It’s February again, we must get older

It’s time for the month in review! What’s been going on inside my head and where have my feet been taking me this month?

The month began on a serious high with my Time To Talk post going the smalltime blogger version of viral. I was asked in advance by the event director at Southwark parkrun if I had anything suitable for them to share as part of the day. I didn’t, but they’re good people so I wrote a piece on how parkrun has been more than just running to me. It ended up being retweeted a ridiculous number of times and being shared by so many parkruns, by parkrunners and by the founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt. A bizarre day of people sending screenshots of my face as it popped up in their Facebook feeds via parkruns across the country.

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Sporting my parkrun performance shirt. A ginger in apricot. Bold.

That post has now been viewed well over 5000 times, in over 40 countries. Thank you to all who supported, shared and talked about mental health on that day. You know how much the cause means to me and to have had even the tiniest impact was fantastic. The blog will probably never reach such lofty heights again!

Running has been a mixed bag. Again, the month started well. I managed a couple of post-work 5 milers, as opposed to my usual 5km. I’m slowly trying to up my overall mileage and it’s reassuring to have broken the mental block I had of doing more than 5km on a school night. This will seem such a tiny breakthrough to so many of you but my running is plagued with arbitrary and nonsensical negative mental blocks of my own forming and it’s taking a lot of resolve to dismantle them.

The first weekend in February I once again smashed my longest run, taking the distance to 17.1km/10.6 miles. With 5 weeks to go until Bath Half, this was hugely reassuring. Thank you to everyone at #ukrunchat that evening who confirmed that yes, that was indeed completely on track when I was having a wobble! The other bonus of that run was my pacing was almost spot on; a little slower than usual but that led to consistency with a couple of (actually very small) blips that I think correlate to where I paused to stretch my niggling calves.

But then came the dreaded lurgy. Classic February cold/flu/misery had been doing the rounds at the office and I finally succumbed in the second week of February. Coincidentally, also set up to be the toughest week I’ve had at this job yet. Life, oh life.  A week of feeling terrible both physically and mentally and not being able to run at all, so once again a month where my mileage is nowhere near as high as I had hoped. I’ve actually only run about 50km all month which is appalling. I’m frustrated but I know how dangerous for my emotional resilience it is to push myself too hard. A lot of rest, a lot of cups of tea and watching Netflix in leggings and ratty old jumpers, a lot of envying everyone talking about their running. I attempted a long slow run exactly one week after having run 17km. I made it through 3km with legs and a stomach feeling like lead, went home and was promptly sick. Another attempt at 5km in the week was cut short at around the 3km mark again with burning lungs. Super disheartening.

The following weekend I made it out for my long run with minimal confidence after almost 2 weeks off. I put myself through 16km, although with a few short walks thrown in there (at 3km, 10km, 14km). I’ve already written about how negative I felt after that run. I’m trying to be objective about it and be a lot kinder to myself. I was on course to be only about 2-3 minutes slower than my 17km run 2 weeks earlier. Considering that there was a good 5+ minutes of walking involved, I was just coming back from illness, I’d had some time off and it was horrendously windy out there, that’s not at all bad going. Pain and Panic are whispering that I’m making excuses but they can hush. I ran 16km when I wasn’t at my best, having expected to struggle to hit 10km, and I didn’t run them that badly. I didn’t run them anywhere near as well as I would have liked but you can’t always get what you want.

Given the setback of illness, I now won’t run the full half marathon distance until race day but I’ve now comfortably hit 15km+ on several occasions in the past 6 weeks without any real ill effect and I think I could probably have kept going. I think the adrenaline and atmosphere on the day will carry me through without too much fuss. It’s “less than a parkrun” (a well-established unit of distance!) to be added on my longest run and that’s not too terrifying. I’ve just hit the initial fundraising target I set when I signed up for Bath but as I’ve now planned an entire year of running for Mind, I’m hoping to absolutely smash that amount. Anyone feeling kind and inclined to donate, you can do so here and it means the world to me.

I went back to work and had a panicked couple of days trying to progress various matters before putting the out of office on and heading to Iceland.

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Iceland was like Narnia

This actually prompted the biggest meltdown of the month, a severe 2 hour panic attack the night before my holiday and the first serious one I’ve had in a while. I can’t explain the terror that I experience knowing that emails are flooding into my inbox and not being able to deal with them. Holidays are more stress than they’re worth really. Anyway, Iceland. The highlight of my month and you can read about it in a lot more detail here. After recently wondering where I’m going in life, I’ve realised that maybe this is where I’m supposed to be right now, booking holidays on a near-whim with one of my best friends. Now we are home and I am planning our trip to Japan next year.

