May has come and almost gone in a flash. In that time, the lockdown has eased slightly meaning that we can get out for more exercise. In turn, this opened different opportunities for upandrun 15. In the end I chose the 3 Parks, not the 3 Peaks! The latter is on my radar as soon as it is acceptable to travel further.
I am fortunate to live near plenty of green despite being on the edge of London. The 3 Parks are Bushy Park, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common. A bimble around the edge of these and back home takes in around 50k — a nice distance for an afternoon in the sun.
The last upandrun was dedicated to raising money for my local hospital. I ran around my block for 100k and managed to reach over £3000 in donations — thanks to all those generous people!
Now I am back on the case for chronic pain, one of the largest and most costly of health burdens across the globe. This is in tandem with the end of the Pain Coaching project as I tot up the outcomes and study both the data and the key features of the coaching conversations. Just as a brief insight, the average satisfaction score given by participants in the programme was 9.4/10. They also all agreed that they would recommend pain coaching to another person suffering chronic pain as a way to understand their pain and learn how to improve their life.
There is something special about getting into nature; running along the trail. Out there for hours, you can appreciate the changing colours, shadows, light, terrain, thoughts and feelings. It is a privilege. Nature offers itself to us. When we respect it, nature provides us with all we need including a listening ear. The past year of ultrarunning has brought that home to me. We are all wounded at times in our lives, yet we can heal. Nature offers that healing. Experiencing this so strongly, I have started Trail Life.
Trail Life is about immersing yourself in nature, on the trails or even carving your own trails on your way to wellness: moving, breathing, feeling, running, walking, talking, silence, feeling, seeing, listening, being present, being aware and more.
A year ago I started on a new running journey. May 2020 is my ultra 1st birthday!
The first weekend in May 2019, I set off on a journey around the Isle of Wight. It was my first ultra marathon and I had no idea what was in store. All I did know was that it was going to be an adventure.
My introduction to ultras feels longer than a year ago. Since then, I have completed 14 ultras for my upandrun campaign, which is on-going. ‘Where shall I go next month?’, is always a fun conversation with myself. With no races, at the moment I continue with solos, or unsupported runs. This means I head off on my own, carrying whatever I need, and get myself from A to B. We are allowed to travel now, so this opens a few options for May 2020.
Once running begins, there is no end point until you decide or have to stop. The next run always beckons. My shoes sit quietly by the back door, waiting.
I have never been particularly interested in times and pace. When I do become embroiled in the figures, quickly the joy fades. My body also starts to hurt more when I push the pace, and not in a way that is sustainable. Long distance suits me, especially on trails. The vibe is different, featuring connection, camaraderie and a sense of achievement by completion.
The relationship between pain and running is an interesting one and an experience I explore with curiosity. I am my own laboratory. Ultras require a mode that keeps going. The next step, and the next and so on. All sorts of aches, pain, thoughts and feelings come and go. It is a roller coaster that mimics life in many ways. This is perhaps why it is a fascinating experiment.
Build trust in yourself
What will appear next, and how will I deal with it? Certainly, completing ultra events gives you a sense of ‘yes, I can and I will’ that you bring forth into your life. The trust in yourself to do a job and reach the end before starting again strengthens enormously. Our habits inform our identity to an extent. If I have the habit of finishing or doing my best with each task, then this is who I am. This is my narrative. The same would be true for running 100k as to clearing the dishwasher.
Over the past few months I have been running a Pain Coaching project supported by GSK. They came to me with an interest in the concept, resulting in a programme that I have been delivering over the past few months. Now we are looking at the data, which at first glance is highlighting the strengths of Pain Coaching for chronic pain. The feedback from the participants averaged 9.3/10. More on this as we mine the data.
These are the gifts I have received for my first ultra birthday. There are more, many more, and they keep coming: the joy of movement, freedom, connecting with space and nature, engaging with a community, and let us not forget the kit….
We started the tour in Johannesburg, then on to Durban and finally to Cape Town. It was a whirlwind. Each event drew local physiotherapists, kinesiologists and other healthcare professionals together for a burst of education, socialising and presentation of the product range.
