On mental health and the importance of talking

Today is World Mental Health Day. These events are designed to encourage people to talk about mental health and reduce the stigma around mental illness. But for all the publicity and the increase in celebrities talking openly about their issues, there is still a stigma around depression, anxiety and other disorders.

Last year that stigma prevented me from going to a doctor and talking about my own problems with anxiety and depression until it had reached a chronic state. This was despite dealing with close family members and colleagues who experienced similar issues in the recent past and understanding how important it is to talk about these problems.

The fact is that I was, and still am, embarrassed to  talk about it. I’m a very logical person and I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can be crippled with anxiety and depressed (one usually follows the other with me) for seemingly illogical and mundane reasons. So to turn around and talk about those problems is very difficult. It feels like a weakness, a failing, like I’m screwing up by not being able to cope with problems at work or the little stresses of daily family life.

Yet the logical part of my brain keeps reminding me that it’s normal, it’s an illness, lots of people go through this and it’s all just a physical chemical response to various external pressures over the last 3 years. It’s really infuriating. I understand what is happening to me and I believe I know what the causes are and how I need to improve things. But my body doesn’t seem to listen.

I’ve been taking Sertraline for about a year now. It’s a fairly common anti-depressant which, despite some wacky side effects like incredibly vivid dreams, appears to have levelled out my anxiety to a much more manageable level. So much so that I tried coming off it for a couple of months over the summer, but sadly the symptoms of uncontrolled fear returned after a few weeks and I made the decision to go back on the pills for a bit longer.

Despite the medication I still find that some days I will have a feeling of general anxiety rising in the pit of my stomach. Or I’ll feel a bit down for a day or two. Often this will be followed by a cold or some other physical illness. Almost like my body gets distracted dealing with the early symptoms of a virus and forgets to deal with the long term mental illness for a few days.

I’ve also noticed that despite the improvement in my general mood the illness has robbed me of a lot of my confidence. I’ve always been a bit of an introvert but could blag my way through social situations, presentations at work and even stand on stage with a guitar in front of not very many people (the bands I’ve played in were always under appreciated by local audiences). Now I find myself feeling scared to approach new situations or even attend events like large family gatherings, friend’s parties or music gigs. I manage to force myself to get along to most things and once there I think I bluff my way through well enough, but it’s tiring. Hopefully over time I can recover some of that self-confidence I’d grown over the years.

So things are OK in general, thanks to the medication, some changes in circumstance (moving job helped a lot), an increase in exercise and of course the initial decision to talk to my family and a GP about my problems rather than try to fix things myself and hope it would pass.

If you’re suffering from any kind of mental health issue, no matter how severe, it really does help to talk about it. Even just talking anonymously to other sufferers on the internet can be the first step you need to recovering from the illness. Sites like No More Panic and the depression and anxiety subs on Reddit offer lots of sympathetic ears if your own support network is lacking, or you just don’t want to talk face to face yet.

I guess I just want to say for World Mental Health Day and every day remember, it gets better, it can affect any of us and please try to talk about it.

Looking after yourself

I haven’t written a piece for the blog for what seems like months. Probably because it has been months. The truth is I don’t know what to write here anymore. I’ve started a few pieces only to delete them after they’ve sat unfinished for weeks. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything to write about; I’m still cooking (although much less since my daughter was born), still playing music (although much less since my daughter was born) and still running and cycling (although… well… you get the idea). I’m also writing poetry and fiction and have managed to pick up a few more small interests which could make for interesting blog topics.

My problem is that there’s a whopping big elephant in the room. Before I can get back to writing about the hobbies that really interest and excite me, I feel like I should write about the big issue I’ve been trying to overcome for the last year. Since the middle of 2015 I’ve been treated for anxiety and depression.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I’ve been feeling like I owe it myself and others to go into a detailed post writing about my journey through this illness. The truth is I don’t. I don’t owe it to anyone to make myself ill again by going over the ground that got me here in detail.

