Was my sports watch worth it?

My overall experience of owning a sports watch

First it was a Galaxy smart watch, followed by another, fancier one, then a Garmin Venu, which was, as watches go, brilliant. I had a sports watch for around five years altogether. I was a runner with two marathons under my belt who still did plenty of events, trained long and often, and liked the stats. I used the Garmin to check my mile on mile pace, heart rate, elevation and mileage. It linked automatically to Strava where I enjoyed looking at other people’s routes and activities as well as sharing mine. My Garmin Venu showed me a gradual increase in heart rate that culminated in a diagnosis of overactive thyroid, which took me to the GP early and caught the condition early. It had a really cool screen and was comfortable to wear. These are the pros.

The cons are more complex and individual. When I started wearing sports watches it was harmless and helpful. By 2020 my Garmin Venu was a noose tightening around my thoughts as my 38 year long eating disorder took ownership of it and became obsessed with the numbers. As Covid numbers rose and I watched it all unfolding around me, I felt strangely detached. I surprised myself by not being swallowed up by anxiety like others around me. I ran a lot.

The Summer before, I had started using an app called Cronometer to track my iron intake. I had been to give blood and told I was borderline on the iron front therefore not eligible after at least fifteen years of giving blood regularly. Menopausal women need more iron, apparently, and I wasn’t about to start eating red meat, so I started to log my nutrition more precisely. I easily fixed the iron and started giving blood again. But by that time I was calorie counting again and losing weight after not engaging in dieting behaviours for several years.

Where does the Garmin Venu come into this? I realised that for every run, walk, workout or movement of any type, it counts your calories and gives you a daily total. This, for a person who is becoming rapidly obsessed with weight loss and calorie tracking, is a menace. In my previously disordered times I had reams of notebooks lying in kitchen drawers full of numbers, scribbles and food lists. The Venu made the eating disorder streamlined, slick and almost sane. In other words, it enabled it and enabled my denial.

There is research being carried out, currently, as to whether there is a correlation between fitness watches and eating disorders, with inconclusive evidence. This post is just my experience. The Venu did not cause an eating disorder. I had a chronic one already that was lying dormant and the Venu exacerbated it. I would have had an ED regardless of the watch. Cronometer was another enabler. The trigger was Covid anxiety. I realise now that the detached feeling I had was because the lifelong safety behaviour of food and body control was kicking in, like an anaesthetic, and it felt as familiar as childhood.

My watch is now gone, to somebody who is not eating disordered, and I feel good about that. I have deleted Cronometer and Garmin and don’t have the option of running at the moment as I have completely knackered my sacroiliac joint by digging. I don’t know what my running will look like when I start again, but I will figure it out as I go along. In the meantime, here are my thoughts about whether a smart watch is a help or a hindrance.

IT’S A HELP IF:

  • You love the stats relating to your sports performance
  • You like to train within certain heart rate zones and are a fitness nerd
  • You’re keen to develop and maintain good sleep hygiene
  • You follow training plans
  • You want to create routes on it and follow them

IT’S A HINDRANCE IF:

  • You use the calories to inform your food choices for the day
  • You go for a walk or a run, even when exhausted, to burn calories
  • You walk or jog on the spot to get your step count to a target
  • The watch dictates your daily activities and not the other way around
  • You can’t go out wearing a normal, time-telling watch because you can’t imagine life without the watch recording everything

It’s worth noting that disordered people will deny, even to themselves, that the second list is happening. We tell ourselves that it’s OK really and one day we will get control of it. But here’s the thing. If we feel shame about our addiction to the numbers, control and obsession, then it’s a problem, because we know that our behaviour isn’t normal or balanced.

And finally, feeling shame about having disordered eating or exercise behaviours is really, really sad. As if it’s our fault! We are taught from a young age that our bodies are of immense importance, and that a certain appearance is more valued and makes us more acceptable. When everything around us is as crazy as it is right now, with ominous words and talk of lockdowns, a palpable sense of fear and a world that feels unsafe on every side, it’s no wonder that we shrink ourselves and hide behind a blockade of addiction and obsession. We are struggling as a nation. Some drink too much, some binge eat junk food, some spend too much, some rebel and break all the rules, some become too anxious to get out of bed, some lose all hope, some get angry at other drivers and explode into tears of helpless rage and some, like us, get into food and body control as a way of avoiding all this crap. But one thing is for sure – none of us are OK. So please – ditch the shame, never give up and always keep reaching out for help.

Possessed

Am I here without my smart watch?   Do I ever get to sleep?

Do I get my light, my REM and plenty of the deep?

Does the oxygen go in my blood and do I respirate?

Do I fluctuate in energy or ever menstruate?

Is there ever any stress and do I ever have a drink?

How am I feeling?  Do I have capacity to think?

Do I have a heart?  Without my watch, how does it know to beat?

Who’ll remind me when I need to breathe, or wee, or eat?

Do my workouts even happen when it isn’t on the app?

Do I ever move at all or am I just having a nap?

How will I know if I am on a cycle or a walk?

What will I do without the virtual coach for my pep talk?

If I lose track of the stairs I climbed, was any of it real?

If my calories aren’t counted, did I ever eat a meal?

