Monday, September 10, 2018

A Leap of Faith to a New Desk

Today, I’m starting a new job with a new employer. I’ve changed jobs for lots of different reasons in the past: moving to another country, being made redundant, pre-empting being made redundant, escaping from workplace bullying, working with people I know better and trust more, and avoiding a weekly commute between countries.

This time, I’m more positively moving to do better for myself. Rather that waiting for opportunities to arise in my existing job, I’ve taken an honest look at what I enjoy doing, and what I want to get better at doing, and made a deliberate effort to market myself and find a job that excites me.

It’s been an invigorating summer as a result. Having amended my LinkedIn profile to emphasise the skills and qualifications I want to exploit, and swung the big lever to indicate that I was actively looking for work, a swarm of recruiters descended on me. It sounded as though I might have to accept a pay cut in order to exercise the specific hands-on technical skills I’ve refreshed in the last 18 months, but I felt that I’d happily swallow that if it meant I had a job I leapt out of bed wanting to do each morning.

The rounds of interview began right away. The fact that these were interviews plural made a massive difference. Rather than being just an isolated escape opportunity, the final throw of the dice, the last straw, instead knowing that there were other people wanting to see me meant that each time I could relax into the exchange, be myself, honestly express what I was looking for in the role, and see the interview as much as an investigation for me as for the potential employer. It worked. When I’m not desperate, I seem to come across as a lot more employable.

And this multiplicity of meetings had cumulative benefit as well. I hit my stride and stayed in the zone, or possibly the crease if I’m keeping my metaphors pure. The homework I did for one position fired up my interest and curiosity and paid off when answering off the cuff during interviews for another. I genuinely enjoyed being interviewed. Even this experience, of representing myself face to face, thinking on my feet, learning and refining, reminded me that I’m capable of this kind of interaction in my day to day work and not just when I’m touting for it. It also helped me focus on what I wanted to do in a new job.

What I want to do is engineering and automation. I chose a career in IT and computing because I like working with software and systems and not just giving people advice about them. My existing consultant role hadn’t been giving me any engineering to do, but some recent training and certification had reminded me that this is what I like doing. But if I stepped away from the bridge and back towards the engine room, would I be sacrificing my accrued seniority?

The good news, once I’d seen a few companies, was that having got my foot in the door for vacancies which were more hands-on engineering roles than my existing flexible consultant one, I’d managed to show off that I had a few other strings to my bow, and some companies were willing to meet my salary hopes. And I found myself with a whole new dilemma. I had several offers to pick from.

I’d been completely open about my plans with my existing employer, who very gamely realised that I was about to leave, and pulled together an internal secondment to give me more of the sort of work I wanted to do. If no external offers had materialised, I’d have been very happy indeed to follow that path.

However, the offer I decided to accept is with a company who seem to be able to offer me a blended position, which means I’ll be able to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in with system administration, automation, and software development, staying true to my passion of pressing buttons and making things happen, and also a leadership role, in which I’m responsible for internal processes and standards, as well as managing projects and relationships with client companies. Everything else I’ve seen has been off-the-peg but this feels tailor-made, in fact the recruitment process followed a refreshing “tell us what you can do, and we’ll see if we can find a niche for you” path.

It is a dizzyingly senior-sounding position. It may be with one of the smaller companies I’ve worked for, but I’m reporting directly to the CEO and appear to be in the bracket called “management”. I feel lucky, as though I’ve won an opportunity. My ambition was to feel excited by and engaged in my work again, to be listened to, and to make decisions that have a sustained and tangible effect, and I’m going to devote myself to this as completely as I have in the past to local authority election campaigns, marathons, and on-stage interviews with former Doctor Whos.

The responsibility and visibility scare me. But the process of looking into myself to see what I really want to do, marketing myself, and finding the job search process so stimulating, has woken me up and rekindled my spark. I’m going to take a leap. I’m more excited by what happens during the working day this week than I have been for years and that helps me believe I’ve made the right choice.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Experiment Twelve - The Three Assassins

Today, I ran my twelfth marathon, at home in Edinburgh, where I ran my very first, a decade ago.
After last Autumn's injury-hampered marathon at Chester, I was keen to return to my trajectory of running a personal best (PB) time again, and to keep feeding my belief that one day I'll get my time down to three hours.

I just about managed a PB today, finishing in 03:17:21, which was two and half minutes better than my previous record of 03:19:55. It was a clear sixteen minutes better than my previous marathon, too, so on both counts it was a win.

I should have done better though. Where does this "should" come from? "Should"s and "ought"s are punishing ideas and often have no real existence in reality, being products of our imaginations.

My training for this race went well. I conclude this from the way that my practice times were fast, and that I accrued no injuries during the eighteen weeks. Based on my training times, I expected that I'd probably finish under 03:10:00 and without doubt under 03:15:00.

As it was, I realised early in the race today that I wasn't going to manage the first, and that the second would be a challenge, and eventually I realised I had a fight on my hands to better my previous record.

So what went wrong?

The first answer is that nothing actually went wrong. I trained for eighteen weeks, and got fitter and stronger, and a lot of the time faster. On the day, I kept going in the face of adversity, and I beat my previous record. But it didn't play out as I'd expected.

Three things were not as I'd anticipated.

Firstly, how I felt. I'm prone to anxiety, which can push me into depression. I'd had an anxious week, with the pressure to do well in the race after devoting so much time and work to it. At the same time, I had a professional exam during the week, which I'd been studying towards for a couple of months, and was worried about. And on top of that, I was starting a new assignment at work, doing a new kind of job for a new customer. My mental health dipped alarmingly during the week, with some particularly dark thoughts and ideas dominating my thinking. Having tapered off my training, I wasn't getting the physical exercise that normally blows away the black clouds. Although I passed the exam, the dead feeling of detachment and dissociation persisted right up to and during the race. I didn't get the buzz from the preamble and much of the race itself, and it felt like I was carrying an extra load.

Next, what I ate. I am an advocate and adherent of the low-carb high-fat (LHCF) way of life, and aim to get 75% of my energy from healthy fats. I usually start the day with a coffee into which I've blended butter, coconut oil, and triglyceride extracts. That's all I have until lunchtime. I eschew sugar and starch as completely as I can. I can run twenty miles at a better pace than I managed today on just a fatty coffee, taking no fuel or water out with me to run. But I erred towards orthodoxy this weekend, and ate bread yesterday and today, and used glucose gels when I was running.

During the race, especially the second half, my lower joints started to seize up in the way they used to when I ate a more conventional diet including grains and sugar. It got worse as the race wore on, and I downed more and more gels, until I found myself taking Ibuprofen as I ran to clear the inflammation. The crucial word is inflammation. I'm greatly persuaded by Dr David Perlmutter's book "Grain Brain" that grains and sugar have an inflammatory effect on the body, especially as we get older. I think that the bread got me off to a bad start, and then as I stiffened up and slowed down, the gels actually made things worse. I should have stuck to my fatty coffee.

And finally, what I wore. For years, I've been doing all my running in Brooks Adrenaline GTS shoes which offer stability for runners like me who over-pronate. Basically, I have flat feet, and if you run on flat feet, your ankles and knees, and even hips, pay the price. These shoes stop you rolling on to your arches and save your ankles. I also wear prescription insoles to do the same thing. I was recently advised that with the insoles I didn't need the stability shoes as well and should try something more neutral, so I bought a pair of Brooks Ravenna shoes, with less stability and more cushioning. They've been a revelation and I've been doing all my high-speed training in them. But I've stuck to the Adrenalines for distance. I toyed with running in the neutral shoes today, but erred towards habit and ran in the stability shoes. I'd laced them too tight, and they offered little cushioning, so I was running with sore feet for a lot of the time.

So, black cloud, inflamed joints, and restrictive shoes conspired against me. Bastards.

I hit a low patch shortly before half way. I'd had to make a toilet break which had cost me a couple of minutes, and I'd fought to make up for the lost time. But then my pace started fading and I recognised that it wasn't going to recover. My morale slumped and I comforted myself with the thought that I could retire from competition after this one. The third quarter is often tough physically and mentally. But by the time we'd reached the hairpin bend near Gosford Park, and I had the boost of seeing that I was ahead of a majority of runners (I came 548 in a field of 7664, putting me in the fastest 7%), I'd realised that as long as I could keep my decline under control I'd still claim a PB.
While I was doing that I had time to think. I'm immensely grateful to my imagination for occupying me like this. I had a good think about the three assassins that I was running away from, and how I could better identify them and avoid them in future.

I'm going to practice running longer distances in neutral shoes. I'm going to have faith in my LCHF regime and not traditionally carb-load during my next race. And I'm going to do my best to avoid poor mental health when competing. The last one is hardest - I can't always reschedule stressors near to competition weekends. But I can have a try.

I may not have cracked it. There may be more lessons to learn. But this is all good information.
From my psychological slump in mid-race, I've come back to a state where I can be interested in what happened and curious about finding out more, and that will mean running more races.
So, this September, I will be curious to see if I can get a half marathon PB without carbs and in neutral shoes. And if I can, I will be curious the following month about what happens when I try and run my thirteenth marathon the same way.

