Yup, 45 years old. Motoring on towards half a century on this mortal coil and heading towards 20 years beyond the human body's physical peak.
Mentally, I'll be honest, I'm feeling tired, a bit battered and bruised, bedraggled, embattled…. Life is good in many ways but it's turned into a double edged sword. Depression is here with me, it is affecting my every action and every thought, and I know right now that I am far from being the best man I can be.
I want to be the best man I can be.
I want to be the best man I can be for Clair, I want to be the best man I can be for the three children we have between us. I want to be the best man I can be for my closest family members for whom life is becoming more of a struggle, and I want to be the best man I can be for my friends.
I'm not the man I want to be.
That's what depression is doing to me. It makes me thoughtless, it makes me selfish, it makes me lazy, it makes me distant, disinterested, forgetful…
In a nutshell, it makes me numb.
This is the truth of why you've not seen so many blogs coming from me. This is truth of why I've not been seen so much at my running club. This is the truth of why I haven't been so active on Facebook, why I haven't spent so much time reading your blogs and posting the comments of encouragement and admiration that have been a feature of my life on Realbuzz so far.
It doesn't mean I think any less of you. It doesn't mean I think any less of your achievements.
When depression is ruling my head, I basically can't read anything longer than an average e-mail. Give me anything more and the words get jumbled up, it all goes out of context, and I remember nothing of what I've just read.
I love to read and I love to read books. I was given 3 books at Christmas, 2 on my favourite subject of running. I got 3 more off my brother on my birthday. Haven't started the Christmas ones yet. The capacity for reading just isn't there.
My absence has not been due to the wonderful happy life that everyone believes I have, we have, been living.
It's my fault that. I have painted the picture you see, because the deeper truth ain’t such a pretty picture. If my life was an art gallery, I'd hang all the good pictures on the walls for everybody to enjoy, and the crappy ones would stay in boxes in the archives.
There's nothing wrong with that. We've all got our crappy pictures we'd rather no-one sees.
Depression’s greatest irony - the very things that make me happy, the exact very things, become the things that make me sad ☹ .
I find solace in my work. In work, I only have to think about one thing, my work! My work keeps me busy enough to separate me from my woes of depression, and even when the pressure is on, perhaps especially when the pressure is on, I feel a sense of release, I feel free. There are plenty of days in work I’d rather stay there all night if I could than head back to the loneliness of the bedsit.
Now this blog wasn't meant to be about depression. There it is though, that is what just flowed out of the end of the end of my virtual pen, so it must have needed to come out, and I'm not undoing what I've just done. Now let me tell you about what I came here for, let me tell you about the British Fell & Hill Relay Championships 2017.
It's Saturday night, we’re (Clair and I) at my daughters new house - my daughter, my little baby, she's got a boyfriend, they've bought a house 😱😱😱 - this reminds me that I'm 45 years old, inside I'm barely old enough for her to be born yet, but here we are - sidetracking again.
A message comes through from Charles. I already know his dad died earlier that day. “SOS” it says. Charles does the organising for fell races at Wrexham AAC, my club. On Facebook I can see that one of the runners from the team he has entered into these championships has pulled out. I'm tagged into a post, “Rob Barber, can you help?”
I think the world of Charles, he's a tremendously giving person, always warm and welcoming of newcomers to the club, extremely selfless in his ways, always positive and encouraging of others, endlessly enthusiastic about all things running. He was a runner of very high standard in his prime, achieving things I can only marvel at. He's clearly highly thought of by many folks, and every race we go to, it seems everybody knows Charles. He's a good man.
I want to be the best man I can be for my friends. This is a chance for me to give Charles a little something back. I haven't much to trade with. All I can give the man, is me.
Clair shows a great deal of understanding, and absolutely gives me every encouragement to go join my friend in Llanberis, be there for him in his hour of need - and I owe her a debt of gratitude for that - because although it's what I really wanted to do, everything about my depressed mind was conspiring to stop me, to hold me back from being the man I want to be.
“You're on the navigation leg” says Charles. A bomb goes off inside my brain.
‘Navigation!!! Aaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhhh 😱😱😱😱’
Its 06:30 on a Sunday morning, my legs are still heavy from a marathon I was ill prepared for the week before. Pride was high though, as was confidence in my ability to tough it out. Navigation though, that's a different thing, and at this level of competition, I knew it would be challenging, finding checkpoints out there on the hills.