Now my smartwatch is discarded, do I still have a face?

Do I exist at all?  Who knows?  I’ll have to watch this space. 

To the eating disordered at Christmas

10 anti-shame mantras

Up until last week – yes, literally last week – I was one of you. I had been eating disordered for 38 years, which isn’t really a fact to relish, but nonetheless is true. My eating disorder ranged in severity from, say, a 7/10 to a 3/10, with zero being completely fine and 10 being life-threatening.

I would like to expand on this further, for those who think that they might not be unwell enough to call themselves ‘eating disordered’. This thinking brings a lot of shame because others can sometimes insensitively suggest that claims of mental illness are nothing but attention seeking. Really? People who have disordered eating usually hide their behaviour from everybody around them. People who can’t relax without tracking every single calorie are doing it surreptitiously, pretending to look at text messages as they frantically log the crisps that they just ate, or might even still be eating. People who can’t eat breakfast without weighing it by gram are waiting until the kitchen is empty so that nobody realises. So – if you think you are eating disordered then you probably are. Eating disorders exist on a spectrum and if your eating causes you discomfort, anxiety or shame in any way, then this is a disorder.

Photo by Tijana Drndarski on Pexels.com

What I want to say in this post is a message of hope. After years of trying everything from therapy, self-help books, talking to friends, more therapy, following recovery Instagrammers (which I will reference at the end), keeping a journal, looking after my needs in other areas of life, more therapy and now training to be a therapist, I am free of it. It shook loose, like a pesky knot that I had been picking at for years, and now it is gone. I know that it will not come back in the same way that I know I will never return to fundamentalism or my ex-husband. So there is hope.

The last and most stubborn piece of my recovery is sudden and dramatic. I can testify to the fact that I have: weighed a carrot, ran a half-marathon when hungover to burn the calories, logged a meal as I ate it, checked my calories to see if I had enough for 3 dried apricots, drank gallons of water to make myself feel full, weighed myself after using the toilet to see if it made a difference, trained for marathons with injuries to burn the calories, limped around with a popped achilles to burn the calories and ranged at least four stones in weight throughout my adult life. This morning, I shook some muesli randomly out into a bowl and didn’t even think about how much it was, what brand it was or how to establish how many calories was in it. If I gain weight over the next few months, I trust myself to decide what to do and to get it right, for me, always.

I haven’t made my own eating choices ever in my adult life as a free person. My decisions were made by my mum and, from thirteen upwards, by my eating disorder. At 51 I am facing a world of decisions and will curiously watch as the world of food choices opens up to me and I learn to navigate that. I trust that I will learn wisely and I am excited about what unfolds. I have learned to make my own choices in every other aspect of life. I have rid myself of people-pleasing, mollifying others and choosing to keep ‘everybody’ happy (as though that’s possible). I think that path towards autonomy is a pre-requisite to recovery. Food was the last bastion and I have now re-claimed that, too.

So, I have so much compassion, empathy and sorrow for those still suffering any level of anxiety as Christmas approaches. It can be a time for significant angst. For those trying to track and keep control of their food intake, it’s nothing short of a nightmare. And for those who ‘take a holiday’ from the normal control, it is full of anxiety and dread of the weight gain. And whatever you decide to do, to mollify your eating disorder, it won’t be right and it won’t feel good. With an eating disorder, there is no winning.

This next section gives you ten eating disorder thoughts. Every single one of them is an eating disorder thought. And below it is a potential response. Say it as though you believe it, even if you don’t. And eat! Eat anyway!

ED 1. I am going to gain so much weight but it’s OK. I will burn it all off in the New Year.

SELF: I have the right to gain weight, keep the weight on and never lose it again. It doesn’t make me less of a person.

ED 2. I don’t know how many calories are in that, therefore I will have the tiniest slice possible.

SELF. Calories are life giving units of energy that fuel my brain and my body and give me a great deal of pleasure. I will eat the amount that feels right to me.

ED 3. I might as well binge everything for the entire week because I have lost all control in any case.

SELF. All food is equally valid and allowable. I am free to eat whatever I choose, whenever I like. I do not need to say ‘fuck it all’ because I am a free agent who can eat it anyway!

ED 4. I have to go to the bathroom to log all of my calories before I forget what I ate.

SELF. Wait for an hour, do some deep breaths and remember that I am a whole person, not a computer or an automation that lives by a formula of calories.

ED 5. I have to go for a massive run tomorrow or purge as soon as I can leave the table. I’ve got to get rid of the calories somehow.

SELF. I need to find a quiet place and meditate. I am a worthy and valuable person whatever my weight and however much I ate.

ED 6. I am disgusting. I ate so much. My stomach as huge and my thighs already look bigger.

SELF. I would not talk to anybody else like this. I love and respect others regardless of their size and I owe that to myself, too.

ED 7. Tomorrow I’m going to drink water and not eat until evening.

SELF. Tomorrow is another day and I deserve to eat, no matter how much I ate the day before. I am deserving of nourishment and pleasure, just as everybody is.

ED 8. I am so full. I always eat until I’m so full at Christmas. I am pathetic and have no self-control.

