How (Not) To Quit Smoking

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I knew how weakened my resolve to stay off cigarettes would be with a few beers in me, so I set myself a challenge in order to get through the night. I asked Marcus to tell everyone in the bar I’d quit smoking, and to make it a game for them to try to get me to smoke. If I was to fail, at least it would be a noble failure. As I walked into the smoky bar I felt I was literally putting my head between the jaws of a lion, daring myself to keep it there and hoping those jaws wouldn’t snap shut and gobble me  up. Would all my hard work be wasted?”
Click this sentence to see if I managed to quit for good.

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Health and Happiness

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Right now, I’m the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever been. I’m also the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and the two are inextricably linked.  I can see a correlation with my development as a runner with Run Dem Crew and my increased reservoirs of well-being, inner strength and balance. That doesn’t mean that I’m naturally healthy or happy. I have to work at both, but it’s time well spent.

 My journey to fitness has been explored here (https://anotherwisemonkey.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/how-i-ditched-an-unhealthy-lifestyle-and-got-into-running/) so I won’t cover old ground again, but will try to identify the factors contributing to my current state. I should also point out that in all our lives there are some things that we can’t control, and sometimes these bring unavoidable unhappiness, but we can learn to do the best we can with what we’ve got. Just because something happened one way in the past, doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the present or the future. I hope no-one feels I’m trying to teach them to suck eggs, and I hope that some of what follows will be useful.

 One of my motivations for this blog post is gratefulness. Two people close to me currently have chronic illnesses. They are often incapacitated and unable to do the things they want to, which is very sad. This has made me appreciate my own good health and made me determined to take steps to safeguard it, although I know that there are no guarantees. I exercise for myself, but also in part for those who can’t, or won’t, or don’t dare to.

 Part of life is death, and I’ve been unfortunate enough to lose some people close to me, while they and I were still young. This has taught to “live life while you’re alive”, to quote the poet Ben Okri. To me, that means being present in your day-to-day life, making valuable connections with others and being alive to the wonder of the world. It doesn’t mean YOLO, or exhausting yourself through being overly hedonistic. I’m becoming more aware of the value of balance in all things.

 So here are my tips for a healthy, happy life:

 1)      Spend time with the people that make you happy

For most people this is friends and family, but I know sometimes relationships go through downs as well as ups. It’s easy when you’re feeling a little negative to just crawl under the duvet and hide from the world, but 9 times out of 10, if you actually make the effort and go and meet that person, you’ll feel better for it. We all need some time alone, and some people are more introspective than others, but regular check ins with the people that mean a lot to you are important so you can feel connected, loved, appreciated and restored.

I used to spend a lot of time chained to the games console, sacrificing hours at a time to unlocking the next level of Zelda or Grand Theft Auto. It’s true, those games are enjoyable in some ways, but the grind I had to put in to beat these games was probably not worth the payback at the end. Who cares about those worlds, apart from maybe a few other gamers that you know? So I’ve ditched the computer games in favour of running, often with others, and catching up with people. Multiplayer games such as Mario Kart and FIFA are better for your happiness and health than one-player games, as they at least bring people together, but let’s be honest, we all spend plenty of hours in private honing our skills before we go public with these games.

A lot of people also suffer from spending too much time online, chained to their laptop, tablet or smart-phone. Again, there’s value in the online world, for sure- it’s fantastic that there’s so much information available at the touch of a button, and the social networks are useful tools for keeping in the loop with multiple people,. But all too often the tool ends up controlling the user, instead of the other way round. The internet is a tool, like a saw, or a vacuum cleaner. Used effectively it can improve the quality of your life, but all too often it takes over and becomes your life. So, to paraphrase the old childrens’ TV programme ‘Why Don’t You?’, “just switch off the internet, go outside and do something less boring instead.”

Real conversations and time spent in peoples’ real lives, as opposed to the highly-selective glossy magazine version that some of us present on the net, is the way forward.

