We are what we think we are

Unless we are careful we can end up spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about things are are utterly irrelevant. 

When I was training for Ironman I went to a bike shop in Manchester.  One of the customers was asking the sales advisor about the weight of the wheels on one of the bikes, wheels which cost more than the whole of my bike.  I wondered just how much of an advantage a few grams here and there would make for what appeared to be a casual weekend rider.  I still do wonder.

I wonder why we spend so much time thinking about things like this, rather than focusing on the quality of our thoughts.  Unless we are careful we can become distracted by the sheer volume of stuff out there to think about.  When this happens, when we find ourselves being distracted by thoughts and questions that don’t really serve us, I find it useful to pause, take a breath or two, and I remind myself that just because I’m thinking about which socks to wear for a long run doesn’t mean that the thought, the question, is either useful or one that should demand my attention.

Actually, I don’t ever think about which socks to wear for running anymore.  At one time I had twin skin socks, padded socks, low cut socks, racing socks, ventilated socks.  It just became something else to think about.  I’d started running as a way to help me to escape from excessive thinking and worrying, and then I found myself worrying about socks.  So I bought a load of standard cheap sports socks and have been wearing them ever since without ever getting excessively hot feet or a blister.  Not once.  Writing this is the first time I’ve thought about socks in years.  That’s great.  Our purpose is life is not really to think about socks.

There is an embarrassment of choice out there.  Nearly all of it is obnoxious mental noise; it’s incessant chatter that can, unless we are careful, distract us from the work in front of us.  I believe that one way in which we can lead more content and fulfilled lives is by realising that such choices are illusory inasmuch as they promise much and deliver little.

We are what we think we are.  We should chose our thoughts wisely. 

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Day 83 of 200 – NYD Bolton parkrun

Tuesday 1 January 2019

(Blackpool half-marathon training)

Well, that was soon over. Christmas has been and gone. We enjoyed it all. It’s been a great time to sit back, reflect, look forward, go to the football, read, watch TV, run, eat. It’s been great. Apart from getting a stinking head cold, that part has been painful. Whenever I do get a cold (which is very rarely, I think this is the first one I’ve had in five years) it seems to stick to the inside of my head and eye sockets.

Running has been great. I managed 144 pain-free miles in December. Last week I completed a ‘long’ run of 9 miles and the day after a treadmill session of 7 x 1K and comfortably hit sub 4 min for the last three reps. But by Saturday I felt wrecked and had to jog round Bolton parkrun sweating profusely. It’s never a straight line. But considering where I was in November, it’s amazing that I’ve been able to build some consistency with the sessions. It’s a shame that this cold has taken the edge off it, but that’s life.

By New Year’s Day I felt well enough to do the NYD special edition event at Bolton. I jogged for a few miles before hand and then ran round with my mate Shay in 24:16. Even that felt difficult towards the end. As I walked off the track I had to remind myself about what I promised myself as the start of this half-marathon project: I just want to be able to run without pain. So in this respect it was a successful start to the new year. I’m not allowing myself to think about times just yet. I think that by the end of February I’ll have some form of target in place for the half, but for now it’s all about building on the solid foundation of December and getting rid of this stinking cold.

Day 27 of 200 – Remember, remember

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training)

Monday 5 November 2018

It’s soon got to Guy Fawkes Night.  It only seems like last week when the Christmas decorations were being packed away and carefully placed into the loft.  Now we’re already thinking about which weekend will be best to go through what we have stashed away and plan to put them all back up again.

I quite like this time of year because it is full of dates that one can use to mark the passing of time.  Halloween, Guy Fawkes Night. To me they are memorable because they represent things that I have done with my children.  I can remember every single time we’ve walked around our estate trick or treating; luckily where I live this means it is simply families walking to the houses of other families and swapping sweets and treats.  I can remember one year when my son received a plum. The family had run out of sweets and were now improvising with fruits. Being just two years old he found it funny to call it a plim rather than plum. The memory almost breaks my heart with its utter ordinariness.  Then there was the year my daughter was a curious mixture of shyness and confidence as she ambled round in her costume, holding my hand as she knocked on doors. This year I hardly saw her as she walked around with her friends, before returning home with a pumpkin full of sugary snacks, her face a mixture of childish pride and hints of the adult she’ll eventually become.