SELF. Christmas is a time of feasting. It’s understandable to feel uncomfortable because I am usually ruled by shame. But Christmas isn’t a time for shame and, actually, neither is any other time.

ED 9. I can’t go to that Christmas meal/party/event, because of the food. I will be eating enough over the Christmas period and can’t risk any more.

SELF. The only valid reason to isolate myself is Covid, and if I choose to stay in because of that, I can still treat myself with as much food as I like.

ED 10. I can’t stop thinking about what to eat, when to eat and how much I’ve eaten. I can’t even enjoy the company I’m in.

SELF. It’s understandable to feel that way. This thinking has dominated me for so long. I will try to listen and focus on what people are saying, and if I struggle, it’s not my fault. I am a good person just trying my best and I respect myself for always showing up.

I recommend practising this sort of dialogue, even if it feels untrue. I got my recovery by practising and practising until, one day, it became true for me. I took back the territory that was always mine, and I know that recovery is possible.

And to finish, my top ten people to follow are: @jennifer_rollin @chr1styharrison @virgietovar @bodyposipanda @foodisntmedicine @laurathomasphd @glitterandlazers @sofiehagendk @lindobacon @evelyntribole

These people range from nutrition experts and dietitians to weight science researchers and diet historians. They are all brilliant in their own way. Education is almost everything and these people will educate you. The missing piece is self-empowerment. Pushing the shame away. Kicking it into the gutter. It has no place in your food, your body or your exercise choices. Have as happy and peaceful a Christmas as you can carve out for yourself, and never, ever give up.

Journey of an overactive thyroid

Plus the sad state of the NHS

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I wrote a few weeks ago about my crazy overactive thyroid, which is now within range. What this means is that the 40mg of carbimazole that I’ve taken daily for the past four weeks has drastically destroyed some of my thyroid tissue thus rendering it incapable of excess T3 and T4 production. The TSH hormones that drive production of the T3 and T4 that circulate around in my blood are still ‘switched off’ but other than that I am ‘normal’. I feel fine, although a little tired. I have gained back the few pounds that I dropped, and it will be difficult to stop eating so much, as I got used to whole days of grazing, non-stop, on carbohydrates, just to hang onto the weight I was at. The downside as that I’ll need to be ‘titrated’ now which means staying on exactly the right dose of carbimazole to maintain the correct range. I think it can be tricky and can go under, in which case I’ll need thyroxine, and my private endocrinologist has still got me on 30g of carbimazole for another four weeks, although by that time I’ll have seen an NHS endocrinologist who might say something else entirely.

The other downside is that my liver function is now borderline. It was borderline at diagnosis, which was due to the toxicity of all that excess thyroid hormone floating about in my bloodstream, causing the liver to work harder. Either that or it was the borderline wine addiction but to be honest I don’t think so. It’s only ever been 2 or 3 glasses at a time and often none at all for weeks at a time, so probably not that. I’m now off alcohol completely and will be until I’m off carbimazole, because the liver function has worsened and is now causing my skin to break out and probably some of this fatigue. I don’t know whether the NHS endocrinologist will try a different medicine but I’ll ask at the appointment. I also still don’t know what the cause is, because the test for Graves disease that the private endocrinologist asked for was messed up by the lab, and my GP cannot request the test as it needs to come from a specialist.

This whole business of going private is sad. Not for me. It cost £200 and it was money well spent. But the fact that so many are having to wait five months to get seen. If I hadn’t have gone private, my condition would’ve worsened and the symptoms would’ve been really unbearable. I’d have had to give up work and be signed off sick, and had no income because I am classed as self-employed and don’t get sick pay. If I hadn’t have had the wherewithal to research my condition and realise what I needed, and discovered that GPs are not experts in endocrinology, and would be unable or unwilling to prescribe carbimazole in the doses that I needed, I would have suffered so much more than I did, and for longer. If I wasn’t the kind of person who makes a decision to get things sorted, and then acts like a bull in a china shop until they are sorted, nobody else would have conducted that fight for me.

I’m an intelligent woman with a will of iron and, although I’m genuinely kind and caring, I’m not gentle when it comes to getting what I need or getting what my family needs. In the past I advocated for my daughter by regularly bombarding the CAMHS unit and reminding them of the NICE guidelines. I contacted my local MP who also advocated for her. I got her treatment earlier because I kept on. My letters were well-informed, articulate and medically accurate. But how unfair is this? I’ve realised more than ever before in my new job how much the system is screwing over the most vulnerable members of our society.

How are these people supposed to get help? There are those around us in situations which are festering, problematic and downright unsafe. A single parent with severe mental health difficulties who cannot see a psychiatrist for months or even obtain the medication that would help them to find some space and calm. A child who can’t sleep because their routine has become completely upside down, who has missed so much school that they can’t tell the time, a child who is out all night and in all day, whose parent has learning difficulties and doesn’t really know how to parent, despite all the love in the world. A clinic where nobody answers the phone. Informative leaflets emailed out to people who don’t have the capacity to understand them and nobody to advocate for them. Local councils with social workers so snowed under with enormous caseloads who, through no fault of their own, are unable to support these families. GP surgeries with locked doors and phone queues over an hour long. Single mums haven’t got the time to wait over an hour. The baby’s crying, the washing needs doing, the cat needs feeding, the kids have to be fetched from school. They’ve got jobs that they need to pay the bills. They can’t get any help from anyone.