I was nervous. Very nervous.
The relay element was interesting.
Leg 1, lone runner, marked course.
Leg 2, pair, longer marked course.
Leg 3, us, navigation.
Leg 4, lone runner, different marked course.
Eagle eyes will have spotted the “us”. My running partner for the navigation leg (I guess being in pairs on the long and navigation legs is mostly to do with staying safe out on the hills) was to be Lee.
I've never met Lee before, but instantly liked the guy. One of those many people that know Charles. Lee is one of those people who do Cani-cross, I get the impression he's kind of a leading light in that sport, and to hear the enthusiasm with which he speaks of it was great. He was also good enough to drive us to Llanberis.
The set up when we got there was great. Start and finish was set up in a quarry on the outskirts of the town. There was a big marquee set up where we would be served with hot food after our run, holding pens where the relay changeovers would take place, a commentary box and loudspeakers. Different running clubs were setting up gazebos for storing all their kit, tall flags proudly displaying the club names and logos. It was a vibrant rainbow of colour in a hole carved out of slate. Around us I could see loads of faces that I recognised. Not that they were people that I knew. They were people that I've seen winning races like the Snowdon Race, The Yorkshire 3 Peaks, faces that I know because I've seen them in the Fellrunner magazine, winning races and claiming podium spots up and down the land. The buzz of excitement was amazing.
Nerves ruled for me and Lee. Neither of us feeling particularly confident of our navigation skills, and both of us suffering for the fact we did not know where we were going to have to go.
Ryan, who I was also meeting for the first time, ran the first leg for our club. Now Ryan is a runner of great talent, placing very highly, podium spots, in many of the races round North East Wales. He came back smiling and got us off to a really good start. 60th position highlights the level of competition that was there.
Charles, still running despite the loss of his dad just yesterday, paired up with Ger, yet another man I hadn't really met before, seen, but not properly met.
Heaven only knows how Charles must have been feeling, what must have been going through his mind. His dad was meant to be here today, watching, supporting his son. As recently as Friday, he was going to be. I tried to be as supportive as I could, we all did, but without overdoing it either. I think we all could see a man holding himself together. Clair sent a lovely message of support via Facebook. That got tears welling up in the eyes of grown men itching to get out running in the mountains. Scores of people approached Charles during the day, all with a hug for him and sorrow for his loss. It was nice to see.
He said he had a moment out there on the tops, running up towards the clouds and he turned and said to Ger;
“I feel close to heaven up here”, and that’s when the tears came. Not for long, but they came.
I think he was a brave man to be running on Sunday. But then in many ways perhaps being able to dedicate the run to his dad might have been helpful. I know Charles has other struggles in his life, struggles I can relate to, and to be with his running family might have done him the power of good.
Then it was our turn. Me and Lee. Luckily we’d both found eachother pretty easy to get on with. We’d formulated a loose plan of how we were going to navigate and find those checkpoints, only trouble was we didn’t yet know where we’d be navigating to. Charles and Ger tagged us in, and we set off at a gallop, building up a head of steam ready to charge up the bank of slate to get ourselves out of the quarry. Only at the foot of that slate bank, thundering towards it as fast as we could, did we finally get handed our maps!
This was going to be interesting! At the top of the bank we map checked and got ourselves underway, down the road to begin with, seeking out a path on our right hand side.
Now it’s going to be hard for me to get across just how difficult this task was. We’re in a race, other teams scampering away from us infront, teams behind catching quickly. The map itself, dominated completely by the straight thick red lines drawn on it between one checkpoint and the next, very hard to read, especially doing it on the fly. We’d been given rules about crossing fences, so we couldn’t take a compass bearing and just follow those straight lines. Not that it would be advisable with the terrain that lay between.
Lee was fit. Lee was strong. Lee was looking for me to be the mastermind of our navigation, but Lee was disappearing down the road, running so strongly that I was putting everything I had into simply keeping up.
A marshal directed us off the road (not sure she was meant to) and onto the 3rd footpath that we met. Already my navigation was suffering. We’d definitely passed 2 footpath signs, but only one dotted green line on the map. Checkpoint one was on an old hill fort, and it was fairly straightforward to see the route to that, but checkpoint 2, well that was different. There were several different route choices, and runners taking all of them. No way could you just pick someone to follow, some of these would be going the right way, some would be going wrong, all would believe in what they were doing, so how would you choose who to tag onto?
