Come on England

I came up with an analogy which I think sums up my tendency to self-sabotage myself into depression when I hear it knocking, rather than trying and pull myself out of it: It’s like watching England play; of course I want them to win, but when their play begins to grind and the standard drops and every midfielder becomes too terrified to try anything imaginative in case they tit it up (and any other infuriating facets of England’s consistently disappointing performances you care to think of), I sometimes want whoever we’re playing to just stick 5 past us before half time, to punish and embarrass the players who seem determined to let the fans down time and time again. That’s why when I feel depression knocking, you might find me in the pub, or taking drugs, or flying solo at the all you can eat buffet at Pizza Hut, where I’ll sit for hours and literally consume all. I. can. eat. It infuriates me that my mind can’t sustain a simple spell of contentment, so I decide to punish it by feeding it (literally) everything it needs to push itself over into a familiar (and strangely comforting) period of misery. Of course the thing is I don’t really want to feel depressed, just like I don’t really want England to get stuffed 5-0; it’s just me being unbelievably harsh towards something I wish was better (my brain) when it lets me down, and fuck the outcome.

At the same time, however, I can sense I’m about to enter a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ period when I (England) find confidence and my behaviour (team’s performance) starts to improve. I start taking care of myself and try to evolve the feeling of ‘good’ or ‘fine’ into feelings of ‘happy’ or ‘content’. Fuck it, in these times I’ll go as far as to say I actually LIKE me. I like my desire to achieve and be creative; I like my determination to stay healthy and organised; and I like how I’ve learnt to take advantage of these (often only temporary) periods by setting myself targets and seeing them through to completion. That’s how last Wednesday I ended up ditching the hiking boots and starting a 125 mile run from Inverness to John o’ Groats.

Here’s how it went down…

Sarah, who follows me on Instagram, had been in touch earlier in the week to welcome me to her home city of Inverness. After exchanging a few messages, and with the idea to run from Inverness to John o’ Groats in one week lodged firmly at the forefront of my mind, I eventually plucked up the requisite cheek to ask if she wouldn’t mind looking after my pack for a while. She said yes, and on Tuesday evening she drove into town to grab it. What a babe.

The following morning I began the process of plotting my route (which was to basically just follow the A9) and securing a place to sleep each night, as I’d obviously be without my tent or sleeping bag. I used Couchsurfing (a community app where kind and trusting folk put weary travellers up for nowt) and a few contacts and managed to secure lodgings for the first three nights, giving me an agreeable 3 day buffer for the remaining four. The first to answer my call was Ali, who lives with his partner David in a gorgeous house in Alness, 20 miles from Inverness. It was a slightly longer run than I would have liked for my first day, but it was the only play I had. I therefore decided to break my day into three chunks to avoid any sort of opening day niggles, that might put my whole plan in the shit.

As was my first day running from Edinburgh to Glasgow earlier in the month, day one of THIS challenge was probably the hardest. I’d been neglecting my running and strength work while dealing with a mentally low period after my Ted Talk, and hadn’t really had the chance while I was hiking the Great Glen Way with Greg the previous week. That, combined with the excitement of setting off (reflected in my typical disregard for maintaining a sensible running pace), meant by the time I reached Alness that afternoon I was well and truly shaggered. Just imagine how pathetically grateful I was when Ali, my amazing host for the night, offered me a fucking jacuzzi before dinner..!

Dinner itself felt like a real event, with Ali preparing an epic roast of chicken, tatties and veg, and inviting the neighbours over for a right old knees up. It was a truly brilliant and hilarious evening with truly brilliant and hilarious people, and after retiring to my big double bed (which I haven’t mentioned yet but was obviously incredibly chuffed about), I slept better than i have in months. A hefty bowl of porridge and some early morning bants with their two dachshunds the following day, and I said farewell to Ali and David and hit the road again, bound for Tain some 14 miles north.

I found a B-Road that ran more or less parallel to the A9 that took me the majority of the way, which meant I enjoyed a couple of hours break from having to leap onto the grass verge next to the main road every time a lorry blazed past me (it wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds mum/dad, honest). One thing that made Thursday’s run so great though was the weather. Whatever I expected the Highlands to be like in early November, warm and sunny was not it. It was glorious. I arrived at the place I was staying after dark however, after I got too caught up in the glory of the sun and ended up misreading the route (which is basically just one road all the way to John o’ Groats, remember), a mistake that added another 2 miles to my run. What a melt. Nevertheless I found my way to the house I was staying at and by 7pm I was sat by a roaring fire chatting to Charlie, an old friend of my mum and dad’s who I’d been put in touch with through Derek, another old friend of the family.

