400 words #014: individual experiences

I have been thinking about the artist-audience experience quite a lot recently.

Originally I was thinking about how the audience experience exists when you are watching/reading/listening to digital cultural content. However this evolved to encompass the performer’s experience.

Without having an audience to react to how does that change the performance?

To be totally honest this thinking was triggered by something I was reading about how the notion of ‘home and away’ has no real bearing on the way football is being played at the moment (i.e. without crowds). Historically the ‘home advantage‘ has been pronounced, however the crowdless matches that have been played this year has questioned that.

In a cultural context, what does the absence of a physical audience mean for performers and artists?

I do think that this question has validity beyond the current crisis.

Digital audiences will never be ‘physically co-present’ and rather than bemoan that as never ‘being as good as the real thing’ I am interested to see how people confront that challenge in creative ways.

One thing that digital can be good for is to create a feeling of intimacy between the performer and the audience member. Digital experiences are typically enjoyed alone. Headphones and screens can bring you closer to an artist than you would ever be able to manage in a traditional setting.

It’s one of the reasons that podcasts can feel so intimate.

There have been recent examples of organisations trialling this sort of one-to-one interaction in a performance context.

This New Yorker piece on digital theatre audiences shows there’s clearly an appetite out there for this sort of more intimate/confronting experience (although it’s definitely not something I’d ever see myself doing).

Elsewhere, in a classical context, there was this example of orchestras in Germany playing to one audience member at a time, which I think could work very nicely as a digital thing.

What will you pay for? Education, education, education

Even before 2020 descended on us all the Royal Ballet in the UK was clocking up hundreds of thousands of views for their videos on YouTube that focused on health and fitness. This video from 2017 is the first in a series of “health and fitness tutorials for beginners inspired by classical dance”.

So it was perhaps not a huge surprise that in my recent Digital Works Podcast conversation with Sadler’s Wells’ Ankur Bahl he talked about the succes they have seen with the fitness and technique focused video content they have produced this year.

Still in the world of dance it has been interesting to see that companies like English National Ballet are launching fully-formed digital subscription programmes entirely focused around “training and workouts to enjoy at home”.

But it’s not just dance.

Examples in the wild

Elsewhere I have observed organisations seeing surprising levels of success around workshop, participatory and learning-focused activity delivered online.

Examples include Opera North’s From Couch to Chorus scheme, “a fun four-week series of workshops where you’ll learn all the best singing tips and tricks from a professional choral director from Opera North” (which has returned for a second, festive-focused term), the Globe’s Telling Tales Festival “a range of online and physical events” (the physical events have been cancelled due to lockdown but there are still 10s of virtual events to enjoy), and the Children Theatre Company’s Virtual Academy.

Outside the performing arts the V&A Learning Academy look to have been selling a lot of places for their online courses (if you look at their listings every course is currently sold out).

And something to note is that all of these examples are revenue generating.

Perceived value

Which got me thinking. It is perhaps more straightforward to move some of this sort of activity online than it is to, for example, capture/stream a fully staged performance. But what has been most interesting to me is that audiences are, demonstrably, very willing to pay for this.

Obviously the canvas of horrors that is 2020 plays a part in this. We are all stuck inside to varying degrees, kids are bored, people are wanting to keep themselves busy.

Workshops, learning a new skill, or working out are all antidotes to this.

And perhaps the perceived value, or value exchange, is more straightforward with this type of activity. Maybe it is clearer, or simpler. I learn a thing, or occupy the kids, and I’m happy to part with some money for that to happen. I am clearly getting something in return.

Value exchange for performance is more knotty and wrapped up in the expectations around what that experience has traditionally involved. Also organisations have, over the course of 2020, and for years before that, created an expectation that captured performance content should be free.

Delivering the type of education/participation work I’ve outlined above in a digital context is relatively new, so perhaps audience expectations or preconceptions around price and value haven’t yet crystalised in the same way.

Research to back this up

And there is some emerging research that supports this. LaPlaca Cohen’s most recent Culture Track report, “Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis“, found that learning-based activities are seen as “particularly valuable”.

A bar chart visualising responses to the questions "Have you done any of these online or digital cultural activities yourself in the past 30 days?" and "How valuable to you personally were those activities?". "online activities for kid"s and "online classes or workshops" were respectively rated as valuable by 76% and 68% of respondents

This feels like an exciting and underexplored opportunity for many cultural organisations.

Traditionally education, participation, learning, whatever you want to call it, has not been at the front of the queue when it has come to digital priorities. Usually the rationale is that these activities have not (traditionally) been revenue generating in the same way (or to the same level) as, say, selling tickets to performances or exhibitions has.

It would appear that assumption no longer holds (as) true.

Equally I have found that colleagues working in these teams are sometimes less comfortable or confident when it comes to thinking digitally. That seems like it has started to change over recent months, I hope we see much more of it.

400 words #013: Perceptive perceptions

Over the past year or so at Substrakt we have been doing a lot of work focused on our culture and brand.

This has involved deep and searching conversations and questions of mission, vision and values. We have been developing new thinking around tone of voice, content and positioning as well as revising and improving internal communications and policies around parental leave, inclusivity, health & wellbeing, professional development and more.

The most recent part of this project has been to ask our pal Rob Macpherson to undertake some perception analysis work for us.

