The emergence of Must

Last April, I became aware of a Thing called the 100 Day Project.

It was created by the artist Elle Luna, partly as a follow up to her book The Crossroads of Should and Must, which was a follow up to this article on Medium that went viral. Properly viral.

I loved the idea of the 100 Day Project, I came up with my own idea for what my project could be, or so I thought, but it quickly ran dry and other things got in the way. It turns out that committing to 100 Days of anything other than running is awfully hard work.

What did happen though, some months later, was that I bought the book.

My birthday was approaching and I was off to spend it alone on a Scottish island. Well, I was going there to run the Tiree ultramarathon, but other than that it would just be me.

At the time, I had recently broken up with my boyfriend after almost two years together. It wasn’t a very nice ending and it left me pretty distraught and reeling from what had just happened. I was at the stage of starting to contemplate trying to put myself back together again, and accepting that yet again I had ignored signals that were right there in front of me, and had let things go beyond a stage where I should have acted on them.

I bought the book on Kindle because I was flying on a very small plane and only had limited bag space. I am a very fast reader and with three full days away, there would be a lot of reading time. I was a little concerned as to whether the images would still come across as intended, but there wasn’t much option in this instance. My rucksack, with everything I needed for three days loafing and one day to be spent running an ultramarathon, only just fitted in the overhead locker on the plane, which was slightly bigger than the one below on the way out (this is the one for the way back home).

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I sat on the plane on the runway and started to read while the plane filled up with passengers. I was hooked immediately.

And then, the roar of a jet engine, the sudden rush of speed, the bump of the little wheels hurtling along the runway, the pressure on my chest as we took off and climbed up into the sky. The tipping sensation as we banked to turn away from the airport, and then the wonder at Scotland’s west coast lochs, mountains and islands seen from above on a beautiful clear day tore me away from the book.

flying west along the Clyde, looking over to Loch Lomond and its islands, destination Tiree

This was my first taste of what I needed to accept as one of my Musts, and it was one I’d not felt for a while.Memories of riding my motorbike fast, of being lined up on a grid, my left hand wrapped round the clutch lever, right hand holding the throttle, waiting for the lights to go out, launching myself carefully off the line, of tipping into a bend, of dragging my knees on the tarmac, of the oppressive heat of a hot day spent on a hot bike in hot leathers.

No. 6, on a 583cc Ducati Monster. First ever race, first ever knee down. Clearways at Brands Hatch, April 2007. My least favourite corner. Almost.
No. 6, on a 583cc Ducati Monster. First ever race, first ever knee down. Clearways at Brands Hatch, April 2007. My least favourite corner. Almost.

This was Me, or rather a huge part of me that I had had to let go a long time ago and one that I desperately wanted back.

But this Must competes with another one…

And I’m still not sure how and if they fit together or not, and if not, which one to choose and how to go about it, and how to let go of the other one. There’s still a whole lot of Should in there when I think of the other Must.

I wheeled my road bike out of the garage recently to give it a bit of attention before its MOT this weekend. It has been a long time since I rode regularly, longer than I care to admit to. I used to ride between 350 and 500 miles a week, riding an ever changing list of bikes 40 miles to work and 40 miles back in all weathers, and then out again at the weekends with friends. Circumstances changed and I had to stop for a bit. There’s a story for another time.

And then it wasn’t the same when I started again in Scotland.

Riding became about fear, about feeling constantly under the spotlight, about every mistake being noticed and scrutinised, always being asked why I didn’t want to go out. The road surfaces near my house are absolutely dire. The weather is less than bike friendly here, and we had a dreadfully wet summer last year. My drive is mostly gravel and on an awkward corner with an equally awkward slope, and it’s not wide enough to get my bike in and out without moving my car. These are all small things that would never have stopped me years ago, but seem to now. I’d really like to ride on the track again, but I’m only too aware of where my confidence is and I’d like to get some of it back before I put my race leathers back on.

Last year though, only a couple of weeks before we split up, we rode down to the ferry at Wemyss Bay and then headed over to the island of Bute.

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We ended up coming back via the Rhubodaich-Colintraive ferry, the shortest ferry trip in Scotland.

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This brought us back to the mainland via the Cowal peninsula, empty, remote, wild in places. The roads were tremendous and R started to feel a little of the pressure of having someone behind so he pulled over and waved me past.

Just for a while, I opened the throttle and left him and the rest of the world behind for a bit, and I rode.

I really rode. I could still do it, and it was still there.

Everything was still there.

The tarmac was warm, smooth and flowing.

There was no one about and I was completely in the moment, looking only as far ahead as the next corner while still planning for what or whatever was on (or might be just over) the horizon.

I wasn’t riding enormously quickly, but I was back to the smoothness that I had known so long ago. The bike felt fantastic, I moved quickly and easily through the gears, clicking up without using the clutch as I’d learnt on the track. The brakes were perfect and my new adjustable clutch lever meant my small hands weren’t straining to reach.

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an unscheduled pit stop in Arrochar. a cup of builders’ brew, milk and one sugar. a large portion of chips with loads of vinegar and ketchup. heavenly!

And then I had my first ride out in ages a couple of weeks ago, down to the bike shop to get said MOT. It was nerve-wracking, I didn’t ride particularly well, and it was extremely hot. I got to the bike shop a bit late, heart pounding, hands shaking. But I’d made it, and I’d loved it. MOT certificate in my jacket pocket, I started the bike up to ride home. I was mortified when I looked at the mileage on the odometer.

