A learning journey, all the way across America

Photo courtesy of Ricky Gates – http://www.rickygates.com

I watched Ricky Gates’ 2017 run across America yesterday, and found it inspiring on a number of levels.

Gates had felt unsettled at the time about the Trump administration winning the 2016 election and, as a professional runner and someone drawn, and devoted to understanding better what life “is all about”, he took on the challenge of solo running from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean on his own.

He managed this in as unaided a way as is technically practical, so just one support vehicle, loosely tracking him with some supplies. He slept out each night on a tarp and camping mat, which he carried on his back.

Possibly, from reading about Donald Trump’s return to social media this morning (which I refuse to share here) but also due to having sat on my arse for the past 6 days, following surgery on my Achilles, I felt compelled to celebrate Gates’ pilgrimage from 5 years ago.

Firstly, I’ll embrace any opportunity to support and promote an endeavour that was, itself, “inspired” as a means to counter the turmoil (at the time, and possibly still) that is Donald Trump. Sign me up for, literally anything, that might spread an anti-Trump message.

Second, no matter how polished Gates’ running portfolio is, a marathon a day for over 150 days – including sleeping outside in the open, every night, breaking camp and boiling a stove in the mornings for your daily pre-marathon coffee – is nothing less than a herculean accomplishment.

Gates planned his route meticulously from state to state, many of which he was setting foot in for the first time.

He documented the diversity of landscape and culture along the way, and had already hammered home the eclecticness and the natural beauty of America before he’d left his first state.

He even choreographed a pit-stop back on his home turf in Aspen, Colorado – the familiar “comforts” of running over the Rocky Mountains nearby, super-charging him for what was next to come: endless miles of searing heat across the Nevada desert.

With all this planning, however, each day he attempted to get from dawn to dusk in as basic a way as possible. If his phone (which contained the map) ran out of battery, before he could re-charge it, he was forced to follow his instincts and, on several occasions, he went off course.

In the desert, his initial strategy, to avoid the 110 degree daytime temperatures, was to run through the night. As this routine proved troublesome from the resulting lack of sleep he was managing, he then bought a golf cart, carrying the extra water he needed, before upgrading to a child’s stroller, equipped with an umbrella, and allowing him more running time when the sun was up.

It was during this gruelling chapter in the desert that Gates suffered acid reflux.

You’d imagine that, due to the sheer amount of distance he covered, it would be the knees or the heels giving up, but it was his stomach that succumbed. He couldn’t keep food down, spent days vomiting and passing blood and then, on the verge of seeking medical help and throwing in the towel, he decided to experiment with ingesting mouthfuls of mustard (a tip from the internet).

This eventually worked, and he kept pushing on. So calm in his temperament when on camera. Resolute in not failing. Forever curious about what his commitment to a goal, that could surely be doing him long-term damage, was to reveal along the way.

And so, lastly, what stuck with me from Gates’ story, by way of a lesson underneath which we can all hook some learning, wasn’t to be in awe at how far our bodies and minds can be stretched, or to what heights of resiliency our spirits can soar. It was Gates’ humble reflections on his experience that I valued the most.

Naturally, it is only through the medium of cliches that achievements such as Gates’ can be summarised.

As other explorers of his generation (Beau Miles is another go-to, for me) help curate modern twists on well known wisdoms, Gates’ documentary plays homage to many, yet seems to dial up those connected most to the study of solitude, and escaping the impulses many of us have, to take on different and often competing roles on a day-to-day basis.

Why not focus instead, Gates muses, on just one. Being you.

Akin to the adage about being “true to oneself” it seems to me that Ricky Gates’ epic journey in 2017 underscored what he already knew about life – namely, that we all know very little, really, about how to make sense of it, and can often be the creators of our own mis-directions, in our attempts to do so.

Perhaps, accepting this, is as solid a starting point for any of us, no matter where we find ourselves when we’re at our most thoughtful or our most fearful.

Do we all have to go on epic journeys to be at peace with our sense of self, and how we show up in the world? I suspect it’s plausible that we do.

Although, choosing the 3,700 mile run option definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Stillness

The air's warm thickness
Always catches me by surprise - 
An enveloping tropical blanket 
That I breathe in and feel settling,
As I lace up running shoes 
To the sweep of a broom 
Outside my gate

I’m coaxed up off the perch of my
Front door step 
By the prospect of adventure -
In autopilot I saunter up the driveway,
My muscles purring at the 
Inevitability of the kilometres ahead

Dawn is still an hour away -
The overwhelming morning rays
That slow-cook the city
Will follow soon after,
Baking the uneven pavements
And simmering between layers of long-sleeved
Crowds, astride their spluttering scooters,
As they inch forward in morning traffic,
Past sugar cane juice vendors and the 
Waft of street-food