The organisers and sales teams created a positive vibe, which made the delivery of the pain talks a pleasure. I also had the opportunity to gain an insight into the pain problems that exist in South Africa by talking to the therapists.
We can be optimistic. Our knowledge of pain is expanding at a fast rate directly via pain science but largely from related fields. This was a message I tried to get across.
Therapists can choose to see people’s potential and strengths. Through this lens, the possibilities open up and we can help and encourage patients to shape their own positive futures.
The three days of talks in three cities was energising. It did not prepare me for a mountain though. Or the heat.
For the first 10k I was guided up to Lion’s Head by Nicola from Energy in Abundance. We set off on the trail chatting about life, running and philosophy. The photos tell the story.
Nicola hooked me up with South African ultrarunner Linda Doke for the Table Mountain part of the adventure. Incidentally, Nicola made all the arrangements by email beforehand so I just had to turn up. I would recommend this if you are a runner wanting to explore the area. You’ll be taken safely on the best routes and experience the awesome views.
We set off along the bottom of the mountain to reach the point of ascent. Apparently the weather was to be the best of the season today. It was. The flip side was the heat, which I was not prepared for having come from the English winter. This together with the steep climb took some effort. The reward was the magnificent view and a tin of coke. I love coke on long hot runs. And coffee.
Leaving the cable station and heading off along the stony trail, we also left contact with humanity except for a few lone souls we met. Three in total over the coming hours. It was a rugged and jagged terrain, yet covered with green resilient flora. We stopped to look at some of the plants that thrive on the mountain top.
There was little shelter from the sun. We knew the temperature would be rising so I had plenty of water on board. Of course this warmed up against my body.
When Linda mentioned stopping at the dam for a dip, I couldn’t wait to get my feet in and refresh. What a moment it was, to step into the reddish water, tanned by the fynbos plants beneath the surface.
The five dams are entwined in the history of Cape Town. They feel remote, sitting above in stillness like a meditating hermit. Some say that they have been forgotten (read here). A small dedicated museum at northern end of the Hely-Hutchinson Reservoir houses the original steam train. It was closed and did not look like it would open any time soon.
Recharged, dripping and grateful for the simplicity of fresh, cold water, on we went. To the right appeared the sea. As the reservoir had, it looked so tempting. There was the feeling that I could dive off the mountain into the blue. Later and warming up, I thought of icy drinks on the beach that I could see. The sounds from the people on the sand wafted up on the wind, yet we were a long way from any form of significant rest. Linda kept me going. Plodding along. The initial climb had taken a lot out of me.
We made a descent down a gorge towards Hout Bay and Llandudno. We chatted about the latter and how it bears no resemblance to the North Wales version. Both have their charms.
This was a bit of a scramble over loose scree before reaching a more defined path around the peak we were navigating. I had to navigate a few tricky points, expertly advised and encouraged by Linda. To many they would be easily traversed, but with a fear of heights I had some extra sweat to manage.
I realised that I had taken something from the Snowden experience in September. Looking back now, I know that these experiences have pushed the balance towards a greater confidence.
There is much to love about mountains: their strength, enormity, resilience, their danger and unpredictable bedfellow in the weather to name a few. I continue to be attracted to the challenge of ultra trails in mountainous regions. The mystery they offer and the contrast to my local running spots draw me in.
The final push up a long jeep track to us to the edge of the park. Across from the parking lot was a smart looking restaurant and bar. Linda assured me they would serve a smelly, dusty runner, and they did. I sat outside amongst the casually dressed Cape Town diners, mostly families, and enjoyed a pint of icy coca-cola reflecting on a tremendous day of trails.
Big thanks to Nicola for organising the tour and to Linda for guiding me and running at the slowest pace that she has had to endure for a long time!
Contact Nicola here for information about guided runs around Cape Town
Read about Linda’s running here. She also coaches runners.
Considering the need for social distancing, I chose a 5k circuit that I could run twenty times. For variety, I changed direction with each lap.
It was still dark when I set off at 5:08am. I love this time of day. It was so quiet, the sky is just starting to lighten and there were just a few people on their way to work or out walking their dogs. Soon enough the first kilometre was indicated by the familiar sound from my watch. 99 to go. I set my mind to the task, resigned to the fact that there were twelve or thirteen hours to go. There is always some comfort in that.