It’s a horrible speculation but is the NHS deliberately being run into the ground so that we can all go the American way and buy into lucrative personal health insurance schemes where the rich get richer and the poor just suffer? Where poor people with diabetes can’t get insulin because it’s not covered on their insurance? Where self-employed folks have no incentive to carry on and they have to go back into the corporate world? Or are we already there? I know that the families I work with are suffering because the NHS is no longer fit for purpose – which was to provide healthcare to every single person in a timely manner regardless of socio-economic status. If we are going the American way can we just get on with it then? Because what we’ve got now is neither here nor there. It’s a half-way house where people like me can badger, bombard and be heard, or pay the odd £200 for some timely treatment, and other people can just fall through the cracks in a ‘survival of the fittest, every man for himself’ kind of Trump-esque dystopia.

My thyroid condition will probably be well-managed and I’ll cobble together a path through it in a combination of self-management, education and professional input. But I’m sad for the NHS and all the amazing people who work in it. I hope against hope that this government really does put in some considerable funding and keep it going. I’ll never give up hoping that they really mean it and something will change. I don’t want to become the next state of America, driven entirely by consumerism, corporations, power and heirarchy. I want to live somewhere where every body is seen, valued and cared for with the same ferocious drive to thrive that most of us extend to ourselves and our own.

My crazy overactive thyroid

My first seven weeks with an overactive thyroid.

Hyperthyroidism and me

When did it start?

I was out on a run on the 4th August, my last run before the Belper Rover, an 18 miles trail run that I’d had planned for a while. This was my last long run and I’d planned a 15 mile route around the beautiful Stapleford area of Nottinghamshire. From the very get go I felt horrible: hot, out of breath and heavy. It was a muggy, warm day and I put it down to the heat, sipping at the water from my carry pack and persevering doggedly through country lanes and footpaths until, on mile 7, I realised that it was not going to get any better. Deciding to significantly slow my pace, I shuffled along for another few miles and realised that my heart rate was up to 200, which panicked me. At 50 that’s way over my maximum heart rate and I stopped to walk. The last 5 miles were a nightmare of heat, exhaustion and confusion as I wondered what the hell was wrong. Arriving home, I put it down to a virus as my stomach was churned up and painful. I rested for the remainder of the day and went to bed.

The next day my resting heart rate was ten beats a minute higher than usual at 65 and once again I thought that this confirmed a virus. The next evening I had a 7 miles race booked in the Peak District with my stepdaughter Jess. It would be hilly and hot and I knew I shouldn’t do it. But I messaged Jess and told them I’d be there but may have to stop and walk if I felt unwell. Next night I started the Saltcellar race and made it three miles before feeling sick, exhausted and anxious. I was already running at the back and I stopped to let the two women behind me past and then told the next marshall I was heading back. He kindly accompanied me back and I decided not to run again until I felt much better.

Diagnosis

Through the month of August I did no running but lots of walking. After a holiday in Whitby where I ate all the chips, chocolate and cakes physically possible to get in my belly, I got home and found I’d lost weight. The heart rate was still ten beats a minute higher than usual and I was going to the loo a lot more (putting it politely). Googling my symptoms led to my suspicion that my thyroid had gone overactive and finally, beginning of September, I had a blood test which revealed this to be true.

What it’s like

Having this condition for me has been manic. Up until yesterday, when I started betablockers, I was hyper all the time. I would try to go to sleep but my heart would be banging in my chest so loudly that I could actually hear the swooshing sound of the blood. Needless to say, this is not the most relaxing feeling I’ve ever had. My husband even said he could hear my heart one night, which made me feel even worse. The hunger for carbs was overwhelming until I started on carbimazole, which dulled the appetite. I couldn’t even get all the food I wanted, because I’d get full and then be hungry an hour later. Nothing was able to keep me energised and I was bored of eating the same things but trying to avoid filling up on sugary foods (which I did occasionally do). My anxiety was the worst thing. I’d be going about my daily life and then, apropos of nothing, get a feeling that I was about to die. My stomach would churn, I’d get sweaty, and feel complete panic, with nothing triggering it and no way of knowing when it was going to happen. I also couldn’t stop my mind from racing and worrying, in a pointlessly circular track that said, ‘I can’t teach, I can’t teach, I can’t teach’, or ‘I can’t plan, I can’t plan, I can’t plan’, and, occasionally, for a little respite from the shit talk about work, ‘I might die of cancer’. It was a laugh a minute in my head. Thank goodness that the betablockers have stopped most of this incessant self-imposed verbal abuse.

What to do

GP will refer to an endocrinologist for further testing. Ask for an antibody test to see if it’s Graves disease. This is the most common cause and is an autoimmune condition. It can lead to eye disease and needs to be managed. If, as in my case, the antibody test comes back negative, it’ll need further testing. It could still be Graves as some people don’t show antibodies even though they have it. You need an ultrasound or a thyroid uptake test to see if it’s nodules, most of which are benign. The treatment is similar in any case. It might be an anti-thyroid drug like carbimazole, which makes you knackered for a bit but eventually works. After a while you might be offered radioactive iodine, which kills the thyroid and then you have to take thyroxine for the rest of your life. This is called ‘block and replace’. Whatever the treatment, you need regular blood tests for ever after to make sure the thyroid levels are right.

