Chantilly Sunrise

It’s 6.30am, a Sunday morning. It’s still dark and the quaint, narrow streets of Chantilly are quiet and deserted. A couple of triathletes cycle silently past, headed for the cobbled road that leads up to the Chateau.

A woman walks steadily, pushing her bike. Beside her a tall man, carrying her heavy kit bag on his shoulders. They walk in silence. They cross the road and she slows to take a breath, as he walks on ahead. It’s a cooler morning but there is still no air. As she tries to breathe her chest becomes tight. Her heart is pounding and her stomach churning. The magnitude of what she is about to take on is overwhelming and a mild panic is setting in. She tries to take another deep breath. There is still no air and a dull ache lays heavy on her chest. She feels dizzy. A silent tear rolls down her cheek. “It’s OK, you got this,” she whispers to herself. She lifts her hand to wipe her damp cheek and as she does so the tall man turns around.

“Hey?” he says gently, walking back towards her, “what’s the matter?”. Only, he knows instinctively exactly what is wrong. She shakes her head unable to speak, afraid that words will unleash further tears. He reaches out, wraps his arms around her and pulls her in tight. Her head to his chest, a few more silent tears fall. He kisses her gently on the forehead. She looks up at him. “I just can’t breathe”, she says. He nods and pulls her back in his arms. She rests her head there a while, and the air gradually returns. They walk on in silence and as they approach the Chateau the sun begins to rise. It’s beautiful. The Chateau is magnificent, proud, steeped in history, glorious.

“It’s beautiful”, he says quietly. She nods, and smiles.

“It’s OK. You got this,” she whispers in her head.

And still I rise.

 

TO HALF IRON OR NOT TO HALF IRON

At the moment, I give myself a pat on the back for just getting out of bed and dragging my arse to work, so how on earth I’m supposed to tackle a Middle/Half Iron distance Triathlon this weekend  I’ve no idea. Where do I muster up that kind of physical, mental and emotional energy from right now?

It’s a struggle some days just to get up. I am wading in deep, clay mud and trying desperately not to sink. As usual it’s been gradual, and despite the warning signs (randomly bursting into tears, self-medicating with alcohol to aid sleep, eating either everything or nothing, and feeling frustrated, sad and angry) it seems at the moment there is nothing I can do to stop it. I wake most days with a dark, tired, fog sitting behind my eyes and my body feels constantly ragged after a restless night’s sleep. The witching hour(s) brings the unwelcome visitors of chronic anxiety, panic and insomnia. It amazes me how I can vividly imagine so many ‘wrong’ things in one go, but the darkness of the night makes the worry so real. I try to ride the wave and let it pass, to allow my thoughts to present themselves like a rain cloud that soon will be blown away by the wind. I try my progressive relaxation methods. I try the breathing techniques – in through the nose and out through the mouth. I try to imagine a warm sandy beach, the waves lapping on the shore. I try to meet my anxious thoughts with “loving kindness”… And…BOLLOCKS!! I can’t keep them out any longer. ARRRGGGHH!!!

I am crashing into a bunch of cyclists because I can’t get my feet out the clips. I am toppling into traffic. I am getting sworn at by a French marshal because I’m a stupid English woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing. OK, forget that, I am swimming, I’m good at swimming, long, languid strokes in the water – SHIT – nope, swallowing water and unable to breathe. Emergency breaststroke. Panic. My goggles have come off. I’ve lost a contact lens and I can’t see. OK, let’s not be silly, the run’s OK – let’s focus on the run. I’ve done lots of running, what can go wrong with the running? – FFS – my legs are cramping and I can’t run. I trip over. I fall. I FAIL. I can’t do it. I want to cry right now and I’m not even there yet.