I can’t wait to rectify the situation and start adding to the pitifully low number. I’ve not set a target (very unlike me) but next year, I don’t want to feel that sense of sadness when I realise how little I’ve actually ridden.

I have a couple of longer rides planned in my head but first I need to grit my teeth, bash through and get my confidence back. It’ll come, and I’m looking forward to all the beautiful places I’ll see in the mean time.

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the only bike that has really turned my head in recent years. the gorgeous MV Brutale 899R. strictly a sunny day bike and so it will have to stay in the showroom.
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World, keep on turning

There’s an almost back-to-school feeling in the air lately.

The race is run. Not almost run, like in the song, but actually run. The immediate recovery is complete, and now it’s right back to normality.

Except it isn’t.

Things feel different. There are a couple of obvious reasons for the difference which I won’t go into here, but I’ve been surprised by some of the other things that have come about.

Generally I feel so much more in control of what’s going on around me.

A few days away from working at the day job and away from harp related email have helped enormously of course, but otherwise the difference is mostly due to having more time.

There’s no denying that training for an ultramarathon takes time – 35-50 miles a week takes a LOT of time, and more so if you’re a slow runner like me. And even more so when you add hills and trails to those miles rather than endlessly bashing tarmac.

The training clearly takes phenomenal amounts of energy, but I think what I hadn’t appreciated is just how much it drains you even when you’re not actually training. I have been so tired for these last few months. My greyhounds’ sleeping habits and my inability to switch myself off at night haven’t helped, but most of all running and planning and driving around and endless extra loads of washing have totally worn me out. Housework has been a long distant memory beyond the essential, I’d hardly played my harp except for booked gigs and my motorbike’s MOT and tax expired without me realising. My dogs have been missing their sofa time with me, and me with them.

I had three unscheduled days at home after I arrived back a bit earlier than planned, and I barely told anyone I wasn’t still away. My weekend plans were changed by the weather, and I hardly left the house except to buy food. Instead, I just pottered around doing whatever took my fancy.

The scruffy pile of sheet music that has been shooting me dirty looks for months – tidied. Filed. Scanned into the iPad I’ve had for a couple of months but not had time to use.

The pile of receipts that has been slipping down the back of the table for months – tidied. Filed/binned as necessary.

The kitchen floor – properly clean.

The dust bunnies under the sofas, under the stairs, behind my bike – gone.

The washing up – done and put away.

I read, dozed, watched telly, ate the last remaining items of junk food, and circled round again.

I had a bride and groom-to-be round last week to confirm their music choices for their wedding next weekend. My harp was pointing the other way, giving me a different perspective, so before they arrived I took a quick picture for my Instagram feed. As I looked at it before briefly editing it, it occurred to me my house looked…

Pretty wonderful actually. Inviting. Homely. Quietly stylish even. It looked like I lived there. Tidy but not clinical. A greyhound snoozed on the sofa.

We had a hugely enjoyable hour talking about their wedding and the music they wanted. It quickly turned into a session of “can you play…?, what about …., oh what’s that song that goes….etc” and not only did I have all the music they wanted (bar one new thing which won’t take long to learn at all), it was all things I already knew well.

And we soon had a list of great choices which are special to them, and which I enjoy playing. I can’t wait to be a part of their day.

I love sharing the music I play, and it was great to do so at home. I loved feeling comfortable in my house not worrying about how untidy it was or what cleaning I hadn’t done. Their little girl loved having a go on the harp and loved meeting my dogs.

There are some tremendously absorbing musical projects in the pipeline, and rather than worrying about how on earth I’m going to fit everything in, I’m actually really looking forward to getting started in even though I know they will take a lot from me.

There’s space for those projects now, and as I went through my list book this morning, I realised there’s space for quite a lot of things at the moment. Rather than worrying about how empty things look, I am really enjoying the peace and I’m thinking what else I want from my life and how it will all pan out.

Another big one

When I started this blog last year after deciding my old one had come to an end, I thought I’d be writing about running a lot. It’s one of the things that’s most important in my life and I do a lot of it. Because of where I live and the kind of running I do, I get to go to some pretty special places even when I’m just out racking up the miles. I’ve met some brilliant people through running and it’s fair to say I tend to plan my life around what’s coming up next runwise. It has changed my life for the better and when it goes well, I look and feel like this:

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Thanks to Nicholas Beckett from Edinburgh Sports Photography for this fab picture from the 2014 Highland Fling Relay

Instead, over the last year this has become a blog about feelings, about change, and about restlessness. A relationship ended last summer, and trying to recover from some of the things that had happened has taken a lot more from me than I expected. I needed to find a way deal with all the feelings, and writing seems to be a way for me to do that.

But now, I think I’m through the worst of it and I’m reflecting on other things. One of them is quite big and looming quite large on the horizon.

I’m a week away from another big race, another big distance that will once again push me to, and probably well past, my limits. I didn’t know these limits could even exist for me but over the last few years I have pushed and pushed myself onto bigger and longer things. I tend to fall apart emotionally every so often but physically I always seem to hang on. I hope that continues next weekend.

I’ll be running the Great Glen Ultramarathon which covers the Great Glen Way, a long distance path that links Fort William to Inverness. The exact distance depends on who you ask but is around 71-73 miles. I have 22 hours to complete this, and my aim is just to finish it within this time.  I’m hoping to take around 20 hours, and I’d be absolutely delighted if it was around that. There’ll be no sleeping, not too much stopping and definitely no falling in the canal.

