Racing the Reaper Man Forever: 2022 Reflections and a Lens on 2023

Once you start running, you stop thinking – the dichotomy of victory and defeat

2022 was a tough year, generally. For me, it was probably the hardest one of my life. This blog entry encompasses much that I have learnt about myself and my new understanding of being healthy in body and mind…

…I run. The reasons that I run have been explained in these posts many times. However, being of an age where philosophising becomes second nature (for me, anyway) I decided to use this blog to look at the act of running in different contexts. Before you decide this sounds boring, there will be bits from the SAS in this, as well as the parallel universes of regaining mental strength and becoming a phoenix. There is also a brief journey through my mind, which is now a cross between a post World War One poppy field with the soundtrack of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, and a bag of badgers.

A brief journey through my mind, which is now a cross between a post World War One poppy field with the soundtrack of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, and a bag of badgers.

When not to run – “Don’t panic!”

Over the years I have read and heard military strategists, soldiers and special service personnel make comment on strategic withdrawal and running. They are not the same, even if propagandists may suggest they are. Jock Lewes, one of the founder members of the SAS, is credited with the quote, “Once you start running, you stop thinking…” Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army put it more succinctly – “Don’t panic!”. This in itself becomes enshrined in literature, within a literary classic when, in Douglas Adams’s brilliant novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, its fictitious, eponymous tome had ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.

What am I getting at? Well, in life there are times not to run. Running in blind panic is primal. It is the flight mechanism built into most living things, and most noticeable for us in birds and mammals. The innate fear in endothermic creatures who are often prey, overrides their ability to survive by immediately fighting. Can you imagine a herd of 1000 wildebeest turning in unison on a pride of a few lions? The lions would never survive. Yet, flight is primary, and good for wildebeest as the fastest, more able survive, allowing new generations to be faster, with sharper senses. If the former, predators would die out and the wildebeest would be so numerous they would starve. This is a simplified version of how things are, but a rough idea how our natural world finds balance. So, why not run from your fears?

Once you come to primates and cetaceans, in particular, another thing comes into the equation. Thought. Intelligence. Preconceived strategy. This is a discussion which is wide, and would take far too much of this blog, so I’ll be very speciesist (yes, that is a real word – and applies to most of us naked apes) and refer only to our world. To narrow it down, I will apply things to what I have experienced here, in Britain. Thus, the focus must become my own mind and thereafter mental health. A familiar subject from me over the last 12 months.

On 7th December 2021 I was sitting at my computer, in my kitchen. After weeks of intense, unsolicited pressure, my mind stopped. It just stopped working. I stared at the clock. It moved without me seeing – it jumped forward. My mind had stopped functioning for 25 minutes, and I was scared. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot go into details about the reasons for my imposed, unwanted plight. I was facing a huge metaphorical predator, a mind monster – something I did not believe could exist. Weakened by months of mental effort, unbidden, my mind started to run away – it panicked and stopped thinking. The monster of the Id chased me.

Running away, in this scenario, is metaphorical. In reality, it is finding oneself in a position of which you have no experience. Your mind runs away. Yet, the thing that made you ‘run’ – people, mainly – remain. If those that made you run did so deliberately, they will become your nightmares. My dreams are full of them. PTSD, it is called, and my chaotic retreat grew an agoraphobic response. Unfortunately, you cannot outrun your own mind. Ever. All one can do is find a semi-haven. A foxhole. A temporary shelter, shut in by barriers made of pyrotechnic fears. A self-imposed prison of faux safety. You kid yourself it is a fortress, but it is a prison. The boundaries define a new life which, if accepted is crushing and self-generating. The worst thing is, all of this is invisible. Few can see the walls, the hurt, the irrational world within. Those that can are closest to you, they hurt too. Once in this position, you are still running. I see it as a metaphorical black hole: even in that seemingly safe place, one keeps retreating, keeps collapsing in on oneself.

