Wednesday 21 November 2018

The benefits of foresight

This blog comes with a warning: This is one of those which I'm worried I’ll look back on in 12 months’ time and think, ‘How naïve was I to write that’, ‘That is so superficial’. I expect to be cringing and hiding my head in my hands when I do.
I hope I don’t. I hope the points I make are still valid and stay valid. But I know the problem that has me pre-occupied at the moment is far more complex than I can imagine right now. I've learned so much in such a short space of time in the weeks since I started university that I know it probably won't take long for this piece to become outdated.
More learning, greater discovery might indeed make this early contribution obsolete. But it’s important to remember where we started when we calculate how far we have come so I expect to be doing a little reflection on that this time next year, too.
I need to get down in writing where my thoughts are now so I can hopefully look back and see how far I’ve come in the future. Maybe I’ll manage a smile instead of a wince. Maybe a ‘How quaint’ instead of a ‘How naïve’.
So bear with me. Even make excuses for me, if you’re feeling particularly warm and generous in the future. Remember, I was doing my best when I wrote this!
Now back to the issue that I’m grappling with. A few weeks ago, I met a young guy. I say met, but he doesn’t exist. He was one of six fictitious characters with different qualities, traits and issues we were given as part of an exercise in how we regard different people in society.
They all had qualities to test our empathic responses. Some were certainly easier to like than others.
It was an exercise in prejudice as much as anything. In counselling, we have been told, there can be no room for judgement, no preconceptions, no ‘verdicts’ on our clients. But this one young guy who stood out among the six examples was testing a lot of people’s ability to be impartial.
The subject was described as ‘a 19-year-old unemployed man who has been on benefits for the past six months. He says that he is fed up of the way his mother keeps going on about how he should get a job. He says he spends much of the day in bed and that it is really the Government’s fault that he hasn’t got a job.’
Sounds familiar to many people. It feeds into the general conception that there are a lot of people out there like this young man who are takers, not givers who believe everything should be handed to them on a plate, that the world owes them a day in bed, every day.
It’s a view held by people who believe they have earned everything they have, that they have had to graft for the nice things in life, for the odd day in bed, which is a chance to recover from all the effort we have put in improving our lives and contributing to society. The exact opposite of this young man. We need a malaise in society, we need to look down on people as wasters to increase our sense of self-importance. To make us feel better about ourselves.
But of all the six characters we were introduced to when we met him, this guy appealed to me the most as someone I would love to help.
For a start, I do not believe anyone wants to be a failure (you know I hate to use that word but occasionally it gets the message across efficiently). Nobody wants to be unsuccessful.
The first thing about him that struck me was that he wasn’t happy spending most of time in bed arguing with his mother. There’s no joy in his situation. Just inertia. A sense of emptiness, lack of purpose and low self-esteem. To me, he longs to get out.
He doesn’t want to fight his mother but he can’t let her win or his self-esteem, his sense of self-worth will be even lower than it is already. He must blame the Government for his situation. He cannot pile any more burden on himself. He feels enough guilt already about his situation already.
But all he is conscious of is hearing his mother’s nagging and hearing people – politicians, neighbours, strangers – put him down all the time. ‘Get a job!’ ‘Get a life!’ What he really needs to get is help. And someone to show him his true self.
Back to my core beliefs. Here’s one - we are all capable of far more than we imagine.
No-one dies having achieved everything in life they were meant to. Whatever age you die, whether it’s tragically young or tragically old, it’s always tragically because everyone dies at some point on a journey that never ends.
What we need to do is make the most of what time we are given on that never-ending journey. To make every step count and to always move forwards.
Sounds very grand. Now back to our young man in bed. Deep down, he wants to be a success. Everyone does. He wants to feel better about himself today than he did yesterday. He wants to make every step count but he can’t bring himself to put one foot in front of the other. When we discover what is stopping him, something even he isn’t conscious of, we can overcome it and he’ll suddenly find his way out.
It could be his mother has been over-critical of him since he was a child. That night be just one of several layers to peel back as we talk. But I firmly believe once he is aware of where his lethargy comes from, he’ll be able to get his life back … and, most importantly, on his terms.
So out of all the six characters I was introduced to, he is the one I want to help the most. If we are more understanding of our troubled teenagers we can save society a lot of pain, money and resentment when we try to solve their problems in adulthood. By then they are more deep-rooted and difficult to get at.
At this stage of my journey, it doesn’t sound naïve to me. I hope, in a year’s time, it still doesn’t.

