Be Careful What You Wish For!

  • NOTE: This blog was originally written a year ago when outdoor spaces were being closed and tightly policed to effectively outlaw safe exercise for many. I’m glad to say that since then there seems to be an acceptance of the need for outdoor activities amongst most authorities, and many of the public are over the initial fear and are getting out into the parks, forests and mountains. However, I still witness many keyboard warriors and elected officials decrying those who choose to get out for essential headspace and physical wellbeing.
  • Covid is obviously horrendous and measures are evidently required to limit the spread. From my perspective as a long-term sufferer of mental health issues, and for whom training and exercise are literally a life-saver, this blog remains as relevant now as it did eleven months ago. I didn’t launch it in March 2020 for fear of potential backlash and I’m still admittedly very worried because many thousands have lost loved ones. However, highlighting alternative impacts of Covid response by no means trivialises or disrespects the tragedies of their deaths. I’ve literally just re-found this piece and feel that now is the time to post because clearly millions are suffering. Anxiety and stress are proven to cause terminal illnesses, depression can and is leading to suicide for those losing hope for the future. The ‘Covid’ deaths are getting hugely reported but other impacts seem to be getting deliberately swept under the carpet for now, despite the fact that they’ll be felt for decades to come.
  • By all means disagree with opinions contained herein but to ignore the impacts of lockdown and purely focus on the virus itself is extremely blinkered. Like many, my business income has been decimated and I’ve literally not seen my parents in over a year, but I count myself lucky that I have enough social interaction and other income to survive mentally and financially. Others will not be so lucky.

Anxiety Attacks

This afternoon I hit the wall. A creeping fatigue borne of many combined factors, serving to wipe all energy, still groggy as I write, struggling for the vocabulary that usually flows effortlessly.

Not altogether surprising given the circumstances. Ten tough training efforts in the last seven days, four runs, two MTB, turbo training and three killer strength sessions, a schedule the likes of which hasn’t been entertained since my days as an ‘elite'(ish) athlete. From a cardio perspective the body feels incredible, decades worth of endurance work serve the heart and lungs well, and it’s all feeling effortless. The legs are on a different hymn sheet though, continually fatigued, alternating muscle groups competing to complain the loudest. A rest day is desperately required, but a debilitating experience last Tuesday renders that virtually unthinkable, fear of my own psychology driving the body on, necessity trumping desire. I always wanted this life, to train hard and then rest hard, unhindered by other commitments. Now, with work temporarily ceased and just the simple task of home-schooling my two boys to further drain reserves, I’m finally living that dream. But it’s seriously hard when training becomes a fundamental need. Be careful what you wish for!

Human Rights and Government Wrongs

These are unprecedented times. A government enforced lockdown, a virus spreading invisibly, our basic rights becoming a battleground like never before and exercise becoming one of the key battlefields. I’m going to try to leave the politics out of this, lord knows it’s one of the key reasons for my current malaise, and there are plenty of shouty voices coming from all angles. What has become abundantly clear so far though is that for whatever reasons an incredible and unthinkable number of individuals are losing their lives in a Health Service that is underequipped, understaffed and demoralised. Extreme measures to curb the spread are inevitable, regardless of the unconsidered repercussions of draconian restrictions.

The mountains are still calling. And for the few folk lucky enough to live within them and have the skills to safely move among them, why not answer that call?

Perpetual Fear

7am today. Another sluggish start, mild nausea and the fuzziness of sleep deprivation; stomach in knots, digestion up the left. If more prone to hysteria, the perpetual fear that has oozed dirtily into Twenty-First Century mindsets, I could concern myself believing these may be symptoms of ‘the virus’. But I know my body better than that, or more specifically bodily reactions to cerebral factors, this is anxiety personified, squirming tightness in the gut, a tension up into the neck.