Until the chaos and jostle of life here unfolds
I have these streets to myself -
With each new stride the pulse of blood and adrenalin 
Propel me, 
Numbing the aches and pains that
Escorted my lumbering frame down the stairs
Moments earlier

Allowing a freedom of feeling,  
An openness and calm,
Anchors the rest of me in a
Temporary vacuum,
Sealed off from the humdrum of the day ahead - 
Egos and speculations,
Emails and negotiations – 
A freedom of feeling connected to oneself

Threading through the darkly lit hems and alleyways -
An urban avatar of sorts -
I choose my path,
Control my outcomes, 
Primordial, raging instincts pull me faster forward until 
The stillness is complete

Exhausted and gasping, 
I stare at the giant orange orb 
Cresting over Saigon bridge.

Endoman

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Luang Prabang hills, December 2019

Endoman

Blown by the wind I lean in
To each next flailing stride,
Eyes creep up,
Take in the green ‘scape
Running on,
Breathing faster
Chest tightening
Bones cursing
A rhythmic shudder of coarse
Foot planting,
Legs, knees
Stretching up
Lifting higher,
Every sinew clenched,
Fighting for oxygen
With teeth grinding left and right,
Another 100 yards,
– A kilometer even –
Holding on, and holding
Just on,
Around the corner
Forest breeze surfs through my hair
And then, assured, then –
A gear change,
A release between
Then and now and why and how
Becoming stronger,
Fluid, perfectly fluid,
The strokes as if through water,
Over air,
Beyond pain and forward,
Forward, forward.

Taking on Pu Luong

 

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Home from home. Annie, Lucca, Matt, Colm, Ivan, Issy, Jess, Phoebe, me and our terrific hosts, after completing the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon https://vietnamtrailseries.com/jungle-marathon/ (photo by Sally!)

I woke before the shrill of my alarm clock. 12:50am. The wooden floorboards creaked as the weight of my body eased itself into a standing position, the fan above tickling my face. I excitedly purveyed the heap of running kit laid out on the floor next to my mattress.

Time waits for no man, and May 25th 2019 was here. It had been far off on the horizon when we’d signed up to run the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong. But, now, as I consciously took my first few breathes of the day and begun to get changed, that horizon was gone and this was starting to feel real.

I’d run one ultra marathon race before – https://definitelymaybe.me/2017/09/22/thoughts-on-motivation/ – and the memories of numerous painful moments during those 13 hours had gradually dimmed and vanished from my mind. This race was a 55km-er (so, 15km shorter than the one up in Sapa) but with plenty of steep elevation to conquer.

Although struggling with a heel problem since the end of 2017, I’d somewhat stubbornly set out and run 10kms a day on average since the beginning of January this year, and was determined to immerse myself once more in the comprehensive and full sensory experience that these events offer up.     Continue reading

What a piece of work is man

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Photo credit: Global Sports Comms https://twitter.com/globalsportscom/status/828895683298131968

This often quoted line from Shakespeare’s infamous lead character, Hamlet, strikes a chord for me at the moment.

I remember Hamlet’s lasting messages, about 30 years ago at school, when we read the script in class, and were fortunate enough to then watch Kenneth Branagh play the lead at a production at The Barbican.

Since I last wrote a blog – over on the sister site to this one https://definitelymaybe.me/2019/02/04/transformation-of-the-third-sector/ – countless global news events have made Hamlet’s tormented reflections about the state of the world only more resonant.

I was sat on the balcony of The Galleface hotel, in Colombo, back in February when I wrote that last piece. Issy and me had that morning come from breakfast at The Shangri-La, a short walk away, and one of the hotels in which a terrorist blew himself up on Easter Sunday earlier this month.

Out of such horrific acts can only come the positive inklings of resilience. All else is pervasive and lasting devastation.     Continue reading

Walking the Talk

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Dawn exercise in Hanoi, last week.

So, I’m 43 years old and last week I was taught how to walk properly. Turns out I hadn’t quite got it right these last four decades of trying.

The reason I needed the refresh, for something I’d taken for granted for so many years, was the amount of running I took on last year, to complete the personal challenge of finishing the Sapa Vietnam Mountain Marathon – a sizeable 70 kms, 3,000 metres and 13 hours of mountain running on the day itself.

By New Year’s Eve, I’d clocked up over 3,500 kms of running for 2017. Enough, it transpired, to ensure a memorable time in Sapa, but also to cause a serious malfunction in my left heel.

Many people in the world today have their sights set on personal challenges and an ambition for satisfying outcomes. Longer, faster, tougher –  the pursuit of something that seems unobtainable, combined with the thrill of proving, ultimately, that it isn’t.

I’ve written about why I like to run in previous posts. The programme of rehabilitation I’m now on, following 6 months of chronic heel pain and various misdiagnoses, I hope, will get me running again.

