The simple pleasures of an early morning trail run

It's 5:45 am. The room is pitch black. There's not even a hint of light creeping around the edges of the curtains. The air in the room is fresh and chilly. The duvet is warm and comforting. The alarm is set for 6:00am. I'm awake. It's time to get up for a run.

The sun is starting to rise as I change from my toasty warm pyjamas into my running kit. I fill the hydration backpack, pack some energy gels, and check out of the windows to see what the weather is doing.

It's grey and dank. It doesn't look like rain though. It looks slightly misty, like the clouds are extending all the way down from the sky to the ground. I opt to forego a waterproof jacket, it'll probably just get annoyingly, cloyingly warm later on. A long sleeve thermal base layer should do it. The forecast is for temperatures hovering around 5°C. At the top of the some of the hills on my route it will feel much colder than this.

Leaving the house all is quiet. It's still early and few cars or people are about. My Garmin has picked up its GPS signal, my pack is secured and I've set-up Audible on my Nexus so that I can listen to an audio book while I run. I'm going to be out for a couple of hours or so. I enjoy peace and quiet. I also want to cram more into life; listening to audio books on longer runs seems like a fair compromise.

I'm incredibly lucky. I only have to go 100 yards up the road before I turn into a lane to fields and open land. I know that it's going to be a good run when I'm greeted by a couple of pheasants pottering along the lane with me briefly. It feels like a day of nature.

About a mile from home, I'm running soon-to-be harvested fields of Elephant Grass (Miscanthus - a biofuel crop). Peeking through the tall stems of the grass I spot a few Roe Deer. Usually they startle when I'm running, but today they just eye me suspiciously. Perhaps they are comfortable that their more camouflaged in the tall grass with the murky weather conditions.

I come to the end of the field and cross over a road. I'm picking up a paved bridleway for about half a mile. The field on my left is grassy. A couple of rabbits hop away from me, showing me how fast I'm not.

A little further up the line a squirrel scurries around the trunk of a horse chestnut tree. It scampers down to the ground and then bounds along the path in front of me. It feels slightly unusual to get the chance to see a squirrel running in the same direction as me. In my mind, squirrels normally dart in different directions, or dash away from you seeking refuge in the trees.

The paved bridleway comes to an end at Hazelbury Manor. Here it turns into a more typical woodland path. There are roots pressing up through the surface of the ground. Lumps of rock poke upwards. It's a firm surface, but very uneven. This is why I love trail running. There is a real sense of flow as you pick your way through the terrain.

The path turns down a short steep hill. It's been fairly dry recently, but there is still plenty of evidence of the almost incessant rain we've been having for the last few months. At the bottom of the slope, there are boggy patches of deep mud. I know from experience that they are about ankle-deep. If I was racing, I'd probably just bound through them. But I'm running for pleasure, so I gingerly attempt to pick my way around them. Even on shorter runs it's frustrating to have soggy feet in claggy shoes.

For the next few miles, I'm running along bridelways surrounded by the glorious Wiltshire scenery. This is one of the favourite parts of any of my local running routes. It's a rooty, bumpy woodland path that I enjoy running along. I can see right down into the Box valley and all the way across to the other side, where the water tower at Colerne is an obvious land mark.

The route carries on through Box Hill and past the Quarrymans Arms pub. I feel a slight a twinge of frustration. The food at the Quarrymans is excellent. Why am I investing so much in a fairly abstemious diet? Couldn't I just take the family for a delicious Sunday Lunch there today? But I know that I'm trying to push myself to a level of performance I'm not at yet. It takes much more hard work to reach a performance level than it generally does to sustain the same level. So, no excessive Sunday Lunch for me today. Onwards!

The run now turns into the Slaughterford 9 race route. This is a brilliant local race held in January. It is famed for mud and stupidly steep hills. I'll be jogging around the route for fun. Maybe there really is something wrong with me. Even so, it's almost impossible not to enjoy bounding down the first steep slope into the valley cut by the By Brook, surrounded by trees and beyond them fields and very little sign of built development.

The author of the Slaughterford 9 route description does an excellent job of conveying the details of the course. I won't try to repeat them, save to note that Weavern Lane remained almost biblically muddy. A cow sitting with her calf gave some hope that spring is here and that maybe Weavern Lane will eventually dry out a bit to be just muddy, rather than a near river of deep slurrying sludge.

In the village of Slaughterford, I spot a heron swooping down on to the river. Now I really feel like I'm out in the country. I have a terrible memory for my childhood, but I don't feel like this was something I got chance to see very often when growing up. I'm luck to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

Having plodded up the steep slopes coming out of the Slaughterford valley, I get to Euridge Farm. This is one of the highest points on my run. I clamber over a stile into a field of lethargic sheep. As I run down the hill the sheep regard me with something bordering on nonchalance. Maybe they see sweaty, panting runners every 15 minutes. I am almost ignored by the ambivalent beasties, apart from the one that's directly in my way. This one just lazily shuffles a few feet sideways and allows me through. [I wanted to use the pronoun "she" here, but I don't know whether I'd be making a gross assumption about the gender of sheep - at least cows are easy!]