I started training properly in December last year with the annual Marcothon challenge. I ran for 31 days on the bounce and only really struggled to get out the door on days 3 and 4, a bit unexpected so early on.

And then work craziness kicked in and January, February and half of March were a total training disaster. I was working long hours at the day job and working weekends doing the rounds of wedding fairs with my harp. I was in the midst of a deeply unpleasant working environment and was arriving home emotionally and physically drained. My heart rate was crazy and I just about hung on to my mental health despite not being able to run very much, but it was a pretty close call and I was shocked by how long it took to shake all that off again.

I started a new job in the middle of March and some balance was restored pretty much instantly. My training diary has been much more consistent since then, I’ve banked some good miles and built up as carefully as I could given the mileages I would need to be doing as the weeks went by. I’ve still done nowhere near enough miles, but by the time I get to the start line I will have run almost 700 miles since January. The whole of last year I ran just over 900 miles.

I’ve trudged up big mountains and picked my way carefully down again (including in rather unexpected knee-deep snow one weekend!). I’ve crossed Helvellyn with a wayward husky who I picked up along the way, just chatting to a stranger and sharing the craziness of the conditions. I’ve camped out in the freezing cold in the shadow of a snow covered Skiddaw, waded across icy rivers, been kissed by a big dog, been attacked by a less big dog, got a bit lost on more than one occasion, been rescued by a fisherman, and drunk beer in the sun after 9 hours on my feet. I’ve learned to confidently pitch a tent on my own, put faces to social media profile pictures, boiled in 30 degree heat in Scotland in June, been half frozen in arctic conditions in the Lake District in May and I’ve finally done something that made my mum worry about my safety. And I’ve only lost one toenail along the way.

Running wise I’ve done a few fast sessions, mostly (and very unexpectedly) along the Clyde. I don’t know what it is about running in the city centre but I go faster there and I love running in my lunch breaks. The only thing I can put it down to is to being fresher in the middle of the day than at the end.

But mostly I’ve run a lot of slow miles. I’m not a fast runner at all, I get in a dreadful panic with my breathing if I push too hard. Given what’s been going on emotionally, I’ve kept my running as something that makes me feel good and have paced things according to how I’ve felt at the time.

There have been a couple of unexpected breakthroughs along the way.

The main one has been regarding food. I had a chat with a nutritionist at one of the shows about what I was planning and the worries I had regarding the length of time being such a big increase on what I’d done before.

I faded badly in the 53 mile long Highland Fling last year as my energy levels were so variable. And I have always struggled with not being able to eat much following a big run and then as a result battled with arm-chewing levels hunger for a good few days after.

We spoke about the importance of not just fuelling to the end of a big run, but fuelling for recovery. This was something I hadn’t really thought about before, and he explained the importance of eating during and just after a run in terms of the impact it would have on my training afterwards. Given the step up in mileage I was looking at, this was what made the penny finally drop and I vowed to make some big changes.

The solution was to start eating earlier, to be much more focused on eating regularly and to really think about the required quantities of carbs and protein. I’m still not good with getting enough protein and my diet needs a lot of work but despite that, I’ve had some great results.

I have been rather shocked at how much I’ve eaten on runs compared to last year. I’m a small girl, I weigh really heavy for my actual size and I have battled with my weight since I was very young. I am very, very conscious of how much I eat. I’ve never starved myself as I love my food too much, but we don’t have an easy relationship. However I knew things had changed when after the Helvellyn day, I realised I’d eaten everything in my pack despite taking a bit more than I thought I needed, and I could have eaten even more still. It was a cold day and I was moving more slowly than expected because of the snow but I was still really surprised.

Long runs are now fuelled on an interesting combination of Bountys, digestive biscuit bars, small tins of Coke and marmite sandwiches with a couple of caffeine gels thrown in along with the occasional Snickers bar and bag of Randoms. I tend to feel a bit like a cart horse on long days but the benefits have really been felt.

The other breakthrough has been appreciating how well my body has coped as the mileage has gone up. It seems that long and slow suits me, and I recover well.

My bad leg has complained a couple of times, and the good leg has taken a pasting making up for the weakness. But thanks to my very supportive osteopath Daniel Gerber and knowing/feeling when to stop for a day or two, I have been able to keep going towards the bigger picture. The bad leg has still not quite recovered from the Ben Venue hill race descent last October (warts-and-all race report to follow at some point) and complains firmly at too much steep downhill. I think that will need to be a consideration for a while yet until I get that leg built back up again – I’ve really missed the cycling this year as it helps both legs work together better.

I’ve chosen my kit for the race, and I might even be standing on the start line in shorts since I’ve found some that are long enough for me not to inflict my pasty wobbly thighs and footballer knees on the world.

As has become the pattern since my bike racing days, my kit is a bit battered, well worn (apart from the new shorts) and has seen me through some big adventures. I introduce new kit slowly, one thing at a time and never on race day. It gets tested on a long training run and is then either designated as race-fit or otherwise, in which case it only gets used on short runs.

Running at Tiree last year, I realised too late that I was wearing a stripy long sleeve top and leopard print leggings which clashed somewhat. Tough luck. Both have done many happy miles, they don’t rub or get overly damp or sticky, they’ve survived endless washing very well and I always pull them on with a smile. It might seem daft but having favourite familiar old friends really helps settle my nerves when I’m fretting.