Instead I’m going to say this. If you feel under pressure. If you feel stressed. If your little ball of occasional anxiety is growing every day until you dread going to work, seeing friends or doing the things in life you enjoy. If you feel down and don’t know why. If you feel down and you do know why! Talk to someone. Do what you can to get help and take it when it’s offered.

Talk to those closest to you and don’t just assume they know what’s going on and understand. It can take some explaining, but it’s absolutely worth doing so they can support you through this.

The best advice I can give anyone though is to look after yourself. Find a sport or hobby that you want to do, anything that keeps you fit and gets you active a couple of times a week. If you don’t already do something, try something. Don’t assume you can’t do something because you have to be a certain level of fitness. Everyone has to start somewhere and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in your personal fitness you can see in the first few months of trying a new hobby.

Take time out and relax. Get outside and sit in the sun or walk along a beach. Read a book in your garden with a glass of wine.

Eat well and eat balanced. Treat yourself only occasionally (but do treat yourself) and cut down on booze. All these things, exercise, diet, physical fitness and mental health are intrinsically linked. While it can be hard to juggle everything, if you find that you’re completely ignoring aspects of your health it will end up impacting your overall welfare.

Look after yourselves. Don’t keep problems bottled up. Get help if you need it.

Ride The North 2015

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I’ve done a few stupid things over the years. Thinking I was ready to try a Scottish Hill Running Championship race on a snowy Clachnaben a few years ago was memorably painful. But when I saw the announced route for Ride The North 2015 was going to finish in Stonehaven, the town I’d recently moved back to, I made possibly my most stupid decision for a long time.

Thankfully I managed to rope in an equally stupid friend and we were able to cajole each other through our (sporadic) training until we dropped our bikes off at Pittodrie (where they were being transferred from) on a cool Thursday before taking our seats on the bus to Inverness for the event start. What followed was one of the hardest but most rewarding two days I’ve had for years.

The event, in it’s fifth year, wound it’s way from Inverness to Elgin on day 1 (via the very scenic route) before leaving Elgin on day 2 and taking a more direct route towards the finish line at Stonehaven. A total distance of some 175 miles. Our last big training ride was just 65 miles, mostly in the pissing rain. For the two weeks after that ride I was gripped by fear that the whole event would be a soggy hell, which eight hundred miserable cyclists would endure solely because they’d forked out over £100 for the privilege and they didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Despite some grey clouds lingering with intent on the first day, there was little sign of rain for the duration and in fact the worst thing we had to deal with was a bit of blustery wind on some of the more exposed sections of the route. Hardly worth complaining about really. With the weather doing it’s bit it was up to those of us clipped into the pedals to get on with things, so we set off from Inverness raring to go only to immediately get off our bikes 100 yards from the start to walk over a pedestrian bridge.  But then we were off! At least until we hit some temporary traffic lights on the road out to Dores. And then another set of lights. And another.

Such is life. Eventually we left the main road and it’s roadworks and hit the first climb of the day. The large group of cyclists which had formed at the succession of traffic lights soon spread out as we climbed high above Loch Ness and spent the morning pedalling towards Slochd.  Climbing was a constant feature of the first morning and although it was slow and painful going we were rewarded with some absolutely stunning views from the mostly unclassified roads and tracks which we were following.

After lunch we had a steady climb from Carrbridge before an afternoon of ecstatic downhill as we hurtled towards Forres and Elgin. By the time we were picking our way through the streets of Forres I was starting to feel very uncomfortable on the bike, having surpassed my one day mileage record set in the rain a few weeks earlier. My hands were throwing flashes of pins and needles up my arms and every time I went over a bump my feet exploded in pain where the cleats were pushing against the balls of my feet. The relief a short while later when we swung into the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin was immense. Shortly followed by worry as the pain in my feet grew worse, then despair as we found there was no whisky left! Thankfully both problems eased after ten minutes.

