The snow thickens

The teahouse in the snow, again

With the snow following me back from Scandinavia this week and without the benefit of Martin’s running spikes, I opted for a run on the machine this morning.

On a scale of enjoyment, running on your own on a machine compares poorly to running with friends in interesting places, so my aim today was to get on and off as quickly as I could.

I set my goal as 45 minutes, dialled in 7mph and got on with it.

What can I say?  The cheese plant waved gently at me as my head bobbed up and down.  I got the stitch after about 25 minutes and I couldn’t shake it.  I needed my mental stamina to finish.  I counted down the minutes rather than watching the distance increase, amusing myself by trying to do mental arithmetic to see whether I needed to increase the speed to get an average of 7mph… the machine takes long seconds to get up to speed initially.

And failing at the arithmatic:  60 minutes divided by 7 is…?  The seconds make it a complex calculation to do… and to then compare with the current time/distance equation, especially when you’re running… and especially when your body is rebelling.

I was about 6 seconds adrift at the 45 minute stage, covering 5.24 rather than 5.25 miles and thus averaging 6.98mph.  But who cares… I was just glad to have finished.

It’s still snowing outside, harder now and I’m hoping that trains, planes and automobiles will all be running on time as required this week!

The Stockholm Syndrome

There were a number of facets of my run last Sunday that were unusual.  It was dark, minus ten degrees and the ground was covered in packed snow with a layer of powder snow on top.  Oh, and I was in Stockholm.

My brilliant host Martin had persuaded me to take my running gear and he augmented this with an extra pair of running tights, a head-torch and a set of running spikes for the bottom of my trainers.

I was particularly glad of the latter.  My outside runners were covered in mud from the previous run so I had packed the pair I use on the running machine.  Only when I put them on did I realise how slippery the soles were: a combination of the rubber hardening with age and the silicone lube we use on the machine.

The road outside

It may have been minus ten, but it really didn’t feel that cold, which may have been due to low humidity.  We ran gently along one of Martin’s training routes, through his neighbourhood, around his local lake and up into the forest.  It was beautiful and I could certainly get used to this being my local run, snow and all.

All too quickly we were back at the house and I felt elated… 55 minutes had passed in a flash!  I’ve no idea how far we ran, but we were chatting constantly so probably about 5 miles.

Me & Martin

After work the following evening, Martin decided I should experience more of the local way of life.  We headed to a local recreation centre and I once again changed into my running gear… this time swapping the slippery-soled runners for a pair of long Swedish ice skates.

The last time I can easily remember being on ice skates was around 1995.  Whilst standing nonchalantly with my hands in my pockets I had slipped over and fractured a rib!  Not wishing to worry Martin, I withheld this information!

Not expecting to go far, we set off along the track… across the surface of the lake. You might think this sounds crazy, but the track would have been maintained by a tractor, so the ice is pretty thick.  Having driven on frozen lakes in the past it wasn’t the thing that was concerning me… I just didn’t want to make an idiot of myself by falling over!

Fortunately some basic elements of the technique (none of them glamorous, alas) came back to me and we completed the lake circuit… a whole 3km!

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That was the hors d’oeuvre.  We changed, showered and climbed into the the typically Swedish sauna… it was a mixed session and everyone was naked, though clearly no-one seemed to give a hoot.

Having been thoroughly heated, Martin led me outside, across the snow and down to a small jetty on the lake… still naked, of course.  Here there were a pair of stainless steel handrails and between them the treads of a ladder descending into the black water.

The water on the handrails was frozen, as was the surface of the jetty and only a submerged fan prevented the surface of the water freezing over like the rest of the lake that we had been skating on.

I thought a little trepidation was probably in order, but I didn’t want to show myself up as a weak-minded Brit so I grasped the icy handrails and started to step down until only my head and hands remained in the air.

It’s possible that my mind has blanked out the experience, but it didn’t seem that bad… probably because I had been recently super-heated .  I counted to five before I retraced my steps out of the water and then walked back across the snow.  We even sat outside for a few minutes chatting before returning to the sauna… with our feet lifted off the frozen ground!

Probably determined to get a girlie squeal out of me, my wonderful host then repeated the exercise… this time with a camera to capture the moment.  Two photos were taken though, despite the effects of the cold water, only one is publishable!

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Worried about my place in the Brit-dip-list and also strangely enjoying this new experience, I returned for a third time to lower myself into the icy water.  I actually can recommend it… highly!

We showered & changed & headed out for food and a celebratory glass of beer!



I now understand why Stockholm Syndrome is so named… despite the generally chilly winter temperature, snowy weather and extended hours of darkness, it’s a beautiful and fun place populated by really warm-hearted people.  I can’t wait to return!

The mud thickens

Aristotle claimed that true excellence comes from repetition and is thus not an act but rather a habit.  I find habits fascinating, especially the ones that you create or optimise in a deliberate conscious way.

The whole point behind this blog for example was to create a habit of running and of writing… helping me to stay fit whilst forcing me into the habit of explaining myself in words.

