How mindful acceptance and being kind to myself have helped me to turn the disappointment of expedition injury into a positive opportunity.
My attempt to walk around the British Coast has paused temporarily whilst I recover from a second shin splints injury.
Three weeks and 370 miles into the journey, just before Plymouth, I noticed a regular, sharp stabbing pain in the shin of my right leg when I planted and lifted my right foot. Occasionally it shot up through my knee with a halting intensity. Walking became painful and the consistent ache in my leg during rest meant that I was not recovering overnight in readiness for the next day.
I decided to check it out by having an assessment and x-ray at Plymouth Derriford Hospital. Shin splints – a generic term for anterior lower leg pain, an RSI (repetitive-strain injury). Two to three weeks’ rest and recovery, they said.
Such a situation always presents a dilemma: to walk on or to accept the advice and to pause? I chose the latter.
Of course, I was disappointed. But I have coped. And I want to share with you a few ways of thinking that have helped me to accept it and to make the most of the reality.
Manage Your Own Expectations
Nothing sets us up for disappointment like expectation. This was a plan for a huge walk. But a plan is all it was; a good start.
Whilst we can plan and try to foresee things that might go wrong, we never know how they will affect us until they happen. So there’s no point worrying about them.
One of the potential setbacks was always the risk of injury. Injuries are commonplace for sports people, and with a challenge as big as this – 5600 miles of walking over eight months or more – it was almost inevitable that the body would give out in some way at some time. In my case, however well or not I had prepared, the risk was amplified.
John Merrill was thirty-five when he pioneered this walk, carrying a full pack, camping wherever possible – a largely self-sufficient endeavour. And he had a five week timeout with a fracture in his foot. I am giving Merrill twenty years in age – though advances in kit design mean I am carrying much less weight on my back. It is also six years since my last big walk, and I have discovered that there is a much bigger difference in capability between fifty and fifty-five than between thirty and thirty-five.
I was very aware on my first week, and the first week of my restart in Somerset, how much easier it was when I had daily backup and support from Carolyn with our campervan. Perhaps the plan was too ambitious. It looks that way now, but how can we know until we try?
So from the start, whilst I had the end (or the whole task) in mind, I only ever had a day to day focus. I had already accepted the relative probabilities of success and failure.
Be Aware of Negative Emotions
Most of us do not like negative emotion. It feels uncomfortable, painful even. We make it worse by worrying about how it appears to others, because negative emotion is often viewed adversely. So we deny it, pretend it isn’t happening, put on a brave face. And to avoid the pain for the future we repress it.
The several days leading up to my injury had been very difficult. In hideous weather around south Devon I was often forced inland away from the cliffs to walk tedious and viewless tarmac lanes. I had to replan every day around where I was going to stay that night (camping was impossible and very few establishments were open and affordable and close), which meant spending emotional energy, then walking further in the conditions than I would have liked because I had committed to a place.
The injury crept up on me. Under pressure.
With nowhere prearranged to stay in Newton Ferrers and options diminishing or involving a further four miles of walking to the next town, with my leg giving me pain and my general energy levels almost empty, I hit an emotional wall.
Commitment and resilience. Self-belief. Push through the pain, it will go away. Unshakeable resolve to achieve the goal. Doesn’t society value that. These are the things I could hear in my head – beware the expectations of others.
However, instead of believing that “I should be able to cope with this”, I acknowledged that the injury was affecting my ability to cope with the other hardships, which are part and parcel of adventure. I let the emotion go, with a few private tears, and stepped aside. Denying the feelings would have been much more risky.
In order to accept a situation we first have to be aware of the emotions we’re feeling right now and to allow them to be without judgment, to accept them.
Acceptance is not Resignation
Acceptance is not the same as resignation or helplessness. It is not ‘giving up’.
Acceptance is being able to maintain a firm grounding in reality and the empowerment to focus on what we can control. To resign is simply to allow feelings of frustration and hopelessness to dominate, which ultimately devalue our self-esteem and become habitual.
Understand the Situation
Now I was in a place to evaluate calmly. The shin splints injury was probably a muscle tear or tendonitis, but might have been a stress fracture – my symptoms suggested that possibility. It would definitely get worse if I ignored it. When I knew the extent of the injury I would be able to make a clear and informed choice about the future of the walk. Get it checked.
I listened to what the nurse and the physios had to say at Derriford. They kept apologising for the ‘bad’ news. I told them there was no need, because I had gone there to ask them what the problem was. They had told me and I was thankful; disappointed, yes, but not upset.
My decision to stop was now an easy one, and I was able to make it dispassionately because my situation was validated externally.
Nonetheless, there has to be some feeling of loss. The big project, the venture into which I had invested much time and energy, beliefs and dreams, was now in peril.
For a week or so after coming home from Plymouth I felt flat and listless, which is a normal reaction at the bottom of the grief cycle. But my early acceptance had actually avoided all of the denial and anger that might normally precede it. I felt quickly able to get on with planning my restart.
Be Kind to Yourself
Restarting after the injury demanded a sense of realism. I could have given up, or I could have doggedly refused to let go of the original goal and continued where I left off in Plymouth.
Much of the original schedule was based around being in Scotland through the late spring and early summer, and I quickly realised that if I restarted in Plymouth, I would be constantly with the feeling that I was three weeks behind, which, subconsciously at least, would create emotional and physical pressure, further increasing the risk of injury.
I also concluded that I was more committed to the experience than to the original goal. So I chose to restart in Minehead, where I would have been by the last week in March. That would leave a big Cornish hole to be closed at some time. But it felt the right thing to do.
Being kind to myself.
The leg had been pain-free when wandering around the house and on some short training walks, but I knew there was a high probability now that the injury would recur. When it did, with a vengeance on the north coast of Gower in Wales, my acceptance was immediate and easy; my ‘grieving’ had been done the first time.
Now I had enjoyed two weeks of great walking, covering 280 miles, with Carolyn for company in Somerset, and some delightful, warm spring weather. What was not to like?
Perhaps two to three weeks walking at a time was presenting a threshold. Listening to what my body is telling me, maybe the opportunity is now to walk in stages according to how I am feeling physically and emotionally. To start and stop where I fancy, with no pressure. To do as much as I can and want to do (of which, more news will follow shortly).
The Paradox of Acceptance and Achievement
Achieving anything significant requires commitment, persistence and resilience, an ability to work through hardship and to break down barriers.
So cynics might argue that all of this is simply a new-age excuse, revealing a lack of fortitude and those other never-say-die qualities. Taking the easy way out.
I understand that, but this paradox is inescapable, even when things are going well. Being in the present moment requires not thinking about the goal but paying attention to what is happening now without judgement.
With acceptance, I see that the situation could not be avoided, so I can look to what the rest of this project holds with fresh enthusiasm and energy, even if it will not be what it was at the start.
So actually, I will achieve more than I would have done without it. Without acceptance, I might now be feeling depressed with the heavy label of failure hanging over my head in the corner.
And maybe goals are all about directions towards the horizon and the journeys that take us there, not about pinpoint destinations that we might not reach. Mindfulness is always then a balance between being and doing; about being in the moment sufficiently to have a clear focus on what matters now and what is important for the future.
What matters is the wisdom of what we choose to do for the long term good.
Presence brings that wisdom.