Where the Limits Lie

“You don’t know where your limits are until you try to do something you can’t do. That’s where your limit is – right there where you quit” (Lazarus Lake)

We all know “you can do anything you put your mind to” is just not true (we do, right, I mean, it’s not even science; it’s not even six sigma away from “somewhere over there was science once”?). But it has always intrigued me the way so many people find it helpful despite its essential message being plain wrong.

This weekend as I hurt my way around the Bathurst Estate during my first timed race (24 hours – main takeaways learned – timed races are head****s; loop races are also head****s; timed loop races are the invention of some embodiment of distilled evil – but kind of cool too), I had spent a lot of time thinking about limits.

I have long thought people who are in some way neurotypical probably find this kind of inspirational fluff quote helpful because they don’t see words literally. They, ahem, literally don’t see that it is nonsense because of the work that words do for them. Sentences have an implicature that they simply don’t for many of the neurodivergent (don’t even go there on the, er, implications for why we as a society don’t even science and why facts are irrelevant in so much discourse). I’m pretty sure that’s true (though I’d love more research – come on, I work in a Linguistics Faculty, I must know someone who wants to do it). But it’s not the whole picture.

More of the picture probably comes from the fact that those of us who spend our lives pushing the limiter because of our neurology or mental ill health do more of what I was doing – thinking about our limits. When you run up against thigs you can’t do every hour of every day, you end up doing a lot of self-interrogation about it the way that many people who seem if not to drift through life at least to have a cruise control button that means they can do things like hold a conversation or eat a meal without touching a limit simply do not.

This is what I identified as at least a framework for these thoughts as I lay under the stars in 4 layers and my orange cheap as chips blanket bag contemplating why the reason I was unable to go out on another lap was the endless well-wishing of those who passed me (this is another problem with loop races. In a point to point ultra you at some stage, unless you run really erratically, find your place. And once you do so you can stay there, alone with your thoughts and concentration in a state of endless flow for hours at a time. In a loop race that doesn’t happen. Those quicker than you will always be coming past; those slower than you will always be appearing on the horizon, and with each comes an agonizing decision about interaction that tears you away from your thoughts, wrecks any chance of running your best, and drains your battery constantly to zero):

There are at least two axes of limit and they can be endlessly arranged. Making progress in any field depends, at a minimum, on accurately understanding where each limitation you encounter fits on each axis. Those axes are

  • Hard – soft. We are all, surely, familiar with this. Even those who find “you can do anything you put your mind to” helpful understand (surely?) it is not literally true. Hard limits are, for ease of talking, the thing that make the first part of the statement “you can do anything” untrue. I will never be the under 12 10k Nordic skiing champion of Kazakhstan. I will never be the under 12 anything. Because I am 46. My age is a hard limit. I will also never be able to run as fast as the fastest cheetah. My physiology is a hard limit. But “this is how fast I am right now” is a soft limit. I know (unlike, say, a 30-something Olympic athlete who has trained to the brink of collapse all their life) that with training I can be faster. Soft limits are what we need to hunt out, because they are the ones that contain the plasticity that training can push. But we equally need to sniff out hard limits because finding them means we won’t spend time training something we cannot change.
  • Internal – external. Those of us in the disabled community are very familiar with this distinction. In some ways it is another way of framing the medical-social model discussion. It is really important that we understand which of our soft limits has to do with something about us, and which js to do with something outside us. Because that will show us where to focus our efforts. A banal example is that how fast I can run 100 metres is in part limited by how much training I have done (internal) and in part limited by my access to equipment (external).

External barriers are often soft. They can be changed. But we often underestimate how difficult that change is to implement. Take those well-meaning runners encouraging me as they pass me in the night. First there is the question of whether they represent an internal or external boundary. Again, this gets a lot of thought in the circles I am part of. The tl;dr is this – there are many mental health conditions that could make this an internal limit, and if it is then it may be susceptible to the kind of training that something like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers. On the other hand if the cause is neurological, say a sensory processing/overload or communication issue, CBT will never work. The limit is external. But it is still a soft limit. It is changeable. The change would be for people in races not to talk.

