Astrid Shepherd explains how getting outside helped her to find happiness
Two years ago I changed my life … for the better! I agreed with my long-term boyfriend that we weren’t right for each other. A few months later I took redundancy from the job I hated. I had a think about what I (big emphasis here: I, not WE!) enjoyed doing. I moved on. I had less money but more time, a great trade-off. I got out of my negative hole and found my positivity again. I fully believe this new optimism stems from getting outside and active again, and not being constrained by a life that wasn’t right for me.
I fully believe in being active rather than sedentary; outdoors rather than in our homes, cars or offices; connecting with nature rather than characters on a TV screen. These choices are vital to our physical and mental well-being. Our bodies are designed to be on-the-go. Our minds depend on the right hormones running round our systems and this can only happen if our body is producing them: activity makes our bodies produce these chemicals, like serotonin and other endorphins. Not only do we then feel awesome (heard of the ‘runner’s high’?) but our perception of pain is also reduced (heard of ‘mind over matter’?). These things ARE true. Think about it, you’re much more likely to feel yucky if you’re doing something you don’t want to do (work, homework) than if you take a break, put on some loud music and have a dance; or take the dog out for a walk; or meet up with a friend for a laugh and a chat.
Okay, so I changed my life. Sounds big and tricky and scary. It wasn’t really. Well, okay, it was scary: I was suddenly on my own and didn’t have a job. But actually doing these things wasn’t half as bad as I had feared for years because I had my family and friends around me to assure me I was doing the right thing. It definitely wasn’t big or tricky. I did little things and, like the proverbial snowball, I found that it all just built up into a big happy snowman with a carrot, two sticks and a beanie hat for warmth.
First step? My best mate had already done that for me. She’d spotted a group set up by Belinda Kirk called ‘Explorers Connect’. There was a trip being organised to Exmoor for the August Bank Holiday and she wanted to go and invited me, too. It was advertised as something along the lines of: camping barns, walking, BBQ, a few bevvies, new friends, exercise, fresh air, wild swimming (eek, maybe not that... I’m a wuss!), a country pub or two. I am SO glad I said yes. I am now very good friends with a good number of the people I met on that trip. What’s more, I’ve made other good friends through the group at other EC events. My social life now revolves around active stuff rather than eating out and sitting down.
Second step? That first walking holiday and a second one I went on two months later gave me the confidence to sign up for the London2Brighton 2015 100 km walk in aid of the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice in Farnham (a wonderful charity). After 7 months of over-training and raising a staggering (to me) amount of sponsorship, I felt like a failure when I had to give in and pull out only 67.5 km and 22 hours into the event. The next day I picked myself back up and registered for the Thames Path Challenge, an easier (flat) one four months later. I listened to advice, changed my kit and attitude and scaled back my training to negligible to give my body a break. With the support of a lot of friends who met me along the way and one amazing Explorers Connect (of course) friend who signed up at the last minute and walked the first 65 km with me, I completed it! I finished at lunchtime on the Sunday, completing it in 29 hours 40, then signed up for the London2Brighton 2016 to earn (?!) the sponsorship I’d attracted for the 2015 event. This time I consulted a personal trainer, one of my most long-standing friends, who added ‘maximum’ to the end of every instruction. He knows me well! Result? Completed it in 24 hours 40. Final hurdle on this strand of my last two years? Completing one (even hillier than the L2B) in under 24 hours. Again my PT mate said ‘maximum’ a lot and I completed the South Coast Challenge in August 2016, two years after my first trip away with Explorers Connect. I did it in 22 hrs 15! AWESOME! That’s 171st of 592 finishers, 41st of 275 women finishers and, 18th of 96 in the V1 category. (V for veteran? Me – veteran? Hmm)
Meanwhile, my adventure life was forming around my training. With Explorers Connect I’ve already done so much: snowboarding, scuba diving, climbing, abseiling, high-rope walking, foraging, learning navigation skills, hillwalking, scrambling, camping (with and without a tent), an outdoor and expedition first aid course, a wild camping course, had lots of BBQs and meals cooked over open fires, lots of partying, drinking, running round like a mad thing hunting chocolate Easter eggs in the dark with a head torch (I won but I did share my hoard).
I’ve stayed in camping barns on Exmoor; yurts on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset; a bunkhouse in the Yorkshire Dales; St Briavel’s Castle in the Forest of Dean; a chalet in the French Alps; farm cottages on the Azores; a private island in the Thames in Berkshire; a private woodland near Bristol; the middle of nowhere on Dartmoor. I took part in Wild Night Out in July 2016. It was great fun getting involved in something so large and new and you could be too in 2017. Oh and, of course, there’s Base Camp Festival in the Peak District. WOW!
So what activities have I done with other groups and with friends I’ve made as a result of finding Explorers Connect? I did a Summer Solstice walk in Wiltshire and walked the Clarendon Way from Salisbury to Winchester with another group. I did a charity walk along the Sarcen Trail with my old boss. I’ve taken in much of the Ridgeway, some of the Wayfarer’s Walk, the South Coast Path, the South Downs Way and the Thames Path as part of my ultra-event training. I’ve done loads more wild camping (mostly without a tent) and walked in loads of gorgeous parts of our countryside with different groups of friends. I’ve canoed in the UK, I’ve canoed and wild camped for a week on the Mississippi. I’ve also been to other adventure festivals - none with the epic array of activities of Base Camp Festival though!
I’ve also got my Mum outside more, walking together locally and inspiring her to go on walking holidays. Then there was this year’s Summer Solstice: it was an 88 year old friend’s birthday, so I helped her realise her dream to sleep under the stars with a night out in the gardens of her care home. Although I’m not so sure she actually slept much: her eyes were wide open in wonder most of the night.
My life will never be the same again. It’s not all down to Explorers Connect. A lot of it is down to my decision to take the leap out of a life that didn’t suit me and to get back to enjoying myself. However, a whole lot of it is down to Explorers Connect. Explorers Connect (EC) introduced me to friends with the same adventurous and positive outlook on life. It’s these friends I now adventure my way through life with.
What’s next? Well, tonight I’m out bivvying with an Explorers Connect (EC) friend on a favourite local ridgeline. I’m on an EC walking trip next weekend in a converted lifeboat house on the Gower Peninsular. I’m doing a climbing course at a local indoor centre next month with a different EC friend. Yet another EC friend is having a Christmas party soon that he’s hoping to schedule when I’m free. I’m spending the New Year in St Anton with EC, snowboarding and partying yet again. I’ll be going to Plas Y Brenin for a climbing course when it gets warmer next year. I’m hoping to join yet another EC friend to walk the GR20 route in Corsica next year. There are also a load of EC trips next year that I already want to get on as soon as they’re open for booking. Oh yes, and then there’s the volunteering I’m now doing helping disadvantaged kids get outdoors, but that’s another story.