Afterall, it’s all well and good doing all these new, good and interesting things but if it doesn’t make any impact on how people understand who you are and what you’re doing then it’s not working as well as it could or should.

Perception analysis work is something that Rob regularly undertakes for the organisations he works with.

It involves Rob conducting structured conversations with nominated ‘key stakeholders’ (these could be members of staff, clients, partners, suppliers, etc) whose opinion you value, on the condition of anonymity.

These protected conversations, with a ‘neutral’ third party (Rob), are aimed at achieving a level of frankness and honesty that might not be as possible if you were to have those conversations yourselves.

Rob then summarises the (anonymised) responses in a report.

It is the equivalent of hearing what people are saying behind your back.

And, just like that would be, it is equal parts fascinating, insightful, chastening and frustrating.

But the beauty of it is you can’t disagree with any of it!

The report contains people’s perceptions, and you can’t tell someone that they don’t think or feel what they are telling you they think and feel.

I’d thoroughly recommend it, in the spirit of radical candor it gives you a clear and unambiguous guide to what people think, what is landing and making an impact, how things are coming across. All of which is vital information for any organisation.

And for us? It was heartening to see lots of positives, and useful to understand where we could do better or change our approach. Noone gets it right all the time, by being open to that fact and asking for feedback – through work like this or not – you’ll be able to keep improving.

400 words #012: change your tools

Last weekend I changed the web browser I use.

Now this probably doesn’t really sound like a particularly good topic for a blog post but bear with me!

For years I, like many of you, have used Google’s Chrome browser.

For the past year or so it has become increasingly slow, buggy and annoying. But, even though I spend the vast majority of my working day using it, it seemed like too much effort to change. Humans are creatures of habit and I’m no exception.

Last week it became almost unusable and GMail stopped working properly, which seemed like the final straw. So I switched (to Mozilla’s Firefox in case you’re interested).

It has been curious to reflect on the impact that simple change has made on my day-to-day productivity.

I have numerous bad habits when it comes to my web browser usage, the worst one being that I often had 50+ tabs open.

So many that even the fav icons (the little icon that indicates which site the tab is showing a page from) disappeared, which made returning to the correct tab a fun (read: incredibly frustrating) game.

This habit, whilst well-intentioned (“oh that could be interesting/important, I’ll leave that open and read/respond to it later”), actually ended up fragmenting my attention and focus to such a degree that I wasn’t really being particularly productive.

Because Firefox doesn’t ‘shrink’ the size of tabs based on how many you open (it has a scrollable bar when you have too many tabs to fit within the visible area) I find I have far fewer tabs open at any one time which has already insitgated a shift in how I engage with tasks and content (in short, I am much more focused, or at least it feels like I am).

The low-level anxiety that came with having innumerable tabs open (lots of things that were jostling to be returned to, read and responded to or digested) has gone.

This has been one of the most surprising benefits of making that one small change. I suspect there is a lesson here about prioritisation, focus, digital attention spans and more. And that there are likely many other aspects of my day-to-day habits that could do with similar tweaks.

400 Words #011: Get high

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I’ve spent the past week in the Swiss Alps.

I try to spend some time in the mountains a few times a year, I find it makes me relax in a way that not much else does.

Running in the mountains, often to altitudes of above 2,000m, is physically demanding, and forces you to be self-reliant and prepared in a way that going for a 10 mile run around South London simply doesn’t.

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The focus that this requires means that doing anything other than getting to the top (or bottom) of the trail is, in that moment, all you can concentrate on.

And there is something about moving through a landscape that is so physically huge and overwhelming, and mostly empty, that temporarily, but definitively, severs your connection with the day-to-day.

All of this feels increasingly essential for my mental wellbeing.

I’d thoroughly recommend it.

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400 Words #010: Seeing is believing

I was driving to the South Downs on Sunday, listening to Adam Buxton talk to Zadie Smith.

Part of their conversation centred on Adam’s recollection and summation of 90s culture, which Zadie gently pointed out was almost entirely white.

What followed was a subtle but powerful discussion of the importance of representation.

As a kid there were very few ‘people who looked like me (or my dad)’ on TV (or in “the media”). There were very few people who weren’t white at all.

On the odd occasion that there was some south Asian representation it’d be grabbed onto and held tight.

However these occasions were few and far between.

The band Cornershop and the TV show Goodness Gracious Me, and the film Bend it Like Beckham are the things that stick out in my memory (related: I remember how weird I felt when I found out that Ben, an Indian character in the film Short Circuit,  was actually played by a white actor in ‘brownface’ – something Aziz Ansari has spoken about in the past).

Last week the actor Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away at the age of just 43. Social media was flooded with videos showing people young and old speaking movingly about the impact he’d had when he played T’Challa in Black Panther.

A few years ago I was at a conference where someone spoke just as movingly about the impact that watching Wonder Woman had had on her, and how impactful it would’ve been for her as a little girl. At the same conference someone else spoke just as powerfully about the importance of being able to join a women’s AFL team.

The other day I read that Keke Palmer was the first black woman to host the Video Music Awards solo.

It’s 2020, how are we still have ‘the first’ anything!?

To those of you rolling your eyes, or who think that representation is a box-ticking exercise, or pandering, or virtue signalling, or not really that important I’d suggest you have probably grown up and lived a life where media and culture, broadly at least, looked like you, or reflected the life you inhabited.