Friday 21 September 2018

Tale of the unexpected

It's a while since the last post but a lot has happened. Both emotionally and professionally it has been a period of great change. On Monday the Running With Diane story takes its latest twist as I begin a degree course at university.
At my age? Why not. It's a dream, but it's not a pipe dream. It's very real, and it gets very, very real on Monday..
There’s a difference between day-dreaming and dreaming big.
Day-dreamers wake up too late to grab their chance as the opportunity passed them by without them noticing.
Dreamers who dream big, on the other hand, create the opportunity in order to chase their dreams. They don’t allow anyone to tell them they can’t, that the dream is out of reach. If it is not to be, then I’ll make sure I am the one who finds out. I’ll not rely on someone else’s doubts about my ability.
At my age, becoming a full-time student at university is unorthodox, I admit. But age is no barrier to having a dream, nor should it ever be. And age should never stop you chasing your dream.
To tinker with one of George Bernard Shaw's more famous quotes, ‘We don’t stop dreaming because we grow old, we grow old because we stop dreaming’.
So the secret is, ‘Never stop dreaming’. Because then we’ll never grow old. Of course our bodies will weaken and our times over 100 metres might start to look less impressive, but between the ears we will never grow old. And between the ears is our most important bit.
I’m in a familiar place this weekend, standing at the foot of a mountain and daring to look up. I can’t see the top, it’s up in the clouds somewhere. But I can see the first ledge I need to get to. It’s called Semester 1.
From there, I’ll get a better view of the second ledge (no prizes for guessing what that’s called). If I successfully reach every ledge it means I will at some point reach the summit. What a day that promises to be in three years’ time if I stick to my one-ledge-at-a-time approach.
The latest challenge is probably the toughest yet by some margin. If I reach the top, I will have a BSc (Hons) degree in Psychology & Counselling from the University of Salford.
To experience university life has been a long-held dream of mine, ever since I squandered the opportunity more than four decades ago. I’ve become a full-time student at a time in life many are contemplating a more relaxing future.
But one of my favourite tenets is, ‘Never be the person they expect you to be’
Make sure you take control of what happens next in your life. Don’t hand the job to someone else.
The latest challenge ticks quite a few of my ‘mantra’ chart-toppers…

Never lose the urge to challenge yourself
Never put a ceiling on what you can achieve, you’re capable of far more than you could ever imagine
Aim further than you can reach
You’re never too old, too young, too fat, too thin
Look up and not down, ahead and not behind
This new chapter is exciting and daunting in equal measure, which usually means it’s a proper test of  mettle. The first steps of the climb take place on Monday. Let’s see how high we reach…

Monday 6 February 2017

Together, forever

It’s difficult to imagine it’s four years since Diane left. It never seems to get any easier to deal with her not being here. Maybe it never will.
The anniversary of her passing every February 6 will always be difficult. It still feels so cruel on her. She did not deserve to suffer the way she did in those final weeks. No-one deserves that. In those final days, she knew her light was dying, that the flame was flickering now and would soon dim and go out. Luckily she slept much as the end drew near, hopefully dreaming of being well, of being happy.
Who knows what we dream about in that moment when we are caught between life and death. I hope she is still dreaming now, four years on and forever more. 
The emptiness I feel because she is no longer here beside me is just a part of it. Add to that all the guilt – the belief that I could have done more, could have cared more and done more when she was there beside me, that is another part of it. Then there's the thought that I should have been able to fix her. That's what I was there for and I was helpless, hopeless, unable to stop it taking her from me. Finally, there’s the sorrow I feel imagining the pain she must have suffered.
Every February 6 all these emotions start swirling around with an extra intensity, forming an emotional maelstrom that leaves the brain in a mush for a couple of days. Most other days, the waters are calmer and while the same emotions exist at all times, they only come together in that kind of 'perfect storm' on notable days and anniversaries.