The day was perfect: a warm sun and a cool breeze. There was no need to carry anything as I could simply grab fuel and drinks on each lap, and even stop for lunch at home. My wife prepared a delicious bowl of plain pasta.
Each time I ran down my street, someone would cheer and clap, shouting out words of encouragement. This gave me energy. There was a purpose behind this run, as there is with each upandrun. Usually I am running to raise awareness of the problem of pain, but this time I was using my legs to show support for the NHS heroes.
No matter what discomfort I was experiencing, I knew that it would ease and that I would be in the bath at the end of the day. However, for our NHS and other essential workers (carers, teachers, delivery people, personnel running the public transport, supermarket staff and more), this goes on for now. The run was about them and showing appreciation for what they are doing to positively contribute to our society.
And so the day proceeded: round and round, legs heavier, strides shorter, but onwards I went. The toughest period was 60 to 80k. I had covered a good distance, but there was still a long way to go.
At 1245 I was interviewed on BBC Radio Surrey by Sarah Gorrell. This was a chance to tell listeners about the run and the cause. It was also a break in the monotony.
A friend who runs jokingly called this the Kingston Hospital Self-Transcendence race after the Sri Chinmoy 3100 that takes place in New York. Runners complete a 3100 mile course around a single block in New York. There is a film about it now: Run and Become. This was my version. A much shorter version.
My sense of time was distorted. I find that this always happens on an ultramarathon. I lose track of time, which is wonderful. I simply focus on the next step. The day begins to blur and soon enough, the end is near.
The final lap approached. For some reason, I was a few hundred metres short and had to take the lower road to loop round and make the 100k total. The neighbours were waiting, and as soon as they saw me coming the cheering and clapping began. It was a super way to end the day.
#upandrun 12 route from Gloucester to Bath, taking in the Cotswold Way
I started running along the road towards Birdlip to pick up the Cotswold Way. It was just after 530am, the streets were quiet and I was on my way. The streetlights came to an end as I reached the edge of town and began to climb.
In the darkness with my head-torch illuminated, I could see on-coming cars in the distance and I hoped they could see me. Running along close to the narrow grassy verge, I continually created an escape plan in case I needed to take evasive action. That plan, which fortunately I did not have to use, was simply to dive into the bush. I thought it through what seemed to be every few seconds.
The sun was just starting to rise as Cotswold Way signs appeared, the trail bisecting the road. I turned right onto the path that immediately started winding its way down into the woods. It was soft underfoot, with occasional muddy patches, but perfectly passable and even supporting a steady running pace.
Running a trail is the perfect time to be present. The ever-changing pink sky delivered a backdrop for the unfolding scenery as I trotted along. Noticing the changes in light is something unique to being in the countryside, almost moment by moment. It is easy to miss, especially in a town or city.
It felt like it was going to be a good day. I had a plan for fuelling, learning from previous ultras that it is important for me to keep it regular, so a snack every 10k. I was loaded with bars, Kendall mint cake and other snacks, plus I was confident that I would come across a cosy cafe serving great coffee and offering respite. That didn’t appear for quite some hours though…
Mud, bogs, rain, wind
The trail was starting to become muddy, slippery and skiddy. My Speedgoats were helping me stay upright, although I had to slow my pace to navigate these patches. Over the day, I only fell once, imprinting a sizeable brown mark on my left buttock.
Losing the trail in a small Cotswold village, an elderly couple pointed me in the right direction, warning that the field I was about to cross was steep and very wet. It was. That was the end of having dry feet for some hours.
Rain was forecast, so I was not surprised when I noticed a few drops on my face. Playing it safe, I donned my waterproof. That, was a wise decision. Within moments the rain was coming at me sideways. On off went the showers for the rest of the day, mainly on from what I recall. The wind whipped around me, especially on the exposed hills, resulting in a crouching style of running that probably did nothing except make my thighs work harder. Note to self.
It was not the water from the sky that was slowing me down though. It was underfoot. I was fortunate not to lose a shoe as I squelched my way through and round fields that were utterly waterlogged. The animals I passed looked at me and wondered what I was doing. This was the sense of their expressions anyway.
