Mind Body Challenge

Starting from here: The Dandelion Challenge

At the risk of sounding like a mix between Jarvis Cocker, Tolkien and a motivational meme, every journey must start somewhere, so it might as well start here.

So, where is here?

Me. Now. After a run.

I don’t look like someone who’d do challenges. I am 45. I am very overweight – the scales indicate 113 kg (17 st 12 – yeowzwer!! I would like to get to 95 by the time I’m racing – it makes life easier!) though blessed with very good underlying health given what I’ve put my body through. I have the medical OK for the challenge. My mental health is not so hot. I have bipolar disorder, and in episodes when I am not ill, do a lot of campaigning, working with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, and with Oxford University’s Disability Advisory Group. And I care for my wife, who also has bipolar disorder, and has recently been diagnosed autistic (you can read her remarkable, brave blog here). I have a day job that is decidedly not what I had hoped it would be before illness, but which I can manage full-time, and where my colleagues are remarkably supportive. That means a lot. I also write, and am an active part of the literary world, hosting a poetry night at my local Waterstones, writing a weekly column in my role as news editor for the Alliance of Independent Authors. And, of course, I am building this place.

I feel weird, putting this video here. Most people these days who look into lives that combine a whole gamut of activities come to Emilie Wapnick’s talkin on Multipotentialites. It’s a great talk, and you should watch. But it comes several decades after Hank Pfeffer’s somewhat drier article “Danger: High Voltage” on the “Too Many Aptitudes Problem”, which changed my life by giving me permission to flit.

So, what are my baselines for the challenges I am undertaking?

Running – Well, I have run Race to the Stones twice. In 2015 I did it in a not very quick 19 hours 42. That’s my high point. It’s a lot higher than where I am now. This year, mindful of the need to lose about half a stone before I run real distance for the sake of my joints, I have run 5k in 37 minutes. My target is to beat 18 hours.

Powerlifting – It’s been a long time since I lifted. 16 years in fact. Back when I was a discus and hammer thrower for Oxford University Athletics Club. Because of injuries, I am focusing on deadlifting. Back then I managed 195kg. That’s not a benchmark though. I begin again in 2 days’ time. I will update a “now” mark, and a target, then.

Indoor Rowing – two years ago I rowed 108 kilometres. It nearly killed me. And 15 years ago I managed 2k in 6.53.7, just squeaking under the magic 7 minute mark. Where I am now, as of yesterday, is a half marathon, 21097 metres, in 1hr38.37, that’s 2.20.4 pace. My target is to complete 100 miles within 15 hours, and manage a 7.30 2k

Mental Calculation – it’s harder to set targets for mind sports. There are many disciplines within each subset, so to make things concrete I will pick one. In this case 8 digit multiplication – that is, multiplying an eight digit number by another eight digit number in your head, writing only the answer – no written working allowed. I can now do 3 calculations in the regulation time of 10 minutes. I would like to get that to the full 10.

Creativity – As the reigning world champion, this is the one I am unlikely to improve on. As the same person never retains their title, I’d love to do that. But I’d settle for any kind of medal.

Memory – I will pick playing cards as my benchmark. At present, I can memorize the order of 21 cards in 1 minute. I would like to memorize a full pack within 5 minutes.

There we are, some of the boring stats. The place from which I start.

In a way, I feel a semi-fraud. I know I *can* do this. The real thing is doing *all* of this. To a decent standard. While holding life together! And documenting the whole process.

Oh, and the challenge has a name. One that is obvious now I think about it – the dandelion challenge. In honour of Neil Gaiman’s famous speech to London Book Fair, urging publishers to be like dandelions, sowing 1000 seeds in the hope that 100 may blossom. I could also have called it the High Voltage challenge in honour of Hank Pfeffer’s wonderful article that pretty much sums up my butterflyish life.

The Dandelion Challenge is in aid of Apopo Hero Rats. You can find out more about their remarkable work and donate here.

