Waltzing Matilda: Commemorating Diggers Through Song

Several years ago, I had the privilege of being interviewed along with American war poet Randy ‘Charlie Sherpa’ Brown by Adin Dobkin for the Military Writers’ Guild’s The Pen and the Sword podcast.  The episode focused on how we remember war through the written word and other media.  Our discussion covered works of gravity through to comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth and Bluestone 42.

After watching the Netflix movie Danger Close, I reflected that although I had been aware of Australia’s and New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, I knew little of the details, much less the epic Battle of Long Tan. This led to me watching a slew of documentaries about Long Tan including some fascinating eyewitness recollections of the battle, the follow-on action, and the long fight of Major Harry Smith to gain proper medallic recognition for men that he felt had been overlooked when official decorations were awarded in the 1960s. As I read and watched more, I came to realise the extent to which Long Tan has become a cultural touchstone and event of national pride that binds the military and civilian communities in Australia; in marked contrast to the way that Vietnam seems to be remembered in the United States of America.

Danger Close ends with a reel of monochrome archive footage of the ‘Diggers’ in Vietnam to the musical accompaniment of Redgum’s song I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) which features the haunting vocals of John Schumann. As a British veteran of more recent conflicts, poet and author; the lyrics resonated deeply with me, moving me to tears.  Anyone who has conducted foot patrols in conflict areas littered with IEDs and legacy mines will identify with these verses:

A four week operation, when each step could mean your last one on two legs

It was a war within yourself

But you wouldn’t let you mates down ‘til they had you dusted off

So you closed your eyes and thought about something else

And then someone yelled out ‘Contact’, and the bloke behind me swore

We hooked in there for hours, then a God almighty road

And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon

God help me, he was going home in June

The story of Frankie took me back to my own experience, particularly in Afghanistan, in which I often contemplated the bitter tragedy of soldiers killed in action shortly before they were due to return home from R&R, or at the end of their tour of duty. Over a couple of weeks, I listened to this song frequently, and thanks to the YouTube algorithm, was signposted to more war/anti-war songs by Australian artists. First stop was the Eric Bogle’s classic Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which recounts the Gallipoli experience through the first-person voice of an elderly limbless Digger. This great song has been recorded by many artists, but my favourite is a live version by John Williamson. From here, YouTube helped me find Zeebrugge FOB and Dust of Uruzgan by Fred Smith.

Smith is an Australian singer-songwriter who served in Afghanistan in the diplomatic service.  Singing in a country style, Smith tells the story of a US Marine serving in FOB Zeebrugge, which was the main coalition forces base in the Kajaki district of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. I was especially interested to listen to this song, as I spent the bulk of my time in Afghanistan at Kajaki before the UK handed over responsibility to the US Marines. The first-person lyrics tell of a war-sick soldier, torn between his duty to his brothers in arms and his family at home. Beyond the limited aim of keeping the Taliban at arms-length from the hydroelectric dam and turbine, our soldier’s view of the war conveys a sense of futility and ultimate failure.

With Dust of Uruzgan, Smith takes the listener straight to a military hospital in Germany where we meet Pte Paul Warren, nicknamed ‘Warlord’ who has been wounded by an IED strike in Uruzgan. In composing the lyrics, Smith masterfully conjures images of an Australian soldier’s tour of Afghanistan, blending a narrative littered with accurate military terminology with an upbeat folksy melody. The song conveys the experience of patrolling through desert and green zones, contending with heat, the Taliban, the endemic corruption, but most of all, the ever-present fine dust that penetrates everything:

There’s nothing about this province that’s remotely just or fair

But worse than the corruption is the endless f***ing dust

It’s as fine as talcum powder on the ground and in the air

And it gets into your eyes and it gets into your hair

And it gets into your weapon, and it gets into your boots

When bureaucrats all show up here, it gets into their suits

It gets in the machinery, and foils every plan

There’s something quite symbolic ‘bout the dust of Uruzgan

Between Zeebrugge and Dust, Smith has given us an accurate picture of the conflict in Afghanistan. Everything in the lyrics resonates with me save for the sense of futility that the protagonists’ voices convey. During my time in Afghanistan, I was something of a ‘true believer’, a professional soldier who felt that the presence of coalition forces could benefit the country and that we were winning the war. As I write this in 2021, history has proved me wrong and the sentiments in Smith’s lyrics are a bitter foreshadowing of the ultimate failure of western policy in Afghanistan, and more importantly the guttering flame of false hope that was shown to the Afghan people.