Looked at as part of an unfolding experiment, rather than a war or a mission, today, like every day was a resounding success.

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/2731169722


Thursday, May 17, 2018

How I Ran My Fastest Ever 5K

Earlier this morning, before work, I ran my fastest ever 5k distance. Here's why.

  • I've been training for what will, I hope, be my fastest ever marathon, in ten days' time. This has involved not just distance and stamina, but explosive bursts of interval running and sustained sessions at a high tempo.
  • Today's prescribed run involved running six miles, three of them at a fast mathematically-derived pace called "short tempo" which is much faster than I'l run the actual marathon.
  • I noticed a few weeks ago that if I put my all into it today, and aimed to run faster than the prescribed pace, I could run the three miles at 6m40s per mile, or 20 minutes in total, a round number that has frustratingly eluded me, due to exhaustion and stomach upsets in the past.
  • Then, a few days ago, I realised that if I kept the pace up for about another hundred or so metres, I'd reach 5k.
  • 5k is a useful milestone. It's the distance that the world's ParkRun devotees run every Saturday morning, and its also the baseline calibration distance that my chosen marathon training programme uses.
So, I decided that today would be the day. Here's how I did it.

  • No hard training the day before. No running, or gym session. Just a gentle swim in the morning.
  • No telly the night before. An early evening meal and just some reading. Early to bed, and a good night's sleep, eight and a half hours, and my Garmin tells me that five and a half of them were deep.
  • Rise early. Go to gentle yoga class for an hour.
  • After yoga, change into running gear, and consume some almond butter, a banana (normally forbidden, these contain about as much simple carbohydrate as I'd normally get through in a week. I can only consume them if I'm about to go off like a rocket) and a fatty coffee, with butter and coconut oil. Wash down with water.
  • Into the gym, with a five-minute warm-up on the elliptical trainer, followed by a Tabata session on there.
  • Tabata is a High Intensity Interval Training protocol. Today, it meant going flat out for twenty seconds and recovering for ten, eight times in a row. Each time, I raised the resistance on the machine.
  • Off the machine and on to the floor for dynamic stretches; dirty dog, mountain climbers, single-leg squats, John Cleese walk, lunges with flyes, and ice skaters.
  • Pedal home, dump my bag and yoga mat, and straight out. By now it's nine o'clock. I'm lucky to have a job that's flexible a lot of the time, so I can run during the day once my muscles have activated and I've woken up a bit, rather than having to fall out of bed and straight into my running shoes.
  • Hit play on iPod, giving me 15 minutes of Yes at their most mystical ("Awaken"), followed by 20 more of them at their most energetic.
  • Run a two mile warm-up. Doing this I noticed that my warm-up pace settled at about 07:35, as opposed to the usual 08:45, which was a good sign for what was to come, and indicated that the previous 90 minutes priming had been worthwhile.
  • After two miles, Yes exploded into "Looking Around", and so did I, hitting my Garmin's lap button and haring off.
  • I went off too fast, but allowed myself to gradually fade to the desired pace rather than deliberately cap it.
  • The first mile felt euphoric, glorious and affirming. 
  • The second felt harder. I had to focus on immediate goals. Getting half way through the run. Not thinking about the third mile. Definitely not thinking about the extra bit on the end to take me to 5k.
  • The third felt harder still. My pace had faded but I was still comfortably within my 06:40 goal, holding on to 06:30 most of the way.
  • At this pace, the arithmetic was comforting. At the end of a longer slower run, when I have two miles to go, I think "I'll be home in sixteen minutes". Today I could think "I can relax in thirteen minutes".
  • This is my no-man's land. I am an experienced distance runner, regularly covering 20 miles in training, and a reasonable sprinter, specifically at 400m. In the middle here, I feel stretched. It's a frontier I'm sort of beginning to advance into. At least it's over fairly quickly.
  • I did it. I ran three miles in 19:33 (Nearly thirty seconds faster than ever before) and 5k in 20:15


Monday, January 01, 2018

And Me and I (1998-2018)

On New Year's Day 1998, something to which I was unhealthily attached was removed from me. I was a less skilful or enlightened person than I later became, so the veils of illusion caused me to suffer far more than the situation itself deserved.
The loss didn't come as a complete surprise. The writing had been on the wall for some time. But I'd invested a lot of myself in things working out as I'd hoped. The rug, as they say, had been pulled from under me.
So, 1998 became a very memorable year. My work quickly took me away from Edinburgh to Springfield, Missouri, and I visited Los Angeles and Dallas as well in the course of a few months that I still remember vividly. I clocked up more air miles that year that ever before or since, and I returned to the UK in April to work during the week in Maidenhead and spend my weekends in Edinburgh. I drank very heavily with the carefree gusto of someone who has nothing to lose, and remember using airport bars first thing in the morning on the way to work.
Work was terrible. It often is. But this was a worse than usual patch. It was my first exposure to the potential folly of project management - the bad kind - that dogmatically makes plans and hires people without any understanding of the desired outcome. I focussed my own planning on escape.
That came when I was offered the opportunity to become a contractor, working for a well-known IT corporation whose products I admired. My nothing to lose mentality made me leap at the chance. I set up my own company, employed an accountant, and replaced my modest Ford Escort with a Toyota MR2 Mark One, which I drove home from work along Princes Street with the roof down. By the end of the year, the corporation had made me an offer to join then as an employee, which I did. I liked the people. It felt safe.
The year had vivid highs and lows. The first few days of January were bleak. But my first return to the UK, specifically to catch the tent poles of my musical life, Yes and Genesis, in concert, in a week in which I saw three Yes concerts, and caught up with friends in London was joyful. And friends were great. I wasn't very connected with my family at this hedonistic self-centred time of my life, and so made and strengthened links with people who nourished me and still do.
But on the morning of New Year's Day all this was to come. I had an inkling that someone was grasping the rug ready to pull it, and I was feeling isolated and anxious. It was a beautiful clear morning, so I strode out of my flat on Edinburgh's Southside and into Holyrood Park, up the Radical Road at the front of Salisbury Crags. I looked down at the city that had become my home eighteen months earlier, and fished out my Panasonic portable stereo cassette recorder and let "And You and I" by Yes play though my headphones. It was a moment of stillness and calm, and beauty, the quiet before the shockwave hit and the frenzy of 1998 began. I've looked back on that moment many time in the twenty years since, and taken refuge in that calm. It will always be there.
This morning, twenty years to the day, I made a pilgrimage to the same spot, as near as dammit, passing my old front door on the way. My beloved had agreed to join me in this compulsive ritual, so as we looked down on the city, we both hit play on the same recording of "And You And I" as I had listed to back then, before we walked back down and got on with our year.
It feels good to have done this. When we're young, if we're lucky enough to have a stable family and home, our parents mark off our height on the wall each year and we can see how we've grown. I've stopped getting taller now, but I can still measure how I've grown in other ways by revisiting a place and comparing how it makes me feel.

And you and I climb, crossing the shapes of the morning
And you and I reach over the sun for the river
And you and I climb, clearer, towards the movement
And you and I called over valleys of endless seas


Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Shortest Day

In recent years I’ve become more attuned than ever to the passing of the seasons, and I like to think I could pinpoint each solstice and equinox without the aid of a calendar. This has never felt more acute than today, in the very deepest point of the winter. For past few weeks, I’ve felt the darkness encroaching with claustrophobia. It seems to have been actually draining my energy, but I think I can work out why.
2017 has had a pleasing symmetry for me. I began it “on the bench” as the men’s-sport-fixated jargon of my industry describes the times when we temps aren’t out temping. And, now, I’m ending it in the same metaphorical dugout. In between, I’ve been working for a well-known insurance company up the road in Stirling. This was a taxing commute, involving cycling to a railway station on the edge of Edinburgh, taking the train to Stirling and then cycling to the client’s campus outside the city. After a couple of months, Scotrail became noticeably more stringent about the number of bicycles they’d carry on each service and so I invested in a folding model that doesn’t count as a bike. After a few more months I was allowed to work from home a few days each week. 
It was time consuming and stressful. I had to become more efficient in everything else I did to make up for the time sacrificed to commuting. The most challenging period was when I was working towards a professional exam at the same time as I was working. The office environment at the client site was sometimes quite challenging, for all the usual reasons relating to my autism - lighting, noise, vibration - and also because I was working in a team that had no staff on that site. I was surrounded by people who had no professional connection with me, and felt like an imposter sitting amongst them. 
The point is, it was continuously stressful, and I felt anxiety. Fight or flight chemicals were keeping me going.
Then, with eight working days’ notice, I found that my time with this client was to end in mid-December. 
I returned from Stirling for the final time last week, and, with a dramatic flourish, nearly didn’t make it home, skidding off my bike on the recently-formed ice, as though the city didn’t want to let me go. And then, at 1800 last Friday, I logged out of the client’s systems for the final time. 
Back on the bench. No more scary client obligations for a few weeks. A chance to study and prepare for the next gig.
A day or so later, I felt like heavy weight had descended on me. I had a fever and was sneezing a bit, but it was more than a cold. I didn’t work it out until yesterday. The wave of anxiety that I’d been surfing on since the beginning of the year had hit the beach and dissipated into a foam of depression. It’s why I haven’t felt like doing very much at all, and the slightest efforts, like shaving, cooking or even talking to my beloved have felt like Herculean tasks. 
I’m in a pit, here at the deepest point of the year, like an astronaut in orbit round a black hole. 
But it’s OK. I know what to do. And just as importantly, what not to do. This episode of depression is here to protect me, to give me a chance to rest and reform. I can let things happen around me, not rail against them, and remember that acceptance and compassion are my allies. I am unlikely to go the full Arthur Fowler on Christmas Day. There’s a script for these occasions that we can all follow without having to be decisive or commanding. 
Sometimes it’s light. Sometimes it’s dark. Neither is permanent. And in one sense, tomorrow’s the first day of Spring.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Art of Coarse Running


