It’s been some time since I’ve written a blog post. Life has taken a turn for me lately. It is flowing in a new and positive direction, towards open horizons.
So much of last year felt as though I was swimming upstream, against the current. It was survival instinct, in full drive and although I was fully aware that this was needed in order to tackle the challenges taking place in our family, I was so focused on managing my reaction to them, I had little time or space to see the bigger picture.
And so it was, on a spring morning in May, at a point when I felt OH SO ready for new inspiration, I got on a plane and flew to Lisbon in Portugal. Alone.
On arrival I feel a combination of relief, release and guilt. To be on my own is to put myself first. I know it is what I need, but to receive it feels a little uncomfortable. As a mother and wife I feel a huge sense of duty to be at home. I am needed. Our family is struggling; my eldest son with autism related mental health issues, my youngest with anxiety and my husband working hard to support us financially, but each month we are sinking further into debt. We didn’t see any of this coming. We were a “normal” family 2 years ago. I had a career in finance, my husband had retrained and was enjoying his new line of work, our 2 boys were both happy at school with friends and clubs. And all of our hard graft was paying off. We had a beautiful Grade II listed family home in the Dorset countryside, a holiday in France every year, on the face of it all life looked good. But there were cracks, there were signs that perhaps there were pressures we weren’t willing to look at. We just didn’t have time to stop and notice. But then COVID hit. And all that had been lurking beneath, came bubbling up to the surface. All that pressure over time had built to such an extent that it couldn’t be contained anymore.
My first day in Portugal I hiked 20km through the Sintra Natural Park, north of Lisbon. I instinctively knew I needed to move my body. To allow all that I was carrying mentally to find it’s natural place and rhythm within me.
Starting from the guesthouse where I was staying nr Praia Das Macas I made my way South down the coast towards Cabo Da Roca (the Westernmost point of mainland Europe). I didn’t know that’s where I was going, but that’s where I ended up!
This hike takes in breath-taking views of the coast and plenty of hidden coves, however many of these stunning beaches are inaccessible due to the sheer cliff faces. Following the footpath signs (three painted stripes on rocks) I didn’t come across a single person for the first 8km! Only iguanas, peregrines, butterflies and an array of colourful flowers and succulents. Before reaching the Cape I came across Praia Da Ursa, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Portugal it has a steep footpath down to the white sandy beach where you are met with tall jagged sea stacks. It is simply stunning. After taking a short cut involving a somewhat precarious scrabble down a cliff face (and a surprise jump down onto a family who were having a picnic) I wasted no time in getting in the water to cool down and enjoy a swim beside this incredible backdrop.
Feeling refreshed and revived I began the steep ascent back up to the coast path, continuing for another 4km to Cabo da Roca. The cape is a tourist hotspot being the westernmost point of Europe, but the facilities are a welcome break with a modern design tourist information centre and really friendly staff. After a cool drink in the shade I decided to take a bus to Ulgeuira. I didn’t fancy walking along the roads. Of course I could have simply retraced my steps and returned to Praia Das Macas the way I came, but I didn’t want to feel like I was going backwards. It feels more progressive to carry on. (despite going round in a massive circle!). Alighting at the town of Ulgeuria, following a short walk through the streets, I finally rejoined the trails in Sintra Natural Park to head back North. This time hiking through the lower mountain range and wooded landscape which is interspersed with arid sandy open spaces.
I made it back to the guesthouse where my bed betrayed my earlier mood. A fetal shaped empty space between the sheets where I had woken wondering what on earth I was doing here. How different I felt now. Capable and proud of my self. The hike had taken 5 hours, but I’m sure it could be done in much less! I’m not a hiker, I actually feel a bit of a fraud when I say I’ve hiked somewhere. The time I spent was simply as long as it needed to be. With no school run, or dinner to cook. No social worker or mortgage company calls to answer, there was no limit to the process I needed to go through. I walked, and swam until I’d cleared my head, and got back to ME again.
As the days pass I am not only physically covering ground, I am moving through my mental landscape. For the first time in months I feel a freedom that allows more space in my thoughts. After that first day, my tears flow less and although there is still a heaviness in my heart, I begin to feel stronger. I visit the remote Berlenga islands, I take a boat trip and visit caves and coves where pairs of peregrines nest, I walk the paths of monks and visit underground tunnels where the knights templar were initiated. And all the while I am breathing in the land, I am breathing in LIFE. I am witnessing more of the world, and in doing so it is lifting my spirit, my confidence. And I am remembering who I am and what I am capable of.
Providing time and distance, provides space to reflect, and time to be quiet. Coming to Portugal I have connected with a wild place, and here I have also connected what my inner voice wants to tell me. It has been the single most powerful action I’ve taken in years. My instinct has been dampened by the grind of daily life. A life that hasn’t been working for us as a family. I’ve been on auto pilot, but I’ve known for some time that we need to set a new course.
Being in a foreign country, exploring the unknown is reminding me what it is to experience life. How I DO have the capacity to make decisions, take risks and create opportunity. When to follow the crowd, and when to trust my gut and take a wilder path. While in this beautiful wild country I’ve also had the opportunity to reconnect with my older sister who moved out here around 5 years ago. Travelling further north up to the silver coast I spent the remainder of my time with Claire, exploring during the day while she worked and then sharing meals at local cafes, taking walks together in the evening. It was a rare and precious few days to talk, laugh and cry with my big sister. She is an inspiration and I felt so grateful for her kindness and non judgement.
These are the simple, pure moments. The things that help you to overcome adversity. To grow, and flourish and become the person that you are capable of being. And when you know who that is, then you know how to trust your self, and to live your life authentically.
I’ve been stuck for so long. I forgot I had the power to change all this.
I know now what it is I need to do. I know without a shadow of doubt, that my family needs to go on an adventure. My boys, and my husband and I need to experience more of life, together as a unit. To step foot into unknown territory, hand in hand, and know we will be ok. To be brave. To discover that by being brave you are not only rewarded with self confidence and self belief, but you get to experience so much more in life, with a wider outlook.
