Above the Clouds – Review

I am tidying the blog. Well tidying is too strong a word. I was scrolling through draft posts to decide what is worth saving and finishing and what I should just bin. Mostly I just binned things because they were things written about at a particular moment in time which are not really relevant anymore. I did think that this review was worth finishing though. I wrote it in September last year when I was really struggling with fitness and didn’t really know what was going on health wise. Not sure why I never finished the edit and posted it because the review was pretty much finished. So here it is:

A week ago I curled up on the sofa to read Kilian Jornet’s ‘Above the Clouds’. I am grumpy about not running or exercising much at all. I couldn’t get passed the 8 minute runs on the 5k plan and the Nike app just doesn’t seem to work for me beyond a week or so. I was and still am feeling unreasonably tired and this last week I have been for a few walks, slow walks, and I have been aching and tired like a ran a half marathon and didn’t stretch. I have a blood test on Thursday that will hopefully provide some answers. If everything is fine and I am just less fit than I ever have been then ok, well I guess I can work with that. But let’s just wait and see and then go from there.

I finished ‘Above the Clouds’ in an afternoon/evening and it is a nice and easy read. If you are interested in running and in particular running in the mountains then it’s worth a couple of hours of your time. But it’s not the snippets about training or races etc that stick with me from the book. Instead it’s the things left unsaid or hinted at. It’s clear that Kilian Jornet is not a people person and that he would rather just be running in the mountains or recording his thoughts just for him rather than sharing them with the world. There are passages of the book that made me smile because the reluctance to share too much of Kilian the person rather than Kilian the personality is tangible. Engaging with us, the public, through the writing is something he sort of has to do as part of the job. And presumably publishing the book then also means activity to promote the book and so more people stuff… So maybe I should start the review by saying thank you to Kilian Jornet for doing this, for sharing and for allowing us a glimpse into his extraordinary life and give us so much to think about and reflect on.

So the book provides an insight into Jornet’s journey that led to him climbing Everest twice within a few days and I really like that this is positioned both as something that has been in the making all his life and a sort of endpoint as well as just another thing he does. It’s that mixture of acknowledging the extraordinary while also recognising that for him that is actually just what he does, his normal if you like. This tracks through book and it made me think about how many people I would call inspirational just go about their normal life. For them, what they do is not special or record breaking or pushing boundaries (it might be but that’s not the point), it’s about them doing their thing their way. And in some ways this is so ill at ease with the social media world where clicks and likes are everything and doing your thing your way is difficult – particular where your thing your way does not conform to expectation. That juxtaposition between making a living doing what he loves – running in the mountains – and having to to the things which allow him to make a living doing what he loves – being an influencer and content creator – is an interesting one and one he clearly struggles with.

It made me think about social media and how we often view the sort of content created by these sporting greats. We see the big views, crazy mountain runs, snippets of what they choose to share on line with their sponsorship agreements and brands. That’s fine, that’s what it’s about. However it leaves a whole load of stuff unseen. We rarely get a glimpse of the ‘I can’t be fucked to get out of bed today’, ‘I am struggling with motivation’, ‘Everything hurts and I can barely walk never mind run’ stuff. It doesn’t fit with the influencer role. Except that there are glimpses of this in the book. Glimpses of losing the reason, the why, and therefore struggling. It also links, I think to something else Jornet writes about: The difference between training to compete or competing to train. It came as no surprise to me to read that Jornet competes to train. Throughout the book it is clear that his end goal is never about competition or records. It’s about him. Competition/races can provide motivation to train but the race is not the end point. I think maybe us mere mortals could also learn something from thinking about the difference between the two approaches – and we may take a different approach at different times in our lives. Practically I might do much the same but I think the mindset is completely different.

Something that resonated with me, which isn’t really about running at all, is the idea of home as feeling rather than place. Home for me has always been about a feeling not a particular place. When I say ‘home’ my meaning is completely dependent on context. I might mean the house Mum and I shared in Germany, I might mean my Dad’s flat in Hamburg, I might mean our very own corner of West Yorkshire. Sometimes it might mean a hotel room or a cabin or apartment. That’s not to say that I call every place I am staying at ‘home’. To me it’s a feeing of settledness and calm, maybe partly of familiarity but it’s more than that. It’s about what it feels like to be in the particular space. Home is Ilkley Moor when the curlews are circling, home is the flash of orange and blue as a kingfisher darts passed along the Leeds Liverpool Canal, home is the smell of Glühwein in Hamburg in the run up to Christmas or the icy blast of air conditioning as you come through the front doors of the Contemporary Resort at Disney. For Jornet home is always in the mountains but as it is for me, it is more a feeling than a place.