It’s honestly a total coincidence that most of my kit is my favourite colour (blue blue electric blue since you ask) given most of it is bought at heavy discount and/or a couple of years out of date. Thanks to my gran who gives me birthday/Christmas money and a bit of petrol money when I go to visit, I have an escape/adventure fund and this goes towards my running shoes and race entries etc. If ever I get to go bike racing again I shall have a Sponsored By Granny sticker on my bike. In fact maybe I should put one on my running pack. I think she’d quite like it.

There’ll be a small fluffy lion in my pack too, a gift from my Brownie leader days. This was a really happy (and much missed) part of my life, and thinking of that time reminds me to be strong and courageous when I am flagging, as I know I will. This poor wee lion has been rescued from the toothless jaws of my greyhound on more than one occasion, but lives on to fight another day. The words to Rabbit Heart by Florence and the Machine also help explain the significance of lions for me but there’s also another aspect, perhaps a story for another day.

The race starts at 1am on Saturday 2nd July and the cutoff is closing time, 11pm on the Saturday night.

I’ve run in the middle of the night before, supporting Audrey at the West Highland Way race last year, coming over the Devil’s Staircase some time getting on for midnight. It was incredibly special looking out over the mountains around Glencoe and thinking of the rest of the country (apart from a few hardy fellow runners out in the Scottish Highlands!) being tucked up in bed.

But I’ve never run through into the early morning and I have to admit to being rather worried about this.

At 1.40am the other Saturday morning, I opened the kitchen door to let the previously mentioned greyhound out for a visit to the garden. It was totally dark, and I shivered a little as I realised I’d be about 3 miles along the way by this time on race day.

And then a few nights later, said greyhound needed out at 3.30am, and it was light.

I’m desperately excited about seeing the sun rise over the Great Glen as I head east, and I hope I’ll be in a good state and still smiling by the time it goes down again next Saturday night.

There’s one 10 mile run left to do tomorrow morning, and then just a couple of short ones next week. As is normal before a big event, I’m nervous, but as one of my music teachers reminded me a few years back, nerves can come in anticipation of something exciting as well as for negative reasons.

There’ll be packing, and epic levels of faffing, but the race start will be here before I know it and I can’t wait.

Crossing the border…again

I was tired on Sunday morning. I hadn’t done much the day before, other than sitting and reading and having a steady mooch round a National Trust property with my mum.

But I had 6 miles to run, and after a couple of days off, my legs were feeling as sluggish as the rest of me. I seem to be OK if I take one day’s rest, but two days is too much. I’d skipped my run the day before, just too tired, so I needed to push through this one and get it done.

For my parents, the fact that I run at all is still a new thing. Normally they wouldn’t bat an eyelid as to what I was up to but it was a bit different that morning.

Where are you going, how long will you be, have you got everything you need, are you sure, how far are you going?

I don’t know, just over an hour, yes I just need my phone and my inhaler, planning about 6 miles but maybe more.

Dad had pointed me off down some quiet lanes which I hadn’t thought of, and off I went.

I’d never dream of running in the roads where I live now, it’s far too busy. This is quite an odd thing to say given Scotland is generally much less hectic than the corner of south east England where my parents live. Their village is a bit of a tourist trap and it can take a while to cross the main road that runs through it, but once away from this, you can go for miles and hours without seeing another soul. Maybe the odd farmer.

I passed a beautiful old church, just as I crossed the county border into Essex. A lot of people don’t know that Essex is like this. The bright lights of Bas Vegas and the orange glow of Brentwood are a world away, and out here the land hasn’t changed much in over a thousand years.

I run down deserted lanes, with my ears pricked for the rumble of a car. Only two pass by in almost an hour. There are fields overhead, the crops high above me. The verges are filled with wild flowers – in particular I notice the poppies. Public rights of way here are rarely used, and they pass through ancient fields and farmland. Trails as I know them in Scotland are non-existent in this neck of the woods, and any off road running is strictly a cross country affair.

It’s easy to think of wilderness and remoteness being an exclusively northern concept, only consisting of the moors, the hills, the Lakes, the mountains, the islands, the lochs.

But here you could drive for miles in search of a pint of milk. You could reach for many more miles across the wide open fields before you touched another living soul. Here, it is quiet, seemingly idyllic, wild in its own way. Beautiful traditionally built (and coloured!) houses peak out over hedges or from behind walls. Here I feel close to the natural world in a totally different way to how I feel in Scotland. I feel at home here also, and yet it is only the fact that my parents and a couple of very dear friends live here that gives me this feeling. I have never lived in this immediate area, never worked here or been to school here. It’s somewhere I come to visit the people I am deeply connected to.

Early last year when I was last here, I thought maybe my time in Scotland had come to an end, and here would realistically be the only place I would consider moving to. I’ve got used to the peace and quiet of where I live, the vast expanses of space around me. My mum asked me if I still wanted to stay, not having the same ties to Scotland as I did before.

But I can’t imagine living anywhere else now. I am restless and looking to move on again. I’m not sure where to but it won’t be south of the border unless something unforeseen changes things drastically. My whole life has changed, and access to those hills and mountains and lochs is a hugely important part of where I would choose to live. I love the proximity to the bright lights of a big city, but much as I am curious about what city living would be like, I don’t think it would be for me.

After a few miles, I am back at a main road. I’ve crossed the border again and I’m back in Suffolk. I’ve miscalculated a little, forgetting which village is how long along this road. I have to dodge the traffic a bit which adds a few unplanned intervals into my run, and I’m brought back to reality quite sharply. Even on a Sunday in the countryside, people are in a rush.