I make lists in my head of all the things I mustn’t forget to take with me, but the words are just repeated over and over AND OVER, so they’re not helping at all. Not helpful. Just in case I didn’t get it the first time. Make sure you remember -passport, wetsuit, cycling shoes, don’t forget you will be on the wrong side of the road now!! Stupid English woman. Passport, racing belt, sun cream, socks, tri suit – that pink sports bra because it’s really comfy – and not the grey socks because they make your little toe sore in your trainers – trainers, cycling gloves, sunglasses, wetsuit, passport. Paperwork – insurance documents, British Tri membership card, John’s spectator pass. Passport. Bike. Trainers. Cycling Gloves. Wetsuit. Membership Card. Passport. Bike. Money. Need Euros. Passport. Bike???

LIKE I CAN FORGET MY BIKE????? OK….FFS.. That would be the best excuse ever!! I can’t possibly do the Gauntlet! I FORGOT MY BIKE!!!

I’m all smiles and no nonsense, supremely organised and efficient. I am an intelligent woman. I know all of this is crap, but if it’s crap why is it keeping me awake at night, why is it waking me up in the middle of the night? My brain is on overdrive, and showing no signs of slowing itself down.

So, I’m pretty sure my current mental health state is overworked, stressed and tired. Fatigue is setting in. I’m ready for a holiday. The 50+ hour weeks have taken their toll, and where I have, on some days, desperately tried to find the time to train, I have also, on occasions, tried desperately to find excuses not to. Knowing that I haven’t been able to fully commit to the training has meant that I haven’t given it 100%, and my anxiety about being on the bike is currently off the scale of normality. I am frazzled, worn out and physically and emotionally exhausted. I need a break.

So, with some seriously bad planning, the Half Iron falls half way through a week of what will be our only holiday this year. Knowing that I am pretty much on the brink of some kind of serious MELT DOWN, I find myself faced with a huge dilemma. I don’t want the anxiety to win. I cannot admit defeat. But I also know that right now I don’t need to be awake for several hours a night worrying over something that I have unintentionally found myself completely unprepared for. I am right where I did not want to be. Sure, I can get round. But will I actually enjoy any of it? Or will I just be holding on for dear life and struggling on to the end? I am supposed to be looking forward to my holiday not dreading it!

Even more than that, my body and brain are both telling me that I need to rest. When you find yourself crying at your desk at 5pm on a Friday night, you know you’re about done in.

I will take all of my gear, just in case, but I currently have no desire whatsoever to take part. I want a holiday and I need a rest…

…but if the mood takes me and I feel recharged enough by Sunday…

To Half Iron or not To Half Iron…

Nicky J

Not quite an Iron Lady after all, YET.

“And, into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir

~Forest Bathing~ (otherwise known as shinrin-yoku)

This delightful phrase conjures up all sorts of images in my head – some ethereal beauties in a mystical place, with floating white dresses, sunlight flickering through the trees and glistening on a warm pool of clear water. A lush green forest. Wine drunk out of goblets. Someone playing a flute.. and a harp…Merriment and laughter.

Turns out Forest Bathing doesn’t quite include all these things, which I have to say I find marginally disappointing.

So what does it actually involve? Forest Bathing is based on the very surprising theory that spending time in nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, decrease stress levels, boost the immune system, and increase everything from memory to creativity.

The idea with shinrin-yoku, inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature enter your body through all five senses.

As a repeat sufferer of anxiety and depression and a firm believer that prevention is better than a cure, I enjoy researching various “natural” ways to aid my mental health. I like to think of it as arming myself with a little self-care tool kit of ammunition against the BLACK DOG.

I am lucky enough to live very close to a beautiful wooded area, and I have to admit, it is definitely my “happy place”. I love running in the woods. It’s peaceful, it’s hilly, often muddy, and I feel at home. Relaxed. Unfortunately, in forest bathing terms, the word on the street is… that you don’t quite get the benefits if you’re tearing around the trails on your feet (or on a mountain bike perhaps). This is because you are quite likely to still be hitched up to civilization – connected to your phone or your Garmin possibly? More than that, yes of course, you are obtaining some physical and mental benefits, but to really get the most out of nature, you actually need to be present in it, not distracted by your own great story of self. “When you’re pursuing a sport, you get cardiac points, but you’re not necessarily getting nature points,” – Rachel Kaplan (researcher University of Michigan).