The way back? Well, to stop running and go the other way. Is it possible? Yes. I am doing it. The only things to accept are twofold. First, you need help. Second, one has to accept that you will be changed. It is not possibly to turn back time, or rebuild oneself exactly the same. Neither of these things are a negative or a weakness. They are often the very hardest things to understand, but once acknowledged there is a road to a positive future. One word of warning: do not replace one self-imposed prison for the dogma of another, imposed by authority. Dabble with religion and idealism after your mind is safe. Such authoritarian faux-refuges are designed for trapping the vulnerable.

First port of call is your GP. In this world of social media, search engines and influencers (mainly bellends and people sprayed orange), it is easy to forget medical professionals. Well, don’t. They are the best search engines and have the correct application of knowledge. A GP will listen, point you in the right direction, source help from the right professionals and, if necessary, prescribe medication. Regarding the latter, I only ever agreed to sleeping pills, but ditched them as I found myself wandering around in a numbed state during the day.

Subsequently, one needs to understand what one’s mind is doing, its reaction to the world around it and how it affects one’s mood. Here is where therapy will help. There are a variety of forms, but I chose Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, commonly known as CBT. Put simply, it helps you understand how thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and how negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a negative cycle. CBT aims to help you deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts. It works for me. Yet one must be realistic – it takes effort to make it work. That in itself requires a spark of energy, supplied initially by your therapist, then it becomes self-generating as techniques are applied.

Accepting that you are changed as a person is the biggest challenge, as far as I’m concerned. Once help is sought and therapy of whatever kind is accepted, I started to realise I would never be the same as I was. That seems like a negative, but in reality one can stymie any recovery by hoping you will recover and magically move back in time. Yet, growing into a reconstructed you is very much a positive. One can build back into a fully functioning person, even if one carries the scars and peccadilloes of the journey.

I’m only partway on the road to the person I will be. I’m not at all sure I will ever have a definitive answer to who I will become, that all belongs in the future. I am just glad I am able to embrace this new journey. I still have Black Dog Days through which I must apply my new coping strategies. What I do realise now, is that they won’t last. Yes, I forget how well I’ve done and drift into the negative, but, here’s the rub, I know it is a temporary condition. The main thing is, I’ve stopped running…

Always run – even when you don’t.

…and yet, I continue to run.

As I write (10th February 2023) I have completed a running streak that has spanned 4 calendar years, from December 2020 to now – 777 days of running a mile or more. The physical act of running has saved my mind from total collapse. The streak has given me a constant target to get me out and partake of that me-time; the time where it is just me, the act of running and thinking through any problems.

The daily run is programmed into me. It is no different to breathing, eating or drinking. That may sound odd, unless you think of those days you feel bad, tired or in need of a rest. On such days, one still grabs for a sandwich, a cup of tea or the TV remote, even if all else seems far too difficult. Exercise is just the same. If it becomes the norm, it is never the first thing to be ignored when things are busy, complex or just plain miserable. For me, it is part of life’s formula for existing.

Daily running is programmed into me

In 2022 I faced a perfect storm of events. Yet, as explained above, I stopped running from my fears and sought help. The one element that hit me the hardest was my first injury. After all the other tribulations, I was suddenly stopped in my pre-planned tracks and had to face the prospect of not running, too. So, just as I treated my damaged mind, my first port of call was a good physiotherapist.

Mine, Ricky, not only explained why my right leg and Achilles were not functioning correctly, he explained the mechanics and the long route required to full recovery. The biggest positive was, I could continue running, but the full recovery would take longer. I accepted that, removed the pressure of entering races, and got on with getting back. After 8 months I’m at the final stage of rebuilding. I’ll be racing again by the autumn.

After 8 months I’m at the final stage of rebuilding. I’ll be racing again by the autumn.

Ultimately, I stopped running psychologically and continued running physically. It balances out beautifully. Together, it means forward momentum into a free and healthy future. Yes I’m older, but much wiser. If you are scared of anything, always seek to understand what it is. Whether it be a physical injury, or illness, or an injured mind. Once an expert explains what is wrong, it is the major step to getting better. To cope. To overcome or manage.

I’m glad it is 2023. The Reaper Man still tarries in 2022 – by the time he looks up to see where I am, I’ll be trotting through the spring sunshine whilst cold winds still whip around his bony ankles.

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