And that illustrates the issue nicely. Because although that sounds like a simple adaptation, it is one that is, realistically, never going to be made. It’s the same in the workplace – it might be reasonable for me to request my colleagues don’t tell me about their family holidays if they see me in the corridor, but because of how most of society works (yes, “how it is” is not the measure of whether something is acceptable, but it’s an indicator of where to funnel your limited resources) it’s never going to happen that workspaces ban people swapping stories in the corridors (not for positive reasons anyway, and I for one would rather not live in a world governed by Amazon’s productivity dogma). There are ways in which race directors could make races easier for folks like me that would be worth me thinking about – handing out leaflets to marshalls saying “we have some neurodivergent runners with us today; if someone doesn’t reply to you please don’t think they’re rude (it says a lot about people’s own rudeness or ignorance that they would rather assume someone’s action is down to rudeness than a valid reason, doesn’t it?) or ungrateful” – and talking to them about. There are other things that would either require a huge campaign with all the resource-intensity that brings or simply won’t happen.

For me there were three real takeaways.

  1. self-knowledge really matters.
  2. internal soft limits are the sweet spot. I think this is why people we often call “privileged” seem to find making progress so easy. Why mottos like “you can do anything” helpful. Most of their limits are soft and internal. Many of them can easily find something holding them back that it is in their power to improve with training they are capable of undertaking. Many of us struggle look through our limitations and find any that fall into this category.
  3. not all soft external limits are equally soft.

My final takeaway is this, and it is really counter-intuitive. The most interesting limits we face, especially those of us who have a lot of them, are our hard limits. Intuition tells us two things:

  • The point of discovering our hard limits is to steer away from them so we can use our resources more effectively.
  • The key to approaching our hard limits is to accept them so we can move on.

I want to suggest that both of these are at least partially wrong.

If you go into it with eyes open, pushing at your hard limits can be incredibly valuable. Not in the “you may discover they are actually soft limits” woo kind of way. That’s just more imprecise language. But because in doing so you will almost certainly bend a whole host of soft limits you didn’t realise you had right out of shape. The key is the eyes open bit. Know that this is a limit you can’t lift (to avoid disappointment) and know the level of resources it will take to attempt it.

Accepting your hard limits sounds wonderful. Actually no it doesn’t. It probably only sounds wonderful to the kind of person who thinks “you can do anything you put your mind to” sounds wonderful. It sounds silly. And the recipe for endless therapy years down the line. Our reaction to our hard limits speaks volumes to the kind of person we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in. I personally refuse to act with acceptance to the fact I can’t end famine. I’m furious about it. And I refuse to be accepting about the things my neurology makes impossible for me. I am fuming about them. I will continue to wake up in the night wanting to scream about them, to fling my fists at the void and tell it to **** off (come on, this is basic Dylan Thomas stuff!!). Anger at the things we cannot change is, far from Francis of Assissi’s assertion (give me Thomas’ rage against the dying light over Francis any time!), not futile at all. It is purposive. It is a declaration of hope, of determination, of commitment, and most of all of humanity. It is meeting the fact that we are broken not with an untruth (“I am not broken after all” or “it is OK to be broken” [not to be mistaken for “I am less because I am broken” – seriously, some people refuse to accept the broken label because they read it as a value judgement – see above ad infinitum about using language properly]) but with outrage, and if you really want to achieve something then outrage is a pretty good fuel for the journey.


Adjusting Expectations

Let me say this up front. The title of this post is an unashamed riff on one of my favourite videos from the fabulous Ethan Newberry, aka The Ginger Runner. You should all watch it.

This is the 4th year I have toed the line for Race to the Stones, my first ultra back in 2015 and a consistently fabulously supported and incredibly beautiful race on what is, essentially, the closest thing to a local hilly trail you get when you live in the flatlands of Oxfordshire.