We need to reset our mindset.
We will make our own way. This is how we will overcome our struggle, this is how we will become unstuck. We will take positive action! We will climb out of the hole we’ve been in, and find a new horizon. And we will feel SO proud of ourselves. We will understand we have the power to do this.
It’s been a while since I’ve hit the trails for a run. It was September last year I ran a Half Marathon on the remote and rugged island of Lundy. But since then? Nothing. Zilch. Nada.
I’ve been wondering why…
It’s not because it was hard. (I mean, obviously it was challenging and I always knew it would be!!). But I think I shocked myself at how hard I was on MYSELF more than anything. What was required of me physically nearly broke me! The terrain was difficult and precarious in places, and despite the wild beauty of the island it was an unforgiving landscape to run across. But I would not let myself give up. There were points where I didn’t think I could make it, but like the landscape I found that I was also unforgiving! So I made myself crawl, climb and run the course until I’d finished.. even if it made me sick.
I was immensely happy that I completed it, and amazed that my body and mind had been capable of getting me across that finish line. It DID make me feel like anything was possible, and this IS a massive positive to experience. But over the next few months I lost all desire to run. I began to question my motivation. Did I really need to do these extreme challenges. Ok, I’d been interested to see how far I could go. To test “mind over matter” but WAS it good for my mental health?. Or was I just beating myself up?
In the months after Lundy Island, I decided to be kinder to myself. As the days grew shorter, I found myself moving slower, walking and sleeping. I gave myself permission to rest. I entered these dark, cold months of Winter with a warmth in my heart as a result. I’ve been rising at dawn to greet the sunrise at the beach, slipping silently beneath the waves has been the only movement and wild remedy I’ve needed. I’ve been recharging.
But now I feel something is shifting. As first light comes earlier and lasts longer every day, I feel the need to move more, to breathe the air deep in to my lungs. To stretch. To reach a little further. To feel what my body is capable of again.
I don’t mean setting myself goals, or challenges in terms of distances or frequency, I’ve just felt that “spark” to want to feel more physically active.
So this morning I asked the dogs if they’d take me for a run. Their joy and enthusiasm for their two (sometimes three) daily outings is utterly boundless. They are born to run after all! It is fun for them! I said to my son I was going for a run for the first time in a long time and he said “you can stop if you want mum. Maybe 3 or 4 times if you want to”. I couldn’t help laughing as this is the same advice I give him when he has to run the daily mile at primary school! So with permission to stop if I want to, me and the dogs set off early, running together up the muddy tracks, between hedgerows and out into the misty fields.
And all of a sudden, I remember what it is I love about trail running! Moving through nature, the air firing up my lungs as my cheeks glow and my heart pounds. The blur of greens and browns and blue as I move through the landscape beneath the vast sky. Noticing the lay of the land with each step, my energy connecting and colliding with the ground; earth, stone, grass, rain, mud, frost. Looking for signs of the seasons as they change and transform, seeing these as metaphors for life.
I remember how I enjoyed the feeling of growing in strength. The progress. The improvement and development. The shifting from one form to another. That last year, over time, I moved faster, and further, my body and mind always in transit. I remember that it is transformational.
I am on that journey. Again
This by no means looks like a 21km distance right now. But then it never did. Not when I first started running. I certainly never imagined running around Lundy Island!
Perhaps I will always want to challenge myself. Perhaps I need extremes. By reaching as far as my outer edges will possibly allow, then retreating safely back to centre. Maybe these are the limits I need to go to in order to truly know the expanse of my self and to understand my mental health. By swinging between these counterpoints, over and over, perhaps my inner pendulum will one day reach an equilibrium.
I would rather stop and start, then stop and start again, than never begin at all.
With the start of a new year comes new resolutions. A fresh start and a good time to consider how we can feel better, and make changes that might improve our lives. For some of us it’s for personal gain, for others it might be for the “greater good”! Either way, although I’m very much of the opinion we shouldn’t feel under any pressure to make resolutions or commitments simply because it’s January, I am all for taking the opportunity to hit a “reset button” if the opportunity arises!
So with a focus on wellness and self-care, in this post I’ll be exploring how wild spaces can be better for our wellbeing than a luxury 5* spa. Better still, evidence shows that the more time we spend in nature, the more we benefit, and the more we feel prompted to care for our planet.
When I worked full time in finance (a fact that still somewhat baffles me, and anyone that meets me!), my tiny office had no natural daylight. I would arrive in the dark and leave in the dark with absolutely no clue as to what the weather had done that day. I was completely disconnected. My eyes and skin were dull, my body ached from sitting at desk and I worked sometimes 10 hours a day to get on top of my workload which was never ending. I’d reach a point, often in January around the time of the delightful tax return, where I’d worked so hard, for so long, with so little self care that I’d be desperate for a chance to re-charge.
Occasionally I’d book a spa day as a way to look after myself. And there is no doubt that this is a great way to commit to some down-time and “reset”. But it does comes at a price. These places are expensive. Not just because the facilities are costly to design and build (and don’t get me started on the energy bills!), but also because it’s an industry that knows only too well how tired and burnt out we are as a society. It is supplying our need to feel better in ourselves. I would justify the cost by telling myself it’s an “investment in my wellbeing”. But reflecting on previous Spa experiences, compared to how nature makes me feel now, I can’t help but think that although it seemed like a treat, I question whether it gave me any long term benefit.
