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Skye Trail Ultra – prelude

April was one of the craziest months I’ve had in years.

It started in Kintyre – with a twitter buddy who I had finally met in real life, a castle, and a couple of beaches. That weekend was about getting some time away and putting the finishing touches to the gig I was working towards.

Then came the gig itself. It went really well, but the emotional intensity of it combined with the physical effect of so many late nights on the bounce left me in a bit of a mess.

Every single bit of me was absolutely exhausted.

My reward for surviving the gig was a trip to Skye over Easter weekend, the extra days off making the drive that bit more worthwhile. I had entered the Skye Trail Ultra race and I wanted to check out some of the route, but there was another reason too.

My friend Ali is the head chef at the Sligachan hotel and kindly offered some floor space almost at the bottom of the Cuillins. I’d consulted the Skye bus timetables and I had a plan all laid out to spend Good Friday checking out the first section of the ridge as far as the Storr, and then to head out on Easter Saturday to find my way back along the Boreraig beach section which I’d probably be doing in darkness.

I arrived late on Thursday night, to a huge hug from Ali and most of a bottle of red wine. It was so good to see him after so long, and it was a rather later night than either of us had intended.

Friday morning came, and I felt awful. This wasn’t due to the wine, surprisingly. I was beyond tired, and was dipping into exhaustion and overwroughtness (if that’s even a word).

Still, I stuck to the plan – 09.24 bus from the Old Man of Storr car park, get off at Duntulm, trudge along ridge as far as the Storr, collect car. The weather looked pretty murky, but it was dry at least. I arrived at the layby in plenty of time, parked up and looked up at the ridge.

The ridge was thick with mist that was boiling away down the rock formations around the Old Man of Storr. It looked thoroughly evil up there, and I was consumed with a really brief but strange sense of dread and foreboding. The best way I can describe it is like the Dementors’ kiss, and in that instance I knew that today was no day for me to be up there.

I drove a little further up the road trying to think of another plan, and cursed myself as it got clearer and clearer the further north I went. I could turn round and maybe still catch the bus, but it would be tight.

I turned round and decided to leave my fate in the hands of the bus service. If I made the bus, I’d go. If I missed the bus, so be it and I was not meant to be up there that day.

Just as I came round the last corner towards the car park, there was the bus. No ridge for me.

I thought for a few minutes and contemplated having a sleep in the car. I decided to try and salvage something, and set off to walk up to the Old Man of Storr for a bit of a look round before heading back to Sligachan to check out the Glen. I’d not seen this part of Skye before apart from driving past it, and at least it would be some good steep uphill training.

I tried to keep up a decent intensity as I walked but there was nothing in my legs or anywhere else. I got up past the Old Man and stopped for a little while to have a look out across the sea to Applecross. I’d covered about a mile and a half.

I plodded back down, not in any rush, and reached the layby which was now filling up with cars. I needed another plan, I wanted to make best use of my time here and at least see some of the race route on both days.

I’d wanted to save Glen Sligachan for the race itself – there shouldn’t be any navigational issues here, it was just one path (or so I thought) all the way to Elgol.

The words “in the shadow of the Cuillin where only footsteps can take you” I’d read in one the various race reports had filled me with excitement and anticipation when I read the race route description, and I wanted to have something special to look forward to on race day.

But here I was, with by now half a day left before I had told Ali to expect me back at the hotel. I decided to check out Glen Sligachan after all, intending to get to the beach at Camasunary and then turn back and retrace my steps – an out and back of about 12-13 miles.

I set off down Glen Sligachan. It was a good path but as promised, it was soaking wet in places with many streams to cross. I was wearing my X-Claws expecting to be up on the ridge, and they were not the thing for this path. The studs on the bottom are a little soft and very flexible which is great on wet grass and mud, but here on the soaking wet rock, I kept feeling my feet sliding about and it made me rather nervous.

The path felt far more hilly than I had expected, and I couldn’t get into any rhythm at all. Everything felt like a massive effort and I got really disheartened. This was meant to be one of the easier, flatter bits of the race route and here I was, struggling and feeling all my confidence melting away.