In that time the race has evolved subtly. Most of the time for the better (wave starts from last year and rerouting the first section to avoid what used to cause up to 20 minute queues at early gates; the introduction of watermelon at pit stops; and this year’s basecamp food was definitely better than last year’s already fine fare); occasionally not so much (the removal of fresh milk from basecamp last year was a cruel blow – though maybe the fact I necked about 5 pints of it each of the previous two years has something to do with it).

selfie of me in running kit with running vest and race bib

One of the things about Race to the Stones (maybe it’s the close calendar proximity to Wimbledon) is the possibility of pretty much any kind of weather – last year unforecast drizzle that lasted 6 hours turned the early course into a skid pan. This year, for the first time since I’ve been running it, we had heat. I was excited about running in the heat.

One of the things about having the kind of mental ill health that makes every waking hour almost impossible to cope with is that you can become the kind of person who relishes extremes. There are two reasons for this. First, when most days are a battle with your darkest thoughts to stay alive, a few more millimetres on the mercury hardly feels like a challenge. Second, there’s the issue of differentials. I find simply existing in the world takes my life-difficulty level up to around 70-80% of “what a person can manage” pretty much every hour of every day. That leaves me next to no battery space to handle any additional challenge. Pit me against a field of people who operate at 10-20% on the same scale, and the sheer physics of it means they have me every time, with minimal exertion. Add on extreme conditions, though, and that gap suddenly works the other way. That 80-90% of potential difficulty most people never feel leaves a lot of space for them to suddenly find things get hundreds of percentage points harder. For those of us who struggle desperately every day, you could turn the Ridgeway into Death Valley and you’d struggle to make our lives more than 10 or 20% harder. In other words, tough conditions disproportionately affect those whose everyday lives aren’t so tough.

The stats tell the story when it comes to the heat. Last year, 114 people ducked below the magic 12 hour mark for 100k. This year that figure was 39. I was lucky. The heat, as I’d hoped, didn’t affect me – you don’t want to know the details but this year was the first time that the, er, bodily indicators suggested I got my hydration right.

And I was helped on my way immensely by having the wonderful surprise and honour of a good luck tweet from one of my heroes, the ultra runner and filmmaker Billy Yang (check out the incredible Life in a Day). His words were just about the soundest advice I think I’ve ever read:

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

I’ve always tended to go out way too fast and then hang on. This time, although I was comfortably running the lovely stretches of the first couple of sections, away from Lewknor and then the glorious mile or so of Grim’s Ditch from Nuffield, I eased slightly back, shouting (in the times I had the trail to myself) “this is for you, Billy” and feeling, all told, remarkably in control.

a trail covered in leaves running under overhanging trees
Grim’s Ditch – the most beautiful running trail.

Which brings me back to Grim’s Ditch. I love Grim’s Ditch. The first mile or so out of Nuffield is just about the most beautiful trail I’ve ever run on, a lovely downhill through ancient woodland. And that’s the problem. Woodland. Specifically the kind of canopy that makes for stunning dappled sunlight. I have only ever taken a tumble 5 times in my running life. 4 of those have been on a two mile section of Grim’s Ditch where root sand soil dance to tease my eyes in the spots of sun. A couple of weeks ago I removed much of the skin on my left shin but without doing real damage. Yesterday, I managed 2 of that total of 5 falls. And while I avoided any grazes, my ankles didn’t come off so well.

I knew the moment I hit the deck the second time that my beautifully controlled race had gone. One of the things I’ve learned in my “brief history of spills on the trail” is to perform a very quick instant diagnostic – from head to toe to make sure whatever the pain from the fall, it doesn’t increase with motion and pressure (but that I can still feel both motion and pressure) – before I continue. The pain in my ankle DID increase with pressure.

a path with tree roots
a couple of miles before Grim’s ditch and not in sunlight, but indicative of the roots’ cunning disguise

This was 18 kilometres in. Instead of carefully carving a personal best, the next 88k would be about preservation. And minimising damage – in particular minimising damage before my first ever 24 hour race in just 3 weeks’ time. I could already feel I was in really great shape. This was shaping up to be a summer of PBs if I just managed things sensibly.

But what does sensible mean? It’s a strange, vexing question. Fortunately the fact that I was now moving at a slow walk rather than a controlled run meant I had plenty of time to contemplate it.

For me, sensible is the canvas upon which the superlative is painted. I hear people talk about being sensible all the time as though it is a goal in itself. To me that makes no sense at all. The only reason not to go out and thrash myself until I drop in pursuit of something special is the thought that if I don’t, if I’m “sensible” that will help me do something even more special down the line.

