Why go so far?

The last month has been the start of a new chapter for me. I resigned from my job – sometimes when all other things are equal and you’ve looked at all options, voting with your feet is the thing to do, even when you don’t know where you’re going. I feel like I’ve achieved a lot and I’ll continue to follow the discussion on access to the natural resources of Wales very closely. The personal drive for countryside access is something fundamental to me and it’s at the heart of why I love being active in the outdoors.

Doors close, other opportunities open. Time is now my commodity again and the need for income will replace this only to quickly!

Bugeilyn abover Aberhosan
Bugeilyn abover Aberhosan

Along with leaving my job, a couple of other experiences have been making me do some soul searching. Amongst these, the reason for this blog, is a very dear friend in Australia. He asked me to consider a book by someone who doesn’t see distance running as healthy. I greatly respect this friend, he’s known me since being at my most vulnerable and has a certain insight that makes his thoughts challenging and valuable. However, on pushing myself hard physically I know that it is fundamental to me, its a non negotiable.

It’s a strange feeling, and one that I have tried to understand why it is at my core. It should be obvious I suppose, but it’s just outside what I can see clearly. To explain it, I have to look backwards to look forwards.

I’ve always been above average in sports – good hand eye co-ordination and plenty of opportunity has been useful for that. I’ve never been ‘elite’ but I’ve been to selections for county sports and other higher teams. Despite enjoying the “killer” moments when beating someone was there, I never found winning the real core of my enjoyment. The central enjoyment is in using my body and mind to it’s limit. Sure there is a point where that makes you a winner, but I’ve never really experienced that. The point for me is that exertion makes me feel vital, alive and me, not at the whim of someone else.

The only place that this happens for me is in wild areas. Perhaps it is my safe place because I used the outdoors as a place to escape the non school hours whilst my parents journeyed through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy to their death. By escaping into the woods, the outdoors, riding bikes, swimming in lakes, fishing, canoeing tin baths, wild camping, map reading, climbing and making fires I didn’t have time to focus on morphine pumps, colostomy bags, anti-emetics, iced Complan meals and the day to day focus of parents suffering with cancer as a teenager. Sure, I had more chores to do than my peers, and expectations of academic success were daily reminders of who I “needed” to become p gain approval. Even then I knew city life wasn’t where my head was at, but I had access to woods and lakes right out my back gate and a dog for company when I wanted it.

Sunset down the Mawddach Estuary
Sunset down the Mawddach Estuary

I found the immediate loss of parents pretty tough, 20 years old, selling family homes, deciding what had sentimental value, where to live and what to do had a great deal to play in my bereavement journey. But it also shifted my life expectations. My Dad, my hero, lived to 47. The lack of “life” available to us as a family after 7 years of Mum, then Dad fighting cancer really made me aware of the continual passing of time and hence, its value. As a 20 year old thinking you could be half way through your available life, reference points become very different. Yes, I partied, yes, I struggled with the concept of premature death happening to me. As I did this the outdoors became even more important to me. Oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts, forests, wild spaces and even Lordswood in Southampton showed me more than the night-life in East Grinstead ever could. Whilst others were saving up for designer jeans, I was buying Trangia stoves. It sounds very Crocodile Dundee, but the urban space is relatively simple to understand if you know nature. Initially, for me the battle was mental, how to be and feel safe in these different environments and then as these skills developed the challenge became physical.

My expectations for life shifted from quantity to quality. Whether here for another day, year, decade or however long wasn’t important. Living in the moment and feeling alive is something that underpins who I am.

In a very scientific, physics oriented point of view, our frames of reference can be very different all at the same time. Think two cars travelling towards each other and the view of speed from passengers, observers and a plane flying overheard. Being in the middle of the ocean and watching the stars and thinking how far away those things are is incomprehensible. Journeying through vast landscapes makes a small human being feel totally inconsequential. Stuck 40 km into a run and faced with 100m of short steep trail that scale is the important one, not how far it is to Alpha Centauri. And yet those can all seem insurmountable. Those big things can be quite frightening if you over think them. But its the small things we exist in, that 100m of steep trail. Who are we, what are we, what happens when you die? All very fundamental things, but as a society we don’t really think about them. I guess if you can’t answer them robustly it asks what is the point in your life? If we believe it is about “the greater good” there is every chance that our lives will end up like a scene from Hot Fuzz with a church steeple stuck in our throat – “i’ hur’s”.