And then, in one of the bigger streams just before the glen changes direction slightly towards Camasunary, I felt a horrendous sharp pain in my left calf. It came from nowhere, and straight away there was this horrible sensation in the bottom of my stomach which usually tells me I’ve done something pretty serious.

Despite this (and runners will understand this although most other people will think it’s a stupid thing to do and they’d be right) I still tried to run on for a couple of steps just in case, but I was in agony every time my left foot hit the ground. It was no good, I would have to turn back, no easy feat in the middle of a stream on stepping stones when every motion sent pain shooting through my leg.

I felt sick. I’d covered 5 ¾ miles and it would be a long walk back, if I could even walk that far.

I had to walk. There was no question of it. There was no way to reach anyone to come and get me, and no road for miles. There were a couple of people a way behind me and I could see they had some walking poles, so if it got too bad I figured I could wait and ask them if they could lend me their poles.

I figured out a way of moving, slowly and carefully, with my toes pointing inwards on my bad leg.

I had to laugh here, as the usual bad leg was promoted to good leg status. I was effectively walking on half a good leg. This kept my spirits up all the way back, it really was quite ridiculous and there was just no point in letting myself get miserable. I figured it was probably going to take me a good three hours to get back so I resigned myself to it and tried to keep moving.

I decided to count the streams, minor and major, for something to keep my mind focused on rather than the pain in my leg.

Every step was painful but the stream crossings were horrendous. I couldn’t twist or flex my left foot/leg at all without feeling sick due to the pain, and the reduced rotational motion I have in my right leg meant that things weren’t great on that side either. I was really scared of slipping because of the pain that would ensue, but I was also conscious that if I didn’t try and relax, I would be more likely to fall and hurt myself even more.

I’m guilty of overpacking for long runs, and due to the likelihood of bad weather I had even more kit with me than usual. In the end, I was grateful of every last bit of spare kit as I ended up wearing everything I had and still feeling a little cold towards the end. I also ate everything I had and could have eaten more. Eventually I made it back to the hotel.

The upside of this was that I got to try out Ali’s new menu, which was launching that night. I was pretty sure there was no chance of me running or even walking the route round Boreraig beach now, so I could spend some time with Ali after his shift and take my time the next day.

The food was tremendous although I must have looked a sight limping around the hotel, and I was so tired after my rather-more-exciting-than-anticipated day out that I could hardly keep my eyes open through my pudding. I’d planned to have a whisky in the bar after, but headed straight off to the comfort of my incredibly toasty sleeping bag.

Ali came in after his shift ended, about 10.30 I think, I heard him and woke up and thought I should really say hi and ask how his shift and the new menu had gone, but before I knew it, it was morning.

I was so glad of the time with Ali. He is one of the kindest people I know, and a long time ago we were more than friends. I was horrible to him. It was too soon after a disastrous relationship I’d been in, and I wasn’t ready to believe that I was worth being treated properly. He did just that, and I was just awful towards him. We split up after a short time together, agreed to stay in touch and I hoped that one day we would meet again in better circumstances.

I can’t think of a better way to do so, he had forgiven me, I have almost forgiven me and it was wonderful to spend that time seeing his new life, seeing how much he loves his work and getting to eat some more of his amazing food.

All those years ago when I was a climber, I would never have imagined coming to the Cuillin and running past them instead of going up them, and I laughed to myself when I realised that it was 20 years since I last climbed and here I was, still kipping on someone’s floor to save money to go and play in the hills.

It was an uncomfortable drive home, but with a bit of rest my calf started to feel better and I managed an evening of incredibly enthusiastic dancing with my friend Laurie on Easter Sunday with no ill effects.

I also managed a 5 mile run with Angela on the Tuesday before seeing my osteopath Daniel who diagnosed nothing serious, prodded in some very painful places and shooed me off with the words “just keep bloody running”. I was careful on it for a few days and it started to feel better.

That is, until I got a bit carried away on the way down from Cort ma Law. I love running up there so much and was so glad to be there after a few months that I switched off completely and with the car park in sight, I jumped off a little rock on the path, just as I normally would.

There was a horrible crunching tearing ripping sensation in the same place as before, and even more pain than the last time.

The next day I had to sit down to get dressed, the dog walk was painfully slow and I couldn’t get up and down the stairs at work without holding onto the hand rail.

