Racing the Reaper Man Forever

June: Rebuilding body and mind

As I turn my attention to compiling my book, Racing the Reaper Man, I realise that I need to have some kind of continuity in my running blog. I’ve completed my specific blogs Racing the Reaper Man Year, and Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra, albeit leaving the latter rather open ended on my quest to run 100k, then ultimately 100 miles. I have learned a great deal as to the various affects of lifestyle, running, diet and core work on a veteran body, so I’m changing my monthly blog into both a diary and subject related essay. I think this may make the content better for a wider audience. I’ll be asking for subject matter topics on my Facebook posts, so feel free to ask questions that are related to a lifetime of running, fitness and wellbeing. Thus, my new title headline will be, Racing the Reaper Man Forever.

Racing the Reaper Man forever

I didn’t quite hobble into June, but it did become my rehabilitation month in two different ways. Firstly, I was back to work and testing my mental recovery from burnout and PTSD symptoms. I have also come to realise I have a form of agoraphobia – crowds or social gatherings push my anxiety off the scale. Secondly, I needed to make sure my right knee and right leg injuries were given the time and treatment they needed to repair. As I said in May’s blog, I wanted to move beyond coping with the injury, so decided to deal with the root cause and be free of it.

June became my rehabilitation month

Most runners get so used to niggly pains, me included, that we often ignore oncoming injury. Or worse, we continue to run, hoping they’ll go away, especially if they don’t seem to get any worse with time. In effect, we make a false normal, if you will. In my case, I’d noticed a crampy right hamstring for a year or so, often manifesting itself on long drives, whilst sitting in one position. It became a noticeable issue in running last October in the Run to the Sea 50k. By focusing on core strength and ignoring the pain and numbness, it became my false normal. April’s big runs were the turning point, where the injury limited my speed-over-distance. The 4:15:44 marathon I ran, could have been 4:10. My big 32 mile training run could have easily been 30 minutes faster. Having to drop out of June’s 100k was my wake-up call. It was time to get fixed.

It was time to get fixed

This is life – the reality. We all hit unwanted barriers, self-generated or inherited. The solution to each problem depends on our ability to deal with issues, creating a strategy based upon experience. If an issue is new, it can become harder to solve, especially if one has no idea who to turn to for help or advice. For myself, I had eventually found strategies to regenerate both my poorly mind and injured right leg. So, June was also a month for following two sets of exercises – physical and mental – which I did in my usual way. I built them into my day so they became part of normal life.

Instead of seeing my physical injury as a setback, I’m using it as an opportunity to target my weak points and introduce proper, regular strengthening and stretching exercises. The key areas are my Achilles tendons and lower back. Having woken up to the reality that my right leg issue has been around in various forms for many, many months, maybe years, I intend to get the whole thing fixed. This means additional routines for both left and right legs, to maintain balance for the future. Ricky, my physio, added some back exercises too, so my full daily workout takes around 30 minutes – time well spent. By mid-June, the exercise regime started to show results. My back seldom shot pains through my glutes into my leg, and my knee was no longer swollen, and far more stable. The pain had polarised to my right Achilles tendon which, although annoying, had reduced the overall injury to a single, final location. My running improved through the month, but if I pushed too hard it took a couple days for my right calf to settle down.

One point I must make clear, is I am not resting in the true sense of the word. I run every day, so have accepted that my full recovery will take a little while longer. My mileage is lower and I’m very careful with my leg, but I’m treading a fine line between exacerbating the injury, and getting better. So far I seem to have it right. By month’s end my running streak stood at 551 days and I had put together 19 months of getting to 100 miles or more. My reasoning is, I will take longer to heal, but will have no extra burden of getting fitter and trimmer again.

My mental health remains fragile. Running is my saviour, the one thing I do that makes me feel whole, confident and happy. That is another reason for taking the course I have with injury – keeping running. I continue with CBT and it is showing results. I’m now able to rationalise things and ignore assumption. I started a phased return to working in June, so this is an important mantra to remember: focus on facts, strategise positively, avoid confrontation and be kind. The hardest thing is managing my fragile mental health – it is often ignored by people who should know better and be kinder. So far, I have walked the line reasonably well.