These songs present a golden thread of a century of Australia’s experience in conflict, a common feature being the experience of injury. A century apart, Bogle’s Digger and Smith’s Pte Warren both contemplate a life in disability prevents them from indulging their passions; for the Digger, wandering the outback and Thai boxing for the modern soldier.

I hope you take the time to listen to the songs that I have written about and enjoy them as much as I have. As I reflect on my journey through Australia’s folk memory of war through song, I find myself wondering why the vibrant British art scene has not produced similar work.

Barry Alexander is the author of On Afghanistan’s Plains, a memoir of service in Afghanistan available through Amazon in the UK and internationally.

©Barry Alexander 2021

Onwards and Upwards

It’s funny how life can be going quite swimmingly, when out of the blue, something happens to totally mess you up. So, in early May, I marked a landmark event in my life by taking part in the first 10km road race that was being run after lockdown measures were lifted in England. I entered the race with my lad, who, whippet-like, conquered the distance considerably faster than I, scopping third place for his age group into the bargain. I made it round at a more sedate pace, but managed a (middle aged years) PB of 55:31. To have achieved a life PB, I would have needed to be running almost as fast as my son!

Anyway, race completed, we celebrated with a pleasant lunch out and made our way home. In the evening, we were settling dpwn for a family movie night when I decided to fix us some Scooby snacks. Not concentrating on what I was doing, I managed to drop a large ceramic bowl on my bare foot, the rim landing at the base of my big toe. Looking on the bright side, at least the bowl did not smash. Unfortunately this left me with a toe that was so swollen and painful that I could not walk on it for three days, and was unable to run for two weeks. Toe healed and I managed to get back training for a week before coming down with a head cold. Cue another week of rest.

It’s scary how quicly one can lose the habit of getting out there and smashing the training. I have already got used to a sedentary lifestyle again, and work has been hectic, meaning quite a few late night finishes. This poses a threat not only to my fitness, but my health; I can ill afford to slip back into old habits, gain weight and watch my blood pressure rise to old levels, so it’s back to training for me from tomorrow. At least the weather has finally turned and it feels like summer. Now all I have to do is avoid dehydration and heat illness!

As is so often the case, I am obliged to remember that a life is not measured by the heights or our successes, but rather in how we deal with our setbacks. Onwards and upwards friends.

It’s life (at the) Gym, but not as we know it!

Image by profivideos from Pixabay

With the reopening of gyms and swimming pools, the light at the end of the COVID tunnel appears a little closer. This week, for the first time in what seems like forever, I have been able to add a little variety into my activities. On Monday and Tuesday, in addition to running, I was able to spend some time playing tennis, swimming and doing some strength and conditioning work. More importantly, I was able to indulge myself with a post-workout soak in the jacuzzi and lunch on the terrace at the gym. It certainly feels like a step toward normality. For around four months, like everyone else in the UK, I have worked at home, lived at home and only left the house to go running and to buy groceries.

Whilst I was pleased at how much strength I have retained (I managed 3 sets of 10 x full bodyweight dips and felt reasonably strong at squats), I really knew about it the next day, and the second day was a write-off as I could barely move! The muscle memory is strong even if there is some evidence of deconditioning. The return to the gym has also confirmed that I cannot tolerate more than 5km of running on a treadmill before the dark shadow of boredom envelopes my soul. Whilst I like the precision of running a precise distance at an exact pace over a certain time, neither music, nor the lure of TV on the treadmill console are a satisfactory substitute for fresh air, woodland trails, and birdsong! It looks like I will be combining sessions in the big green gym with the actual gym for some time to come.