 2)      Eat healthily

Eating healthily makes you feel better and leaves you in a better state of mind. Chaka Bars once said that you don’t see people binge eating vegetables, because there are nutrients in them, and when your body’s had enough, you stop eating. We binge-eat Pringles, McDonalds and Haribo because these foods have little or no nutritional value. Really, what do crisps do for your body? I know it’s hard to give up all the snacks that we’re addicted to, but really, processed food is not good for you, so it should be the exception rather than the rule. Many people unconsciously engage in binge-eating as a way of dealing with anxiety or depression. You get a short-term satisfaction, but ultimately are left feeling even worse than you were before. So next time you find yourself reaching for the junk food, ask yourself, why am I  doing this? Is there something you’re finding difficult to deal with that you’re avoiding. If there is, the short-term pain of actually fronting up to the difficulty will be outweighed by the long-term gain of dealing with it and then moving forward.

To take things a bit further, I’ve gotten into eating seasonally and healthily over the past year. There’s a great website, eattheseasons.co.uk, that highlights what foods are in season each week, and I try to buy and eat those whenever possible. The benefit is you’re eating food that has been produced more locally, therefore helping local farmers and businesses, you’re reducing carbon footprint because it hasn’t had to be transported far, and most importantly, you’re eating delicious food at it’s freshest and best. I now eat a far wider range of food than I used to, particularly seafood, and there are many studies which show a range of health benefits as a result of this.

 Eating is a great thing to do with other people, so if you’re the creative sort in the kitchen, invite friends or family round for a meal or a barbecue. If not, head out to a good restaurant and enjoy yourself.

 3)      Get moving

Run, play sport, cycle, walk- do whatever you would like to do. Exercise not only makes you feel better physically, it makes you feel better mentally, as well. A recent survey showed that just 9% of people suffering from depression relapsed if they fought depression either through exercise alone, or through exercise and medication. This compared to a 37% relapse rate among those who only used medication. I’m very lucky to have found Run Dem Crew, a fantastic community of positive-minded running folk which is based near me in London- you can read more about them here (link). Since joining up with them, my lifestyle has changed massively. It would be possible to run with crew members pretty much every day of the week if you wanted to. The biggest change has been that now a lot of my socialising is based around running, whereas before the majority involved alcohol. Sometimes we go for a beer and/ or some food after a run, but it’s just a completely different mentality to the prevailing UK booze culture, which, in my case, I had grown tired of.

 Whatever sport you want to do, you’re more likely to stick at it and enjoy it if you do it with other people. I know it can be really daunting to go along that first time- it’s like the first day of school all over again- but the benefits are really worth it.  Taking things further, if you’re a goal oriented person like me, once you’ve taken up a sport, give yourself something to work towards, whether that’s a weight-loss goal, participating in a match, entering a race, etc. I find that having a goal to work towards gives me a reason to keep running on the days when I don’t necessarily feel like it- and I always feel better after running, without fail. In the case of running, go online and find yourself a training plan to help you get in shape for that 5K, or whatever it would be. There’s a wealth of knowledge and experience available on the internet, and if you tap into it you can train sensibly and safely, avoiding risk of injury.

 4)      Get outside

One of the biggest benefits I’ve found from running is that it gets me out of the flat and the workplace on an almost daily basis. I’m fortunate enough to have been able to run for a year now, and it’s been a joy to see the local area move through a full cycle of seasons. Being outside connects you with nature. We spend so much of our time chained to our computers or our smartphones, but none of this was part of regular life even 30 years ago, so reboot your system and do what your ancestors have been doing since the dawn of time and get outside. I just feel happier outside, particularly if the sun’s shining. Looking up at the clouds, or the stars in the night sky, can give you a sense of perspective on your problems which is a real blessing. Taking the time to notice the industry of a bee or a the dance of a butterfly will give you a sense of wellbeing which will fortify you for the rest of the day. I love this William Blake poem on this matter:

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5)      Be creative

We are all creative, whether we believe we are or not. Many of us have had negative experiences at school or growing up that have led us to believe that we’re “not that type of person”, but I guarantee you, there will be something you enjoy creating if you investigate. For some, it’s creating art, or music, or writing. For others, it’s DIY, computer programming or cooking. In this modern consumer age, it’s so important to take some time to make our own marks in this world, whether that is something that we share with just one or two other people, or a wider audience. If you haven’t taken time in the last week to make something just for the joy of it, I really recommend you do so. It doesn’t matter how big or small the undertaking, just do it. I guarantee you’ll feel better for it.