Jornet writes: ‘To me, sport doesn’t mean a life full of sacrifices but rather one full of choices’. This is sticking with me because it runs counter to how we so often think about life. The narrative of ‘achievements come on the back of sacrifices’ is really quite strong. Not just in sport but in other areas too – careers, relationships even. Reframing sacrifices to choices is a subtle but important difference in thinking about what we do and why. So some of the choices Jornet makes might seem extreme to us. The training he is capable of and chooses to do, the risks he chooses to take, yep, mad. But making choices to do x and y is a rather more positive way of thinking about achievements than sacrificing a and b to achieve them. So rather than sacrificing an hour in bed, I am choosing to get up and see the run rise during my run. Instead of sacrificing my chocolate fix and love of cake, I chose to bake my own healthier versions and instead of sacrificing ‘bad’ food, I choose to learn more about nutrition to help fuel my body better. Sacrifice feels imposed, unsustainable and a bit forced and miserable. Choice feels empowering, sustainable and positive. I don’t know if that’s what Jornet had in his head as he was writing but that’s what is sticking with me.

So overall reading the book left me with a sense of contradictions. Contradictions that are inherent in us all but which come out so clearly when someone like Jornet writes about his life. The book isn’t an amazing feat of story telling, it’s a bit chaotic and the sections don’t always link together easily. It’s not even a particularly well written book but there is something raw and honest about it. It is the story of an introvert who would clearly rather be running in the mountains than writing the book and who is certainly not looking forward to the promotional work the book will require. It’s the story told as it would be told in a cafe with friends with asides and tangents and chaos and an assumed familiarity with his life and work which sometimes means there is a lack of context. I loved the book because it felt real, it felt human and because there was no attempt to hide the lack of need for other people or the disdain felt for many of his fellow humans. There was also no attempt to gloss over the contradictions. Jornet comes across as supremely arrogant in some ways and vulnerable and humble in others. In other words, he’s human with all the flaws, contradictions and issues and the book not only doesn’t hide them, it acknowledges and embraces them. That’s rare in a book by or about elite athletes.

Happy reading.

New Year, Same You – Review

A couple of days ago I finished reading New Year, Same You by Julie Creffield and I thought it was worth reviewing/ sharing my thoughts here! Now, I don’t do self-help type books really. Years ago I picked up the ‘You are What you Eat’ crap and that just made me feel miserable and then – as some of you will remember I picked up ‘Run Fat Bitch Run’ a while back and that didn’t go too well. Actually I am still angry about the existence of that book. So why did I pick up this one? Well I joined the Too Fat to Run Countdown to Christmas challenge – essentially a Facebook Group with daily challenges that are health and fitness related and fun. I thought it would be me something productive to do with my time while off work and give me a bit of something positive to focus on. It’s been great. Julie runs it and mentioned her new book. I read the blurb and thought that just maybe this is something a bit different, something more positive, something that I can identify with a bit more – and I was right.

Right from the intro I ‘got’ this book. I ‘get’ Julie’s story and I identify with lots of it. I found myself chuckling at her stories about keeping a journal and the benefits of writing or blogging to aid self-reflection. I was nodding enthusiastically at the idea that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. Of course they don’t. It is obvious if you think about it for a second. I liked the way Julie very clearly (and for some perhaps brutally) points out that if we keep giving ourselves permission to put things off, we will keep putting them off. Now I am the queen of ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, ‘I’ll start again Monday’ and ‘Next term will be better’ and it hasn’t done me any favours at all, the change in thinking that Julie suggests is positive and powerful – but of course anything but easy – but maybe not as hard as I think – or maybe much much harder. We’ll see.

There was one section where Julie talks about yo-yo dieting where I was thinking – nah, I’m nothing like you. I’ve never been on a diet in my life – I just don’t do diets. I can’t do them. I know I don’t stick to them. If you tell me I can’t have something I want it, simple. But thinking about it, I am of course exactly like Julie and all the other millions of us who have complicated relationships with food. I agree that simply saying ‘move more and eat less’ isn’t the answer to most of our weight issues and not being told what to eat or not to eat was refreshing. There’s a section about food in the book but it’s not a section about what to eat. It’s far more honest than any diet book I’ve ever flicked through. Anyway, the book isn’t about losing weight so I don’t want to go on about the food stuff… I liked the fact that Julie acknowledges that our relationship with food is complicated and that a relatively simple thing, like starting to think of yourself as an athlete can change how we think about what we put in our bodies. I struggle with thinking of myself as an athlete. I’m a now size 16 (yay me!), nearly 37 year old woman who – as the blog title suggests – isn’t really a runner. BUT as someone who (doesn’t really) run(s) I have noticed changes in what I crave and what I want to eat. There is still and always will be a lot of chocolate and sausages and yorkshire puddings but I am now much more aware and eating a bar of chocolate or entire packet of biscuits without really noticing hasn’t happened in a very long time.

