Thoughts

Reflections on 2015

The Christmas tree is back in its box. The decorations have been gathered from their vantage points around the house and the first work shirts of 2016 have been ironed ready for the return to the office this week. As I wait out the last few days and hours of the Christmas holidays I’ve been reflecting on the year that’s just passed and what it means for the year to come.

One thing about the year to come… it can only improve from this point! My adorable daughter picked up an awful cold just before Christmas which of course she then passed on to my wife and I. Which means that the first time in about 8 years that I’ve not had to work or be on call for work over the festive period I’ve spent mostly in bed ill. Which was nice. Thanks Chloe. Oh and I’ve just lost a game of Trivial Pursuit to my wife for the first time. 2016 is terrible so far!

However that leads me nicely into the biggest event which happened to us in 2015 and it was back in the middle of January. My daughter Chloe was born in the very early hours of a Thursday morning in Aberdeen. We’d started the process the previous morning by driving to the hospital in Montrose, but we’ll just gloss over that (and the terrifying blue lights transfer in gale force winds). Despite her slightly dramatic entry into the world, she is amazing. Every day we see her beautiful soul shine a little brighter as her personality develops and she grows from baby to toddler.

Adjusting to life with a baby hasn’t been easy, although the rewards are immense. I can’t get enough of hearing her laugh or the feeling when she gives me a hug. Still, at times this year has pushed me to breaking point and beyond.

As well as the arrival of our daughter we were also settling into a new house at the start of 2015, having moved to Stonehaven at the end of 2014. The first half of the year also saw me stuck in a job I had tried to get out of for two years without success and the pressure of that started to take its toll. All this added up to a trip to the doctor’s to seek treatment for depression and chronic anxiety.

It’s never easy admitting to mental health issues. I’ve not made a big deal of it or gone public (until now) as it isn’t really anyone else’s business. However as it has been a massive part of the last year for me I felt I should include it in this post. Thankfully, the GP I saw was superb and very understanding which has meant I’ve been able to get most of my issues firmly under control through the second half of the year. I now feel pretty much back to normal 95% of the time, which is fantastic and makes dealing with the rest of life a lot easier. Perhaps in the future I’ll write-up my experience of mental illness in a bit more detail, but for now I’m just glad I can move on.

I mentioned my job earlier. In the summer I was eventually successful in escaping from my previous role and have finally left the front line of corporate IT support. Albeit I’ve just moved to the vendor side of the relationship. I’m now working as a consultant for a Norwegian software house, but it’s a massive change for me and a hugely positive one. I started in the role in August and the first few months have been very enjoyable so far including an eye-opening trip to our head office in Oslo set in idyllic surroundings on the banks of Oslo fjord.

August saw another big challenge – Ride The North. A two day bike ride from Inverness back to Stonehaven via the hilliest road route they could find (or so it seemed). Easily one of the hardest things I have ever done. Possibly the hardest. It was an amazing experience, great fun and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious challenge. I also managed to raise over £300 for Home Start UK in the process. I felt very proud of myself as I came down the hill into Stoney. I’ve cycled into the town countless times but it’s rarely been such a relief! That was pretty much it in terms of fitness and adventure for the year as exercise took a back seat to make time for nappy changes!

Although 2015 saw me step back from the blog for a variety of reasons, I carried on writing in other ways. I’ve long been interested in trying more creative forms of writing and had considered an open learning English degree or something similar to stretch myself in that direction. At least I was considering it until I found out how much it was going to cost! Instead I joined the local writers group and have been introduced to a very welcoming and creative bunch of local poets, fiction writers and essayists. Through the group I’ve rekindled an interest in poetry I hadn’t explored since school and have also written a few pieces of short fiction. Some of the work has been published on this blog and I hope to put up a lot more this year.

In terms of other creative work I have pretty much neglected my music. When a baby enters your life it’s inevitable that something has to give and playing, writing and performing music has been the biggest casualty of my hobbies. I might have cut back on running and exercise but I at least can try to make up for that by going to the gym at lunchtime. I’d get some funny looks practicing the mandolin or guitar in the office kitchen…

Music is something I definitely want to pick up again and I have a couple of minor goals for 2016 but I won’t be putting a lot of pressure on myself to get them ticked off. At the moment it’s all about relaxed aims and not forcing myself to do things.

