Watching the weather
Watching the weather

At school I used to run. I never liked competing, preferring to find solace around the lanes where I lived. By year eight I was beating most of the year nine’s in the county, and by year nine I held all the records for every cross-country course up to and including year thirteen. I earned many cross-country and athletic titles in South Northants area , Northants AAA, and County schools, but the running I enjoyed the most was leaving my house and taking to the roads where I could find peace and solace from an already troubled mind.

As I grew I became less able to compete. Emotional changes took a hold of me and  I began to drop out of races, having little energy to run, and constantly worrying about my health. The road running ceased, slowly grinding to a halt, and I became more susceptible to illness. During one of these periods of illness a local man, who owned a sports shop, came to see me. I was laid up in bed and he tried to persuade me not to waste my talent and to return to running in the new arena of marathon running. I thought about it but couldn’t find the energy to run at all, even around the lanes I loved to tread. The idea of running marathons as a personal challenge appealed, but my interest had been diverted during a course on rock climbing that I attended with a friend who wanted to do it.

At this time I’d reached an age where climbing, motorcycles, beer, and girls seemed far more important than anything else in life. Every weekend was spent hanging on a cliff somewhere and it came as no surprise that on a good day, this was something else I was good at. The problem with climbing wasn’t the good days, but the days when my emotions ran wild and I tried to push through the barriers. The other problem  with climbing back then was death. It was never far away, and for me it seemed to sit on my shoulder laughing, waiting for me to make that one big mistake. I tried to laugh back, often climbing without ropes or protective equipment of any kind, but when somebody I knew died, I took notice. They were not on a hard climb, but a simple one, a climb I had often climbed down with just my wits for safety. The climber that died had recently solo climbed a route called The Axe. It was tougher than anything I ever did, and he did it without ropes, just his boots and ability stopping him falling to his death. Another climber had made the statement “Today ‘The Axe’, tomorrow the chop,” a statement that proved Vogelcroppedprophetic.

In the end it was quite simple. I didn’t have the confidence needed for the hardest climbs. I had trained so hard that I ground myself to a standstill in a bid to overcome the barriers I wanted to kick down. The harder I tried, the worse I got, and as I sank into another serious episode of illness I used the strength of my mind to destroy the thing I once loved, walking away forever. There were more than enough close shaves, or epics as we preferred to call them, in the ten years I climbed the cliffs of the UK and beyond. Many a pint was sunk as one of us regaled their latest story of daring do, usually to the hilarity of the others.

Climbing was a lifestyle, a microcosm of society, where I felt happy to live. The physicality of it suited me, and the endless sequences of moves, like vertical chess/dance, enthralled me. Tiptoeing through vertical territory, feeling as though you belonged there, felt like the ultimate experience in life. I learned many things about myself through climbing. How to manage fear. How to push to my limits and survive. How to share life with other kindred spirits and just how important and privileged we are to be alive. I learned to trust people in a way few of us ever do. I trusted my life in their hands, and they did the same. There were times when things went horribly wrong and I had sole responsibility for getting my partner off the cliff and back to safety. There were times when others died whilst I was present. I never did quite understand why we risked so much in order to very little.

I took to the skies under a paraglider with the same verve that led me into climbing. I had a strict code I followed that would hopefully increase my chances of survival. I progressed my flying gently, learning all the skills needed to leave the hill and go cross-country. One summers day, after five years of flying experience, I made a mistake. I took off when conditions were changing, not waiting long enough to see the outcome. It was my one big mistake, the one death had been waiting for. As the glider span out of control, and out of the sky, I felt I could do nothing. I shouted FUCK as loud as I could and then sat back, waiting for the awful crunch that was inevitable. I saw my young daughter, and my whole life, and I wondered why I had wasted it chasing stupid things like this. All the risks I had ever taken seemed to come to my mind, and at the point where I thought I knew the  terrible outcome of this mistake, I went limp. How could I leave my daughter like this? She needed me and I’d been a fool with my life. Why didn’t I see clearly where these extreme sports would ultimately lead? Why was I so selfish. I hit the ground harder than I could ever imagine, expecting the lights to go out forever. I had remembered to assume a parachute landing position just prior to impact, but the earth tried to smash my legs through my chest.

The path less traveled
Russ and Laura AKA The path less pedalled. Travelling since 2008

The hospital ran a few basic tests and pronounced me fit to leave. This misdiagnosis of a seriously collapsed vertebrae could have cost my ability to walk. A later diagnosis left me knowing that a further collapse of just 5mm would have put me in a wheelchair for life. Meantime I started to have dreams that I couldn’t walk. Initially I thought them to be related to the trauma of the crash. When they continued I listened, taking myself to Southampton Hospital in order to have further investigation. The truth was soon revealed and I found myself placed on a strict regime of hydrotherapy and physiotherapy. The doctor said my strong bone density had prevented a further collapse since the accident as well as the need for a plastic support. By this point I had lost a lot of strength in my left side and was suffering terrible nerve pain. My body felt broken and my mind worse. Three months later I span off into Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Supported by my good friends Sean and Andrea, I began to try to fly again. I was trying to work thought the trauma by getting back in the saddle. This made things far worse and I knew I would never regain the confidence I had previously had. On a spring day at Beer Head I was flying high above the cliffs when some turbulence caused the wing to collapse on one side. Leaning the opposite direction I controlled the collapse, re-inflated the wing, and carried on flying. From that moment I knew I was finished with this sport and upon landing I told Sean that I was selling my kit, which I did one week later. It was a beautiful way to end another destructive relationship and my desire to do anything extreme was sated once and for all.

The after effects of that episode never went away and it was years before I returned to the place where the accident happened. That occurred in 2010 when I cycled to Snowdonia as part of my preparation for the Round Britain ride. I sat and cried at the fear I had experienced in that short moment. Similar moments had left a good friend in a coma for three months, changing his life forever. There is no doubt that I have had many lives. I count myself extremely lucky to still be here. It could have been very different.

Malin Head 2012
Malin Head 2012

Somewhere amongst all of these experiences I reached my trauma limit, many times over. Adding in my home life during adolescence, the fatalities of many of my motorcyclist  friends, and the things that life throws at you, I wonder how I’ve got this far without having a serious breakdown long before I did.

Negatives aside I learned a great deal about self-reliance. I know how to dig deep and battle and I know my absolute limits in physical terms. I know how I perform over any given day and that I always get stronger as the day goes on. I also learned to love the outdoors, to respect nature, and enjoy being part of it. More than anything else, this is the reason I can cycle alone for thousands of miles. Those skills have been of great importance through this episode of poor health, even though I’ve had to apply them in a totally different way to the way I learned them. In that moment when I thought my life was over I totally relaxed. It’s a primitive survival instinct that I’ve read about on many occasions and perhaps the one that saved my life.

Life is never safe, it can’t be by nature. As a younger man I always felt that by walking on the edge of life it helped me to understand what makes it precious. To not explore myself and my limits seemed unimaginable to me, and many others like me. I’m still doing that, albeit in a more subtle and sustainable way. My breakdown has given me a chance to unlearn things and relearn them in order to live differently. Sure I could be hit by a car tomorrow, but that isn’t a reason not to go out and take part in the world. It’s a risk, like everything in life, and one I’m more than happy to take. If you struggle with the question ‘who am I?’ and something sparks your interest, go and do it. You might begin to find out and have an amazing adventure at the same time. You will almost certainly end up somewhere different from where you expected to be and will probably learn that you have abilities that you never knew you had.