There’s a section early in the book which made me smile – I have always told my students to follow their dreams as long as they were big dreams; to hang on to those dreams and to work towards them every single day. I haven’t always followed my own advice there but that’s another story. Anyway, Julie doesn’t believe in SMART goals which is a relief because I always thought that was management speak bollocks too. Julie believes in STUPID goals. How brilliant is that. Everyone needs a really really stupid goal in life. It has to be Silly, Talked about on Facebook etc, Unrealistic, Posted late at night/after a glass of wine or two, Idiotic and an ‘in my Dreams’ kind of a thing. Well I did that with the marathon coming up – I’m now pondering my next STUPID goal. What could possibly be more idiotic and unrealistic and therefore more exciting than me running a marathon… We’ll see.

So the book is about being happier and healthier and an important chapter in the books is about how we often feel about ourselves. Whether we really actually love ourselves and how we perpetuate the over critical examination of women’s bodies all the time. I liked this. I find the ‘OMG have you seen how much weight she’s put on…’ and the ‘we’ll she’s let herself go…’ as irritating and unhelpful as the constant ‘oh look you’re fat and therefore must be stupid, lazy, undisciplined…’ or the ‘no wonder she can’t find a boyfriend’ or ‘well if she wasn’t so fat she wouldn’t be a lesbian would she, cos she’d get a bloke’ kind of rhetoric that is everywhere. I don’t look in the mirror often. I learned long ago that my looks are not a particularly useful asset to me. My brain is. However there have been times when I have looked at photos and cringed. Just recently my perception of what I see when I look in the mirror is changing and I think it is that change that Julie is getting at. I saw my reflection in a window the other day. I was super conscious of my backside after a longish run and about 100 squats the day before and before my brain could stop itself I’d thought ‘ now that’s a fabulous arse’. Then I laughed. The book helps to focus our minds on the things we really liked about ourselves and to accept the things we don’t like.

Essentially the book is about finding balance – balance between Food/Fitness/Fun and Recovery/Rest/Relaxation – so basically balance in life. Now that sounds easy but it isn’t because what we need in all of these areas changes all the time and means that we have to keep re-evaluating and reflecting on this – which brings me back to where I started – the keeping of a journal or blogging or whatever tool it is you use to help you make sense of life and just reflect on what you need for you. Task one of about 50 in the book is to buy a notebook to use as a journal – I did and I started scribbling immediately and maybe I am a step closer to my next STUPID goal. I might not do all the tasks but I will do some.

The book won’t take you long to read but it could make a difference to the rest of your life – sounds dramatic, sounds fanciful but for this book it might just be true. Even if you are, right at this moment, the happiest you have ever ever ever been, I bet there are still changes in your life you’d like to make to ensure that happiness is something permanent in your life. Well just do it. Get away from the ‘on diet – off diet’ or ‘on exercise regime – off exercise regime’ sort of thinking and focus on you, focus on now. Think about who you want to be and then decide to be that person NOW, not tomorrow, not on the 1st January, NOW. Set your STUPID goal and then do something every day to take you closer to it. Most importantly though – make friends with yourself. You’re the only you you’ve got and you’re awesome. Read the book, it’s helping me think more positively and it just might help you too.

Run Fat Bitch Run … or not

I have now finished Run Fat Bitch Run by Ruth Field. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. I wish I’d never started it. The basic idea of most of us perhaps needing to be a little more honest with ourselves and stop deluding ourselves about our healthy eating and exercise habits is perhaps a good one. The idea of locating and becoming aware of your inner bitch is perhaps also a useful exercise. Getting more people out there and taking responsibility for their own health and wellbeing is also a good thing and getting people to walk then run a little and a little more and a little more works for me. So why do I dislike the book? Well, let’s see if I can articulate this

