World Mental Health Day seemed the perfect opportunity to talk about isolation. The outdoors can be a lonely place. Maybe that’s part of the magic. I’ve mostly ran, walked and cycled on my own, partially for preference, and partially because I’ve found few people willing to run up hills at ungodly hours in the cold. Being out in the wild offers the precious opportunity to escape the distractions, consolidate our thoughts and gain perspective. For me it’s a wonderfully pure way of pitting myself and my doubts against the environment, a show of self-control and independence where we can break down our barriers.
This year we’ve had plenty of practice of isolation, and not in ways we chose. It was like being stuck at Everest Base Camp – not seeing family for months, being stuck behind four walls and getting bored of the same films. The ability to go off and wander freely was knocked on the head, limited to one episode close to home per day. For some in busy homes, this may have been the only opportunity for solitude. For others, solitude was less helpful and left them vulnerable to anxiety and negative thought patterns. Even the most determined introverts need human connection and basic need to belong to a group, team or family, is universal. We are social creatures who crave human interaction, which is key to our emotional resilience and mental well-being.
Research has shown that people who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. In one survey, participants who performed acts of kindness for others overwhelmingly reported the highest levels of happiness and psychological wellbeing. The brain releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) when we focus our attention on doing good for people around us.
Sometimes this connection comes from the most unexpected places. In 2016 myself and my friend Ste had embarked on the Skye Trail, a 128km long distance route from Rubha Hunish to Broadford. After one day of sunshine we were met by a more typical lashing of torrential rain and gusting winds. We trudged miserably along the coastal headland, with Ste repeatedly wringing out his gloves, and our base layers saturated beneath our defeated waterproofs.
We passed a hydroelectric project when a shout came and our sunken hoods suddenly popped up.
“Aye, lads! Did yer forget to take your tablets this mornin’?”
The Glaswegian workers took pity and invited us into their heated porta-cabin, with generous reign of their hot chocolate and biscuit supply. Once thawed out, leaving the porta-cabin and continuing to Portree was the hardest part, but this simple act of goodwill so far from home had become our most memorable moment of the trip – and probably spared us hypothermia too!
In 2017 I discovered the beautiful diversity of the UK countryside that so many of us take for granted. I was climbing to the highest point of all 100 UK counties – cycling, walking, running and kayaking over 5,000 miles between them. As I passed through towns and villages bustling with people, I often felt alone and disconnected from the world around me, craving the simple comforts of sitting in a café and watching the world go by.
A social media follower had driven out to meet me at a youth hostel in Stirling with some homemade flapjack. Sadly, I had left just an hour beforehand, and she missed me once again as she tried to follow my intermittent live tracker. A week later I had changed my itinerary due to a chest infection, obliviously cycling straight past the parcel of flapjack now waiting at my planned youth hostel in York. Another week later I arrived in Cambridge after a miserable 110-mile day of rain to find a pack of flapjack, £20 donation and postcard of encouragement waiting for me. I certainly wasn’t alone in this battle.
My recent challenge to run the National Three Peaks was yet another reminder that generosity is still very much alive in the pandemic. Climbing Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, and running the entire distance in between them – 452 miles in 9 days and 12 hours – would need all the help I could muster.
After a sprained ankle, tendonitis and knee problems, Storm Francis had joined the fun on day five. I struggled to run more than ten metres at a time with shin pain. “How on earth can I run 50 miles today?!”. Before I had time to even contemplate this, a local runner Angela jumped out of a van to join me for a few hours. The rain didn’t relent, and it was wetter than an Otter’s pocket. Simply having company to talk, laugh and share the experience made the struggle feel less like mine alone. Soon enough I had completed the first half marathon and managed nearly 30 miles that day before Paul drove me to a physio appointment.
The following day I had climbed Scafell Pike and was reduced to a slow hobble in bucketing rain and thick darkness, a whole day behind schedule and quickly losing hope. Right in this lowest of ebbs, a friend appeared behind a hedge in Langdale with Kendal Mint Cake and an encouraging smile. Shortly after, a couple shouted from the dark roadside, having waited in the rain to hand me a £20 donation for Mind Over Mountains as I hobbled onward to Ambleside. It reminded me why I was doing this. How could I give up now?
A sprained tendon slowed my progress the next morning and running 47 miles felt doubtful. A friend arrived to run with me for a few miles and as we chatted away I had soon gathered an entourage of friends running with me all the way to Garstang. I couldn’t exactly give up now. “All these people are doing this for me?!” crossed my mind – there were surely better ways to spend the evening than plodding along Lancaster Canal by head-torch. Another local runner, Graham, emerged in the darkness and joined us on the final few miles, distracting me from the nausea and fatigue. We all need others to believe in us when we lose faith in ourselves. These friends were obviously confident enough of my success and commitment to donate their time to my attempt. This faith was the biggest boost of confidence by return.
There’s nowhere quite like the outdoors to walk and talk. Somehow, the outdoor environment brings things into the open. Maybe it’s less daunting to talk side by side than face to face, and sharing the challenge reminds us that everyone struggles sometimes. Our charity, Mind Over Mountains, aims to provide this same connection through guided hill-walking and professional coaching. Our most recent programme in Edale, the Peak District, was more characteristic with yellow weather warnings and Storm Alex (no relation). It was raining for the entire day and robbed us of the scenic views across the Kinder Plateau. This experience short-circuited our senses to notice the vivid autumn colours in the moorland around us, admiring the stunted lone tree on this unforgiving moorland and asking ‘can you hear me?’ over the wind, not a dodgy microphone on Zoom.
“Seven miles and we’ll be there!” came a sarcastic cheer. We wringed the water out of our gloves, told jokes and laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. A flask of hot chocolate appeared from a rucksack. Hot chocolate makes everything better. And this is what real human connection is all about.
But with new restrictions being enforced, opportunities and events becoming thin on the ground – how can we stay connected?
Maybe it’s organising a local walk with a friend at the weekend, signing up for a ‘virtual’ challenge, joining a cycling group or sport club, or simply saying hello to a passing stranger on your morning run. Whilst social media is no substitute, we have to adapt and right now it’s made it easier than ever to stay in touch with those who may be shielding or further away. Sending them a quick message – or ideally a call – could be the only contact they have all day. Don’t forget the ‘strong’ ones either. They’re least likely to reach out for help and may need the connection even more.
One day we will be able to get back to the outdoors like we used to, and that’s something we can all look forward to. Until then, one act of kindness each day, however big or small, is something we can all achieve.
Now more than ever, we need real connection, emotional support, and a feeling of belonging — whoever we are, wherever we are. Whether it’s a 450-mile run, hiking up a mountain, trekking in the Himalayas, cycling to John O’Groats, or simply getting by each day – it’s amazing what we can endure when we come together, especially when we #GetOutside.
If you need support or advice with your mental health, or know someone who may be struggling, please visit www.mindovermountains.org.uk