Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: January 2022
There was no neat and tidy end to my Racing the Reaper Man Year. Although successful in hitting my fitness and running targets, with a leaner body and in reasonable health, I ended December 750 road-miles from home. As I’ve outlined in my December blog post, my brother’s wife died on the morning of Christmas Eve, so, with my Passepartout, I had to drive to Scotland:
‘For a week we supported a grieving man as best we could. I spent days sorting paperwork, important documents, forming a strategy and helping with the legal requirements of a sudden death in Scotland. I ran a short distance at the end of each day (mainly with Passepartout) at the point I could no longer make sense of documents. We would [then] call a halt, raise a glass of sherry to the lovely Sue, then try to fill the early Scottish evening with hope. I was now beyond-burnout. In fact, I had become a machine running on banked fitness… We did not notice 2022 arrive and I was 750 miles from home surrounded by sadness…’
On New Year’s Day 2022, none of us really noticed the change in year. Another day of sifting documents and finding a strategy for my brother and we were very near completion of this dreadfully sad task. We ran 3 miles into the Morayshire greyness just before the early, northern dark, thus starting the New Year maintaining our running streaks. These runs proved to be the one thing that kept me focused enough to carry on. Finally, on Sunday 2nd January the paperwork came to an end. Everything I could do was done. It was heartbreaking to leave my brother the next day. We had shared a close bond since childhood, and the week I had been with him had reinforced that bond. I had taken the lead and hoped I’d done enough to reduce his grief a little.
We left in the rain. My own health was not good. I have never been so mentally tired, so had decided to break up the journey home into segments. The first stage was 200 miles to Dumfries and Galloway, via Loch Ness and Glencoe. The rain was biblical. We made a brief stop at Spean Bridge for hot soup, then paused just south of Glencoe to run a chilly mile in Glen Etive. I had needed this to clear my head. We arrived at the Hetland Hall Hotel as the light went.
I was in trouble. I was beyond burnout, shaking and occasionally losing a few seconds of conscious thought. We ended up staying at the hotel for 3 nights so I could recover a little, leaving through necessity as a snow bank moved south, overtaking us as we drove over Shep Fell. We stopped in Staffordshire, then near Loughborough to break the journey down. The final 200 mile leg was directly south into a storm, with heavy rain blowing directly at the windscreen the whole way. Never have I felt so relieved to get home. We’d been on the road for two weeks.
To say I was ill was an understatement. Every sleep was full of nightmares and every waking moment saw me full of anxiety. All I did was stick to the formula: eat healthily, run every day and be confident that recovery would happen. My Passepartout had to return home. She had kept me together on the journey, cooked and served my brother and me, and helped me see the sense of breaking up the journey from Scotland. She gave up Christmas without question, supported me selflessly and ran by my side every day. Now she had to catch up with her own commitments.
Alone, rest would not come. I called my brother every day, and watched his wife’s funeral on livestream. My MRI Scan happened a few days later and I suddenly started to worry about my own mortality. My GP knew I needed more time, so any return to working would have to wait. All of this with the pandemic constantly in the background. Being candid is not so easy. However, my aim is to show the reality of the constant runner who appears on Facebook. All of us have different pressures. In photographs we tend to smile, thus hiding the burdens we carry. I’m generally a happy man. Losing my smile is not pleasant, yet I’m confident the last year’s successes will get me through the coming weeks.
Running really does make me happy. Over the last few weeks, the only thing that kept me sane was my daily run. As I have written, I decided to extend my self-experiment into 2022, thus starting a Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra year. This way I could catalogue my recovery and my drive towards my first ever 100k. This blog post is the first.
By the end of January I had started to get a strategy in place to get me to a full recovery. I also needed to start my strategy to get through my June 100k. The good thing was, my baseline fitness remained at a high level. I tested myself on a 10 mile run around Thorney Island, then ran a comfortable, quick 12 miler (9:42 mins/mile) on the 30th, which was also my 400th day without a rest day. I’d started weekly core work with Martin once more and looked at February as my kick off month. I would start to take regular fitness statistics once more and focus on Ultra. Yet, mentally I was not in a good place. My hopes for quick mental recovery had stalled on the anvil of duty. My mind could not switch off, even whilst asleep. I was starting to see I might need some professional help to realign body and mind.
Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: February 2022
It has become apparent to me, that my book, Racing the Reaper Man, must have a chapter on mental wellbeing. I have shown how getting physically fitter and healthier is not beyond us as we get beyond 50, but I am now having to apply my philosophy to restoring my mental health. In doing so, I have to be candid about my personal issues, which is not easy, but if it helps others, I think it is worthwhile. Let me explain.
Poor mental health has dogged me through February. It is difficult to unravel fully, but burnout is the overarching diagnosis. To me this makes sense. Ultimately, I worked too many long hours, flattened my ‘wellbeing battery’ and the net result is a mind with no immunity from stress. I had reached the point where my complete self, my physical and mental machine, was no longer functioning. You can give too much if altruism, kindness and caring tends to be your tenet. I have reached a similar point to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, trying to figure out:
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them…”
Indeed, as he continued, “- aye, there’s the rub..”
I have gravitated towards philosophic thinking as I age. Upon reflection, I think this is true of any older person. We all seem to be governed by a set of self-imposed rules, a ‘personal philosophy’, a set of guiding principles that we live by. It influences everything from what one says, the steps one takes, to the possessions that surrounds one at home. In general terms, a personal philosophy will keep a human being in a safe sphere of operation familiar to them. There is some comfort and logic to this. Yet, dogma can end philosophical growth very quickly. Dogma replaces learning and advancement, if we are not careful.
I have written before, my philosophy gives me no escape to a self-imposed comfort zone. At this point I tend to be aligned to the Stoics. Seneca wrote, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”
February found me deep in a mental misfortune on a scale I had never experienced. It was the strangest thing: physically I was very fit; but mentally I was in the middle of pyrotechnic confusion. I suffered long bouts of inertia after poor sleep and moments of anxiety, unbidden. A sunny day would pass by beyond my window and I could not step outside, apart from my run – usually a short one on such days. Yet, on grey, mentally draining, rainy days, full of sudden rage, I would throw myself out to run a fast 10 miles. I needed help, but I was waiting for that help to come to me. In my heart I knew I would have to act as there was little contact from my professional life. “Aye, there’s the rub…” once more. I needed positive mental energy for that.
To charge my battery, I looked at my recent running progress towards my June 100k. In February, although not focused on a strict schedule, I still ran every day and even managed to break a couple of my course records on longer runs. Also, I hit 100 miles once more, meaning that for 15 months in a row I had accumulated three-digit training miles – a new record. My running streak still stands and is now at 429 days. I am more than holding my 2021 fitness, so have a good base to focus on coming races, if I can get my mind better. I’ve pencilled in the Goodwood Marathon on 2nd April – I hope for a 4:25 there to show I can maintain a steady pace at longer distances.
Ultimately, I am Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra, but have yet to structure my training properly. It took February to show me I needed to become proactive in seeking help – waiting for help was doing me no good. I needed my mind back to its strongest. Thus, I made the decision to start some CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). The spark I needed came in the form of Ukraine’s brave resistance to Putin’s invasion. It showed me that, when the chips are down, you have to fight – so I acted before I could be overtaken by symptomatic apathy and inertia. The call, answered by a great chap called Jordan, was the best move I’ve ever made. From that 45 minute call, I felt in control at last.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – an overview
CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle. (This is indeed where I have been trapped.) It aims to help one deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts by being shown how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel. The proactive and dynamic thing for me is that, unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with one’s current problems, rather than focusing on issues from the past. It will give me the ability to identify practical ways to improve my state of mind on a daily basis, and structure a long-term strategy to manage any future pressures.
I’m afraid, as a male, I have seen this route as a sign of weakness in the past. This is common enough, but my Racing the Reaper Man Year proved to me I am not weak. At 65 I am in good order, have nothing to be embarrassed about and I have come to understand fully the unbreakable link between body and mind. I can now view CBT as an injury recovery program. I will write up the affect it has in my next blog post, reflecting Seneca’s words, I hope.