I’d also suggest you are wrong. Representation is so important.

As Billie Jean King said “You have to see it to be it.”

400 words #009: Shared purpose

A couple of weeks ago, in the baking heat, I was running through rural Kent and I came across a community orchard.

Jeskyns Orchards is part of Jeskyns Community Woodlands, was set up in 2007 and “has over 900 different varieties of cherry, plum, apple and pear trees planted to make up the 2504 tree traditional orchard”.

There were friendly signs dotted around telling folks to take whatever fruit they liked.

It got me thinking about community, and a sense of shared purpose. Something which seems to be missing from so much of modern British life.

Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places.

In a previous post I wrote about my (joyous) involvement in some of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, and the other day I watched 59 Productions’ latest showreel, which contains footage of the (still stunning and moving) London 2012 opening ceremony.

More recently I have been reading ultra-runner Scott Jurek’s book, North in which he describes the hugely positive ‘tribal’ experience he gets out of running with people.

Elsewhere I have spoken with people involved in Hull’s year-long European City of Culture celebration in 2017 about the enormous levels of participation and excitement they saw from local communities.

I’m sure there are many, many other examples you could point to.

I don’t really know what my point is. That it’s nice to do things with other people? And this is even nicer if you can do it on a city or country-wide scale? And that this sort of thing is best if you’re involved in something which feels like it’s bigger than yourself?

After the year we’ve had so far, with a pandemic removing our ability to share physical space with other people, it feels like maybe a focus on community, on shared experiences, on shared purpose is what we need more of?

I don’t know. But that orchard, and its 900 different varieties of fruit got me thinking.

400 words #008: Olympic connections

I was doing so well! And then I missed a week. Because, life, and pandemic and stuff, y’know?

The lovely Kathy Hubbard left a comment on my last post reminding me that this time 8 years ago I was taking part in the Hansel of Film, which was part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

I’ve written before about participating in this project, which was “a UK wide relay of screenings of short films made by the public as part of the London 2012 Festival“.

Basically it comprised of a series of screenings of short films (made by – mostly – amateur film-makers) organised across the country, from Shetland to Southampton (and back) with ‘runners’ ferrying the films from one venue to the next (although as I soon discovered, I was the only idiot who actually ran).

At a time when live culture that involves people gathering together is at a low ebb it was wonderful to reminisce about this beautiful, simple idea and the small part I got to play in it. And also to feel sad that this sort of thing isn’t happening, in any real form, at the moment.

The memories, even 8 years on, still stand out.

Wonderful people, terrible weather, some brilliant films, and an overriding sense of being involved in something that was being made to happen by not much more than goodwill, its own internal momentum and sheer force of determination of those involved.

It was great fun.

I got involved simply because I was going through a ‘say yes to more things’ phase. Which is a, probably overdue, reminder to me that that attitude, an attitude of curiosity, open-heartedness and optimism, is where most of life’s best experiences come from.

400 words #007: Fast and slow

The other day I saw this tweet:

I’m always curious about what people think makes up a ‘good’ interview so I duly had a read through this list of 34 questions.

The first thoughts that struck me were; who is running interviews that are long enough to a) ask all of these questions and b) expect coherent responses to anything beyond the first few.

Interviews are stressful enough for the applicant at the best of times, being put in a situation where you have 34 heavy-duty and, to me, slightly odd questions fired at you isn’t going to be a useful or enjoyable use of anyone’s time.

Add in the fact that there is research that shows (some) interviews are almost totally useless.

Putting that to on side for a second I tried to understand what these questions are trying to identify – which seems to be, on the face of it, an ability to ‘think fast’.

Presumably this is because of an assumption that the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra is something to be embraced (fwiw I don’t think it is).

This obsession with speed, with rapid progress, with immediacy isn’t new. And it isn’t just confined to startups.

It has becoming one of the defining features of our lives.

Immediacy. Impatience.

But, along with hundreds of other things, it feels like this set of expectations has perhaps been tempered slightly by lockdown and all the changes that have come with that.

Increasingly we are having to become more comfortable with remote working, and that means we need to become comfortable with better and clearer, but also asynchronous, communication.

Which means being comfortable with a slower pace. It also forces us all to think more deeply about how and why we are communicating things, along with what we are communicating.

And that is no bad thing.

If the post-lockdown world is a slower, more considered place to be then I think we’ll all be thankful.

400 words #006: Adventures postponed

This week I should’ve been heading out to the Swiss Alps to run half of the Via Valais.

Unsurprisingly that’s not possible at the moment. So instead I’m sat at home watching a documentary about the Dragon’s Back race.

I don’t think it’d be particularly interesting watching for anyone who doesn’t enjoy running in the mountains.

It’s a brutal race and the film has quite a lot of time dedicated to folks talking about the strange and painful experience of spending lots of time running up and over lots and lots of very big hills for 5 days in a row.

And it’s that experience (in all its discomfort and oddness) that I’m missing right now. Running in the mountains is the thing I enjoy more than anything else in the world, and I can’t wait to do it again.

400 words #005: Many types of live

Last night I, and a few of my Substrakt pals, watched the ‘live’ broadcast of the Bridge Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is available to watch, until the 2nd of July).

This was the first time I’d tuned in for one of the ‘live’ broadcasts. With other recordings they’ve put out I’ve usually caught up after the initial premiere.

