On Breaking Barriers and Jedi Mind Tricks

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

So as another month comes to an end, I realise that I have now been running consistently for seven months, having started with Couch to 5K back in August. On a recent run, I overtook a couple of people who were clearly following the programme and were in the first couple of weeks of walk-jog sessions. As I passed them, I reflected on how far I have come on my own running journey. My initial goal was to run 5km in 30 minutes, and I have now more than doubled that distance. Sometimes it is easy to focus on where we are now, and forget about where we have come from.

A few weeks ago I wrote of the trials and tribulations of returning to running as an overweight middle aged man in a post titled Fat Man Running. In the intervening weeks I have continued my battle with my challenging 12km weekend run, and I am proud to say that the hard work has paid off. I have broken my Personal Best for the route, not just broken it, but smashed it by more than three minutes. I have not yet managed to run non-stop up the toughest hill, but today I came very close. I have achieved this through a combination of mental and physical training. The physical training has seen me continuing to run on a 3 on, 1 off cycle with different pacings and distances. I try to alternate between hard and easier sessions to avoid burnout.

Run 1: 5km tempo run

Run 2: 5km steady-paced run

Run 3: 5 mins warm up, 90s intervals at 85% max effort and 2 min recovery jogs, 5 mins cool down

Rest day

Run 4: 5 – 7km steady-paced run

Run 5: 12km easy/steady run (cross country and undulating)

Run 6: 5km easy run

In another blog post, I have talked about the use of gratitude as a mental strategy on tougher runs, but I have recently found myself using a different mental strategy that is also very effective: mental arithmetic. When I was a kid, I always struggled with numeracy, so it was a surprise to discover how effective this is. When I hit a challenging stretch on a run, I calculate sums in my head, the more challenging the better as it distracts the mind into solving the maths problem rather than concentrating on the pain in the legs, the pounding heart rate and the rapid, laboured breathing. I first heard about this method from YouTubers The Running Channel, and I seem to recall that it was a technique favoured by British Olympian and marathon champion Paula Radcliffe. I found that using the mental arithmetic technique was really effective at helping me break my PB.

Another technique that helped was using the concept of marginal gains. I realised that I didn’t have to run super-fast to get better, I only had to consistently run each kilometre a little quicker. By shaving an average of 13 seconds from each kilometre, I was able to drop beat my previous PB by more than three and a half minutes. I might not be as quick as I was in my youth, but this feels like progress to me! With marginal gains, it is clear that every little thing helps, and I am pleased to say that I have shed a few pounds this week, meaning that my power-to-weight ratio will have improved as well, meaning that there is a little less sweating carcass to drag over the hills.

I have decided that I am not going to start increasing my distance again just yet. Instead I will focus on improving my time over my current distances. I am sure I will let you know how I get on!

Runners’ Fatigue

How I felt yesterday

Wednesday morning, an ‘easy’ recovery run to ease the remaining lactic acid from my legs after Tuesday’s interval training session. Stepping out of my front door onto the street, within the first couple of hundred metres I become aware of three things: this hurts far more than it should, my breathing feels difficult and I really don’t want to do this today. Undeterred, I press on. It will be better after five minutes. Five minutes later, no change. Keep going. Fifteen minutes later, the uphill stretch that leads to my turnaround point is too much to handle and I stop to walk it out for about twenty seconds. Something is clearly not right here; I usually lean in and motor up this slope. Getting back on the pace, I hit the turnaround point and run the 2.5km back home, but not without another couple of stretches of very slow jogging to ease the pain and to allow my breathing to recover. None of my usual mind tricks work: the Goggins cookie jar, the gratitude for every step taken, or the appreciation of pain as a symptom of life. All fail to have an impact. I feel shattered.

Returning home, I stretch off before hitting the shower, starting warm, reducing the temperature to tepid and finally cold. Shower complete, I find that I am good for nothing more than relaxing on the sofa. The post-run Scooby snack and beetroot juice fail to give me a boost, while my heart rate stubbornly refuses to drop below 65, about 15bpm higher than usual. I wonder if I am ill, but I have no symptoms. Am I dehydrated? Maybe a little. Chugging some water, I decide that I need a real rest and go back to bed. It occurs to me that the last time I felt so tired was when I attempted airborne selection around 22 years ago. A quick check of my last 4 runs makes me realise that I have been pushing myself too hard. My long run on Saturday was run at a slightly faster pace than usual (I felt great and pushed the pace a little). Then after a rest day on Sunday, I had deviated from my plan to run a steady 5km, running the second half on the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic work. After this, Tuesday’s Intervals and Wednesday’s ‘easy’ run were just a step too far.