In the meantime I intend to use March as the start of my structured training, with a focus on core strength with Martin Sorenson, and longer runs with some speed work. It is also time to record a full set of stats so I can see exactly where I am. The ones I do have for February are as follows:
- Daily calorie balance 1763 kcal
- VO2 Max average 45
- Average resting pulse 49 bpm
- Total miles 100
Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: March 2022
February ended with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which coincided with the lowest point of my mental exhaustion. I had been unable to break the cycle of slight improvement, followed by several days of depressed inertia. Rather like Sisyphus, I was in what seemed to be an unending labour, with no hope of release. But, of course, reality takes hold and time does not stop. One reaches the point where even doing nothing is hard work – then there is yet another day to face. I knew my life would continue, so what to do? I wrote some time back that, ‘I gave up once, and nobody noticed.’ In the end, no matter what help there is, one has to take that first of many steps to recovery. After all, what is the alternative? The answer to that is misery. And that misery can be many things, but will be self-perpetuating. Choice always remains.
My illness is fully work-induced. That was a truth I had to accept. Without the expected support, it was up to me to become proactive and take control. After all, I had applied this to my physical being successfully enough, so why not with my mind? In early February, that seemed like a step too much, but by the end of the month I found the help I needed with the start of CBT which is allowing me to step back and rationalise my anxieties. In that one proactive step, a spark of life entered my mental battery. By the first week in March I could see my constant training had kept me very fit, so once my mind started its long road back to recovery, the vehicle it travelled in would be very reliable.
I took stock and noticed a few things that had become helpful or unhelpful habits since last December. This month I started to address each aspect to increase positivity. I will cover them here.
Without doubt, running has been my saviour, right through the various pandemic lockdowns as well as throughout my illness. Last year I maintained basic tenets to reduce my weight and increase my fitness: keeping my balance of calories below 2000; running every day; maintaining my mainly plant-based diet; keeping my monthly running total at 100 miles or more; and having regular core workouts. This had become a habit to the point where I would stick to these targets without much thought. It became my normal way of being. Thus, once I was suffering from burnout, I automatically kept to this baseline. Even at times of absolute hopelessness, this kept me moving. Running, indeed all exercise is the best therapy in the long term. It is a moment of taking control.
In March I started to train properly with a focus on the 100k. The results are summarised at the end of this blog post.
One of the main symptoms of my burnout was only leaving the house to run or shop. After the huge, emotionally draining journey to Scotland, over Christmas, I had become semi-reclusive. Yes, I ran every day, but that was solo and mainly on trails where few people would be met. Whilst shopping I always wear a mask – there is now a learnt stand-away-from-others in society, so I remained isolated. Thus, whilst reflecting, I knew I had to start getting out more, not just for necessity. With the CBT sessions helping me to set strategy, I decided to make a couple journeys to get used to being in the greater world. One to Somerset where I set a new course record on a local route I’d used many years ago. Then, later in the month a trip to London, staying the night in Kensington. My Passepartout and I ran in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, and the trip made me tired, but much less anxious. Little trips away from home were helping my mind adjust to a more proactive future.
Imposter syndrome – the fear of authority
Imposter Syndrome has been written about by greater minds than mine (sic). In my case, being self-educated in most important areas of life, I never had the confirmation of achievement by a father or higher educational establishment. My childhood had been dominated by Christian brutality at its worst, so I had been programmed early on to ‘fear’ authority. I am free of any faith-based twaddle now, but still have that deep-set programming. I have never fully dealt with this, so I’m using CBT to lance that boil. As I recover I am taking charge of my return to my career, rather than waiting for ‘authority’ to lend a hand. They have not in 5 months, so ‘authority’ has become of no meaning for me. I am building this in the most positive way – firm, fair and proactive. In March I applied this fully and have started to regain control of all aspects of my life. After all, fear is only about what may happen – and the variables are astronomically high. Thus, proactivity becomes the key in steering strategy in the way best suited to oneself.