A bus ride to Lossiemouth and a night’s fitful rest saw everyone gather the next morning back at the distillery to breathe in the wonderful fumes and hope it might have a medicinal effect on our weary bums and my aching feet. Sadly it seems fermenting yeast fumes aren’t analgesic.  The first twenty miles were uncomfortable for many. I found it impossible to get a relaxed position on the bike and spent most of the first hour dancing around my seat instead of sitting on it, while my hands and feet continued their protests from the night before.

Pulling into the first break stop of the day I decided to do something about my situation rather than complain all day, so paid my first visit to the mechanic station. A five minute check of my bike followed by a relaxed seat on the grass while I moved the cleats in my shoes saw me pull smoothly away from the feed station with pain free feet, newly inflated tired and silent gears. Brilliant. I was ready to face the climbs over the Cabrach.

Day two had promised more miles, more hills and more pain than day one. It duly delivered. At times the hills seemed relentlesss and unforgiving. Every time I thought I’d escaped their clutches we turned a corner to find yet another incline facing us with the sounds of chains clunking down the gears and swearing riders following quickly on. Despite this everyone was proceeding in relatively high spirits. Tired, uncomfortable but enjoying the challenge.

Unlike the first day we knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to reward us with an easy freewheel through Deeside and instead, as we continued to hit hill after hill (including a truly despicable 17% incline immediately after the best bit of downhill all day), we took heart from each little sign of our progress. I cheered the big blue Welcome to Aberdeenshire sign, screamed as I spotted Durris mast in the distance and grinned like  a mad fool before setting a new personal best for a Strava segment after cresting Cheyne Hill and seeing Stonehaven laid before me.

Before that I almost crumbled, broken at the final (advertised) feed station in Torphins when the two days of riding finally caught up with me and I hit the wall hard. Feeling light headed, as a brass band played 500 Miles (hah!), I was forced to sit down and gulp energy gels and water until I felt I could carry on. Later my friends told me I was speaking gibberish as I told them I wanted to press on while I still felt able and would see them at the finish.

Shortly after that I felt a lot better as the sugar from the gel and the energy drink I was downing on the bike started to take effect. A final surprise cake stop at the top of the hill over Knockburn Loch gave me enough energy for the final blast over Durris before we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of people lining the beach promenade at Stonehaven to welcome the cyclists home.

I quickly found my wife, baby and my mum who’d came down to support me before joining my small group of friends who I’d spent the two days cycling with as we supported each other, spurred each other up the hills and gleefully raced down the other sides.  It was painful, mad at times, seemingly impossible some other times and it was now over. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself and the rest of us for finishing. It was brilliant.

All through the two days we were spurred on by people at the side of the street, outside their houses, in their cars and most of all at the feed stations and lunch stops along the route. Huge thanks to those who organised and helped with what is without a doubt one of the best organised mass events I’ve ever taken part in. Without those people I doubt half of us would have had the will to keep going to the finish.

Also special mention to all the other riders. The sense of camaraderie and shared achievement was palpable throughout the ride, with everyone sharing encouragement and being respectful to the rest of the riders. Was great to see all the red Stonehaven CC jerseys too. Will need to try and get a hold of one of them!

Some people are already talking about next year. I don’t think I can see myself at the start again so soon. For me 2016 will probably be a return to running and the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon but Ride The North has definitely given me the cycling bug. I’ll be looking for some good one day sportives or similar to try dragging my trusty steed around. Though I can’t imagine anything will come close to the feeling I got at the finish line in Stonehaven last weekend.

At the time of writing I’ve raised £355 for Home Start UK for doing Ride The North, which is superb. My sincere thanks to everyone who’s sponsored me!

Lunchtime Running

I wish someone had told me sooner. I’ve been running for years now and if I’d known how good going for a run at lunchtime was I’d have started doing it ages ago. Over the last 6 months (which, funnily enough is the same time since my daughter was born) I’ve found it really hard to stick to an exercise routine. My old trick of getting changed as soon as I got home and heading out for a run or cycle doesn’t work when I get handed a baby to feed or a nappy to change instead. With Ride The North approaching fast at the end of August something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my beautiful daughter!