The wellness industry is booming (we all want to feel well after all). In 2020 it was estimated to be worth £12.4 million in the UK*. So it is evident that we are spending money on wellness and investing in feeling good. Which is great! Self care should absolutely be a priority. More and more we are hearing about the importance of it, and how we must look after our mental health as well as our physical health. We know how important it is to relax, de-stress and take time out. But now that we know this, could this pave the way for a more long term, sustainable way to invest not only in our own wellness, but in that of the planet’s? After all, since lockdown in particular, it seems that the health benefits, similar to those sold to us by the Health and Wellness industry are attainable from simply spending time in green and blue spaces. So could it be that by spending time in nature we can find a far more accessible alternative to spas and health retreats. Not just in terms of cost, but as a socially inclusive space? And by doing this, are more of us gaining a deeper understanding of our natural world. An understanding that fosters a desire to care for it?
Despite the “wellness” benefits of this kind of experience, I’ll confess that going to a Spa actually creates a low-level anxiety in me! It’s the intimacy of relaxing with people I don’t know that I find uncomfortable. But also it’s an enclosed space. No freedom to roam. On top of this I always have the suspicion that the staff are judging me somehow. Thoughts like “do my legs need shaving? Is my “bikini line” unsightly? Does my swimwear look like it’s seen better days?” Admittedly this is just my anxiety talking, but I wonder how many of us feel the same, and so simply avoid these situations all together?
So this is where I question the benefit. How can I truly feel good and well in myself, if I am in an environment where I’m not able to BE myself? Does it really give me what I need?
An article in The Guardian in Dec 2021 highlighted a fascinating report by Forest Research who are the first to estimate the financial amount that woodlands saved the NHS this past year. Through fewer GP visits and prescriptions, it is estimated that woodland walks saved the UK £185 million last year in mental health costs. Sir William Worsley, the chair of the Forestry Commission, which funded the report, said: “It demonstrates just how vital it is to invest in healthy trees and woodlands. It makes medical, economic and environmental sense”, he said.
With the government now committing to ramp up tree planting to 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres) a year by 2024, as opposed to just 13,300 hectares planted in 2021, this is a hugely positive move not just towards our health, but long lasting impact for the planet. It’s a win-win scenario!
But it’s not just our woodlands that are helping us to feel well. “Blue Health” is also being recognised as having a positive effect on our wellbeing. The Blue Health Programme is a multi-disciplinary research project that has been researching the effects of blue spaces on our wellbeing in order to further inform decision makers when it comes to future development and investment. This short film is well worth watching as it explores the history and the science behind how water can help us feel good. There’s even a bit towards the end that talks about a trial they are doing in Devon to try and “bottle the benefits of the coast” and bring the outside to those that can’t access it – including in hospitals and dental surgeries. (Fancy “wearing a beach” when you have dental work?!!!)
There’s no doubt that being in, on or nearby water can make us feel better. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone. I mean, it is no co-incidence that we spend millions of pounds each year to go on holiday and sit by a pool, or sit on a beach. It’s relaxing right!? But there’s SO much more to it.
A fascinating book that explores this is “Blue Mind” by Dr Wallace J Nichols It shows us the science behind how water is having a remarkable effect, in all it’s shapes and forms, on our health and happiness. The blue mind of the book’s title refers to the neurological, psychological and emotional changes our brains experience when we are close to water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research. As a highly informed marine biologist he urges us to get closer to water, not only for our own sake, but for the environment and a healthier future for us all.
The Health and Wellness industry is, after all, only filling a gap in the market and providing something we all need. Often it can be difficult to access wild spaces, and the convenience of a Spa is therefore getting as close to it as possible. But this is reserved for those that can not only afford it, but are physically and mentally comfortable with it.
But perhaps by accessing the “real thing”, we can discover the same, possibly longer lasting, health benefits, while also connecting and fostering a desire to care for our green and blue spaces. If more funding is invested in developing these spaces and looking at ways to make them more accessible to all, then surely a more meaningful relationship and understanding of the natural world will begin to blossom?
So what other forms of wild wellness can we experience outdoors!? What can a Spa provide that nature can’t? Well, there are treatments. The facial, or massage isn’t something you can find easily in a forest let’s be honest! But let’s not forget that the products used to enhance this experience found naturally. Massage oils and aromatic creams are specially formulated using herbs and botanicals to boost our mood, or relax us depending on our needs. Lavender, Rosemary, Eucalyptus, Camomile flower to name but a few. Although not all of these can be found easily, and you often just need to know where to look. A park, or garden. The pine scent in the forest. The wild honeysuckle in the hedgerows. Where I go trail running locally there is a whole patch of camomile that grows on the ground. As I run through it, and apply the weight of my body, it releases an incredible aroma and I can’t help but smile.
But back to the massage, or body therapies; You know what? I would still prefer to feel the sun on my face than an electric light, or let the salt and sand exfoliate my skin. To feel the refreshing sensation of dew on the grass as I walk barefoot. The energy of a waterfall as it pounds against my back.
One thing I DO love about a spa though, especially in the winter, is a sauna! The oldest known saunas in Finland were made from pits dug in a slope in the ground and primarily used as dwellings in winter. The sauna featured a fireplace where stones were heated to a high temperature. Water was thrown on the hot stones to produce steam and to give a sensation of increased heat. The first Finnish saunas are what nowadays are called savusaunat, or smoke saunas. These differed from present-day saunas in that they were heated by heating a pile of rocks called kiuas by burning large amounts of wood about 6 to 8 hours and then letting the smoke out before enjoying the löyly, or sauna heat.
There are now an increasing number of wood-fired units making it possible to take saunas and hot-tubs out of the spa and off grid. As a result we can now head outside and experience this warmth under the stars or up in the mountains. More and more are popping up all over the country. You can find them on beaches, in forests and next to lakes; so we can now experience the benefits of a Spa without being disconnected from nature.
We are incredibly lucky here in Dorset (UK) to have The Seaside Sauna Haus. This mobile sauna came to our coastline as a result of a Crowdfunder initiative launched by Sarah Higgins. Situated on the beach, just yards from the sea you can now reap the benefits of the sauna while connecting with the coastline. Hosted by Sarah, she is incredibly passionate about the health benefits of the sauna and genuinely enjoys being able to offer this to her guests.