Covid Blinkers and Holistic Views

People have reacted to this lockdown in many ways. Some screaming online for tighter measures, baying to give police unlimited powers, arrest, fine, beat, imprison ANYONE who has the gall to leave the sanctity of their homes. At the other end of the scale the pisstakers, the party organisers, oblivious or uncaring, unwilling to make even the slightest concessions. I’d like to think that the majority sit somewhere in the middle, sensible enough to know that social distancing has to be our new reality, and potentially for the very long-term, but also bright enough to take the holistic view that the impacts of this intervention are myriad and complex.

The furore over the actions of many a handful of weekends back, who followed government advice of the time and headed away from the cities towards open spaces, has left a stain on the activities I hold most dear. No doubt, the unprecedented numbers descending on honeypot locations throughout National Parks in the UK and Ireland were dangerous in the context of the spread. Not to mention exacerbating traditional problems of trespass, littering, blocking of farm access and pressure on mountain rescue teams. It was ill-advised and crazy, and the gutter-dwelling press needed no invitation to whip up a frenzy of indignation, firing both barrels at the public, neatly ignoring the fact that they were simply following the stated advice of their Prime Minister.

Blame the Public

The immediate closure of easy access to thousands of acres of vital public space was sweeping and predictable. If ‘we’ can’t be trusted to play nicely then the rules of the game would have to be changed. From a local perspective the Forest Parks were closed to vehicular access, along with the mountain bike trail centres, and entering the Mourne Mountains was strongly discouraged on safety grounds. Having been in the hills myself that weekend, I have to admit that the numbers were alarming, but more so was the type of visitor witnessed. Trainers and jeans, visibly lacking requisite kit and abilities. Apologies if this sounds snobby or elitist, but mountains are by their nature discriminatory, but along very fair lines. You need fitness, skill, experience and preparation to stay safe, and those who possess too few of these attributes often discover it the hard way.

Micro Lows and Suicidal Tendencies

Back to my head. There were no obvious signs of the creeping dread. A couple of weeks of stomach issues put down to natural bacterial fluctuations, preferring to just ignore the symptoms, they were a mild annoyance, nothing more. Until last Tuesday when the freight train hit. If you’ve never experienced what I would term a ‘micro-low’ then I’m both delighted for and envious of you. It’s best described as an entire depressive episode condensed into the space of a few hours. Destruction of energy, purpose and will, deeply impactful and retrospectively terrifying. It passed within hours, palpable relief, regaining control of a discarded brain, a body without a driver can be a very dangerous thing.

Self-reflection essential, causes MUST be identified to try to avoid future repetition, but in this case the answer was blindingly obvious; Tuesday was the only day in weeks that no outdoor exercise had taken place. A trigger easily rectifiable at any other point in my four decades, but the goalposts have been moved dramatically. To decide to enter the mountains or forests has become an act of social resistance, a civil disobedience being forcibly opposed in many circles, stamped out by authority, but also decried by many others as criminal, despite no actual laws currently preventing it. Root cause of the anxiety brought into clarity, I’m a moderate enough type and don’t want to be seen as a miscreant, so when activities essential to my wellbeing become outlawed, a negative response is inevitable.

Advice or aggression? Sensible policing is needed to not make people feel like miscreants for making decent decisions, like driving for five minutes to exercise outside, to avoid crowds or objective dangers nearer their houses. This was on my wife’s car when she came out of another long, tough pharmacy shift. Thought must be given also to the potential spread risk of leaving paper literature on car windows.

Covid Battlegrounds

The world has seemingly moved on rapidly from a few years back when I first blogged about my own battles with adverse mental health. It’s entered into the mainstream, finally getting recognition as a ‘real’ illness, being treated with compassion beyond previous stigma, but this virus has dragged the worst of humanity back from the depths, as well as the best. Reading social media is daft at the best of times, a boxing ring for mouthpieces, gobshites, trolls and bots. No stranger to online conflict, I’ve been known to don the gloves and wade in on many occasions, politics being the fuse, blood boiling and pressure rising. And yet there are always safe spots where you can jump to calm fraying nerves and reconnect with kindness. The fell-running community can perpetually be relied on for this soothing tonic; almost entirely comprised of decent, humble, thoughtful types, full of life, and respectful of the minute nature of our existence amongst the glory of the mountains. Unfortunately it seems the Covid has infected this paradise too, scrappy interactions replacing the usual positivity.

