Another big one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On reading

I am what could be politely described as a voracious reader. I have loved books from a very young age, thanks to my gran and my mum both being primary school teachers. The most treasured possessions I kept when my granny died were some of the rare children’s books and embroidery books that she had collected over her lifetime.

Hours can pass by, until the only thing that stops me reading is a sore neck or a dead leg.

There are several books in various stages of completion next to my bed, as I love having real books around me. (Looking at them, I’m also reminded some of them are not mine and I need to get on and read them then give them back!)

I made the transition to a Kindle last year, or rather the Kindle app on an ipad mini. I had a 50 minute bus commute twice a day, got hopelessly travel sick when reading an actual physical book, but seemed to manage OK on the screen. The bus was meant to save me money on transport, but before long my monthly book expenditure was swallowing all the savings I was supposed to be making.

It has really changed how I read. I can have several books on the go at once, never losing my page. Best of all, my holiday suitcase is now much lighter. One holiday I took Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, which is a huge book, and several others. I read three, but had been stricken by indecision when packing so I took everything I fancied.

As well as books, these days I love reading blogs. I have many favourites, but one I return to regularly is that of Alastair Humphreys, an adventurer, writer and speaker known for many things including his #microadventure concept.

His site is truly inspirational, with several main themes – finding adventure in small ways, not spending a lot of money, documenting the journey, making the most of life, and calling out excuses. His 20 questions post is probably the one I read the most.

A couple of days ago, he tweeted a link to a piece he had written on Medium:

I read the link, I loved what he had written and it resonated very deeply. I was also on the hunt for a new book after finishing one recently, so I decided to buy his book There Are No Rivers.

Yesterday morning, I happened to read a chapter titled Flabbiness, which he has also published on his blog as part of the serialisation of the book.

It’s about going from being a bit lazy to finding your life has slipped away before your eyes. It was a particularly powerful piece for me, and it reassured  me that a painful decision made recently was ultimately the right one. There have been a couple of big adventures since, there are more to come and I can’t wait to see how they pan out.

(this post is part of the DIY Creative Club September challenge, which I’m a bit behind on (!) but am using to get my writing unstuck and out of my head)

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.

Quick Release

Last week was one of the most stressful weeks I’ve had in a very long time. All thoughts of trying to stay calm went out of the window, and it ended up being a race to get to the end of the week in one piece. Nothing Really Bad happened, just what felt like a battering of events, deadlines and a couple of really late nights which when combined with the early mornings really knocked the stuffing out of me.

My week finished at about 3.15 on Saturday afternoon. The wedding I’d played for had gone really well, and a ruined kirk on the north east coast of Scotland was filled with love and happiness as two people got married surrounded by their friends and family.

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My harp and all the associated clutter was all safely loaded into the car, I said my goodbyes and got back on the road for the long journey back south.

Shortly after I pulled out of the village, I saw a sign.

Scotstown beach, ½ mile.

Time was tight if I was to be home for greyhound tea time, but I figured they would forgive me for being a few minutes late.

I turned off the main road, tried not to bounce too hard around (and sometimes inevitably through) the numerous pot holes and parked up at the bottom of the dunes. I had no idea what the beach would be like, but I couldn’t resist exploring just a little.

I got out of the car, rolled my jeans up and took my shoes off. The sand was wonderfully warm beneath my feet.

I ran up the dune, through the gap between the grass and down onto a gorgeous golden sandy beach. It was completely empty.

The sun shone, and the only sound was the waves breaking gently. I skipped along the sand, and then wandered into the sea. It was cold, but it takes rather more than that to stop me getting my feet wet.

I think I was there for about ten minutes. It wasn’t long enough, and yet it was.

Everything lifted in those few minutes, and I didn’t have to try very hard to put on a big smile.

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I realised how much I relax when I am by the sea, and promised myself I would find a way to come more often. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about where I might like to live on a longer term basis, and as I stood with the waves tickling my toes, I wondered if perhaps I could, or even should, factor in a nearby beach somehow.

The previous Saturday I had my feet in the waves at Brodick Bay on the island of Arran off the south west coast of Scotland. This week it was the north east coast.