Rage and its positive effects
I survived a cruel childhood. The details are not important here, but it was life-changing. Fear is a terrible thing for any child to live with. In later life this can manifest in many ways, both positive and negative, but it can define one’s future growth. My way of surviving was to develop a ‘rage battery’. I discovered that physical pain can be endured, so gradually I found an armour. My rage battery overcame pain. It remains my ‘impulse power’, (to use a Trekky metaphor). Even at my lowest, this source of energy gave me belief that I would recover, get stronger and overcome the odds. Giving in to violent rage is not good, but to channel it into intellect and cognitive function has served me well.
Fear of statistics – belief in oneself
Just like maintaining good habits, it is easy to stop good habits. My Racing the Reaper Man Year gave me a positive routine. My abiding fear, or anxiety, was finding out that my formula would stop working. Reducing weight was almost straightforward, but would my philosophy and system maintain my final goal weight and statistics? From October I stopped taking weekly readings from my smart scales. Initially I did this on purpose to allow me to rest, but then the fear of what the scales would show took over. Then circumstances forced me to just about tick over until March, this month. I stepped on the scales on March 12th. I had convinced myself I would have ballooned in weight. Yet, there I was – 166.6lbs! Slightly up on my fully conditioned best of last year, but well below my original target. I had maintained a healthy weight by just living my Racing the Reaper Man philosophy! My belief returned, and with it more positivity to train properly.
Staying ahead of the Reaper Man – Choice
I set out choice as the main tenet of what we are. What one sees in a mirror or on the scales is a reflection of one’s choices – it is not an accident nor someone else’s fault. Thus, if one chooses to change a lifestyle to become a healthier, fitter and happier person, it will be done. I hope I am proving it. I have chosen to recover from burnout by understanding what happened and applying techniques to get through. I will now continue to build on my winter’s foundations and move towards my ultra in June with renewed belief. All that is left, is to regain the full health of my mind.
My March transition
CBT was allowing me to see a way of parcelling out each of my anxiety-creating issues, focusing on those that were not really so bad, and dealing with the immediate problems. It was interesting to find out I seem to be suffering from a type of PTSD, brought on by the work-induced pressure I had endured. On March 19th my world turned to Technicolor… after 16 weeks of floundering through the effects of mental illness, I finally reached a point where I knew I was on the way back.
The day was bright and sunny. Mentally, I still had the daily challenge of getting out, so as I faced a 20-miler, with lots of hills, my focus had to be ramped up. I prepared and set out feeling heavy, tired, with a stiff right leg from core work. The hills were huge – I’d miscalculated the climbs on trails over Kingley Vale, got lost on a descent near West Stoke, and plodded lesser hills to the 10-mile mark wondering how I would get back.
Then, at 10½ miles I seemed to break through a barrier. The pain in my leg went, I felt good and, as I turned to see the huge return climb ahead, felt euphoric! A runner’s high? More than that. In that moment my anxieties looked smaller, I felt stronger and the world more beautiful. The climb back over the mighty Bow Hill was tough, but I was even moving quickly on the race-walking bits – those parts of a steep climb where running is near impossible. As I dropped down to the 16-mile point and took on a caffeine gel and an extra bottle of water (stashed earlier) I knew I would recover my mental health. The final miles clipped by at just over 10-minute miles and I got home having covered 20½ miles. Monstrous, marvellous and a defining moment in my year.
This route was easily the equivalent of a flat marathon. That evening I entered the Goodwood Marathon on 3rd April – it had been pencilled in as a training run for months. Now I felt I could use it as a training run without fear. I also firmed up a 32-mile multi-terrain training run for the end of April. The 100k in June seemed more attainable.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) would preclude any more longer runs up to the Marathon, but by the end of March I was just about right. Somehow, unbeknownst to me, I had got ahead of last year’s mileage. March was also my biggest mileage month for many, many years – 143 miles. All this without noticing – sticking to my basic philosophy had worked: just do the healthy things automatically when in doubt, then your physical fitness will be there to carry your healing mind when it’s needed.