Like I say, I do like the precision of treadmill running, so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to hop on the treadmill and complete a 5km time trial at a pace that I would not have dreamed possible 7 months ago; my 5km time has improved from 32 minutes in October to under 27 minutes. When I think back to the first week of Couch to 5K and the struggle to huff and puff through 8 x 60 seconds of jogging, I think I have the right to feel justifiably proud.

Now that we can sit outside to eat and drink, another threat to health and fitness has re-emerged. For my al fresco dining experience at the gym, I chose the healthy, unhealthy option: a delicious plant burger topped with avocado and salad garnish and freshly made fries. Much more of this and I will not only be out of pocket, I will be at risk of regaining the weight that I have worked so hard to lose! As a family, we have agreed to limit treats like this to weekends only, lest they become too much of a habit.

Assuming everything remains on track from a COVID perspective, I will be marking my half-century in a couple of weeks with a 10K road race. I hope to beat my previous time by a substantial margin and have to knuckle down with a final high-ish mileage week before an easy week ahead of the event. The journey continues.

A Brief History of British Army Fitness Tests

The British Army fitness tests have changed. From 1st April, the standard test for all serving soldiers is the Role Fitness Test (Soldier) aka RFT(S). After the introduction of RFT(S) for Ground Close Combat personnel (Infantry and Royal Armoured Corps) in 2019, this approach to fitness testing has now been extended to Non-Ground Close Combat personnel (aka the rest of the Army).

Since the early 1980s, fitness testing for the whole Army was based around assessment of aerobic fitness through completion of an individual effort 1.5 mile (2.4 km) run, whilst fitness for military duties was assessed through completion of an eight mile loaded march to be completed as a squad in under two hours. The basic premise remained unaltered for decades, although the names of the tests changed with time, as did some of the standards.

Until the late 1990s, the 1.5 mile run was known as the Basic Fitness Test (BFT) and the 8-miler was known as the Combat Fitness Test (CFT). For the BFT, the 1.5 mile run was preceded by a 1.5 mile warm-up that was completed as a squad in 15 minutes. For the first 10 years of its existence, the BFT was run in boots, but from 1991 onwards, a high incidence of musculo-skeletal injuries led to the decision being made that soldiers should take the test in running shoes. The minimum standard for men under 30 to achieve a pass in boots was 11 minutes and 30 seconds; a time that was reduced by 60 seconds once the switch to running shoes took place. As a youngster, I recall being able to complete the test in under 9:30 wearing boots. By the time I left the Army, I could no longer match that pace in running shoes! From 1999, the BFT was rebranded as the Basic Personal Fitness Assessment (BPFA), which saw the warm-up run reduced to an 800m / 5 minutes squadded run and the 1.5 mile run converted to kilometres. The BPFA also tested soldiers’ muscular endurance and core strength for the first time, with the introducion of press-ups and sit-ups (max effort for two minutes). The BPFA was later renamed the Personal Fitness Test (PFT).

The Combat FItness Test underwent several revisions over the course of its lifespan. In its early years, the weight was 35lbs plus helmet and rifle, with the weight usually carried in belt webbing. Over time, the weight tended to be carried in bergens and in 1999, the weight carried was changed according to cap badge, with the infantry, airborne and commando trained personnel carrying 25kg including weapon, and other capbadges carrying 15kg (including weapon). In the earlier years, troops tended to complete the CFT wearing combat jackets and helmets, but at some point, helmets and jackets tended to be packed into the bergen with T-shirts being worn. Presumably this was all aimed at mitigating the risks of heat illness. After completion of the CFT, troops would usually complete a number of Representative Military Tasks including a test to represent fire and movement tactics, a 100m fireman’s carrry, a 2m ditch jump and climbing in and out of a troop carrying vehicle unaided. In 1999, the CFT was rebranded as the Basic Combat Fitness Test and in recent years, had a name change to the Annual Fitness Test (AFT) and will remain the in-service test for non-GCC personnel until the transition to RFT(S) is completed.