My mental health remains fragile. Running is my saviour

Being anxious about crowds and intense social gatherings has crept up on me for a year. I noticed  in my Facebook posts that I’m only ever alone, with Passepartout or my immediate family, on irregular visits. Testing myself on various trips has been frightening at times, and having my Passepartout with me has been invaluable support. This one anxiety-inducing issue seems to be getting worse, so I’m trying to use CBT to come to terms with it. I’m not overly worried, as my interests are usually in wild places or solo runs, but at times of enforced communion I can get to a point of anxiety that leaves me exhausted for a couple days.  Flashback dreams still wake me at times. Recently they involve my very ill younger brother. Sleep remains a place of irregular rest and sudden horror.

Running solo

Running gives me hope. Running gives me time to de-stress and decouple from the pressures life seem intent on throwing at me. Running gives me a chance to make sense of it all. Giving up is not an option, ever. I want to race the Reaper Man forever and I fully intend to. Writing Racing the Reaper Man will show anyone interested how to get fitter from your fifties into older age, based upon what I’ve tested and what I live by. I hope to write in layman’s terms and not get too technical with training.

Giving up is not an option

In the meantime I’m getting fitter, getting stronger and pencilling in a couple of possible autumn ultras. Get in touch if you have any questions about rehab exercises, diet or anything to do with, well, anything, and I’ll try to cover it in a future blog post.

June selected statistics

  • Weight: 11st 12ish (stable)
  • Daily calorie balance: 1746 kcal – back to a good lower level. 
  • VO2 Max average: 43
  • Average resting pulse: 50 bpm – a slight improvement.
  • Total miles: 103¼ (stubbornly getting to the ton+ is my minimum.)
  • Unbroken running streak: 551 days
  • Belly: 30½”

July and August: 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”

Reaching 66 — the musings of an OAP

Aaaargh! 66 sneaked up on me as I completed my current running life total of 39,080 miles. The bastard! Yet, the road through time has already been trodden, so is irreversible. Our past informs the future; our experience is the launchpad to what we are now. Sir Michael Caine once said, “We become what we’re afraid of.” He meant, upon qualification, that he was afraid of public speaking, so became an actor. I see it as making what one sees as a personal weakness into a strength. It is how I’ve lived my 66 years. Sometimes it is hard, but never a wasted effort. Luckily, I find writing is cathartic. Indeed, in my blogs I have written a great deal, but reaching 66 has prompted me to narrate a little more of my past. A little more of those complexities on the journeys that make each one of us, us.

Age 66, completing my current running life total of 39,080 miles

On 30th September 1956, sometime in the afternoon I think my late mother told me, I popped into the world as an 8 lbs 7oz howling lump of dazed confusion. Where had the warm place gone? A short time later I settled down and, apparently, was ‘a good baby’. Until my younger brother arrived 18 months later, it seems I grew quietly, was curious and took everything in my short stride, which I started using around a year old. By the time of Pete’s birth, I was ready to be his protector and model for what life as a tot entailed. I was called into play to show him how to use a potty, how to enjoy a bath on the lawn (no bathroom) and how to engage with our older siblings. Ultimately, the small gap in our ages meant we grew together, with me ever so slightly ahead. Eventually over time, 18 months difference becomes nothing. For 63½ years I’ve had a brother to whom I remain close, protective and full of love.

Back to 1961. I started school at around 4½. A Catholic primer, reached by bus. The nuns were all mentally defective and luckily, I had no idea what all the statues and genuflecting was about. As I wrote earlier, I was curious, but also had a logic chip. It all seemed as it is, bloody daft. Showing little kiddies some white hairy person nailed to wood is horrific. My father died the same year, just after my 5th birthday, he was 56. We moved to a council house and I was removed from the insanity of Catholicism forever, to a local school. Unfortunately, my grief-stricken mother, a widow with four children, was soon picked off by another insane Christian cult, the moronic Jehovah’s Witnesses. This sect is stupid beyond reason, evil beyond belief, and they ensured my childhood ended at seven years old.  

My barren years up to 15 were filled with abuse, denigration and crushed joy. My mother found no comfort in religion, just safety blinkers and personal diminishment. The bastards effectively took over her husband’s role and ruined her children’s lives (and continue to do so with grim determination to this day.) I couldn’t stand the obvious lies, pseudoscientific drivel and brainwashing. It just didn’t work on me. Thus, I escaped once I was big enough to fight back, rescued by bikers who were rough, smelly but worth more to me than all religions put together in a single shitheap.