This morning I turned my work phone back on to be greeted with over 300 emails. I was only out the office for 3 days…A moment of inner panic, a couple of whiny messages to people, a tube journey spent sifting through the noise. By the time I stepped into the office, I knew where I stood, a huge number of emails had been deleted, more had been filed and I could start prioritising the relatively few that required any level of attention. That’s real progress. Once that scenario would have resulted in so much panic that I wouldn’t have made it to the office.

I’d hoped to pick the running back up tonight but leaving at gone 7pm and having to be back in for 7.30am is making that seem unlikely. Law is all kinds of fun.

That’s February done. On we march to March. In 2 days, I will be 27. In 13 days, I will be running my first half marathon for Mind. Work is set to be very busy (when is it not?). I have two incredibly exciting projects relating to this blog that I’m hoping to announce soon, I’m just waiting for confirmation on some details. It’s going to be a big month.

Hail the winter days after dark

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Iceland. It’s icy.

This isn’t about to become a lifestyle blog.I like this blog having a clear purpose and my life isn’t really one anyone will be aspiring to. But, a lot of factors of my lifestyle do impact on my anxiety and some of the bigger non-running events probably warrant a post. This is part travel write-up of my recent holiday to Iceland, part mini-commentary on how mental health links into that.

At the end of 2015, I convinced my friend Chris that he wanted to go to Iceland with me. Chris has many good qualities as one of my best friends – mostly that he always seems willing to order pizza – but my favourite is that he’s really easy to talk into travelling. The conversation went something like: “Do you want to come to Iceland with me for my birthday?” “Yeah, sure”. Simples. I’ve also played a very similar game about Japan next year which has worked out in the same fashion. And so very hyper and a little drunk at New Year, we booked a holiday for the week before my birthday.

Holidays work nicely for me as a marker. Just as parkrun is a weekly beacon, I need points marked out in the future to be heading towards. Throughout the first couple of months in a new job where I’ve been tired, ill, stressed, I’ve been aiming for Iceland. They also make for a good distraction technique because I can throw myself into research and planning whenever I’m feeling low. The flipside is that a lot of anxiety is derived from not being in control of situations and therefore airports especially are basically hell for me. I’m not relaxed about travelling to places, there’s a plastic wallet of paperwork (boarding passes, hotel reservations, car hire etc), all in chronological order of when it will be required. I presume Chris doesn’t mind my military precision because he keeps agreeing to go on holiday with me and I do calm down a lot once we actually get somewhere. I think he’s relieved someone enjoys organisation.

We flew from London Gatwick to Keflavik, about 50km along the coast from Reykjavik, where we were based. A poor start in that as soon as we went through customs in Iceland, I realised I had left my coat on the plane. It is sub-optimal to be coatless in Iceland. It’s also a particularly nice coat that when bought, I joked that I would have to wear until my 30s to justify the cost. At home, something as simple as this could have induced a bad panic attack but I think this proves that having the right people around me can have a significant effect on my reactions. One of the reasons I suspect this friendship works so well is that Chris absolutely refuses to pander to my anxieties. He’s known me since we were 11 and in that time as part of the Core Alix Support Team has had me wailing down the phone over horrendous breakups, stressful jobs and fights with my parents. He’s supportive but incredibly practical, and if I try to have a breakdown over a lost coat, I know full well he will laugh at me. Sometimes that’s really what I need, to appreciate that I’m being utterly ridiculous.

With me tweeting easyjet for help and the promise from Chris that we would come back to the airport in the morning, we went and collected our jeep and hit the road to Reykjavik. We had booked a room through airbnb (where did we all stay before airbnb?!) in the centre of Reykjavik,IMG_20160226_111936 close to the Hallsgrimkirkja which is one of the few notable landmarks in the city. Handy for us because it meant that whenever we were driving home, we just headed towards it! Come the morning, we drove back to Keflavik and retrieved my coat. This was actually all very painless, we were so quick that we didn’t even have to pay for parking. As we were already on the road, we decided we would do the famous Golden Circle tour that day instead of on Friday as we had planned. With Chris taking on all driving responsibility, it was up to me to navigate using the world’s most unwieldly and oversized map and a bunch of directions I’d hurriedly printed off before leaving for the airport. Apprehension all round.

First stop was Þingvellir (the Þ is like a th). Þingvellir is a national park where Alþingi, the Icelandic parliament was formed in 930. It’s also supposedly very interesting from a geological perspective because there are cracks all over the region where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.