The idea is simple: a person basically visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way (like Mr Soft perhaps?) Although, forest therapy in groups tends to involve guided activities and meditation as well.

According to (what is now becoming quite extensive) research, to experience the ‘healing’ power of trees, you only need to be in the woods for a short time. By spending as little as 15 minutes among the trees there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.

So, as we are dog sitting for friends this week, I thought I’d multi-task and have a go at this whole forest bathing thing whilst on our early morning dog walk. I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out with 50 hour (plus) working weeks, impending Half Iron I’ve not done enough training for and business plans that need a whole lot of attention that I don’t have the time to devote to at the moment….

…..Wander calmly, with “soft fascination” (love that phrase). Peace and serenity. Breathe. Take in the smells, sights and sounds. The woods are alive. Sunlight. A gentle breeze. I totally get this forest bathing malarkey. I am feeling holier than a monk and very, very pleased with myself – for a good few minutes at least. Then the mind starts wandering, thinking about work and the day ahead, what I’m going to make for dinner later. What time I have to be up tomorrow morning? How long will it take us to get there? Did I ring that gentleman back about his granite worktops? How many steps have I done so far?… Then all of a sudden the dog spies/hears an animal deep within the bushes and goes bounding off, hurtling through the undergrowth, chasing his prey with great vigour. Seemingly the dog finds the woods his own little “happy place” too. Only he must have had a little too much enthusiasm for hounding his victim and I can no longer hear his big bouncing doberman body crashing through the vegetation. For the next 5 minutes (no exaggeration) shouts of “Murphy” “HERE!!” “Murphy Dog” “Murph” “MURPHY!!!” are echoing through the woods, my screechy voice (can’t shout) interspersed with varying degrees of successful (and unsuccessful) wolf whistles. I am now in a mild panic and start swearing under my breath a lot, wondering how I would even begin to explain that I’ve lost the doberman and where on earth would the search party start? Deep breath. Last really, really long and loud wolf whistle (the kind which would make my Dad proud) and he comes lolloping back (from an entirely different direction), totally out of breath, one ear flipped back and stuck to his head, half a tree attached to his collar and looking entirely pleased with his little adventure.

OK, so maybe it would be better to attempt my mindful wandering without the big, daft dobey, but by the time we had finished our walk I felt good. The blood was pumping a little, I was warm, flush in the cheeks. I felt totally energised. Also, although my thought patterns had appeared entirely random, wandering, lost and completely in the way of my serenity, I felt like all the worries of the day had already been solved. I was ready to face the day. I believe it’s what they call “clarity of mind”.

So, it seems that Forest Bathing is the next “new” thing on the agenda for mental wellness. A trend almost, like yoga and juicing. However, forest therapy (along with other holistic approaches – like yoga) such as Shinrin-yoku, have roots in many cultures throughout history. With the ever growing development of overweight screen addicts, aggressive/distracted lovers of the social media, those maintaining several platforms so they can be likers, sharers and seekers of approval, we have arrived at the age of Urban Desk Jockeys and Digital Narcissism… and of course the more important statistic of 1 in 4 people now sufferers of stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health issues  .. perhaps we should all go and hang out in the woods.

As John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”

There’s not an app for that.

 

 

Wilderness is a necessity and there’s not an app for that…

You can choose courage or comfort, you cannot have both

I am struggling to walk properly today. The map on the back of the t-shirt may explain a little why. 32km hilly run in the Dales. IMG_20170715_185730_352.jpg

What a fantastic event. The DT30 (one of the Dales Trail Series events) is a beautiful but brutal offroad run, taking in some steep ascents, mud, bogs and outstanding scenery. Superbly well organised and fully waymarked route.