In addition to the run and loaded march tests, there were other advanced fitness tests that commanders could opt to use to test their units; these were the Advanced Combat Fitness Tests (ACFT) 1 and 2. The ACFT 1 was the run element of the BPFA, wearing boots and carrying the CFT load, which was to be completed in 15 minutes. The ACFT 2 consisted of 2 x longer marches that were completed over two consecutive days. The first day was a 3.5 hour 20km march carrying 30kg, and the second day was the same distance with 20kg and completed in 3 hours.

There is a degree of commonality between GCC and Non GCC RFT(S), but there are also some differences in standards. The test begins with two loaded marches. Loaded March 1 is a 4km load carriage completed in 50 minutes, with the weight dictated by job role. For GCC personnel, the weight carried is 40kg. Non-GCC personnel typically carry a lower weight that is determined by their job role. Some Non-GCC roles only have to complete a 2km loaded march in 25 minutes. Loaded March 2 is a 2km individual effort timed run, carrying a lower weight. GCC personnel carry 25kg and have to complete this in 15 minutes.

Following Loaded March 1 and 2, the test continues with fire and movement simulation (20 x timed 7.5m ‘bounds’) with subjects adopting the prone position at the end of each bound, followed by a 15m crawl and 15m sprint to be completed in 55 seconds.

The next test is a simulated casualty drag which sees the soldier drag a 110kg drag bag over a distance of 20m in 30 seconds. After the casualty drag, soldiers simulate carrying the casualty on a stretcher by running with two 22kg jerrycans over a distance of 240m in 4 minutes. Staying in the domain of combat casualty care, the next test replicates the extraction of a casualty from an armoured vehicle by lifting a burden of 70kg from the squatting position to standing, and holding for 3 seconds. For GCC personnel, the final test is the repeated lift and carry, which involves carrying a 20kg drag bag over 20 shuttles of 30m for 14 minutes. For non-GCC, there are different objects to be carried. Non-GCC personnel also have an additional test, known as the incremental lift. Individuals lift progressively heavier weights from the ground, to a platform and above the head.

If you are an aspiring soldier, don’t panic. You won’t be expected to be at this standard to join. You will be required to complete a 2km run (or alternative aerobic test), a medicine ball throw and a mid-thigh pull to show your ability to be trained to reach the required standard after Basic Training and Initial Trade Training. See the British Army website for more details.

The biggest difference with the new tests is that they are all ‘gender free’. In the past, women had slightly easier standards to meet than the men. Now, the same standard is expected regardless of gender. One does not have to look far on the internet to see the malcontented grumbling of old soldiers voicing the opinion that standards are being diluted to accommodate women. I disagree. In my opinion, the RFT(S) assesses all aspects of fitness and in some respects is a harder test than those that have come before. These people are of the same mindset as those who have moaned about the move from SLR to SA80, that real men wore puttees and that ‘it wasn’t like this in my day’. All I can say is that if we didn’t embrace change, the Army would still be cutting about in red coats and sporting Brown Bess muskets. Let’s not kid ourselves, there have always been a small-ish hard core of lurkers who would seek to skive off PT and avoid fitness test. Having had exposure to all of the tests that I have mentioned in this post, I can honestly see that the new tests are fit for purpose, but like anything new, will take some time to bed-in.

Leaving Lockdown, Deconditioning and Reconditioning

Okay, so yesterday’s run was not quite what I had in mind. The clocks went forward to herald the start of summer in the UK which robbed me of an hour in bed and then, true to the traditions of an English summer, the day broke with high winds and cold temperatures. Where I live, when the wind blows, it blows and no matter which direction you run in, it seems to be against you. No PB and a twisted knee into the bargain.

