Exercise & My Mental Health (spoilers: It Worked)

You know this scene in Legally Blonde:

(If you haven't seen it, leave now and come back when you've watched the directors cut. I'll wait.)

I'm sold. It's almost infuriating how much of a difference regular exercise and pushing my own limits has made to my mental health.

Everyone I've met at an event, or tripped over bumped into while training, or chatted with on a train after we've had to rearrange our bicycles so they'd both fit in the stupid "bike storage" area that's actually just a gap with folding seats, has been lovely.

There was a guy who high-five'd me while we were running in the park with our head-torches. Still makes me grin. There were a bunch of lads who, when I was running in the dark along the beach, told me I was "well hard" and I don't even care if they were being sarcastic. There's a handful of blokes I see fairly regularly (most of them MAMILs, but one who wears a flat cap rather than a helmet and has a pannier rack secured with garden twine) and we share a nod when pedalling along the twisty back roads. When I've gone swimming there's been less bonding with other people, but that's mainly due to the fact we're basically all in our underwear and I'm too British to make eye contact with strangers in their knickers. 

Last year I set myself targets and achieved goals, I have some shiny medals and hard won t-shirts to prove it. But the real victory was the benefit it had on my anxiety and depression, it's no secret that the last few years haven't been the easiest for me, but running and cycling have been the biggest help in clawing myself back from the edge of sanity. (IANAD YMMV)

I hadn't really planned for post-triathcheat though. This time last year July seemed aeons away, and as it got closer it seemed bigger. The idea of booking something to do afterwards seemed cocky, I didn't want to risk the hubris of assuming I'd survive and damn myself to suffer. 

Then I'd done it and I revelled in the glory of having done and having proved I could do it. And promptly stopped.

I've signed up for parkrun, but only went once and since then fallen into the habit of remembering at 8.55 on a Saturday morning. The result has been a slow eradication of the improvements I'd made to my mental health, and to my physical health- when I was running I found I didn't want sugar, let alone crave it, but now I'm back to mindlessly munching handfuls of dolly mixture and packets of crisps.

Regular exercise was the best drug I've ever put into my body, and just like drugs I found different types affected me differently. Cycling chilled me out, I could just keep going and smiling. There's definitely more of a buzz from running. Which again, annoyed me. I'd always thought people who went on about a "runner's high" were just trying to justify the fact they spent too much money on ugly shoes. Swimming doesn't really do much for me, it's either the fact that everyone is in their underwear or the ever present risk of drowning, there's too much concentration involved to really throw myself into it. So far I haven't found any exercise which comes with a suicidal thoughts warning in the list of possible side effects.

In Twelve Months, In Twenty Years

One year ago my dad died. I sat, in a remarkably uncomfortable armchair, next to the hospital bed in our living room. Watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts and his breathing all night. Staring at a screen helped keep me awake and videos meant I didn’t need to let go of his hand. Around six in the morning something shifted and I finally felt the fact that I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours. By now dawn was breaking and we opened the curtains as I staggered over to join my sister on the sofa bed that had been constantly occupied by someone or other for the past few weeks and my mum took up watch in the uncomfy chair. She was with him at the very end, my sister and I a few feet away.

Afterwards, surprising absolutely nobody who knows me, the first thing I did was put the kettle on. It was one of the things we said over the next few days that in twenty years when we were looking back on that first week, whatever else happened at least we weren’t dehydrated.

Imagining how I’d look back on all of it in twenty years helped. I couldn’t think about what I wanted in the moment, because what I wanted was my dad back and healthy. But I only had once chance to bury your father so I got through it, because I had to. I didn’t want to go to the funeral parlour (who would?) but I’m glad I had that opportunity to be talked through what could happen by someone who does it a lot. The funeral director asked about the wording for the obituary and I am glad I got object to his suggestions (“Forever in our hearts, never to be forgotten sounds like something a funeral director would say, he’d hate it”. Still not really sorry about that Mr Funeral Director). Putting together a playlist for the coach ride from the church to the burial site, and then from the burial to the wake. Parts of it were for us, but mostly he’d have approved. We hit all the high notes: Disney, James Bond, The Beatles. Decorating the coffin with copies of a lifetime of photos, the priest called to see how we were coping only to be greeted with a coffin on the coffee table and a tea tray on top of that. (Well where else was it supposed to go?) We needed many cups of tea.

In twenty years I think I’ll still be happy with what we did, there’s nothing that in the last twelve months I have had regrets about not doing.

As a way of living it goes against a lot of the current trend of self help advice. Live in the moment, experience the now, be present. Being present was painful, the moment I was experiencing was excruciating.