Back to Daniel, taped up again, still nothing major, “a divot but not a tear”, but climbing mountains in the Lake District for three days as part of the GL3D was now not a sensible option. This was meant to be my big mileage weekend before Skye, and I was doubtful that I would be healed in time.

With an empty bank holiday weekend, I headed back to Kintyre again.

The month ended as it had started, looking out across the beach towards Arran. I heeded the warnings that my body was desperately trying to give me, and I took things very easy indeed although I did manage a gentle walk along the Kintyre Way in an attempt to keep up at least some mileage.

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Things kept healing and I decided to try a big run the next weekend.

My longest run all year had been 22 miles so I really needed another big one.

If I managed without any issues, Skye was on, but if not, I had to be brave and honest with myself and accept it would be yet another DNS and another year before I would get to do the race.

I was amazed to manage just shy of 30 very hot hilly miles out in the Trossachs with no pain, no twinges, good energy levels and good spirits.

Skye was on.

 

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In between

I’m in an in-betweeny phase at the moment.

Normally I hate these phases, but things have been a bit unsettled lately and I’m enjoying the sense of just pausing in between Things and drawing breath.

The race on Skye has been and gone.

The race in Switzerland is on the not too distant horizon.

I’m recovering from a really bad phase/episode/bout (?) of asthma.

My blistered feet are healing.

I’m in the post Isle of Man TT slump.

My April gig has settled into my consciousness as a done deal, processed, successful, dealt with.

I’m thinking about moving house and a few things are in motion but I’m not pushing them because I’m interested to see what will reveal itself about the whole situation.

I’ve been going to bed at a vastly more sensible hour.

My energy levels are returning to normal and I can breathe clearly and easily.

The last couple of months have absolutely battered me and so I am gathering strength for the next phase, and I’m super conscious of the need to protect my health and my spirit at all costs.

I keep saying this after every time I’m ill, but this time there has been a breakthrough.

I’ve reached the point where I am bored with it, and that usually means that change will follow.

October

Somehow it’s the middle of October, and going by how quickly the year has flown by so far, it’ll be Hogmanay before I know it.

This has been one of the most hectic years I’ve ever had, on all fronts. Now that harp-related work is winding down for the year, my existence will become slightly more normal and less time-pressured.

Has it been worth it?

Sitting here right now, in this moment, desperately trying to fend off my first proper cold in 18 months, I am exhausted, spent, and rather withdrawn from my normal all-guns-blazing say-yes-to-everything, what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen self, and so no I’m not sure whether it was worth all the effort.

All the time given up, all the money spent, all the things missed out on.

But, looking back, it really has been worth absolutely everything I’ve put in.

I’ve worked really hard for everything that has come my way, and now I’m hoping to be able to relax a bit, to breathe and stretch myself out and shake myself down ready for the next stage.

The debt battle is just a few months away from being won, for good this time.

I can’t quite believe it’ll all finally be gone and I’ll be free of all the things I’ve been carrying around along with those massively depressing numbers.

As a result of that, I’m thinking hard about long term things – about where I want to live and the sort of work I really want to be doing.

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the shit had hit the fan big time the night before. but I learnt so much about myself that weekend in Applecross. huge thanks to G for the awesome photo.
Entries for next year’s chosen big running event open very soon, and assuming I get in, my winter will largely be built around training for that. It will involve some very big hills, getting to grips with walking poles and a trip to Switzerland (not to France though, it’s not that one!).

There are big harping plans too, and at last I can say I have a much better relationship with music and my harp than I did at the start of the year. I’d even go as far as saying I think I am figuring it all out. Well, harp-wise anyway.

It will be quite a challenge to keep both harp and running things going together, but I’m gradually learning more and more about what is really, truly important to me, and I’m gaining the confidence to sidestep all the other things that suck my time and my energy. I’m grateful to Helen Mirren on that one – a marvellous quote that is never far from my mind and one I could really do with putting into action a whole lot more.

 
I have a weekend off, and it really couldn’t have come at a better time.

I finally hit the buffers last night. Something quite silly set it all off but of course, a good night’s sleep fixes most things and so I felt much better this morning.