To sum up March, I would use the word ‘transitional’. I had started taking control of smaller things; this in turn, helped me to have the confidence to take control of greater things.
A thought for the coming month
As you will know religion or blind faith in ideology is anathema to me. The introduction to my partly completed book, Racing the Reaper Man, has this passage in its Introduction:
‘Although I can become philosophical, I am also a stepper-backer. I have found that most debates forever shrink as they focus on the specks of irritation, rather than a logical, progressive overview. Politics, religion and social media are the greatest subjects for speck-focussing, and life can seem like a series of screaming strap-lines as a result. A statement is not factual without proof – proof is not true unless tested – tests are not certain unless repeatable. Opinions are generally strap-lines for lazy thinkers. Humans naturally believe what they want, based on personal bias, so to look at improving one’s life, it becomes necessary to learn to step back. So, for this blog, and its future incarnation as a book, I will step back and write what I know about making life healthier, fitter and better for the more mature person.’
Ironically, I found a passage from the Chinese Taoist/philosophical text that I loved. It is from Chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching:
‘When Tao is lost, there is goodness. When goodness is lost, there is kindness. When kindness is lost, there is justice. When justice is lost, there is ritual. Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.”
Let not ritual, for the sake of ritual, command our lives. Running is not ritual, it is like breathing, a necessity of life.
- Weight: 11st 10.2lbs
- Daily calorie balance: 1721kcal
- VO2 Max average: 44/45
- Average resting pulse: 49 bpm
- Total miles: 143 (biggest month for years)
- Unbroken running streak: 450 days
- Belly: 30½”
Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: April 2022
April started with a Marathon. I had run the miles in March, but mentally I was still healing. So, I had two key issues to consider.
- Could I train through a marathon, without it being the focus, and would my speed-at-distance be even and sustainable?
- This was also a big test of my mental strength: could I cope with the nerves of competition, and with the crowds?
In the end, the Goodwood Marathon on Sunday 3rd April answered each of my questions and taught me far more than I had given thought to.
Marathon morning found me full of intense anxiety. Nerves before a race are quite normal, but on this morning I realised my illness had magnified everything. I almost went back to bed and hid. Luckily, my Passepartout was with me for the weekend, so I was calmed down, drove to the Goodwood motor racing circuit and immediately felt better. On a sunny, but very chilly morning, I wore a light T-shirt base layer underneath my Ukraine-flag vest, and warmed up with the others.
I started dead last but soon nipped past the tail-enders to clip out an 8:57 mile. Too fast. So, I eased back and relaxed. At 10 miles I was averaging 9:35s, and still averaging 9:38s at 20. I had set a target of under 4:27:00, but with a goal of 4:22:00 on a good day. After all, I was training through this event. Yet, at 20 miles in around 3:13:00, I did the maths and realised I could get under 4:20! I only had one wobble with a 23rd mile in 10:23, but rallied and was close to 10:00 for each of the rest. I finished strongly in a new veteran personal best of 4:15:44 (09:44 pace).
Stopping turned out to be the difficult bit – as an experiment I brought along my smart-scales. I stripped down to shorts, weighed myself, then, as I put my clean shoes on, nearly blacked out. Passepartout sat me against a sunny wall and dashed off to find a paramedic. My BP was 90/68, though my blood sugar was normal. After lots of hydration, lying me down and raising my legs I got back to normal and was able to drive home feeling none the worse for wear. I’m still not completely sure of the reason: dehydration; too much caffeine; or imbalance of electrolytes? My blood pressure has remained low, so I’m starting to think my medication for genetic high blood pressure may be in the frame. Perhaps my healthy lifestyle has brought my BP under control and my medication needs reducing?… I will keep an eye on things and talk to my GP.
A good start to April. My CBT continued and my strategy to deal with anxiety was becoming more sound. Yet, I still have terrible flash-back dreams, normally brought on by having to deal with work-related issues. Brazenly quoting Seneca once more:
‘…some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.’
