Feeling Good

Saturday’s “long” run took me to a new place with a good friend. I found myself with a spare weekend and no plans so I put a shoutout on Facebook. It was good to catch up with Audrey and to run a bit of the Glen Ogle race route. I’ve driven out this way a couple of times but otherwise it’s not an area I know at all.

The route we ran is probably absolutely beautiful, but we couldn’t see very much at all.

We had a slight fail on the equipment front – I’d forgotten to put any Smidge on and Audrey hadn’t brought a waterproof. I had but decided against wearing it as it was so warm, and so we looked like drowned rats when we arrived back at the car.

It was a day where I felt glad to be alive – glad to be running again, glad to have mostly recovered from the latest lurgy, glad to live in such a gorgeous part of the world, glad to have good friends around me.

I joined Audrey halfway into her 24 mile run, which meant she had slowed down a bit, plus there was a lot of walking anyway as there were some fairly steep hills. The pace was just right for me and how I was feeling. My chest was a bit tight in a few places and my glutes and quads felt like concrete, but otherwise, everything felt good. I couldn’t believe I was out running and feeling ready to start getting back to normal mileage for a couple of weeks before dropping down again ahead of the Eiger.

I did a short easy session in the gym midweek. That morning, I felt absolutely shattered and I questioned whether I should be doing anything at all, but my body felt so stuck, so stiff and stodgy and fed up and not my own. I decided a little gentle movement couldn’t hurt, and I would stop if anything felt really wrong. It was the right decision to give it a go, and I felt much much better for it. I managed 3 1/2 steady minutes on the versa climber/torture rack, and I chuckled to myself as I remembered the first time I tried it back in December when I just about survived a minute on it. There will be many more minutes spent on it over the next few weeks as I continue to prepare for some massive climbs and descents in the Alps.

I’ve only been using the gym regularly since about December but I’ve been surprised how much it has become part of my training and part of my week. I was even more surprised when I realised I’d missed it. I feel stronger, yes definitely, but I also feel better about myself and my body.

Now that I’m back to moving again as normal, it’s probably time to get back to normal eating patterns too rather than giving into all the carby junk food cravings as I have been in recent weeks….

Afternoon Off

Last Friday I played for my last wedding of 2016. It was just 2 minutes’ drive from my house, at the hotel that I walk past every morning with my dogs. The staff are great, the food is great, it hands down beats many more exclusive venues I’ve played at for friendliness and attention to detail, and the ceremony was wonderful.

The bride and groom’s little boy stood still as a statue throughout the ceremony clinging onto his granddad, and looked at his mum and dad with a beautiful expression of sheer wonder.

I was home and had the harp unloaded by 2.30, and was heading up into the hills behind my house just after 3pm. It was the most glamorous I’d ever looked on a run as I realised I still had all my makeup on! (rosy cheeks down to the biting wind, no cosmetic enhancement on these)

 

I’ve been up a fair few hills this year, particularly while I was training for the Great Lakeland 3 Day event back in April, but I was a bit shocked to realise that this was my first time up here since last year. These hills are so nearby, almost in my back garden, and it’s not a long run from the car park to get to the trig point at Cort ma Law, one of the higher peaks in the Campsie Fells. But this is proper tough hill/fell running territory, and there is a high chance of getting lost or getting stuck in a bog. For whatever reason, I’d chosen other places to train this year.

I’m desperately unfit at the moment and I knew a good stomp would get my training kickstarted again. It was a beautiful day, clear but very cold, and truly a grand day to be out in the hills.

Once I’d staggered up the initial climb, I could soon see Ben Lomond, Tinto Hill, the Pentlands and even the new Queensferry Crossing over the Forth.

As is the custom, I started off avoiding all the bogs as much as I could. It was really hard going – although the hills look like a plateau with just an initial steep climb, it is anything but flat on the top. There wasn’t much running done really, partly due to the terrain and my lack of fitness but also because I kept stopping to take photos.

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the first cairn

I am really bad at judging falling light in relation to the distance I can cover, and while I had an idea of the sunset time, I also knew from prior experience that if you are in one of the dips up there, it can become very dark very quickly. I had my headtorch with me and plenty of spare kit, so there was no need to worry whatsoever, but I guess the uneasiness I felt was just down to lack of familiarity and losing my confidence a little bit over the summer. I knew deep down I’d be fine, and I could manage whatever happened.

It’s strange feeling like this when you are so close to home that you can almost see your house, you’re just a few miles outside one of the biggest cities in the UK and yet here you are in remote wild hill country with just a couple of sheep for company.

I’ve headed off course up here even on a warm light summer evening, just losing concentration and thinking of other things. I was surprised that night just how disorientated I felt and how quickly. It should be easy – follow the cairns, keep Glasgow on your right on the way up and on the left on the way down. But this assumes you’re not in one of those dips and you can still see Glasgow. A compass helps of course, and I think on that occasion I used the one on my phone just to point me back in the right direction again.