This year has brought me ample opportunity to practice acceptance. Plans have collided with facts. Stories have taken unforeseen turns. I didn't expect to be where I am now.
At the end of 2015, I felt fulfilled and optimistic. I'd reached a dreamed-of marathon record, sub 3:30 in the late Spring, and then surprised myself by surpassing it with sub 3:20 on a hilly course in Autumn. To mark my fiftieth birthday in April 2016, I planned to run my first ultra marathon, and embarked on training over the preceding Christmas.
As I've found at the piano, autodidactic development has its limits. I was guessing, really, what sort of training was needed to become capable of a 55 mile race, and arrived at a programme of 90 training runs over 18 weeks. I suspect that I did myself damage over that period. As I plodded through the long slow winter training runs I consoled myself with the thought that when it was over, I could return to shorter, faster runs and resume the journey of successive marathon records.
It hasn't worked out that way. The next race, an Autumn 2016 half marathon, took me a frustrating 1:31:30, the first time I'd missed a target in several years. And the training for it had been punishing. The technique I use, based on a jargon-heavy self-promoting American training guide, demands specific high speeds, which I'd been failing to reach.
Then, I think, I made a strategic error. I entered 2017 on a wave of good intention. I'd used two techniques to increase my speed, shifting from carbs to fat to lose weight, and adopting this run-less-run-faster technique. The next obvious approach seemed to be to train with other people. I'd found that in the gym I always gave a bit more if I trained in a group, so why not do the same outside?
I went to a couple of ParkRuns. But only a couple. I'm glad to have sampled this wonderfully accessible communal free timed race movement. But it highlighed the price of group exercise - you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. And coming in as near the front of a 5K as I had in marathons required a pace that was beyond me. 
I also tagged along with a friend who's a member of a running club. They go out for a medium-distance run near to my home every Sunday morning. The pack would typically split into ability-based sub-groups. The pace was closer to my edge. I really hoped that this would be the driver I needed to gain speed. 
I really didn't enjoy it. The paces were punishing. There was no option to stop for a call of nature. The social pressure of being surrounded by people I didn't know, who were all far far better than me at something that I had previously derived self-worth from being good at was challenging. I found myself going out for a two-mile solo warm up before each Sunday morning run just in order to be able to set off with the rest of them (and, yes, to pre-empt any of those calls of nature). It was leaving me so worn out that I didn't do much running during the rest of the week. I secretly wished I had an excuse to bow out.
That excuse came in April. I was working in London, and our client had put me up at Tower Bridge. One night after work, I ran east, along the North bank of the Thames, through Shadwell, Wapping, Canarh Wharf and the Isle of Dogs, under the foot tunnel to Greenwich and up to the observatory, and then all the way back into the glorious sunset over the City. It was an athletic shambles and an aesthetic delight. The following day I could barely walk. My left ankle was injured and I knew I needed physiotherapy. 
Mhari, who I see at such times, concluded that I hadn't really recovered from the ultra marathon, and that the muscles supporting the joint weren't doing their job. My recoverey would involve specific strengthening exercises, and getting my cardio fix from stationary cycling classes. These are a form of punishment specifically tailored to torture me. They take place in a "studio" (room) where lots of people sit and stand on exercise bikes and respond to the bellowed orders of an instructor leading the way and wearing a headset in order to match the sound level of the anodyne musical accompaniment. Something about speaking in this context makes people apply arbitrary emphasis to their words. I'm an Aspie, and this dissonance, along with the baffling way that much of the music has vocals makes for a disorienting session.
Eventually, it came to an end. Mhari advised that i could tentatively start running again. I did. It felt fantastic. It was like stumbling on a favourite toy that had been placed on a high shelf and taking it down again. And I was deliberately allowed not to push the pace. I could stop and appreciate my surroundings. I realised how much I really need to exercise alone. It's what I do when company gets too much.
We agreed that I could probably run the next race I had entered, the Chester marathon in October. I had twelve weeks to prepare. That meant that I didn't have the sixteen weeks that the self-styled US professors of runology mandated. And that was fine. I wasn't going to aim for a record, just get round, and treat the race as part of the rehabilitation. In order to run 20 miles two weeks before the race (it's not necessary to train to the full race distance) and not increase my overall mileage by 10% per week, I knew where I had to start from, and it was manageable. 
Now, the day before the race, I feel as though I've overtrained. Mostly, my left ankle has remained functional, and at times as even felt normal. That's been a mixed blessing. It's meant that I have sometimes overreached myself. In particular, I've been drawn to 400m intervals, because it's a distance I can attach without reaching exhaustion. After about eight weeks of progressive improvement, my performance waned. I felt exhausted. I hadn't been sleeping well, at all, getting five hours a night at most. Some of this was due to a critical professional exam which I'm had to prepare for around my day job, failed, and then had to resist on a draining day trip to Manchester. I needed the runs to clear my head after all the cramming.
After my peak individual run distance, a 20 miler at two weeks ago, I've more radically tapered by training than I'd planed and only covered five miles this week.
I feel lousy. My joints ache when I lift heavy things, or start cycling up a hill, and I'm flagging earlier than usual in gym classes. I have a cold-like infection and systemic inflammation - I've no doubt that the ache in my joints has the same root cause as the puffiness round my eyes and the itch in my throat. I wake up with a headache. My back hurts, upper and lower. 
This isn't where I want to be. 
It casts a shadow over the whole undertaking. I was shaking with nerves as I finished my packing this morning. Getting to the start of the race is a Heath Robinson exercise which has involved bringing my folding bike down to Liverpool on the train, so I can cycle from my Mum's house to the car hire place at the airport and collect a car just so that I can drive to Chester in the morning. I've been as anxious about the logistics of this as I usually am about my performance. 
The thing to do is to accept this. To welcome these feelings in. Explore them. Yes, this isn't the triumphant return to speed I was anticipating. I am perversely travelling to Chester to run this race precisely because the course is millpond-flat, a bed for a personal best. That's a rather sharp reminded that this isn't going to happen. So let me then revel in this turn of events. I am about to run my slowest marathon in years. The jeopardy is not "Will I better my previous record?" but "Will I be chaperoned off the course wearing a space blanket?"
What have I already learned from this?
Easy: I love running. Especially after a lay off. I hate spin cycling. it will never be my thing. Avoiding injury can involve keeping the muscles that support my joints strong. The muscles I need for running aren't the same ones that I develop by running. I need to keep tuning in to how I'm feeling and stop stressing myself simultaneously on different fronts: I can prepare for an exam or work on an election campaign, but not at the same time as I'm training for a race. I can train for a race but not at the same time as I'm pursuing regular high intensity intermittent training. I can lose weight by radically cutting carbs and fasting, but not at the same time as I'm stressing myself in training.
What can I now learn from this?
Harder: I can stop regarding mindfulness and acceptance as only something I do when I'm meditating each morning, or in response to actions external to me. I can direct this interest to my own dynamic ensemble of needs and urges, attachments and aversions. This can be the year that I ran a terrible marathon. And I can be OK with that. I can see the path that brought me here. It's an instructive path. 
I realise that although I've had a long lay-off, a few blind alleys, and in stark figures, am a less competitive runner than I was two years ago when I seemed unstoppable, I've nonetheless had a great year for running. I've rediscovered it, I've run through Canary Wharf and in the foothills outside Aix-en-Provence, and deepened my love for the linear parks on my doorstep, the Union Canal towpath and the Water of Leith walkway. 
That means I can set off on my heroically doomed enterprise tomorrow morning, with my cold, my aching joints, my nippy tendon, and my sleep-deprived fatigue and know that it's still part of something good. 
Thanks for reading. It has helped massively to get these words out of me.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The End of Time

