Beyond the comfort zone - A year of Challenge


2023 a year of challenge... The Physical, the Psychological and the Educational.

It has been too long since I posted, In my last post I talked about stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself.  Well, last year I took a little of my own advice and stepped beyond my comfort zone.

The image and words (from Garmin) at the top of this page resonate deeply with me, the mountains because they are one of my favourite places to be and the words beacuse for a large part of my life I've strived to do better than I had done previously.

The Physical and the Psychological.

For the last 25 years I've lived with the results of a spinal injury, under gone countless surgeries and procedures. I've had many good periods and just as many bad, times where I've been immobile, on crutches or dealing with heavy pain medication.

I'm one of the lucky ones, I have had my good times and bad times but I've always been able to stay active and be independant. I live with constant pain, now managed by the wonders of technology through a neural stimulator implanted in my abdomen with electrodes in my spine.

So at the beggining of 2023, I decided that I wanted to do something to give back,  now that I am able to do more, to be more active.   The start of my physical challenge, more of that later.

The Educational (and the Psychological).

I was never really that achademic at school, I went to university as a mature student (aged 23 so maybe not that mature) it a twist of fate as due to my spinal injury I could no longer do the job I was trained to do (Scaffolding) so needed to retrain.

There began my journey in to IT and first degree 1998 - 2002.  Fast forward a few years to 2022 and my interest in how data and  Enterprise Architecture are intertwinded in supporting digital transformation and driving business value really began to grow.  

The start of the educational challenge,  in January 2023 I began a Modern Apprenticeship - MSc Digital & Technology Specialist Enterprise Architecture.

Breaking down the physical

For a significant part of my life, I have lived with cronic pain following an work based accident in 1997 which resulted in spinal damage and ultimaltey spinal surgery to fuse my lower spine.  It has been an  up and down journey since then, though the original surgery prevented further spinal damage and improved mobility it left me continuing to have to manage pain.

Fast forward to 2011,  a few surgeries and the miracle of medical technology (The Nevro Spinal Cord Simulation System) I'm fully mobile and medication free to manage pain.  At the beginning of 2023, fully mobile and pain under control, I felt it was time for me to help give a little back and raise money to support spinal research,  specifically partnering with Wings For Life Spinal Reasearch Foundation.

When I was younger, I was an avid runner (and pretty decent at it), so in 2023 I deciede that the way I would give back would be through pushing myself to run again.  It would be 30 years since the last time I ran the Great North Run, that would be my target for 2023.  Was that enought to push myself? I'd done it before.  What else could I do to chellenge myself?  and maybe of on a bit of a journey of self discovery.  On one of my favourite places on earth is the Lake District in the North of the UK, specifically the Ullswater area (2nd largest lake in England).  During a weekend away in June 2022, whilst walking along the shores of Ullswater, we were constantly being passed by runners, they were taking part in the Montane Ullswater 20.  That was it!  my challenge was decided, I would undertake the 21.5 miles,  3,358 ft of assent around Ullswater.

So that was it, get registered for the Ullswater 20 and Great North Run and start to think about training,  or firstly lets see if I can actually still run.

Test and Learn

My first run was on 29th january, 5 miles in 54 minutes, I was crippled by the end of it and evern worse the next few days.  Legs ached, back hurt and the stairs were torture.

Febrauary had to focus on building a little stamina and strength,  and I was definatly wondering if Ullswater by June was achievable.

I needed to know if the distance was possible, February was a test.  5 runs varrying form 3.5 miles to half marathon distance.  To my surprise, I got through 13.5 miles on 19th February in a time of 2 hour 10 minutes, though like that first run in January I definatyely felt it for a few days later.  The biggest thing to come from that run, was confidence, motivation and a huge sense of achievement.  I now had confidence that maybe Ullswater wasn't too big of an goal.

Using data to help and motivate

I'm a data geek, no hiding that.  I have two key companions when I run, my Garmin Fenix 7x and Shokz Open Run, music helps focus my mind and my Garmin keeps me on track.  So naturally the way to help track my progress, was to build Qlik Sense app (the next itteration of my previous activity tracker app build on Garmin Data) to pull in all my data from Strava and track prgress whilst keeping the data geek in me occupied.

Using the built in Strava connector in Qlik Sense SaaS, it was as simple as loging in to Strava,  select the data ( in my case that was athlete, stats, activities, routes and segments) add in a calendar script and load the data,  then start building the visualisations.  

I started off with a summary sheet, showing KPIs for  total activities,  elapsed time, total distance (in miles), elevation gain (in ft) , average distance per day and average speed.  A distribution chart to show activity distance, chart to indicate average heart rate vs average speed and a map for the activity tracks.