But it’s OK. That’s the way it is and that’s probably the way it will always be. In a way, I hope it is. I want these emotionally-charged days when everything I feel and have ever felt for Diane comes together in a moment of shared intensity. It proves she is still alive in my heart and soul. It proves we'll stay together, forever.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Small steps to a big change

New Year, New Me. We all make this year - whichever year it happens to be - the one when we sort ourselves out. When we finally go on that diet and get healthy.
Never quite works out like that, does it? Well, this year is going to be different. Here's what you need to remember if you want to make a real change and, more importantly, make it stick.
Firstly you need to want it. The fact that you made a resolution means you know you need to change. But needing to and wanting to are two different things. Without the desire, the drive, the determination to take charge of your own future, you'll struggle.
Look in the mirror. Look at the person looking back at you in the glass. Challenge that person to prove you're strong enough to do this and every time you look in that mirror tell it again and again that you will prove how good you can look.
You want to look in the mirror and say Wow not Ow!
Remember, changing your life for the better is a positive move. It is not about giving anything up, it's about giving yourself something new. It's not about depriving yourself of anything it's about enriching your life, living life to the full in a way you've never done before. It's a positive move, not a negative one.
The change won't only be physical. You will have a new spring in your step, your mood will improve, you'll sleep better, get tired less easily.
This is not just about a diet. It's not just about losing weight. It's not just about numbers on a set of scales. It's about becoming a person you can be proud of, a person who has taken charge of their own destiny, and taken charge of what happens to you next.
Establish where you are now and mark this as your starting point. Tell yourself that this is the last time you'll be this way. Now start your exciting journey forward.
Aim small to begin with. When I began my journey to the new me, I was 24-and-a-half stone. That was four years ago. I couldn't walk on the treadmill for more than a minute before stopping on my first visit to the gym. Was I discouraged? No. My goal was to last two minutes as soon as I could. Then three, four, maybe one day five minutes. Just over 12 months later I completed my first marathon having lost eight stone in the process. If I'd started on that first visit saying I wanted to run a marathon, only being able to do a minute walking on the treadmill would have made me feel utterly deflated.
As it was, I accepted where I was and I challenged myself to be able to do more tomorrow and so on. Gradually five minutes walking became four minutes walking and one minute "trotting". Then gradually the trotting lasted longer than the walking - then the trotting turned into jogging and the jogging turned into running. Then came the day I ran for 15 minutes on the treadmill without walking at all. I felt on top of the world. All by accepting how bad I was at the beginning and taking small, realistic steps to slowly improving myself.
As for food, we all know what's bad for us. Choose healthy options, cut down your portions, structure your meal times and snack times and stick to them. Nuts instead of crisps, brown rice instead of white potatoes, sweet potato chips instead of chippy chips. Fruit instead of pudding and home-made veg and fruit smoothies any time you like.
The more you achieve, the more incentive you will have to push on. The momentum of achievement means your progress will accelerate as you improve yourself and see the changes for yourself.
Small steps, patience and determination. That combination will make sure you succeed and make sure the changes you make last.
New Year, New You. Little by little.