I am resting today and plan to be back out tomorrow, but might step back from my 7km undulating route and do an easy 5km on the flat instead. I will see how I feel. A quick google search has left me convinced that I will be ok, but that I am at risk of overtraining. The general consensus seems to be that if overtraining syndrome occurs, it can take months to recover. I don’t think I am in that bracket, based on my training load, but I might benefit from scaling back to 4 quality sessions per week and doing some cross training to avoid feeling stale. At times like this it is important to be kind to myself and remember the following:

(a) I am not a robot.

(b) I am not as young as I once was.

(c) I am not training for the Olympics.

(d) I should not compare myself to others, especially my younger self. This is my personal journey of self-improvement.

(e) It is the rest and recovery after training that enables adaptation to take place.

No matter what level of fitness you are at, regardless of your goals, always listen to your body, and if necessary, don’t be afraid to break with your training plan and take a day off. You train to take care of your body, sometimes this means relaxing.

Fake It Until You Make It?

Image by Irina Gromovataya from Pixabay

It has been reported that the fake heiress Anna Sorokin has been released from prison. Enthralled by the glamour of New York high society, Sorokin created the false persona of Anna Delvey, a socialite with a $60M inheritance. For several years, Sorokin used her illusion of wealth to live a luxurious lifestyle that saw her living in a high-end hotel and regularly eating out at the best restaurants. Sorokin is thought to have scammed more than $200K from banks and hotels; on one occasion she used forged financial documents to obtain a bank overdraft of $100K.

Posing as Delvey, Sorokin’s story was that she wanted to create an arts centre – a project for which she was seeking a loan of $22M, which she never obtained. Delvey spent big, she hired private jets and spent a fortune on keeping herself in the manner to which she was supposedly accustomed. If you were lucky enough to be her bag carrier or Uber driver, the chances were that you would get a $100 tip. It is perhaps symptomatic of the social media age that Sorokin’s scam artistry was enabled by her social media presence that gave the world images of a curated lifestyle and provided an air cushion on which to walk through and feed off the lifestyles of New York’s rich. In an era of ‘influencers’, fake gurus and fake Festivals, it is surprising that we are surprised by this.

In the event, Sorokin got her just desserts. When the paper mask slipped and the illusion of Delvey unravelled, it did so spectacularly, but the notoriety lives on. During her trial, Sorokin had a personal stylist and appeared in court dressed in designer labels, her courtroom attire captured and shared on a social media account. Beyond imprisonment, Sorokin’s story is being dramatised by Netflix and HBO, and even if she has to use the income from the projects to repay her debts, she remains famous for being famous.

I wrote my poem ‘Famous’ before Sorokin’s story came to light; the narrative voice is that of a young woman who yearns for a life that is bigger and better than her current reality, and who sees that her only path to success is to fake it until she can make it. With no scarcity of fame-hungry wannabes, watch out for the next Anna Sorokin – he or she is coming soon to a city near you.

Famous
I really wanna be famous
Don’t really mind what for
Wanna be a YouTube Hero
Gonna take the web by storm

I really wanna be like them
Sexy, idle, rich
Wanna have my own TV show
Kim K’s gonna be my bitch

I’ll sell my book of selfies
Drink champagne by my pool
Go shopping on Rodeo Drive
Have the world at my beck and call

I don’t know how I’ll get there
Don’t have talent, got no cash
Have to fake it till I make it
Cos I know I’m gonna be a smash

I really wanna be famous
Not really sure what for
But normal life ain’t good enough
And I’m tired of being poor

© Barry Alexander

Famous will be featured in my forthcoming mini anthology. Coming soon on Amazon

Fat Man Running

My son and I running together. Just kidding, it’s a stock image. If I keep this up, I’ll look like that though!

‘Wow Dad, you don’t jiggle any more!’ This was my son’s first comment when we ran together for the first time in a couple of years. ‘I’ll take that as a compliment’ thought I. Somehow I managed to persuade my ever-so nippy fourteen year old to join me on last weekend’s long-ish run. The boy could have zipped off at his own pace, but humoured me by running at my pace for two reasons. Firstly, he did not know the route, and secondly, he had never tackled more than 5km. Fine by me.

