This time last week I was trudging up and down our local mountain as part of my 48 hour Everest challenge.
The aim was to push myself to my physical limits whilst raising money for our local mental health charity, S.T.E.P.S.
Every year I like to test where my current boundaries, both physically and mentally, are at. The outline of the plan was simple, but as always the devil was in the detail.
We decided that the best time to start would be midnight. This would mean that I wouldn’t be trailing up and down the mountain at my most fatigued point, on the second day, in the middle of the night. However….
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
A little bit of nerves, a bit of excitement, and a busy household meant that getting some sleep during the day prior to starting was not forthcoming.
So, at 8pm I made the decision to start the challenge at 9.
All was good. I had a good book to listen to whilst I yomped, I was well fed, and other than the occasional downpour, all was calm. Just me and the mountain sheep.
By mid-afternoon the following day my left knee was starting to grumble on the steep, rocky downhill section from the top.
By 6pm it was noticeably making me wince. Thankfully, this was my time to rest, so it was back home for some food, an ice bath and a sleep.
When I woke at midnight I tentatively lowered my left leg to the ground. Not too bad, I was pleased to note. It wasn’t until I tried to move my right leg that I realised I might be in trouble.
I’d clearly been favouring the right leg to take the burden off the grumbly left knee, and now this one was suffering.
jumped slowly climbed into the van and made my way to the foot of the mountain, hoping it would ease up.
It was dark, windy, with biblical-like deluge, and I was alone, in pain and feeling miserable.
It struck me that though I may make it up okay, I might not make it down, and in this weather that could spell disaster. So I made the decision to pull out the sleeping bag, take an anti-inflammatory and have another sleep until the sun ‘rose’ in about 4 hours time.
It was the right decision. My knee felt a little better, I felt more rested and Kelley turned up to walk the first climb with me.
And by God the weather was awful. The first day saw me completing an ascent and descent comfortably in an hour. On the second day it was taking me over an hour and a half to do the same.
My chance of reaching my goal of 40 ascents had slipped away.
And while this was a personal goal for myself, the true reason for putting myself through this was the charity. This was my WHY.
So after accepting I wouldn’t hit my target, I went after the challenge of seeing how far I could go before my body gave in.
I planned to try and get another 5 ascents (20km) which would make it a nice round 100km total. By about 2:30pm I had hit this target.
“I can do one more” I told myself. And I did.
This continued until about 6pm when miraculously, the sun came out. My mood, energy, and determination lifted. I was 7 ascents in and now determined to get it to 10. I’d have to push it but with new found vigour, I reckoned it was possible.
Pushing harder than ever I made it to the Cairn for the 31st time with 15 minutes to spare. I managed one more than I thought possible in the time I had left.
And the icing on the cake is that we have managed to raise over £3000 for our chosen charity.
48 hours endlessly walking up and downhill leaves you with plenty of time to muse and ponder the questions of life.
As I mentioned in last week’s post about teachers, not all of them are people. The mountain has been a powerful teacher for me, many times.
What follows are 3 life lessons taught to me by this little mountain.
1. You are more capable than you think you are.
Let’s look at the London Marathon. How many times have you seen someone stumbling along at mile 21 seemingly at total exhaustion, clearly in the pain cave, looking like they are going to quit?
But they keep pushing on, one step at a time, until they see the finish line 200m in the distance.
What happens then? They sprint across the line faster than they had run for the entire 26 miles.
What’s happening here?
Dr Tim Noakes brought the concept of the Central Governor Theory to the masses.
The concept of the central governor is that the brain produces a sense of fatigue to stop the body from over-doing it and taking the whole system out of homeostasis.
This is pretty smart. It’s like never letting your car petrol gauge drop below quarter full. It means that there is always more ‘gas in the tank’ should the unexpected occur.
The problem is that for most of us we have absolutely no idea how big our gas tank is in the first place.
For someone who has not experienced much in the way of bodily discomfort through effort, they likely feel that their tank is empty whilst still being more than half full.
And we can only get to grips with this concept if we consistently test ourselves.
Take my challenge. I felt that I had reached my limit at multiple times during the 48 hours. But by the time I reached the foot of the mountain again, I was ready to go ‘one more time’.