In terms of it’s carbon credentials; The wood used to heat the Seaside Sauna Haus is from the Log Store, and is 100% sustainable. The sauna itself was built by the Cedar Sauna Company who pride themselves on using locally sourced and sustainable materials.
I recently joined a “Sauna Club”. A small group of wild wellness seekers. We meet once a week to sit in the wooden hut and sweat it out in the heat, then we run to the sea and plunge into the cold water. Screaming, shouting, revelling. Sometimes, if it’s wild weather, we just sit at the water’s edge and watch the waves while we refresh and reset. Sometimes we throw buckets of sea water over each other. But the feeling of returning to the heat of the sauna is divine! It’s fun, and it’s wild! I can always feel any anxieties slipping away. The wood smoke as it drifts out towards the sea somehow makes me feel at home while at the same time being in nature. It’s not free, but as a group we pay just £10 each for an hour. A lot more affordable than a luxury spa, and so much more laid back!
What I have observed by spending time in nature is not just how much I benefit from it mentally and physically. But the people I meet along the way, the ones who are outdoors often have a similar outlook on life. These wild wellness seekers; the wild swimmers, yoga yogis, trail runners, ramblers, hikers or sauna soul searchers. There is a willingness to stray from the crowd, and do something a bit different. But also a keen awareness of their natural surroundings and how important it is. There seems to be a collective consciousness, and I can’t help but feel hopeful for the future.
It seems that there is a mass movement, a shift taking place. Slow, but noticeable. What perhaps starts from a place of disconnect and neglect, and a need to feel better, can grow into an appreciation and understanding of how important it is to care not just for ourselves, but for what is at the true root of all health and wellness. The very thing that we ARE, and therefore need to care for;
So, whether you’ve made a New Year’s resolution or not. Whether you have great expectations, or you’re simply trying to get the through each day as best you can! (and I SO get that!). I hope you will look after yourself this year. Be kind to YOU. I hope you can find more time in the wild. To breathe it in and let it work it’s magic.
Above all, I hope that this will still be the case in years to come. That there will still be these green and blue spaces in the future, and that together we can all look after what’s important.
Set on the stunning Jurassic Coast in Dorset, inspired by a year of sea swimming in lockdown, this collection of poems, journal extracts and photographs is the diary of a Dorset Sea Swimmer.
Each poem was written shortly after the swim. Accompanied by a journal extract from the day, it gives the reader an insight into what it felt like to be there at the time.
With swims taking place throughout the year, you are invited to dive in and share the experience of sea swimming all year round.
These poems are like love letters to the wild. Showing gratitude for the sea and the seasons. A little book that celebrates the power of nature, and the positive effect that cold water swimming can have on our wellbeing.
Here is the story behind how this little book came to be…
When I was a little girl I wanted to be an author. I imagined sitting at a writing desk, at a window that looked out to sea. I wanted to write about adventure and magic; beautiful stories of escape, hope and happiness…
I remember this now, but in all honesty I’d forgotten about that little girl and her dream, until recently.
I’ve written a journal for the past few years. Beginning with short, awkward, self-conscious entries, they soon became a daily ritual for me; a time to reflect and a space to reveal. This journal was just for me, and I never thought it would be more than that.
But when we suffered a global pandemic that enforced a lockdown on our lives, my daily ritual of writing a journal felt as though it had perhaps been a sort of preparation. A “drip drip drip” way of writing, that would eventually begin to flow, once I had more time to do so. And then the time came.
It was during this time that I was also inexplicably drawn to the sea. Having been diagnosed with PTSD earlier in the year (a result of past trauma), I had been spending more and more time in nature. The wild was where I felt my anxieties slip away, and with the coast being so near, it was as if I could hear the sea calling to me.
And so began my sea swimming journey...
We all hear about the benefits of cold water swimming; how it can improve our mood, boost our immune system, but at the time I had no idea about this. I simply found myself beside the water’s edge in October, knowing that I needed to be in the water. I have written about this many times since, and how it has had an incredibly positive effect on my mental health, but what I hadn’t expected was that it would inspire me to write. How could I ever have predicted that swimming in the sea would help me to reconnect with my love of words!?
I began to write poems after my swims. I wanted to speak of the magic I’d experienced in the sea. To try to capture the feeling, and share it with others. I’d sit on the beach and write love letters to the wild. Showing my gratitude for what it had given me.
On Christmas morning 2020, I left driftwood gifts beneath the pier. I’d made them for those that would find them. My fellow sea swimmers who had gotten up early in the morning, to head for the sea. I burnt a message onto these gifts; “Seas The Day”.
I had no idea at the time that this would be the title for my book a year later. But I knew that it was significant.
After months of writing poetry with a passion, I realised I had written a whole year’s worth! One for every month of the year. Celebrating the sea throughout the seasons. Each one telling the tale of a swim. And somewhere during this process my inner wild child began to speak to me. She whispered that she still wanted to write a book…
And so it is, that these poems inspired by the sea, together with my private journal entries on those days have become a book! By accident almost. I’d never intended to create a book, but somehow it has come to be. With no plan or intention other than to write about the magic and adventure, the escape, hope and happiness that the sea has given me.
“Seas The Day – A Year of Sea Swimming Poetry” also features a beautiful linocut illustration by the talented Nicole Purdie (Prints By The Bay)
I think we can safely say that you CAN judge this book by it’s cover! Inspired by a photograph of me entering the sea at sunrise at West Bay, this really does sum up the magic of this little book and I can’t thank Nicole enough for working with me on this!
So now YOU are invited into the very moment each swim took place, to hear the story, and to share the experience. Perhaps it will resonate with you, perhaps it will inspire you, above all my hope is that it might speak to you of the magic that can happen in cold water, and the powerful effect that the natural world can bestow upon us.
Which leaves me with nothing more to say other than;
“It is the writer who begins the story. But it is the reader who finishes it”.