The atmosphere at the start of these events is amazing. Nothing electric or outstanding – just this gentle warm buzz in the air. It starts as you pull into the field  (pretty much in the middle of nowhere) and a friendly marshal directs you to where you should park your car. As we get out the car, a bit of chat with the neighbouring vehicle owners and we wander to the little tent that’s been set up for registration. We are greeted my smiles, nods, “morning”s, by marshals and fellow runners alike. A real chilled and friendly vibe. There are pre-race nerves evident at the start line, but more in relation to the task ahead than of a competitive nature. The offroad/endurance/fell runners are a different breed. Some may be fighting the clock, or for position, but most are just running against themselves, the hills and Mother Nature – just getting to the end is enough. This is why, throughout the course of the event, runners will hold gates open for each other, chat to you like they’ve known you for years, move out of your way so you can pass them, saying “well done” as you do. People offering each other salt tablets, sweets, words of encouragement and friendly banter, sharing the pain of cramps/swearing a lot and laughing while doing the “meadow shuffle” for the last 3km of the race. Such a large bunch of good humoured folk you could not meet elsewhere.

It’s doing events like this, challenging myself physically and mentally, that keeps me sane. Stepping outside of my comfort zone makes me stronger, and more able to deal with everyday life. I’ve understood for a long time that my mental health is improved through exercise, but this is so much more than that. To spend nearly 4.5 hours in tough running conditions, you have to battle all sorts of head farts, and when your body is screaming at you to stop and walk, you have to persuade it it’s a good idea to just keep going. [Running is such an analogy to everyday life. When things get tough, you just have to struggle along for a while.] And when you cross that finish line, having accomplished the task, the elation is second to none. Post race buzz is epic. The sense of achievement being long lasting. Endorphins like no other.

I used to like being comfortable. Comfortable life, comfortable job.

Life is so much more interesting when you step outside of your comfort zone. There is a whole other exciting world out there. Scary at times, but never dull.

Next on the list of this years challenges; my first Half Iron, the DT40 and then Lakes in a Day.

I choose courage over comfort.

Who left the taps running?

So, I guess it’s that’s age-old story of opening the flood gates.

I’m such a cliché –  Once you start you can’t stop? Just like a tube of Pringle’s.

I have so much buzzing around in my head – now I have an outlet – I just don’t know where to start! I’m now the epitome of the creative type; sat with lap top and glass of wine until the early hours of the morning (because that’s what all creative types do). The desire to let out what’s in is greater than the desire to sleep, which is a little unfortunate seeing as I have a full day at work tomorrow and a 32km race (very hilly off-road) on Saturday for which I should be getting plenty of rest. But fuck it.

It’s really hard to know where to begin; with the tale. I have a story. I’m just not yet sure how much I am prepared to, or can literally, share. I struggle to talk about my issues with mental health. Not because I am embarrassed or ashamed, but quite simply because I sometimes struggle to find the words. You will only ever understand the fog, the black dog, the panic, the worry, the struggle, if you’ve ever experienced it. And I’m sure not everyone’s experiences are the same – so how can I describe mine? I don’t know how to explain how I was feeling, or how I still sometimes feel. Write it. How?

I am OK.

I am – on some days – bloody brilliant. But I can be Wonder Woman and a little ball of tired, scared fluff – all at the same time. I am low, stressed and anxious, then the strongest person on the planet. Fierce. Then back to the broken girl of old……

Bent not broken. I’m not broken.

I am bold. I am brave. I am brilliant.

I am weak. I am wobbly. I am wandering.

But I am better. 

I have to be careful how I approach this exercise. I truly want to share my journey with my depression, and then, in the later years, the anxiety. I want to share the battle that has been fought, but never won. I want to help other people understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel. But, in doing all of this, I have to be careful I don’t just leave the taps on.

I went for some counselling – about 6 sessions I think – a good few years ago now. She was bloody amazing and I won’t be lying if I say she saved my life. In lots of ways. It was life changing. In amongst all of the tears and the talking, there were 2 very important messages (the other one I’ll get to at a later date).