The last time we had run together, it did not go so well. Fat and unfit, I had wheezed my way around a flat 5km route, stopping to walk a few times and wondering if my heart was actually going to explode at some point. At the time, the boy’s encouragement and kind advice only wound me up. If in body, I was a fat middle-aged man, in mind I was still the fit soldier I had been less than a decade earlier. Comments like ‘come on Dad, keep going’ were met with a mental response of ‘I’ve been on more runs than you’ve had hot dinners’ etc. The main reason that these ripostes were not verbalised was because I couldn’t summon the breath to do so.

The next time we had run together, it was more successful, but the catch was that ‘running together’ meant me staggering at about 9km per hour on one treadmill, while the lad was blasting at almost double that speed on a neighbouring one. At least we were getting fitter together! In 2019, I got to the point where we did a couple of 5km events together, that involved being lapped by my son at least once. Then I picked up an injury, COVID came along and I returned to my usual sloth-like existence, and piled on the pounds.

The wake-up call came in July, when with blood pressure through the roof, an expansive girth and more chins than you can count, I was disgusted at myself. Overnight, I switched up my diet and got walking – 5km per day, building up to 10km per day. Within a few weeks I had lost enough weight to feel confident that I could run without wrecking my knees. I downloaded the Coach to 5K app, chose Michael Johnson as my coach and got running. After the first three runs, I decided that I could not be bothered to wait 9 weeks to make my way through the programme, so I doubled it up: 3 days running, 1 day off. I don’t recommend this for absolute beginners, but I knew that once I had made it through the pain barrier, my body could tolerate that kind of training load. In a little over a month, I was able to run 5km non-stop.

Once completed, I kept up the 3 on, 1 off schedule and barring a couple of lay offs for injury or illness, I have stuck to it. I tend to run early in the morning to avoid the traffic, and just to make sure that I get it done, as I know there is nothing worse for me than delaying until the end of the day. I even spent two weeks running a circuit of about 20 metres around the ground floor of my house when we were forced to self-isolate – a seemingly endless round of kitchen-hall-living room!

So here we are in February, I have lost 30lbs since July and have finally achieved my dream of running with my son (properly running, not on adjacent treadmills or dying in an upright position). The halfway point is marked by a rather large, steep hill and he appreciated the easy pace for the run. The return leg has a cheeky, rather long uphill stretch too. Once we were within a kilometre of home, the lad asked if I minded him running home at his own pace. Off he zipped, his yellow hoodie disappearing into the distance as I upped my pace too. He had more left in the tank than I, but I was pleased with my performance. I had completed another run, was still alive to tell the tale, and had managed a PB for the route – my time has improved by eight minutes since the first time I ran it in January. Best of all, my boy has promised to run with me every weekend.

Reaching into the Cookie Jar

When you connect with someone, sooner or later, their voice becomes the voice in your head. On a given day I can hear the counsel of past mentors, my parents, my wife. I have a new voice in my head. The voice belongs to a lean, foul-mouthed, no-nonsense, bald, black former US Navy SEAL: David Goggins, a.k.a. ‘Goggins’ or ‘F***ing Goggins’ as he is known to his former SEAL colleagues.

Like many others, I have seen the video clips on YouTube and read his inspirational book Can’t Hurt Me. Goggins’ story is one of endurance in the face of adversity and of transformation through intense mental and physical development. Goggins endures physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father, racial abuse and death threats at school, and is forced to face up to himself in order to succeed in life. Following service in the US Air Force, Goggins’ weight balloons to 300lbs as he ekes out an existence in a dead-end $1000 a month job as a pest control operator. Inspired by a TV documentary, Goggins sets himself on a journey to join the US Navy SEALs and overcomes an almost insurmountable set of odds to prevail and achieve his dreams. Passing the BUDs course is Goggins’ initial goal, but it soon transpires that this only the beginning. Over time, Goggins goes on to become an ultra-marathoner and breaks the world record for the greatest number of pull-ups in a 24 hour period.

Goggins’ philosophy is one of stoicism. Building firm and strong foundations of mental toughness to achieve the seemingly impossible. Goggins talks of the need to callous the mind against hardship and to develop a mind-set of savagery. Whether in the military or competing in extreme athletic challenges, Goggins draws strength from the failure of others. When others quit he ‘takes their soul’, adding their strength to his. Whenever he is challenged directly to a physical contest, Goggins’ mantra is ‘just one more’. He only ever has to do one more repetition, run one more pace than his opponent to win.