One of my usual tracks to Cort ma Law was really really wet – it was incredibly slow and tough going and I doubted whether I would get to the trig point in time to get back down in the daylight. I cut across to the slightly more well-used track instead, and tripped over a couple of times along the way over the long clumpy grass. I was up here on my own, it was getting dark, it could go wrong at any time and no one would know. I made it down fine as I always do, but it did surprise me a bit that while this had all felt so normal just a few months back, now it felt alien, disconcerting and a little scary.

It’s good to be scared though – partly because it’s exciting to be scared by just the right amount when you know you can handle whatever comes, and also because it reminds you to stay focused and switched on and to understand the risks of what you’re doing in the name of Fun.

The sunset was breathtaking, and I was reminded of just how beautiful the colours can be in the low winter light. From green to gold to red and other colours besides, I felt very lucky and very special getting to enjoy this on my own.

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lights on at the Celtic FC training ground in Lennox Forest

On the last bit up to Cort ma Law there are a few bigger bogs and little streams to jump across. These are quite a stretch for little legs like mine, but they are also one of the things I enjoy most about running up here. I loved the hurdles when I was at school, and there’s something about judging the distance, the impact of landing and the heart-quickening moment just after you’ve jumped when you wonder if you will actually make the other side.

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looking east from Cort ma Law towards the Forth bridges

On the way back, it didn’t matter about the bogs any more. My feet were soaking wet and a few more bogs wouldn’t make the blindest bit of difference. I was really quite cold by now, and very aware that I was running in just a couple of thin layers. Nothing different to what I would normally wear at this time of year, but I really noticed the feeling on the first truly bitterly cold day in a while. I was glad of my gloves and buff that day and I rarely wear those unless it is seriously cold. I could taste snow in the air – not necessarily imminent although I’m sure I felt a few raindrops that could just as easily have been snowflakes, but it was definitely on its way.

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At the last cairn on the way back, I noticed a black dog ahead of me. He was making his way towards me and just for a moment I hesitated. I was attacked by a dog earlier this year and it has made me much more wary of dogs off the lead than I used to be. I needn’t have worried, this one was an absolutely gorgeous creature and he was very happy to be fussed. He was lovely and warm and very affectionate with a very thick fluffy coat, and I needed some of that heat so was in no rush to head off.

Soon his owner appeared. Here was one of those guys you see out in the hills, thin as a whippet and twice as fit with a superbly healthy glow, sparkling eyes and a big smile, impossible to age but very possibly at least 20-30 years older than they first appear.

He asked where I had been and who I ran for, suggesting one of the very serious local hill running clubs. I chuckled a little bit and said I was far too slow for them, but he was rightly having none of it – everyone is welcome there as we both knew. I mentioned I ran mostly on my own as it just seemed to work out that way, he understood and we swapped a couple of local routes we knew and had enjoyed. He also suggested a route between Cort ma Law and Meikle Bin, which I had spotted but never done. Definitely time to be ticking that off the list.

He asked if I had enjoyed my day, and I confided I was a little worried about taking my elderly greyhound to the vet later that afternoon so I had been up here clearing my head.

He put his hand gently on my arm and rubbed it a bit. I dipped my head and swallowed a few tears, grateful for Mac the dog’s comforting presence – he was now stood between my feet keeping my calves warm. We shared a few words about the worries of having older pets, and then went separately on our way, hoping we would maybe meet again up here one day. It was good to share just a little part of my run with such warm, friendly company both canine and human.

Last night the snow arrived.

 

September

I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago when September had just arrived.

It’s one of my favourite months of the year. Not just because my birthday is in September and I normally get good weather for it, but also because it remains a month of fresh starts. It’s a while since I was at school or college, but I still get that feeling of progress, of movement and of new things to come.

The school year actually starts in early August here in Scotland but it always catches me out, it still feels too early.

Since I moved up here, it’s also a time to start looking ahead to the winter and the changes this brings. It gets darker much earlier, and the nights draw in much sooner. A couple of weeks ago, it was dark at 9pm, now it’s almost dark at 8pm.

The first year I was here, I hated it the endless grey and gloom but gradually I’ve got used to it. I am now totally in love with how the seasons affect me. There are inevitable changes in feeling, weather, light and surroundings. I could happily do without the soaking wet 6am dog walks, but that’s a small price to pay.

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I get to see how the light moves across the hills behind my house and how the low sun catches the trees. I’ve lived here for four years now, and as a result I’ve come to feel a wonderful sense of recognising the patterns of the changes in light, and this brings a sense of moving through the months.

Last year I read a gorgeous book on living through Scandinavian winters which also helped me change my approach. I also had some great advice from a yoga teacher a few years back – she said that winter is a time for hibernation, for rest and renewal ready to re-emerge totally refreshed in the spring time. I now look forward to curling up with my dogs on the sofa, to the satisfaction of a hot shower after a freezing cold wet run in the hills, and I know to make the most of the sun and the dry weather on the days where there’s a break in the long Scottish winter.

It has been a particularly tough year for many reasons, but it has also been another year of growth and learning and of realising what is important to carry forward with me on the next phase.

I went for a long run in the hills on Sunday, the first in a very long time.