After the application of some ice and ultrasound, my knee felt good enough to run on this morning, so I decided to risk it and go on a nice, slow easy recovery jog. Nothing too hard, a pleasant 4.25 mile jaunt and what happened? The sun came out and I was soon getting a little overheated, not that I am going to complain about the weather, when only a few weeks ago I was running in sub-zero temperatures! But that’s not all that happened in England today. Not only did the sun come out, but the Government has taken the first step toward lifting lockdown restrictions. For the first time in months, more than one household can meet outdoors with social distancing. As well as families meeting up, outdoor sports facilities have opened and team sports can begin again. Hopefully this bodes well for the 10km race that I want to run in May.

But I feel that I must raise some caution for anyone that actually bothers to read my blog. If you are an amateur sports person coming out of lockdown, the chances are that you are de-conditioned. Even if you have kept up your fitness over the long winter months of lockdown, the chances are that you are not in peak condition. Before you start tearing up the sports pitch and tearing a hamstring or two, you really need to think about some re-conditioning first.

Consider what training you have been doing and give yourself an honest appraisal of your current fitness. If you have done nothing, then you need to go back to basics and start to rebuild your aerobic base with lots of steady running. If you have been keeping the heart and lungs ticking over with steady running, it’s time to start including some speed drills with interval training, Fartlek or, if you are a true masochist, hill reps. Get those legs moving and heart rate up, but don’t forget to warm up properly and ensure that you cool down afterward, with plenty of focus on stretching and flexibility. Now is not the time to ignore the foam roller and yoga mat!

I have to confess that I’m terrible for not working on my strength. The good Lord gave me a body that is more suited to powerlifting than to running, so I have always tended to not bother with strength training. I had started cross training with swimming and some gym work before the latest lockdown began, but gyms closed in December and I have done nothing but running since. Whatever sport you do, it is never a bad time to work on your strength and I will be doing just that when I start to spring-clean my body from tomorrow onwards. More on that in future posts.

Mindset and mental discipline will not only help you keep on track, but will also help you avoid injuries. When athletes are de-conditioned, their mental toughness and competitive attitude can often result in the mind writing cheques that the body cannot pay. I recently read some articles on exertional collapse in military personnel, which reveal that switching off to the pain and fighting through the warning signs can lead to life-threatening and life-ending situations. Don’t be that person!

On a final note, unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, the temperatures will soon be getting warmer. Make sure that you keep hydrated and get enough electrolytes onboard. Keep an eye on the colour of your pee, it should be straw coloured to clear most of the time. Beware that you can also drink too much water which can flush too much salt out of your system and make you really ill. Watch out for drinking loads but feeling really thirsty, vomiting and having a pounding headache; these are warning signs that things are about to rapidly downhill (the headache is a sign of too much fluid on the brain). If you notice this in yourself or someone else, get to a hospital quickly (I speak from experience of this happening to me in Afghanistan). If you want to read about it you could always buy my book.

Well on that cheery note, all I can say is have a great week, get training, but be safe!

Springtime Running

Image by 👀 Mabel Amber 👀, Messianic Mystery Guest from Pixabay

Yay, it’s the weekend. This means that I don’t have to get up quite so early to fit my running in. The lighter mornings mean that I am no longer running in the dark, even on the days when I set out at 5:30 a.m. This means that there is more to see, and more to listen to; a year into COVID and the sound of birdsong on my runs is a welcome addition to the morning soundscape. Even if the weather is not yet truly springlike, for the first time this morning I found myself wondering what that bright yellow round thing in the sky is doing there. For a few moments I even found myself humming a few bars of the ELO classic Mr Blue Sky. Seeing the world come back into bloom is certainly good for my mental health and wellbeing.