  1. I am not stupid – the book presumes I am. It is patronising to the extreme
  2. Fat does not equal stupid, lazy, incapable of self-discipline – the book presumes it does
  3. Standing naked in front of a mirror telling yourself how fat you are – who does that? I mean WTF. I just can’t see anyone who has ever been actually fat doing that. I have one full length mirror in the house and it is placed so that it is virtually impossible for me to accidentally see myself. Ruth does acknowledge that you need to have a sense of humour about this – well I’m sorry but the only way you can have a sense of humour about calling yourself a fat bitch if actually you are not fat and never have been – otherwise it just isn’t funny!
  4. I am not running – and neither should you –  because it will make you look hot and be cool on a date. Women, you are not doing any of this for anyone other than you. If you want to run – go for it. If you think your man or men in general will like you better if you run – just fuck right off. It has got absolutely nothing to do with them.
  5. The presumption of heterosexuality really pissed me off in this book. It is of course everwhere but somehow it hit me with this one. Through much of the book gender neutral terms like ‘partner’ and ‘they’ are used but not everywhere. Ruth has a particular view of women and that view strikes me as seeing women as heterosexual, needing to conform to traditional beauty standards and gender roles. I may of course be wrong. I know nothing about Ruth …
  6. …I don’t think Ruth and I would get along. She says she was a sporty kid. So that’s that then, we won’t get along. I am very suspicious of sporty kids. I wasn’t one – they always picked me last. I should be careful here. My girlfriend was a very sporty kid – she would have picked me last too but luckily most of life isn’t like PE lessons.
  7. If Ruth was a sporty kid she can’t know what coming from nothing is really like. If you have never been sporty, if you always managed to get out of sportsday, if you never ever ever had a positive experience related to physical exercise – ever you have nothing to draw on. You simply just don’t understand that moving your butt off the sofa can be linked to a positive experience. I don’t think she gets that – in fact I am not sure I get that. I wasn’t sporty but I did have one or two things I was good at. I could swim pretty well before most people my age left flotation aids behind and I started horseriding when I was about 6. I do have a vague memory bank of sweat and physical exertion not being all bad. It’s not much but sometimes it keeps me going for an additional 30 seconds or so.
  8. The inner bitch – ok , my initial reaction was to laugh – alot. How bloody juvenile but actually now, inner bitch works for me what doesn’t is calling her the Grit Doctor. That’s just weird. Ruth’s inner bitch surely is just Ruth…
  9. Turning your inner bitch against you is not a good idea – ever. I can’t speak for anyone else but let me try and explain how me and my inner bitch get along: She is my harshest critic, she sees all the negatives and she is very quick to point out any shortcomings. She doesn’t motivate me to do things, she tells me I can’t do them. She doesn’t leave room for the possibility that I can do things. BUT SHE IS LYING because ultimately my inner bitch is just a symbol of all my insecurities in the same way that the black labrador puppy is a symbol of my depression. She needs confronting and she needs to stop spouting all this stuff without giving evidence. If my inner bitch were a student I would be saying she needs to cite all her sources and build up an argument based on credible and well researched evidence – but she can’t because all the evidence points to the fact that I CAN DO THIS. My inner bitch looks remarkably like Liv Tyler in the Lord of the Rings films – go figure.
  10. The book did not motivate me. It did not make me want to run. It made me want to curl up on my sofa with a cup of coffee and a packet – yes a packet – of chocolate digestives and maybe a packet of crisps –  a big sharing size packet of crisps – and of course the staple of all fat people a bar of dairy milk and stick two fingers up at Ruth and her Grit Doctor. ‘If running means being more like you’, I said in my mind, ‘I’d much much rather stay on the couch’
  11. There are other things I don’t like in the book – like the ‘don’t stretch because you probably won’t know how to do them right anyway’ thing which is just stupid. If you want to run then learn what other things you can and should do to minimise injury risk. Different people do different stretches at different times and you need to work out what works for you but not stretching because you don’t know how and can’t be bothered to find out is just idiotic.

OK, that’s enough of an assasination of the book. I am very aware that I am probably not being fair. I hope that  the approach described in the book is genuine and really does work for Ruth and that it isn’t just a bit of fat shaming and making sporty types feel superior and better about themselves. I hope that people who have read it have found it helpful and have gone on to figure out the running or not running thing for themselves. As for me, I am glad I didn’t read this book when I was at my 16 stone plus heaviest. I would have read it and cried, read it and unleashed my inner bitch who would have crushed me. She wouldn’t have said anything, she would have just smirked and with that smirk my running dreams would have been over. I am glad that I read the book after having run a half marathon because my inner bitch is no longer so sure of herself, because I have a chance of drowning her out and because I am learning not to take her too seriously

Run Jess Run and somedays I will be faster than my inner bitch and she’ll just have to suck it up.