Some GPs are crap and some are great. I had a crap one first and then asked for another one because the crap one said he couldn’t prescribe anything and I’d have to wait for the endocrinologist. This was a lie and downright dangerous as my free T4 was rising rapidly and had doubled in two weeks. A GP can prescribe carbimazole and also betablockers for the palpitations and high heart rate. The worst symptom for me was anxiety and I’m so happy to be able to say that in the past tense as just one day on betablockers has knocked it out. So far my 10mg a day of carbimazole is doing nothing so that’s under review at the next blood test.

Our poor NHS is gasping for air and a hair’s breadth away from irretrievable decline. I was told 18 weeks for an endocrinologist and, in the event, it was 12. With the small possibility that it might be something malignant I have decided to see a private endocrinologist for £200 a pop plus the cost of any tests. I realise that I’m privileged to have some savings and not everybody does. But if you do, or if you can shove £2000 on a credit card and pay it back over a few months, I’d recommend getting it sorted asap.

Recommendations for living with an overactive thyroid

  1. Go to bed early and nap during the day even if you only have time for 10 mins.
  2. Get on a beta blocker
  3. Eat as many carbs as you can fit in your belly
  4. Do some yoga (I can’t be bothered but I know I should)
  5. Walk every day and get some fresh air. Don’t try and run unless you’re a nutter like me
  6. Lift some weights as this disease wastes your muscles and can cause osteoporisis
  7. Eat a ton of calcium foods. For me it’s enriched plant milks. Bones will need it.
  8. Get a journal and write down all the worries. There will be loads. Writing them helps.
  9. Talk to anybody who will listen. This is a time when friends are needed.
  10. Use a meditation app every day to get some calm

How not to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

How not to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

In order to raise sponsorship money for my sixteen year old son’s school trip to Peru with Camps International, we decided to attempt the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge.   Our initial idea, to complete the National Three Peaks attempt, was a logistical headache for a full-time teacher and single mum with limited date options, no time to organise a group effort, and a summer house move.  The Yorkshire option takes less time, is straightforward in terms of driving and accommodation and is allegedly manageable for anyone with a decent level of fitness.  I duly looked up the official challenge website, ordered a pack of information and maps, booked a date, told Billy to keep it free and got round to thinking about planning the finer details a few days before going.

(First: don’t leave planning until the last minute)

Planning the trip so late in the day was risky but luckily I managed to find accommodation at The Station Inn for £12.50 per person per night.  The Inn is only eight miles away from the start at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and is a friendly, traditional country pub with hearty food and a bunkhouse for walkers or bed and breakfast in the inn.  We wanted to spend as little as possible as the trip was a fundraiser.  It was a last minute panic, though, as several places were fully booked and I had underestimated the enormous popularity of the Yorkshire Dales as late as October.  The day before leaving, we hurriedly checked the map, thinking it would be easy to map out the suggested route.  The pack from the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge website includes three Ordnance Survey maps, one for each peak and surrounding areas, as well as a little plastic card per peak.  The cards are helpful as little pocket-sized reminders but aren’t detailed enough for use as standalone directions.  No doubt the maps are accurate and up to date but we have no experience of reading them and the symbols and lines left me befuddled.  However, we weren’t too concerned as some friends had assured us that the paths are really easy to find and that the route is well signed.

(Second:  Don’t believe people who say the route is obvious)

If you don’t know how to map read with a compass, learn.  Or take somebody who knows how.  Just don’t try starting in the half-darkness at 6.50am in October, armed with a map that you can’t read very well and no idea which direction to take.  We arrived at Horton-in-Ribblesdale at 6am in the pitch black and waited in the car until it was light enough to start.  The night before, in the pub, we’d chatted to the group at the next table, who had paid for a guide and were starting at 6.30am.  With no idea how long we’d take to walk round, we got up at 5 next morning, grabbed a roll and a cereal bar each, glugged some water and left for the Horton car park, which took about 20 minutes.  A guy who had arrived even earlier, and was parked near us, was walking about with his head torch on (oh yes, taking a head torch would have helped at this point) and, when we met at the ticket machine, I discovered that he was the other group’s paid guide, had driven up from his home in the Peak District, and was just waiting for his clients. 

(Third:  Research the hours of daylight in advance)

It would have made more sense for us to check the time of sunrise and sleep a bit longer at the inn, as we ended up dozing with our seats tipped back until we began to see the light seeping through the trees and decided to make a start.  We knew, from various websites, that walkers can officially check in at the Pen-y-ghent café, which is next to the village car park, in order to receive an official time, but figured that the café would be closed at that time in the morning, so we made a note of the time and left.  Later, we discovered from other walkers that we could have signed a slip of paper with our names and start times and put it through the door, doing the same on our return.   