When you shut out the darkness, you also shut out the light.

The self-preservation numbness has to be gently erased in order for the light to shine back into your life. Bit corny? True though. And if you turn the taps on full blast – what happens? You get soaked with emotion, overwhelmed and unable to cope. I am comfortable with being vulnerable, but it’s not time to leave the taps on just yet.

Eek it out, a little at a time. Gently open the tap, and then close it for a wee while. Then perhaps, the next time, open it a little more. It’s a gradual process.

And so it shall be.

 

 

Keep on keeping on

So, in lieu of my reticent efforts to write a BRAND NEW blog (why is this so hard all of a sudden – blank page and I just don’t know where to start??), here is a little tale I wrote a couple of years ago about our one day journey in Scotland down the beautiful Great Glen. Posted on our JDW Fitness website (www.jdw-fitness.co.uk) so I am regurgitating old material – but it seems a good place to start. I think the challenges I present myself are my therapy. Simple as that. In fact, I know they are what keep me [marginally] sane. Started with a little running race, a sprint triathlon, and before you know it…..

“Last weekend I took on the most difficult and demanding race I’ve ever done. The Rat Race Coast to Coast is a gruelling event; 100 miles down The Great Glen in one day (#Expert) – running, cycling and kayaking. But I am a firm believer that you get out of these events whatever you put in; a bit like life really.

I went as prepared as I possibly could be, but never having done an event of this magnitude, it is impossible to imagine what you are about to put your body (and mind) through. I had messed about with nutrition quite a bit in training sessions, especially after having issues with hydration on some of the longer runs (I sweat a lot and therefore lose a lot of salt).  When doing these kinds of events it’s important to understand what your body needs – and that’s YOUR body. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another.  Prior to the event I had received some sound advice from a couple of old experienced mountain goats I know. Eat real food and eat food that you like. If you rely solely on gels and sugar over that length of time (we were 12.5 hours on the go in total) your stomach can end up in bits. So in the back pack went Salt & Vinegar Pringles, party sausages, Babybels, mini pork pies, sausage rolls and peanut butter and jam bread rolls (bread rolls are easier to consume than sliced bread as they take less chewing – another awesome suggestion). Not quite the healthy stuff we would normally have – but importantly full of salt and easy to eat! It’s a 10,000 calorie day (as in what you burn – not what we ate) and the energy from the carbs is well needed. We also took flapjack, Haribo, Torq gels (these are amazing, the best we’ve found yet), Shot Bloks and Chia Charge bars for the moments when we needed a sugar hit (and believe me you do). Most important rule of thumb – don’t try anything new on race day.

I was also as mentally prepped as I could be – aware of the enormity of the task ahead – but nervous too that I wasn’t capable of completing it.

I won’t go into too much detail about the route – but it’s stunning, breath taking and incredibly tough. The terrain lends itself so well to such an enormous challenge – I’ve never been up and down so many hills in all my life – got to love the Scottish Highlands!!

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The day was amazing, totally unreal. It was full of comical moments – such as when John pointed out that I was using my paddles the wrong way round on the kayak (hence why we started a little slow and I ended up covered in water – who knew they had two sides?) and also me falling off my bike into a bush (in slow motion fashion – feet still clipped onto the pedals) whilst coming down some of the more technical off-road descent. Thankfully no-one else witnessed this event. #novice

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There were also some rather painful moments – issues with my piriformis on the bike – which led to horrible muscle spasms right down into my glutes and hamstrings and made the up-hills much more uncomfortable than they should’ve been.  Thankfully John has the all the right knowledge and a good 10min stretch was giving me about 2 hours relief at a time. The downside of this was that we had to have a few lengthy stops on the way, and the more we stopped, the more we were eating into time. There was a cut off time at Fort William that we had to reach – get there late and they won’t let you over the West Highland Way for the final 14 mile run. Neither of us was sure we’d make it but we just “kept on keeping on” (more sound advice and our motto for the day). We rocked up with 10 minutes to spare so it was a very dramatic and speedy change over. Cycle shoes to fell shoes, shoved a sausage roll in the mouth, dumped the bikes, filled up the drinks bottles, and we were off!