That sense of scale, all happening at once is why I love moving through nature. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. Looking ahead and looking down at the same time, seeing how what I’m doing now can affect what I’m doing in 2 hours. The planning and the discipline puts big things in small steps that can be coped with. The journey is so much more to me than the destination. When that journey is about my own effort I find it even more rewarding. That I can move, that I can make decisions that I am in control of where I’m going is really rewarding. Of course most of the time the “in control” bit is really what or where you can go as a result of natural forces – down stream, working with wind and tide, nature is omnipotent in its control of us. But sometimes we can judge whether we have the skills, strength or stamina to win; very occasionally we can “win” our objectives over nature. Sometimes we get our asses handed back to us on a plate and coping with that is a skill too. 

Llyn Tegid
Llyn Tegid

So, why go so far? Why do things that may either finish your life immediately, or reduce your life expectancy? How can I answer my friends request to consider the damage I’m potentially doing to myself in pushing myself hard? Why am I qualified to know better than a Psychology degree holder?

The answer is easier for me if I consider the norms that I don’t understand. If I knew when I was going to die then maybe I’d dial it back a bit, but I don’t. When will I become unable to live in my own way? Given a choice between watching an hours TV and going running in the cold, dark and wet, I’d always choose the run. I learn more, feel more, see more and relax more than when watching the TV. Yes, I have to rest, but I’d prefer to cook food for the family, or cut the grass than sit and read a newspaper. So when the day is crisp and bright and I can run, bike, canoe, sail or walk into a new place the experience fills me more deeply than anything else I have ever known.

Out for a run in the hills
Out for a run in the hills

Whether that activity is “extreme” in others frames of reference doesn’t matter to me. I’m never going to be the quickest, or able to go the furthest – that is the winning mentality again that just isn’t important to me. It’s my personal challenge, I do enjoy measuring myself against others occasionally, but it’s the feeling of being alive, being connected yet insignificant in the environment that I love. Running far is a mental challenge – continual forward progress, a metaphor for life. As that progress gets harder, the further you go, knowing who you are and how you cope is knowledge that helps completes a journey.

Those journeys give me time. Meditative, rhythmic time. Time to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Time to find answers. Time to find more questions.

My young daughters tolerate my journeys, I include them when I can, but sometimes, just now, I can’t. I try to share the journeys in the traditional way, through story telling, but Dad’s run, bike ride, paddle or whatever can never compete with the Octanauts or One Direction. It won’t be long until I can journey with them in different ways and that excites me. Not to push them physically, but to let their mind develop in a way that means that they can journey in any environment. Ultimately having the confidence to journey through life independently. Occasionally, I look at the pain of losing my parents early, and feel selfish about the chance I place that same experience in front of my daughters. But, I watched my Mum and Dad live for retirement, I’m sad they didn’t do half the things we spoke about. If they had lived their life in the moment I’d be in some way happier that they died young. It’s the fact that they lived for the future and the future never quite came that jars with me. I hope, if my daughters have to deal with the same situation I did that they understand how much “the journey” is important to me. Yes, they would be angry, but hell very few people are content to lose their parents at any age!

Running with Ciara
Running with Ciara
Puddle jumping with Katie
Puddle jumping with Katie

The shared journey with my girls has started – the canoeing, the walking, the scrambling, the camping, the picnics, the runs and the cycling are all journeys. Special journeys because they are shared journeys. Journeys into our wild areas. Discussions about caring for those resources, those finite resources that are being used up. About being responsible, about appreciating what others appreciate in the outdoors and sharing it. In that sense, I’m still doing the day job just to an audience of two. I can add so much more time and value to my children, to their knowledge and value of the outdoors. Every minute I can get them to value being in the outdoors is a journey, a soft learning experience. One where their body and their mind controls their experience. Not the TV, not the tablet, not some electrical gizmo, but them. Nothing else to blame, every minute is their making. If they fall, it is their mistake. There is no reset button, no start this level again. Pretty fundamental.

That in a nutshell is why I go so far, for every minute you go further, the more you learn. The more you’re to blame. Not some x ,y or z reason. You alone can control your journey. The harder you make the journey, the more you learn about yourself. That means that I may have to eat humble pie, aged 70 with horrific debilitating arthritis, but that’s part of the journey I’m willing to accept in payment for what I’m working hard for now. Knowledge of who I am.

To be aware of this and able to write this is a gift that my children have given me – more knowledge about me.

I’m here for a good time, not necessarily a long time.

An Autumnal picnic
An Autumnal picnic