My eyes were blurry from the effort of trying to keep up with Lee, and though he felt he wasn’t all that great with the navigation, when he was pointing out things on the map, what he said was making sense, whilst I was still trying to get a reading of where we were. We agreed then that down here, with visibility, it would be better for Lee to do the Nav, he was quicker than me, and stronger, so he had a little more time to think. I would take over when we got up amongst the clouds, as he wasn’t all that confident with the compass.
His map reading was great though, and his decision to split the difference as half the runners trailed off right and the other half toiled upwards turned out a genius bit of decision making, as he dropped us pretty much directly onto the fence crossing we needed to get to checkpoint 3.
We were up in the clouds now. I was feeling embattled, and to be honest, really felt like dropping out. As we laboured up through the fields onto Moel Eilio I found it more and more difficult to move. The muscles in my lower back on the left hand side went into spasm, and there were many moments where my legs just simply refused to go upwards any more, and I found myself just crabbing sideways on the hill. I felt terrible for Lee, clearly I was slowing him down and it must have been frustrating. Not once did he suggest there was a problem, and not once did he accept an apology for it from me.
My turn to navigate had come though, we took a bearing with the compass and headed for where we believed we should be. The clouds broke for a moment as we descended to the checkpoint, and over our right shoulders the hillside was alive with pairs of runners that had all taken their different routes, and were now all racing down towards this one spot. It was a scene that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Braveheart. It made me happy 😊.
Up onto the crest again and a horrifically steep descent followed to get to checkpoint 4. Should we take the longer and less steep route like everybody else was doing? Or plunge ourselves over what was pretty much a grass covered cliff, wet grass too, and head for it in a straight line? This is fell running. No course markings. We did what any 12 year old boy would do – and dropped our asses down the perilous slope.
Toes were hurting now, slamming against the end of my shoes. Ankle was really starting to suffer. Every single step I took was more painful than the last, and it carried on this way as we passed the head of a gorgeous little tarn and made northwards back towards Llanberis, straight across the reed beds in a valley that never ceases to be wet. It were a bit muddy in there.
The climb out of there to the 6th and final checkpoint had me literally grasping at the grasses and whin, and heading upwards on all fours. The strength in my legs was gone completely, I wouldn’t have got up without using my arms.
I think Lee knew I was digging deep now.
Up top, when we got running again, my pains had reached a whole new level. I can honestly say I’ve never had such a tough two hours of running as these were turning out to be. My ankle was properly done in now, every step sent a shot of pain all the way up into my neck. We reached a broken wall and the weakness in my ankle and different angles of the fallen stones made it really hard for me to cross. It might aswell have been a raging torrent of a river just at that moment in time. I got shouted at to get out of the way – on a downhill – this is normally where I’m at my best.
It was a muddy and treacherous descent back down into the quarry. Lee, once again, had read the situation perfectly, and was guiding me where to run to give my ankle the best chance of getting down still attached to my leg. There was one drop off we had to jump down and I thought for a moment I was never going to make it over that. I limped down into the quarry, and practically collapsed over the line.
Lee, you were absolutely imperious, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find the right words to express just how brilliant you were out on those hillsides that day. Thank you 😊.
We hadn’t made it back quick enough to give David any head start, stages 3 and 4 had mass starts after a certain length of time, so David had gone off with that. He’s in fine form is David, he’d done a race called Hellrunner the day before in Delamere Forest, and here he was again. His leg and Ryan’s were definitely the stronger performances in our team, but then, considering the level of competition, I don’t think we were too shabby. Not too shabby at all.
“Did you enjoy that?” someone asked me, smiling.
My immediate answer was “No”.
I stand by that. I don’t know how anyone could hurt as much as I hurt in that race and say that they enjoyed it – and I’m not ashamed to admit to being a masochist!
Am I happy I went though?
Am I grateful for the opportunity?
Am I pleased that I could do that, even if it hurt?
Am I glad that I could be there for my friend?
Am I proud I got to represent my club?
Am I carrying an inner glow from the fact I competed in a British Championships – me – at age 45?
Am I chuffed my navigation with the compass worked?
Would I do it again tomorrow?
YOU BET YOUR RIGHT ARM I’D GO AND DO IT AGAIN TOMORROW!
Maybe not the week after a marathon though – unless I’m really really well trained. Never say never folks, eh?
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