And I was surprised, and moved, by just how communal and live it felt.

At points I was quadruple screening (with an eye on Twitter comments, the live chat on YouTube and the Substrakt Slack channel which had a steady stream of conversation about the show, as well as watching the play).

I’m sure there are many people who will roll their eyes at this.

And indeed over recent months I’ve read, and heard directly, from leaders in the cultural sector who feel that this sort of experience is a ‘pale imitation’ of ‘the real thing’.

Which, in my opinion, couldn’t be more wrong.

There was a lot of nonsense in the live chat on YouTube, as there often is, but there were also lovely examples of people helping to explain to Shakespeare first-timers (or for people who didn’t speak English as their first language) what was happening and why certain choices in the production had been made.

A similar type and tone of conversation formed on Twitter around the #BridgeDream hashtag, which also included the (now regular) sight of the inimitable Lyn Gardener live tweeting her commentary alongside the broadcast

As I watched all of this unfurl around me I thought about a conversation I had with Dr Kirsty Sedgman for the Digital Works podcast (which will be released soon) where she talked about ‘different types of live-ness’.

We discussed the need to move away from dogmatically clinging to the ‘in-person, in-venue’ experience as the ‘purest’ form, of which everything else is just an echo.

The complex, multi-layered ‘live-ness’ that I witnessed, and was a part of, last night was as enthralling, as joyous, and as meaningful as any experience I’ve had in a theatre.

https://twitter.com/CharisPayne/status/1276219314937499649

Even though we were watching a recording of a play that happened a year ago we were enjoying a shared experience which spanned the globe (I saw comments in the chat from people tuning in from the Philippines, USA, India, French Guiana, and Croatia).

Surely that is something to embrace enthusiastically.

400 words #004: No news is good news

I’ve been at home for almost 4 months now.

About a month ago we decided to turn the news off.

And wow, I can’t recommend it enough.

I used to be a bit of a news junkie, I’d watch the breakfast news, listen to the radio, read the paper(s) via apps on my phone on the way to work, check Twitter throughout the day, more app consumption on the way home and then an evening unconsciously somewhat structured around the various news programmes before bed.

I hadn’t realised, in particular, what an absolutely terrible way to start the day it was. Even moreso recently given that 2020 seems to be the year we enter the seven circles of hell.

Am I less informed? About “current affairs”, almost certainly. Although I’m not sure there’s often any news that is so essential that it requires you to be kept up to date on a daily basis.

Not only have a noticed a significant improvement on my mood I also feel like I have far more capacity left over to intentionally engage with things.

Rather than, almost without noticing, ‘spending’ all of my attention consuming an endlessly refreshing cycle of depressing information I am reading more, books (currently I’m on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) and research reports mostly, which feels like I’m becoming more informed, about a broader range of topics, in a deeper and more meaningful way than the news ever made me.

Simply I’m getting more done that I value.

Is this all because I’ve stopped watching and reading the news? At least in part. Lockdown probably has something to do with it too.

Thinking more about this has made me realise just how freely I was spending my attention. I’ve realised I probably only have a finite amount of attention on any given day, and I was wasting it, on news, on social media, on any number of tiny distractions that didn’t really give me anything back.

If the product is free then you are product has always been true, in my mind always related to the data companies are gathering about you.

But recently I’ve realised I value my attention as much if not more so than my data. And I’ve taken control of that.

I’d recommend it.

Running to escape the city: Kent – vineyards and long barrows

Most weekends I head out of London to somewhere in the surrounding countryside to go for a run.

Courtesy of an OS Maps digital subscription and too much time spent plotting (and replotting) routes I’ve managed to create a few really nice routes.

I thought I’d start to share the better ones that I concoct because I’ve found it’s difficult to easily find trail running routes in particular.

Most of the routes were run pretty early in the morning (I normally try and leave the house before 7am) so, whilst they were quiet when I ran them I can’t promise that’ll be the case at a more normal time of day.

Some of them also require a car to get to, although that’s still a new thing for me in London so quite a lot start and finish at a train station as well.

Anyway, enough preamble. I ran this first route whilst the UK was still very much still partially in lockdown which was at least partly responsible for how quiet it was.

Start/finishe: a (small, free) National Trust car park near Coldrum long barrow. If you wanted to get the train you could go to Cuxton and join the route from there without too much hassle or additional distance
Distance: 20km (ish)
Ascent/Descent: 428m
Highest point: 198m
Lowest point: 23m

Download route GPX file.

I hadn’t chosen the starting point for any particular reason other than it was a conveniently located car park, I hadn’t clocked that it was nominally a visitors’ car park for Coldrum long barrow.

Not that this would’ve meant anything to me (you can read lots more about it on the National Trust’s website).

But as I parked, early on a sunny Sunday morning at the end of May I spotted the signs and figured I’d take the (minuscule) detour to have a look at the long barrow.

I didn’t really know what to expect, from the track it didn’t look like much; a grassy bank, with a sign pointing out a partially overgrown footpath which disappeared around the side of the bank.

I stopped to read the sign, which told me, among other things, that the long barrow was the resting place of at least 22 neolithic people, was reckoned to be at least 5,000 years old (possibly even older) and that it bore a resemblance to other even older tombs found in northern Denmark.

I’m sure all of this was on my mind as I walked up the footpath, around and up onto the top of what was left of the long barrow.