But before long I’m back at the top end of the village, the even more picturesque, chocolate box, country life end this time, and yet I’m standing around waiting for some time to be able to cross the road.

It’s baking hot, muggy and close and the pollen is high. This is how I remember the summers being here, the constant hayfever and streaming eyes but also the endless warmth and the changeable weather from very very dry to incredibly wet with little warning. The mornings and evenings are often misty as the farmland holds the warmth overnight while the air cools sharply above it. Dad collected me from the airport on Friday night and I’d forgotten what it was like driving with fog lights on. I realise how much I miss the mist across the fields outside my old bedroom window. I miss the beach that was so near to where I lived before.

Maybe I am an East Anglian girl after all. Maybe the rural backwaters of deepest darkest Suffolk and coastal North Essex are where I am meant to be. The cosy pubs, beautiful old churches, brick and beam and thatched cottages. rickety old clanking boatyards. The chip shop here shuts at 9pm and the reading material consists of Horse and Hound or Classic Car magazine.

But I don’t miss the traffic. I don’t miss the rubbish transport links, sitting for hours on the A12 or A14 before you get anywhere near the ridiculously congested motorway network. I don’t miss the lack of decent public transport. I don’t miss the house prices.

No, this is no longer the place for me, but coming back at this time has reminded me of the connection I feel here, and I know it is somewhere I can always return to when I am feeling adrift.

No. 18 Stay Up Late

Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far,

been up too long,

worked too hard,

and you’re separated

from the rest of the world.

BRUCE MAU

Almost four years ago, in the first week of my new life in Glasgow, one of the course leaders presented us with Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto For Growth. It’s a 43 point list that basically makes you think hard.

I like lists, and I like thinking hard and questioning things, so I love this one in particular.

I think back to many of the points regularly, but no. 18 is a favourite as I often push myself beyond the point of what might generally conceived to be sensible (I guess that depends on the company you keep).

Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, when I’m doing something new, or something risky, or something difficult.

Sometimes it’s an unconscious realisation that I have been trying to pack too much in, in desperate fear of not making the most of every second of my life. I know it’s a total cliché, but life really is such a gift, and the death and serious illness of loved ones has made me determined not to waste it.

As I get older, and as I spread my wings north of the border, I love life more and more. Sometimes this can bite me quite hard as I continue to attempt to pack more in. I’d love to be able to balance things better.

But beyond watching my beloved greyhounds sleep, with their paws in the air and their whip-like tails flicking as they dream, I just don’t know what calm looks like. Every time it looks like I’m approaching any sense of pause for an extended period, something happens to shake things up.

I’m over a great big hurdle. I completed the monumental training weekend that had been looming in the diary for weeks. The sun was unbelievably strong, the terrain difficult in places but I managed pretty well considering, and I was amazed by the results. I ran 60 miles over two days, and apart from a couple of annoying blisters and epic levels of hunger, there are no lasting after effects.


As expected, I’m really, really tired. The last few weeks have been pretty tough going, balancing the increase in training and two demanding jobs, but it has all been leading up to this point. I’ve felt my emotions start to unfurl a bit, and a lot has come to the surface. Partly as a result of the abusive relationship storyline on the Archers, partly due to managing a long term injury without compromising on what I want my body to do in less than four weeks’ time, and partly due to my friends completing their final degree recitals at the RCS while I just listen rather than performing my own.

And yet, despite this exhausted, emotionally and physically ragged phase, the creative part of my brain almost feels like it’s on fire. This seems to come from long runs. While I’m running, my body is totally engaged in keeping itself going and my mind is away, free to explore and think and process and digest. Add to this the surroundings I am able to run in, beautiful, empty, truly wild in some places, and it’s no surprise that often when my run is over, I have often found a solution to a problem, written a song or a tune, shaped a musical phrase differently or figured out some tricky pedalling despite being miles away from my harp.

There are projects and ideas popping up left right and centre. This can lead to a different kind of exhaustion and so needs managing in a different way, but I love this extra unexpected dimension that running has given me as I’ve continued to push my distances up. I desperately want to write, to compose and I desperately want and need to sit down with the harp and get my fingers and arms good and strong again so I can really, really play again.

But the next few weeks will see some enforced attempts to calm things down and rest up ahead of the next big challenge. I find it easier to rest properly when I’m not at home. I adore where I live but there’s always something that needs doing and I find it hard to ignore it.

I’m taking a trip to sunny Suffolk to see my parents for a weekend, where I will have to sit for a while in an airport departure lounge, then sit on a plane. With nothing to do but read and wait.

When I arrive at their house I will be jumped on by four whippets. I will sit with at least one of said whippets on my lap, drink tea, catch up with my mum and dad, eat, drink wine and sleep. I will tease my dad about the latest acquisitions in the garage and maybe pass a few spanners as we swap news and exploits. We will probably relive the Ventoux adventure yet again, and nod sagely as we agree (again) that life hasn’t been the same since.

After that, I’m off down to visit my gran for a weekend. I will drive for three and a half hours, watching the weather over the Lake District, feeling the compression effect as the M6 traffic begins to build south of Lancaster, and I’ll listen to the radio. I gave up music in the car years ago, as a result of a fortnight spent almost solidly on the motorways and A roads between Colchester, Leeds and Manchester just after my granddad died. I’d exhausted all the CDs I had in the car and just wanted to hear people talking.