It was like juggling as I hobbled. I was still making progress, however slow. That was helped by another great change for this year – kilometre markers every k of the way. But the further I went I increased the chance of doing longer-term damage, while my chances of a PB were now receding. Though I know that grinding something out against the odds is as much an accomplishment as any fastest anything.

By kilometre 36 though, 7k short of the next pit stop, I was down to painful 13 minute kilometres. That, in itself, wasn’t the issue. The real issue was that my footing was getting less and less sure. I was starting to trip as my ankles became less good at taking weight. And each trip made them more fragile.

By the time I reached the next pit stop I sat down to chew it over with the (excellent) medics. I explained my assessment – I could get the 7k to half way and base camp. I could not get 57k to the end. More important, I thought being out at night with unsure footing would be reckless, and potentially mess things up for more than just me.

voew of a llama over my shoulder
Got to love a race with a llama at the start

I left that pit stop fairly sure I would hit basecamp and convert my 100k non-stop to an overnight camp, and reassess in the morning. Thanks to a very strong ibuprofen and a finger of fudge (which really was just enough) I was able to find some reserves from somewhere and, although walking, make decent hiking speed of 9 minute kilometres. And then I sat down at basecamp and the moment I did, I realised that had been stupid. As the adrenaline wore off, even the ibuprofen couldn’t mask the pain. It was also clear the only reason I had seemed surer footed was that the last section’s trail is pancake flat (the trail, not the profile!).

a bag of chunks of mashed potato
Baked potato in a bag of salt – the perfect ultra running food

I asked myself what I would gain by starting again in the morning. I would, probably, get my 100k finish. But probably at the expense of a DNS for the 24 hour in 3 weeks. Would that really be a glorious act of bravery? Maybe it would. Then again, I could tell, injury apart, I was in the best shape of my life by far (the last section had shown me that as much as the first). I was in the shape where I should be trying to set PBs.

And as I sat there I thought of Billy’s words

“Remember: during the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”

And I thought, this is a season with two big ultras. A season of two halves. Carrying on for another 50k could be the biggest act of idiocy of all. And so I said heartfelt thanks all round and slunk off into the night (well, a taxi to Wantage where the bus back to Oxford awaited).

I woke up with soreness and a small blister but no lasting damage. I felt both furious with myself that I hadn’t carried on given the lack of major injury, but also relieved that I had pulled the plug in time. It took me 2 and a half hours by bus to get to Avebury and pick up my abandoned drop bag. It felt sad and strange being among the celebrations (it’s weird what exhaustion-addled brains conjure up – for me it was “because I haven’t finished I won’t get my end of race hot dog”), but by the time I was changing buses at Swindon that had been replaced by determination – to prove I’d made the right choice by crushing it over 24 hours; and to come back next year, maybe do the 50k and see just how fast I can go when not pacing myself (and see if I can actually run Grim’s Ditch stumble-free!).

Thank you Threshold for another great year (especially for moving me on the results from a 100k DNF to a 50k finish – I wonder if that’s to help with what was a heat-induced very large number of withdrawals!). See you again in 2019. I hope with milk restored to the basecamp menu! And thank you, Billy Yang!

Learning on the Run: 2017 Race to the Stones

Avebury 1

CN: anxiety, suicidal ideation

Every time you run an ultramarathon you learn something new about yourself. And the further you go, and the slower you go, the more you are likely to learn. Which means, at least on the second score, I should be a genius by now.

This was my third Race to the Stones, a 100 kilometre run along the Ridgeway. The first time, as I guess is the case for most newbies, the main thing I learned was that I could do it. I also learned that for me the oft-repeated dictum that your body can do remarkable things but the battle is to persuade your mind really doesn’t hold true. My threshold is what my body will do before caving in completely. I already sort of knew that from spending my late 20s powerlifting, living every workout on the very edge of what was physically dangerous. And I knew it from decades of staying alive through mental illness when it would have been so much easier to give in to the desperate desire to be dead.

