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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.

Daydreaming

An older house near some water. Ideally by a quiet beach, with some hills or even mountains nearby.

Pets. A dog for taking out in the hills and a dog for curling up on the sofa with afterwards. I love the idea of having a cat but the truth is, I’m not really a cat person and I would like to keep greyhounds.

A room with a view, for writing, for playing, for sitting and reading. With full bookshelves and pictures on the wall. Not too tidy.

A kitchen with a table in. With space to bake and lay out a recipe book. And with a sofa, and a TV.  I like to have the telly on while I cook. The kitchen needs to be tidy.

A space for friends to stay when they want or need to.

A garage, or a decent shed or a barn. With a sink and a worktop, and power and shelves and cupboards.

(A small house and a big garage would be the ideal way around)

Outside space. Not too much to maintain, but somewhere to sit with an early evening drink watching the bats on the better weather days, or to stand with a morning brew and listen to the birds. Honeysuckle in summer. A fuchsia bush. Maybe hanging baskets. Maybe part of a farm, with horses and sheep and goats and cows nearby.

Arms to come home to. A voice that doesn’t scold when tears flow. A piece of paper and a house party to celebrate, maybe a pretty dress, maybe jeans and wellies. No diamond ring.

A pub nearby. Or somewhere that people gather to share food and drinks and music and stories.

A station nearby. Or some connection to the outside world that doesn’t require a car at least.

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.

 

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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little things

A few people close to me are having a really, really tough time at the moment.

When life is throwing what feels like the worst of everything at you, I think it’s really important to have little things you can do to make yourself feel better quickly and/or cheaply.

Much as my reserved British nature gets a little twitchy around the popular concept of loving yourself, I do recognise the importance of self-respect and looking after yourself. I think they’re basically forms of the same thing, and while you’ll never find me telling myself I love me in the mirror, for me self-respect and looking after yourself include standing up for yourself, not getting pushed around, not over-committing to things you have little interest in or will bring little reward for a punishing outlay, and recognising that it’s OK to put yourself first at times, especially in a relationship.

I’m really bad at all those.

But over the years and through the bad times, I’ve assembled a pretty foolproof list of things that help me feel better instantly when I’m feeling low or exhausted:

SMALL THINGS

A mug of tea

I like Lady Grey or Tetley. Milk and one sugar, in a nice big cheerful mug.

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A shopping trip to buy something small and brightly coloured

Paperchase serves well here. I’ve been known to give myself the grown up equivalent of a 10p mix at the sweety counter – even £5 will buy a couple of cute colourful (or polka dotted) bits in here, and it’s one of my favourite shops.

I used to love buying a new bottle of nail varnish as a cheap cheerful pick me up, but in truth I hardly ever wear it so I try not to buy it now.

Something small and sweet to eat

French Fancies or Swizzels sweets will do at a push. A warm cinnamon bun if I’m somewhere with a few more options.

Writing a long list

It’s one of the few Virgo traits I actually possess. Doesn’t matter if the likelihood of ticking everything off the list is minimal to zero, the act of writing the list is enjoyment enough.

Baking something using my Kitchenaid

Pizza dough or lemon drizzle cake would be top of the list,  or mince pies at the appropriate time of year.

A new gin I’ve not tried before

With proper tonic.

Peperoni pizza

Ideally home made, with posh salt and vinegar crisps while it’s in the oven, and plenty of juicy red wine to wash it down with.

Nigella’s kedgeree risotto

Without the eggs. Smoked fish is the main reason I could never go vegan. This is my most favourite comfort food and I love cooking it as well as eating it. I also love eating it cold.

A funny film and/or a trip to the GFT

Preferably with a glass of wine or coffee and a piece of their lovely cake before the film in the bar upstairs.

A quick fix of Grand Designs

Ideally the one with the disused power station near Chesterfield or the chalet in France.

A run/stagger up Cort ma Law or Meikle Bin

These are two of the biggest hills in the Campsie Fells and happen to be just behind my house. I can be at the top of either within an hour of leaving my doorstep, and despite being so close to the city, I’m often the only one up there.

A cycle up the Crow Road or the Cuilt Brae/Stockiemuir Road

Only when I’m bike fit (which I am most definitely not at the moment). I love the effort of a good climb on my bike and the instant reward of the downhill afterwards.

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The Coronation Street omnibus on a weekend morning

Preferably curled up with a pair of greyhounds and a few mugs of tea

Sitting down at my beautiful harp 

and working in a very small way on my very long list of very big pieces

Doing a small easy DIY job in the garage or garden

Hanging pictures, painting, trimming hedges, putting shelves up, tinkering with my motorbike. I’m quite handy really and I am very proud of this. I love the satisfaction of a job well done afterwards.

A board meeting/drinks in the city centre

with one of my most loved, most respected, most insightful and most straight-talking friends.

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A blowout at my favourite Italian deli/restaurant or cafe

Eusebi’s or Once Upon A Tart, that’ll be you then.

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A loud blast of one of my favourite songs in the car driving round the city at night

Ageispolis by Aphex Twin takes me a million miles from this planet.

It has to be loud enough to make the car shake.

If there’s an epic sunset, even better.

 

BIGGER THINGS

A long run in a beautiful place

Provided my energy levels are good and it’s not too hot, in which case this is less enjoyable. But if I’m feeling good in myself but in need of a clear out in the brain department, this is one of the best things I can do for myself. Ideally to be shared with a similarly paced and/or sympathetic supportive friend.

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A trip to a quiet beach on the west coast of Scotland

Preferably involving getting my toes in the water and a pint afterwards.

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A fast motorbike ride

On quiet, well surfaced roads

A trip to my gran’s 

And a good catchup over a dog walk with my uncle

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A trip to a certain German lake

On a very sunny day, smoked fish and beer for lunch, involving getting my toes in the water, and next time I visit, the rest of me too. Maybe I’ll even find a gold bar.

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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.

On Hope

It’s a funny old word, one that is actually quite hard to define. I guess it’s a state of mind that’s somewhere between the present and your dreams.

Obviously there’s the short term hope, that a bus arrives, for a sunny day, that there’s no traffic, that you get up and down a mountain with no mishaps, that you finish a race without injury or missing a cutoff.

And then a deeper hope, that everything will work out in the long run, that we won’t make the same mistakes yet again, that despite getting it wrong quite a lot, we’ll somehow find the right way.

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Hoping to go back to St Bartholema on the Konigsee to have a crack at the Watzmann, just out of shot on the right
Hoping we'll make it up the mountain the next day (hidden by cloud behind my dad)
Hoping we’ll make it up the mountain the next day (hidden by cloud behind my dad)
Hoping the path gets better soon (it didn't)
Hoping the path down gets better soon (it didn’t!)
Hoping your leg heals soon and you can come swimming next time! (thanks Cheri for the photo)
Hoping your leg heals soon and you can come swimming next time! (thanks Cheri for the photo)

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.