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Horse whispering

It was hard to see any of this because there was so much snow! Chris read all the information boards and tried to tell me some history. I was too busy jumping in the snow like a small child to listen. We got back on the road to see the geysers of Haukadalur but en route, there were many Icelandic ponies. Chris asked if I wanted to pull over to see them and did so rapidly when he realised I was liable to throw myself from a moving vehicle with excitement. Fun fact, you can’t import animals into Iceland so if an Icelandic pony leaves, it can never go home. Unfortunately you can’t fit a pony in your hand luggage.

After larking about with the ponies for a bit, taking a few selfies and several attempts by ponies to eat my mittens, we finally carried on to the geysers. We watched Strokkur, the most reliable of the geysers erupt a few times; every 5-10 minutes it shoots about 20m of water into the air and it really is spectacular.

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I’m battling adverse weather

There are a number of tiny hot springs in the same area so we wandered around a bit while I concentrated very hard on not falling over and breaking a leg so close to Bath Half when I’ve been fundraising. After lunch, we drove the 10 minutes up the road to the (mostly frozen) Gullfoss waterfall. I have honestly never experienced weather conditions like it. It was so windy that we couldn’t walk in a straight line, I was being blown almost a metre sideways with every couple of steps and the cold meant that taking photos left my hands in pain for minutes afterwards. It was entirely worth it for the absolutely staggering views which I’m still amazed are real because every perspective looked like something out of a fantasy film. You’ll be pleased to know that my day of navigation was on the whole, very successful.

The next morning, we walked around Reykjavik. It had snowed quite a lot in the night so I was once again living in fear of falling over, an activity I manage frequently in far less perilous conditions back home.

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Sun Voyager

We headed down towards the harbour, slowed by my inability to not take photos of the sea every 30 seconds. Iceland still permits commercial whaling and it was quite unsettling to walk through the harbour and have whaling boats on one side of us, with whale watching boats on the other!

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Snowbathing on the beach

There wasn’t a huge amount to do in Reykjavik so after stopping in a cafe for a while, we decided to head back up the hill and take the car to the outskirts of the city to an observation deck with 360 degree views and then on to the geothermal beach which was a really good afternoon considering it was a whim, rather than something we had intended to do. That evening we boarded a coach and headed out into the wild in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights, after it had been cancelled the night before due to the snowy conditions. 5.5 hours on a coach. The things we put ourselves through. Sadly, most of western Iceland seemed to be covered in a thick blanket of cloud so there was nothing to be seen but we actually had a fairly amusing night due to our guide telling us a lot of odd stories about his childhood and the region. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see the lights but the rest of the trip was so spectacular that it didn’t really diminish it.

After getting home at about 2am, we set the alarm for a little after 7am. Oof. Neither of us are morning people at the best of times but I had insisted on booking our trip to the Blue Lagoon for 9am so that we had masses of time before the airport. The joys of being an anxious traveller. Although my main worry was obviously that I was missing parkrun at that time. IMG_20160227_120108.jpgThe Blue Lagoon is actually a manmade geothermal spa but it’s similar to the natural hot pools that can be found across the country. The minerals in the water are supposedly very good for you, although as Chris learnt, they are less beneficial if you get them in your eye! In hindsight, going early was probably the right thing to do because it was much quieter than when we left at lunchtime. With a few hours left, we drove along the coast to Keflavik, then on to Gardur, for the sake of something to do. Turns out, there is not much to do at all but we wandered about on the coast and drove along to a lighthouse. Chris learnt some more facts that I’m sure were very interesting but I promptly forgot them as soon as he told me. The lighthouse was built in 1897 and somebody had to live in it to wind the light. Something like that. After that, we dropped the jeep back and went to the airport to come back to London. Birthday trip over, Iceland crossed off the travel bucketlist, a lot more silly in-jokes and memories created with my best friend.

Despite loving holidays and them being very good for me, they are still a challenge with anxiety. Most things I love in this world are. As an only child, I find sharing my space very difficult, I’m used to being alone. Much as I adore Chris, being around someone near constantly for 4 days is really tough but I’m very lucky that we have the sort of friendship where we don’t feel compelled to talk. After 15 years, I’m comfortable to be around him and not have the pressure of making conversation the entire time which makes it a lot easier for me to cope. The key factor in my resilience is my energy levels and as I get further into a holiday like this, the more tired I get and the more I start to struggle. We structured the trip quite well so we got the most tiring bits out the way early on and Chris is very relaxed and knows I don’t cope brilliantly (or at all) with exhaustion so although I was a bit delirious by the journey home, I managed to stay in fairly good spirits throughout.

If you’re still wanting more photos, I posted far too many on Instagram. Now, if anyone wants me, I’ll be distracting myself from a horrendous week at work by planning our holiday to Japan.