6)      Let go of bad habits

We all do certain things that aren’t the best for us. I managed to give up smoking 9 years ago. It was incredibly hard, but the benefits have been fantastic. I feel better, I’ve increased my life expectancy and saved £13,104 on cigarettes. You can read more specifically about my misadventures when quitting smoking here:

https://anotherwisemonkey.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/how-not-to-quit-smoking/

 Not all bad habits are as obvious as smoking, though. Sometimes, we can be guilty of having a negative way of thinking in certain situations. Just because something happened negatively in the past, doesn’t mean that it will in the future. Rewiring your mind to be optimistic and positive can be done quite simply, eg through taking time at the end of each day to write a list of things that you are grateful for. Try it. It worked for me.

 7)      Take in some culture

Go to concerts, the theatre, dance shows. There’s something very energising about watching skilled performers doing their thing in the live arena. If money’s an issue, there’s loads of free stuff in London: go to museums, check out some street art, attend a free talk on the South Bank. Absorbing culture is food for your mind and is best enjoyed with a friend.

8)      Spend time with little people

Children know the things adults have forgotten. They see the magic in things and everything is a new experience. I’ve recently become an uncle and am loving spending time with the little man. A work colleague recently brought her baby into work and it was incredible to see the transformation in the adults in the staff room.

 9)      Be part of something bigger than yourself

I’m lucky enough to work in the teaching profession. I work in and for a community that is complex, diverse and faced with a huge range of challenges. I’m fortunate, because when I get caught up in my own problems, I can apply myself to helping others with theirs. It helps me to have some perspective on my own situation.

So if you’re not lucky enough to work in one of the so-called caring professions, find a way to reach out and get involved in a cause that matters to you. Maybe you will raise money for a charity. Maybe you’ll volunteer time or skills. Helping others is helping yourself. A smile is the shortest distance between two people. Make someone smile on a regular basis.

As part of Run Dem Crew, I’m privileged to hear incredible stories of some of the individuals I run with. I’m constantly inspired by the people I run with, and the young people that I work with. It’s so important to have something that is more important to you than yourself.

10)      Do more of what you enjoy

This is the bottom line and underpins everything. I’m not talking about YOLO here. I’m not advocating a life without responsibilities, or hedonism without any regard to the cost to others. But I’ve found this year that by focusing on the things that I like doing, and doing them as much as possible, I have a smile on my face so much more of the time. We have so many things that we feel we “should” do, and it’s easy for a day to become one long to-do list. If that sounds familiar, be good to yourself. Take the time to build in a little mini-holiday in your day when you get to do exactly what you really enjoy.  You’ll return to the to-do list feeling fortified and refreshed, and those around you will probably enjoy your company more, too.

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Down Tow Up Flow Half Marathon Race Report

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The Down Tow Up Flow half marathon is a scenic multi-terrain run along the banks of the Thames. Multi-terrain in this case included running through fields, along trails and on road. It is run in opposite directions each year, hence the name. This year, it was run “Down Tow”, from Marlow to Windsor. I’d heard good things about the beautiful setting, and had never run a a multi-terrain race before, so when Dave Cregan suggested it, I agreed.

My weekend began with Charlie Dark’s excellent remix of The Hare and the Tortoise. This was a children’s show which took place in the Olympic Park as part of the Open East festival, which marked the handing over of the park to the public. For me, the highlight of the performance was the “Big Belly Man” poem, which had me cracking up and the kids and their parents fully engaged. However, the wisdom in the old fairy tale was something I should have heeded more carefully, as I set out for this race like the hare but finished like the tortoise.

