Racing the Reaper Man Forever: July and August 2022

Mental Health and Injury

During my Racing the Reaper Man Year, I dealt with all the things I had reasoned may come my way. My changing body felt better, my weight fell away and I was much, much fitter and resilient. I had started the year (2021) with a long thought through strategy, and had developed a simple mantra: if there are any doubts and motivation falls, just stick to the plan. So, I did. What I didn’t realise was, the same philosophy works when unplanned things in life take you unawares. My rapid decline into burnout and poor mental health is a case in point.

There is a lot written about mental health. It is too multifaceted to condense into a few paragraphs, but my own experience shows that there can be a rapid change from normality to illness. My symptoms of burnout came on over a period of a month; my resistance to it crumbled in a few days, after consistent weeks of severe pressure. As I wrote in June’s blog, I have a form of agoraphobia, with PTSD symptoms – crowds or social gatherings push my anxiety off the scale. Yet, even as I write, nine months after my fall into mental illness, people perceive me as well. I look okay. I’m fit and active, and remain articulate. Thus, this hidden illness is disregarded, or forgotten. With CBT sessions I have learned to function in bursts, limiting my interactive periods, especially whilst working, or in crowded, social situations, to 30 to 40 minutes. After this, the Mind-wire* starts to sing in my head and my concentration is replaced by growing anxiety. Thus, once more, people see ‘normal me’ and forget I’m still not myself. This is the crux of trying to recover: one has to become proactive in trying to remind people all is not normal, just when one has reached the point where proactivity is most stressful.

(*Note: Mind-wire – This is how I describe the metaphorical tight wire strung between my ears. As anxiety increases, it vibrates faster and faster until it is deafening, unless I remove myself from a stressful situation. It is the best way I have for describing the worst symptom of my illness.) 

In my professional environment, I have been isolated. It is almost as if my absence made me invisible. I am now what a specialist terms an individual with high-functioning mental illness. In spite of knowing of my past nine months’ history, because I look normal (I use ‘normal’ in its loosest form) I am treated as a well person. One ends up having to function in bursts to suit others, being forcibly pro-active, which increases anxiety. One finds oneself in a position of having to explain one’s illness regularly, which in itself is debilitating and in some circumstances, degrading. I am still on the receiving end of this type of pressure. It is a depressing recurrence and my heart goes out to those who have gone, or who are going through this. Unfortunately for me, such forced events leave me exhausted for a long time, sometime for days. Even in modern times, instead of having comprehensive support to return to the workplace, there is often no joined-together support network to allow that process to happen, in spite of the right policies being in place. That this remains a common debate across the media, shows society still has a long way to go to understand this common type of ill health.

In my own case, interactions in stressful situations will lengthen in time, but not to indefinite levels. My limit seems to be about an hour – by then that Mind-wire is humming. I already know that this will remain with me for the rest of my life. I am changed as a person, but have far greater knowledge of myself. I can now manage in most situations, and remove myself from them if I start feeling anxious. I continue to ‘just stick to the plan’ and this philosophy has served me well. I stick to my adjusted lifestyle: my way of eating; what I eat; my daily run, as far into the wilder trails as I can manage. Thus, I remain physically fit, and can ease my Mind-wire as I run – my salvation from this intrusive, modern world.

I run – my salvation from this intrusive, modern world

In most learned articles, getting outdoors is usually one of the key parts of recovery. I wholeheartedly agree with this. As with most of our problems as a species, it comes down to the fact that our recent hunter-gatherer selves rapidly became victims of modern civilisation and culture. Homo sapiens, us, evolved to survive through deeper time, only beating our world into submission in the last few thousand years. We domesticated animals to suit our needs, but also domesticated ourselves. So far, so good. Yet the one thing we cannot change is millions of years of hunter-gatherer hard wiring. We have, effectively, imprisoned ourselves in a synthetic environment, to which our brains find hard to adjust . Our primitive brain still sends signals from our genetic core – our animal selves – and if these are not responded to appropriately, we get into serious trouble. If we do not have constant input from our self-imposed synthetic environment, life can feel hopeless. Perhaps the biophilia hypothesis is at play, to use an example, the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life in our biosphere. Step from a screen into a green place and the world seems calmer. Learn about that natural world and the input from time outdoors can be poetic. I run to stay sane. I will recover, but as a new person, put together differently. There is much of that journey yet to go.

I run to stay sane. I will recover, but as a new person

The injury to my right leg continues to improve. I am under no illusion, and accept it will take many weeks yet to fully heal, as I continue to run as I recover. Also, during my August trip to Scotland I was unable to find the time to do my strengthening exercises. During that journey, I found a related problem – my right leg would cramp after long periods of time in a driving seat. With hindsight, this is the origin of my right leg issue, as in last October’s 50k I already had a hamstring niggle. Such is the learning process. Once home I saw my physio again and now have a hamstring stretch exercise to do, in addition to everything else.

By August’s end, I was bone weary, but still managed to run 100 miles all told. That means I’ve completed 100 miles or more for the last 21 months and my daily running streak reached 613. It is never easy, and the hardest run I’ve ever done during this time was the 4 miler on 31st August… my legs were dead and my mind empty. I did it to get to that monthly ton, I did it to ‘just stick to the plan.’ It works, because giving up can become a streak; not bothering can become a streak; excuses become easier to find than one’s running shoes. Thus, I chose the positive.

Bone-weary at the end of August

If you are injured, see a good physio and do the exercises. It takes time to recover, but there is no reason not to be stronger. For myself, I have a 55k trail ultra booked at the end of October. I think I will be fit to do it, but may lack in long runs. Another adventure. I turn 66 years of age in September which will make me an Old-age Pensioner. I find that shocking and hilarious in equal measure. I will continue to run, and will run on that day when I shall be in Greece, on Alónnisos, where I’m guaranteed peace and good trails.

July & August selected statistics

  • Weight: 11st 12lbs
  • Daily calorie balance: 1688 kcal – maintaining a good lower level. 
  • VO2 Max average: 43
  • Average resting pulse: 50 bpm.
  • Total miles: 101¾ July, 100 August (stubbornly getting to the ton+ is my minimum.)
  • Unbroken running streak: 613 days
  • Belly: 30½”

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