Girl Gone Wild x
If you would like to pre-order your copy please click below! 10% of profits will be donated to Surfers Against Sewage so you will also be supporting their work to protect our oceans, coastlines and marine life.
Earlier this year I ran my first half marathon. (see previous post “Running For Mental Health”). It was a 21km trail run following a stunning route in Devon along canals and estuaries towards the sea. I was curious to see whether I could complete the 21km route – knowing that my trail running experiences to date had been varying distances and terrain and all totally dependent on how I was feeling mentally. I’ve often heard that with any physical challenge, it is your mind that gives up before your body does and with my mind often working against me, I wanted to push the boundaries and find what was there.
I completed that run. I showed up, and completed it. I wasn’t going to win any prizes for my time, but my personal win was that I did it, despite the usual negative thinking that threatened to sabotage my attempt. This surprised me and left me wondering what else I could try.
And so. When I saw that PureTrail Running would be organising a half marathon event on Lundy Island (a wild and remote place I’ve always wanted to visit but isn’t easily accessible), I knew I would be going.
“Now, it is here that I admit to perhapsbeing somewhat over confident”.
Having completed one half marathon distance, I assumed that I would be capable of completing another. I gave little thought to the fact that Lundy Island would be entirely different (and much more challenging) terrain. But the knowledge that my relationship with trail running has always been about the landscape, and how it influences my mental atmosphere while moving through it, encouraged me to sign up. Surely the experience of running around a wild island would be enough movitivation to get me through?
It is my love of wild spaces that inspires me to run through it. I’m not a treadmill fan, or keen on running on pavements. It is the scenery, the space, the sounds, the smells that feed the soul. I am rewarded with an energy that comes from the land. This energy converts into a desire to move, and the result is undeniably a positive output; the “holy grail” of happiness endorphins. But even more than this, the experience leaves me feeling connected to the wild around me, the seasons, the weather, the wildlife; and it ignites something wild and liberating inside me.
We were due to board the ferry to Lundy island at 08:25 on a Sunday morning in September. This meant getting up at 05:30 to drive from Dorset to Ilfracombe, Devon in time to board. The 2 hour crossing was fully booked with over 200 runners travelling to Lundy. It was a damp misty morning and with a reasonable swell in the channel it meant that sea sickness was a risk. A few unlucky entrants were struck with it, retreating below deck to try and find a place to quietly die, or sleep.
The scenery is simply stunning as you get closer to the island. On arrival, the dramatic rocky cliffs and sheer drops that plunge into the sea seem quite imposing. No glimpse of the overall landscape is revealed here, just a harsh wall of cliff. Seals appear in the harbour, inquisitive and playful with their dark eyes surveying the crowd as we disembark and begin the steep 1mile climb up to the starting line. Once at the top of the island we are blessed with blue sky and unusually hot autumnal sunshine. A welcome breeze reassuringly whips around us we prepare to start.
The route is essentially made up of 3 loops, incorporating a fairly level central granite trail which runs south to north, 2 x lengths of the west and east precipitous coastal paths and a final smaller loop to bring us back to the village to finish. As we set off up a narrow track, we are a slow moving colourful crowd. I run for a while with a lady I chatted to on the ferry until she picks up pace and moves off gracefully picking her way further to the front. I’m greeted by highland cows, horses, butterflies and heather and I’m enjoying the scenery and steady pace until we come across the first challenging route which takes in the West coast path. This narrow path is nothing more than a wild goat track with deep bracken either side. A sheer drop to your left leads to certain death on the rocks below and with this sheletered side of the island yet to have warmed up in the sunshine, it is a fairly wet and slippy path. We are reduced to walking pace. With rocks and boulders to scramble over there are times when I am on all fours to steady myself, this is slow going and tacticle, nothing like my previous half marathon experience along the level estuary trail!
And here is where the unhelpful naysayer of my mind decides to contribute to the situation;
“This is dangerous, “I’m going to slip”
I think “I might have under-estimated the terrain”, “I’m getting too used to walking, I’ll never be able to get going again”. “I’m holding up the other runners behind me”, and most frequently “What the actual fuck am I doing here – you’ve never done ANYTHING this hard before!!”….
After a good half an hour of this relentless obstacle course and mental arrest, I am utterly relieved to finally find our way onto a wider path. Although this bit of the course is a steep gradient I am using less mental energy and more leg power. (this sounds more professional than “head first staggering”). At this point we reach the first “cut-off” point. It’s been 7 miles so far and I’m in good time so with a quick drink and slice of orange I’m back on the trail feeling relatively hopeful.
This next loop takes in the east coast path. It is a wide open space with little shelter and the elements take you hostage as the wind and sea comes in from the atlantic ocean and batters the island with it’s full force. The winds are fairly tame today given the mild weather, and I’m grateful for a breeze to accompany the overall drama of the landscape; it inspires me to run and I like to think that I make up time for the cautious slow approach earlier.
Here is the point where I miraculously manage to find the one and only bog on the entire island. Despite there being a helpful stone path through it, I misnavigate and my left foot plunges into the dark wet stench, reappearing with a black wet trail shoe, and leg glistening like tar. Cursing at my foolishness I tackle the ascent up the cliff from the bog of stench only to be greeted by a full view of the island which literally takes my breathe away! This is an incredible moment, I feel a real sense of my geographical location and it hits me that I’m “actually here, doing it”. So much so that I have to do a double-take when I see the end of the island, and realise how far I need to run in order to reach the 2nd cut-off which takes place at the infamous Lighthouse (and it’s many many steep steps).
Feeling a little deflated about the distance still to cover, I am also aware that there are runners now coming up behind me. This unsettles me. Not necessarily because I am competitive, but I just find it really pressurising! I find myself trying to imagine eyes in the back of my head, like the game “What’s the time Mr Wolf”. I’m wondering how close they are now, should I slow down so they can over take, or push on and use it as a motivator? I can hear their casual conversation and I’m reminded that I am here alone. No friend, no running group, not even a familiar face as I’m a newcomer to these kinds of events.