However, first, I’ve to fundamentally change a number of things I do in order to walk.

[For those of you interested, in addition to some sturdier inner soles, the tweaks made to my walking style include: keeping my chin up; shoulders further back; hips up and forward; feet pointed slightly inward; and then pushing off of the bottom of the ball of the big toe. There you have it, I’ll give that to you for free!]

It ended up being of little shock to learn that, when it comes to walking and running, I’ve been doing some of the basic things not quite right for many years now, and without realizing. A situation which feels analogous to other things in life.

To anyone familiar with my writing, it’s the development sector – my precious development sector – that springs to mind when making such comparisons, and how organisations, like CARE, seek to bring about change, and understand what change means.

Change can happen in a day, it can happen in a week, and sometimes it can take a lifetime. The type of change that CARE, and many working in this sector aim for is, you’ve guessed it, long-term change. Sustained, meaningful, generational outcomes. How does that manifest? As a sector we’ve collectively tried different ways and forms of intervening, and we’ve learnt a lot – some of which I’ve covered through blog posts, here and over on http://www.definitelymaybe.me.

Details aside, I think the biological analogy is a good one. After 6 months of trying to repair my heel using various interventions (including acupuncture, laser treatment, shock wave therapy, white blood cell injections – you name it, I experimented the hell out of it) the root cause of the issue was revealed to be connected to a bunch of things located far, far away from my Achilles heel. My neck, my shoulders, my core, my hips, my glutes, my quads, pretty much all the other parts of my body were conspiring against my heel.

It became instantly clear then that my heel would never improve unless all these constituent parts had received a full, physical makeover.

I’m fortunate to have found, just a week ago, a Vietnamese sports physio, named Danny Dong. Danny’s is a name I’ll not forget for a while, not merely because of the sheer charm it conveys (never since being introduced to a ‘Mr Phuc Dat’ the second week I arrived in Saigon, in 2011, has a name left such an endearing impression on me) but because Danny has helped put me on a road to recovery that feels as close to empowering as I’ve felt in a good long while.

This has not been without some ‘growing pains’. Earlier today, Danny took me through an agonizing session, reinforcing his instinctive advice (when first watching me move) of how the right side of my body is so much more flexible and stronger than the left.

Suspicions he had about this (and about the nature of my overly stiff hamstrings, and soreness in my right shoulder) he readily set about confirming, as he attacked the solid lumps of innate muscle tissue underneath my left foot – dormant for months since being rendered too contorted to be otherwise – and subjected me to a form of foot torture the likes of which I’ve never experienced.

Moments of writhing pain later, and an initial softening of some of the muscles in my foot, and he set to work on some of the other culprits (alas, there were many). But, as the old adage goes – there is no gain without pain.

********************

In social development terminologies, we know that to bring about change in a meaningful way, in countries such as Pakistan or Egypt or Sudan, does not always necessitate placing more resources directly into those contexts, but instead can be served better by resourcing elsewhere – around the policy making tables in Washington or in Brussels, perhaps.

Similarly, for many garment factory workers around the world, CARE has been able to build their individual agency and skills directly (through training courses, for example) however it is in dialogue with the world’s leading retail companies (whose procurement teams tend to be head-quartered in Hong Kong) that we stand more chance of influencing the conditions and the lives of garment workers, operating as they do out of the myriad of countries from where these buyers source products.

CARE does not have an office in Hong Kong, but there are ways and means of engaging these companies, provided 1.) we are clear on how the particular eco-system operates, and 2.) we are open to trying new approaches, and driving new conversations.

Just as I am now being schooled in how various parts of my body, overlooked for too long, each have an important role to play in the act of me walking.

Danny tells me that next week he is going to teach me how to run. Let me hope I can live up to his expectations and do so, and better than before and, fingers crossed, for another 43 years.

It seems to me that to do that – ie running “better” – requires me to make a continued shift (in my case, a literal ‘pivot’) on the topic of what I think running looks like in the first place.

And, as a concluding call to action from this particular reflection, I’d suggest, as a sector, that we take that spirit of reframing into as many of our discussions as we can.

We should take it into the exchange of ideas and engagement we have with our peers, or with the private sector and those companies with whom we partner, with policy makers, with local community leaders, activists, social changemakers, and the many others in society who are so often excluded, yet who we absolutely know hold the keys to unlocking many of the issues of the day, and of our time.

Let us never assume we know everything, and strive to be open to new ways of getting the job done – working, walking, running, scaling mountains, whatever our pursuit.

These things are all connected, and we can always find ways of improving, so that the learning curve each of us is on will never, in our lifetime, need plateau.