And I was in pain, tired and making slow progress. And then I saw the end in sight, 3 hours away. I was able to up the effort of my fatigued body to a level that hadn’t occurred in the previous 45 hours.
How much further could I have gone if the central governor hadn’t kicked in so early?
With the central governor theory, fatigue becomes more akin to a sensation or an emotion rather than a physical event. This knowledge allows us to have much more control over our fatigue. Much like feeling the fear and doing it anyway, or reframing a bad situation to see the opportunities in it, we can see fatigue for what it is – the mind trying to pull the reins.
If we are able to wrestle back a little control, by pushing through the perceived fatigue, the brain relinquishes a little and starts allowing more motor units to start firing, making the effort seem a little easier again. This was me in the last 3 hours and the marathon runner in the last 200m.
It’s important to distinguish between the sensation of pain and discomfort. Pain is definitely something worth listening to. Simple discomfort on the other hand can often be pushed through. And our ability to handle discomfort is no different to our ability to lift a certain weight. The more we do it, the easier it gets. And this translates to life outside of physical activity too.
This is a life lesson that I need to remind myself of constantly.
When we think we are beat, we are only really getting started!
2. Don’t underestimate the power of community.
There is a very good reason that ‘community’ features as one of our Five Circles of Health. It is a vital component to creating and maintaining a healthy human being.
There is no way I would have got to where I got in the challenge if it wasn’t for community.
I had a place, a role in a community of people who suffer with mental health. I have been there and I understand the darkness that consumes any flicker of light for people spiralling downwards. It’s not a community I would have chosen for myself, but it’s one that ultimately I’m glad to be a part of. Because by just being amongst others, feeling the same way you feel, struggling the way you struggle, you come to realise that are never alone in this.
Me openly talking about my struggles empowers me and, I hope, others struggling too.
And though I walk pretty much all of it alone, I was pushed up that mountain by the support of so many people.
Every time a donation came in, or a message was sent, or some courageous soul braved the elements to walk with me I was filled with a sense of love and gratitude to be a part of something bigger than myself.
To meet people who had been directly helped by S.T.E.P.S and who took the time to contact me or visit me during the challenge, made my time on the hill infinitely more pleasurable. What was a struggle quickly became a joyful celebration of exploring what I was capable of doing.
And it was a fantastic reminder that even the smallest interaction has a massive effect on someone struggling. Never understimate the value a kind word brings.
There is always someone out there that has your back and who’ll pick you up when you need it.
3. Your ‘demons’ are a feature not a bug.
As I mentioned in the post ‘Getting High, Misogi, and a request for help..‘ I realised that I wasn’t trying to out-run or exorcise my inner demons, it was actually running with and exercising them.
My demons are always with me. They are me. They are aspects of myself that I keep locked up. They don’t make me feel great but are a vital part of me.
They are the warning lights of my internal dashboard.
It’s exactly like your car. When that light flickers on we try and ignore it.
‘Maybe it will turn off by itself.’
But ultimately we know that if we don’t pay it some attention, we are going to regret it down the road.
This is the role of our ‘inner demons’. A gentle but increasingly insistent reminder to pay attention to some aspect of ourselves.
I think of them as dogs. Left neglected they become wild and unruly, eventually turning on you in a vicious way. Pay them some attention, show them some love, throw in the odd squeaky toy, and they settle down like a puppy.
When my demons appear, like at 3 o’clock in the morning, at the top of the mountain, in the rain, with midges devouring my face, I know that they are telling me something. Time to stop, have a treat (snickers bar for me), see how far I have already come, look at my messages of support, and get moving.
*Side note – I actually have a ‘win folder’ on my phone, with any messages, comments or testimonials people have left for me that make me feel good. If I’m feeling down, I delve in.
Nature doesn’t make mistakes. You are not broken. You just have a complex system at play, but everything is there for a reason.
Your demons can be angels in disguise. Grumpy and obnoxious at times, but still there to help.
There are so many more life lessons learnt from that marvellous mountain. I’m sure we’ll delve into more soon but until then, you will find me nursing the horribly itchy rash on my legs caused by 48 hours spent in lycra. Give me my demons over this any day.
If you’d like to donate to our chosen charity S.T.E.P.S you still can by visiting https://justgiving.com/fundraising/glenneverest