The view stretched away down the valley in the early morning sunshine and some bells tinkled in the branches of a nearby oak tree (when I looked more closely I noticed loads of ribbons, bells and other things had been tied in the branches of the tree).

Apart from that it was totally silent, and completely peaceful.

I can’t quite accurately describe just how profoundly calm it felt.

The view down the valley from the top of coldrum long barrow

Oak tree next to coldrum long barrow

I don’t really know how long I was stood there, soaking in the silence, maybe no more than 10 minutes, but it was wonderful.

From there I started the route properly, heading uphill up the Wealdway (a well-signposted, clearly marked trail).

Along a path where the trees met and formed a canopy overhead (the shade was very welcome even this early in the morning).

All throughout this first uphill section the quietness was the thing that I kept noticing. Not the near total silence that I’d experienced at the long barrow, there was by now plenty of insect and bird noise, but the total lack of any sort of ‘people sounds’. It was great.

Anyway, the uphill was pretty steep but didn’t last too long and soon I reached the top of the ridge.

From there it was an easy jog, downhill through a mix of woodland and along the edge of corn fields.

At points it felt like I was in another country, it definitely didn’t feel like the UK, just a few miles from the M20.

The view over fields near lower luddesdown

The ‘not UK’ vibes were probably strengthened by the vineyards that I found myself running through. Peppered with loads of field poppies and other wildflowers it was an absolutely beautiful landscape to find myself running through.

Field poppies running up the middle of the path through a vineyard

The first half of the route follows the Wealdway, however at about 10km (at Luddesdown) the route departs to head east to join up with the North Downs Way.

This ‘joining’ section has the only real bit of ‘on road’ running, the lane was very very quiet (there were 2 cars when I did it) but do pay attention and make sure any vehicles have a chance of seeing you.

When you rejoin the North Downs Way the route starts to head uphill again, and keep an eye out for the mountain bikers who share the trail (the day I was running they mostly seemed to be heading the opposite direction to me so were easy to spot).

The North Downs Way is wide, well signposted and well maintained. As a result the surroundings were a bit less interesting than they had been for the first half of the route, but there were still plenty of beautiful woodlands and wildflower meadows to enjoy.

A wildflower meadow on the North Downs Way in Kent

Towards the end, the North Downs Way briefly merges with the Pilgrim’s Way (the historic route taken by pilgrim’s from Winchester to Canterbury) and its a straight shot back to the car park at Coldrum.

I took my customary tumble (you’ll hear lots more about these) on this final stretch and got back to the car slightly bloody and very dusty but beaming from ear to ear. It is an absolutely beautiful route, run in beautiful weather, I think I encountered fewer than 20 people all morning which is a good thing in my book.

There are a couple of pubs en route but nothing in the way of shops or toilets so bear that in mind.

Anyway, highly recommended.

400 words #003: Shopping without a clue

I bought some face masks recently.

It was one of the most overwhelming and baffling shopping experiences of my life.

Obviously there are some extenuating circumstances that help to explain this. The external pressure of an ongoing, global pandemic for one.

But when I tried to unpick just why it had felt so difficult, it became clear that I hadn’t really had any meaningful context within which to frame any of the decisions I was trying to make, or the information that was available.

Do you have an actual, pre-existing opinion about ear loops? Or how many layers of fabric your mask should have (I seem to remember seeing something about 3 being good)? Or whether it’s reusable?

Do you need something that’s medical-grade (“N95″ hovered at the edge of my memory briefly) or is anything better than nothing? What should you pay for a mask? Do you want to buy one from a specialist supplier? Or does Amazon suffice?

And the only reason I had to engage with any of this was that my partner had already had a go and given up.

Then I realised, to a certain extent, this is what it might be like if you’re trying to buy a ticket to the theatre for the first time. Or to the opera. Or to the ballet.

A billion options, jargon that makes almost no sense but that the person who wrote the text clearly thinks you care about, things that you had never previously even had an inkling were a thing anyone had opinions about, and you’re expected to make a bunch of choices and part with some cash.

You might’ve started really wanting to buy your face mask (ticket) but quickly just not leaving the house seems like a much better option.

You’re not dumbing down by using clear language and removing assumption of expertise when you produce your content.

I certainly wished the face mask merchants of the world had realised this.

I eventually bought a box of 10 face masks, I’ve no real idea of their particular properties. I’m not leaving the house.

400 words #002: 80/20, run slow to run fast

Maybe at some point not every post will mention me running, but I run almost every day, so possibly not.

A few years ago, after yet another injury had forced me to stop running for an extended period (a ruptured achilles tendon), I realised I had to think about running differently.

My approach up to then had been ‘more is more’.

I was running further and further and faster and faster.

But I was also getting injured more and more frequently, and each injury was proving to be more serious than the last, and the enforced time off was getting longer and longer.

My body was getting burnt out by the ever-increasing demands, it was telling me to slow down, and when I didn’t listen it was forcing me to take a break.

I had to confront the fact that if I wanted to be able to run consistently then I would have to relax my expectations of myself.

Around this time I read a book which entirely changed the way I thought about running, 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower.

It makes the case that for runners to be able to train and race effectively around 80% of your training should be dedicated to slow, ‘easy’ running, and around 20% to more intensive workouts. This is backed up by piles of academic studies and real-life examples.