This is what one’s injured mind must learn, or relearn. I am moving slowly down that road. My new aim is to initially confront my work-related stress, but to follow that up by dealing with any accumulated issues that I have pushed aside in that male-dominated macho way.
Spring proper arrived in April. With the sunshine my running seemed to improve a level. I never rested after the marathon, instead completed a 53-mile week which included a trail 11-miler, followed by a week with 3 long runs of 10, 10 and 14 miles.
With the sunny weather I entered a kind of euphoria, running for the love of moving across the countryside, along trails and footpaths. Hills were enjoyed. Finally, after 4 months, my mind was healing. My legs were fine, except for an ongoing stiffness in the right one, and I could now picture me completing the 100k.
On 22nd to 24th I tested myself once more in a more crowded situation. I attended Burnham-on-Sea Book Festival as an invited author. It left me tired, but I coped well enough.
The remaining constants of my PTSD are extreme mental tiredness after formal, organised events, and regular flashback/‘flash-now’ vivid dreams. These latter wake me in a panic as they are so real, even to the point of feeling the wind on my face, smelling aromas and talking as they occur. That I may have to live with this is rather disturbing, but at least, once awake, the stultifying effect lasts only for a short time.
I eased back on my training after the first two big mileage weeks, ‘tapering’ towards a planned, hilly 32 miler on Wednesday 27th. I’d arranged to be supported by my Personal Trainer, Martin Sorenson and my Passepartout.
The course was mainly trails: an initial level 9 miles around the coast, along the road to Chichester, then up the Centurion Way where the climbs started. As I set out, my right leg started to give way slightly, and it held me back a little.
The first big climbs over Haye’s Down, then The Trundle emphasised the issue with my leg, but at 14 miles, in the car park below The Trundle, I felt fine and changed my Hoka ATR6s, to Hoka Speedgoat 4s for the hefty ascents ahead. I’d eaten some chews, but was instinctively relying on Tailwind – it was fuelling me perfectly.
The drop to Singleton was niggling my right leg, but I kept to a steady pace, climbing Levin Down, and passing halfway in good order. The huge climb through Singleton Forest made my leg go numb, but sections of race-walking kept me going. I dropped down to my crew at 19 miles at below 9 minute mile pace, the pain going on tarmacked ground. I filled up with Tailwind, then climbed a mile onto Cocking Down (fabulous name), chased a couple of hares, then dropped to Chilmark, my leg hating the downhills by going all wobbly.
I left my crew at 23 miles, clipping along at 10:40 pace, but cringed at the huge, steep climb over Bow Hill to the Devil’s Humps above Kingley Vale. I was very pissed off as, apart from my right leg, everything was fine, and I hit to the top of the southernmost Devil’s Hump at exactly 26 miles.
Down, down I dropped to Adsdean, met the crew again, but just wanted to carry on as I was fine. I arrived home after 32 miles in good order, in around 6:40:00, perhaps averaging 12:30 a mile. My leg had cost me half a hour, but it wasn’t a severe injury. I was happy with the day, felt very good, just a bit tired. My weight was the same as when I started! Frequent pissing in hedges showed my hydration was right. A small blister on my left, second toe indicates the need of some judicious taping, and I should have used poles on the big climbs – lessons learnt.
Subsequently, I found out the obvious. My Iliotibial Band down my right leg had been niggling since last October. So, I found a series of 5 exercises to perform daily, and the improvement was immediate. I jogged a mile the day after the 32, then ran a coastal 4¾ miler and felt fine, just lacking speed. I ended the month with a big 170 miles in total, and had successfully trained through a marathon and a purposely brutal 32 miler, my longest ever run. I still look at June’s 100k in a state of awe, but I should be physically ready for the challenge. That I will be testing my mental strength to new limits, is exciting, to say the least.
The biggest thing in April was my progress to mental health recovery. I have a strategy to resume work on 1st June – a phased return – and will approach my high pressure job as a changed man. My fear of authority has gone. My self belief is stronger and my will to get wrongs corrected is in place. I have set a date for my retirement next year, so in that time will be working to give my team a stronger foundation, succession plan and a strategy for a resilient future.