Goggins uses a range of mental techniques to ensure that he keeps striving to be the best that he can be. He challenges himself using the ‘mirror of accountability’. Setting his goals down on post-it notes and sticking them to the mirror so that he is faced with them every day and can hold himself to account for achieving them. Another technique that Goggins uses is the cookie jar: Goggins has a mental cookie jar of everything that he has ever accomplished that was tough. Whenever the going gets tough, Goggins reaches into the cookie jar and ‘eats’ a cookie of past success that can sustain him in his current fight.

I have used Goggins’ techniques to aid my progress in running and regaining something that resembles a reasonable standard of fitness. Yesterday was ‘interval day’. Toward the end of each interval, when I was flagging, I told myself ‘just one more’. On my longer runs, I reach into the cookie jar of past achievements that help me keep going – ‘if I could handle that, I can handle this…’ These techniques are just as applicable to the struggles of daily life as they are for fitness.

My cookie jar consists of:

Running marathons and half-marathons

Military training and loaded marches

Combat in Afghanistan

Living with PTSD

Experiencing death and loss

What are your ‘cookies’? What do you think of the mirror of accountability?

While you are here, please check out my memoir: On Afghanistan’s Plains, available on Amazon in the UK and internationally.

Hidden Secrets

It was on one of my usual catch-up calls to my elderly father that the bomb-shell was dropped. Recent conversations had focussed on the health of my much-loved aunt who, living in a nursing home had recently taken a turn for the worse after being diagnosed with COVID-19. ‘Have you got a few minutes?’ my dad had asked, before warning me that he had a story to tell me that was quite complicated and stretched back many decades. I was at once intrigued and slightly worried. I wondered what the story was, and how would it relate to me? I was immediately transported back to the insecurities of adolescence and the worry that somehow I was a cuckoo in the family nest. This angst had been partially fuelled by my one of my older brothers who would calmly wind me up by telling me that I was the illegitimate child of the milkman. For some reason, the words that sprang to mind were those that the radio narrator of Listen With Mother, a staple of pre-school midweek mornings, would use to begin a story: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin…’

My father’s once razor sharp mind has dulled slightly with age and it was clearly not an easy story for him to tell as it opened the lid of a box of secrets that had been kept from my siblings and I for all our lives. Dad began a monologue that was slightly rambling and moved back and forward in time. The first revelation was that my aunt had been married twice, and that her marriage to my uncle was her second. My aunt and uncle had been together from the early sixties until his death parted them in 2008. Theirs had been a strong marriage and their only child had been their daughter, my cousin, who tragically passed too young from cancer in 2015. This was a shock, but there was more to be revealed. Not only had she been married before, but she had two children; cousins that I had never been aware of.

Apparently, my aunt’s first husband was something of a ne’er do well who laboured little, earned less and was neglectful in his role as provider. In an attempt to provide for her family, my aunt had co-owned a nursing home with a former colleague, but the business failed. As the lessee of the business, my aunt faced financial ruin in an era which, while not Dickensian, was certainly not as kind to debtors as today’s world. It appears that my uncle, who worked in financial services, was able to offer my aunt a route out of debt and a failing marriage, but refused to take in another man’s children. This placed my aunt in the unenviable position of being forced to choose between financial security with a new love, a staying with her children, impoverished, in a marriage with a very doubtful future. My aunt chose the former option.

It seems that my father has asked to take care of some of the arrangements regarding the children, who were looked after by a charity. The details of this episode in our family history remained a closely-guarded secret until a couple of weeks ago. Back in the late 1980s, my long-lost cousin traced my father. Turning up on the doorstep unannounced, she requested that my father contact my aunt on her behalf. In these days of email and instant communication it seems almost quaint that my father wrote a letter to my aunt, telling her of this encounter and asking that she consider the request for contact. My aunt refused the request; whether this was her choice alone is not clear.

In recent months, my long-lost cousin once again contacted my aunt, requesting contact again. With my uncle and cousin having both passed away, my aunt felt able to accept the request. With nobody left alive who would immediately be affected or offended at such a revelation, the truth is now out in the open.

