It feels like lockdown has gone on forever. One false summit another. Are we there yet? Even with the vaccine rapidly underway, there’s only so many times you can buy the old adage of ‘this too shall pass’ before trust begins to wear thin.
So, how do we keep going when we can’t see the top of the mountain?
It helps to know that nothing lasts forever. A few weeks ago I injured my knee. Not even due to running, but falling over a curb in town, Mr Bean-style. It had settled enough to hit a 60-mile week before recurring niggles forced me to hobble backwards and get treatment.
A sore knee, nothing major, right? Try telling that to anxiety. It has a clever knack of conjuring up a soap opera of false beliefs and possibilities. The smallest niggle can feel like a broken leg and the threat of being out of action for several months lingers. Already I’ve noticed the change in productivity, diet and stress levels going astray without exercise keeping an even emotional keel.
Being injured as an athlete is frustrating enough. In lockdown it suddenly seems much more acute, especially if daily exercise might be your only legal reason to leave the house and cling to some thread of basic freedom. It’s less ideal when physios have long waiting lists, most other therapists aren’t permitted to open, gyms and pools are closed for cross training, and the NHS have bigger priorities than self-inflicted injured runners right now.
An article in The Guardian recently found that 1 in 10 people started running as a way of looking after their mental health during lockdown. I’m hardly surprised. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I found the various lockdowns manageable, but without running, it would have been a very different story. Running gave me hope, a boost of endorphins, the thrill of adventure, something to look forward to whilst stuck at home all day, a satisfying sense of progress – and the endless sunsets regularly had me grinning ear to ear. Thinking of those who were shielding, vulnerable or having to self-isolate for much longer only put my own worries in perspective.
When studying resilience, the psychologist Martin Seligman first proposed the 3 P’s – pervasiveness, personalisation and permanence.
Let’s focus on the last one. Permanence can be a real bugger. The belief that something is permanent is quite scary and overwhelming. Grief doesn’t just mean bereavement either – but the loss of anything important within your life, whether that’s a job, travel, hobbies, or whatever. These feelings of loss and grief never last. Knowing these hard times are temporary gives us hope for the future and the ability to recover faster. Otherwise, there would be nothing to fight for and no point getting out of bed in the morning. Losing our sense of purpose is only going to leave us stuck in a hopeless place and damage our emotional well-being even more.
When dealing with the unknown it helps to draw on past experiences, even when anxiety swears this time is somehow different. Admittedly, we haven’t experienced a pandemic before. I hadn’t experienced an earthquake on Everest before either. So, let’s start with the closest examples. Look at your past challenges and low moments, and what tools you used to overcome those. It might have been a case of sitting out the storm, and you came out battered and bruised. Either way, this reflection is proof that you found a way through, and so you can most likely do the same again. In 2012 I spent more than half a year injured with a senior orthopaedic consultant telling me I never may be able to return to proper training again. I’m glad he was wrong on that one.
Another key part of the grief process is acceptance. After the earthquake on Mount Everest in 2015 ended our expedition, it was easy to feel frustrated and bitter about the situation after years of training, sacrifice and fundraising. The truth is the mountain doesn’t give a damn, and nor will COVID. Once we accept that s** happens and take responsibility of our situation, we can think about a solution and move forwards. How can I make the best of this? Raising over £20,000 for the earthquake victims, writing a book, starting a new challenge (Climb The UK) and creating a charity turned out pretty well.
We also have to establish the facts vs assumptions and white noise. Write down your current set of beliefs to see where they’re really coming from. Is this fear or facts?
A week before starting my 3 Peaks Run I managed to sprain my ankle on a tapering run. This meant postponing the challenge another fortnight. It was the taper tantrum from hell. Despite assurance from two different physios and sports therapists, I was convinced it was all over. The pain got mysteriously worse the more I worried.
By day one of the challenge, the ankle pain had disappeared completely. Holding up for Ben Nevis, 50 miles and 10,000ft of running pretty much gave the answer. By day five I could barely run more than 10 metres at a time through pain in my shins instead. Logic had decided it really must be over now. But I needed to work with facts. Luckily, I saw a sports therapist that night in Keswick who managed to flush my legs out, tape them up and advise a new routine to manage the pain – somehow I managed to run 42 miles and climb Scafell Pike the next day.
Simply re-framing our language can switch a situation on its head. Instead of thinking, “I can’t run again”, thinking: “I can’t run at the moment” or “I have to walk today” will even feel completely different inside.
In 2017 I visited some Sherpa friends in Nepal who had just lost their teahouse in a freak chimney fire. Luckily, they had escaped unharmed, but they their livelihood, a treasured prayer room in memory of their son, and their belongings all went up in smoke. As I arrived at a smouldering heap and lost for appropriate words, Lakpa met me with a confident smile. “Don’t worry”, he said: “We’ll build a better house!!”.
It also helps to play the long game. Think short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. Being stuck behind four walls isn’t much fun, but it’s a necessary collective step towards that next trip abroad or going for a night out with friends like normal times. The injury is an opportunity to let your body recover and work on the strength & conditioning that you never find time for, so you can come back even stronger – and how good will that feel?
Of course, I understand it can be hard to see the light. A whinging injured runner has it easier than many others facing challenges posed by the pandemic or elsewhere. During my experiences of depression, it was almost impossible to believe there was a way out or that the vibrance could return to life. I won’t pretend it was easy. But during these hopeless points, setting targets helped me to slowly crawl out of the pit. After all, there wasn’t much to gain by staying there. These targets may have to be small – one day, one mile, an hour at a time, or whatever you can muster the energy for. That’s fine. In COVID times, setting long-term goals can feel somewhat pointless anyway. But small targets keep us moving forwards instead of festering in the worries even more, and by taking action, we create a positive intention for better things to follow.
Finally, it’s OK to ask for help. In fact, it’s always better to get support and reassurance from others in your circle who can think more rationally without anxiety buzzing around their heads. I’ve had too many examples of this during my challenges than I can possibly mention. One particular moment was during my Climb The UK challenge in 2017 where I was behind schedule, ill, and on the verge of throwing the towel in. My friend Rich had arrived just in time (with a warm car to sleep in) for some gentle persuasion/tough love. The next morning I slammed the car door at 5:30am as we marched up one of Scotland’s highest munros, Ben Lawers, to the tune of The Proclaimers. If people believe in our abilities then it gives us permission to try.
Whatever challenge you’re facing right now, please remember that the finish line will always come, even if the eventual summit looks different to what you expected. Trust the process. If in doubt, watch the sunrise tomorrow morning. Look at the spring flowers creeping up outside.
This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever. And that’s good news for my lockdown self-haircut disaster, too.