I rebelled and left, my anger ringing in the ears of the self-important elders. Nasty as they are, they announced in front of that whole half-witted congregation, including my mother and older brother, that her evil son (me) had been disfellowshipped (excommunicated), meaning certain death, and I should be ostracised by all. How repulsive can you get? My abusers announcing my awfulness to my mother in public. She still loved me, but her faith had torn her apart. They broke her without thought, without guilt, justified by the insanity of myth. The Jehovah’s Witnesses tenure of her life ended in the misery they sowed…

My final morning with my mother went thus:

Mother was in bed wheezing for breath. I carried her up the previous evening, her arm over my shoulder, as the stairs were too tough to scale.

“Hi Mum. Do you want a cuppa?” I asked. (I always brought her one up before riding my motorbike to work.)

“I’m alright this morning Paul, I have water.” Her wheezing was awful.

I went down, ate some breakfast and then clumped back up the stairs.

“Bye, Mum”, I kissed the soft skin of her forehead. “I love you.”

“Bye,” she said.

I left her there. An hour later she was dead. She was 52, I was 17. She was broken by the demands of the cult, exasperated by life taking two husbands, and hopeless as she left the world. She died in front of my younger brother. Don’t talk to me of religious freedom – it is an illusion imposed by men, embraced by the weak, desperate or cruel.

My parents, my younger brother, me in the middle, and my sister

My trail through life for the next 50 years has its foundations in this childhood. Yet, here’s the thing, it has been the making of me. You see, where all religion relies on not thinking, I learnt to think, to study, to question. My intellectually rebellious nature makes me check everything, and my inner logic chip remains steadfast. Far from making me religious, religion made me question all belief systems and all ideology where a god or godlike authoritarian figure is involved. It allowed me to dispel all those myths, for that is what they are. I firmly believe that one who only reads one book is far more dangerous than anyone who reads books continuously. The result means I have a clarity of mind based on non-bias. I have told you before about my power source, my Rage Battery – it makes me fight against bullies, naysayers and bigots, and drives me to be the best I can be. It took me through childhood and has powered me through life.

This was the first gift to myself.  Socratic thinking: What evidence supports this idea? And what evidence is against its being true? I am, thus, an atheist. It is the only logical starting point for an intelligent person. Everything beyond that needs proof. Faith in religion and ideology is pissing in the wind and is the refuge of ignorance and the springboard for cruelty.

The second thing that has given me strength is, of course, running. I was 25 when I started, on May 16th 1982. I began to run because I hated the normality of the life I was plodding through. Anything to do with fitness in the 70s and 80s was viewed as weird, mocked and tagged with inevitable exploded knees, early death and self-imposed misery. Why then did it make me feel so free? The middle bit of my life was filled with a couple of marriages, raising children, working all hours and struggling to provide. Pretty much a standard life for most of us. Yet, I continued to run between all my commitments. It gave me the space I needed. After 39,000 miles, my knees are fine, my resting pulse is normally 47-49 bpm and running remains my well-being foundation, even when I’ve been put through the mill of family or career pressures. I’m still recovering from a niggly injury, but it has not stopped me at all.

Despite the doom-predicting naysayers, my knees haven’t exploded and I’m still running at 66

The third string to my bow has been humour. I have found there is something not quite right with someone without a sense of humour. I laugh at myself, at my predicaments, the most. One thing I must make straight, humour at its best is never bullying, never violent mockery. However, laughing at the ridiculous, the ironical and people’s unfounded biases – yep, that’s fine. It is a great leveller and peacemaker. People who take themselves too seriously are very, very suspect. The self-important deluded are less likely to laugh at comedy than those who are brighter and honest, because comedy is often about culturally taboo topics. Those who are lying to themselves can’t laugh because they feel it would reveal too much about their real character — they would be laughing at their own absurdity. Billy Connolly said: “The best way of dealing with the dark side of life is to laugh right in its face. Everybody knows death is coming. They try all sorts of tricks, etc., to deal with it. But comedy can release you from your terror. You can treat it lightly.” Examples of humourless people (who tend to get cross): Stalin; Hitler; any Pope; any Imam; any TV Evangelist; people who become politicians who have only ever studied politics as a subject; the intentionally religious; Putin; Saudi Arabia; nationalists; people who wave flags and shout; people who burn flags and shout; people who burn people, wave flags and shout; people who shoot creatures for sport; science deniers; conspiracy theorists; Trump. I rest my case.

Humour is vital. Especially laughing at oneself.

