Attitude not Ability
What defines us?
Is it what we achieve in life? Is it how good we are at stuff? Maybe it’s our goals – running a sub 45-minute 10k, running the UTMB, how far we can run, how quickly we can run, maybe how many times we’ve run Park Run?! Maybe it’s what we do – I am a runner! I am an ultrarunner! I am a trailrunner! But actually, I’d like to think it’s something far greater and longer lasting, something that lights up a path for us and others to follow. Our attitude.
Talk to me 5 years ago and you’d find someone obsessed with running and mountaineering. If you cut me open that’s all you would have found written inside me. What defined me was my marathon PB, the highest mountain I’d climbed, my next adventure. But I’ve learnt the hard way there has to be much more than that.
For me my relationship with trail running has not always been that easy, and our relationship with sport can be complicated. That’s because it’s not just a physical part of who we are, it is who we are, it can make us feel amazing or it can take us to the darkest parts of our soul. Let me explain…
For me I was never very good at sport at school, in part because of a failed expedition to the top of the dining room table at 2 years old which blinded me in my right eye. Always in the C team and never allowed to play rugby, I was that kid who was always picked last. Many years later and a bit older I’d discovered a passion for running. That natural rhythm of putting one foot in front of another, just seemed to provide an incredible sense of freedom and escape. It didn’t seem too difficult to me, falling from one foot to the other. I didn’t need to run in a team, I didn’t need to rely on vision in the same way other sports did. Maybe I’d finally found something that I was good at. I ran on roads, in the parks, over hills and mountains, over deserts, I ran marathons, ultra-marathons, 10ks, 5ks, I ran everywhere. I ran after dinner, before breakfast, I ran drunk, I ran sober, in snow, in rain, I ran when I didn’t think I could run any more. I loved running. It became my everything.
My world revolved around mountaineering and running, often combing the two. I’d topped out on Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Denali and had my sights on the Himalayas. Meanwhile I was pushing down my marathon times towards 2h30m and exploring ultrarunning in the Alps. In 2013 I ran the UTMB, the ultimate ultramarathon of 106 miles and 10,000m ascent. I’d being getting more into back to back challenges and getting away from the racing scene, often picking alpine running routes and sticking a climb at the end of it. To this end I’d decided to climb an 8,000m peak immediately after the UTMB.
So about 10 hours after I’d hobbled over the finish line in Chamonix, I was on a flight to Kathmandu. What was before me was one of the toughest challenges I’d ever faced, way more than the UTMB. Manaslu the world’s 8th highest mountain, standing at 8,163m, a monster of a mountain. Following an 8 day trek just to get to the base of one of the more dangerous 8000 metre peaks in the Himalayas, I spent the next couple of months jumping over crevasses, pulling climbers out of crevasses, missing death from avalanches by just a few feet, cutting routes through ice falls and just generally hanging out with the white death. To top it off an ice cliff the size of a tower plunged into our route. I wondered whether I was going to make it back in those months. I climbed my heart out, it demanded everything from me, all my emotional, spiritual, physical and mental strength. We kept on failing to get to the summit, in total we had 3 full on assaults at the summit, something unheard of in high altitude mountaineering, but we all feared failure so much that it pushed us to the absolute max, and beyond it. In my hypoxic state, I turned from my summit bid, knowing it was my last, and sat on the slope that only the previous day had avalanched and wept.
At the sharp end of our movement, where we push ourselves to the limits of what is possible, lies the fine line of fulfilment and failure. But for me that was about to change. As I started my marathon season again, I had a niggling hip pain I could no longer ignore. London marathon came and went, but I wasn’t ready to push myself on this one. The pain didn’t get better and so I went to get an MRI and so started one of the worst episodes of my life. I headed for surgery. What was meant to be a routine operation turned out to be an epic, with the surgeon discovering a 3cm square piece of cartilage missing in my hip joint and informing me that realistically I would never run again. I certainly wasn’t going to be running a 2.5-hour marathon. In fact, I couldn’t even walk, and wouldn’t be able to do so for 18 months let alone even think about running.
A New Reality
I felt trapped, dependent, broken and without purpose, uncertainty eating away at me. One afternoon I went out into the garden. It was a hot sunny day. I feared the longer I lived in this new reality the more it was becoming my only reality and I refused to accept it. Suddenly the past few weeks just overwhelmed me and in a fit of rage I started smashing my crutches into the ground, these symbols of my brokenness. I was so angry. As I thrashed away, I could see one of them beginning to bend. I stopped. I couldn’t even vent my anger as I knew I would be even more stuck if they broke.
Some months later, on a sunny day in the Alps I realised that whilst I’d been wallowing in what I could no longer do, I was ignoring all the things I could. I was in the Alps, where I’d always wanted to be, hearing about incredible life changing running adventures from people who were taking part in our trips. I was meeting new friends and getting to know better old ones, living a life I’d only dreamt about.
I changed. I started by letting go of more than just my goals, I had to let go of how I defined myself. I had to strip back to my ultimate motivations for climbing and running, those fundamental thought processes, even how I thought about what I’d achieved. As endurance athletes we spend so long pushing for goals we become defined by them. Pushing our body to exceed our mental expectations, so it's very difficult to accept that our mental ambitions are no longer the limiting factor; it is our body.
However, one prevailing lesson I'd learnt over all the years of mountaineering and running is never to give up. When things get tough you dig deeper and get the job done. So why is that important? Well it’s a quality that sees you through your journey even if you don’t know when it may end. Whether it be a physical journey or an emotional one. It’s our attitude to those goals that we can allow to define us.
Despite those tough times, I found the amazing in the smaller stuff, like when I learnt to walk again. I’ll never forget that feeling of putting one foot in front of the other unaided. I’d just spent 6 months learning to walk again with my physio. Lots of tears and frustration along the way, here I was walking. Many more months past and I was putting on my running shoes. Here I was putting on my running shoes, something I was told was never possible, and I was about to try running for the first time, again! I never take any of my runs for granted!
A New Identity
For me answering the question of how I define myself now – is it my attitude or ability. It has to be unreservedly all about my attitude. My ability will come and go. My attitude is what brings me to the start of a journey and is what takes me to the end of that journey despite whatever obstacles, difficulties and failures come along, not my ability.
The outdoors is such an extraordinary place for us ALL to experience. It offers healing, reflection, excitement, solitude, friendship, education, frustration and freedom. The door is open, we have to just choose to go through it. Don’t put expectations on yourself, it’s not about your ability, you don’t have to be a marathon runner, an ultra-runner or even a good runner, you just have to get out there, and it starts by putting one foot in front the other. See you there!