Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Building Bridges

There is a bridge.

It is a perfectly normal bridge: a few hefty steel beams, upon which sit a couple of brick walls, which themselves contain a substantial mound of earth. And all this spans an insignificant stretch of water, barely twelve feet wide, that you would hesitate to describe as a river.

Neither is the bridge architecturally significant, or particularly eye-catching. You wouldn’t say it is beautiful. And yet … it is beautiful – in its own way – for the simple fact that it does precisely what it was designed to do.

All that earth remains exactly where it was put. Even more impressively, the earth cradles fragments of memory of the railway that once passed across it. The sleepers are no longer there, but the path carved through the trees remains. Here, in this small corner of one of North Staffordshire’s many fields, sits a bridge over which a branch line once thundered.

Each morning I walk the dog past this bridge, I find myself drawn to gaze at it. Were it not for the public footpath across the field, I wouldn’t even know the bridge exists. It sits in the middle of privately owned land, unburdened by what it once proudly carried.

That bridge is someone’s work, I say to Chloe the Springer Spaniel. She ignores me and chases rabbits. She – like most people, I suspect – doesn’t care that the entire length of the branch line was only 4 miles, mainly used to transport coal to the line connecting Stoke and Derby. She doesn’t care for what is essentially a relic of a bygone age.

Oddly, however, I find myself caring.

I find myself wondering whether the person who designed it went on to achieve greater things. Was this bridge a mere stepping stone to some grander project? Or does it stand as a monument to the pinnacle of an unfulfilled career?

The wheels of industry relied on the skill and engineering nous that went into the design. I wonder if the designer revelled in the responsibility and took pride in their job, or whether they did their calculations while drunk? Most likely the truth is somewhere in the middle: there is some water and a train needs to cross it. All in a day’s work.

A means exists, probably, to find out at least something about who drew up the design. But I don’t want to find out, for it is better fun to wonder and imagine. However important and useful the bridge was when built, now it is simply a piece of the landscape, under-utilised and shorn of its true purpose by the relentless march of Progress.

Whatever the truth may be, I look at that bridge and see a metaphor for my work on this blog. I see a strange physical representation of this Fruitless Work. These sentences that I craft from our noble language: what will their legacy be? Are they destined to propel me to greater things, or might they exist only as a whisper of the heights I could have reached? Will they remain rooted in this corner of the internet, forever destined to be a part of the overgrown digital landscape?

Am I drunk as I write this?

Perhaps I am! Perhaps that is why I am foolish enough to believe I can control the fate of my work. I pour my heart into these sentences, and maybe I care too much (if such a thing is possible). And yet that engineer might have poured his heart into his drawing, and out of his control the bridge now stands as nothing more than an under-appreciated physical permanence.

In that context, would it be so bad – would it be so fruitless – if this writing achieves nothing other than inspiring a person who randomly happens across it in 50 years time? The very possibility is strangely intoxicating…

Monday, 8 April 2013

Mistakes, Massages and Miserable Weather (Part 3/3)

I want to run faster.

It’s not a new feeling, and is hopefully a natural reaction to what essentially becomes ‘plodding’ once the body gets used to regularly covering a few miles. Around October 2012, what little technique I possessed was nothing more than low-cadence, lumbering pace, absent of urgency.

Worse, boredom was starting to set in

Something Had To Be Done

I bought a book called The Art Of Running Faster and, to cut a long story short, completely changed that technique. Started all over again essentially, with the biggest change being to run on my toes rather than striking down with my heel. Then winter set in, restricting the time I could spend putting those exciting changes into practice.

That goes some way to explaining my eagerness once February arrived. I believed the changes in style could produce positive results. I wanted to see some evidence too, so I decided spring started on the 32nd day of the year and was the time to kick back in.

Low Pressure, Cold Easterly

No sooner had the visit to the physio got everything back on track (or tarmac, if you want to be pedantic) than the Gods visited upon us a great dumping of snow. Drifts taller than a tall man, ice-crusted pavements, and temperatures forgetting how to be positive – all enough to halt progress having only just got going again.

Although I spent some of the enforced lay-off metaphorically climbing the walls, it also offered an opportunity for reflection. This was not a Bad Thing by any stretch of the imagination, particularly where the advice of the book was concerned.

Wanting to run faster, it’s tempting to think the pace should be flat out all the time, aiming for tiny incremental improvements with each run. Of course, the body can’t sustain that. Unintentionally, however, most of my runs ended up along these lines. If I wanted to go quicker…

Time To Slow Things Down

As the snow has cleared, so I’ve been doing the miles again. And my focus has been on learning to run slower. Keeping my feet moving quickly but with shorter steps. It’s all very well being able to run two miles reasonably quickly, but I’m supposed to be running 13-and-a-bit in September and need to build stamina.