With a second sheet inlcuding the same KPIs and core charts, with the addition of elevation profile, focusing on an individually selected activity.

This feeds my 'data nerd' need to track how far and often I've trained (or walked the dog), but I wanted to be able to compare similar distances or the same routes over time to understand how I was improving.  Taking the core KPIs and charts I created a third sheet which utalised alternate states to allow selection of two activites side by side.

The training continues

Training through the first part of 2023 came with its challenges, moticvation and time specifically, but by March 11th I was ready to put distance to the test, I had never ran more than 13.5 miles prior to this but needed to know if 20 miles plus was achievable.  With an elevation of 1/5th of Ullswater, I achieved 20.03 miles in 3 hours 27 minutes (route on the left in the image above).  The sence of achievement and confidence that this brough was amazing.  It was over 25 years since a surgeon told me I'd never run again and maybe struggle to wallk by the time I'm 50,  I had the confidence I needed to tackle Ullswater.  From there on, the training consisted of regular 3 - 10 mile runs with one additional big 22.6 mile run out in March.


WOW!! What a day that was. Montane Ullswater Way Trail 20 & 10 2023 . 21.5 miles, 3500ft of assent of ups and downs, terrain and emotions in the blazing (23 Degrees) sun. It was by far the most challenging thing, physically and emotionally I have ever done. The views were spectacular as we wound our way around Ullswater and up on to the fells.   The encouragement, laughts and support shared with fellow participants was a humbling experience, over 500 people all taking part, each with thier own story, there own motivations and journey.

5hrs wasn't quite what I'd hoped but happy and on to planning the next adventures. 

Great North Run

The last time I ran the great North Run was in 1993... I was fit (a bit younger) and 4 years before my spinal injury occured.  I completed the Great North Run that year in a time of 1 hour and 34 minutes, not my best time but a good time all the same.

Fast forward to 2023, 30 years on and I was giving it another go.  This time out, I'd be pleased to make it to South Shields in under 2 hours (though really wanted to achieve 1 hour 45).  It was a baking hot day, standig on the central motorway in Newcastle with over 50,000 others waiting to take on the 13.1 miles to the sea front in South Shields, there was a lot going through my mind.  It was over 25 years since doctors told me that I'd never run again and likley as I got older, be in need of some assistance whilst waliking.  I was here, I was taking part and ultimately, it was at that point that how long it takes to ge to the finish didn't matter, success was crossing the finish line.

It was an emotional experience all along the route, the atmosphere was as electric as I remembered it to be.  Crossing the iconic Newcastle bridge, just after the Red Arrows did thier fly by was an amazing feeling, there was still that pleasure adn pain feeling as we began the gentle, long climb along the John Read road, up Prince Edward Road towards the coast, then the elation as we decended Marsden Bank on to the Coast Road and the final mile to the finish.  Crossing the line in a time of 1 hour 55, I was certainly happy.

A physical year in reflection

When I started 2023 and my fund raising journey, I had no idea if I could achieve the goals I had set myself, would my body allow me? would my mind be strong enough to push through the pain that I knew I would be putting my body through? was I stong enough?  Was I taking on too much?

It has taken me a few months of being in 2024 to find the time to really reflect on 2023.  I set out to achieve something, I can't say if I achieved everything I set out too.  I certainly achieved completing the challenges and I surpassed my fundraising target, so to that respect, yes I achieved what I set out too.
However,  being very competative (or so I'm told) doing more or better was always in my head.  Though if I was to be objective and look at the outcomes verses the initial objectives set, success was certainly achieved.  

Moving forward

It is alway important to measure success against your objectives, not your gut feel or how someone else did.  Focus on what you want to achieve, use those around you (including yourself) to inform your targets or as inspiration but your sucess is about how you did, not how others have done.  

Build on your experiences, let them inform how you go forward, how you will behave or approach a challenge in the future, and most importantly good or bad, learn from the experience.

2023 has certainly given me lots to consider, some amazing experiences and a drive to do more, be better and continue to challenge myslef in 2024.  I'm looking forward to pushing myself morephysically and phycologically as I take on more and bigger runs in 2024, including my first ever Ultra Marathon in July and then the big one, 47 miles and over 9000ft of assent around the biggest lake in England, The Lap!

Watch this space for more reflections on 2023 with my next post picking up on my educational journey through 2023 and the first year of a Masters Degree in Enterprise Architecture,  and hopefully (time allowing) more posts around Data, Analytics and Things.


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