How grateful I was when a farmer gave me directions along a lane rather than over his field, which did not look like a field. It was more like the top of a moist chocolate cake.
On I went.
The Cotswolds Way is far steeper than I had anticipated. Mind you, I do like climbing a hill. There is great satisfaction on reaching the summit and looking back to see where you have stepped and taking in the scenery. King of the hill.
There are moments along the way when you ask yourself why? Pain, cold, wet, miserable weather are all reasons to stop. They are also reasons to go on exploring and discovering. That’s the beauty of ultra. Rolling with the ups and downs, the successes and challenges, one foot after the next. There is no stopping the stream of conscious experience that continually delivers the plethora of unplanned feelings, thoughts, sensations, sounds and other appearances. Noticing this is being mindful.
And so, after about 13 hours, Bath arrived out of the darkness in the distance. The last kilometers followed alongside the A46. The sun had long gone, replaced by a blackness pierced by red and white car lights. Back into urbanity, running along the city streets towards the pizza and beer that had so clearly formed in my mind.
The day ended at 90k. I am looking at when I can move this on to a 100-miler, the next natural step. My feeling is that a supported run would be best, but we will see. The next #upandrun will be in South Africa where I am heading in a week’s time to give a series of pain talks — read here. The plan is to take in Table Mountain within an ultra of around 50k.
The North Wales Coastal Path and Oxford to Richmond are on hold for now. A few logistical things to sort out. Meanwhile, the Kent loop of the North Downs way is calling.
Setting off from Wey, not so far from Ashford, the route heads down to Folkestone before following the coast to Dover, taking in the white cliffs. Turning inland, the trail winds its way up to Canterbury. From there it heads south west, meeting the Way back towards Farnham (the West start point). At the split, I will continue back round towards Folkestone for a few kilometres to the start point, Wey. I calculate about 90km in the day.
Keep an eye out for #upandrun on Twitter and Instagram and FB — RT and share the story and the messages: we can help people improve their lives, no matter the start point.
It is time to think about the October #upandrun ultramarathon now that I have recovered from the Snowdonia adventure and am back to running around locally.
There are several choices, both of which are solos. That is when the runner heads off on his or her own, unsupported, making their way from A to B.
The one I shall go for is Richmond to Oxford along the Thames Path. Previously I ran from Hampton Court to the Thames Barrier, so this will be going the other way; out of town so to speak.
The route is 100 miles. I will chunk this into two days, finding somewhere to stop overnight. Any suggestions are welcome. Preferably somewhere quiet, with nourishing food where I can dry out and put my feet up for a few hours before setting off again. All I will carry is what I can fit in my backpack.
So that’s the plan. I will confirm the dates soon.
For the 7th ultra I am hitting the hills, or rather mounting the mountains….
Most of the races so far have included some steep hills. Over the South Downs near Ditchling Beacon on my way to Brighton from London, traversing the Seven Sisters from Eastbourne towards Brighton and along The Ridgeway on Race to the Stones, have all challenged my thighs. Running and walking uphill is one thing, coming down is another. There’s an art to the latter. A balance between controlling one’s descent so you don’t fall and saving your quads! The Maverick inov-8 ultra has an elevation of 3020 over 60-odd k.
Traditionally I am not great with heights. So this ultra presents an additional element and feature for me to cope with whilst climbing, descending, walking trotting, hopping, shuffling and running. Don’t look down! Having said that, I have been on mountains plenty of times before and usually enjoyed the views, fresh air and freedom.
Recently I was thinking that #upandrun would continue for 12 months, #12in12. But then I thought about afterwards and what I would do. I can’t see that I will stop, so this will continue indefinitely with a blend of races and solos that accompany the monthly UP workshops (next one on 18th Sept >> tickets here).
You can support Understand Pain here, helping us to run the workshops each month so that they are free for those most in need, to increase the number of workshops and the reach. Meanwhile, I’ll keep running to raise awareness and bring the tools to people so that they can improve their lives.
#upandrun is an Understand Pain project raising awareness of the problem of pain — the No1 global health burden. We are working to reduce the enormous suffering caused by chronic pain that affects millions and costs billions.