I understand the unique nature of this situation, and the necessity for sweeping regulations preventing the scenes previously mentioned. Local populations in Llanberis and Keswick, Aviemore and Newquay need protection from hordes descending. Staying home is key to the control of the Coronavirus, but within that approach, I believe some sensible flexibility is essential. Many of us can safely continue our pastimes without the need to travel, or risk of spread.

Risk Versus Reward

I live within running and biking distance of hundreds of acres of forest and open mountain, as do many others in the surrounding rural villages. I can leave the front door and complete any number of routes without touching anything but feet or tyres on the dusty ground. In the last week I’ve been out almost every day and barely seen a soul. In terms of risk of virus spread, these activities represent a barely registerable risk. To not undertake them would represent a very real threat, to me, and also likely to millions like me. I fully agree that real care is required to avoid injury or the need for rescue. This is no time for crazy sessions or riskiness, but there are many of us that have used the mountain environment for decades without needing assistance. Risk management is a huge part of my job and risk versus reward absolutely key to success. To put this in extreme context, a friend of mine was admitted to hospital just days after receiving a letter telling him he was at high risk of contracting Covid 19, and not to leave his flat for twelve weeks. The ensuing anxiety attacks have seen him sectioned, with no progress in taming those demons yet. Prior to that letter he was doing fine, advice and rhetoric isn’t without repercussion. Being forcibly isolated was the last thing he needed. Many, many other people also desperately need to not feel locked in, under scrutiny from authorities and curtain twitchers, threatened with fines and imprisonment, crushed with fear. Again, for those who have never experienced chronic anxiety, I understand how a reticence to stay indoors 24 hours a day in these times can seem extremely selfish. However, for many who live in urban areas, social isolation practically means long-term imprisonment. City parks closing and road blocks preventing escape. Should the authorities be more focused on facilitation of safe outdoor activity or the criminalisation and eradication of it?

Chronic Tory Underfunding and NHS Pressures

Some will scoff at this, citing outdoor exercise as a totally unnecessary luxury at this time. Some will scream ‘STAY THE F*CK AT HOME’, writing or parroting damaging tabloid headlines, using camera tricks to make outdoor exercisers appear bunched together, ammo for the hardline authoritarians. I wonder how many of them manage to make the same link to the 2.8 million deaths that are caused by obesity related disease every single year? (World Health Organisation figures). Where are the ‘GET THE F*CK OUT AND EXERCISE’ headlines that should dominate every single day of life? And as this blog is purely focused on personal experience I’ve not touched on other reasons that escape from the home is essential. Rises in domestic abuse, sexual abuse, increased alcoholism, the list will undoubtedly grow as time goes by. The NHS is under huge pressure now, but the life and death decisions made today merely echo the same budget-driven decisions made by health authorities at all times. This virus may be unprecedented, but the extreme pressure on the health system and its workers is nothing new.

Escaping House Arrest

I can’t lie, I’m appalled to see some of the reactions to people trying to grab a little bit of respite from the grip of a virtual house arrest. I’m offended to see police putting notices on the cars of people who’ve driven just a couple of miles to walk in a location much less dangerous, or less crowded than where they live (and I do mean just a couple of miles, not the extreme examples often gleefully pounced upon). I’m saddened to see fewer and fewer people in the forests, where safe social isolation is far easier to facilitate. And I’m surprised and upset to see some members of the fell-running community rounding on their own for suggesting we keep running the mountains. Empathy seems to have been discarded entirely. Rules and recommendations have to be generic, but within the policing of those regulations a sensible degree of flex is always necessary. Together, as a nation and a race we will ultimately contain this virus; lessons will be learned. I hope one of those is the realisation that for many people, getting outdoors isn’t a choice, it’s a matter of life and death.