Despite having quite good changing facilities at my office I’ve not taken the opportunity to run at work before. I’ve tried running to and from work with some success but at the moment I’m commuting by train and the station is beside my office, so that won’t do much for my mileage. The main thing that always put me off was my own insecurities about body image and personal space coming into conflict with gym changing rooms. Eventually I realised that no-one really cares what anyone else looks like in a changing room  so there’s no point worrying about it.

My office is well positioned for some good short routes perfect for fitting in over a lunchtime. First up I decided to try a run over the bridge to Torry and up to Girdle Ness lighthouse. This route takes you up the south side of Aberdeen harbour, rising up to Torry Battery and the lighthouse with some stunning views out to the harbour, Aberdeen beach front and beyond to Balmedie. If you’re lucky you can even see the dolphins at the harbour mouth where the silt from the River Dee makes for rich feeding grounds. While I didn’t see any I was told by another runner back at the office that he stood and watched two dolphins on his loop just after we passed each other going in opposite directions.

On Monday I opted for a flatter run along the River Dee from the harbour all the way to Bridge O’Dee before looping up to the A90 roundabout and coming back past the football pitches. As it was a flatter route I threw in some fartlek intervals for a bit of speed work too. While running along the busy roads on this route wasn’t as nice a break from the office as the lighthouse route, the new path along the river between Riverside Drive and Bridge O’Dee is lovely.

Next up in a rare patch of summer sunshine I went back to the lighthouse route but ran it anti-clockwise. I think I liked this way even more than the clockwise route. The hills felt more substantial and I got to enjoy the view over the harbour and Aberdeen for longer. Nasty headwind on the return leg of the loop though.

Usually I spend my lunchtime staring blankly at my internet browser or reading a book on my kindle. Which is fine, but then I find myself getting annoyed that I’ve spent the whole day in the office. Especially when it’s nice outside! Lunch times have just been dead time in my schedule. Like I’m just sitting, waiting for the clock to tick over to one o’clock and I can start work again.

Now on the three occasions I’ve gone for a run at lunchtime I feel like I’ve done something constructive with my dead time. Plus through the magic of endorphins  I feel much happier in the afternoon and can concentrate better on my work! I feel less guilty about my mid-afternoon chocolate break too…

Then there’s the added bonus that I don’t need to take time out of my evening to go for a run so I can spend more time helping round the house or looking after the baby, which means everything feels a bit more organised and relaxed later on once she is fed and put to bed.

I should have started this months ago.

Auchenblae and Drumlithie Loop

I really miss the scenery around Banchory but days like today remind me that it’s not so bad being back in the Mearns. Taking full advantage of a flex day from work I was up nice and early and left Stonehaven heading out towards Auchenblae.  I had vague the vague intention of going all the way through to Auchenblae but really I wasn’t sure I’d be bothered and my main focus was getting a good ride in and hopefully stumbling across a tearoom or some kind of cake along the way.

I’d been out this way at the weekend for a 17 miler just to get used to being on the bike again and like then I swung off the Auchenblae road at Carmont Station to head towards Drumlithie. The road from Carmont Station features a nice wee hill that’s probably the steepest part of the ride but is over before you know it, so nothing to worry about.  The reward is some stunning views over the Mearns, which today features a large number of wind turbines. I stopped to take a couple of snaps then pressed on to Drumlithie in the gorgeous spring sunshine.

When we were looking at houses last year we almost put an offer on a place in Drumlithie and part of me still wishes we had. The wee village was looking its best today, but I’m happy to be home in Stonehaven. After a quick pitstop at the village shop I pressed on through the hills of Glenbervie, intending now just to meet back up with the Auchenblae road and head for home.  However I hadn’t been checking my location or where the turnoff might have been and a short while later I came over a small hill to see Auchenblae golf course ahead of me with the village itself nestling behind it.