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Well sort of… If you’ve ever seen anyone who’s cycled a distance (80 miles in this case) and then tried to run, you will understand the amusement. It’s not so much a run but an awkward shuffle and you feel like you’re running through treacle for some time until your legs get moving properly again.

But at this point in time, it didn’t matter, because I knew that whatever happened, we had done it. There was no way we were not making it to the other side – in whatever fashion – we were going to get to the finish line – and finally I could relax a little and start to fully enjoy it.

We were only running/shuffling/shambling for a short while as we soon met our first large ascent. Our rules for the West Highland Way – walk the up-hills and run the down-hills and the flat bits. So as we started to march up the very big hill, my legs began to loosen off and we started passing people who were walking a lot slower than us. Some looked like they were prepared for a weeks’ camping expedition! The weather had come in with crazy wind and rain, but there’s something about Mother Nature at its worst like that – can really make you feel wild and truly alive, if you appreciate it for what it is. After a steep climb and passing a lonely looking marshal, we hit a lovely sweeping downhill trail section where we got some real pace going and then something odd happened. I don’t know if it was the sugar from the Haribo I consumed on the way up or the Torq gel, but I was absolutely buzzing. I guess this is where doing the event as a pair really has its bonuses. John had managed to keep me upbeat all the way round when I was in pain and struggling, and now it was my turn.

Anyone who knows John thinks he is a running/endurance machine (personal trainer with a difference), just to clarify; he is human.  He works really hard to be in the shape he’s in, wasn’t born that way and he deserves an enormous amount of credit for completing such an event in the style that he did. In fact there is decidedly more pressure the more accomplished you get at these things. Also worth noting, which may offer some comfort and reassurance, is that even the best are the same as the rest of us. Meaning? – It is impossible not to have some kind of mind fart at some point during an event of this enormity. We all have our own little mental wobbles; it’s just how you deal with them that makes the difference.

As we got a bit further along the West Highland Way (still passing plenty of people as we were running and they were walking) we started to hit some really rocky, slippy and rather tricky terrain. A couple of wrong footings created some issues in John’s knee, and I could see he was struggling. However, at this point I think my upbeat demeanour was slightly infectious and with a little wincing but sheer determination on John’s part, we ploughed on in good form, finally finishing, but finishing strong and with HUGE, big grins on our faces. That elation of crossing that finish line is second to none.

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You learn a lot about yourself from taking part in an event like this. I love the buzz you get after doing an obstacle race, but this is different. It’s much longer lasting and potentially life changing, psychologically that is. John promised me pre-race that I would surprise myself but I was mostly worried that I would disappoint. There were definitely times throughout where I felt that I had taken on far too big a challenge and I also wondered what the hell I was doing there. Expert? I’m no Expert! But in reality, I had no idea I could be so tough and strong or that I could put my body through all of that (with no aches and pains the next day surprisingly enough). I learned that I’m determined, stubborn and strong willed and also capable of a lot more than I give myself credit for (and usually with a smile on my face too). I also learned that I’m shit at the off road cycling (especially the technical stuff), Scottish midges bite really well and kayak paddles have a right way and a wrong way round. Every day’s a school day.

For those mad few of you who have an interest in taking part in this event, I would highly recommend it. The route is well sign posted and marked, the marshals were all absolutely fantastic and Rat Race had great contingency plans in place for the inclement weather.  You can even do it over 2 days if you like (though where is the challenge in that?).

Out of 170 competitors on the one day challenge (#Experts) there were a mere 25 females, only 17 of those women finished, of which I was number 10. Plenty of room for improvement still – and we will be back again some time, raring to go – armed with the knowledge, a little more practice at the off-road bike stuff and lots of party snacks in our back packs again, down the 100 miles of the beautiful Great Glen, we’ll be there, just keeping on keeping on.”