So I let go of all that, I asked myself- with almost everything- what would I look back on and regret missing, what would I be glad I’d done. I didn’t do a reading or give an obituary at the funeral, I don’t do well at funerals and when I get upset Dad got upset. He did his best but female hysteria was always a source of abject terror. It would have been incredibly difficult for me, to try and hold it all together and I didn’t want that pressure. I gave myself permission to absolutely fall apart if I needed to. There were tears and snot, but there was also laughter.

The past twelve months have passed and I’m still using it as my touchstone, ‘in twenty years what will I wish I’d done in 2017?’ I’ve given myself permission to grieve, to ignore the voices telling me I’m letting opportunities slip by or wasting time. I know my own mental health well enough to know that I can’t rush it. 

In 2037 I highly doubt I’ll be telling people that I wish I’d spent less of the last twelve months being patient with myself, less time with my family, less time healing. 

How Triathcheat Started

You know when your entire life falls apart and you lash out in strange directions? That's what I did in January.

Some time between Christmas and New Year, possibly motivated by a lot of cheese and a certain amount of Port, I decided to set myself some challenges. 

So I signed up for a half marathon. What I originally thought about signing up for was an ultra-marathon, possibly the Liverpool-Leeds Canal 130 miler (because I know people in both Liverpool and Leeds who would provide beds and showers, which seemed practical) or the Robin Hood 100 in Sherwood Forest (because the reviews said it was a flat and good "beginner" ultramarathon). But they both seemed quite boring, lots of nothing but road and tow path (I know what you're thinking: Really, the 130 mile Liverpool Leeds Canal Race featured a lot of tow path? Tell me more about the strange and unique way you see the world) if I'm going to be running I don't want to be pounding away on concrete alongside a perfectly good bus. Also I hadn't drunk that much that I was hallucinating I could actually go from Couch-to-100 miles in 9 months or less, if I had drunk that much I probably wouldn't be able to type well enough to fill in the entry form

I was reading lots of blogs about trail runners and when I looked I found the Hardmoors White Horse  Marathon. Which sounded like fun, but was only in April and since I didn't want to go for the no guts no glory approach that leads to heart attacks and early knee replacements I decided to book a place on the half marathon course. 

April seemed very soon though and I wanted something to carry me forward and to look forward to in the year.

I considered booking a holiday or planning that sort of adventure, but given everything that happened last year I fancied being a bit more of a homebird in 2017.

So I signed up for a 100 mile bike race. The Liverpool-Chester-Liverpool race has been going for years decades and it lets you cycle through the Queensway Tunnel, which seems like an excellent thing to say you've done. That was my thing to look forward to then, not until July- half a year away.

Then I did something I maybe should have done before signing up for the White Horse half marathon, I went for a run. I googled it and worked out a slightly odd route from home to a nearby church and back again was 5k. Put on some trainers, set the timer on my phone, filled my head with thoughts of how all that cheese and port meant I was a well stocked larder of potential energy just waiting to burst out.

Reader, I suffered.

I'm smiling, but if you look into my eyes I'm wondering what I'm doing.

I did it, in 37.47 minutes and with a lot of groaning, followed by lying on the floor and contemplating how maybe cheese isn't the greatest base for a food pyramid. But I'd done it, in an amount of time I don't think is terrible for someone who never scraped above a C- in PE and has spent a great deal of time devoted to building a life that doesn't necessitate moving any faster than typing speed unless being carried.

I kept running, being outside and seeing the year come to life was a nice way to spend my time, but realised in February that a half marathon in April was never going to happen, plus drunk Joy had not considered how I was supposed to get to a muddy field in the middle of North Yorkshire for 8.30 on a Sunday morning, so I emailed the organisers and let them know if anyone else wanted a place they could have mine as due to "unforeseen circumstances" (trans: I didn't think this through) I wouldn't be able to make it.

So then I was really glad I had my 100 mile bike ride because  I know I am pretty sure I can do that, I have cycled over 50 miles in one go many times before and regularly cycle 20-odd miles for funzies. But it was niggling that I hadn't done the running, especially since I carried on going for runs and discovered (believe me no one was more surprised) that I didn't hate it. 

Endorphins. Runners' High. They exist. Like actually, it's not just a mass delusion or total lie that crazy people who spend too much money on trainers use to justify their craziness.

Still got the crazy eyes, but now it's a better sort of crazy.
I looked around and found the Scott Snowdonia Trail Marathon which wasn't until the end of July, it was sold out, but a quick poke around online turned up a nice lady who had a place she didn't want on the half marathon. 

Perfect! Start the month with a long cycle ride, end it on a run. One month of exercise and adventure and pushing my limits.