Over two and a half years ago, on Saturday November 23 2013, Doctor Who, the television programme that has enthralled me from early childhood reached its fiftieth anniversary, just a couple of years before I reached my own. Before the special new epic episode went out later that evening, at exactly 1715 I watched the very first, fifty years to the minutes after it first went out. “An Unearthly Child" excited me, as it had since the first time I saw it projected from 16mm film in a university lecture theatre in 1979. The following day, I found myself watching episode two, “The Cave of Skulls”, and a new ritual was born. I would mark the fiftieth anniversary of my favourite made-up world by watching it all, an episode a day until there were no more episodes to watch.
I filled in the clusters of missing episodes from the first six years by using the restored and narrated off-air soundtracks made by fans at the time, and by viewing the reconstruction of the episodes combining these soundtracks with off-screen pictures and other visuals. The linear rush through these black and white sixties episodes was, I now realise, and kind of grand multimedia re-staging of the joyful enlightenment that came to me as a seven year old when “The Making of Doctor Who” and the tenth anniversary Radio Times special magazine revealed the hitherto-obscure history of the programme that had become the highlight of my week.
As the newly-recovered missing Patrick Troughton episodes sped past in twelve days, I realised it would be over two years before could watch them again. My rules were that I could watch the new episodes that were broadcast as well as each daily vintage one, but I couldn’t watch any others, jumping neither forwards nor backwards.
By summer 2014, I’d watched all the sixties episodes and was joined for the colour ones by my friends Gill and Martin. We’d try and keep in step with each other and share our period memories and modern evaluations of them an episode at a time in a shared discussion. I’d just started formally practicing mindfulness and found this a rich vein of material with which to assess what I was actually experiencing instead of what I was thinking about experiencing.
The next year was a vivid one as we passed into episodes I’d watched as a child and ones which I’d watched when I’d known my two fellow travellers. We watched my first memory of the series, “The Daemons” from 1971, the episode from my seventh birthday (“Planet of the Daleks” Part One), and remembered how we’d felt when Jo left the Doctor at the end of “The Green Death”. The more times I relive these, the more I re-remember them and hardwire who I am. These were formative legends.
In early 2015, my then employer had me commuting from Edinburgh to Glasgow every day. I had time to watch each 25-minute Tom Baker episode and write a mini-essay for the others. It was the sole redeeming feature of that ghastly engagement. By April, my lack of enthusiasm had percolated through to our client, who asked my employer not to send me to them any more, and so Spring and Summer of 2015 became my JN-T period, when my own professional future became as insecure as that of the programme during the eighties. My last day with my employer was the day we watched Tom Baker hang up his scarf. I spent a glorious month of paid garden leave with his open-faced successor each day, and on a sea day of our summer holiday cruise round the Baltic, watched all 90 minutes of “The Five Doctors” on my iPad in a coffee lounge aboard the P&O Aurora.
Back to work, to a new employer. My commute was short and often on two wheels. Fitting in one of the sixth Doctor’s first run of experimental 45-minutes episodes each day proved a squeeze and compromised the essence of the experiment - the serial, episode-at-a-time experience which meant I was usually in the middle of an adventure. These were over in a couple of days.
Eventually, the original 26-year run came to an end. In a succession of leaps worthy of a time traveller, we went from the first ending, in 1989, to the fleeting rebirth in 1996, to the more permanent resurrection in 2005 in just three days. Although I’d conceived this as an episode each day, the three of us agreed that as they were all now a bit longer, and usually comprised an entire story, we’d watch one every other day, giving time to chew them over.
Work got busier, and the winter saw me trying to devote five days a week to prepare for an ultra marathon. My ability to write up my reactions was compromised and I still feel sorry that I failed to keep a diary for the whole experiment.
While we’d been doing this, two whole series featuring a whole new Doctor had gone out. As I watched “The Name of the Doctor” in which the Doctor dives into his own time stream I mused that I was about to do the same thing, by now re-watching the new episodes that I’d double-banked on Saturdays along with whatever the historic episode was I was watching.
And last night, I reached “Hell Bent”, the most recent episode of the most recent series of Doctor Who. I’ve caught up. Nearly. Christmas 2015 was a fraught time. I managed to watch “Gridlock” on Christmas morning, as my schedule dictated, but family commitments meant I didn’t see “The Husbands of River Song” go out that night. A week later, I still hadn’t managed to watch it and decided to make accident the mother of invention and resolved to deliberately hold it back until the end of the experiment.
And so, tomorrow, to round this off, I will watch the most recent episode of Doctor Who, for the first ever time. The last episode of this sequence will be the only one I will be watching for the first time ever. It seems apt to turn my focus from revisiting the past to what will be, for me, experiencing the present.
And, then, I shall be done. What then? We’ve contemplated simply starting again at “An Unearthly Child”. Or whipping through Doctor Who’s off-screen stable-mate “Blake’s Seven” or on-screen siblings “Torchwood” or “The Sarah-Jane Adventures”. But I’ve resisted these ideas. For me, the right thing to do next is to step away from discipline and ritual for a while and just let spontaneity take over.  I have the luxury of not watching Doctor Who for a while. Of reading on the bus instead of watching Peter Capaldi weave magic on my smartphone screen. Or I can choose to scratch itches that have become pervasive over the last couple of years - to wallow again in the glory that is the recoloured “The Mind of Evil”, to experience the oddness of the recovered portions of “Galaxy Four” and “The Underwater Menace”. And as soon as the nights draw in again, I think it highly unlikely that I will not succumb to the temptation of “The Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear”, still only watched twice since they were returned to the archives. And speaking of archives, Obverse Books’s “The Black Archive” series of book essays and Doctor Who Magazine’s “The Fact of Fiction” will keep leading me to look at Doctor Who stories just because they’re good, or interesting or both.
I may be a little lost without my daily and then other-daily ritual. I haven’t aways felt like watching whatever the next episode was, or had the time, but I’ve always done it, and usually felt glad to have done so. These are my rosaries, my catechisms. I mentally list the stories in order when I’m swimming or out running. There was a time in early 2014 when I could actually recite the individual Hartnell episode titles. That was a condition which, as an adolescent, I aspired to.  In carrying out this pilgrimage through the past, I have done my adolescent self proud. He’s still there, alive, inside me, and as deserving of my love and kindness as he’s ever been.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Journey's End