I am looking to increase my weekly mileage, so I have found a new route that has extended my midweek run by about a mile. This run takes me on a pleasant rural loop that is fringed by a mix of woodland and farmland. I even get to say hello to some newborn lambs, llamas and alpacas on the way. I have been fortunate to chat recently with some ultrarunners and hardcore triathletes, and they have all been keen on the 80/20 rule, which means that 80% of your running should be spent in heart rate zone 2, or at a perceived effort of 5-7 out of 10. The simple, sad fact is that having done most of my running in the military, I still feel tempted to go out and thrash myself on every single run. Old habits die hard, but I am learning to take it easier on all my runs unless they are a dedicated speed session. My aim is to get my shorter runs up to about 5 or 6 miles and my longer runs up to 10 miles and beyond. This year’s goals are to complete a half marathon for the first time in 17 years, build up to full marathon distance and be in good enough shape to tackle David Goggins’ 4 x 4 x 48 challenge, which sees runners run 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours. I was tempted to do this at the start of the month, but decided that I needed to be better prepared to avoid injury.

Tomorrow is long run Sunday, which will see me tackle my usual route with my son. Last week I came within a whisker of conquering the beast of a hill that marks the half way point without stopping, I had to walk about 20 metres from the top. Perhaps tomorrow will be the day.

Whatever you are up to this weekend, stay safe and keep active. Carpe Diem.

Plan the run, run the plan

Image by Maciej Cieslak from Pixabay

The other day I got up a little later in the morning and went for my run at around 06:00 a.m. This meant that there were more runners around than usual. Setting off down the road, I found myself overtaken by a guy who is clearly a bit of a ‘racing snake’. My immediate, almost subconscious reaction was to increase my pace and attempt to catch him. As soon as I did so, I experienced something of a Captain Caveman style ‘energy crisis’. Then I remembered. This was my fifth run of the week. As I had done a hard interval session the day before, this was supposed to be an easy-paced recovery run. You know, shift some residual lactic acid out of my legs ahead of the weekend long run., that kind of thing. Giving myself permission to slow down, I reverted to my planned run. If ever there was a time to remember to plan the run and run the plan, this was it.

I am a fan of YouTube’s The Running Channel. One of their presenters has a favourite phrase: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’. How often do we get sucked into comparing ourselves, and competing with others, either consciously or subconsciously? I guess it is natural. We so often get wrapped up in measuring ourselves: PBs, minutes per km, rate of perceived exertion, daily step count, resting Heart Rate, weekly mileage, leg speed etc., that when we see others, we are interested in how well we measure up. Are we faster? Are they quicker? What distance do they run? My challenge to myself, and anyone who reads this is to arrest any such thought processes as soon as they begin. It is toxic and all-consuming, leading us to either think badly of ourselves or consider ourselves superior to others. Running does not have to be a zero sum game, for you to win, someone else doesn’t have to lose – your most important competitor is yourself. Besides being fat and unfit, I took up running because of the freedom it offered, minimal kit required (allegedly), just myself and the open road, forest trails and the elements. When we wrap ourselves up in measuring our performance and competing with others, we lose some of that freedom.

Next time you run, why not leave the GPS watch at home, ditch the FitBit and just run? Do your thing; fast, slow, long, short, easy, hard, hills, flat, round town, on the trails, whatever. Run because it feels good, run because your lungs burn, take it easy because you’re tired, tear it up because you’re a savage beast, just do you. I bet you’ll find it liberating. Then when you’re next running to your training plan and you’re overtaken by Mr Quick or Little Miss Speedy, you can just shrug your shoulders and carry on with your run.

Fuel for Fitness

I had a really good chat with an Army Physical Training Instructor the other day. He is an ultra-runner and currently training to qualify for the Boston marathon. During our conversation we talked about nutrition and training techniques. I think we surprised each other when he mentioned that he is a vegetarian and I mentioned that I am a plant-based. It was one of those rare occasions on which one feels they are conversing with a kindred spirit. What was interesting was that we both feel so much better for having quit meat.

