January has been and gone.
I had thought it would be a time of celebration, of relief that I was no longer bound, admittedly fully arbitrarily, to the daily challenge of swimming in the Firth of Forth.
But it is not. Yesterday I did not go swimming. It feels like something is missing. My head feels more scrambled, my body more restless.
With the January challenge of swimming in the sea every day, there was a focus, a target, something other than work or study that had to be done. It was always demanding leaving the warmth of the flat and cycling, running or (admittedly most often) driving down to Wardie or Portobello, but it never failed to invigorate.
Against the backdrop of an ever-increasing amount of time at the screen spent studying and working, the fresh salty water seemed to shock the mind and body into a subsequent state of calm.
Looking into the benefits in more detail, there seems to be no end to the good that sea swimming can do. Blue Health, a research initiative aimed at exploring the links between 'blue spaces', climate and health, list some of these, (all supported by research):
That's not to say it's without challenge, but it's incredible how the mind has the power to romanticise hardship.
I now fondly reminisce the time when I got home and paced around the flat for minutes with the most intense hot aches in my hands and feet I've ever felt, as the blood slowly seeped its way back to my extremities. Or the time I accidentally got a mouthful of muck when I put my head under in choppy seaweed-ridden water, and my stomach churned for the rest of the evening.
But those were all part of the challenge, and it's the hard times that make the good times, sipping tea on the beach in the sunshine, all that more enjoyable.
Having set challenges can sometimes seem unnecessarily rigid (why the need to impose more obligations in a life already full of commitments?), but against the backdrop of so much screen time spent inside, any ticket out, no matter how arbitrary, is to be savoured.
So now it's onto the next one: marathon training, the epitome of arbitrariness. It ticks all the boxes: all-consuming, outside, physical, covid-considered.
I wrote this piece back in June of this year. At the time I was working at a care home. Covid-19 caused pain, death and grief like I had never witnessed before. This is how I coped.
This piece was published in Like the Wind Magazine, issue #25.
They passed away at 08:30 on Monday 22nd June.
Covid wasn’t the only factor, but they had never been the same since. When the wave hit our care home at the end of April, they were one of the many residents to contract it. Some passed quickly, those with the most complicated web of pre-existing conditions, most susceptible and at risk to the virus. At the peak, one morning briefing the agency nurse announced to a room of mostly agency staff two more deaths during the night. Another resident died during the day shift.
Others had a more drawn out fight.
They had been declared palliative the previous weekend. This meant morphine and repositioning in bed were now the main actions to keep them comfortable; if they didn’t want to eat, that was fine. When they stopped swallowing, we used a wet towel to moisten their mouth, and a gel which we put on the back of a spoon and spread onto their tongue. They refused morphine for a time; they had been a doctor in their working life and so knew what it meant to accept it: end of life.
At first their pain was vocalised through hoarse yelps, arms grasping into thin air. Then they were silent and still, but their eyes and mouth told a story of affliction, agony, anguish. We didn’t think they would make it this long, but they fought.
Days passed and still they went on. It’s remarkable what the body is capable of when you have spirit.
But there’s only so much fighting a body is capable of. One day the body turned to cadaver, stiff with a pallor that could only mean one thing. Their face told a story of being at peace, in a better place, free from the torment of bodily pain and mounds of medication to mitigate it.
We all felt the loss. Some cried, others hugged. We all grieve in different ways. I run.
It’s 03:59 and I’m awake. The more abrasive of the two alarms is set for 04:00, so there’s always a large incentive to rise before it (trying not to disturb my partner sleeping alongside me too perhaps being the biggest factor). I allow myself 45 minutes of sun salutations, coffee and reading time before hitting the road.
Today is Sunday so it’s long run day. Shifts at the care home are 12 hours, from 8am to 8pm, so 03:59 is necessary if I’m to cover the 15 or so planned miles before work.
I’ve been keeping a semblance of marathon training going throughout covid and my time spent working at the care home: Tuesdays are for speed work, Thursdays for hill reps, Sundays for long runs; easier less structured runs the other days. I’ve been trying to do the odd ‘virtual parkrun’ too, a 5km max effort on my local parkrun course on Saturday mornings. Not forgetting the wild card rest day, to be deployed when I really need it, when I really need it. I like to use it more on my days off work rather than work days, so that I can maximise the rest and get a full day’s recuperation.