By reducing the overall intensity of training you give yourself the chance to make the ‘harder’ 20% really impactful, and give yourself a chance to recover properly.

In the 3 years since reading that book I haven’t had any serious injuries. Do I stick religiously to an 80/20 rule? Absolutely not. But the way I think about running has changed entirely, I’m far less interested in always pushing myself and as a result I am able to run consistently and consistently injury-free.

I wonder how applicable this is to other areas of our lives?

All too often we see people in all areas of life pushing, and pushing, and pushing, often with diminishing returns or with them ending up burnt out and miserable.

How much more effective would we all be if we decided to do less, to focus on what really matters, to give ourselves time to recover, to ensure that when we ‘go hard’ it has a real impact, rather than becoming an unsustainable default mode, until we can’t go any more.

400 Words #001: A problem shared

I run a lot, one of the reasons is that I find it’s a good way for brain to shuffle my thoughts into some sort of order.

When I used to blog more regularly I found that writing had a similar effect.

I’m one of those people who works out what I think by trying to articulate it, whether that’s through discussion with someone else, or by writing my thoughts down.

There’s nothing quite as useful as seeing what you think you think staring back at you in black and white from a page (or, more likely, a screen).

I’ve always been intrigued by people who blog every day (I’ve long been signed up to Seth Godin’s daily ruminations), in the same way as I’ve always looked at the idea of keeping a daily diary.

It feels like a good way of ordering your thoughts and forcing yourself to understand what your perspective actually is on a particular topic.

In reality I don’t think I have the discipline to sit down every day and do this.

On the two occasions I tried, during a 2-week bike ride back in 2013 and about 6 years before that immediately after finishing university, I quickly became frustrated and let the habit slide.

However recently it feels like more and more often I have half-thoughts, or snatches of ideas, whilst running, whilst in the shower, or when I wake up in the middle of the night.

More often than not (in fact, almost all the time) these thoughts don’t go anywhere further than a note on my phone or a scribble in a notebook. But I think I want to give myself the chance to try and expand them out into something a bit more fully formed, to force myself to understand what I think and to try and articulate it.

So I’m going to start doing at least 1 blog post a week. I’m prone to wanging on at great length so I’m also going to restrict myself to no more than 400 words.

I think I’ll mostly write about work, digital things and whatnot, because that’s what I spend a great deal of time thinking about, but let’s see.

John O’Groats to (almost) Land’s End

We’re setting off from our hotel in Thurso into 40mph headwinds. The ‘proper’ start of our ride, at John O’Groats, is still 20 miles away. This corner of north-east Scotland, the tip of mainland Britain, is a strange place. There are very few trees (I guess because it’s blasted by storms from the North Sea) and most of the land seems to be used as grazing for a few bedraggled looking sheep. The road signs and place names are all written in what I think is Scots Gaelic, as well as English, and the few buildings that we do see seem hunkered down into the landscape. We don’t really see any people and the whole journey to the start feels a bit like riding through a windswept ghost town.

Fast forward almost two weeks and I’m sat in a bus shelter in Devon and it’s raining. I’m on the phone to my girlfriend and I feel like I might cry because she’s just told me she’s proud of me. I’m also in the process of abandoning the bike ride I’ve been on for the past 12 days because my knee has told me in no uncertain terms that it isn’t going to do any more cycling.

But even this disheartening turn of events can’t, really, ruin the experience of the past two weeks. It’s the smallest details and moments which stand out (most of everything else has already faded into a blur of fields, roads and heavy skies). Alex’s endless happy whistling (he is without doubt the most cheerful person I know), even when speeding down the side of a mountain at 60kph; a red squirrel spotted on a misty morning at the Highland games showground in Braemar; the ride out of Braemar, on a crisp, clear morning, across the golf course, without anyone else in sight; colourful butterflies sunning themselves on the cycle path as we wind down towards Perth; cycling through a weird, seemingly-abandoned farm (it was like something out os 28 Days Later) just outside Carlisle; listening to Patrick Wolf as we travelled down past the edge of the Lake District in the sunshine; getting the ferry across the Mersey in Liverpool; cycling down a ‘cycle path’ that was like something out of Paris-Roubaix, and then through an actual field, just outside Wrexham; meeting an eccentric woman who was out walking her dogs in the terrible weather in Devon, and her telling us about how the wind had ‘blown all the crows upside down’. There are already a thousand other things I’ve forgotten the details of.

The ride was far more challenging than I’d expected (the last time I did it, in 2011, I think the fact I’d never done anything like it before was actually a blessing, I was also younger and fitter which probably helped too), but it was far more fun as well.

A few people have asked me about the logistics, I’ll do a separate thing about that, but I just wanted to get these thoughts down before I forgot them.

Running in the Alps (redux)

 

Last month I went for a week of running in the Alps (on my own). I based myself in a basic hotel room in Chamonix, got up early each morning, went running before the weather turned (which it did with clockwork regularity at about 2pm each day) and then took a nap most afternoons before heading out for a wander and some food each evening.

That might not sound like your idea of fun but for me it was absolute heaven and I returned feeling properly refreshed and rested.

Anyway, it was fucking great, and here are some photos

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Running the 3 Peaks

The path petered out ahead of me, I’d been following footprints in the snow with the odd check of the route on my watch for the past 15 minutes. In an ideal world a map would’ve been involved but the howling wind made any attempt to get anything out of my bag, let alone something that was a potential sail, almost impossible.