Outside of what I’ve achieved over the last year I’ve had some great trips (Keswick in the summer, Oslo, Aberfeldy for my birthday to see Lau play in a small town hall). Listened to some wonderful music – albums by Lau, Chvrches, Treacherous Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds (collaborating with Nils Frahm and Sarah Ott), Anais Mitchell (just got into her stuff this year) and Rachel Sermanni all stood out for me this year. Star Wars finally got its mojo back with an awesome adventure in The Force Awakens, while on TV Fargo returned for a brilliant second season and I now have a thorough, detailed knowledge of the Cbeebies TV channel.

Other things had a big impact on my year, in particular the awful news in November of the attacks in Paris. While dreadful acts of violence and terror happen all over the world the events in Paris and in particular the assault on the Bataclan concert venue seemed to hit very close to home. I think it’s because Paris is a city I’ve visited in a country I’m incredibly fond of. Also the target of the attack was a rock gig by The Eagles Of Death Metal, a band whose work I have on my iPod, in a venue which one of my favourite bands (Deftones) was due to play the very next day. In fact members of that band were at the gig on the night it was attacked. The victims were my Parisian analogues just out to enjoy a band they liked on a Friday night.

If I have one big theme I want to take out of 2015 it’s that despite some problems I’ve come through it all relatively unscathed and with a fantastic, beautiful family to share it with and support each other. It’s far too easy to put unhealthy amounts of pressure on ourselves these days and while having goals and aims is admirable it should also not be at the detriment of your own health and personal relationships.

The first half of 2015 was a mad, high pressure rush of new baby, mad work situation, cycle training and deteriorating health. While after the summer things calmed down and I was able to step back and find the necessary space to get back on track and enjoy being with my daughter, my new job and being more relaxed about my spare time after Ride The North was over. Hopefully I take that relaxed enjoyment with me into 2016 and beyond.

Happy New Year!

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Health and fitness

Ride The North 2015

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I’ve done a few stupid things over the years. Thinking I was ready to try a Scottish Hill Running Championship race on a snowy Clachnaben a few years ago was memorably painful. But when I saw the announced route for Ride The North 2015 was going to finish in Stonehaven, the town I’d recently moved back to, I made possibly my most stupid decision for a long time.

Thankfully I managed to rope in an equally stupid friend and we were able to cajole each other through our (sporadic) training until we dropped our bikes off at Pittodrie (where they were being transferred from) on a cool Thursday before taking our seats on the bus to Inverness for the event start. What followed was one of the hardest but most rewarding two days I’ve had for years.

The event, in it’s fifth year, wound it’s way from Inverness to Elgin on day 1 (via the very scenic route) before leaving Elgin on day 2 and taking a more direct route towards the finish line at Stonehaven. A total distance of some 175 miles. Our last big training ride was just 65 miles, mostly in the pissing rain. For the two weeks after that ride I was gripped by fear that the whole event would be a soggy hell, which eight hundred miserable cyclists would endure solely because they’d forked out over £100 for the privilege and they didn’t want to see it go to waste.

Despite some grey clouds lingering with intent on the first day, there was little sign of rain for the duration and in fact the worst thing we had to deal with was a bit of blustery wind on some of the more exposed sections of the route. Hardly worth complaining about really. With the weather doing it’s bit it was up to those of us clipped into the pedals to get on with things, so we set off from Inverness raring to go only to immediately get off our bikes 100 yards from the start to walk over a pedestrian bridge.  But then we were off! At least until we hit some temporary traffic lights on the road out to Dores. And then another set of lights. And another.

Such is life. Eventually we left the main road and it’s roadworks and hit the first climb of the day. The large group of cyclists which had formed at the succession of traffic lights soon spread out as we climbed high above Loch Ness and spent the morning pedalling towards Slochd.  Climbing was a constant feature of the first morning and although it was slow and painful going we were rewarded with some absolutely stunning views from the mostly unclassified roads and tracks which we were following.