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Ben Ledi in the distance – a wonderful sight as it has always been shrouded in mist whenever I’ve come past it before
It was the furthest I’ve run since I did the Great Glen Ultra in back July.The recovery period from that race has been harder than expected, both physically and emotionally, and as a result I decided not to do a race in October that I’d been preparing for. I’m just not ready, I really wanted to give it my all and at the moment I would just be plodding round and not enjoying myself. My time is so precious that I’d rather use it for something else, and I can go and do the route any time really.

But however tough it was on Sunday (and 16 miles round the Glen Finglass/Mell loop is never easy!), it was a great reminder of how much I love being out in the fresh air, miles and miles from anything and anyone, and how much I appreciate what my body is capable of now.

One of the reasons that I love running so much is that I’m really not very good at it and it JUST DOESN’T MATTER.

(OK occasionally it does matter, but only if there are other people around)

I get so much from it that I don’t get from anything else, even from riding a motorbike or having animals or playing the harp or eating peperoni pizza, which are my other great loves.

I honestly never thought I could love something that I wasn’t any good at.

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Looking towards Glen Finglas from halfway round the Mell circuit in the Trossachs National Park. This is one of my favourite long runs – it is a tough route and is wild, exposed, isolated. I only saw a couple of people in 4 hours which is a big part of why I love it so much.
There are lots of 15-20 mile trail/hill/mountain routes I want to do up here, and if I never enter another race or run any further than that, I know that this will always be Enough. That’s not to say I don’t want to do more, but rather that my reasons for wanting to do so have changed.

Enough has become a big, important word lately.

Not in as in I’ve Had Enough (although that has certainly come to mind a few times!).

But as in Being Enough, and Having Enough.

My upbringing was heavily focused on striving for academic brilliance, for musical genius, always working to be something better than I was, or to have something better than what I had at any given time. I literally don’t know any other way, and while this has brought me some fantastic opportunities and experiences, finally this year I’ve had to face the more negative aspects of this mentality.

I saw a great billboard on the train home a few weeks ago, and it seemed to say everything that I had not been able to. In fact, it made me laugh out loud and think very hard indeed, all at the same time.

It was in turn utterly ridiculous and yet totally correct, and as a result it has become a bit of a mantra lately.

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Tuesday afternoon tea

The feeling of being in control that I wrote about recently has long gone, as I suspected it would. Recovering from the Great Glen has hit me in a few unexpected ways and I’ve had to really watch out for myself. 

After an awful week at the day job, I had a really hectic few days of harping interspersed with a visit from my parents – cue frantic cleaning and digging my way through the spare room to find the bed so they had somewhere to sleep. 

On my way back from Tuesday’s wedding, I dropped in on a running buddy who was house sitting for some friends in an extremely smart bit of Edinburgh. There were loose plans to go to the cinema but these were abandoned in favour of playing with the dog, drinking tea and watching the Olympics. 

For three hours I switched off from the world (well, apart from the Olympics bit). I left my phone in the car. The house was incredible and as I sat in the sort of kitchen that would make Grand Designs look a bit shabby, I watched the weather change from heavy rain to bright sunshine back to rain in a matter of minutes, as only a Scottish summer can. 

Through the huge floor to ceiling windows, I could see an enormous owl statue in the garden. I couldn’t work out if it was moving as it seemed to have a different expression on its face every time it caught my eye. I watched M and the dog on the trampoline and now I really wish I’d had a go too.

I padded round and round in a corner of one of the rooms as the carpet was so deep and soft (which sounds a bit strange I know). 

I contemplated running from one side of the house to the other – and it was big enough to get a proper sprint on. I pondered the prospect of doing cartwheels across the kitchen.

The box room was bigger than my harp room. 

And yet it was a house that was lived in, and full of love.

A trip to the loo was approached with great care – I chose the one I knew I could find my way back from without disappearing into Narnia. 

It was the closest thing I’ve felt to being in fairy land in ages, a brief escape from everything else that was going on. 

We talked about running, climbing, motorbikes, dogs, house hunting, break ups. M is one of the few English voices I’ve heard up here lately, and is from a very familiar part of London. It was comforting and warm and many stories were swapped. We laughed as the dog tried to join in with the beach volleyball, truly an impressive sight. 

After the rowdiness of the wedding (a combination of a very large excited family and a very late bride), the peace and the space was very welcome. 

M asked me what I was doing for my birthday in a few weeks’ time. I’d been avoiding thinking about it for a while as last year’s had been so tricky. But a few things came to mind and I realised I felt ready to make some decisions.

I got back in the car to come home. I suddenly realised how hungry I was, and the Edinburgh traffic brought me back to the real world very quickly. But I’ll remember that afternoon for a while. 

And I’ve hatched a plan for my birthday. 

Last year’s was spent on an empty beach on Tiree.  

 

This year’s will involve similar (subject to weather of course). 

Even better, it will also involve a ride on a tiny plane. 

 

And even better than that, and best of all, I’ll be landing on a beach. 

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.

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.

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
Fling 2
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