Except I started following Sean Conway on Twitter who's into the ultra-triathalon adventures around the coast of Great Britain, so my brain voiced the fact that cycling and running are two thirds of a Triathlon and I had all that empty time in the middle of July where I wasn't doing anything. Again, I turned to my dear friend Google. Turned out in the middle of July there's an open water swim event in the Lake District...

I've Possibly Gone Entirely Mad

It's London Marathon Day, I am watching the incredible scenes of humanity triumphing over despair and selfishness and nipple chaffing, and I am jumping on the bandwagon!

This year, in July, for reasons I'll go into another time, I am going to complete a Triathlon (sort of).

I will be cycling 100 miles from Liverpool to Chester and back again. I am going to the Lake District to swim 1 mile around Derwent Water. Finally, I shall be staggering running 13.1 miles around Snowdon. (Memo to self: take note of all those active, affirmative, doing words. Think positive, get it done)

Technically I think you're supposed to do all three in the same afternoon for it to actually be a triathlon, but that's how the professionals do it and I'm not even a competent amateur (to date 10k is the furthest I've run and I actually can't remember the last time I went swimming as opposed to "let's go splash in the water"). 

I can't really call myself a budding triathlete since spreading them out over an entire month feels like cheating, I'm more a triathcheat you might say (#triathcheat is now my thing since y'know #branding).

Last year was awful, 2016 wasn't a great one for many people but mine was truly shocking and it left me stuck in a limbo of not knowing what I even wanted to work towards. Eventually I decided to try and heal my soul by improving my body: going outside made me happy, exercise helped me sleep and having a goal gives me a reason to keep doing it. 

Fitness is a different kind of adventure for me, seeing how far I can push myself rather than how far I can go on a plane, but I'm trying to live the idea that adventure is a mindset.

Travelling With Too Much Baggage

My name is Joy, and I am a dreadful overpacker. I think the scales at the airport, like credit cards, show a target not a limit.

I will take too many shoes, I will bring big bottles of shampoo instead of decanting it into those stupid travel bottles, I will take 5 "just in case" gadgets, and a spare. 

My bag is the big blue one, his was much smaller and he still found room to take my stuff that wouldn't fit. Whoops!

The worst thing? I don't mind. I have always done it and it doesn't really matter to me, my general rule of thumb is if I can't carry my bag myself then I cut stuff. If I can carry it, screw it.

There are things you wish I could leave behind, there are things I don't pack but I lug around with me anyway. I have depression, sometimes I struggle with anxiety, and I wish these were problems that went away at the airport but they don't. It's difficult enough when you're at home and can't face the prospect of opening the bedroom door to start the day, when you're supposed to on a once in a lifetime trip and find yourself wishing you weren't because you don't deserve it.

Depression lies, and the lies it tells live inside your head, they don't go away just because you take your head somewhere else. They don't go away just because you take up running or cycling or paragliding even though the endorphins do helps. They don't go away just because you go and see a doctor and collect a prescription for SSRIs that you can add to your over weight bag.

I don't know what cures depression, I don't know if I think it can be cured. I know that I have good days and bad, as well as days or weeks that are even worse. I wish fixing my mental health was as simple as booking a ticket to somewhere new, but it's not.

Adventure Shot
There are tricks I've picked up from travelling with depression that do help when I come home, if I'm busy, if I have a packed itinerary and know what I want to see or do then it's easier to get moving in the morning. I have to get out of bed because I want to make it to the Louvre before the queues get completely out of hand and I can't see the Venus de Milo for the selfie sticks. There are places at home that we think we know so well because we've walked past them a thousand times, when we go somewhere new we try to soak up every detail- do that at home, look up and all around and see the things you've only glanced at. 

Adventure Shot
Adventure is a state of mind, anyone who thinks they can't have an adventure just outside their own front door is doing it wrong (and should check out Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys). Yes, the sunsets I watched in Pammukale and the moon coming out over the Atlas mountains are burned into my memory, but I can see breath taking sunsets on my way home from work as well.

STILL an Adventure Shot.

If I can't carry it then I'll unpack something but we can't always do that. What we can do is share the load, right now I would love to be saving up for my next big adventure (I'm torn between setting my heart on Kyrgyzstan or doing some winter mountaineering up in Scotland) but instead I'm prioritising my metal health and seeing a private counsellor. It is helping, and in the mean time I'm enjoying what's on the doorstep, where there's no need to worry about baggage scales.

Traveller's Guilt - The People We Leave Behind

Travelling is a great way to meet new people. To find friends you never would have connected with otherwise. It makes you more open minded, more willing to try stuff out. It lets you see the world. But it comes at a price.