It seems to me that humans are very good at reading a piece of advice, recognising its potential usefulness, and then forgetting all about it. Why else is Twitter littered with motivational quotes?

And I’m every bit as guilty. I took a lot from The Art Of Running Faster, but I read it once and basically assumed that all the tools were suddenly available to me. Only when I forced myself to reflect on what I was actually doing compared to what I thought I was doing did I realise that certain suggestions weren’t being enacted.

With the benefit of that reflection, I set out this morning (7th April) to do a longer run without pushing myself to an unsustainable limit. The result was 5.8 miles in 54 minutes, which is a good step towards the 10K I’ll be running in just five weeks time.

All Areas Of Life

I want to run faster.

I also want to write more, read more books, travel to more places, and be the person I want to be for my family and friends. In the words of Queen: “I want it all … and I want it now.”

Hopefully I manage not to be selfish about it. Certainly, I try not to be.

I’m conscious of making the most of this one shot at life, but in trying to do that I ignore sensible advice every day. Impulse wins out far too often in the name of trying to do as much as possible. Now I’m writing this post because I’ve learnt something, even though there was nothing really to learn. I just curbed the impulse for a change.

Daily, I receive a podcast from the artist Michael Nobbs emphasising the importance of making one small step toward a creative project. It’s advice born of a particular circumstance, and every day I read blogs and tweets by other people – some who are part of Michael’s Sustainably Creative community, some who aren’t – who have learnt similar lessons.

Acknowledging Fortune

Like Michael, many have been diagnosed with illnesses such as CFS/ME; conditions that often leave them exhausted and in physical pain, consigned to hoping that tomorrow will provide sufficient energy to pursue their ambitions. But pursue them they do, even though there are frequent days when all they can do is rest.

In that context, what right do I have to get frustrated? Why feel like I haven’t achieved enough on days when I at least achieve something?

Life is about balance, and I’m fortunate to be in control of mine. I aim not to be selfish, but part of me feels like I am because I don’t acknowledge my fortune often enough. Which is why I offer the following advice, and hope you’ll be pleased with the results if you can enact it, or some version of it, in your own life:

If you want to run faster, start by learning to run slower.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Mistakes, Massages … (Part 2/3)

The steel bench was cold. Really cold.

I knew it was cold because I’d decided to sit on it despite the early start on a late winter’s morning. I would be walking more than enough over the next 61 hours, and standing up was just an irritating reminder that I couldn’t do much else while on my feet. So I decided to sit and wait for the train. Eventually it pulled into Stoke station, coming to a halt with a tired metallic squeal, and welcomed me on board for the journey to London.

The trip was work-related but extended into my own time, hence travelling on a Sunday. The aim was to visit a couple of independent cinemas for my intended A Tour Of The Indies e-book, before heading to a trade show. From the Olympic Park in East London, to the Borough of Brent and its NW10 postcode, to North Greenwich and the ExCel – my pre-paid £30 Oyster card was about to take a hammering on the Tube network.

Even so, comfortable shoes were a necessity. My shins nearly felt normal again, but I was nervous about expecting too much of them. At the back of my mind lurked the idea that a momentary lapse in concentration to dash for a train or hurry across a road might hamper the final stages of the healing process.

Rubbing Me Up The Right Way

As it turned out, a couple of days of gentle activity actually helped my legs rediscover some strength. Not enough strength, however, to warrant cancelling the appointment made with a physio the following weekend. A sports massage was a whole new life experience, although my only apprehension about it – perhaps bizarrely – was whether I would feel ticklish!

Mercifully I spared myself any such embarrassment, and instead sat fascinated as it was pointed out how I’d overloaded the small muscles at the front of my legs. I can’t remember the name of those muscles, and will hopefully never have to make a point of learning it. Thanks to the physio demonstrating a couple of stretches to do at home, I’m in a position to take better care of myself.

By the end of the session I was like a whole new man, and with 24 hours more rest I would be out on the pavements again. But a renewed lease of life wasn’t the only thing I got from the massage (no sniggering at the back, thank you…).

That Wasn’t In The Plan

Sitting on the physio’s couch came about because I chose not to follow a training plan. I believe I know my body better than a plan designed to suit as many people as possible. I may not always listen to my body (see Part 1!), but I want to run based on how I feel on any given day. I don’t want to feel obliged to run a prescribed distance, or beat myself up if circumstance doesn’t allow adherence to the plan.