After lunch we had a steady climb from Carrbridge before an afternoon of ecstatic downhill as we hurtled towards Forres and Elgin. By the time we were picking our way through the streets of Forres I was starting to feel very uncomfortable on the bike, having surpassed my one day mileage record set in the rain a few weeks earlier. My hands were throwing flashes of pins and needles up my arms and every time I went over a bump my feet exploded in pain where the cleats were pushing against the balls of my feet. The relief a short while later when we swung into the Glen Moray distillery in Elgin was immense. Shortly followed by worry as the pain in my feet grew worse, then despair as we found there was no whisky left! Thankfully both problems eased after ten minutes.

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A bus ride to Lossiemouth and a night’s fitful rest saw everyone gather the next morning back at the distillery to breathe in the wonderful fumes and hope it might have a medicinal effect on our weary bums and my aching feet. Sadly it seems fermenting yeast fumes aren’t analgesic.  The first twenty miles were uncomfortable for many. I found it impossible to get a relaxed position on the bike and spent most of the first hour dancing around my seat instead of sitting on it, while my hands and feet continued their protests from the night before.

Pulling into the first break stop of the day I decided to do something about my situation rather than complain all day, so paid my first visit to the mechanic station. A five minute check of my bike followed by a relaxed seat on the grass while I moved the cleats in my shoes saw me pull smoothly away from the feed station with pain free feet, newly inflated tired and silent gears. Brilliant. I was ready to face the climbs over the Cabrach.

Day two had promised more miles, more hills and more pain than day one. It duly delivered. At times the hills seemed relentlesss and unforgiving. Every time I thought I’d escaped their clutches we turned a corner to find yet another incline facing us with the sounds of chains clunking down the gears and swearing riders following quickly on. Despite this everyone was proceeding in relatively high spirits. Tired, uncomfortable but enjoying the challenge.

Unlike the first day we knew that the afternoon wasn’t going to reward us with an easy freewheel through Deeside and instead, as we continued to hit hill after hill (including a truly despicable 17% incline immediately after the best bit of downhill all day), we took heart from each little sign of our progress. I cheered the big blue Welcome to Aberdeenshire sign, screamed as I spotted Durris mast in the distance and grinned like  a mad fool before setting a new personal best for a Strava segment after cresting Cheyne Hill and seeing Stonehaven laid before me.

Before that I almost crumbled, broken at the final (advertised) feed station in Torphins when the two days of riding finally caught up with me and I hit the wall hard. Feeling light headed, as a brass band played 500 Miles (hah!), I was forced to sit down and gulp energy gels and water until I felt I could carry on. Later my friends told me I was speaking gibberish as I told them I wanted to press on while I still felt able and would see them at the finish.

Shortly after that I felt a lot better as the sugar from the gel and the energy drink I was downing on the bike started to take effect. A final surprise cake stop at the top of the hill over Knockburn Loch gave me enough energy for the final blast over Durris before we were greeted by what seemed like thousands of people lining the beach promenade at Stonehaven to welcome the cyclists home.

I quickly found my wife, baby and my mum who’d came down to support me before joining my small group of friends who I’d spent the two days cycling with as we supported each other, spurred each other up the hills and gleefully raced down the other sides.  It was painful, mad at times, seemingly impossible some other times and it was now over. I couldn’t have been more proud of myself and the rest of us for finishing. It was brilliant.

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All through the two days we were spurred on by people at the side of the street, outside their houses, in their cars and most of all at the feed stations and lunch stops along the route. Huge thanks to those who organised and helped with what is without a doubt one of the best organised mass events I’ve ever taken part in. Without those people I doubt half of us would have had the will to keep going to the finish.

Also special mention to all the other riders. The sense of camaraderie and shared achievement was palpable throughout the ride, with everyone sharing encouragement and being respectful to the rest of the riders. Was great to see all the red Stonehaven CC jerseys too. Will need to try and get a hold of one of them!

Some people are already talking about next year. I don’t think I can see myself at the start again so soon. For me 2016 will probably be a return to running and the goal of a sub-2 hour half marathon but Ride The North has definitely given me the cycling bug. I’ll be looking for some good one day sportives or similar to try dragging my trusty steed around. Though I can’t imagine anything will come close to the feeling I got at the finish line in Stonehaven last weekend.

At the time of writing I’ve raised £355 for Home Start UK for doing Ride The North, which is superb. My sincere thanks to everyone who’s sponsored me!