Monday 14 November 2016

Rising to your challenges

THERE’S something very magical about Rivington Pike. On a good day you can stand beside it and it feels like you can see forever. On a bad day, the mist gives it an eerie ethereal feel. Up there, you get a real sense of the power of nature, good and fearsome.
The wind rises at the top at times threatening to blow you off your feet, the temperature drops and it feels like you’re in a very dark, foreboding place. Yet there is always – clear skies or misty gloom --an unmistakable majesty about it. It is where the earth touches the heavens. 
Challenging it to a one-on-one battle six times a day, five days on the trot, is always going to be a contest heavily stacked in its favour. It is not for the faint-hearted. But then, no challenge worth its salt is ever achieved with a faint heart.
The sense of achievement should you rise to the challenge and defeat this hell of a hill for even just one day let alone five consecutive days, is life-changing. Five-in-five runners conquer this mystical peak 30 times to achieve victory, to stand at the top of this great hill as a conqueror.
Welcome to the Hell of a Hill Marathon.
Twelve months ago, after I had completed one day of it, the thought came to me to go for all five. I have rarely believed between then and last week that I could do all five, certainly not at the first attempt, but the thinking behind it was simple. I would start on the Wednesday and see how far I got. I might not be able to do one this time round – I had no idea. I only wanted to do my best, whatever that turned out to be.
Not knowing what your best is, that’s what makes us set ourselves challenges. Then when we achieve them, or as in my case this year, go further than I ever imagined myself capable of going, we grow as people; we build our character..
That’s the magic of the Pike. It not only brings out the best in you – it shows you a best that you never thought could exist. 
I was privileged to share this challenge with - and run every day alongside - some of the most incredible runners I have ever met. People of various shapes and sizes, but all sharing two things – an iron will not to be defeated and a physical strength to withstand the pain the Pike can inflict when you challenge it again and again, day after day. Awesome athletes, yes. But awesome characters, too. Every one an inspiration.
This was my first attempt. I must get better if I’m to have another chance. All I can hope is that every time I attempt it, I manage a little more than last time. 
But that has always been the way. It is not just a lesson for gritty endurance runners.
In April 2013, at over 24 stone, I lasted no more than a minute walking on a treadmill on my first visit to the gym. I had no idea then what I could achieve, what would be my “best” that day. I had no dreams to climb a Pike. All I wanted on the next visit to the gym was to try to walk on the treadmill for two minutes. Then three, then four… 
Just as I had no idea what I would manage as I stood at the start line in Wilcocks Caravan Park in Rivington that cold Wednesday morning last week, so I had no idea when I stepped on the treadmill three and a half years ago whether I would be able to walk on it for a minute more than I'd done the day before.
We all have our own challenges and our own agendas. If we constantly strive to do the best we can, our best will continue to surprise us.
So my first attempt is broken down like this: Five days, started every day. Two marathons, two 18-mile runs and one 9.5-mile run. A total of 98 miles. 22 laps of the Pike. 18,300ft of climb.
All because I dreamed three and a half years ago that I’d be able to walk for more than a minute on the treadmill. And wasn’t prepared to let it stop at that.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Good days, bad days... and how to cope with both

Some days are good, some not so much. I guess that is pretty much the same for everyone to varying degrees. But when you lose someone to cancer, the two become more starkly contrasting. It seems almost disrespectful to have a good day when you’ve lost such an important person in your life so cruelly.
But good days and bad days have nothing to do with emptiness and loneliness. They have nothing to do with the actual loss. That gaping hole in your life that is left will always be there. It’s right that it should always be there. You learn to live with the emptiness, that’s your duty. But the emptiness will never go away, how could it? How could someone that important in your life go and it not make a difference to the rest of your life?
My life changed the moment Diane went. It will never be the same again, even if I wanted to fill that gap, I wouldn’t be able to.
There is no need to fill the gap. My life is poorer for not having Diane physically here to share the highs and lows of it with. But I must simply accept it. I must learn to live with this black hole of emptiness.
But don’t confuse emptiness with loneliness. The emptiness becomes a part of your daily life. It is just something that exists, like a sudden, unforeseen disability. You learn how to cope with it. Eventually it becomes part of that which identifies you as who you are.
Loneliness is quite different. Whether you’re lonely or not is entirely up to you. The future is the only thing in your control. Not the past, that’s gone and cannot be altered. Surround yourself with friends, spend as much time as you can with family, fill your life with people. People are the cure for loneliness and eventually, if you’re lucky, one of those people will emerge as the one you want to share all your life with, not just some of it. If you’re lucky. I hope I will be.
For now, I have more good days than bad. I can ask for no more.
Even during the darkest times of Diane’s illness there were good days.
The day we got Bonny, the little King Charles Cavalier Diane had always wanted and who became her constant companion through it all. That was one.
The day we thought we’d beaten the terrible disease. That was a very good day.
The day I realised we hadn’t beaten it was one of the worst. One of many very bad days.
When you start having good days, there is a sense of guilt, a worry that you’re starting to forget her, to cope without her. Then you realise those are two very different things.
I will never forget her. The effect she had on my life, the joy she brought, the happiness she gave me just by being there. I’ll never forget any of that. But coping without her? That’s different. You learn to cope with the hole in your life that she left. But that hole never gets any smaller.
Now, nearly four years on, I realise I will always have that emptiness but It is possible to have fun, to enjoy life and to feel positive about the future while still having this emptiness in your life. And I will not feel guilty about having days when I feel like a million dollars. I know there’ll be days when I feel the exact opposite so I’ll take the good stuff whenever I can.
The emptiness reminds me what I lost and it is why I will never forget the woman who was so much a part of my life.
I’ve been reminded of all this by a magazine article out today, Thursday October 13 in all good, right-thinking supermarkets. Love It! magazine are dedicating this issue to the fight against breast cancer and a portion of the cover price will go to Breast Cancer Care, the charity closest to my heart.
The work they do to raise awareness of the disease and to help the 50,000 women and men newly diagnosed with it each year is incredible. We must never stop supporting them. I will never stop, thanks to Diane.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Set your dreams free