When I arrive at my gran’s house, we will have an endless bear hug. In fact we’ll have about three as this is the time it takes for me to calm down all the emotions I feel when I see her. I know how lonely she is without my granddad, and I am desperately sad I can’t spend more time with her.

I’ll drink tea and eat more cake than I should. Food at my gran’s is a guerrilla-like battle where it’s not a question of “are you hungry/do you want to eat”, it’s how much food she can get down you before you realise how much you’ve eaten or you go home. I prepare in advance now, accepting that it’s just her enjoying having someone to fuss over after years of dealing with four children and my high maintenance granddad, and then the emptiness of that ending.

I always warn her when my dogs are stood behind her in the kitchen, as I worry she will trip. She will kindly but firmly remind me that she managed four kids and numerous Alsatians and so she still has eyes in the back of her head thank you very much.

In between feeding me up, we’ll watch several repeats of Midsomer Murders/Morse/Cadfael/whichever one is on, and at least one of us will fall asleep in the chair. At night I’ll bunk into the single bed in the spare room and attempt to keep the dogs from sharing it with me. There’s not much space on a single bed even when you’re five foot tall, but factor in two great big skinny dogs who want to rest their weary old bones on something soft and … well.

After that, there’ll be a last few short runs, some packing and assembling of kit and food, and then off to the race.

After the race, there will be a holiday and a long awaited chance to rest, recover, reset and consider the next move.

Here comes the sun

At 7.30 this morning it was already 12 degrees outside. For the third day in a row, my dogs have been out for their morning walk without their jackets. Saturday and Sunday runs were completed wearing a vest instead of the normal number of layers.

Last weekend I was fighting my way through shin deep snow and ice cold streams. Saturday brought bright sunshine, enough to burn my face when reflected off the snow. Sunday brought heavy rain, thick mist, hail, high water levels, slushy snow and deep bogs underfoot. These were perhaps the worst conditions I’ve ever been out in, and I cut my day short.

Yesterday morning, as the dogs sniffed the daffodils (which are still in full bloom having come out very late this year) I noticed my neighbours sat in their garden enjoying the morning sun. Just sitting in the warm and the peace and quiet.

Yesterday afternoon as I drove over to Carron Valley for my run, I saw an ice cream van in the Crow Road car park. “Mmmm, ice cream,” said a small voice.

This morning on the radio, there was a reference to a village fete atmosphere. “A village fete, wow it has been ages since I went to one of those,” it said again.

It feels like such a long time since I last saw the sun, and a long time until my holiday. It’s not really so long, just 8 weeks away, but there is a packed diary and a whole heap of running to get through before then.

We have a glorious expression here in Scotland. Taps Aff. It translates literally as Tops Off, referring to the sudden lack of shirts being worn. 

What it actually means though is a bit of a party atmosphere where everyone is in a good mood. Spirits are lifted by the sun which, let’s be honest here, we don’t see in Scotland terribly often.

My working day starts at Milngavie station. There are engineering works at Queen Street so my normal route from Lenzie is a bit traumatic. Actually this has been an unexpected pleasure for me as Milngavie station is really quite charming. It’s much quieter than Lenzie station, which is anything but charming. 

Here there is a station dog called Sandy, a coffee hut, and a book basket where you take and leave as you see fit. And one of the nicest things about it is that it’s near the start of the West Highland Way so pretty much every day, I see someone with a big rucksack, or a bike, or both, heading off on a long and beautiful journey. 

This might provoke feelings of jealousy but strangely it doesn’t. My days in the sun will come, and all is well with the world. 

And pause… south of the border

Sunday morning. Rain tapping against the window. I roll over. The bed is empty and I remember why. He left an hour or so ago, and is now battling up the hills in the weather I am seeing from under the duvet.

I get up, put my running kit on and head down for breakfast. My bacon sandwich is delicious, the bacon perfectly cooked, and I hear the B&B owner discussing the provenance of the sausages he is proud to serve. I suspect the bacon comes from the same place. I rarely eat meat these days, but bacon butties and smoked fish are something I would find hard to give up.

I’ve had a good look at the map that is drying out from yesterday’s amble round the Fairfield Horseshoe. I’d hesitate to call it a run – it was steep on the way up and very technical on the way down. We got snowed on, more than once. For one moment I thought I was going to have to lower myself down what appeared to be a rock climb but we found another way. But I ran where I could and enjoyed myself immensely. D could have gone a lot quicker, but didn’t. When I asked hesitantly, tentatively, very nervously, if he was getting frustrated with me, he said no, gave me a big hug and off we went again.

He offered to carry the pack on the first climb, and bravely, fighting every independent feisty obstinate cell in my body, I let him. A pale blue girly XS Salomon pack didn’t really fit him but he managed.

Now back to the map. A friend has suggested the Kentmere horseshoe. There’s a fab looking route round Helvellyn but the road nearby is closed. Decisions.

The rain continues. My tea is a little too weak but you can’t have everything.

I pack everything up from the weekend, and everything I need for a few hours running in the mountains. I am tired. I should be looking forward to getting out in the hills but, honestly, I’m not.

I settle the bill with the B&B owner. He asks what my plans are for the day. I look at the floor. A voice comes from nowhere.

If you were going to sit. Just sit. And look, and read, and sit. For the day. Where would you go?

It’s my voice.

He ushers me over to the huge map on the wall. He offers Grasmere as a first suggestion and recommends a cafe there. Inside or out. Either is good, he says.

The next suggestion is Rydal. We ran past on our way up to Fairfield yesterday. It looked lovely.