On Saturday April 2 2016 at around eight thirty in the evening, darkness having completely fallen, I ran along the final stretch of the Union Canal towpath into Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, and stopped running, having covered 55 miles since I set off from Glasgow’s Ruchill Park eleven and half hours earlier. My wife Helen and three of our friends were there to greet me with party banners and balloons. Over four months of planning and preparation were behind me. The 2016 Glasgow to Edinburgh Ultramarathon was, for me, over. I felt, if there’s such a thing, a steady exuberance - I noticed I was being outgoing, celebratory and conversational, but there was no reserve beneath the surface. I couldn’t summon the coordination to hold my jacket, finisher’s T-shirt and medal. The job was done, moved from the future into the past, an exercise that seemed just as hard to contemplate afterwards as it had been before.
The night before saw me in a peculiar mood. I had a lot of preparation to do. This race involved more than just turning up at the start wearing the right clothes. Ultra races span changes in weather and many mealtimes, so you’re carrying more than for a marathon. I had to maximise the amount of sleep I’d get beforehand, which meant deferring breakfast and coating appropriate parts of my skin with sun lotion, vaseline and a sudocrem until I was on the train to Glasgow. I realised I was building an Apollo rocket, with fuel that would be burned up, sections that would be discarded, and even one component that would be docked with again mid-mission. Helen, wisely, stayed out of my way, while I made banana and peanut butter sandwiches, decanted illicit-looking white powder into unmarked plastic bags and checked and rechecked my bus and train connections. I’d been running through all this in my head for weeks, but there were still some decisions being made at the last minute. I tucked my earphones in my pocket, not to listen to music during the race, but in case there were intrusive conversations on the train in the morning. The Aspie vicious circle is that overstimulation makes me more anxious and that makes me more sensitive to overstimulation. It all seemed to be done eventually, and I went to bed.
The alarm prompted me at five thirty, although I was already awake. A brisk shower, kit on, and I was out of the door shortly after six. As I closed the door behind me I hoped fervently that I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was concerned that I’d chosen the wrong pair of shoes for this race. I was wearing my newish trail running shoes because they’ve caused me least pain in training, but I worrying they might not be cushioned enough. I took the bus to Haymarket because being the only passenger in a taxi makes me anxious and I can’t fabricate small talk if the driver’s chatty. Once on the train, I set to breakfasting and slathering myself with unguents. I’d taken some latex gloves for this purpose because sudocrem gets everywhere. Alas, this meant I put far too much on and had a ghostly tinge of white round my thighs for the rest of the day. Everything I was doing had this fumbling, only-just-about-good-enough quality. I wasn’t dancing through the plan in a state of flow.
At Glasgow Queen Street, another runner hailed me and asked if I’d mind sharing a taxi to the start. It turned out he was exactly the same age as me, and had moved away from Edinburgh 20 years earlier just as I was arriving, and had returned from Houston, Texas for a school reunion. We arrived a few minutes later at Ruchill Park where the race would start, and I was perversely heartened to see a fellow runner sucking down a cigarette. After a big marathon, I sometime see one smoker in a numbered vest, and as a reformed smoker myself, always feel an odd kinship.
We did all the usual admin, and deposited our drop bags that we would be reunited with 22 miles later at checkpoint two, and I was diverted from worry by tales from my companion, Iain, about the many ultras he’d run in the States. This was essential. It stopped me contemplating what I was about to undertake. The setting was much more Aspie-friendly that any other race I’d run - no crowds, no barriers, no music, no well-meaning announcer soliciting cheers over a cranked up PA. I could tell that the independent group organising this were competent, but I’m not going to sully them with the word “professional” and its implications of profit motivation.
At five to nine, the hundred and fifty of us assembled for a quick briefing from the race director. A hundred and fifty GPS watches were started up. Bang! Off we trotted out of the park and on to the canal path. It had begun.
Thirteen days earlier I had overdone it on a training run and caused a cluster of pains in and around my left ankle. I’d stopped all running four days later and seen a masseur and a physiotherapist to do whatever was needed. I was pleased that the physio had given me the green light the previous day, and for about a mile, as we headed north to the canal junction, it felt good. We were a tight pack of runners at this stage and I was finding some of the conversation between groups a bit intrusive. Pretty soon, I had a more vivid source of stimulation as my ankle erupted into discomfort. Tiny doubts started to blossom and flourish. Was I going to be able to finish this?
I’d parked the big doubt at the back of my mind weeks earlier. Before this day the furthest I had ever run was 34 miles about six weeks beforehand. That had felt like a day’s work and then some. Today I had to run about 21 miles on top of that. My last nine marathons have been about how long it will take me to finish, not whether I can finish, because that was already established. There was no such precedent here. I took some solace from the people around me. They all seemed to be in the same sort of shape as me, had the same sort of gear, and we were all running at about the same pace, slightly faster than I had planned.
These plans had included walking for 45 seconds of each fifteen minutes. I’d worked this out in training, because the arithmetic involved in running fifteen minutes then walking one becomes taxing when exhausted. But after fifteen minutes everyone else was still running, as they were after thirty minutes. I decided to build up a head of progress and run non-stop to Checkpoint One, thirteen miles ahead.
The ankle pain worsened. It started to float and dance around my left leg, afflicting every part of my ankle and foot, my knee, and my ITB. I applied what I’ve learned from mindfulness and yoga and attended to the pain rather than avoiding it. I breathed with it and accepted it, and didn’t change my gait in an effort to lessen it. It was bearable, but if I’d ever felt like this on a training run, I’d have dropped out immediately, no question. The final-week moratorium on running seemed to have made no difference.
It was a bright and crisp morning. The pack began to thin out. The landscape around the Forth and Clyde canal stimulated me. I fixed my thoughts on the first checkpoint and got on with it.
There are certain calls of nature that need to be attended to more privately than others. Running does stimulate the digestion. I had packed the necessary requisites and having paused to withdraw behind some bushes behind a fallen post-and-wire fence, made my way briskly back to the towpath, hopeful not to have been seen in my unmistakable posture. I’d forgotten about the fallen fence and the wire caught my bad ankle and sent me tumbling straight towards the canal itself. I wasn’t being conspicuously dignified beforehand but falling in would have really been the limit. What am I like? Onward.
At each checkpoint, we gave our bib numbers to the marshals, who checked us off. We could grab some sustenance and fill up our water containers. I had a bladder in my backpack, so I could get that topped up and mix in some more of the grown-up sherbet that was keeping me full of salt and sugar. The checkpoints also segmented the course and stopped it becoming overwhelming.
On, then, to the next checkpoint, and the Falkirk Wheel, that miraculous piece of millennial engineering that provides an exquisitely-balanced aqueduct lift for boats to move from one canal to another about a hundred feet higher without a laborious ladder of locks.
By now I’d been running for about four hours and my mood was starting to wobble. I’d been interacting with other runners when I overtook or was overtaken ponderously slowly, in some cases leapfrogging the same runners several times as our run/walk cycles phased. I was faking the jollity, to be honest, not really using my own voice, adopting pretend contractions to appear more matey. But it was still welcome, and I was glad of the validation. The pack had thinned out completely and I was alone for long sections. That’s my natural state, so when I suddenly arrived at the wheel, which is a visitor attraction, at lunchtime on a Saturday, I was suddenly surrounded by a lot of people, all being very gregarious. I had to locate my drop bag, decant my stuff into my vest pockets and get my bladder refilled. My pervasive jitteriness meant I fumbled getting the powder bag open and got it all over myself, sticky and distracting. This was the low point - suddenly too much to do, and too many people around me making too much noise.
I deliberately walked up the hill from the Forth and Clyde up to the Union Canal, eating my huge and infantile sweet sandwich. This was perhaps overdue, as my mood lightened and I trotted on. This was not, despite what I heard many of the others runners saying, half way, only the junction of the two canals, but it still felt good. Once I’d cleaned the sugar off my fingers, I’d texted my pal Jon from work that I was on my way. He lives a bit further on and was going to come out and meet me.
I couldn’t live with the pain from my joints which had now spread to my groin and my left testicle (I must have a dominant right one or something) so I gave in and started taking Ibuprofen, 400mg every hour. This immediately blurred the pain.
Falkirk to Linlithgow is a long haul. My pace decayed quite noticeably here. For all that my sole intention was to finish, I seemed to be driven to do so at about the time I’d given to Helen. I’d slipped from ten minute miles to eleven. The averaging algorithm on my new GPS watch seemed to never let my average pace increase, even when I started up again from a walk or a checkpoint. I reached 26.2 miles and mentally logged that I was now running my longest ever competitive distance. With one marathon under my belt I still had another to run, and then a 5K for good measure. That perspective didn’t seem to demolish me the way I’d feared. I passed what I took to be Polomont where Jon lived and assumed that I’d missed him, my pace have slipped to make the time estimate I’d given him wrong. But no, there he was. Tellingly, before I’d even one hundred percent identified him, I risked a wave and he waved back. What a glorious sight. He’s a big-hearted, supportive man, and there are few people I’d rather have seen at this point. I’d deliberately not taken my previous scheduled walk break so I could walk a few minutes with him, and he worked on my morale and we agreed between us that I was definitely going to finish. That was the turning point. I think I believed it from then on.
I was definitely helped by both the segments delimited by the checkpoints and the rhythms I imposed on myself. Every fifteen minutes the chance for a 45 second walk if I chose to take it. Every half hour something to eat (forbidden cereal and dried-fruit bars, a terrible contrast to my usual protein and fat regime), every hour 400mg of Ibuprofen. It divided it all up, stopped it being a too-big-to-move monolith.
I had nothing in my ears apart from birdsong and the steady rustles, splashes and creaks coming from my running vest. I didn’t crave music or speech at all. My thoughts were quite ordered at first, either tuning in to my sensations or drifting off down memory lane, but became more disorganised as I went on. I thought about sex. A lot. Really an awful lot. This seems surprising at first, but I am a man, and we supposedly think about it every eight seconds. So that’s over five thousand saucy thoughts in the course of the race.
The numbers on my GPS watch assumed a surreal magnitude. They said I’d been running for over eight hours, that I’d covered forty miles. These aren’t normal numbers.
A lot of the course had been tarmac covered in the last year, and there was even a gang at work on the day. I love running on tarmac. It’s the closed highways of our towns and cities that I run my marathons on. The sections that weren’t tarmac were irregular stones and sometimes mud. This was what really differentiated parts of the course. It was tough to run on, degraded my pace and hurt my ankles and knees. My heart didn’t quite sink every time the tarmac ran out, but I was thankful whenever it resumed.
At last, Linlithgow, heralded by the towers of the palace. On this very linear, very flat course, there were few visual cues about what was coming up so the few that were there made a big impact, as did the aqueducts over river valleys.
Next, a dog-leg, and the main explanation of why this route is so much longer than the straight line between the two cities. The light rain had set in. I’d taken my waterproof jacket off at the first checkpoint but put it back on later. I seemed to be wearing fewer layers than all the other runners and put this down to my slight cold and fever. I kept my glasses on. This was the first competitive race I’ve worn them for, because I now just can’t read my watch without them. I could distinctly feel each Ibuprofen tablet wearing off so I upped the frequency to one every half hour. This would be madness on a normal day, but I was eating every half hour as well and passing fluid though me continuously. Don’t try this at home, kids. Rounding the dog-leg I came into Broxburn for the penultimate checkpoint having drunk my backpack bladder dry. This was my favourite checkpoint of all - the marshals were extra friendly and I wanted them to be my aunties. I dumped my powder in the bladder and had it topped up. Off I set. I took an overdue draw from the tube and realised to my alarm that the powder had all congealed at the bottom and clogged it up rather than mixing. In my single moment of ingenuity of the entire day, I blew into the tube, cleared the clog, and shook the pack until it had mixed better. All this while running!
There was just a half marathon to go now. I’d joked with another runner that we could do that in an hour and a half. That was funny because that is a respectable half marathon time, but this discipline operates on cosmically different times and paces. An ultra run is really not that much faster than a brisk walk.
The penultimate section was where I started to switch back on and feel in control. I had an absolute belief I’d finish. I was on home turf. These sections are where I do my distance training. As I ran under the M8 shortly after Broxburn towards the Almond aqueduct I felt at home. The section approaching Ratho exemplified what I liked best about the course - lots of trees to soften the open sky, the opposite side of the canal banked up, daffodils cementing the time of year and the scent of wild garlic everywhere.
At Ratho I phoned Helen and gave her my revised ETA. A phone is mandatory equipment and has to be left on. But when I took it out to talk to her, I felt too connected with alerts from my social media apps and even the message that my Scrabble friends missed me. Give me a break for one day, eh, Scrabble friends? My pace was holding up quite well now rather than slipping off more and more steeply as I’d feared. The checkpoint staff were adept in helping me get restocked with water and seemed to know the intricacies of my gear better than I did.
I’d feared that the last leg would be hellish. The last five percent of a marathon is often unbearable. But I knew it was all tarmac from here, and that soon I’d been on path that I used to run during lunch hours when I worked in Sighthill. Crossing the Scott Russell Aqueduct high above Edinburgh’s City Bypass I felt within my home town again. My morale took two more boosts around here - 50 miles covered, and then 52.4. Two marathons. Double my furthest ever competitive distance.
Night drew in. Wester Hailes did not look its best, and I say that as a defender of its modern towers and filled-in and later re-cut canal section. Perhaps I was seeing it through eyes that had taken in a lot of sunlight and natural beauty earlier in the day.
Just a few miles to go now. I’d been running for over ten hours. I’d been mercifully free of ear-worms for most of the day, but Steven Wilson’s “Routine” and “Perfect Life” had taken residence on my internal jukebox. That was OK, because they’re both superb songs. And tellingly, heart-wreckingly emotional ones. (Oh dear. I’m starting to well up a bit as I type now.) The canal took me to Craiglockhart, where Helen and I live. It literally passes the end of our road. The dusk was encroaching and I was nearing the end of a long day, and there was our home. The refrain of “Perfect Life” took over. I sang it a bit, to let it out. I had a sudden realisation that here, now, was a time of my life that I’ll always look back on with importance, the day I took a stand against decrepitude. And I thought of Helen, in our house.
Three minutes later, I realised she wasn’t in our house. There she was, in the gloom standing on the next bridge under an umbrella. We waved, she took a photo of we waving and running. I called out that I loved her, and my voice cracked. Right here, now, after this stretched-out adventure was the most important person in my world.
I ran on, away from our house, the last couple of miles to the finish line. It wasn’t an agonising last stretch at all. My pace increased. I was flying along. It was going to be over soon. I suspect that I was experiencing rising dopamine levels. No more checkpoints. No more walk breaks. No more food. No more painkillers. Just running. Pure and joyful.
On Saturday April 2 2016 at around eight thirty in the evening, darkness having completely fallen, I ran along the final stretch of the Union Canal towpath into Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, and stopped running, having covered 55 miles since I set off from Glasgow’s Ruchill Park eleven and half hours earlier.
A medal and T-shirt were pressed into my hands and I had my photo taken. I saw my buddy from the morning come in about ten minutes after me and congratulated him. Back with Helen and our friends, I told a few stories, and we collectively decided that the best place for me was home.
The Dave-ettes
L-R Claire, Alex, me, Susan
I wasn’t in too bad shape. My feet were a bit bruised and bloody in places and I was starting to walk like C3PO. Having been eating all day, I felt like nothing else and the forbidden treats I’d been promising myself seemed no more than passing fantasies. I had my first coffee in three days and declared my finish on Facebook and Twitter. Before going to bed I was rewarded with a tidal wave of online congratulations that will take some beating in my lifetime. And I’d reached the stretch goal in fundraising of £100 for each mile run. I am overjoyed that this exercise has raised a substantial sum to help run Autism Initiatives' Number 6 service, which I feel intimately connected with.
I never sleep well after a race. Those Steven Wilson ear-worms returned and I was up again at four to read and flush some water through myself. I took some Tryptophan which promotes Seratonoin and caught another couple of hours.
It’s only through writing this down a day later that it’s started to sink in that I did it. It was impossible to imagine running this distance beforehand and it’s quite hard to believe it afterwards. I’m not going to attempt it again in the foreseeable future. The training regime took too much out of me, depriving me of much of the joy of running, and other than building up my endurance, has been damaging to my health and fitness. I’m going to take a few weeks off until my ankle and other joints have settled down, and catch up with all other other things I’ve had to pause for this. And when my appetite’s returned I’m going to start running again.
I’m fifty later this month. During my forties I’ve brought my marathon time down from four hours nine minutes to three hours nineteen. Before I get too old, I am determined, no doubt after a series of heartbreaking near-misses, to run a sub-three-hour marathon.
Just watch me.



Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Social Support - Two Days To Go

This is the strangest week.
My training taper has ended up becoming a transient switch from on to off. I've been staying in bed until as late as seven some mornings. I can watch television or read again without falling asleep. And instead of pounding the pathways I've been hammering the keyboard. 
During the past month, as training peaked, I was too occupied and tired to do anything about keeping fundraising on track. I had to raise about a thousand pounds per month, and as that slipped, I comforted myself with the thought that I'd raise more as the race approached. And there's always the way that donations lag a bit behind the event.
But with no running to do this week, as I wait agonisingly for my resting heart rate to fall to something normal and my left ankle to stop hurting, I've had time to think about fundraising. I've been able to transcribe a couple of sections of my interview with Rachel McRitchie from Number 6. And I've had time to step beyond social media broadcasting and directly target donors.
The response has been heartening. When asked, people I know, friends, family members, and colleagues, past and present, more often than not, come good and make a donation. 
With two days to go, the total stands at £4,660. It feels as though I'm going go be setting off on Saturday knowing that I've reached the target.
I've realised today that I'd never have caused this much to be raised if I hadn't had a target. I'd have put out my call for help and been grateful for what came back, but never actually approached individuals, or in the workplace jargon that owes everything to Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, reached out to them.
I've also realised that what's driving me is this number. Anticipating the sight of those digits rolling over until there is a five followed by four zeroes is generating a surge of dopamine in my brain. I am motivated very precisely to see that happen before nine o'clock on Saturday morning when I and 150 others leave Glasgow's Ruchill Park for the longest run of many of our lives.
But these insights are nothing to the biggest epiphany of all. I'll have 150 running comrades on the day, but I also have about the same number of comrades who are doing this with me specifically. I'm not the disconnected emotionless Aspie of cliche, nor the lonely long-distance runner of post-war fiction. I am instead the spearhead of a fleet of helpers, and with every click on my JustGiving page I have felt more and more emotionally connected, to people I know now, people I am just getting to know and people I've known closely and am now cordially remote from. 
This is no solo flight. Like Gagarin or Armstrong, famous for being projected furthest, fastest, first, I am just the most visible embodiment of a huge team effort. A team has give and take for all its members. I'd chosen to run this race before I'd decided to raise funds, and because I've created this association between both activities, the kindness and generosity of everyone who's give will propel me forward, make it harder to drop out and energise me to keep going. That's my take from this.
Help has come in many forms. There were the specially-recruited exemplars like Doctor Who's Steven Moffat and his greatest-by-orders-of magnitude contribution, and the elected politicians. There were the people who are with me every step of the way in everything I do. New partners, like my colleagues in my still-new workplace. Old friends with whom I'm seldom in touch but who jumped to help. Friends and colleague of Helen, who barely know me themselves, but take the fact that I'm her husband as a  seal of honour. And cheerleaders who've not only given, but spread the word.
It's made me feel rather emotional several times so far, and I know I've going to spill over a few times on the day.
I'm not alone. I can ask for help and I'll receive it. I'm connected. We spend so much of our lives telling ourselves the story that we're alone and separate. How precious to be reminded, again and again, demonstrably, uncontrovertibly, that that isn't so. 
Thanks for coming with me.

www.justgiving.com/wavenode


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Road That Led Here - Three Days To Go

Ten marathons. Marathon is such a sensible, short distance.