None of us can be in two places at once, and by the time you've caught the travel bug there will be days you want to be in five or fifty places at once.

In Asia there's a myth that says the gods tie a red string around two people who are destined to meet and fall in love, this red string of fate will always eventually bring them together no matter the distances that separate them or the time it takes eventually they will fall in love with one another. The string can be stretched out as they move further apart and it can get tangled up, as all lives do, but it will never break and it will never let go of them.

Sometimes I feel like every place I travel to, every friend I make, they get a new heart string looped around them and it doesn't matter how long it's been since I was there or how far away from each other we are now that string stays in place. Every now and again something happens to pull on it and I wish I was there and I wish I was with them. 

It might be wonderful, like they announce a new life milestone- I'm just getting to that point where it's purely exciting and not weird when my friends announce engagements or pregnancies. Alternatively, it could be something really awful- terrorist attacks and car crashes have featured heavily in the past month.

Life goes on when we're out adventuring, and in the same way we're not necessarily the same people we were when we left, things might happen while we're gone that mean home isn't the same place either.

I spent 5 months this year living on a ship, sailing through the rivers of Europe, and thinking about how I could be happy spending my life like that. Then the season ended and I came home, and I found out my dad has cancer.


The Blue Town In The Mountains

When locals asked where else we were planning to visit in Morocco they'd nod politely at our list Meknes, Fez, Chefchauen, Tangier.

"Chefchauen? Ahhh." 

There would be nods and knowing smiles, and then the universal hand signal of a pinched finger and thumb being raised to pursed lips as the gesturer inhales. It got old pretty quickly, especially when our insistence that we weren't visiting with the intention of getting stoned out of our eyeballs was met with sheer disbelief. At one point I was informed visiting Chefchauen and not getting high is like going to Amsterdam and not trying a spliff, what else is there to do?

The attitude wasn't entirely unexplainable, Chefchauen is in the heart of the Rif Mountains and smack bang in the middle of the cannabis growing capital of North Africa. At some point one of Morocco's kings (depending on who's telling the story it was King Mohammad V, Sultan Moulay Hassen or King Moulay II) granted Chefchauen permission to grow and sell cannabis, as the Moroccan Royal family trace their ancestry directly back to the Prophet their permission is not only gilt edged but a holy law which  cannot be revoked. So although marijuana is technically illegal to grow, sell or smoke in Chefchauen saying that it is tolerated is an understatement.

Trees or weed? Anyone's guess.

*Let's all bear in mind I'm not a solicitor, have no expertise in international or Moroccan or any kind of law and I'm only talking about my own experiences in which I was offered weed every time I spoke to anyone and observed a cloud of fumes around every hostel in the city. If you go, get stoned, get arrested and end up in a squalid Moroccan jail on drug related offences don't come crying to me*

I've said all this because everything we read about Chefchauen mentioned cannabis stimulated the local economy, but as an afterthought. In Morocco it is not an afterthought you say "Chefchauen" and they think "stoner". Which isn't why we were visiting at all, the current Mr Harpy is asthmatic and I hardly even drink, if it had been pitched to us as a weed capital we'd have probably avoided it and missed out on a great time in the mountains. In a recent conversation I used the phrase "tabs of E" which led my cousin to remark my parents had clearly done part of their job right.

To get there you have to take a CTM bus through the mountains, if you're prone to travel sickness you will not enjoy this journey but the destination is worth it. Everyone was friendly, the entire place was laid back and relaxed (gee, I wonder why?) we had some great food, went on some wonderful hikes and bought some beautiful wool jumpers, and found Morocco's best beauty shop. The only fly in the ointment was how the natural amphitheatre shape of the valley amplified the calls to prayer from the mosques, particularly the 4am call. It did force us out of bed while the sun was still down and let us star gaze though. Also I'm not sure how much of a problem this would be if you just picked a hostel (and there are plenty to choose from) that was not right next door to a mosque.

The current Mr Harpy hated me for bringing this dress, he saw it as the blatent red symbol of my sinful over-packing. I don't care, this picture was worth it. I do want to add that I did have a jacket on the rest of the day, since covered shoulders are considered more respectful in Morocco. I took it off to grab some pictures in empty streets, and probably wouldn't have felt out of place leaving it off- we saw plenty of girls in shorts and vest tops- it was a personal decision to cover up and one that was motivated just as much because I'm a pale ginger with freckles who doesn't want skin cancer as much as because I was in a predominatly Muslim country.

We never did get a straight answer about why the village was painted blue, perhaps to reflect how close it is to the sky or maybe symbolic of the waterfall they built it next to, in the end it doesn't really matter I'm just glad they did.