We left before the other group arrived, full of confidence that there would be a clear sign, hopefully with ‘Yorkshire Three Peaks’ written in large letters for all to see.  Our little card told us to start at Horton train station and take the footpath to Brackenbottom and then on up to Pen-y-ghent.  There was no sign for Brackenbottom anywhere and no sign of a footpath.  It was so cold that thinking was difficult and so foggy that seeing further than a few metres was impossible.  We felt ill-equipped and scared of going the wrong way and wasting time, so decided to wait for the group and see where they went.  When they saw us loitering with our teeth chattering it was obvious that we had no idea what we were doing and we accompanied them over the railway crossing, onto a footpath, and into the surrounding fields in the swirling mist.  I confessed to the oldest man in the party that we were struggling to make sense of our map and offered to pay something towards the cost of their guide if we continued to tag along with them.  He was very gracious about it and said not to worry, the guide had already been paid, but agreed that I would buy them all a drink later in the pub and maybe give the guide a tip.  All very good, but clearly we shouldn’t have been so blasé about finding the way.

Filled with determination and anticipation, we strode along for a few miles.  After around an hour, we started to climb.  Periodically, I was checking the OS map for Pen-y-ghent, trying to figure out where to go if we ended up going ahead or falling behind.  It made absolutely no sense.  We didn’t appear to be heading towards Pen-y-ghent, according to my reckoning, but I trusted their guide and we stayed with them until we reached the craggy ascent.  The pleasant, wide field path became paved, narrow, slippy and steep, winding its way around the mountainside.  Billy and I walked ahead and resolutely ploughed on until we reached a plateau near the top.  As I headed around the last sharp bend, Billy was standing on the ridge with the sun almost breaking through the white, opaque mist and the ethereal light lent a mystical quality to the scene.  We stopped and played around with our phones, taking pictures for a while, both entranced. 

Early morning wonder

Approaching a looming, stone-built monument, we figured we must be at or near the summit, and managed, with freezing fingers, to hook out our first rolls and cereal bars from our rucksacks, painstakingly and clumsily unwrapping them and rewarding our efforts with some high-energy snacks.  We did get the food right!  We had made up five rolls and five bagels, filled with peanut butter, wrapped them in cling film and packed them into plastic bags the day before.  We had also packed about ten cereal bars and ten bananas, as well as six or seven 330ml bottles of water each.  Towards the end, a couple more water bottles would have been welcome, but what we took felt ok.  Replenished, we looked at the direction card and the map again and found it of no help whatsoever.  There didn’t appear to be any path apart from the one on which we had ascended, yet according to the OS map, there should be another that would begin our long haul to Whernside via the Ribblehead viaduct.  We wandered the ridge for a while, found nothing, got a little concerned about falling over the edge, circled back to the monument, heard voices and reunited with the other group.  When one of them asked if we had a compass, and we replied in the negative, he looked pityingly at us and I admitted that we evidently didn’t have a brain between us.  This didn’t appear to impress him.  We followed them back down the way we had come, which completely baffled me, forking off to the left and down a very steep, slippery and treacherous route all the way down to flatter ground, where we took a paved, well-maintained path through very boggy land for an hour or so, eventually reaching a road.  Assuming that we’d want to go ahead again, the guide pointed towards a distant zigzagging trail up the side of a ridge and said that this was the way up to Whernside.

‘Whernside?’ I queried.  According to my route, that should have been a ten mile hike, and we must have only done a couple.   I was still utterly confused and asked the guide to show me our current location on the map.  He looked at it and pointed out that it was the map of Pen-y-ghent. 

‘Yes’, I replied.

‘We’ve just done Ingleborough.  Your route is taking you anti-clockwise.  I’m taking them clockwise’, he informed me.

It took a few seconds for this stunning piece of information to sink in.  It was slightly weird to realise that we had climbed a different mountain to the one we thought we had climbed, but at least the map now made sense.  Not wishing to go on about it, as our ineptitude was becoming a glaringly apparent embarrassment, Billy and I walked steadily ahead all the way to the top of Whernside, determined to manage independently now we knew which direction we were going in.  The climb up this way was tough.  Really steep and intense and near the top my asthma kicked in and I wheezed like a steam train for about three minutes, wishing I’d brought my inhaler.

(Fourth: don’t tell yourself you won’t need your meds)

After feeling faint and almost vomiting, I thankfully recovered my breathing and carried on.  Following the ridge up to the peak was less challenging – a nice, steady climb – and the midday sun infused the shades of auburn, brown and green with a vibrant, iridescent quality.  The undulating moors swept away epically towards the surrounding horizon where distant peaks formed a dramatic frame for this massive panorama.    It was warm now and we walked comfortably, stopping briefly at the peak and chatting to a seventy year old lady who had been climbing these dales since she was a lass and looked as solid and indestructible as any of them. 