However, until then I have May to get through. I’m now well enough to take a holiday. Not from running, just from my cocoon of safety, my home. Time to test myself 1600 miles away, run on some hot, hilly trails and recharge my healing mind completely. Racing the Reaper Man is a lifelong commitment to which I intend to stick. The alternative is mediocrity, beigeness, stultifying comfort and misery. Onwards into May and my adventures on ancient Ikos…
April selected statistics
- Weight: 11st 9.8 lbs
- Daily calorie balance: 1574 kcal
- VO2 Max average: 44/43 (Garmin seems to adjust down with age…)
- Average resting pulse: 49 bpm
- Total miles: 170 (biggest month for years)
- Unbroken running streak: 490 days
- Belly: 30½”
- Typical blood pressure: 121/66 (my lowest readings since hypertension was diagnosed)
Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra: May 2022
After rounding off April with a 170 mile total mileage, I entered May planning to maintain my fitness on my first real break since I became ill. I was testing my improving mental health by flying away from my safe cocoon, my home, to ancient Ikos, the final resting place of Achilles’ father, Peleus. The modern name of this fabulous island is Alónnisos, jewel of the Northern Sporades, floating in the wine-dark Aegean Sea. With the 100k looming on 11th June, I had to get the balance right.
The only thing preying on my mind, was the continuing issue with my right leg. I knew I’d carried this problem with me through the winter, and it was getting steadily worse. Looking back at my diary for last October’s 50k, I could see the start of it where I noted:
‘My right hamstring had been tight behind my knee joint, so, even as I settled into 10:10 pace, I was far from happy.’
As my mileage increased, the more the leg was either giving way, or going numb. During last month’s 32 miler, it had really hampered me, so I was hoping a month of careful, lower distance runs would get me through. But, as we know, hope is not an answer – it is the last thing to do, after training and fixing injuries.
Travel day was long. We had to kill 6 hours in Skiathos Town waiting for a rescheduled hydrofoil, the Flying Dolphin, so we parked our bags at the Sol Levante Taverna and pottered about until the final half-hour. There was a 400m walk to the Flying Dolphin pickup point. Passepartout had a bad shoulder, so I carried both non-wheeled expedition bags, banging one into my right knee many times. I thought nothing of it. We arrived at Patitiri, had a mile run, then drifted into Old Ikos.
I ran well in the first two weeks, but my right knee started to swell! A bruise was evident – I’d damaged it in Skiathos (time to buy travel bags with wheels!) Alónnisos is a great island, though there is very little flat ground. My plan was to make the most of the hills and trails, peaking with a 10-miler in the final week and carrying my strength with me to the 100k. The first week was a slow build up with a 6-miler over very steep ground being the biggest run. I was so strong on the hills, but my knee was stiff and my right ankle was giving out on the downhills. The second week was 26 miles of hot, rugged trails, including a circuit of 7 miles taking in the notorious Killer Hill of the Alónnisos Challenge 31k, which I’d run in 2018. Again, I was strong on the hills, but my leg and knee were no better, even with some remedial exercises and cooling in the kiddie’s pool. I was in trouble.
By the third week I’d decided that I needed to reduce my mileage to my version of ‘resting’. Apart from my 40th anniversary of logged running, when I managed a big 4 miler up the huge climb to the Chora threshing circles and back, I dropped my other runs to a mile a day. We found relatively level ground at the defunct reservoir, a circuit of which is a mile – perfect, and a fabulous place to watch birds at the same time. Even so, we had also been walking between 20 and 27 hilly miles a week, so my leg was far from being rested. I got home knowing that my Race to the King 100k was becoming more of a burden to carry.
Once home, I started to ice and compress my knee, which finally showed signs of healing. I’d invested in a gel pack I can keep in the freezer, a brilliant piece of kit. On the last Wednesday of the month, I had a heart-to-heart with my PT, Martin Sorenson, who pointed me to a local sports physiotherapist, Ricky Lidbeater of Livebetter Physiotherapy. I was fitted in to his busy schedule on the following Saturday and met a really great professional, and nice chap. The prognosis was not damning, but roughly as follows:
- My knee injury was separate to my other leg issue – the blows I’d suffered made it swell, this being the knee’s natural way of protecting damaged tissue. With ‘rest’ ice and compression it would heal.