I found myself getting out of bed at 6am on the Sunday of the race, which shows how much my life has changed in a year. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of porridge and fruit toast, and set off at 7am to Paddington, where I met my friend Richard. We boarded the first of two trains and on the second one Richard took the opportunity for a power nap, impressively keeping my coffee upright. This proved to be a clever race strategy, and I’ll try to incorporate it into my routine in the future.

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We arrived in Marlow and promptly set off in the wrong direction from the station, followed like lemmings by all the other runners and supporters. After a few minutes, my Spidey-sense started tingling, and a quick look at Google Maps confirmed we were going the wrong way. Cue amusing mass turn-around of people.

On arrival at the start line, the main down side of the organisation became apparent- there were huge queues for the toilets. Picking up our race packs was easy enough, but the PA system wasn’t working properly, so it was hard to make out what was being said. A fairly lame aerobic warm-up followed, so we spent most of our time chatting to the birthday boy, Dave Cregan- and My-Ha, who was returning to the scene of her first ever race a year on. Those are my only gripes with the race organisation, however. Once the race actually got underway, it proved to be an excellent event.

As I set off after the gun in the first wave of runners, I was feeling good. Various people had said that this wasn’t a PB course, and that had only made me quietly determined to try to prove them wrong. I quickly settled into 6.30 min/ mile pace, knowing that if I could maintain it for the whole course, I’d get a PB. I felt comfortable, avoiding the temptation to run the suicide pace of the front pack. 6.30 is roughly the average pace of elite runs with Run Dem Crew on Tuesdays, so when the adrenaline of race-day is pumping, it’s pretty easy to cope with. The difficulty would come later, when running beyond the usual Tuesday distance. We sped out across a field before hitting the path beside the river, negotiating several kissing gates with relative ease. I hadn’t heard the expression “kissing gate” before this race, so that’s one of many things I learnt from the experience.

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The field was competitive but quickly stretched out into a line, so there weren’t issues with trying to find space early on. However, I quickly realised how much harder my legs were working compared to normal in order to cope with the uneven running surface. Running on uneven roads in Hackney, I thought I knew all about challenging surfaces, but this was another level. My calves and thighs felt like they were getting a serious workout, akin to the feeling in the gym when you’re lifting weights at your threshold. I wondered how this would affect me later in the run.

Mile 3 was a little trickier, as we ran along a dappled trail and safely overtaking became impossible. I was mentally prepared for bottlenecks like this, as the race organisers had explained that this would occur on their website. Although I was forced to drop below 6.30 pace for this mile, I didn’t worry about it. I’d resolved not to try to make the time up elsewhere- I’d just get back to 6.30 on the next mile if possible.

We then hit the first of two bridges on the route. This was a big surprise. I’d never encountered bridge climbs in races before, where you have to actually run up the steps before you can cross the bridge. We do this very regularly when running with the crew, but we often stop at the end of the bridge to allow others to catch up. Stopping wasn’t an option here, and it made a big difference, tiring me out. I’ve just done a bridge session working on cadence with Barbara, my coach, and I’m going to incorporate these into my runs as often as possible now.

Still, with that mile behind me, I was able to resume normal service for miles 4-6. I was enjoying the beautiful scenery and in a good place physically and mentally. It felt good to be racing along the Thames, and I was looking forward to passing Eton Dorney, scene of the Olympic rowing competition, later in the run.

Nevertheless, the bright sunshine began to bother me a little, so I was thankful for shady areas when we ran through them. I have a vague memory of possibly seeing some balloons tied up along the route at this point- more on this later- but I didn’t pay much attention and just continued focusing on my running form and pace.