Last year I learned something surprising. I am not particularly good at lots of things. And at some things I’m not too shabby. But in all things I am absurdly competitive. I had assumed that competitiveness would override anything, but when it turned out Ann was seriously ill mid race, I didn’t think twice about stopping to make sure she was taken care of. Running teaches you about your values, about where your boundaries lie, and it can often surprise you. A similar thing happened during training last summer when I found myself clambering into the Thames to pull out a sheep who’d ended up grazing too close to the edge. I’ve also learned that this border-case altruism most definitely doesn’t extend to swapping pleasantries with other runners while out on the trails – stories afterwards absolutely, but small talk is as unpleasant for the neurodivergent on the trails as off – and has the potential to utterly ruin an experience.

So what did I learn from this year’s Race to the Stones? Well, this year’s race was very much a dance of mind and body, flesh and spirit, learning a great deal about how my corpsely self functions, about the way life and our living of it is not illuminated by metaphor but *is* a metaphor. And I learned more than I have ever done in one concentrated burst about flow.

It has been a very difficult year for training, but for the first time I can remember, the month leading up to the race I was able to put in four weeks of uninterrupted training without any injury. And in the race itself it was clear before long that I was a lot stronger than I have been in the past. A bit heavier, yes (I’m working on that, and losing weight will be key to staying injury free), but with a much stronger core, and that made a big difference to a lot of the more technical parts of the course where I have struggled a lot before.

The Ridgeway is beautiful, and looking at the profile, it’s a pretty gentle place to run. In practice, a combination of vehicle access and soil type means that long stretches are rounded narrow single track consisting of chalk baked like cement with protruding flint. You literally have to watch every foot placement, constantly making tiny – and not so tiny – adjustments to your stride. This is exhausting mentally, but it also places massive strain on your ligaments and tendons, and on muscles like you adductors and abductors that see very little action when it comes to jogging along on a well-surfaced road.

But this year I’ve been working a lot on my core, thanks to Ann’s brilliant, simple tip of doing one leg balances every day – a perfect way to occupy those awkward minutes waiting for the bus. The result has been that, as if by magic, making those adjustments to foot position is now something I can do from the core, sparing my muscles and joints. And it’s had the greatest effect of all on some wonderful downhill paths, such as the root-strewn section of Grim’s Ditch, and a previously vicious quarter mile of single track coming down into Swyncombe, where I can now just open up completely and take full advantage of gravity. And that was the first thing I noticed – the transformative effect of being able to let go of all control completely, legs flying without encumbrance, heart rate never rising so long as the descent continues. The feeling of fluidity – of, literally, feeling that one has become a liquid sliding over the surface of the earth, is utterly magical, and add the side to side movement of those ever changing foot placements and it feels as though one is dancing with the earth.

A second effect of a stronger core and greater residual fitness is the ability to run out of trouble. We have had a warm, dry spring and the Ridgeway has been consistently parched. So, with the forecast showing a beautiful cool overcast day, I set out in road shoes to be gentle on my feet for the tarmaced stretches. But of course the forecast was wrong. The race began with 6 hours of steady rain (given that I am sitting typing this in a library not a police cell I can only imagine that my thoughts towards weather forecasters were muttered under my breath throughout that period). It wasn’t long before parts of the course were becoming like an ice rink. But while this required a sense of permanent at least semi watchfulness, I never felt in danger of slipping and sliding the way I have done in the past. Whenever the surface was a little too sketchy I was able to run my way out of trouble, light, skipping strides creating a contact less prone to losing grip.

So the actual experience of running was different. And that, in turn, changed my thoughts as I ran. There were more times when I was able simply to enjoy the pleasure of moving, of body and nature in contact, dancing together.

My second experience was putting to the test a piece of research I had always felt rang true, one which goes against one of the fundamental tenets of ultramarathon advice. The advice goes to start slow. Really slow, so you don’t blow up and crash out. The problem is while that might work for top athletes, as so often most of us reading the advice aren’t top athletes. And I read a great piece last year that showed you’re far better going out quicker – if you’re in the part of the pack I occupy (I finished Race to the Stones 696th out of 961 non-stoppers) you’ll end up at a crawl however you start, so you might as well bank some quick miles.