I push on, their conversation becoming less audible in the wind and I just plough on until eventually I see the point where I need to make the descent down to the lighthouse (and back). The steps down are narrow and steep, the path carves it’s way through large boulders of rock. It is with mixed feelings that I am obligated to hang back while other runners who’ve arrived before me tackle their return climb up the steps. I’m relieved to stop a while, but also terrified by the look of sheer strain and determination on their faces as they pass, unable to speak.
“How the hell am I going to do this? This is going to be brutal… oh god, I feel sick”.
Let’s just say, it took every ounce of anything that was left in my body to make it back up to the top of those steps. My lungs on fire, my head pounding, my legs screaming, I stumbled onto level ground and felt a sickness that you only ever experienced from over exertion. A deep, lower body nausea that has you feeling heavy and unable to move. I clumsily wobble to the aid station, unable to speak or even gesture towards the refreshments. My peripheral vision blurred, like on the spinning Waltzers at a fairground, everything was rushing past in long streaks of colour while all I could do was focus on what was immediately in front of me.
Other runners arrive at the aid station jovial, managing to find funny things to say to their co-runners, upbeat, quite chipper even. I however, am sensing a dark realisation that this is WAY beyond my ability. That I have been totally stupid to think that this would be doable. It was sheer madness to think I could complete this based on a “love of wild places” and a whimsicle belief in “mind over matter”. Quite simply; You are either physically fit enough. Or you are not.
I tentatively begin to consider my options. I am at the north of the island and I need to return to the South in order to finish. Even if I don’t run it, I still need to get to the South of the island to catch the ferry home. Could I walk? Should I tell the aid station that I want to exit the race? Could I somehow carry on, maybe just crawl the last 5km back? Perhaps I could take a shortcut?
I am convinced that everyone else is far fitter, far more experienced than I am. I am SURE that I’m at the back of the race, and not far from last and that I’m falling further behind the longer I stand (wobble) here on the spot. There are so many indicators that I have bitten off more than I can chew of this island. I am simply not physically capable of running any further.
And then, a number of things happened…
I see her. The girl that parked in the same car park as me back on mainland. She’s beautiful, well toned and wearing exactly the right combo of expensive gear for a proper trail run. I’d assumed she was a pro, and that she must do this kind of race as a regular Sunday outing. But perhaps I was wrong? She is, after all, a good 1/4 mile behind me, coming along the east coast path that I’ve already covered, slowing to a walk just as often as I need to. I know this sounds utterly shallow, but it made me feel better!! Is that bad?? It’s just; this girl (I’m sorry whoever you are) made me feel a bit intimidated, jealous even. She represented all of the imaginery reasons why someone like me would never be as good, or able, or fit enough to finish a run like this. Ridiculous as it sounds, the truth is that how someone LOOKED threatened to mess with my confidence enough to feel I couldn’t do something I wanted to do. And here she was…. no further ahead, no quicker, no less tired in her appropriate attire, on those well toned legs looking wildly beautiful. She was battling as much as me to keep going. The only difference between her and me being able to complete a run like this, is that she was showing up, and getting on with it, just like I was, but she wasn’t giving up.
“At this precise moment in time something caught my eye. I span round just as a bird of prey shot past me at what seemed to be a million miles an hour“
As I fixed my gaze on the outline against the sky I realised it was a peregrine falcon. It turned expertly and returned, shooting past me and out along the wide open ground. It was a magical sight to watch, full of freedom, yet naturally in control. In that moment I was in awe of it’s ability, at how lucky I had been to witness it’s performance. It was also the boost I needed.
As I gathered my spirit, I began to run, one foot in front of the other. I was joined by a small group of runners. I couldn’t help but notice that they were wearing ‘Plymouth Trail Runners’ vests. “A running club” I thought… “that MUST bode well for me; we’re all running at the same pace”. I also realised that one of the runners was wearing a Happy Birthday Banner! I absolutely loved that she was choosing to run a half marathon on Lundy Island for her birthday, and their comoraderie and banter brought a fun vibe to the next few kilometres. I realised that they’d been behind me for a while, and recognised their voices as the runners I’d allowed myself to feel pressurised by. They commented on the (many) ocassions that things kept dropping out of my (non) trail running rucksack!! Embarassed, I admitted that I hadn’t invested in any proper kit and that the rucksack was literally held together by bungies and clips. They gently teased me saying “you do realise that “trail running” isn’t leaving a trail of your belongings as you run!??”. I laughed. I don’t know how I managed to find the energy, but I laughed.
Somehow, something shifted mentally as a result of these things. I stopped being hard on myself. I began to take it all a little less seriously and I even managed to tell myself there was every chance that I could make it to the end. That it didn’t matter if I walked, or came last, or didn’t finish even. It was ok to feel utterly exhausted and sick from exerting myself, it was an epic half marathon and I was giving it my best shot! I’d come to an island, I’d seen every inch of it, witnessed it’s brutal beauty, it’s harsh side and it’s wild side. I hadn’t come here for the people, or a place in a long list of times but it WAS a part of the experience, and I needed to accept that somewhere in all of that, I was included, and I was part of it too. This is something I struggle to get my head aroud… PTSD and Social anxiety doesn’t usually encourage me to feel “part” of things. It is usually a case of feeling “apart” from things.
Despite the odds, I had got this far. And just as I thought it would never end, I crossed the finish line. It had taken 3hours and 22minutes to complete the 21km route of the island. I had run, walked, climbed and crawled my way to that finish line, and came 157th out of a total of 197 runners that finished. (Some did not). I’m telling you this because I want you to realise that I am not fast, not uber fit, and perhaps this further illustrates this.
I received a shiny medal of a puffin (the island’s famous for this seabird) but, too tired to wait in line for the BBQ, I grabbed a packet of salt & vinegar crisps and a sausage roll and collapsed in a quiet spot in the sun against a stone wall.