My new awareness of this episode has forced me to re-evaluate some fundamental assumptions that I had always made about my aunt and uncle. I have no doubt that they loved each other dearly. As someone who has raised two stepchildren, I struggle to understand why my uncle chose to deny two small children the stability and love that he was willing to provide to my aunt. Equally, I have very mixed feelings about the morality of my aunt’s decision to leave her children. At the same time, I feel sorry for their daughter, who lived and died as an only child, with no knowledge of her half-siblings. This was a difficult situation and I am careful to not judge. My aunt clearly made what she thought was the correct decision at the time and will have lived with the emotional consequences of that choice for her entire life. I feel bad for my father who, having carried out his sister’s wishes, had carried the secret for decades. I also have to remind myself that each of the adults concerned were actually considerably younger, and less worldly than I am now, and that cultural attitudes were very different then.

I am tempted to say that I forgive my uncle and aunt for their actions, but as I have not been directly affected, the forgiveness is not mine to give. It does serve as a reminder that one should always try to do the right thing and that choices are never easy to make, but can have far-reaching consequences.

Barry Alexander 2021

While you are here, please take the time to check out my memoir, On Afghanistan’s Plains. It is available as a print book and e-book on Amazon in the UK and internationally.

The Lost Generation?

It is now almost twelve months since the UK went into its first national lockdown in an attempt to curb the rising infection rate. Whilst that first lockdown was effective, the impact on the economy, businesses and individuals was damaging. Much has been written, quite rightly so, of the impact on our children’s education through school closures and distance learning. A whole year group was awarded exam results based on their performance in class and teacher-predicted grades. It looks as though the same will happen this year, only this year’s students will not have a full two years of classroom work to be assessed on. Fortunately, my son was quick to realise that he would have to apply himself to his studies rather than wait until exam day to pull something out of the bag, so I am cautiously optimistic that he will do well. Other kids in his class, perhaps less so. The longer term impact of this ‘lost generation’ may have far reaching consquences for the point in time at which these kids join the workforce. There is also a possibility that the impact of COVID will be felt in other areas.

What of the Arts; where orchestras, choirs and theatrical clubs no longer meet to rehearse or play in front of live audiences? What of our would-be sportsmen and women? Participants in solo sports will probably fare well; there was a rise in the number of people cycling or running last summer, even if there were no live events to compete in. The real losers will be those who participate in team sports. Individual skills are all well and good, but a 14 year old practising at home with no team mates and no opposition is missing out on the vital soft skills that ensure success in team sports; teamsmanship, leadership of self and others, and learning to treat the twin impostors of victory and defeat with level headedness. How can we address this deficit? I’m not sure we can. As parents, I can only see one way through this. Support our kids, nourish their dreams and fuel their ambitions, but help them to adjust to the the realities of life by recognising the things that they can control and letting go of the things they cannot. The need to find small positives and causes for optimism is more important than ever. A friend commented that COVID seems to have brought out the best and worst in people. We owe it to ourselves and our kids to try to fall into the former group. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can certainly control how we react to circumstances. As a wise person once said ‘ be mindful of your thoughts, for they define your words, be mindful of or your words, for they will shape your deeds, and be mindful of our deeds, for they will shape your character’.

Our kids will only become a lost generation if we, and they allow them to be.

As I have been writing, the news has broken of the sad passing of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the centenarian World War 2 veteran who rose to fame for his fundraising activities during the first lockdown. Captain Tom lived life to the full, with an attitude of humility and gratitude. I think it is fitting to leave the last words to him:

‘Tomorrow will be a good day…’

While you are here, please take the time to check out my memoir, On Afghanistan’s Plains. It is available as a print book and e-book on Amazon in the UK and internationally.

Land Cruiser

Rush Hour in Doha

So another week has passed in which I have been forced to ‘hot desk’ within my own home. The joy of remote working, coupled with online school lessons for my son, and my oldest’s university course have meant that I have spent one day perched at my wife’s dressing table and another in my middle child’s bedroom while she was out at work. Beyond my day job, I have also been roped into supporting various study efforts by helping with poetry analysis and proof-reading essays on haeomatology. All very interesting, but none of this has helped move my own projects forward.