I was planning a long run in the hills tomorrow but there is a lurgy lurking, a sofa calling, with two big black furry pals to snuggle into. There’s loads of (motor)bike racing on the telly, my Kitchenaid will be called into action to make some pizza dough and I might even paint my nails – my ultimate sign of spare time.

And, assuming this cold makes a swift exit, I hope to blast away the last of the lurgy with a trip out on my motorbike.

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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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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.

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.

Long weekend

At last. Thanks to a dog with a poorly eye, I have a long weekend. 3 days to catch up with myself.

Things have been a little bleak the last few weeks. A little while ago I needed to take a day job. The ins and outs aren’t for sharing here, but for now, needs must, and there are plenty of positives.

This job was chosen for various reasons, but the main one was that it allowed me to save my energy for other more creative uses of my time. And then a few things changed.

I have a few days off to use up, and I’d hoped to get away north for a few days. Said dog with poorly eye plus a rapidly approaching harp insurance bill mean that this isn’t an option now, but to be honest I am really looking forward to having some time at home. That, and the luxury of not having to be anywhere at any particular time, and not having anyone waiting on me for something I haven’t been able to do yet.

And so. I get to breathe a little.

Tiree (the image at the top, taken while running the ultra marathon the day before my birthday in September) feels like a long time ago, but unbelievably it has only been ten weeks. Three months ago I was in A&E in Austria getting my leg sewn up. This year, the time has truly flown by.

Sometimes the pace of life feels overwhelming. Sometimes there is nothing to do but to run with it and try your best to keep up. But this isn’t sustainable in the long term, and it’s important to know how to take even the smallest break in the midst of all the craziness. This becomes more crucial when you find yourself brushing your teeth and realising you can’t remember what day it is.

Thankfully things are calming down. All the little things that help me take a step back – animals, running, reading, a bath, a mug of my favourite tea – have been deployed to the maximum and have done their job. Apart from being incredibly tired, drained even, and some lingering pain in my forearms (long story), I think I have survived.

A longish run tomorrow, a concert, a film with a friend and a whole lot of practice will take me through the weekend, and then Monday will be about nothing beyond taking care of my poor wee dog once she has come round from her minor procedure at the vets. I fully intend to make like a greyhound and laze/snooze on the sofa until the phone call comes to go and collect her.

Bites, tape, yet another scar, still smiling

It feels like the midges have been particularly vicious this year. I certainly hadn’t expected to still be scratching the odd bite into November, but as I’ve learned, every Scottish ‘summer’ (haha) is very different, and the midgie level is just one indicator, and perhaps a more meaningful one than the level of rainfall or hours of sunshine. I think I was a bit spoiled my first year, as the number of bites has increased exponentially year on year since then.

As the bites fade, and the scar on the side of my leg heals, maybe it’s time to reflect on the running year I’ve had.

So far (touch wood big time), it’s early November and I’ve not had a cold yet.  I’ve not had to resort to steroid treatment for my asthma, my peak flow has remained strong, my iron levels are healthy and I haven’t bonked out of any races this year. Straight away that puts me in a considerably better position than this time last year.

I’ve run more miles, but in less races.

I had some tremendously inspirational help with my running at the start of the year, which set me up brilliantly despite me being unable to see it through. There was just too much else happening at the time, and I hope to pick up where I left off at some point.

I ran both my longest ever and shortest ever race this year. I pulled out of a race for the first time (as in didn’t even start, let alone finish). I put late entries in twice on a waiting list and managed to get in to both races. I ran an ultra for my birthday. I had a long overdue trip to A&E, this time in another country which was a first.

I did my first hill race (to say I ran it would be a bit of a fib). It was awful but I survived, met some great people, didn’t get lost and didn’t fall over. Someone on Twitter asked me to be in their relay team, I said yes and it was fab. There have been a lot of positives, and a whole lot of negatives/learning points too. However, I’ve only been out cycling once, and that is definitely not so good.

After last year, I’d got myself into a bit of a pattern of never feeling good enough just being me, and trying to fix that by always trying to do something bigger and better than last time.

Looking back at this time last winter, I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to do the Fling, but having to make a decision/sign up six months ahead meant I wanted to have my options covered. It would be a big challenge, but I was fairly sure I could do it if I had a reasonable winter. I wanted to do Loch Katrine again having loved it the year before, and I knew it would be a good long run before the Fling. Beyond that, I didn’t really know.