So, yes, I like this time of year because it somehow encourages my reflectiveness.  It’s the leaves falling from the trees; the year is drawing to a close. But the opposite of this is the fact that spring will return, the leaves will come back, and life will once again shine in all of its greenness.  The sun will be warm. And by next spring, I’m hoping that runs will be fast.

In the meantime, runs are slow.  I’ve been at Bolton parkrun. On Saturday I had a target time of 33 minutes, just shy of eleven minute miles.  I really want to do everything that I can to protect my hamstring and build up slowly. In the end I ran 29:25, and my leg felt great.  The hills felt harder than they used to, but overall it was great to be running with others and bobbing along reasonably comfortably. I also wanted to start slower than I finished.  I’m convinced that, in the long term, success on this course is dependent on not getting too carried away at the beginning. So, with this in mind, I was really pleased with miles of 9:50, 9:21, 8:54.  The aim will be to chip 30 – 45 seconds off each week so that I get used to running a tiny bit quicker in a measured and controlled way. That’s also the aim for the other runs in the week. This is week two of the ‘comeback’.  I don’t have any fancy plans. My only aim is to very gently turn the screw so that the distance nudges up by half a mile here and there. For each run, I aim to run slightly quicker than last week. Strava tells me that the average pace of my runs last week was 10:12 minute miles.  This week I will be happy with 10:00 minute miles. It’s all about gently making progress.

Strava also tells me that this time last year I ran a steady 9 miles at 8:18 pace.  As I look back on this run, it almost feels like a different person ran that. As I prepare to run 4 miles tonight at a pace much slower, I allow myself a moment to feel a touch sorry for myself that I am nowhere near being that fit.  It is just a moment though. Those memories are only worth dwelling on for the positives, and the positive is this: runs like that have led to where I am now. I’m healthy, happy, and learning all the time about what I can do. Running is ace.  I always remember that.

Day 21 of 200 – Habits, again

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training, 2019)

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Part of returning from an injury is learning to get back into the habit of running again every day.  It’s all too easy to get into the habit of not running because, after all, that’s what I have been doing: not running.  So, after two months of not being able to run, it’s back to it, it’s back to the habit of running.

I’ve often reflected on the idea that the universe has an odd way of putting in your path just the very thing that you might need.  It’s not always what you want.  I didn’t want to be injured. (Although, let’s be honest, of all of the things that one can be afflicted with, a dodgy hamstring is pretty low down on the list compared to the sheer misery of illness and circumstance that so many people in that world have to contend with.) But maybe, on reflection, it’s what I needed. Maybe I really needed sometime off, some time away from it all to work out what I really want from myself each time I lace up my shoes.  I’m still trying to work it out.

Sometimes these things that the universe seems to provide are a little more direct. This morning was no exception. For the last year I’ve made the conscious effort to break my twenty-odd year habit of listening to the Today programme on Radio 4. The coverage of the news, although thorough and comprehensive, left me feeling somewhat deflated.  I frequently found myself responding to a news agenda rather than actively setting my own for the day ahead.  With its insistence on global issues (many of which seem totally insurmountable, at least to me), I’d often feel the need to give myself a pep talk after listening.  So I broke the habit.  My new habit is to listen to podcasts.  My tastes are wide and varied, but a particular favourite is The Rich Roll Podcast. Today’s episode was with habit expert James Clear. (As an aside, I highly recommend that you subscribe to Clear’s email list.)  Of course, the topic of today’s podcast was habits.  This was a lengthy episode and it seemed like each minute contained a lesson that could be taken away and applied.  As I was busy doing other things I couldn’t really make notes – although I will definitely listen again to do so. But, still, a couple of points really stick in my mind:

  1. Start small. Do the smallest thing. For example: going to the gym for two minutes repeatedly sets the habit. If you do this each day, then the habit sticks. Yes, it’s only two minutes but momentum is everything. You build from there.
  2. This habit creates identity: I am someone who goes to the gym everyday. Habits are not really about what you do, but about who you are.
  3. It is the cumulative of these small actions which compound over time.