I can't believe I've just typed "Three Days To Go". It makes me feel Saturday rushing towards me. I'm spending my evenings this week writing individually to people I know to ask if they'll contribute, and I'm humbled and overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends old and new.
This means I haven't had time to write a proper blog for today, so this is off the top of my head. How did I get here? How did I decide that I would run a more-than-double marathon on the eve of my fiftieth birthday?
I ran my first marathon in 2008. By the time I'd run five, and started to knock the time it took me down, I'd decided that I'd have a go at ten. And all of these took place during my forties. It just seemed to make a kind a mathematical sense to round off that decade with something special.
I have no intention of making this my new standard distance. The 18 weeks of training have eroded my ability to run fast and I've put on about 4 kg, because these long slogs don't really burn fat and leave me insatiably hungry. I'm looking forward to stopping and then starting again - shorter distances, higher speeds, more intensity, more recovery in between runs. I'll lose that weight and take a delight in running again.
I feel OK about asking people for money for doing this now, because it's hard.
The training has been hard. It has been hard to do and has made everything else I do harder as well. This isn't a lifestyle I could sustain. I inherited a very unhelpful paternal belief that reward has to be earned. This grim ethic has asserted itself viciously this winter.
And this week, the dutiful labour and low mood have been supplanted by fear. I make no bones about it - I'm terrified. As well as my usual non-specific anxiety, I have some quite particular fears. 
My left ankle doesn't feel perfect. I'm aware of it most of the time. I know that by running on it on Saturday I'll be compromising the recovery that's been happening since I stopped training last week. What if the pain becomes acute? How will I feel if I have to drop out? How do I face over a hundred sponsors? How do I face myself? How will I manage the following day, deprived of the achievement I've been promising myself? 
And will this mild cold bug I have still affect me? I seem to be able to feel my heart thumping whenever I turn my attention to it. Will I be weakened? Will I be feverish? Will I slow to the point that I stop reaching the checkpoints by the cutoff time and be asked to drop out?
And even if the ankle pain and the fever continue to recede as they thankfully have been, will I be able to complete the course? The furthest I have ever run is 34 miles and that felt a long way from comfortable or normal. I have to continue for another 21miles after that. Can I do it? Is there any evidence? Any hope I can hang on to?
There's only one way to find out.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Door That's Always Open - Four Days To Go

Number 6 is a one-stop shop, for adults from the age of 16 up, with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. It’s situated in a tall town house in Edinburgh’s new town. You can get an idea of the formal services it offers from the web site.
In my own experience, I’ve received one to one counselling, attended courses on coping with the difficulties that Asperger’s throws up and the specific challenges of late diagnosis, and finally been able to meet others who like me were diagnosed in adulthood. I’ve also taken advantage of Number 6’s employment counselling when starting a new job after my diagnosis and weighing up the benefits and costs of disclosing my condition in the workplace.
That’s all quite a formal description of what Number 6 can offer. And my own experiences are slanted to my own extremely mild brush from autism. Number 6 has really helped me but it wouldn’t be right to say I depend on that help. However, I know that other users of the service do depend on it. I asked Number 6’s Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, Rachel McRitchie, what difference Number 6 makes to the lives of its users.
“Maybe the biggest difference it makes is that once people know we’re here they’ve got an extra coping tool to use and keep in their back pocket. It doesn’t mean they need to come here all the time. It doesn’t mean we need to know them intricately or anything like that. It just means that if something went wrong in their life, or felt like it was going out of control, there’s an option. There’s somebody they know they can ask and hopefully because of the expertise that we’ve got with Asperger’s that we would understand and maybe be able to offer input and a way forward.
“I think a lot of people do use us in that way. We have over 1400 people registered with us now and that’s a number much bigger than most people would guess. In an average year we tend to have about half of that volume of individuals that will access us at some point. (Maybe the other half don’t need us that year!) It’s just the idea that there’s something there if they need the option.
“For some people who do use us a lot we’re pretty much their second home and their second family – or their first family for that matter. Because there’s a lot of people who for different reasons don’t actually have anybody in the world. And that’s part of where they maybe struggle with social isolation and loneliness. And the way we like to run Number 6 and, the way that people like to use us is that it operates as a big house: It’s like when you’re young and your mum opens the door and you can come in and out whenever you want. People feel the freedom to come and go as they please. There isn’t any sort of marked expectation on the way be want people to use us. They can be quite free to explore what that is for them.
We actively promote the idea of it looking and feeling a bit more like a home, so that people do start to feel that way about it. Obviously we’re staff and people are using a service, but people do say that it feels like we’re a protective family that is there for them when they need it.
“So people feel like there’s somebody looking out for them. Maybe that’s what Number 6 is. That person that’s there for you when you need them.”

You can help me help Rachel and her colleagues keep the door of Number 6 open so that there service is there when it's needed, 365 days a year.

www.justgiving.com/wavenode

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Dramatically Necessary Late Jeopardy - Five Days To Go


GSV Dramatically Necessary Late Jeopardy entering the Balerno System
Forgive the title of this piece. It sounds like the name of one of Iain M. Banks’ sentient space battle cruisers. But sticking what I’m feeling into a cynical box is the best way of coping with it.
I’ve so far avoided injury during this 18-week training programme and succumbed to just one sequence of systemic infections that kept me off the road for ten days. I’ve been quite relieved. I had expected that by mistreating myself so badly I was bound to come to grief.
Last Sunday, I was running the last of my 11-milers, following an 18-miler the day before. The training distances were coming down as they tapered to almost nothing in the final three weeks. I ran from home in Craiglockhart up to Balerno on the edge of the Pentlands, before turning round and coming back down the Water of Leith walkway. Because my training distances had reduced, my recovery had improved and I was in better shape than I’d been on a Sunday for many weeks. My pace crept up, from my ultramarathon target pace of ten minutes per mile, to nine and a half, then nine, half way down the walkway, I realised I could achieve eight and a half, and went for it. Zoom!
Stupid, stupid, stupid. There’s no point training to run at that pace when it’s far in excess of what I’ll be aiming for on the day. It felt great at the time, as I seemed to be breaking free from the swamp of slow running that has characterised the past four months. I looked forward as I was doing it to starting to run at speed again after the race.
The following day, I noticed two things. My left ankle was really sore. And when I got to the gym in the evening, everything was really difficult. After just a few repetitions of any exercise, my joints and muscles felt full of poison.
I cautiously ran on during the week. My ankle didn’t get better. Nor did my overall performance and I struggled to reach ten minutes per mile some mornings.
The ankle injury arose because I shouldn’t have run like I do when I’m training for a marathon. Then, I have time to recover and push myself. The continuous ultra training doesn’t afford that recovery and I need to keep it steady.
And the overall weakness? I’m noticing I’m waking up coated in sweat as well. I have a mild fever, and my heart rate’s up. It’s an infection - some sort of cold.
I finally acknowledged all this on Friday and have decided to completely rest between now and the race. I’m still going to yoga, and I’ll probably run a cautious two-miler on Wednesday to gauge how I’m recovering. In the mean time I’m trying to stay off my feet, remembering to ice my ankle a couple of times a day and doing everything I can to speed the passing of the infection.
I really let the fear get to me this morning. “What if”, said a voice inside me, “you blow up after fifteen or twenty miles on the day?” “It hurts to walk, so how are you going to be able to run?”. Just thinking like this makes my heart rate soar.
It’s going to be OK, I think. I still believe I can finish. What this pair of glitches will mean is that it might be a lot harder work than I thought. I’m hoping that if I still have the infection, it won’t impede me at the slow pace for the day. And if my ankle is still bad then, well, there are always painkillers and anti-inflamatories, and you know, I won’t need o be able to walk after the race. My knees are both hurting all the time as well. I think this enforced rest is the best possible thing. However, not being able to run has deprived me of an outlet for my nervousness.
I’m going to be such a pleasure to live and work with for the next five days.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Inside Number 6 – Six Days To Go