Running requires trade-offs. More running means less sleeping. Some days it’s five hours; other days closer to seven. I’m perpetually in deficit, always playing catch up. I’d prefer to be exhausted and stable than rested and out of kilter; emotional stability at the cost of physical fatigue.
When I run I think about running. I think about my breath, my form, my pace. I set goals such as my target pace for intervals, how many hill reps I’ll do, or my weekly mileage. Fully arbitrary goals, but all-consuming, immersive. Having goals and a structure to my running has given me an outlet for something else to focus on, to give myself time where I’m not thinking about death and covid, to take my mind to a different, altogether more simpler place.
“You’ve got to be good to yourself”
I will never forget these words, the words said to me by their daughter shortly after they passed, as we sat next to their dead body and comforted each other, grieved, discussed coping mechanisms.
This is my way of putting these words into action.
Like every one of us 7.53 billion I’ve had plans change, work change, life change; everything has been thrown into the blender, is being spun around a good deal, and it just keeps on getting faster. That said, I am privileged and fully acknowledge that for me the adjustments of the covid-19 lockdown have not been too painful.
Sure I’d like to be running about in the mountains, wandering in the Highlands or the Alps and entering into social situations (gasp!) without the now ingrained distrust of ‘the outside’.
But that was then; this is now.
How we cope with the new normal will be different for each of us, but a challenge we all share is how to maintain positivity and motivation.
Here’s what I’m doing to keep the psych:
Start every day with a sun salutations/ (small) workout routine
No matter what I have on or how I’m feeling, I find starting the day with 5-10 minutes of exercise is incredibly grounding, calming my thoughts and setting me up for the day. I‘ve found the following to make for a nice morning lockdown routine:
Plan how to maximise the one bit of daily outdoor time
Having only one form of outdoor time per day has put a huge imperative on making my runs count. So I try to get 3 key sessions in each week - speed work, hills and long runs, supplemented with good old recovery plods on the other days.
Given that traditional commitment devices such as running with a friend or training with a club are mortifyingly social, I’ve found writing down these sessions at the beginning of the week to be an effective substitute. It’s incredible how strongly a piece of paper can hold you to account!
With everyone’s races and events cancelled ad infinitum, it would be easy to feel a bit directionless, leading to a vicious circle of sluggishness and feeling a bit (if not very) down, but keeping some objectives in mind can help combat this.
Firstly, does it actually matter that the official event in question is no longer going ahead? It’s possible to enjoy going for a run/ cycle/ other form of exercise without having a race in mind. I fundamentally see training as an end in its own right, not just a means to the end of a race/ competition.
But if just going for a run isn’t enough, social outlets such as Strava can provide good motivation:
Or how about a virtual race?
There are heaps of resources for excellent daily home workouts. I’ve found 15-30 minutes to be a realistic time to commit to one per day, providing a welcome respite from screen time, but also sustainable to keep doing every day and not feel overwhelming.
Inov-8 send out daily workouts via email; they’re sometimes a bit simple, but still provide some nice ideas (most importantly, every day!):
Training for the Uphill Athlete also has a huge bank of workouts available free online (slightly less user-friendly and harder to follow, but effective):
Nourishing food, taking the time taken to appreciate it, and sharing it with others has always been one of the key tenets of my lifestyle; now in lockdown it’s taken on an even more important role.
I’m finding it both fulfilling and empowering to search out new and interesting recipes, fine-tune ones we’ve tried before but never got quite right, and take the time to share with others (both recipe ideas and the fruits of our labour with neighbours).
Appreciate non-adventure thoughts
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, I’ve been finding it liberating to devote time to things that aren’t about getting outside, trails to run, routes to climb or places to go. So much of my life is normally spent obsessing over these things, planning the next adventure, re-planning and then planning some more, it’s been liberating to break away from this.
I’ve particularly been enjoying the following:
And for those moments when I find myself wanting to escape and get inspired for the next adventure:
Time to cut the cake...