We were heading to the top of Ben Nevis, the first of the three summits that make up the UK 3 Peaks, from about 400m up we’d been firmly surrounded by cloud and the visibility had become increasingly rubbish as we got nearer the top. By now I could see about 5-10 metres in front of me and beyond that everything was enveloped in in edgeless whiteness.

ben-nevis-ashTaken about 15 mins before I decided to turn back…whilst taking a photo was still a viable task

I’d spent most of the previous few days reading about the hills we were running up and it had been difficult to avoid the warnings that kept cropping up about the top of Ben Nevis, with the summit of the mountain enjoying close proximity to some pretty serious gullies and cliffs. The presence of late-winter snow would make it difficult to spot the edges of these hazards, and the terrible visibility further exacerbated this heady mix.

As I stopped to check my compass and was nearly knocked sideways by the wind I decided to turn back, I didn’t want to be one of those people who had pressed on regardless of the elements and for no real reason other than ‘to get to the top’. I’d reached (my watch later told me) 3,862ft, which was more than enough for the day.

About 10 minutes after I’d turned back I caught up with Stu who agreed with the decision, the slippy, wet, windy conditions weren’t enjoyable in any way and the prospect of 2 more hills over the next 20 hours (along with a significant amount of time sitting in the car) didn’t make either of us any more determined to get any wetter than we were.

I clenched my fist as tightly as I could to try and wring some of the water out of my drenched gloves. Then Stu pointed out my lace was undone. Trying to do wet laces up with gloves on is impossible so I took them off; my wet, cold, stiff fingers were almost useless but I eventually managed to fasten them with a sort of cackhanded triple knot.

As we made our way back down the mountain we passed a few other bedraggled groups of walkers heading towards the top. A few of them were woefully underdressed for the conditions (shorts, tshirt and gym shoes) but didn’t really pay any attention to us trying to describe how difficult the conditions were nearer the top. One group seemed to be blasting Jerusalem out of a small, tinny speaker strapped to one of their backpacks. I don’t know if it helped, we didn’t see them again.

ben-nevis-murk

We drove through the night to the Lake District and our next hill, Scafell Pike. Stu and I dozed as much as we could whilst Alex drove non-stop.

We arrived at Seathwaite at about 2am, it was total darkness and as I got out of the car to stretch my already-tired legs I looked up to see a sky spattered with stars, it was beautiful, and silent.

Our plan was to start out for Scafell at dawn which gave us the chance for a few hours sleep. Sleeping in a car is never the most comfortable experience but almost immediately I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep only waking when my alarm went off at 4.45.

I clambered into my running gear feeling strangely awake and energised, given we’d had about 3 hours sleep, and had a breakfast of a slightly squished banana and an energy bar.

It was a clear, still morning and as we looked around us at the sheep and silent fields we stood under mostly cloudless skies. It looked like we had left the terrible weather behind us in Scotland and as dawn began to break over the surrounding hills it looked like it could be an absolutely beautiful day. The only potential problem was that the hill we were heading towards was still wreathed in cloud, the only summit that was. Hoping that the cloud might lift as the sun rose we trotted along the slowly rising path from Seathwaite Farm towards Great End, with Glaramara on our left.

scafell-path-clouds

We were soon run-walking through a cloud (again) and I began to worry that we weren’t going to enjoy any good weather. Much as I love running in the hills it’s far more enjoyable when you’re a bit dry and can see some of the surrounding scenery!

Fortunately it was pretty warm and there wasn’t much of a breeze but going uphill in a cloud means that everything quickly gets totally soaked.

However as we started through the edge of the boulder field at Ill Crag the sun began to stream through the cloud and we were soon striding across the top of the fell, above the clouds under a bright blue sky. It was glorious and there wasn’t another soul in sight (the fact that it was about 6.30am probably helped).

scafell-clouds-01Above the clouds

As we began to clamber the final section towards the top of Scafell Pike a few blokes passed us having come from the opposite direction but as we reached the top we were completely on our own.

On our way back down a Mountain Rescue helicopter buzzed overhead, taking off and landing at the top of Great End. We passed the Rescue team, who looked like they were out on a training exercise, before we left the sunshine and back into the cloud which still wrapped the lower slopes of the mountain in a damp blanket of fog.

I was feeling pretty good as we came down so had a nice, mostly unbroken, run back to the car passing a growing number of people heading up the hill we’d just been at the top of. Alex was waiting for us still wearing his slightly ridiculous outfit of fleece everything that he’d slept in.

scafell-alexFleece trousers, fleece fleece (possibly another fleece under his fleece). It’s the fleeceman

2 Peaks down. 1 Peak to go.

As we drove out of the Lake District we passed an endless stream of vehicles, cyclists, walkers and runners heading the other way. It was shaping up to be a beautiful, hot, sunny weekend.

We drove down towards Snowdon, we were going to do the Snowdon Ranger route up from ‘behind’ the mountain (in comparison with most of the more popular routes) which I had hoped would be a little quieter in case it was a nice day (as it turned out to be). It’s also supposed to be one of the easier routes, and after 2 hills in under a day and lots of sitting around in the car an easy route seemed like a really, really good idea.