Charlie’s house has the feel of a surrealist art studio that’s been set up at the back of a fancy dress shop. It’s superb. His own paintings, sculptures and collections of photographs and oddities engulf the walls and shelves of almost every room, while thoughtfully positioned mannequins guard his immense and curious treasure trove, stored within a beautiful farmhouse, a few miles outside the main town.

Charlie definitely has an anarchic streak, and he had me in tears when he told me about the time he made an enormous pair of ‘flying-v’ fingers out of wood to hold up at the RAF aircrews who ‘made such a fucking racket’ when they used the airspace over Tain to practice manoeuvres. Needless to say I enjoyed my time with Charlie so much that I’m heading back over there tomorrow night to crash with him again, on my way back down to Inverness.

The following day was the shortest in terms of mileage – a doable 13.4 from Tain to a village just outside Dornoch. There I stayed in the beautifully renovated home of Gill and Jim, a couple I’d met by chance in a cafe in a Carlisle back in July. Sadly Gill and Jim weren’t around, but I did have the pleasure of meeting Lynn, who was housesitting for them while they were away. Lynn’s one of those people you end up remembering forever. Her lust and passion for life is so energising, and after an evening of deep and meaningful conversation, she took me the following morning down to Dornoch, where she insisted we “dip a toe” and take a barefoot walk along the beach.

One of Lynn’s self care go-to’s is ‘being in cold water’, and after wandering along the sand for half an hour or so I watched in amazement as she de-robed and walked into the freezing highland sea without as much as a flinch, for a swim that lasted a good 10 minutes. If I wasn’t there I think she’d have been in there even longer.

She dried off and then drove me back to where I came off the A9, where I began my 15 mile run to Brora. I slept in a summer house belonging to a lady called Isla, who was at a wedding when I arrived at her home, so didn’t actually meet her until the following morning. We didn’t have much time together before I had to set off, but we connected on our love of hiking and spent an hour or so swapping stories about our experiences ‘oot and aboot’ the highlands. A wonderful lady and so trusting to leave her home open for a stranger in need.

The following two days I ran well. I kind of had to to be honest; Sunday was the longest at 26.6 miles to Dunbeath (which is incredibly remote), followed by a 20 miler from Dunbeath to Wick the following day. Two people I’ve never even met sorted me out with B&B accommodation both nights which was such a treat. Huge thanks to Arleen and Nick who believed in the cause enough to hook me up. I’m so grateful.

The 20 miles in ran on Monday was great fun; I got a bit caught up in the brouhaha of the New York Marathon on social media that morning, and decided to run that day as I would a race. No breaks and keeping my pace nice and steady throughout, meant I got the lot done in 3 hours; which also meant I didn’t have to wait an hour and a half after lunch to let food go down – a necessary part of running days that bores me shitless.

And so to the final day: Wick to John o’ Groats. I set off at midday to catch the sun and I’m so pleased I made that decision. At just over 16 miles it was far from pedestrian, but with the sun on my face and the end nearly in my sights the day went by in a flash. I found myself thinking about all kinds of stuff, but mostly about the fact that once I got to John o’ Groats then that would be it, no more land. I could no longer head North – it would be time to turn around and begin the journey home. Annoyingly, I had my little tearful moment about that in fucking wetherspoons before I even started running, so by the time I got to my finish line – the iconic sign at Scotland’s most northerly point, the occasion washed over me slightly. That being said, I absolutely gunned that final half mile descent towards the coast, and when I got to the sign I did shed my pack, throw my hat into the air and let out an annoyingly shrill ‘woo’ (or something to that effect). I stood gazing out to sea, the islands of Stroma and Muckle Skerry both impressively clear and visible from where I stood, as the sun warmed my back and my heart rate returned to normal. I felt really calm in that moment, and was actually glad that it was just me there, alone with my thoughts.

That evening as I lay in bed at a hotel in Thurso, I got a message from Isla (the lady who’s summer house I crashed in a few days earlier) telling me to go outside and look at the sky. I threw my shoes on, pulled my jacket off the radiator and headed down towards the beach which I knew was just a 2 minute walk from the hotel. As I got closer to the beach and the orange haze of the street lamps began to fade, the stars began to make themselves known, and then I saw it. I saw what I really, really hoped it would be; the unmistakable green glow of Aurora Borealis; the Northern Lights. I ran down the steps to the beach to extinguish the light of the town from Vision completely, and clumsily crossed the shingle until I reached the water. It was beautiful. And as I stood gazing into the night, the green light dancing with the stars, disappearing, reappearing and dancing some more, I relived the past week in my head and thanked myself for doing what was necessary to keep the good feeling going.

I fucking love it when England play well.

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