Of course, doing any running is better than getting injured. But having failed to heed my body’s warnings, I ultimately gained a better understanding of how my legs were responding to the style of training I had adopted. As an added bonus, the physio had plenty of practical advice about the Great North Run, having travelled up for several years with participating friends. Amazingly, the frustration that resulted from a near-three weeks of inactivity turned into a positive and educational experience!

Never The Write Time

All of this took place in the aftermath of the trip to London, and in the midst of three work-related trips to Wolverhampton for various training sessions. Throw in numerous early mornings, celebrations over Mother’s day weekend, and a quick-fire trip to East Yorkshire that also resulted in some (very minor) car issues, and you might see why keeping up frequent writing suddenly became tricky.

Ideas for blog posts became scarce as real life once again made its presence felt and energy levels dropped. Over the latter half of March, I managed to draft and craft a couple of thousand more words for the cinema book and bring it up to date with the London trip. Not an insignificant achievement, but it didn’t feel like enough for a month that was passing by at a faster pace than February had.

Lessons Learned

It’s very easy to get over-exuberant, with the result of pushing yourself up to (and sometimes beyond) both your physical and mental limits.

More running and less travelling for work means I should have more time and energy to write, but beyond that I feel fortunate on a number of levels. Not just that my legs escaped any sort of permanent damage, but that this creative and physical journey is giving me the chance to enact some tired clich├ęs very literally.

Previously, I’ve described how my Great North Run entry came about from ‘following my dreams’. The visit to the physio presented an opportunity to demonstrate that I could ‘learn from my mistakes’. Do I want to find myself writing a post like this again?

No, because if I have to write something similar, it simply means the only thing I’ve taken from this experience is that I won’t get ticklish during a sports massage. Not exactly a grand new philosophy for life!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mistakes... (Part 1/3)

Being accepted for the Great North Run flicked a switch inside me. I became possessed by a fever, of sorts; a breathless insanity.

I need to train hard, to eat well. I need to show discipline and not waste this chance I’ve been given.

January came to an end and so, as per my plan, I started running again. Got out on dry roads and began the slow process of putting mileage back on my legs. That’s as far as my plan extended: simply, to run.

I knew I could build distance and stamina, and I knew how I could improve speed and strength. It was all the plan I needed.

And within three weeks, I was injured!

It was nothing to do with running. What injured me was the insanity – the sudden and fearsome enthusiasm to improve my physical condition, and the desire not to let myself down. What injured me was trying to do a workout DVD concurrently with a regular regime of running. The name of the DVD?

It’s an intense workout programme, designed to get you “in the best shape of your adult life”. Devised by a personable guy called Shaun T (though I suspect most people would be more impressed by his physical conditioning than his personality…), Insanity is centred on whole-body fitness and a comprehensive nutrition plan to help you through the 6-days-a-week training.

There is a hell of a lot of jumping involved, and my shins weren’t fond of all the extra impact going through them.

One Friday in mid-February there was just enough light remaining in the day for me to go out and do two or three miles. When I got back, I did the Insanity ‘Fit Test’. The next morning, I rose early and went to run another three miles, including some hills. Half way along my route – as far from home as I was going to get – I was hobbling in pain.

I’d hurt my shins before, with a week’s rest seeing them recover. For some insane, potentially harmful reason, I completely failed to recognise the signs again. On Sunday, I did another Insanity session; on Monday, I went for another run, up some more hills.

Yep, you guessed it: I had to hobble back home once more.

And on Tuesday, I did another Insanity session. Apparently, I was intent on learning some lessons about fitness the hard way. Finally, I recognised the pain in my legs and forced myself to rest. I knew I would get better, but boy did I want it to happen quickly.

One week turned into two. Two was in danger of becoming three. I kept telling myself things were improving and, to an extent, they were. But there was always a niggle lurking at the front of my shins, an ever-present reminder that I could easily start too soon and make things much worse.

Throughout all of this I kept writing blog posts; continued to document the creative journey I had embarked upon a matter of months previously. But just as my fitness – and enforced lack of activity – was coming to dominate my day-to-day thinking, so the blog was coming to dominate my creativity.

The posts were satisfying and, I felt, worthwhile. They carried what seemed to be a coherent message, but with the limited time available alongside the day job, they were reducing my ability to work on the larger projects for which I had laid foundations over the festive period.

Having started February with good intentions, suddenly March was imminent and something needed to change. If I carried on sitting around doing nothing, I was liable to go insane. Of course, that assumed I hadn’t gone insane already…