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.

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.

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

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.