I'm kind of on the homeward track now. Still a few miles to go and some more seriously steep hills. Crossing a river after a steep downhill run is usually an ominous sign on a trail run. What goes up, must come down. As I stagger up the top of an insanely steep climb from one such river crossing, I come across four cows cows on the wrong side of the fence like naughty schoolchildren hiding behind bike sheds. Displaying none of the nonchalance of the sheep, they startle as if caught out by the head master and they run away.

Just the small matter of the Slaughterford 9's fabled "sting in the tail" to come. I'll be walking that today. This is only a training run. [In fact, I even walked it in this year's race. It didn't seem to affect my time. I finished 32nd out of 352 starters.]

After finishing the Slaughterford 9 route, I have about 1.6 miles to home. It's mostly downhill, which is a nice way to end the run. Even though the sky is still grey and the horizon an undifferentiated blur of misty cloud, I feel great. It's barely turned half past eight in the morning and I've done nearly 13 miles of undulating trail. And I've been surrounded by English countryside's nature all the way. I feel alive and ready for the day (and a shower and some breakfast).

Picture Credits
Path Through Miscanthus by Tony Atkin (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Slaughterford - Bridge Over By Brook by Chris Allen (CC BY-SA 2.0)


What does work-life balance really mean?

Worried about work-life balance?
Why do you work?
How often do you take time to ask this question?
Where does work fit into your life?
What do you want to gain from working?

Life is too short

One of my main philosophies is that the time you spend at work represents too great a proportion of your waking hours to be dismissed as something other than "life". For most full-time workers, if you factor in commuting, preparing work clothes, and all of the other work related activities, work related activities account for a minimum of 50 hours each week. Assume you sleep for 7 hours a night. This means that you have 119 waking hours available. So work accounts for 42% of your waking time.

I believe that life is too short to separate 42% of my time as something other than "life". I want to experience life to the full. This means I need to find ways in which my work is a valuable component of my life.

This is why I don't like the phrase "work-life balance". I feel that the phrase implies that work and life are discrete things. This just seems wrong. Work should be part of life. It would seem odd to talk of "sleep-life balance". Why is it any more sensible to talk of work-life balance?

This isn't a manifesto to dump work that you don't like and search (probably in vain) for that one dream job. In fact, I believe part of the value of work is that it can help to develop skills at dealing with difficult or aversive tasks.

Deliberately Developmental Organisations

I think about this topic a lot, but was inspired to write by this week's HBR idea cast "Are You the 'Real You' in the Office". The podcast described "deliberately developmental organisations". These organisations place a genuine value on continuous personal development of employees. This resonates with my philosophy. If your work is integrated as part of your life then the personal development at work is all part of your growth and journey as an individual.

Irrespective of the work you do and your career choices, there are many things you can develop at work that are part of growth in life. You will learn to deal with other people, you'll develop communication skills, you will lean self-mastery, eg learning to minimise procrastination on aversive tasks.

Take advantage of your opportunities

Work can be frustrating at times. The right response is see this as an opportunity to develop skills to master that frustration. Irritating boss? Learn communication skills and relationship building skills to try to better your relationship. Doesn't work? Learn relaxation techniques and Zen meditation to calm down and avoid your frustrations. Practice mindfulness and give yourself the power to choose how to respond to difficult situations. Boss not just irritating, but physically assaults you? Go to HR, resign and contact a lawyer.

Whatever you do, develop the habit of seeing work as part of life and think about how you can maximise the advantages you can gain.

Picture credit: Man highlining in Yosemite National Park with El Capitan in the background.JPG by LiAnna Davies (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Achievement Unlocked: First 50 mile week

I was going to refer to achieving another running milestone in 2014. But then I realised that that would be an atrocious pun.

Last week I covered a total of 52.6 miles. That's comfortably the most distance I've covered in a week. My previous highest weekly mileage was 44.5 miles.

I very much doubt you're interested, but for posterity, here is my weekly running log:

25/03 - 6.25 mi - 46:59 - Tempo run
26/03 - 6.17 mi - 50:00 - Easy run to work
26/03 - 4.46 mi - 37:28 - Easy run home
27/03 - 20.58 mi - 2:45:10 - Long run
28/03 - 3.99 mi - 33:09 - Easy run with hills
29/03 - 5.28 mi - 44:06 - Easy run with hills
30/03 - 5.86 mi - 56:25 - Easy trail run (very hilly)

The slightly scary thing? The Brecon Beacons Ultra is 46 miles in one go. Hmmmm.