Even after five years though it’s not a fully formed habit as it still requires conscious effort… I don’t yet suddenly notice that I’m leaving the house with my running kit on.  In fact, if anything, I’ve got into the habit of getting up late on a Sunday and reading before I even think about running.

Good or bad, a fully-formed habit is like a line of computer code that is run by the subconscious.  Hitting the snooze button is a good example of a suboptimal habit.  Better to set the alarm later to the point that you want to get up, thus elongating the length of quality sleep.  And then get straight up, thus helping develop conscious resilience.

Left to its own devices the subconscious will persuade the body to remain in the current comfortable state until a different motivation causes it to re-prioritise.  Only our conscious is concerned with the longer-term benefits of getting to work on time.

Driving or playing a musical instrument is an example of a different kind of habit.  Here the task is way too complex for the conscious to handle with its limited bandwidth.  Instead. a period of practice is needed in order to show the subconscious what pattern it needs to repeat and under what circumstances.  Provided the pattern is learned patiently and precisely, then a high degree of competence is feasible.

Higher degrees of competence are possible when you repeatedly break the pattern as you learn it, each time pushing the performance bar a little higher.  This is the power behind interval training, where both muscles and mind learn that they can do more.  Unfortunately the approach is also frustrating, as it constantly delays the reward of ‘felt competence’ for a future time.

Three years ago tomorrow I embarked on an experiment.  Despite having played the guitar for 35 years, I had not progressed for 25 years and my use of the instrument had slowly declined to zero.  I embarked on a series of 52 weekly guitar lessons and forced myself to practice for at least five minutes each day.

I’m still no virtuoso but my ability has improved and with it my passion.  This progression has been typically non-linear.  There was very little progress for a long time and then everything started to improve at the same time as the subconscious started to take over.

In the last nine months I have composed several songs and learned two short jazz pieces.  The experiment continues and is now part of an interesting meta-habit… a habit of experimentation, of creating other sustainable habits.

Meanwhile, I finally relinquished the fascinating Wired 2013 magazine I was reading this morning, climbed into my running gear and set of into a grey day.

The surface water had subsided from last week, but the mud had thickened.  When your feet are wet, it’s easy to persuade yourself to run straight through the puddles, but with the glutinous mud today and relatively dry feet I tried to stick to a dryer line.  This meant that I was constantly testing the limits of my core stability muscles as my feet slithered this way or that on the steeper gradient at the margins.

I ran the same short route as recently, out to Wivelsfield and back via the magical path, with the latter still being uncharacteristically waterlogged.

At one point I stopped briefly to balance across a particularly wet bit and experienced a Forrest Gump moment… you know, the one where he just stops running and turns his attention to new challenges.

It was momentary, but palpable and that’s where the power of habits really come into their own.  Rather than give in to the subconscious feeling (and hit the snooze button) I just started running again.

The time was slower at 55 minutes for the 5.2 mile route and it didn’t have the highs of my last run… as you can see this has made the task of writing more complex, hence my rambling post.  But it was still a worthwhile step in the slow pursuit of excellence.

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Happy 2013

Happy New Year!

We’ve had a great Christmas break with a restorative balance of quiet reflective time and really fun time spent with friends and family.

We took in the amazing Lost and Found Orchestra which is a riotous kaleidoscope of percussive sound and vision.  Originally designed by STOMP for the 40th Anniversary of the Brighton Festival in 2006, it has since toured internationally to wide acclaim.  Brighton is home to co-creator Luke Cresswell (who I went to school with in the late seventies & early eighties) so the performances here hold special significance!

We also saw the amazing film Life of Pi which is a beautifully produced and really thought-provoking tale of survival.

After days of dark, wet weather, 2013 dawned bright and clear so it seemed only right and proper to get out for a run.  I quickly realised that the rain had left its mark with puddles and fluid mud everywhere.


I first headed out to Ditchling via Oldlands Mill, which sat facing the Downs in almost springlike sunshine.

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Normally dry paths were waterlogged and those that are often wet were completely under water… there was little point in shirking the mud, though I kept generally to the edges.

One garden I passed en route had filled up to become a small lake… maybe a 150 feet long and easily 20 feet deep!  The water sometimes fills the width of the garden but I’ve not ever seen it this high and close to the path before.


The normally slippery chalk up the Beacon path had been washed clean and was abnormally grippy, especially compared to the slippery ground around it.

As I neared the top of the path, the view to the left was more warm March than soggy January… apart from the extent of the midday shadow!



The top had a range of similarly beautiful views accompanied by a chilly breeze, especially where I was standing… on the trig point at the highest point in Sussex.

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After slip-sliding down the Beacon again, I ran past Sporting Cars, admired the beautiful houses through Ditchling and then climbed back up to the Oldlands path at the end of the village.

Where I had been relatively circumspect on the outbound route, I now just headed through the middle of most of the big puddles… and there were a lot of them!  By the time I reached the Keymer road again I was dripping wet and coated in mud.



My first task upon returning home was to stand in the garden and wash off the worst of the mud with a scrubbing brush and hosepipe… which also usefully cooled down my tired leg muscles.

So ten miles in a sploshy 1:55 and a GREAT start to the New Year.