Billy wasn’t keen on stopping for too long.  He isn’t competitive, he reminded me, along with his opinion that I was the one who would be gutted to fail the twelve hour time limit.  The path down to the Ribblehead Viaduct and beyond, to the foothills of Pen-y-ghent, was easy to follow, clearly signed and for me the most enjoyable section of our walk.  The viaduct was impressive at 3pm, its geometric shapes in sharp relief against the pure, blue sky and its light grey stonework stark in the afternoon light. Billy was intrigued by caterpillars, stopping a couple of times to watch hairy specimens inching across the path, and later finding a newly emerged butterfly with dark, folded wings that opened into a burst of kaleidoscope patterns.  Otherwise, he found this part tedious as it really was a trek and, at sixteen, he is built for short bursts of energy and challenge, not ten mile hikes on flat ground.  

trekking between Whernside and Pen-y-ghent

We were caught up just before the viaduct by a young walker, flying along at a speed just short of a run.  We walked together for a while, which picked our pace up considerably.  After telling us about his and his wife’s adoption plans and having a deep, philosophical discussion of the type that can only happen between strangers on trains, walks or holidays, he pointed us in the direction of the best route towards Pen-y-ghent (which wasn’t even on our OS map) and headed back to his car.  He was training to run the entire three peaks route next summer and was just cooling down when we met him.  Crazy but brilliant; I have to admire the fitness and training commitment of anyone who can do that. 

(Fourth:  don’t forget to chat to other walkers)

Our day was enriched by our brief encounters with others.  We asked some for directions, with helpful outcomes, and were asked for tips by others, which was generally pretty pointless for them, but were consistently met with friendliness, humour and genuine kindness.  There is something about the scenery and the exercise that brings out the best in people (or walkers are just great people).  The path to Pen-y-ghent was a bit confusing.  We evidently followed the Pennine Way for a bit too long, observing  the many surprising similarities between the Yorkshire Dales and Tolkien’s middle earth, then sort of doubled back on ourselves in the end, only a couple of miles from Horton-in-Ribblesdale.  It was mildly tempting to give up.  By this time, our legs were leaden, our shoulders ached from our rucksacks and we had little left to give.  But a fleeting glimpse of a little red squirrel daintily skimming a garden gate and streaking up into the trees made us smile again. 

We braced ourselves for the final push, ate another roll, banana and cereal bar each and took a left turn that took us, flagging now, over two or three little hills and then steadily and relentlessly up and around the shoulder of the mountain, higher and higher along the ridge and finally straight up a shale path to the peak.  That final two or three hundred metres was the killer for both of us.  Billy found it demoralising to walk at my pace so ploughed straight up and waited for almost half an hour at the top.  I had to stop a couple of times for extra layers.  My hands had swollen to a ridiculous size and looked and felt weird.  The sun was cooling, the wind chill was biting, I had a runny nose and chapped lips and an inner voice that persisted in querying my judgment in undertaking this enterprise.

(Fifth:  don’t leave your gloves in the cupboard)

No need to dwell on that one.  Just take some.  As I grimly shuffled up this last steep climb, I experienced the kind of jelly legs and heavy exhaustion only previously felt during the last leg of the London Marathon.  Granted, I’m not as fit as I was, but can still run ten miles with relative ease and this was crazy hard.  At the top, I was emotional with relief and enormous pride.  Billy was equally knackered but summoned up his last ounce of strength and managed to climb up onto the tor to pose for a photo.  He took a picture of me in return that went straight into the recycle bin.  I looked slumped and haggard and beyond the effort of expressing any emotion.  Within minutes, the original group arrived.  Clearly, we had taken a longer route than was necessary, given that we had been at least an hour ahead of them all the way from Whernside.  Three of their seven had dropped out with injury or exhaustion and the remaining four looked exactly how we felt.  Billy and I started our descent, waving goodbye, only to see the guide pointing in the opposite direction and shouting through the wind that his way was quicker.

(Ref the second point about route planning skills)

We descended to Horton-in-Ribbesdale with the sun treating us by anointing our surroundings and ourselves with a fantastical tangerine-tinted transcendence.  Inspired by the imminent finish, we were renewed with a sense of wonder, so I took some photographs and sent them to my boyfriend, while Billy informed me that I’d done this too many times already and exhorted me to hurry up because the group were catching us up and that couldn’t happen because it would be stupid (along with a reminder of my competitive streak and his own disinterest in our time).  So we shuffled faster with strange, distorted movements, comparing notes about sore toes, tight calves, dodgy kneecaps and shortened hip flexors, all the way back to the picturesque country lane that meandered back to the little car park where we started.  We offered the guide a tip but he opted for a beer in the nearby pub instead.  Once in there, warmed and refreshed, in a perfectly fitting finale to our epic day, he congratulated us both on our mother-son team effort and tactfully suggested that we meet up with him in the Peaks for a course that he teaches in navigation skills. 

The many functions of running

1.  Weight Management

I started running, age 31 or thereabouts, to help with weight loss.  I’d gained a couple of stone during three pregnancies, breastfeeding and several years of being a stay at home Mum.  I ate for comfort, to relieve boredom and to reward myself for the hours of cleaning, cooking, wiping up, tidying, entertaining, comforting, teaching and training.  When Billy was 3 I went to university to do an English degree and after that, to become a teacher.  It was then that I lost weight, through healthy eating and exercise, and began a regular jogging practice.  My love of the peace and quiet of a solitary run through fields and lanes developed during this time.  The calming sound of my footsteps, the steady breathing pattern, the gentle sounds of wildlife and the rustling of grass became necessary me-time.  This really helped me to tone up and maintain the weight loss, and I built up to half marathon distance and ran my first Leicester half in 2 hours and 4 minutes (I think).  But my speed didn’t really pick up until we moved to Stoneygate and I decided that some running buddies would be nice and joined the Leicester Roadhoggs (with Jackie and Clare below).