Coasting through the village I came to the Old Post Office tearoom – score! This proved to be a popular cake stop with a plethora of road bikes parked round the back of the restaurant. It seems there was a club ride had popped in past to refuel after tackling the Cairn O’Mount, rather them than me.  After chatting to them for a minute I sat down and tucked into a massive piece of pecan pie. That’s what my whole morning had built up to.  Wonderful.

I didn’t hang around too long though. Wanting to be home for lunch and then make the most of the fine weather with a walk to the harbour in the afternoon, so I left on my bike just as another bunch wheeled into the car park.  I almost made it to Stonehaven when I stopped at Tewel to take another photo and the Cairn O’Mount crew puffed past me with cries of “No Mercy!” and a friendly wave. Damn them. I’d been keeping an eye behind me for any sign of them and thought I’d made it without being caught after I had a small headstart.  Not that I’m competitive in any way…

Just under 27 miles in total as I unclipped back at home. Not a bad morning’s work. That’s a third of the daily total I’ll be doing in August at Ride The North so I’m quite happy that I can build up to that distance over the next few months. Now for a pint.

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Back in the swing of things

Since my daughter was born I’ve not done much running, cycling or anything really. For the most part I’ve just been too tired to care about exercise or when I get home from work I’d rather help with Chloe than go out for an hour, missing what little time I have with her.

However I can see my waistline slowly getting squidgy and my jeans are getting tighter again so needs must. Besides that I’m also committed to doing Ride The North – a 170 mile bike ride from Inverness to Stonehaven over two days in August so I have to get fit again!

Today I made the most of the fine spring weather and went for a wee run up to Dunnottar Castle. I’ve run up to the war memorial a couple of times but not gone the full distance to the castle yet. Well I couldn’t have picked a better night for it. The weather was stunning and the castle, the bay and Stonehaven all looked beautiful in the setting sun (see the photo at the top of this page for proof).

It was pretty tiring though. I can tell I’ve not done much running since last year! The path from the memorial to the castle was a lot hillier than it looks but that’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. I think I’ll be using this route a lot over the summer.

Two races, two PBs

The racing season is firmly upon us now and after missing most of it last year through injury I’ve already been busy with two races under my belt and another couple fast approaching! My plan for the year is to concentrate on the half marathon so in May I ran what intend to be my only 10k of the year – the City of Aberdeen Baker Hughes 10k. If I could get under 50 minutes I’d have a new PB and can put the 10k to bed for the year. Then in June it was over to Skye for the first of a handful of half marathons on what I was assured was a very hilly course. Progress, not PBs was the aim here. A good run was all I wanted. Read more Two races, two PBs

Running 2014

I’ve not posted anything about my running for a long time. To be fair, I’ve not posted much at all for a long time! Forgive me. One of the reasons for that is that I’ve been pretty busy with my day job and I’ve not found much time or inclination to come up with blog posts. Sad times.

Anyway, last year’s running season was greatly hampered by a chronic knee injury (Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome) which hugely limited my mileage in the first half of the year and it wasn’t until the end of summer that I was anywhere close to normal again. I only entered one proper race all year, a 10k near Forres which although it got me a new PB it fell short of getting me under the 50 minute mark for the first time. Read more Running 2014

My first road bike

Merida Ride Lite
I’ve suffered with a painful knee injury since September which has seriously limited my running this year. The unfortunate side effect of an injury which means you can no longer do your preferred form of exercise, especially for someone who enjoys food as much as I do, sadly predictable. Read more My first road bike

Running year so far

The main reason I’ve not been posting to the blog as often as in the past is that I’ve been incredibly busy this year. Between wedding planning, work (something that sadly gets in the way of fun all too often) and various other commitments I haven’t been able to find the time to come up with interesting blog posts. One thing that’s been taking up a huge amount of my time this year is running.

Now I’ve posted about fitness and running before but I thought I’d go into a bit more with this post and go over some of the training and events I’ve done this year. Read more Running year so far