watched men and women climbing who were doing amazing climbs. Undoubtedly they were all fit and strong – they looked in great shape (maybe too great for my comfort!) but that wasn’t the whole story. They also all had really good technique and that made a massive difference.

So that is in large part why I am really excited about climbing – it has all the physical challenge that I love but in addition there is a technique aspect that I don’t get from running. There are also psychological aspects to climbing that really appeal to me.

I believe – and I have written this many times in this blog and said it countless times since my conversion from couch potato – that we are all capable of so much more than we think we are. People often say to me that they could never run a marathon themselves. This is utter crap. Everyone can run a marathon – most people choose not to put in the effort, dedicate the time, endure the discomfort and make the sacrifices necessary to train to run a marathon, but that is not the same thing. The human form is an amazing piece of equipment capable of quite extraordinary things – it is almost always a decision on the part of the owner of the body to quit (or not start at all). And therein lies something that really appeals to me about climbing; it is a bit scary and quite hard work. Today I found myself letting go of the handholds half way up a climb to be lowered to the ground by my girlfriend who was belaying me from below, because I “couldn’t hang on any longer”. This is as much crap as when people say they could never run a marathon. I guarantee that had I not been roped up and instead was hanging on a rock face where letting go would have meant falling to my death I would have found the tiny bit more strength required to hang on and indeed climb up. It is a question of motivation and determination.

So today I have reacquainted myself with climbing and I loved it. I loved the physical challenge – my arms and hands still feel like they belong to someone else! – the intellectual challenge of figuring out where to put my left foot next and which hold to reach for and – perhaps most of all – the psychological challenge of overcoming fear and ignoring the pain in my fingers and the desire to let go. There is such an elemental side to climbing and such a perfectly balanced set of challenges that I know climbing will not be a passing fad for me… unlike the chap selling a climbing chalk bag and a pair of climbing shoes on ebay, with the words “ANOTHER ONE OF MY GIRLFRIENDS FADS” in the description – you have to wonder!

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Since the Paris marathon in April a lot has happened in my running world, but there hasn’t been a great deal of running worth writing about. I have been involved in running in other ways – meeting my coach, Nick Anderson, and starting preparing for the Florence Marathon in November. I’ve been reading lots of great running books, some entertaining and others more factual. Learning about coaching thanks to meeting Bud Baldaro. Writing for Ransacker and reviewing some shoes for the site. But running… well there were a couple of 10Ks, then I came fourth in the Urban Trail de Luxembourg and then there was the disappointment of 23rd place in 1:20 at the Southend Half Marathon, but really in the space of eight weeks, that wasn’t very impressive.

However there was something coming up that I was really excited about. A new challenge that I was sure would test me in new ways – the Swiss Alpine Marathon in Davos.

As mentioned earlier, I had run the Urban Trail de Luxembourg in May and done rather well. Before that I had run in an off-road half marathon in Portland. So I thought I had some idea of what was in store for me in Davos. Well, the short answer to that is; that I didn’t have a clue!

Julie and I had been in Switzerland for 3 weeks by the time we lined up for the Davos marathon. We had been to her sister’s wedding and then embarked on a 10 day hike called the Tour de Cervin. At the end of that we had met up with a guide and spent 3 days in the mountains attempting a couple of summits – the Mont Blanc de Cheillon and the Pigne d’Arolla for those interested. On the plus side we had been walking for at least eight hours a day (excluding a couple of rest days) and we had been at altitude, so we were confident that this would have been good preparation for the race. On the down side I had wrecked my feet in hard mountaineering boots and I hadn’t actually run a step for 12 days. Which way would the scales tip?

In reality I don’t know if the race was a success or not. Within 5km of the start I was walking – the hill was so steep that I had no choice (although it is worth noting that everyone around me was walking too). I seemed to spend a huge amount of the first half of the course – the up-hill bit basically – walking and trying desperately to get enough air into my lungs. Even when I felt that I was merely slowly staggering my heart-rate was up in the 170s. There were moments when the switch-back that climbed heavenwards would flatten out and, as if on a long rope, the whole line of runners would break into a trot. But this was not racing as I knew it.

Then came the downhill. I thought that the climb had been tough. We had climbed almost 2000m from the start, from blazing sunshine right up to the snow line. Now we had to get down…

The decent was murder. Bounding (or should that be crashing) from one rock to another creates such huge internal shocks that within minutes I had a stitch that I thought could be terminal. My quads screamed for mercy. After three hours my calves started cramping. I was thirsty and hungry. The compeeds I had applied to the blisters I had been cultivating for the proceeding three weeks had melted away in the furnace like conditions inside my ASICS Trebuco and the rubbing had started again. The desire to stop was immense.