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2.  Friendly Competition

My first training run, on a Wednesday night, was with the now legendary Jackie Brown, who is a regular winner or in the top 5 in her age category in league races and other events across the country.  She is a brilliant runner now, but then, on our first Roadhoggs run, we were well matched.  She pushed me on, being slightly quicker and much more determined, and I came away feeling exhausted but happy.  Regular training runs with other people made me quicker.

I began running league races and my first Glooston 10k I did in around 48 minutes.   I was very competitive with others of similar ability, and really enjoyed xc.  My fastest time was on the Boxing Day handicap at Barrow-upon-Soar, where I achieved a 46 minute 10k with a slight hangover.  I began to experience a runner’s high, which I only got when I pushed myself to the max.  Like a drug, it made me feel exhilarated and, when it happened, I felt as though I was floating around the course, all pain gone, no effort, totally in this wonderful, bubble-like zone.  I’d be aware that I was overtaking other runners and was smiling as I glided along.  It was incredible.  I began to chase the high and relish it when it came.

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I started doing some speed work with Roadhoggs at Saffron Lane and built up to my first London marathon, which I ran for YMCA.  I trained up to 39 miles a week and achieved a sub 4 (just).  But a chest infection kicked in about a month before the marathon and my asthma flared up badly.  I had to take a couple of weeks off and began to consider that doing that mileage as well as being a full time teacher was a bit much.  I know people who run 100 miles a week and can only admire their incredible stamina and commitment.  My problem might have stemmed from the sudden increase, due to following a training plan, and a more consistent pattern would have been better.  I also became obsessive about maintaining a low body fat percentage, counted calories religiously and worked out every day, always worried about loss of performance or weight gain.

Deep Connection

Shortly after this, my daughter became ill and many troubles began at home.  She developed an eating disorder and ran to shed excess calories.  There were two awful years and I undertook the steepest learning curve of my life.  Supporting her through the ED was the most difficult thing for a parent to do, and I tried to do it well.  There were many failures and difficulties on my part but she persevered in her recovery and she taught me how to help her.  She got good help eventually and, in turn, I began to recognise my own problems with food and exercise.  During this time, albeit for negative reasons, she got very good at running and, as she recovered, she used this ability to set herself the goal of completing a half marathon.  Running over the finishing line with her was one of the proudest moments of my life.  She’d experienced rock bottom at such a young age, had achieved so much recovery, ran her half in just under 2 hours and, most importantly, raised several hundred pounds for BEAT, an eating disorders charity.

Kirstin and me

During these difficult years, several good friends forced me to go out running, and it served as a kind of therapy.  But three years after the marathon, my marriage was over and I was a single parent on anti-depressants.  I completely lost the urge to run beyond a jog.  The pills made me calm, relaxed and clear-headed.  They were definitely worth it for the benefit to my mental health, and helped me to benefit from counselling, but I gained over a stone in weight as I addressed my obsession with dieting and found ways to manage my now very different life.  My metabolism seemed to have slowed and I felt bloated every time I ate.  On the plus side, I went from crying for hours on the sofa every night to feeling normal.

Part of a Balanced Lifestyle

My full recovery to pill-free mental health took a year, and during that time I ran my second London marathon.  But it was a different animal this time.  My training consisted of one long run every Sunday, up to 20 miles, as I ambled along from Stoneygate to Billesden and back again, thoroughly enjoying the view and the experience.   My weeks were too busy to run.  I struggled to find time between working full time, running around as chauffeur to my youngest, and conducting a long distance relationship.  I ran the marathon in 4 hours and 16 minutes, with my partner cheering me on in his rugby coach voice that boomed out across the crowds and made me feel like a champion.

Since then, I’ve maintained a commitment to running but it’s very different.  The competitive streak has disappeared and I’m genuinely happy for other people to overtake me and improve beyond what I’m prepared to commit to.  I always aim to run for 2.5 hours a week and often manage 2.  My last half marathon took 2 hours and 4 minutes (back to the early days) and the only way I’d get quicker again would be to lose the stone and train more.  The thought of doing that fills me with gloom.  My latest health check revealed that I’m in excellent shape.  My diet is good and I’m happy and healthy.  I no longer count calories and I eat to nourish my body and mind.  Nowadays, it seems unnecessary to get all worked up about improving my speed.

So I run a few times a week, because it’s enjoyable to explore the lanes and fields, to hear my breathing, to feel the mind-body connection and to enjoy my physicality.  My long runs are slow ambles for 6-7 miles, more if there’s a half or a big event coming up.  I enjoy doing 5k fundraisers, like the Louth Run for Life, with Tim.  I do yoga most days, which would have bored me to tears previously.  Meditation has become part of my overall self-care, and I’m much better at acknowledging how I feel, what I need and where to find support as well as when to give it.  And when I occasionally feel energised enough to push myself, like I did at the Hungarton 7 2017, I still get the runner’s high.  It’s great when it happens, but I don’t chase it, because life is sweet enough to go without.

 

 

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