I’m not going to lie; Aside from giving birth, I have never felt so utterly exhausted in all my life. Every part of my body was screaming. I felt so sick I was unsure if I’d be able to make it back to mainland on the ferry. I lay on my back in the grass, looking up at the drifting clouds as I stretched my muscles. Every time I closed my eyes it felt as if the world around me was all at sea. But in amongst the sickness and the soreness, there was a deep sense of satisfaction. I’d done it. It nearly killed me. But I’d finished.
“I still wonder if it was beyond my ability”.
My doubts creep in even though I finished it! I can hear the voice of the naysayer telling me “I was lucky I didn’t do any serious damage to my body”. “You’re like a cat with nine lives”. As I watch the last of the runners coming in to finish I am amazed at the determination and spirit of these people. How, if we can push ourselves to do these things that maybe it can unlock the secret to how we can make it through life unscathed. I cheer and clap as two runners finish together, both must be somewhere in their 60’s and as they cross the finish line. I see them as their younger selves, the look on their faces reveal something close to mischief. Defiance even.
On the ferry home, I bump into the lady who I’d chatted to at the beginning of the run. Also there alone, she had completed it in good time but had also felt really ill afterwards. We ended up drinking tea together and discovered we shared a whole load of common interests including our obsession with sea swimming. A happy bonus to the day and again, showing me how pushing yourself out of your comfort zone can bring unexpected rewards.
Tired and weary after a long day, we are rewarded with an incredible sunset. There is something quite ethereal about witnessing a setting sun while out at sea, it’s as if you are between worlds somehow. It felt something like freedom. To have escaped the “norm” of feeling anxious about the future, to have experienced something wild and crazy, and to have survived certainly felt otherworldly to me.
There are days when I simply can’t face the world at all, let alone run a half marathon on a remote island.
As I stand on the deck steadying myself as we ride the waves, the colours in the sky reflecting on the surface of the water seem to intensify this sentiment. I breathe it in. Grateful for being alive, here in this moment.
It was only later that I discovered that the Plymouth Trail Runners that I’d been running at the same pace with, and had encouraged me that I was “keeping up” with the professionals, were in fact doing a recovery run after having completed a 100km run the previous weekend!!
Ok, so maybe not wolves, but running with Lurchers. I’m discovering it brings a whole new experience to trail running!
My husband is the dog fanatic. He grew up with dogs, breeding his first Border Terrier at just 8 years old. Later he developed a passion for Lurchers. Not a breed in it’s own right, but a cross between a sighthound (greyhound, saluki, deerhound etc) with something else. (Collie, Retriever, Bull Terrier).
We’ve had several amazing Lurchers over the years, all from a long line of running dogs with a history of agility, intelligence and speed. At the moment we have two; Yanto and Spook. Yanto being the senior at 8 years old, and Spook the latest recruit who is now 11 months old. They are completely different in character. Yanto (below right) is sensitive and gentle in nature. Spook (below left) is fearless, bold and a bit feral right now!
I started running with Yanto a few years ago. It seemed crazy that I was out on trail runs in the fields and off road but not taking him with me. I’d come home covered in mud with brambles in my hair and he’d sniff my trainers with great interest. But I guess I was “in the zone” when I first started trail running. I was finding my feet and testing my endurance, getting slightly obsessed with my times and distances. I didn’t want anything to distract me from my progress. And I knew there was a lot to consider when out in the countryside with our dogs.
Lurchers are natural born hunters. Anyone that owns one will know that rabbits, squirrels, deer (cats!) will never go unnoticed. A sight hound, with incredible speed and agility they are designed to be predators. And they know it. My husband has trained them around livestock. They’re steady as anything with sheep, horses and cattle, and their recall is spot on. But if I’m walking our dogs, I am always alert to the possibility they might catch sight, or scent of quarry and be off. They have trained ME to be aware of our environment, wind direction, certain times of day, what season we’re in, what wildlife is likely to be in the vicinity. They are instinctively assessing all of this silently, and I need to be aware of all of these things if I want to try and be one step ahead, and prevent a catch.
So running with a Lurcher comes with the risk that you’ll end up running AFTER him, rather than WITH him!
I began running with Yanto a few years ago. Initially on a lead, I thought I’d need to get him used to me running, and that I’d need to “desensitize” him. My thinking being that the change in dynamic from walking to running might send a signal that there’s something to get excited about (and I didn’t want him to think we were “game on”!). I just wanted him to get used to my movement and pace.
We did the same route, a 5km loop our across fields and tracks for a few weeks. But he was used to being off a lead for long walks and his etiquette on a lead when running didn’t improve. He would often suddenly stop to smell something of interest (and yank my shoulder out of it’s socket), or randomly cross over in front of me and trip me up. I was constantly stopping and starting and found myself head first in hedges and muddy ditches on more than one ocassion!
The time had come to let him run free with me…… THIS is where it got interesting!……
I smile now when I say I’m taking the dogs for a run. I’m not sure when it changed, but at some point I realised that I’m not “taking them”…… WE are going together.
You see, when you run with a dog there are a two major shifts that take place. The first is that all of those things that you need to be aware of; the conditions that dictate whether there is a hunt afoot, (wind direction, the time of day etc) that is all still relevant, but somehow you are IN it, you become a part of that. You’re not observing it, you ARE it. Your impact on the environment and how it responds to YOU is much more noticeable.
The second shift is that of the relationship between you and the dog. There seems to be a sense that you are now a team. That ancestral instinct kicks in and you’re alpha male/female, part of the pack. You are running wild together. We instinctively stop as we enter a field and survey the land, we push on when we’re tackling a steep track, and most incredibly, this creates a deeper connection to the land, to the wildlife, to the wilderness on a level that I’ve never experienced when just walking the dogs, or running on my own.
I wonder if this is how it feels to be a wolf, running with wolves!?? This is what I think when we’re out there together.