So sadly, not much original work going on here, but what I will do is share a poem that I wrote several years ago while working in Qatar. Unless you are fortunate enough to occupy an executive role in which you are provided with a car and driver (which I wasn’t), one of the inescapable aspects of life in Qatar is driving. I found that the early days were the most fraught, in which one had to get used to driving around an unfamiliar city amid a melting pot of driving cultures in a nation whose road infrastructure was constantly changing. When driving through neighbourhoods that I did not visit very often, I would often find that major traffic intersections that had previously been roundabouts would have been transformed into a grid intersection controlled by traffic lights. As a Brit, I faced the added challenge of being forced into a left hand drive vehicle and driving on the right (wrong) side of the road.

The second most-stressful time for driving was the last few weeks before leaving the country to return home, in which I found an overwhelming worry that I would be killed or seriously injured in a road accident courtesy of some of the less thoughtful and more impatient road users. This was a little reminiscent of my experience in Afghanistan; you worry in the first and last weeks and just get on with it for the rest of the time. Like many other countries, one of the most vulnerable driving groups were young men, whose sense of youthful invincibility combined with inexperience and a capacity for thrillseeking are a potent mix. Qatar’s wealth adds a dimension that is perhaps not seen elsewhere: many inexperienced young drivers have ready access to high performance vehicles. Only in Qatar have I seen a Landcruiser driven the wrong way around a roundabout on two wheels! All too often, the outcome of dangerous driving would land in the laps of my colleagues from the Ambulance Service. Too many friends have seen lives prematurely ended or irrevocably damaged due to thoughtless driving. It was with this in mind that I penned the following poem that considers the relationship between human and machine from the car’s perspective:

Land Cruiser

Pristine bodywork, tinted glass
Sexy, lithe and deadly
I lie in wait, caged in the showroom
Dying to be unleashed

Run your fingers over my dashboard
Pop my hood and you will see
My four litre V-8 heart
The beast at the centre of my being

Tough off-road, I eat up the dunes
On the highway I really shift
The young men come and see me
They just cannot resist

Richly dressed, with money to burn
They can have any motor they want
They think that they will choose me
But it is I that chooses them

Sixteen years old and full and vigour
Just the kind I like
He climbs inside and guns the engine
I’ll give him the ride of his life

Cautiously at first, he drives me
Taking care of his pride and joy
But the lure of speed and open road
Proves an opportunity not to be missed

From Doha driving northwards
On the Al Khor coastal road
Metal to metal with revs to the max
Racing with his friends

He does not see the workers’ bus
Dimly lit in the evening haze
Overtaking a tardy dump truck
Blocking the carriageway

I scream aloud as he hits the brakes
Pads grip the discs in vain
Glass shatters, metal crumples
I am whole but my looks have gone

Now I’m at one with my beautiful boy
What is left of him at least
Those parts which do not decorate the road
Spatter ceiling, dash and seats

Barry Alexander, Doha 2014

Land Cruiser will form part of my forthcoming mini-anthology

While you are here, please check out my memoir: On Afghanistan’s Plains, available on Amazon in the UK and internationally.

Gratitude in Exercise – An Exercise in Gratitude

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

At the start of the New Year, I mentioned that I was going to approach 2021 with gratitude. I have so much to be grateful for, but with constant pressure to have the latest gadgets, or the trappings of the perfect lifestyle, it is often easy to lose sight of the very simple things that are actually of great importance.

The back end of 2021 and early 2021 saw my running hampered a little. I like to run in the early morning darkness at around 5:00 a.m. Firstly because I use this as a practice in self-discipline, secondly because the air is so much more fresh at that time, and lastly because as a slightly overweight middle-aged man, I am embarrassed to be seen running in broad daylight. It was on one of my early morning runs that, in a bid to keep my running shoes clean and dry, I leapt over a puddle and landed badly, jarring my back. The next few days saw me hobbling around like an old man due to back spasm and sciatica.