The cafe is excellent, he says. And the gardens of Rydal Hall are beautiful, he says.

I recall a day spent with one of my dearest friends, sitting, pondering, and wandering round the gardens of Brodick Castle on Arran on the single day of summer we had in Scotland last year.

Rydal it is.

I cross the road into the garden centre. It’s huge, but there in the plant house is the Cotswold concession. I desperately need a decent pair of gloves as the last link in my collection of kit for next weekend. We’ve been in every outdoor shop in Ambleside and there has been precious little choice of decent waterproof not too bulky gloves for teeny female paws. And there they are.

The chap behind the till clocks what I’m wearing and asks me where I’m off to. To the cafe, I reply. He laughs.

I wander through Ambleside. There’s a bookshop. A proper bookshop. I hesitate to say old-fashioned. It shouldn’t be.

I wander in. A girl/lady/woman, I’ve no idea which, she’s a similar age to me and I’m not sure what I count as, asks me if I need any help.

Something local and quirky please. I’m off to sit in a cafe for the day.

She offers a couple of suggestions, and then directs me outside to look in the window where their customers’ Top 10 of the week selection is displayed. I see a book by the author of a crazy Swedish language film I enjoyed last year. I didn’t know it was a book before it was a film. The film involved a very old man and a significant body count. It was hilarious.

I buy two books and stroll towards the cafe.

There are sheep, and cows, and people heading out to the hills.

I get to the cafe. There is an enormous piece of chocolate and Guinness cake staring up at me while I order my coffee.

We sit, outside, over a waterfall. Me, the chocolate and Guinness cake, my new books.

Oh, and Flora.

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Flora is part of the Go Herdwick trail, and some kind person has given her a wee hat to keep her ears warm.

I’ve run a lot lately, up a lot of hills. In the last month, the Mell trail in the Trossachs, the Arrochar Alps, the Pentlands and now Fairfield. I’m shattered. I love being in the hills but I’m so, so tired. I’ve run/walked/staggered up the equivalent of half of Everest in three weeks.

I sit and read another book about farming. The cake is lighter than it looks, and it slips down quickly. I slurp my way through another coffee, and then head back to Ambleside. Via another couple of shops. Ewegene and Ewegenie follow me back to the car.

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We head off to Great Langdale. I loiter on the finish line, hoping D hasn’t come in already.

I chat to a girl/woman/lady also waiting on the line. Her husband, an ex England rugby international, died a few years ago. She had travelled all over the world with him, and in later years they had moved to the Caribbean to set up a rugby program there. He died very young, very suddenly, from a heart attack. She met someone new who is into cycling. She’s a former runner who is carrying a knee injury and is starting to discover cycling for herself. We share frustrations at life ending too soon, and at those who get to take it for granted.

D isn’t expecting me and hardly recognises me as he crosses the finishing line. He has had a tough day but is smiling, elated, pleased with his efforts. I hand him an enormous Bath bun from a new favourite cafe in Ambleside.

I had a brilliant day.

I’ll be back in the Lakes in a couple of days, and I have no doubt I’ll have a better, safer time as a result of a proper rest day on Sunday.

Big week

Last week was a funny old week really. Lots of good things seemed to sneak in. 

After the training lows of the week before, I was amazed to post my biggest weekly mileage since I started running. And I realised just recently that I’m starting my fifth year of running! 

I can’t quite believe where the time has gone, and what has happened in that time, and what happened leading up to that time to place me where I am just now.

But I digress.

I had some wonderful comments from happy harp listeners and clients. 

I revisited some old haunts, some favourite places to run. I discovered new places and in doing so, I found some new favourites. 

I reclaimed the Cobbler from the jaws of bad relationships past, and avoided getting myself into mischief on Saturday by going up mountains in conditions I wasn’t equipped for. 

It was really hard saying no to just going a little further, a little higher, despite the snow, just to see. But in the end it wasn’t quite so hard saying no more to the endless energy sapping boggy mush that lay between Beinn Nairnan and Beinn Ime.

 
A 12 mile loop around Loch Venachar was absolutely stunning on Sunday morning, and sharing it made it even better. Finding a new little thinking spot and enjoying a recovery lunch in the Brig o’ Turk tearoom might just have made it a perfect day out.

 

Things feel so much lighter. I have a big event coming up in a couple of weeks that I’ve been worrying about a bit, and while I still have a lot of logistical stuff to sort out, I’m starting to believe that I will be able to do it.

The bigger one is about 10 weeks away and that feels like it will be OK again too.

There’s also a holiday in the diary, and I’m so looking forward to seeing another part of Scotland I’ve always wanted to visit.

I found myself looking at places to live, just daydreaming really. But I came across a disused barn for sale for development in a perfect location. Although there were big plans to make it someone else’s idea of just so, I couldn’t help think that with a loo, shower, kitchen and plenty of hot water, it was pretty much perfect as it was. It reminded me of a friend’s workshop where I’d spent some happy times a few years back.

And there are other good things quietly going on in my life too, scary but in a good way. 

Ultra running is about many things, but for me one of the biggest is dealing with the highs and lows as they develop over the course of a long training run, or an even longer race. I accept that these are part of the game, and I’ve enjoyed learning to cope as things change over a long day. Dipping energy levels, sore legs, wheezy lungs, poor weather conditions, tough terrain, landscape that isn’t always beautiful. These all come and go, often unpredictably.

You’d think I’d have worked out by now that life is just the same, and that I really don’t need to worry so much when I find myself under a bit of a cloud for a while. 