My obsession with how far we’ve traveled, and how long it’s taken us, isn’t there anymore. I have a rough idea and that’s mainly just for practicality. The experience is more important, and we go at our own pace. If the dogs stop and take interest in something, I might stop too, or I might push on and they catch up. But on the whole we are training together as a team, practicing our skills and communication and deepening our understanding of the land.
The difference being of course that I am a human, running on two legs! Generally seen wearing flourescent lycra, sweating profusely and whistling loudly to make sure any wildlife around has a head start or can go to ground. Just. In. Case!
For brilliant advice and tips on running with dogs click on the link below.
It was with significant doubt in my mind that I arrived at the start line of the South West Coast2Coast challenge on an overcast Sunday morning in July.
Earlier in the year I signed up to run an off road half marathon to raise money for Dorset Mind, the local branch of the MIND mental health charity.
Having been a “wannabe” trail runner for the past few years I felt that perhaps I could push myself a bit further. I’ve been curious about what happens mentally when I run. How the mind often begs to give up long before the body does. How my mood can either improve or sabotage my efforts.
I’m not one of these runners that is pushing for a best time, or to lose weight, or to compete. I run because I’m learning about how my mind behaves, how I cope with the challenge, but also because it’s another way to spend time in nature. Connecting with the seasons, the weather and the wildlife when I’m running off road gives me such nourishment. It can almost feel primitive, and I imagine how our earliest ancestors must have run as far as the eye could see, to hunt, survive and navigate the land. I love to run wild, get covered in mud, have brambles in my hair and feel the fresh air in my lungs.
But standing at the start line in Exeter, I am feeling like a fool. My naive curiosity has morphed into crippling doubt as I watch what appear to be well toned athletes, in all the latest sports gear, casually chatting about the last Ultra challenge they smashed, and how they’re looking for a sub 2hr time today.
All the reasons I shouldn’t be attempting this are loudly shouting at me.
“I haven’t trained enough. I haven’t followed a nutrition plan. I am not a ‘proper exercise’ person. I am stupid”.
It is fair to say that no-one in their right mind should attempt a half marathon without having trained. I know this. I’ve read all about it. So why on earth was I attempting it?
Perhaps I am not in my right mind! But the intensely annoying fact about most mental health conditions is that it attempts to thwart your efforts and sabotage success. I hate this SO much, it somehow gives me the determination to fight.
I’ll be honest. I did begin training. I printed out a schedule. I put it on the fridge. I ran all the distances and days I was supposed to. I reached my fundraising target. I was on track. But then it changed.
The last training run I did was a few months ago. A 16km run that made me physically sick. I pushed myself SO hard that it made me ill. I felt like a failure. I wondered what the hell I was doing to myself. Had none of the self compassion based mindfulness I’d been taught in recovery even sunk in? Was I being too hard on myself. Was I just deluding myself? Was I simply using exercise as another way to badly manage my problems, a healthy ‘disguise’ for badly treating myself.
I became so depressed that I wasn’t able to keep going. I doubted my own judgement. Doubted my motivation. I began feeling like a failure before I’d even got to the start line. I felt SO under pressure and anxious about what I’d signed up for. I’d simply backed myself into a corner. Even worse was knowing the irony that I’d raised this money for a mental health charity, but probably wouldn’t be able to complete the run because of my mental health!
I considered cancelling. I didn’t HAVE to do it did I?
But here I am at the start line. Just showing up.
I’ve had enough of the stories running riot in my head. They are not helping me in any way. I need to focus on the positives. So I start to tell myself a new story;
It is a Sunday morning, I’ve nothing better to do. I’m just following a route from Exeter to the South Coast along a beautiful canal, river and estuary to the sea. I can quit if I want to, no one knows I’m here other than my husband. (I deliberately didn’t remind anyone of the date). There’s a lovely cool breeze on my skin, and I am willing and able to run a while. Due to COVID we can start whenever we like so as not to be running on mass. I give myself permission to walk if I need to. To stop every 30 minutes, drink some water, have a jelly bean and look at the view. Most importantly, even if it takes me ALL day then at least all the money raised will be validated. All I have to do is try and finish it. I might even enjoy it.
I won’t bore you with the run itself, and how I managed my thoughts. Let’s just say that I was shocked at how hard it was NOT to let my mind spiral into negative thinking. It was like a wild animal and I was gaining it’s trust. But what did make it endurable was the scenery, the wildlife, the breeze. Being mindful of my breathing, my body and the way I was moving, I was in the moment, DOING it.
When I saw the finish line and heard people cheering it was slightly surreal. I didn’t feel a part of it. I was watching myself cross over the line hardly believing it was happening. My husband had got lost with Sat Nav and wasn’t there to see me finish. But I was quietly pleased. I didn’t want cheers, or pats on the back. I wanted a moment to witness how it felt to feel free of negativity, free of fear. To stand in the middle of a field, feeling alive and like anything is possible.
Needless to say I am relieved I completed it. I’m glad that I raised money for a charity that I truly believe in, I’m pleased that my body was able to withstand the challenge and that I didn’t injure myself. But what I’m really happy about is that I didn’t let my mental health prevent me from starting it, let alone finishing.
PTSD, anxiety and depression can be debilitating at times. All I want to do is hide away from the world and be left alone. Any kind of pressure or stress and I begin to panic. But the pressure I put on myself is the most evil, unkind and unhelpful type of pressure.
It’s so frustrating when you want to achieve, and you want to reach your goals. But sometimes it just feels impossible, and we can’t seem to get there. But what I am learning is that in order to do these things, I must practice a bit of self compassion. I must be kinder to myself. Tell myself a the more gentle version of the story, that enables me to feel the courage to try.
The story I told myself of the space, freedom and nature I could invite into my journey to the finish line is what helped me to get there. I will never forget that and every time I look at the medal, it will speak to me of mental freedom. A reminder that the journey is as much a part of the destination, and you can’t have one with out the other.