The fourth pillar of my life, and the final one for now, is exploring, understanding and conserving the natural world. To write of nature as separate from ourselves, which is the norm, shows how detached we have become. We are not separate in origin, but one of millions of cogs in the great machine, our biosphere that has evolved on our island planet. Seeing ourselves as separate has been catastrophic. As a species, we have gone from being part of a balanced system, to symbiotic, to pretty well parasitic. I see the world differently. I know we, as a species, can live in harmony with the world. I do all I can to make a small difference. Lots of small actions can move the world to a better place. That humanity has the brains to put things right is not in doubt, but we are led by those who pander to our inner biases and paranoia. Thus, I retreat into wilder places, making it my life’s job to identify and understand every blade of grass, every creature, every geological feature – it gives me peace. That is why I wrote this poem:

Wilderness (29-04-19)

We raced from the wilderness,
To sterile boxes,
Fortresses against the wild wood,
Now we creep back,
To find life,
And all we’ve lost,
And dream of what we were,
And what we can be.

Back to becoming 66. On balance, I have looked after myself. It takes conscious effort at first, then it becomes natural. I run a minimum of a mile every day. I have slowly refined my diet to eat the most beneficial food, avoiding ultra-processed junk and retuning my taste buds. I stopped eating meat, but do eat properly sourced seafood. I’m not vegan, but the bulk of my food is vegan. I consciously try to source my food from sustainable or local sources, when I can. Sometimes I drink too much and am far from perfect, but I am locked into a good formula which I immediately return to. There will always be an exception, but I make them abnormal, not the rule. Again, I learn every day and will never settle into a non-changing regime. My body has responded by ageing gently. My physical health is standing up to living very well.

Mentally I have been less fortunate. The pressures of corporate life through the pandemic took a huge toll on me, and I never saw my fall coming. Burnout. This word has a world of pain in its meaning. At 65 I was fine. I served my Racing the Reaper Man Year in 2021 well, coming out stronger, lighter and fitter. Everything that could go right, went better. The year to 66 was totally different and has changed me. Everything that could go wrong, pretty well did. 2022 served up new challenges and my learning curve steepened. Would my philosophy and lifestyle crumble at this unforeseen test? I’m pleased to say, in spite of rebuilding my mind to cope with new pressures, keeping to my Racing the Reaper Man lifestyle has seen me through, thus far. I’m even more convinced that an active, healthy lifestyle is a choice one must grasp, if a full and bright older age is the goal. That will be in my forthcoming book.

Running the hills of Alónnisos

I spent my 66th birthday on old Ikos, the Greek island of Alónnisos. This jewel in the Northern Sporades has become a regular retreat. To make life interesting, I picked up food poisoning on the journey home, running a mile on Skiathos with clenched buttocks, just to keep my running streak going, without a running streak in my shorts. October was hard as it took over two weeks to recover fully. I was supposed to run a 53k ultra on 29th October, but my ongoing injury and rebellious tummy meant I was not in any shape to attempt it. I have deferred the place until 2023. 

Still recovering when back in the UK

Maybe wisdom has won out over pig-headedness? Yet, I still run every day and still reached 100 miles by the end of the month. My right leg improves daily. It took 8 months to acknowledge the injury, in which time I made it worse, so I’m in no doubt it will take that amount of time to fully heal. That will take me into the New Year. So be it. I will make sure, from now on, I’ll focus on a full recovery and make that weakness a strength – the musculature of my legs show how much work I have done. I do concede one thing, with getting older — recovery takes much longer. 

I write this at Samhain, the ancient Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and beginning of winter. It is November 1st. The darker days are ahead, but so is another spring. Always another spring. 66 is just a number, true, but it takes effort to stay in good mental and physical shape. I’ve found that setting goals, aiming for future targets and fighting the urge to give up is the greatest motivator for living, and living well. Excuses to do nothing are lazy,  ephemeral and need constant pursuit. Reasons to be fit are golden. Don’t be scared of getting older, be scared of accepting less than you can do. 

Older me amongst ancient Yews. Kingley Vale.

I concur with Dylan Thomas in Do not go gentle into that good night. All of us should:

not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Live life and be who you want to be – if that’s not the person in the mirror, change it.

September & October selected statistics

  • Weight: 11st 12lbs 
  • Daily calorie balance: 1853kcal.  
  • VO2 Max average: 43 
  • Average resting pulse: 50 bpm.
  • Total miles: September: 102 miles. October: 100 miles – now 23 months of at least 100 miles.
  • Unbroken running streak: 674 days
  • Belly: 30½”

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