The pace of change

Sometimes a lot changes in a short space of time. You tell yourself it’s short term, things will settle soon, you can get through it.

And then it continues. 

Since the decision was made to move to Scotland, I feel like the changes haven’t stopped. 

The only constant things have been the hills behind my house, and two greyhounds. Even they are changing as they age more noticeably.

The thing is, thanks to my upbringing, I’m really good at dealing with change. And I don’t always recognise that I’m running myself ragged until there’s a drastic collapse, normally accompanied by a wailing and gnashing of teeth.

This year, Easter combined with the start of spring and the clocks going forward came at the same time as yet another new job. 

Life is slowly returning to normal after several months of long hours at the day job, accompanied by weekend working since the start of the year while I’ve been building the harp side of things back up. 

I should be feeling revived, refreshed and ready to speed forward into whatever the future holds.

But I’m not. 

I’m exhausted, and I’m feeling utterly crushed by everything that has happened (good and bad) since last summer.

As I started to ramp up the training miles ahead of the races and events I have planned for the summer, my body recently put in a very stern protest.

I dragged myself round a 6 mile run on Saturday. It was agony and I felt completely destroyed afterwards. I took a couple of days off. 

I set out for another 6 miles on Tuesday evening, which should have been well within my ability. It was a beautiful evening, I had no need for a head torch as I’d be back well before it got dark, and I had been looking forward to getting out. 

It quickly became obvious that I was not going to make it round. I cut the run short, and was home after 3 miles, again feeling wiped out and this time in a bit of pain too. The recent hills and long runs in my legs had finally said no more, stop, please.

In desperation, I rolled out my yoga mat, put a DVD in the player and awaited the curious sniffing from one of the hounds. 

The intention was to stretch everything out. Or at least to start. 

I was looking for the physical benefits of a yoga session, but actually I found much, much more. 

My spirit started to unwind a little. The voice came from the screen, just go with it and let your body do what it needs to do. Enjoy the time, the space, the creativity. 

Since then, I’ve been overwhelmed by a sense of depletion. Not just in my legs, but deeper. It has only just occurred to me this morning that if someone (or something) takes from you over an extended period without giving, then some fairly serious replenishment is going to be required. I’d thought that once the situation/s came to a close, everything would get back to normal.

But normal has shifted, and I’ve changed. 

There’s an hour in between the first and last pictures of the church in Unken, taken last summer as I ate pizza and drank wine outside with my friend.

There’s seven weeks, and a world of other differences, between the top and bottom pictures of Buchanan Street in Glasgow, taken on lunchtime escapes from two jobs. The sun has risen in the sky , friendships have passed, seasons changed, commuter routes swapped.

 

The longer days will bring evenings in the hills, and I crave the feeling of effort on the way up followed by the freedom of reaching the top, leaping across the bogs and seeing nothing but grass, a few sheep, the mountains further north and the setting sun. 

 

Things to come

It is beautiful in Glasgow this morning. The sun has lit up the shoulder of Slack Dhu and Dumgoyne, and I can see the snow on the mountains around Loch Lomond. 

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve loved seeing various blog posts and photos from fellow Scottish runners hailing the return of the early morning light, and today was the first time I’ve not needed my headtorch on the morning dog walk. 

I’ll miss seeing groups of eyes staring back at me from behind the trees and the resulting scamper of deer running away, but oh the anticipation of the longer days to come, the evenings up in the hills and hopefully getting out on my bikes again.

Tomorrow, at last, is long run day. 

Weekends have been packed since the start of the year and there has not been any space for a decent run. Evenings have also gone by, not so much in a blur but in an awful rattling shrieking express train of stress, pressure, conflict and general unpleasantness. 

I’m just starting to build my running miles up again, carefully to allow for the worsened asthma and the constant lurgy that has been lurking and threatening to take hold since November. Somehow I have kept it in its place. 

Tomorrow I will be heading out on one of my favourite routes that takes me past some of my favourite haunts and never fails to lift my spirits. I’ll pull on favourite, familiar kit that has seen me through good days, bad days, long days, freezing cold, soaking wet days, baking hot sunny days. I’m not sure I’ll have enough oomph to drag myself up the distillery hill, but I shall give Glengoyne a wave on the way past with a nod to friends far away.

Spring isn’t quite with us just yet, but patches of snowdrops appeared a few weeks ago now, and while mine will sadly be trampled by eager greyhound paws, it has been wonderful to see them emerging on the coldest, darkest of days. Daffodil leaves are starting to poke through the soil too, and my road will soon be a flash of yellow as I come and go.

The training plan for the Great Glen is always at the back of my mind, as is the kit list for the Great Lakeland 3 Dayer. Both have given me something positive to focus on through these last awful weeks at work. I’m so excited about both, although apprehensive, nervous and more than a little bit scared. 

I entered a new race last night, which will take me to yet another bit of Scotland that I’ve never been to. This one has a deep personal connection as it’s where my parents met on teaching practice all those years ago.

Running has given me so much, particularly running here in Scotland. I’ve missed its regular and defining presence lately, and it’s so good to have it back again.

Some favourite running pictures…

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Fling relay 2014, Conic Hill. photo by Graeme Hewitson
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Fling relay again, photo by Edinburgh Sports Photography
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easter saturday 2014, epic day on Rannoch Moor with ma wee pal
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Loch Katrine marathon 2015. photo by Fiona Rennie
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closing stages of Tiree Ultra 2015, a bit tired and windswept