What is notable is the fact that there is nothing particularly new here.  Many people have said similar things before; I know I have on my own podcast.  What makes the observations so notable is the fact that we often need to convince ourselves of these basic truths when we are facing our own behaviour change.

Tonight, my own small training session was 30 minutes of weights, followed by a two mile jog at 12 minute miles.  My hamstring felt great!  Remember, it’s the small things completed repeatedly that add up to success over time.

 

Day 20 of 200 – One tenth

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training, 2019)

Monday 29 October 2018

When I started this little project I thought that I might be able to write a few lines each day as a way of reflecting on my progress towards running the Blackpool Marathon in April 2019.  It was not to be. I’ve been busy with work, busy with family life, busy with decorating, busy with going away with my family, busy, busy, busy…

I’ve also been busy continuing to build leg strength towards being able to run again.  And yesterday, I ran.  Not a long run.  Not a quick run.  But a run nonetheless… and it felt great.

I’m now one tenth of the way through this project, a project which will culminate in being able to run the Blackpool Half-Marathon at the end of April next year.  As I write this it is now 180 days away and after yesterday’s run it feels like I am going to need every single one of them.  Not only do I feel unfit, but it also felt like my legs didn’t really belong to me.  I suppose that this is no surprise as my last training run was back on 2nd September and my last run was the English Half Marathon on 16th September.

What was also no surprise is just how good it felt to be out running, or at least jogging along.  It felt amazing to be able to move my body around the park without feeling any pain in my left hip and leg.  It’s this that I want to dwell on. If there is a positive to take from all of this, it is this: running is great, no matter how slowly you do it.

Today I trotted round the park; I was able to get home for 16:30 and nip out for 35 minutes in the fading autumn light.  As I kicked through the fallen leaves I was struck with a profound gratitude.  One tenth of the way through a half marathon build up and I can just about muster a jog.  But that’s ok, and for that I’m grateful.

Day 7 of 200 – In the chair

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’m in the chair.

It’s my first local authority review as a Chair of Governors, a role I’ve been in for a matter of weeks.  I’m seated opposite the school improvement partner who is asking lots of searching questions about governance.  The questions are straightforwardly challenging, nothing that comes out of left field.  No curve balls here.  I’m being stretched but I’m confident. I’ve spent the last twelve months absorbing information as a governor; I’ve spent the last seven months on the Executive Board.  It’s an unusual way to run a school but it’s given me a great developmental opportunity that I’m pressing into service.  The more he pushes, the more I’ve got.  I think we’re both enjoying the interview.

And then it happens.  Quite literally, one second I’m talking through the way in which the governing body is positioning itself to offer greater rigour, support and challenge to the school and the next my left leg feels like it’s on fire.  The pain is spectacular; it radiates from my knee to my shoulder and throbs with a burning intensity.  For a brief moment it puts me off my stride, not too much, but just enough to make me realise that this injury is throbbing away in the background like the hum of a distant engine.  Luckily it ebbs away as quickly as it came and I get back to the business in hand.  But for that briefest of seconds I am acutely aware of the irony of feeling most injured when all I am doing is exercising my mind.

The review goes well.  I’m proud of the progress that we’re all making.  Perhaps what brings it home to me most is when, after the feedback, we make our way through the hall where the last of the after-school club children are helping to pack away toys and games.  A parent is waiting at the the other side of locked door in reception.  As the door opens and his daughter emerges he asks her how her day has been.  She’s clearly smiling and replies it’s been really good.  I have to agree.

Injuries are no fun.  I miss running.  But I’m always looking for the positive and today I don’t need to look very far.  It’s not all about running, schools, half-marathons, reviews… sometimes it’s more than enough to see a smiling face to know that you’re helping to make a difference.

 

 

Day 6 of 200 – Appraisal

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Monday 15 October 2018

It’s October.  For teachers everywhere this means completing the appraisal cycle.  We reflect upon our strengths, identify areas for development, set targets, fill forms, have conversations about performance.  The real value lies not so much in the completion of forms (although, it must be said, if this is done thoroughly it can be amazing to acknowledge just how much you really have done in the space of a year), but rather in the acknowledgement that this is simply part of a process.  Process is everything.