Mind-Body Challenge

After what feels like a hibernation in which much of my physical training has been set decidedly to “ticking over”, this week marked a return to training. That has coincided with a number of things, the first of which is the utterly arbitrary calendrical one of it being the beginning of March.

Second, this week I had the pleasure of giving Oxford University’s first Mental Health Awareness Day lecture under the heading “The Consolation of Solitary Sports”, which gave me the chance to talk about the joys of ultra running, alongside my colleague, Verity Westgate, who gave us a wonderful tour of the world of wild swimming. I was able to explain the magic of the moments in the middle of the night when all the world melts away save for the few feet of trail lit by a tiny torch. You can read the full transcript, and see the video here.


And so, it’s time to set the first foot on the official path for my 2017 mind and body challenge. The reasons behind setting myself a mind and body challenge were simple. First, I wanted to see how far I could push myself in every direction. I have never been good at staying focused on a single goal. Having five goals means that I will never tire of training, and I will always have something to write about.

Second, I love the idea of seeing how far I can actually go at things that aren’t supposed to go together. Though one of the things that has been so fascinating about delving even a little into some of these worlds has been meeting so many amazing people whose lives take them on treks through some of these apparently contradictory territories. But I want to go the whole way. In a year. And when I’ve done that, and taken stock, in 2018 I want to turn it up to 11. And the hope is that part of pursuing activities that are very different but all share a simplicity – a single, easily definable task, taken to an extreme, with concordant training – I will learn something not just about myself but about the ways in which the brain rewires itself to handle such competing demands. What better way to launch a truly creative organisation than to make myself an experiment in divergent activities.

So here are the things I will be pursuing:


One (alleged) left brain activity, one right brain, and one combination:

Mental Calculation (left brain) – I will be adding columns of 10 digit numbers, multiplying 8 digit numbers, and calculating 6 digit square roots at the Mental Calculation World Championships on 22 August.


Creative thinking (right brain) – I will once again be taking part in the Creative Thinking World Championships on 27 August.

Memory – who knows where the competitions will end, but I will be aiming at the MSO Natural and Speed Memory Championships on 21 August.


One strength, one endurance, and one combination:

Powerlifting – because there is a very rigid qualifying structure, I will be aiming at a much smaller meet for this, at Oxford University, in October. I will be deadlifting, and aiming to set the kind of weight that makes me not out of place, at least in that company.

Ultra running – I will once again take on the UK’s leading ultramarathon, the 100 kilometre Race to the Stones


Indoor Rowing – the perfect combination of endurance and strength, I will be taking on a 100 mile row in November. Entirely under my own steam because (as yet) there are no competitive 100 mile open races. But I will take in the an Indoor Rowing Championships along the way.

I will, of course, be seeking to take every opportunity that presents itself to talk about this challenge, to lecture, to present, to encourage, and to explore the boundaries and possibilities we might have thought were beyond us, hopefully rounding everything off with a lecture at Oxford University at the end of November. And yes, there *will* be a book.

Here I am talking to a room full of senior bankers at the launch of a policy document. Evidently the scruffy but fabulously comfortable cheap sweater rendered every seventh word in an unintelligible dialect of Esperanto.

Throughout the challenge, I will not only be talking to encourage others test their limits, but to foreground the importance of mental health issues.

If you are in any way inspired by this challenge

– to take up your own challenge, I will be providing resources over the next couple of weeks as I look closer at each discipline.

– to donate, please do so to my charity of choice, Apopo, who train rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis, transforming lives in some of the most dangerous places on the planet. Donate direct to them here.


– to help – there are lots of ways you can help me practically if you are so inclined. I am looking for sponsors, specifically great, innovative and ethical companies I would be proud to represent, and whose kit I would be proud to use. I will be producing a sponsor information sheet this month, but if you would like to offer your products in return for publicity, please email me at rogueinterrobang@gmail.com