En route I realised I hadn’t brought enough dry socks with me (pair #1 had become sodden on Nevis and pair #2 hadn’t really stayed dry in the clouds on Scafell). Alex suggested hanging them out of the window and letting the sun and the wind do their thing. If you ever need to dry some socks whilst driving down the motorway I can report that this method is very effective.

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We drove along the north Wales coast with everything looking so green, the countryside seemed to have exploded into Spring. To our right the sea stretched into the distance, flat and waveless. As we passed Llandudno a weird fog enveloped the horizon, it was so thick and localised that we thought it must be smoke but there was no obvious source. It was strange, with the beautiful weather all around us, to stare at this thick smudge on the horizon.

We turned into northern Snowdonia and the landscape changed again, the hills all got bigger and bigger but at the same time seemed softer and more rounded than those in the Highlands and Lake District.

We parked up by Llyn Cwellyn, Alex made plans to go and dip his feet in the water whilst we went to slog up the final hill.

The path zig-zagged up the steep sloper behind the Snowdon Ranger Hostel, it was ace to see so many families out enjoying the good weather. Much like the route we’d taken up Scafell the initial couple of miles (after the first steep bit) of the path was a pretty gradual, forgiving incline and was quite runnable.

However once we hit the slopes of Snowdon proper we slowed to a crawl, partly because of the streams of people coming in the opposite direction but mainly because, by now, our legs had turned to lead and no amount of gels, jelly babies and energy bars could coax our bodies into anything faster than a trudge. In the distance you could see the Snowdon train slowly winching its way up the side of the mountain to the top .

But the views were incredible. You could see for miles, across the rooftop of Wales, in the distance a pointed peak was poking through a nest of clouds, a plane flew overhead, the sun glinted off lakes in every direction. Despite the fact my body felt like it was weighed down and moving through treacle I was grinning to myself, grinning as much as I had as we run up above the clouds on Scafell, grinning in the way that only running up a very big hill on a very nice day can make you grin.

IMG_4032

As we neared the top, the Rangers Path (the route we’d been following) joined the other (much more popular) paths for the last section up to the summit. Suddenly we were surrounded by loads more people, it was noisy, it was crowded, and the glorious isolation we’d been enjoying evaporated as we became just another part of the bank holiday traffic.

It was difficult to feel any real sense of achievement amongst all these people. Although, I’ve often felt this weird…nothing feeling at the end of a big challenge (maybe this says something deeply troubling about me). I guess it’s because I enjoy the planning and the doing more than the finishing and the completing. Maybe it’s a sort of sadness that the thing is finished.

We headed back down the mountain and once we’d left the summit behind us we were once again, more-or-less, on our own.

As we rejoined the flatter, final stretch I tripped over and took a fairly heavy tumble (directly in front of a group of walkers). I hit the dirt, and skidded along on my front. Without thinking too much about it I tried to bounce back onto my feet and carry on running. Fortunately there didn’t be too much complaining from my legs but my hands and forearms (which had taken the brunt of the fall) were really sore. I looked down to see a brown crust of blood and direct smeared across the knuckles of my left hand and my right palm was pink and raw. I’d also chosen this run to wear my white vest which was now similarly filthy and, on closer inspection, my legs hadn’t survived unscathed and there was blood dribbling down my shin.

As I ran past a family a small boy turned, pointed and said “eurgh, what has that man done!? he’s all dirty”. And it’s true, I was all dirty.

I arrived back at the car slightly ahead of Stu, Alex was sat there basking in the sun. Whilst we had been running he’d been a good samaritan and had shuttled a father and son who had come down the ‘wrong’ side of the mountain back to Llanberis, he’s nice like that.

alex-stu-ash

So that was it, 3 Peaks, in a little over 24 hours. The weather, after a horrendous start, couldn’t have been better. It was really good fun, I’d totally recommend it. We couldn’t have done it without Alex agreeing to do the driving. And I’m not sure it would’ve been much fun on my own, so you need a good running buddy – thanks to Stu for filling that role.

So, what next? I’ve always fancied giving the Yorkshire 3 Peaks a go, and I’m off to the French Alps at the end of May.

If you’d like to donate some money, I was raising cash for Cancer Research: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ashmann 

Reduced visibility

I run without my glasses, this makes people ask “but how do you see!?” and the answer is I don’t really, and it’s great – an intrinsic part of my running experience.

I’m very short-sighted (very). However I can rarely be bothered with contact lenses. What this means is that when I go running, and I run without my glasses (because when you run with your glasses on they eventually bounce down your sweaty nose and fall off your face, which isn’t that great), I can’t really see much of what’s going on around me.

Due to the fact I can’t really see any detail the whole world softens into a pleasing blur, and that just seems to heighten the ‘lose yourself’ feeling that you get when running.

I can see enough that curbs and pedestrians and lamposts and whatnot don’t cause too much of a hazard (although overhanging branches sometimes catch me unawares – I’ve got a few rips in some of my running tops thanks to brambles and rose bushes that I didn’t see in time).

But by reducing my ability to see in any detail what’s going on around me I give myself an excuse to relegate everything around me to the status of obstacles to be navigated. And this allows me to just get on with enjoying the sheer physical joy of running.

Of course if I’m running somewhere very beautiful then I’ll ‘put my eyes in’. But most of the time I’m running around north London, at nighttime. And I know I’m really not missing anything.

Am I alone in this? Would be interested to hear from fellow four-eyes.