Like running, the outcomes of appraisal are useful for they can be measured.  But that only really tells part of the story; like running, success lies not in the yearly completion of a form, but in the daily commitment to the process of being better, of doing something better than you’d previously managed.  It’s all I can think about at the moment. Thinking about the outcome of this project is futile for I can’t even stride while walking without the telltale hamstring twinge. What I can do is think about the process of trying to do something each day that will bring me closer to my goal of getting to run again.  The process of getting to that point is more important than focusing on an uncertain outcome.

I reflected on this as I walked the dog.  Tonight it was the only thing that I could do in the process of getting back to running again.  One day the process of being injured will end…

Day 5 of 200 – Aching arms

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Sunday 14 October 2018

My arms are shaking slightly as I type this.  The first part of today’s training was a straightforward upper-body weights session.  As the gym was really quiet this afternoon I managed to keep my heart rate up as I moved from weight to weight.  Result: shaking, aching arms.

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Then it was a quick drive home to take the dog round the park for another brisk walk. After a windy and wet few days it was great to march round with the sun out. Poppy enjoyed going for a swim and I enjoyed reflecting on the fact that so many people that I know had successful days out racing.  The great thing about running is the fact that it is possible to be motivated by the success of others, even when you can’t currently run a single step.

 

Day 4 of 200 – Only the Wind

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Saturday 13 October 2018

I’m being pushed around the park.  The wind at my heels, in my face, on my back.  The dog is enjoying it though; she’s pretending to nip at it when it ruffles her ears.  As we turn down a path that we taken countless times before, I see that the wind has felled a tree and the pathway has become a riot of snapped branches and colour.  I use the opportunity to take a quick picture and check my step count, 8564, before mooching on.

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‘Just a little wind and the trees are falling down’

I’m walking because other than gym based work it’s the only weight bearing activity that I can do without aggravating my hamstring.  Really I want to be running on an afternoon like this. I take a moment to think about what I’ve not been able to do today: parkrun and then the first cross country race of the season.  For the briefest of moments I allow myself a second or two to feel sorry for myself.  I’ve learned that it’s healthy, at least for me, not to fight away such moments of despondency.  These days I acknowledge them for what they are, just thoughts.  And then I let them drift off into the mental ether and normal service can be resumed.  So I luxuriate in a self pitying ten seconds before looking across to see my Jack Russell bounding up a hill with a look of sheer delight spread over her face. It makes me smile.  And on I go. Just me, the dog, and the wind.

The first half of the Pet Shop Boys’ sublimely beautiful 1990 album Behaviour closes with the track ‘Only The Wind’.  The lyric discusses the aftermath of the wind rampaging through a neighbourhood replete with the sort of characters who ‘don’t lie anymore’; the whole song, at least to my ears, is a metaphor for the emotional devastation that is visited upon relationships when alcoholics stop drinking.  I’ve always been deeply moved by the short central refrain:

When life is calmer/I have no doubt/No angry drama/A storm blows itself out

The ambiguity of exactly to whom the angry drama belongs is what impresses me the most about the lyric.  The second time round the chorus offers a note of reconciliation as the orchestral arrangement grows in strength and offers a solid aural backdrop before the persona’s final words of ‘I’m sorry’.

Here’s a 2018 remaster:

Day 3 of 200 – Alton Towers

Friday 12 October 2018

(Blackpool Half Marathon 2019 training)

Just before I take this photo my watch buzzes to tell me that I’ve walked 10,000 steps.  I pause and look up.  The photo sums up where I am with training for this half-marathon: at the bottom of a huge climb.

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My training today has been walking around Alton Towers with colleagues, checking in with students and chivvying them along at the end of a great day out with school.  There was a time when I’d have looked down my nose at the idea of walking as training.  The thing about a chronic injury is how you have to learn how to reframe your experiences if you are to maintain a happy and optimistic outlook.  There’s always something to learn. Everyday really is a school day.