I helped out by crewing for a friend who was running the West Highland Way race for the first time. This was a long, tough weekend but a really brilliant thing to have done.

I thought I might go to France to do some cycling again with my Dad, but I’d learnt from the year before that switching to bike training was not compatible with ultra training and so I was wary of signing up to anything later in the year. A wedding booking meant I couldn’t do the Devil, and Glenmore didn’t appeal. I had wanted to do Tiree, but was down to be supporting at Glenmore that weekend.

A change in circumstances meant I was suddenly free to do whatever I wanted for my birthday/Glenmore weekend, so I put my name on the waiting list for Tiree, booked flights and hoped. A few days later, I had an entry.

A few weeks before Tiree, I went to the Austrian Alps for a week to stay with a friend. It should have been a few days spent recovering from a break up and exploring everything the mountains had to offer, but that all ended rather abruptly when I found myself sliding down the side of a hill and coming to a halt with a bit of tree branch stuck in my leg. I was a fair distance from my friend’s house, and took the shorter but steeper route back, covered in blood and rather worried as to the state of my leg. That was a very hard earned summit and while it was beautiful briefly at the top, the effort to get there wasn’t particularly enjoyable and proved to be another hard learned lesson. (Gory photos available on request – I had hoped for a small neat bat-shaped scar but it was not to be)

What it did do was to stop me in my tracks, and I spent the rest of the week very sore from the stitches, reading, chatting to a parrot, drinking beer, eating ice cream, eating freshly caught freshly smoked fish, being pointed it at and talked about by some German tourists and generally enjoying some of the staggering Bavarian scenery. I promised myself I would return.

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sun going down on the Konigssee in the Berchtesgaden Alps. Slightly creepy being in the shadow of the Eagle’s Nest, but truly a beautiful place and a lot of thinking was done on the shores of this lake.

Six stitches, an infected wound from a bit of tree left in my leg and an enforced break from running rather threatened the Tiree trip, but in the end all came good.

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a bit raggedy round the edges, I couldn’t even begin to tell you which beach this was on other than it’s somewhere on Tiree and it must have been windy because I have an extra layer on.

I celebrated my 37th birthday recovering by trying out Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP) for the first time the day after the race. I can strongly recommend it – gentle but focused, meditative, flowing, rhythmic and stretching every single muscle in the body. I also had my first trip on a really tiny plane.

I decided to defer my Saltmarsh 75 place. I hadn’t done enough big back-to-back miles, and after last year’s disaster on day 2 (which I still haven’t blogged about), I really wanted to do a good job when I went back. Once it became clear this wasn’t going to happen, I moved my place into next year instead.

I wanted to do something that weekend though, and there was a hill race on, a hill I hadn’t done but one that was on my list and in one of my favourite areas of Scotland where I have had some great times with some great people.

only one way to go... straight up
only one way to go… straight up

Ben Venue proved to be some of the toughest few hours I’ve ever had, there were lots of choked back tears on the way off the hill, and I came very close to a serious asthma attack. It was something that should have been well within my capabilities, but all the bad things that happened this summer suddenly hit at once and everything was completely out of control.

There was a photographer waiting as I crossed the line so I had to at least try to smile. I felt worse after these 9 miles than I’d felt after the Fling, but some really nice people made me feel better after I finished the race. They brought me cake, and made me tea, and generally scraped me up off the floor and helped me feel better. I’d always been a bit wary of road runners, having only encountered the really serious/miserable variety, but here was the exact opposite.

The after effects lasted longer than those from the Fling, and are largely responsible for the tape covering my right lower leg. I literally bashed up against the limits of my already very badly damaged right ankle for the first time in many years, and it really, really hurt to the extent that I thought I had done some serious damage.

And then a few days after, I received a message on Twitter.

Would I like to fill in for a relay team?

Hmmm…Would I be too slow?

No of course not. Just come and join us.

As a result, I had a wonderful day enjoying all the autumn colours around Jedburgh.

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I found myself in a part of Scotland I’d never been to and would never otherwise have come to, I met some new people, caught up with old friends and generally made my peace with the dubious joys of social media.

