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Out of Mind, by Joe French (extract)



I still feel self-conscious as I hobble across the gravel to the forest at the start of my run, despite this being the fifth year of my daily practice. The need to wear shoes outside is so ingrained that I can’t help but feel like a weirdo by not doing so. This is amplified when sometimes, if the weather is particularly wild, I choose to leave the house in nothing more than a pair of swimming shorts. I hope no one is driving past on the single-track road that I must cross before I’m hidden among the trees. It would be a perfectly normal scene to witness in Colorado, but here in the wet wild west of Scotland, I have seen looks of horror and disbelief from the windows of cars happening to pass by just as I emerge.

The initial shock of stepping outside half naked into a raging storm brings out a gasp and the internal question: is this really necessary? Our sheep dog, Ziggy, who tends to hide under the trampoline in such conditions, doesn’t seem to think so. Usually keen for a run, he’s keeping his head down, pretending to ignore me.

I see the hairs on my chest rise and curl, trying to trap in any heat they can, and feel an explosion of goose-pimples race across my skin. Inhaling deeply through my nose, I focus on this breath. Pushing my diaphragm firmly down, I turn the bad postural hunch of my climber’s shoulders up and out and try to stand tall, despite the urge to cower. ‘Come on boy.’ I exhale and with a huff, Ziggy stretches and ventures out. The woodland portal is waiting and soon we will disappear through it.

The change of atmosphere inside is dramatic. The lash of the rain is banished by the spiralling spruce above and the blustery air is muted and made sweet with fresh citrus and pine. I fill my lungs and curl my toes down into the soft mulch to ready them for what’s ahead. They’re in for a treat, for inside these damp depths a remarkable transformation has taken place. Undisturbed for decades by pollution or people, this once sterile spruce plantation has become home to a rich kingdom of moss and lichen. Free to creep and bloom and swell and weave a pristine mosaic of patchwork quilts over trees and ground and roads and ruins, this psychedelic playground truly is a barefoot runner’s paradise. Shin-deep hummocks of pink sphagnum lie waiting to tempt my toes while wizards’ beards of sage green whisper from branches as I prepare myself for launch.

My journey through the forest starts along a bowling alley of high banked moss. It encourages a side-to-side bounce rather than a run and is the perfect way to get going. Like a poorly bowled ball bouncing off the guards in the gutter, I am slow and steady, getting my feet and mind adjusted to the environment. I’m feeling the texture and temperature of the forest floor and loosening myself to its tone, before I become fully tuned in and can tentatively increase my pace. Once I can feel my movements come together into a steady, unified rhythm, I start my forest f low.

The spruce trees have been planted in regimented raised lines, crisscrossed with drainage ditches that need hopping and jumping over. My toes turn into claws that rip hungrily into crusts of moss as I leap, revealing roots underneath. Sometimes, I must duck immediately into a low stoop as I land to avoid any branches at eye level that the deer may have missed as they foraged this track. This is no normal way to run. At times all four of my limbs are in contact with the forest floor, combining all sorts of muscle groups to allow my contortions through the trees to continue unimpeded.

Running like this requires a high level of focus and concentration. An overindulgence in thought can have painful consequences, but this is precisely why I love it so much. It is when one thought consumes me, and I become more involved with my internal dialogue than my external world, that I will make a mistake and slam my heel into an awkward tree root or cut my sole on a random stick. Whether they are thoughts of elation or despair, the result is the same, and I’m reminded of my lack of focus with a sharp bite from a fang of the forest.

So, I need to be in a different space. A space somewhere between those two extremes where mindful meditation can merge with instinctive intuition to guide me silently and safely through the trees. When I get it right, it feels majestic. Deliberate and precise as I can be, aiming for perfection in each step, completely flowing in body and by consequence, out of mind.

It is this need to get out of mind that brings me here. I’ve not always run in this forest. My first exploratory trips were ones of hunched introspection. Consumed so fully with traumatic thoughts rewinding and replaying again and again in my mind’s eye, I barely noticed anything outside of me.

It was early summer 2015 and I had just returned home from a filming trip to Everest Base Camp for Raw TV. For the second year in a row, I had found myself in the midst of complete disaster. Nepal had been torn apart by a 7.8Mw earthquake. Around nine thousand people had died, with hundreds of thousands left injured or homeless. Countless ancient temples had crumbled to dust and whole villages had been swept away or buried by landslides. A huge avalanche was triggered above Everest Base Camp, killing twenty-two people, some within a few feet of me. It was the biggest single disaster ever to unfold on Everest.

The horror of the event was still pumping hard though my system weeks after my return to Scotland. I desperately needed grounding. The joy of returning home to the loving arms of my family was beyond measure. They were my buffer as I crashed back down to earth and the reality of my day to day. Despite their unlimited love and support, I still found myself feeling somewhat alone, just as I was alone when I struggled to gasp what I thought might be my last breath at Everest Base Camp. Only I knew what was going around in my head, and it wasn’t pretty. I didn’t know whether to talk about it or not, and almost felt under pressure to have the breakdown I sensed those around me were expecting. I found myself retreating to this same forest but having a completely different experience. I was wearing my shoes and a frown, more detached from the outside world than I’d ever been.

At first I had tried to numb myself with alcohol, but that didn’t work. It took the edge off things, but in the middle of the night my demons would sober up and plague me as I slept, leaving me feeling even worse by the morning. Weed didn’t help either. It just made me think more. I needed something else. Something that could bring me back down to earth. Something that could create a space between me and the constant torment of my thoughts.

I would find myself standing in the supermarket, locked in a silent battle, unable to decide what snacks to buy for my girls. It would appear to anyone passing that I was taking my time choosing between Oreos or Hobnobs. But in my mind, I was seeing blood and biscuits mashed together in an icy pulp. If I recognised anyone, I would stuff the packets back on the shelf and leave the aisle empty handed. I couldn’t cope with small talk. I didn’t want anyone to ask me how I was. I didn’t want anyone to see me.

I was offered counselling by Raw TV but wasn’t brave enough to take it. I was afraid to admit my struggles to myself, let alone anyone else. I didn’t think anyone else could possibly understand how I was feeling. I’d heard about post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. But that was for soldiers, not producers. At first, I didn’t understand what the difference was between them. I was scared of finding out, fearful of the label it could give me. I wasn’t sure what was worse, not knowing what was wrong or being stigmatised by a label if I did? Disorder is such a negative word and implies so much. I didn’t want that to be me. I still don’t. I was a father and a husband and a successful TV producer/director. I had to get on with it. I had to be strong. Even now, I feel vulnerable admitting this. But my GP explained it was likely that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress. It could be expected in the short term, as the mind processed the trauma. If symptoms persisted and began to interfere with everyday life, post-traumatic stress would become post-traumatic stress disorder. Was that what was happening to me? Had my stress crossed a line and become a disorder? If so, why wasn’t it affecting me all the time?

I don’t know. I still haven’t had any professional counselling. Instead, in between work and parenting, I have remained mostly among the trees and the moss, tuning into nature, trying to make sense of it all. Writing this book is a result of that. Getting my thoughts in order on these pages rather than jumbled up in my head, has been a helpful process. There has been a lot to ponder. Was my mental state simply due to the cumulative effects of the previous two years? Or did it have something to do with mountaineering, the highs and lows we all experience doing this most dangerous of sports? Or at the end of the day was it just me?

Joe French

Joe French