Number 6, Edinburgh's one-stop shop for adults with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism
Four years ago, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. You can read about that here and here. Immediately afterwards I read all I could on the subject and began to unravel the causes and effects in my life that had led an odd child to become a stressed, anxious and at times clinically depressed adult. I knew what I was how, but not really how to cope with the effects. My GP referred me to Number 6, which the diagnosing psychiatrist had already mentioned, an Edinburgh charity which describes itself as a one-stop shop for adults with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism.
I had an initial consultation which led to me attending two weekly programmes – one for adults who have been diagnosed late, after having spent a significant amount of their adult life undiagnosed and another, Living Life to the Full, providing a broad range of coping strategies. I found them both invaluable, as I simultaneously recognised what I already knew about my difficulties and found new ways of looking at and coping with them.
I can’t emphasise enough that for me and people like me, having Asperger’s doesn’t make me Mr Spock or even Moss from The IT Crowd. What makes us different is that we perceive things differently and experience a permanent state of elevated non-specific anxiety. Simple things often seem hard and worrying. The anxiety can build up and burst into debilitating low mood and depression. That’s what we have to cope with. I’m only mildly disabled by Asperger’s. My intelligence and persistence helps me function in the neurotypical world. But I’m still hampered by anxiety.
My own experiences and the knowledge that others, who are affected more profoundly than me, need help led me to try and raise £5000 for Number Six, through its parent charity funding body, Autism Initiatives. There’s a gap between those the state already provides for (autistic adults with learning difficulties) and those who don’t need support (neurotypical people) where people with autism who are intellectually high-functioning still need help.
I returned to Number 6 this year to talk to staff member Rachel McRitchie, who ran the programmes I attended four years ago. Our wide-ranging chat covered many areas, including her specific remit as Health and Wellbeing Coordinator. I asked Rachel how she enjoyed her job.
“I very much love my role. It has a natural evolution in terms of the way I work with people. With others it’s very clear what their goal is over their interaction with people. It’s a clear step-by-step process. But, for me, when it comes to how people are feeling and coping it’s a very varied thing.
“It’s interesting that a lot of what I say to people is actually echoing back what other service users have expressed to me; the way they’ve described how they’ve felt, or the way they’ve described how they’ve succeeded, and how they’ve succeeded – what helped and what didn’t.  So, I can then use that and try and remember it and give people options and ideas, and they’ve actually come from each other rather than me.
“I run the Late Diagnosis Group and the Living Life to the Full programme, which is the group for people with low mood and anxiety. It’s self-help strategies aimed at building people up, so that they can try and feel supported, but also use that at times when they’re on their own at times when anxiety builds. People’s anxiety improves when they’re able to speak to somebody and work something through. The reality is that that might happen when they’re on their own at 11 o’clock at night when there isn’t anybody to access.
“I run those two groups and I do lots of one-to-ones, typically with people who’ve expressed an interest in talking to somebody about their anxiety – and it’s usually as vague as that. So, we start with an appointment where I speak to that person and ask them what their priority is and what they might like me to try and do.
“Some people feel like others have always had the answers but that they haven’t, so they sometimes think, that when it comes to feelings, that other people are managing to control those things entirely, and that therefore as a neurotypical person I might have the secret answer as to how to not be depressed or something like that. Of course, I would absolutely love if that was true, but it’s not the reality. “It’s much more likely that what we do is instead agree we can aim for some much more specific target, where we think of situational things that cause somebody stress or anxiety or low mood and we break it down into its parts and try and pick apart what’s actually going on behind that - what’s causing the stress and anxiety. There are things we could be doing to either avoid them or remove them, whatever it may be.
“The bit that people focus on is the feeling low, which is obviously something that you would do, because it overwhelms people, but that’s the symptom of something not working. A lot of people find it very difficult on their own to figure out what the bit that’s not working is. Some people have described it to me as having a sounding board, somebody to bounce their ideas off or speak to. It may be something I say sometimes makes them say “Oh! I’ve never heard it phrased that way and actually that puts all the puzzle pieces into place and I’ve suddenly realised what’s going on.” It doesn’t mean that these things get sorted easily and maybe that’s part of why I quite like my role in that it’s not quite so simple as you fix it and it’s done. It’s more a trust-building thing where people come up with ideas, go off and try them and then get back in touch when they feel that they need things.
“So, I tend to get people in dips and rises where I’ll maybe end up seeing them quite a lot for a little bit of time and then they feel like they can go off and give things a go and maybe I don’t see them for a while and often that’s because things are going fine, and then they’ll pop up again if something extra happens.
“Sometimes that anxiety and stress and even low mood is related to very practical things, like managing mail and correspondence, which is a thing that a lot of people find very tricky. So, if it is something like that there are very logical practical steps that we can take to get things dealt with relatively quickly so that at least their baseline anxiety level lowers and then we can tackle some of the other things that are causing worries.
“I’m not a trained counsellor. It’s not that same as getting an adult mental health referral, but what we try to do is go with having a good knowledge of Asperger’s and thinking about practical steps that people can take. Especially when for a lot of people like that there might be a specific thing that they’re aiming for anyway because it’s easier to know you’ve achieved it.
“I have lots of discussions with people about the concept of “feeling better”. What the heck is “better”? Better than today? Or tomorrow? Or yesterday? It’s helpful for people to define what they’re aiming for. A lot of people get tied up in thinking that “better” is excellent days when you feel euphoric, but that’s actually not what 90% of people experience on a day-to-day basis.
“We mostly have “alright” days which feel not fantastic but not rubbish and we get the tasks done that need to be done and we make some choices that feel comfortable and easy and that’s maybe about it. But if people have felt low for a really long time they’re often always striving for the really good and haven’t noticed when they’ve risen to just in the middle somewhere. So, recognition of where people have gotten to and a kind of grounding with that is important.
“That’s where the new ideas of mindfulness are really helpful, because a lot of people with Asperger’s overthink things and find it very very difficult to move forward with things. Trying to practice mindful techniques can be really helpful because it’s about being in the moment and making decisions based on current information, not past information.”
I lit up when Rachel mentioned mindfulness. It’s been a significant new way of being for me in the last few years and I’ve found the clarity and focus it brings help tremendously in coping with what Asperger’s does to me. Rachel continued.
“It’s a useful tool to support a change in the way that people think, and the way that they default to the over-analyzing and over-thinking style, which doesn’t help people, so to be able to go towards mindfulness is a really helpful thing. We’re looking to move slightly forward from the Living Life to the Full materials which are really good but were never originally designed for people with Asperger’s (they were designed for all people with low mood and anxiety) which covers people with Asperger’s within that. We like to take the best of that and ideas from mindfulness and create a new course, which is going to include a lot more of our Autism knowledge. That’s underway at the moment and hopefully we’ll get the chance to meet and learn from some people within the NHS who’ve been using mindfulness.
“It’s exciting for us to think about how we’re going to keep going and keep evolving. Autism knowledge is growing all the time, so hopefully the more we understand and the more people can learn about, the more we can offer.
“But really, our insight and expertise comes from the volume of people that we’ve met. Personally, out of our database, I’ve probably met at least six hundred of those people, not all for prolonged periods, but for at least a conversation. That volume of people is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be tapped into. That’s what’s really nice about our job – we get that opportunity to meet people and over time get to know them and share in some of their successes which is really enjoyable for me as well!”

This was but a fraction of what we covered, and I'll try and share some more, about the people who use Number 6's services and what a difference they make to them, in the next few days.

Amount raised so far: £4, 075
Amount to raise: £925

www.justgiving.com/wavenode





Monday, March 21, 2016

Over the Hill - Two Weeks To Go

Halfway there: The first half of the course covered.
I’m busy on many fronts. That’s a blessing in many ways, because I don’t have time to worry, and I’m forced to live in the present. Last week, I covered my peak training distance, 70 miles in one week, including a 29 mile run from Glasgow Queen Street Station to Falkirk High. My entirely voluntary and therefore self-inflicted burden of Scottish Green Party responsibilities mean I’ve been up late every night production-editing 15 versions of our mini-newspaper for electors in the region, as well as coordinating the nomination of dozens of our candidates throughout the country. And my paid employment has hit a critical peak, as the project I’m working on ramps up into full swing. There’s no time to think, to make anything more than the most immediate of decisions, or to reflect on any alternative to the way things are now. And there’s been no time to blog.
I feel good about the race, which is just two weeks away. I seem to have adapted to this five-runs-a-week regime. It is difficult to rise in the dark three mornings in a row and run to work, and the selection of routes I take are becoming very very familiar. Low mood dogs me. Routine helps me get through this. I am almost living out of a sports bag and the repetition of the weekly schedule means there is no time wasted on decisions.
I’ve never danced with tiredness for so long like this. If I sit down to watch half an hour of my favourite television I will nod off several times. In the evening the smallest tasks, like counting my pills out for the next few days, or laying out my running gear, feel as though I’m performing them at high altitude. My concentration is shot. I can’t read more than a page or two before I either fall asleep or turn instead to mental junk food like social media.
But I can work. I seem to be in a state where I take great solace in just getting things done. Just as this low-speed high-mileage running has no innate thrill or euphoria but is merely satisfying to tick off, so my work, filling in forms, cutting articles to length, chivvying colleagues, refining technical implementation plans has become a calling. It’s dull and routine, but I feel much better for doing it. I go to bed and wake up thinking about it. This is the state of flow, albeit a sluggish sticky kind.
This is all going to be over in two weeks. I’m a bit frightened by that. I will experience a sense of decompression. I will need to be met at the prison gates and taken to a halfway house. I’m more anxious about after the ultramarathon than I am about the ultramarathon.
I know what the course will look like, because I’ve covered all of it now. Having run the second half a few weeks ago, I ran the first half last weekend, both times running in the direction of the race. I even practiced what it would feel like to take the train to Glasgow in the knowledge that I was going to run dozens of miles back the same way. That was funny, because at the station in Glasgow I met two Green colleagues. One was going to picket the SNP conference, and the other was going to a party council meeting five minutes from my house. And I was going to run to Falkirk.
It was a fantastic run. I felt a sense of great beauty and presence as I went north and then east along the Forth and Clyde canal, going past the huge isolated tower blocks that still look like the future to this child of the sixties. A burnt out car had the grace of a modern art exhibit. I was passing through towns I’d never been to before, covering 29 miles I’d never set foot on before. It fills a real need in me. I want to pace the world.
I’m bearing up physically. My Achilles tendons are taking it in turns to complain but neither has hurt so sharply I’ve had to stop. I just have to keep out of trouble for two weeks. This taper period is notorious for little niggles to out so I’m prepared for that. My choice of shoes for the day is being made for me. I will wear the pair that hurts least when I’ve run 30 miles in them. I’ve been tentatively posting on the event’s Facebook page, tipping off the other runners that there’ll be a lot of fresh new tarmac for us to run on. I’m glad about that. Most ultras are wild, hilly, rocky affairs. This is flat and smooth.
Bring it on. I’m ready.

www.justgiving.com/wavenode