So I set out at a pace I knew from training I could sustain for more than 30 kilometres and decided to see how far it would take me. “Keep going till you blow up, then hold on.” I can’t quite understand why I have never formulated it as a principle before. It’s something I’ve applied to pretty much every area of my life where I’ve had any kind of success, yet it runs so counter to what we are told by coaches and memes and podcasts and “those who know” again and again. Which is another reason I need to get on and write my self-improvement for neurodivergents book.

The mantra ran through my head on a loop (when I wasn’t cursing meteorologists), and in particular I thought of one of my great inspirations, Anna Frost, who applied the same approach to her first hundred mile race, going out hartd to get as much done as she could before she hit the wall – only for her the wall never did come. She just won. In a very fast time.

Of course, I’m no Anna Frost so I did hit the wall, at about kilometre 60. But still, I managed to see 10 kilometres more of the course in daylight than I had done before, despite this year’s start being an hour and a half later tI did hang on, at a pace not really slower than when I had gone out more “sensibly”. For the last 30 kilometres at least my thought was simple – “I don’t know how I am going to finish this, but I know that I am.” Of course, I did know – one foot in front of the other and repeat. It’s that simple.

And here’s the important thing about that. Sometimes the cautious approach really is best. Sometimes you need to pace yourself and leave energy in the tank to get you through the last gruelling hours of a challenge. Bt sometimes it’s not, and unless you’ve thrown everything you have at something and then clung on for dear life when you’ve fallen off the cliff – how will you ever know? We hear a lot that life is a marathon not a sprint, but what the hell kind of philosophy is it to make sure you hit your 80th birthday with plenty of fuel in the tank just to be sure you cross the line strong? Besides which we also now know that often the best tactic in a marathon is to go out strong and hold on.

Finally, I learned more about flow. Running is perfect for achieving flow in different ways. On the road, with a sure footing, one can let one’s legs tick over metronomically while one’s mind finds its own rhythms. And on the trail, one is so aware of every foot placement, so focused on each root and rock that one loses oneself completely in one moment after the next.

We hear a lot about flow these days, about the importance, for example, of finding flow in our work, or a hobby. It is often portrayed as the ultimate hipster accessory, an indulgence for the lucky and entitled. But for me it has always been so much more than that. It has been a survival mechanism. When I’m ill, life is petty much about survival in the face of the overwhelming urge to die. It’s all about section two of the lessons learned here, one foot in front of the other and repeat.

But when I’m not ill with depression or mania, there is nothing to mask the underlying state of chronic anxiety. Living with anxiety means living in constant fear. I would describe it most accurately, I think, as living face to the sky with one’s neck upon the block, waiting for the axe to fall. Not knowing when, just knowing that it will. It is all-consuming. One’s life is spent endlessly playing out the different scripts that end with the fall of the axe. And there is never a script that ends any other way. Not ever. Not one. For me, the simplest everyday scenarios all end with my own death or, more often, my wife’s. Any situation that involves contact with, or even proximity to, another human being will end its trail of impeccable logic with death, despair, the loss of everything. I will sleep in an exhausted but delirious relief that I have avoided the axe for another day – but always knowing that the slightest noise in the night could restart the script.

Flow offers precious moments without anxiety. It absorbs so much of the self that there is nothing left over for fear. Worryingly, this is the same function that can be served by intense pain, which is one reason self-harm is one of anxiety’s closer companions. It is why I have never understood the “don’t take it too far” or the “why do you have to do everything to extremes?” voices that ostensibly demonstrate concern. Simple. Because it is only at the very edge cases of or human endeavour that we can find flow, and a few moments’ respite from the flash of the axe about to fall.

What I realised as I ran was that, again, so much of the advice we commonly receive is wrong. We should not be looking to make tiny pockets of flow in busy lives. That is the flow of hipsterism, of indulgence. Valuable, yes, of course. But possible? Not for so many. And its absence a source of easy reprosch for those who would rather blame the despair on the deficiency of the despairing than create a world that would minimize it. Far better to devote ourselves to carving out large chunks of uninterrupted time in people’s lives for them to find true flow, whether or not they find it alone under the stars on the trail.





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