Let’s get this straight, I am not in the business of telling anyone how to eat. If you want to eat meat, eat meat, if you don’t, don’t. For much of my life I ate a relatively healthy version of the standard western diet and trained regularly into my late 30s. What I found on the standard western diet was that as my age crept up, so did my weight. I never had my cholesterol checked until I registered with a civilian doctor after leaving the military, which was my first inkling that all was not well with my health. What I discovered at this point was that it is impossible to outrun a bad diet, although I carried on trying to do this for a few years.

I had some success with Intermittent Fasting (IF), but did not feel able to do this long term; the intense focus that IF gave me was incredible, but I found that I would often be ‘hangry’ and was easily irritated when working collaboratively; not the best attribute for someone working as a Project Manager! Over the next few months I trained hard and watched as my weight went the wrong way on the scales. Getting to the wrong side of 200lbs, I tried the a high protein, low carb diet. This worked and a dropped my weight by 28lbs within 8 weeks. I looked good, but the trouble was, I felt terrible. I craved carbs, broke out in spots and suffered with the most terrible constipation. As soon as I reintroduced grains and upped my fibre intake, the constipation went away, but with time, the weight crept back on. Within 12 months, my weight was back to where I had started.

After watching Rip Esseltyn’s Forks Over Knives documentary (while chowing down on a big steak), I decided to go plant-based. Within a couple of months, my weight had dropped again by around 28lbs. Losing the weight was pretty much effortless, and going without meat was not a chore as I found that I had high energy levels and felt great. I thought I had it cracked. After being plant-based for 10 months, I returned to home to the UK from my job in the Middle East and was confronted with the challenges of being plant-based in a family of committed omnivores. Let’s say that I crumbled, particularly when faced with bacon, which had not been an issue while I was overseas as it had not been on the menu.

To cut a long story short, over the next three years, I gained weight and failed to shift it. I would try to get fit periodically, but fail. The final straw came in July 2020 when I was faced with the reality of approaching fifty, having a high blood pressure and being clinically obese (I weighed 210lbs) and being totally unfit. I realised that doing nothing was no longer an option. Thinking back to what had worked for me in the past, I decided to go 100% whole food plant based overnight and started walking every day. Within four weeks, I had lost 14lbs. my blood pressure was improving and my cholesterol had normalised. Once I had lost 14lbs, I was able to start running again, compleing an intense version of the Couch to 5K programme (I finished the 9 week programme in 4.5 weeks).

I have read into the work of Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr Michel Greger and others and used their advice to get healthy and lose weight.

Over the course of my journey, I have learned the following lessons that have helped me with my running:

  • Get enough protein;in my case I get it from natural plant sources such as oats, chickpeas, lentils and soya.
  • Healthy carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, sweet potatoes) are not the enemy, they are the building blocks of life.
  • Ditch the fat as much as you can; even ‘healthy’ fats such as extra-virgin olive oil. Go easy on the nuts and seeds.
  • A small portion of 4-5 brazil nuts once a month helps to maintain cholesterol.
  • Beetroot is a food of the gods – high in nitric acid, it dilates blood vessels, helps lowers blood pressure, and aids recovery after a hard session.
  • Go for the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables as these are the foods that are most rich in antioxidants.

Over the course of my life, I have met too many people that focus on the training at the expense of nutrition. There is a symbiotic relationship to be considered. When trained, the human body’s default setting is high performance. You wouldn’t put red diesel into a Ferrari and expect it to run, so don’t put rubbish into your body and expect miracles.

Afghanistan Physics Lesson

Afghanistan Physics Lesson
A squeeze of the trigger
A pull of the pin
Precision guided
Death holds a sting

Precession-nutation from rifled barrel
Yaw induced – tumbling now
Target hit, flesh and bone
Capitulates to metal and stone

Scab-like slabs of wall blasted through
Limbs torn away, shredding sinew
Trajectory ended, energy transferred
Half of mass times velocity squared

Barry Alexander 2021

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!