It’s fair to say that in the past, I would have reacted badly to such an injury. My default response would be anger at the affliction and resentment at not being able to run. This time, thanks to my newly adopted mindset, I practised being grateful. I was thankful that the injury was not severe. Whenever I saw people out running, I thought of how happy I was for them, and I was thankful for the running that I would soon get back to. Within a few days, I was running again, as strong as before, but with the added bonus of being grateful during my run. I have found that these techniques make my running a little easier:

  • With every footstep, I am grateful for the ability to run. I do this at the start of the run, for the first few hundred paces. It helps me get over the shock of stepping into the cold, dark morning when the rest of the neighbourhood is still in bed.
  • At the end of every breath cycle I am grateful for the clean, fresh air that is bringing oxygen into my body.
  • As the run progresses, I am grateful for the the pavement (sidewalk) that keeps me safe from traffic and the streetlamps that light my way and keep me safe.
  • I am grateful for my strong heart, healthy lungs and strong legs that enable me to run.
  • If I feel like slacking off or walking when the run gets hard, I think of my friends who have died, or have had life-changing injuries that mean they can no longer run. I am grateful for the fact of my existence and the pain that tells me I am alive. I even imagine my dead friends looking down on me and being pleased for the fact that I am still keeping on running. I am thankful for them having been a part of my life.
  • I am grateful for the toughness of the challenge that allows me to push my boundaries, develop my fitness and boost my mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • When I finish my run, I am thankful for the warmth of my house, the hot shower at the push of a button, and the delicious breakfast that nourishes me.

By my reckoning, on an average morning I have expressed gratitude about a thousand times by 6:00 a.m. It brings perspective and helps me to avoid getting wound up by the small inconveniences in life that can so often make us resentful, angry and far from the best version of ourselves.

As you go through your day today, why not practice being grateful and see the difference it makes to your inner voice? It truly is the small, positive actions that, when multiplied, bring about a shift in our behaviour for the better.

A Prayer from Avalon

Glastonbury Tor

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago when I was living in Glastonbury. Any opportunity for writing was sandwiched between a busy job and the demands of family life: not only operating Dad’s taxi company, but also being head chef, valet and chief picker-upper. When the weather was good, I decided to take some ‘me time’ every now and then and would walk a couple of miles from home to climb the world famous Glastonbury Tor.

It was on one of my many walks up the Tor that I decided to rest in the shade of St Michael’s tower and meditate. At a time when I was suffering from writer’s block, the words of this poem came to me and I repeated them in my head all the way home before committing them to paper immediately. After some word-smithing I came up with the final version. As someone with a vaguely Anglican-based faith, I choose ‘God’ rather than ‘gods’, but Glastonbury means all things to all people and I imagine that the latter could be just as happily used by those who follow the Norse-pagan or Celtic-druidic traditions.

A Prayer from Avalon

I am earth and the earth is me
I am mountain, wind, and tree
Fire and water cleanse and heal
Before my hallowed God(s) I kneel

As I sit beneath this Tor
I think on all that went before
Blessed Michael guide my mind
A better path for me to find

Grant that when I leave this place
I will toil for the good of the human race
Pride and greed, suffering and war
Will come to pass and be no more

The Tor is a prominent landmark that can be seen for miles around, at 518 feet, it dominates the nearby low-lying wetlands that, shouldered by the Mendip hills to the north and the Polden Hills to the south, run for around twenty miles to the Bristol Channel coast at Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-Super-Mare. St Michael’s tower is all that remains of a 14th Century church that was demolished in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries. It is reported that King Henry VIII was resident at the town’s George and Pilgrim hotel when his orders to destroy both the town’s Abbey and St Micheal’s church were carried out. As well as destroying the religious building’s, King Henry ordered the execution of the Glastonbury’s last Abbot, Richard Whiting. Along with two of his monks, Whiting was hanged, drawn and quartered. Whiting’s head was displayed on the west gate of Glastonbury Abbey, while his limbs were displayed in Bath, Bridgwater and Ilchester.

Glastonbury Tor appears to have been a sacred site since the Anglo-Saxon period, and archaeological finds there have included pre-Christian burials and Roman pottery. Although there is scant evidence of occupation during the Iron Age, it appears that the Tor was at least visited regularly. Over the centuries, Glastonbury and the Tor are associated with myths and legends both ancient and modern.

Joseph of Arimathea somehow made his way from ancient Judea and chose Glastonbury as a place to plant his staff, which grew into a thorn tree from which flowed the famous iron-rich red spring of Chalice Well. Glastonbury is also associated with Arthurian legend, with the Abbey clamed to be the final resting place of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. As well being claimed as a location for the Holy Grail, the Tor is also reputed to be the setting for a portal into Hell. The modern ‘Goddess’ movement lays claim to Chalice Well as representing the Goddess’ menstrual flow and the Tor as representing her breast.

A prayer from Avalon will be included in my forthcoming mini-anthology of poetry that will capture my life in verse from military service, to civilian life and beyond