Never put a ceiling on what you can achieve. Never put a limit on what you believe you are capable of. Never say never.
It’s something I keep banging on about but it’s so frustrating when people convince themselves they’ve done all they can, that they’ve no more to give. Trust me, you haven’t done all you’re capable of and you have much more to give.
You are assuming you can go no further, but in truth you have no idea. As a rule of thumb, remember this: Your body is capable of far more than you give it credit for and much of your inner strength lies undetected until you go looking for it. You don’t even realise it’s there until you dig deep and discover it.
That’s why when I was massively overweight I had no idea how I could turn my life around and survive the loss of Diane. But I looked in the mirror and we decided I’d try.
When I joined Smithills gym, I had no idea whether I would be able to get fit, but I wanted to see if I could. The point is, when I looked in that mirror and when I signed up to the gym, the only thing I knew about what would happen next was that... I didn’t know. All I knew was that the future was a mystery, unwritten. And I have spent my life looking at blank pieces of paper and dreaming up stories. Time to see what story I myself was capable of.
So when on a sunny September morning in Salford Quays I lined up with hundreds of other runners for my first ever 5K I was terrified. I had no idea whether I’d be able to do it. But no-one was going to tell me I couldn’t. I had to find that out for myself.
I had no idea as I took those first few tentative steps outside the Lowry that just over two years later I’d be standing in a caravan park in Rivington on my 60th birthday staring along the lane towards those daunting hills leading up to the Pike and about to see if I could tackle one of the toughest marathons in the country.
Time to dig a little deeper and see if there was anything left in that uncharted well of determination inside. I had the inner belief. Did I have anything left to back it up? As 9am and the start of the run approached I had no idea. That’s where the adventure begins, that’s the buzz you get from testing yourself in ways you never believed possible and still aren’t sure if they are!
Luckily, there was still enough left in me, even if it took a long time and the company of wonderful friends to get me through it.
Now comes the next motto: If I can do it, anyone can. There’s nothing special about me, there’s nothing I have that you don’t. I’m just not prepared to accept that I can’t do something until I prove it to myself by falling flat on my face attempting it. I’m sure at some point in the future that will happen, that I will bite off more than I can chew and take on a challenge I can’t rise to. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone else decide when and what that is. I’m in charge of finding that out.
Your dreams need room to take flight, they need the freedom to  take you places you never imagined. Don’t put them in a cage and just stare at them now and then, like watching a proud wild animal in a zoo.
Unlock the cage and let your dreams out. Like those animals in the zoo, they are much better off in the wild, running free.