I also acquired possibly the brightest piece of clothing in my wardrobe in the form of a bright DynoRod orange race t-shirt, which will be extremely useful while clocking up the miles through the long dark Scottish winter.

I’ve just put my race entries in for next year.

Many times this year, I contemplated giving up completely. Speyside last year was a real turning point, and the Fling this year was another.

Now, when I enter a race, it is truly because it’s something I want to do for myself, rather than because I don’t feel like I’m good enough in other areas of my life and I think finishing a big hard race will make up for that.

That’s not to say I only want to do easy things, far far from it.

I’ll finish with another quote, this time from Jake Humphrey:

Never sit in the comfy chair

Thanks to Fiona Keating for this picture. I had been on my feet for 14 hours 40 minutes and had just finished running the 2015 Highland Fling, still smiling though!
Thanks to Fiona Keating for this picture. I had been on my feet for 14 hours 40 minutes and had just finished running the 2015 Highland Fling, still smiling though!

On Learning

September 1st, back to school, another new start. Or so it seems, certainly if you are south of the border. Scotland has been back for a couple of weeks already.

Despite my protestations that it had to still be summer because it’s not my birthday yet, the Scottish weather outdid even my determination and threw some really heavy rain at me on my run this evening. There are fallen leaves under the tree in my front garden and there was a real nip to the air this morning when I took my dogs out for their morning walk.

I met a friend for lunch today, someone I hadn’t seen in a couple of years but who had been a huge part of my life for a couple of months back in 2013 when we were working on Carousel at the RCS.

We talked about all things musical, and part of the conversation involved some reflection on what I’d learned while I was at music college. I had to leave before the end of my course sadly, but I had made my peace a while before and am now happy I made the right decision, and even better, I felt I had taken away everything I needed from my time studying.

I desperately miss the freedom to structure my day to suit my own productive times, and to enjoy the best of the weather when it comes, and the creative inspiration that comes from being surrounded by other musicians and artists, but I am finding ways to make the best of things all the time.

Another thing I’ve taken is an understanding of what I need to look after myself and keep myself happy. It boils down to just a handful of things (and surprise surprise, they’re not actual material Things!).

Over the last few weeks, there was a time of enforced rest and healing, as I was physically prevented from dashing about by the stitches in my leg and the pain from the initial injury. This gave me a bit of time to slow right down and get myself back on an even keel. It helped that I was in the beautiful surroundings (and equally beautiful weather!) of the Austrian/German Alps and being looked after by a good friend.

I’ve learned that it is time to get on and enjoy having some really big dreams about the future.

This was partly inspired by seeing a car I’ve wanted for years while I was away in Austria, and partly because my finances are slowly improving meaning I can start to tentatively make a few bigger plans.

The latter means that perhaps indulging in the former might, just might, be a possibility in a few years.

Tea-soaked days of nothingness

I ran a very long way last weekend. I completed the Highland Fling, a 53 mile race along the southern section of the West Highland Way. To my surprise, I’ve recovered really well and my legs were feeling ready to run again on Wednesday.

I promised myself a good long break after it though.  After a lot of weekends and evenings spent either training or practising for my concert (6 weeks ago now!) or a combination of both, my time is my own again. A bank holiday weekend means an extra day to be savoured.

I’m trying to plot the next adventure, the next goal, the next Big thing. I’ve done a few Big things, particularly over the last year, and I know very well the slightly lost feelings that come  in the aftermath.

The desire, or even the need, the urge, to be pushing forward so continously can be quite destructive – putting too much in too soon leads to burnout and exasperation, and if not to over-training then to under-recovery.

But by nature, I’m quite lazy. I think most people would be surprised to hear me say that about myself, but the truth is, unless there’s something right ahead to work for, I can find it quite difficult to stay focused and not let my days off float away in a blur of tea and TV.

Recently though, I’ve been thinking maybe I need a bit of that. I guess it’s all about balance.

So I have designated today a most exceptionally lazy day. I have a stack of reading I’d like to do, some blog posts to write and a LOT of tea to drink.

Other than that, I think the most pressing question will be whether I really should have another piece of the crumbly sticky lemon cake I made yesterday.