Pressing pause on life

 

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Image credit: http://www.insight.rwabusiness.com

It’s been 9 weeks now since I ran a single kilometre. Some kind of achilles tendon issue, which I’ve been unable to resolve, has kept me off the roads. A corticosteroid injection this afternoon will mark the latest in a string of interventions.

Since that last outing, I’ve been mainly frustrated at being “off games” – as we used to say at school – and quickly realised the need for new goals and focus.

We purchased a juicer (to help keep the carbs down) and I’ve spent more time than usual contemplating other things. I’ve had a steady slew of trips and, whilst home, Issy and me have kept up the routine of work, spending time with the girls, socializing, planning holidays, and indulging in those divine moments of quiet, when the house is still and you have no commitments or reasons to be anywhere else.

Overall, not running has meant I’ve read more, written more, and thought more about the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very keen to start exercising properly again. I wonder, however, to what extent my once regular 60+kms week was providing me with the space to think, or the space to feel dis-connected from the humdrum of the “day-to-day”? I think it was.      Continue reading

Scaling new heights in Vietnam

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Running around the streets of Jodhpur before dawn

I’m not on Facebook however, as of this week, I am on Facebook, thanks to a small voluntary organisation in Cambridge – called Fight Against Blindness – for whom I’m attempting to raise some funds over the next month.

Here is our combined “pitch” (just scroll down in the link) to anyone on Facebook, and interested in donating: https://www.facebook.com/fightagainstblindnessRP/?fref=ts

And for any non-Facebook users, this is the direct link to the JustGiving site I’ve set up, should you wish to get involved: http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/saigonsays

Fight Against Blindness are a small voluntary organisation specialising in providing funds for Professional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for children at Addenbrooke’s Hospital Eye Clinic Cambridge, as well as other clinics in the South East of England.

I was first introduced to them via friends whose son uses their counseling services, and for whom this has had profoundly positive effects (the JustGiving page provides a small window into their experiences.)

I can’t recall if I’ve doused these pages with ramblings about the event I’m under-taking?

Some time back I used to run marathons, and then for whatever reason, and after a long stretch away from running, 10 months ago I signed up for a new challenge. This one is quite a departure from anything I’ve done before: 70kms, and mainly in ‘trekking’ conditions as opposed to road running. The event in total involves climbing 3,000 metres.

I’ll be doing this in Vietnam, in some of the country’s northern highlands. It’s a 4am start and I hope to finish around 5pm.

So, I wouldn’t say I’m ‘fit as a fiddle’ at this stage, but I’ve definitely upped my game because of the impending event…

Training in the sweat-box that is Saigon, with its pollution, humidity, crazy traffic, and ruptured pavements, is not always an uplifting experience, but all in all I’ve really enjoyed being back on the running scene again. Last month, in the UK, I embraced exploring old routes down the River Thames, and then indulged in the open outcrops of green down at my parent’s house in the New Forest, catching the deer off guard at dawn.

I’ve been running as much as I can these past months, and on as many of my travels as possible. I wasn’t allowed to run in Gaza back in May, but everywhere else I’ve been this year I’ve tended to use the opportunity to see some sights: from dodging Jakarta traffic, running along the ocean (whilst koala spotting) in Australia, skipping down Colombo’s beach front, meeting elephants in Rajasthan whilst searching for Forts and Palaces, all the way through to jogging through the Old City in Jerusalem, in awe at the American flags on display at the time (the day before Trump arrived there) – some spectacular sights, and some memorable moments, have been had, for sure.

I wouldn’t admit, on the other hand, that my recent commitment to “stay off the booze for 6 weeks” to get “really fit” has totally succeeded. I’m leveling most of the blame here on Bombay Sapphire, which I recently discovered uses Queen Victoria as its brand ambassador (the only Royal ever to promote any product) after she once noted that it was “every Englishman’s right to drink gin”. Enough said.

However, regardless of my terrible will power when it comes to an evening tipple, as of today I’ve run 2,140 kms since first pacing around Raymond Island on New Year’s Day (which was followed at the time by jumping in the adjacent lake to cure the hangover). This morning I also managed to climb up 200 flights of stairs, as part of my workout, and in a vain attempt to practice “hills”.

I’m nervous, and just ever so slightly thrilled by the prospect of what September 23rd’s race day will bring for me (will I make it round the course “ok” or will it be utterly horrendous?) The thought of lining up at the start alongside, no doubt, a herd of wiry framed Mo Farah lookalikes, head torches glaring and pulses up, will be something that keeps me awake for the next four weeks, although I am sure it will be quite a special experience at the same time.

Your support and your solidarity behind me will give me that extra boost of confidence, I have no doubt, and, most importantly I can assure you that the Fight Against Blindness team will be hugely grateful for any funds or awareness you can raise for them in the process. Thank you in advance for either.

Wish me luck!

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Light show in the New Forest