The issue with my right leg was the product of two things:
- My lower back was tight on the right side, impacting my nerve that referred pain through my glute to the hamstring behind my knee – the original injury. This was cutting off the signal to my muscles to say ‘run’, on occasion, thus the odd giving way feeling in my leg.
- This was being exacerbated by a very tight right calf, leading to a swollen Achilles. These two issues were feeding off each other, so were not getting better, and the whole thing would be magnified on rough trails, particularly downhills.
I knew I could probably coax my leg over 50k, but by then I’d be pretty crippled – in the 100k, with the hills over the second half, I would probably damage myself beyond logic, and probably DNF. Ricky said it would be unwise to run it. On the plus side, I was given exercises to carry out, instructions to follow and also I could continue running, as long as I didn’t go beyond 10 miles, and that only occasionally. I quickly made up my mind to withdraw from the 100k and get fully fixed and fit.
After some pretty deep, but impressive massage on key areas, I was sent on my way feeling much better. The beast was off my back. Ricky and Martin would devise a weekly program for my regular session and, in between times, I would be doing various calf raises, foam rolling and icing to ease my calf, reduce the pressure on my Achilles and get fully fixed.
My running streak reached an unbroken 521 days by the end of the month, and by not being very sensible, just stubborn, I put in enough miles to get to 100 for May, and to make 18 months at or above three figures – another parallel streak. I was already planning some autumn ultras, but for the time being would be wiser with my 65-year-old body. After all, there are no spare parts for this 1956 model, so servicing is the only option.
May was also the month I had to prepare myself for returning to the workplace. The big day is 1st June. I’m still not sleeping too well, and still get terrible dreams, PTSD style. It is a difficult mental illness to come to terms with, but I will overcome it all. I can honestly say I have never been happier than on a few of the days with my Passepartout on Alónnisos and since. Real big, happy days. A happiness I’ve not felt since I was 5 or 6. This shows me the CBT sessions are working – that I’m having a further series shows how poorly I’d been. I also know this should never have happened to me, so I will be rectifying the root cause. The Alónnisos trip showed I could cope with crowded settings, for a while at least, but I still get tired after intense events.
‘Coping mechanism’ – I’ve reached the point where I no longer want to ‘cope’ with recurring mental issues, including those from childhood. You see, I don’t get depressed, in the pure sense of the word, but suffer from extreme anxiety. It is this anxiety that is hard to carry, long term. Thus, instead of coping, I have started to ‘deal’ with it. That means, to me, excising the root cause and leaving it behind. We tend to voluntarily carry our historic hurts, sleights, grief and sadness with us. Instead of memories, they become barriers to freeing emotions. All religion, ideology, politics, strictly set tenets and biases are like this – they blinker one’s logic. So, for me, those moments of absolute happiness are a sure sign I am finally breaking my own barriers.
So, I’m still Racing the Reaper Man to Ultra, but the next big races are a little further down the line. In the meantime, I’m getting new knowledge about injury recovery – something else that will go into Racing the Reaper Man. If I’m lucky, I can show early decisions about recovery over bulling through races, can make a huge difference to longevity. After all, older age should mean a gathering and application of learnt wisdom, not a repetition of youthful mistakes. I will now start pulling the book together, set up the required chapters and start writing in earnest.
May selected statistics
- Weight: 11st 11.6 lbs (up a little, but still very stable)
- Daily calorie balance: 1974 kcal – my highest since I started this. Care of holiday and lower mileage.
- VO2 Max average: 43 (Garmin continues to adjust down with age…)
- Average resting pulse: 51 bpm – red wine in Greece has raised it a bit.
- Total miles: 100 (stubbornly getting to the ton is my minimum, if I can.)
- Unbroken running streak: 521 days
- Belly: 30½”
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