However this was what I had wanted all along – a really big challenge. The question “can I do this?” hung in the air until the last kilometer. The views along the entire course were spectacular. The trail was like nothing I had run on before. The support, even at the very top of the passes we crossed was phenomenal. The helicopters buzzing above the runners added a massive air of excitement to the event. And I have never experienced camaraderie between competitors like it before.

I finished in 4:37:44, 95th out of 775. I sat on the warm grass under the bright blue sky in the finish area with a medal around my neck and a glass of alcohol free beer. I felt absolutely fantastic. And I knew for absolute certain that I will be back for many more races in the mountains… so Sierre-Zinal 2011, anyone?

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I increasingly believe that we are all capable of much more than we realise, but are often limited in what we achieve because of what we think we can achieve (potential) – or more accurately what we think we can’t achieve – and what we think we should do (opportunity). My achievement at the Paris marathon and the subsequent meeting I had with one of the UKs leading endurance coaches has opened my mind to the possibility that I can do more than I ever imagined in the marathon – I am more confident about my potential.

However I also know that fulfilling my potential will require lots of hard work and quite a bit of luck. So with that in mind yesterday I changed job, taking a role that allows me to have two half-days off every week. These two half-days are specifically so that I can train more, have a massage, rest – all with a clear focus on improving my marathon time. This is the opportunity.

When it came to it I was rather nervous about this move. It has been hard-wired into me to always maximise earnings and financially try to not take a step backwards – that was certainly the rule that my parents taught me and which, by necessity of having credit cards debts, massive rent and an expensive lifestyle, I had no choice but to strive for. Now my life is simpler (being free of debt is a wonderfully liberating situation) and yet I still felt driven to earn more, earn more, earn more. Then suddenly a wonderful woman with a much healthier view of how work fits into life (not the other way round) came into my life (the Swiss) and so did endurance sport and a love for the outdoors. Suddenly there was less room for greed and spending and pointlessly acquiring stuff.

Co-incidentally last night I had tickets for an event called a “Night of Adventure 2″ which was a pecha kucha event at the Vue cinema on Leicester Square. The Swiss and I listened to a wide range of adventurers each giving a short presentation on an expedition they’d been on or their attitude towards adventure. It was inspiring in the extreme. And it was validating, because whilst all the adventurers had such different types of experiences, they all had two things in common; they had all run the Marathon de Sable (that is not entirely true, but it felt like it); and they all had a message – live your dream. Don’t wait – grasp what it is that you have always dreamed of doing, and do it. Now.

I don’t dream of being good at my job – I derive great satisfaction from being good at my job and I enjoy the financial rewards that come with being good at my job, but I don’t dream about it. What I dream about is running, swimming outdoors, climbing, being in the mountains, cycling, hiking… testing myself and pushing back the limits of what I think I am capable of. And right now I have the opportunity, so now I’d better bring the potential!

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Yesterday, as I was being discharged from the fracture clinic, after the consultant told me that my wrist has officially mended (yes!), she asked me about whether I was back into training and what my plans were for the coming months – she was probably wondering if and when she’d see me again with another injury! I told her about my plans and she told me that her husband is planning to swim the Channel this year. Brilliant!

She said that last year he swam the Channel as part of a three man relay team and she had hoped that the experience of climbing into the water at 2am in a gale would have put him off, but apparently not. This little anecdote, along with the movie that the Swiss and I saw at the Banff mountain film festival on Thursday night – Solo- lost at sea – has made me think about the role of wives and girlfriends (WAGs) or indeed husbands and boyfriends (HABs?) of people who feel the need to push themselves to the limit. I know that I am lucky to be with someone who has the same attitude about testing her limits and loving the outdoors, but no matter whether one is with a supportive, understanding, co-nutter or not, if you kill yourself by overstepping your abilities or through sheer bad luck, they are still alone. Nevertheless, almost every adventurer, explorer or extreme athlete I have heard of has had a ‘better half’ either waiting patiently (or impatiently – it seems to make no difference) at home for them to get back from a training session, or standing on the side of a wind-swept race course in the pouring rain or fiddling nervously with their phone while waiting to hear whether they will watch their beloved take the limelight or instead be giving interviews about their dearly departed husband/wife. And this devotion is not limited to those at the extremes of exploration and endurance sport – every marathon runner’s partner can tell you about the early Sunday morning alarms, the grouchy injury moods, the voracious appetite, the piles of stinking kit… so spare a thought if you are a runner, triathlete, mountaineer, explorer for him or her indoors. They’ve got your back, but you should make sure your obsession doesn’t take over completely. Now I’d better be off – I’ve got to get up early for a race tomorrow!

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