Miles 7 and 8 proved to be somewhat harder. Despite my best efforts, my pace began to slow. I tried to focus on my cadence and form, moving my legs as quickly as possible, but 6.30 pace was beyond me. I accepted this and thought that it would be alright if I could stay at 6.36 or so for the rest of the race. I’d not been able to do many long runs in my training for this half marathon, as I’d had a succession of bugs, so on reflection, it’s not surprising that my body began to slow down once I’d gone beyond my usual six mile distance. In a way, that makes the achievement of completing this race even more special.

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However, from miles 9 to 13 my pace got slower and slower. At this point, I have to be honest and say that no matter how tranquil and beautiful a course is, when you’re suffering, you don’t really notice or give a damn. I didn’t even notice Eton Dorney. I was getting overtaken with increasing regularity, and I began to worry that Richard, who had set off in the second wave five minutes after me, would overtake me. I wryly reflected on the moral of the hare and the tortoise and felt like a living example of it.

Mile 11 was a 7 minute mile, and I have to admit that at that point, I really considered stopping and walking. I was physically tired and my legs felt like lead. It was just no fun as the sun beat down ever stronger. However, knowing that I’ve entered the Bournemouth Marathon, which takes place in October, I was able to take this humbling experience on board as a warning sign. I knew that I had to get my long run training up to scratch from now on, because the marathon distance will be on another level entirely. I also remembered a conversation that Charlie had had with Simon Freeman when running a PB at a recent marathon, that went something like this:

Charlie: It hurts!

Simon: It’s meant to hurt!

(Suddenly, it all falls into place for Charlie and he speeds home like a veritable running god).

Somehow, I managed to keep going, but I slowed still further on lap 12 and 13, to over 7.30 min pace. However, when I came to a sign that said 400m to go, I briefly rallied. Looking at my watch, I saw that if I ran a 60 second 400 metres (practically impossible, I know) I would still be able to PB. I picked up the pace as much as I could, but rounded a corner and found that we had to climb two sets of stairs in order to cross another bridge. The 400m started after that. I knew a PB was now out of the question, so I just kept picking my legs up until the finish came in sight.

A really nice touch in this race was the organisers call your name out as you’re approaching the finish. I’ve never experienced this before and I have to say that it really gave me a lift as I hit the home straight. I may have finished like the tortoise, but I was still smiling as I crossed the finish line. I picked up my rather fancy medal and gulped down several cups of water. I’d completed the race in a not too shabby 1:27:51, and was more than happy with that, all things considered.

About 5 minutes later, Richard crossed the line in a very similar time, and we lay down on the bank beside the Thames enjoying the sun and rehydrating. Dave finished a few minutes later, and was pretty whacked- he’d found it really challenging in the heat. We chatted with some other runners and I was able to buy ice creams for me, Richard and Dave. Then, like an angel from Heaven, a friend of Dave’s arrived with a cool-box full of food for the birthday boy, and we eagerly dug in- except for Dave, who was not feeling up to it, sadly.

It later emerged that this friend had gone to great lengths to help Dave celebrate his birthday. She had tied balloons on every mile marker on the course, and had even phoned the race organisers the day before to find out where would be the best spot to put a large banner (see below). Unfortunately, Dave, Richard and I had all completely missed this, presumably because we were so focused on the race. It was an absolutely lovely gesture, and we all felt a bit sheepish about not having taken it in properly. Once Dave had recovered, he was driven out to go and appreciate the efforts that had been taken.

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My-Ha finished and we all posed for a picture on the winner’s podium. The race winner came through in a beastly 1hr 14 minutes, and I had come 20 places behind, averaging 6.45 pace. I learnt a lot from the race. I’m looking forward to doing more off-road running, more long runs, and working on my cadence on those stairs.

All in all, this is an excellent event. The organisation at the start could have improved, particularly in terms of toilets, but the race is lovely and the marshals and the organisation at the end was as good as I’ve experienced. The medal is clearly all kinds of awesome. I suspect that I would have enjoyed the race more if I’d been able to do more long runs, and am on the case with my preparations for Bournemouth. I whole-heartedly recommend this race if you’re thinking of doing it next year, when it will be run in the opposite direction, “Up Flow”.

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