Next Saturday, I’ll be in the mountains in Austria. No beaches there, but maybe I can find somewhere quiet in the hills to have a bit of a paddle, perhaps even a swim.

In a month’s time I’ll be on the island of Tiree celebrating my birthday by running round the island one day then hitting the waves the next.

It’s no coincidence that all the travelling is related to a break-up. Rather than waiting on someone else’s plans, I’ve jumped straight in and made my own and I feel all the better for it.

This is more travelling than I’ve done for a long while, and I’d forgotten how much I love getting away seeing new places. The best thing about living where I do is that I don’t always have to go very far from home to find an adventure to have.



 

20 Questions

This is one of my favourite posts on the internet, ever. I come back to it frequently, particularly when things are feeling a bit muddy or needing a bit of an overhaul.

Alastair Humphreys’ 20 questions worth answering honestly are seemingly simple questions, but as you get into them, they will start to make you really think about what you want and where you’re going.

He published his answers, and invited others to be brave enough to do the same. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to, I’m on about my fourth revisit since I first discovered the post and each time something holds me back from sharing my answers.

If you’re feeling a bit stuck, or just curious, I recommend giving them a go.

PS Huge thanks to Graeme Hewitson for the fab photo of me running down Conic Hill in last year’s Highland Fling relay!

Storming

It’s the first of July tomorrow. The first half of the year, bar a few intensely fantastic highlights, has been one to forget.

One of the best things about life I think is that you can start again whenever you feel like it. Every time I think about what isn’t working for me, I remind myself that, largely through choice, I am ultimately not tied down or committed to anything (beyond clearing a lot of debt) and, most importantly, I can change things any time I want.

As I make yet another fresh start, and make yet more promises to myself that I will somehow find a way to fit everything in and one day perhaps Figure Things Out, I also remind myself that really, life is good, the bad stuff is largely behind me and that whatever comes or goes along the way, I will deal with it.

Time feels as though it is always in short supply, but I am doing my best to make the most of what is left over once the must-dos are out of the way.

 

 

spring

Winter came again last weekend. It was a shock to the system after a week of almost tropical sunshine.

But even snow, hail and sub-zero temperature two days before the start of May can’t dampen the feeling of spring, of newness, of joy, that I have in my heart at the moment. A couple of less-than-positive areas of my life are soon to come to an end, and there is real hope that what replaces them will lead me onwards to the next phase.

I’ve never struggled so much through the winter before, but this year things were very different. Since the middle of October I seemed to be ill or recovering from being ill. Christmas and New Year, normally times I love and enjoy, went past in a haze of cold remedies, antibiotics and steroids. Spring running plans were almost abandoned.

A concert provided a much-needed focus, and timed perfectly with the clocks changing. The weather was awful that morning and unloading my harp was a cold and rather soggy experience. Then at the start of the second half of the concert, I played a Beltane Dance to welcome the summer and by the end of the piece, the sun had come out.

As the days began to draw out at long last, I felt as though I was coming back to life.

I’ve had my first after work evening hill run of the year, feeling too warm on the steep climb up, watching the sun going down and then shivering a little once the light started to fade.

Gradually, my dogs are needing their winter coats less and less. I will moan about the impending moult when it comes, and wonder how two such skinny dogs can possibly lose so much fur.

Soon even weekend walks will need to be early in the morning or late at night. They are getting older and will find the heat even harder to deal with this summer.

A dear friend rang me last week, we had lost touch a little since the big move and it was good to hear from her.

She asked me about my new life, and I told her about the connection I now feel to the seasons and the effect it has on the environment here.

We talked about a few other things, and I was briefly taken back to when things were all so very wrong and it felt as though nothing would ever be right. She, perhaps more than anyone else, understands where I’ve come from, and why I had to leave everything behind. It was understandably a very emotional conversation.

And yet it was filled with positivity. We looked back, and looked forward and talked about all the changes that had happened in between. There are more to come, for her and for me.

This is one of my favourite times of year – knowing the days will continue to draw out, until it will still be light when the dogs are out for their last turnout before bed. 

This year, my summer is looking pretty empty, no big cycling adventures or long runs or trips away in the diary just yet.

I feel uneasy about this, and so it’s time to sit and dream, and wonder if, and wonder how, and plan, and arrange, and anticipate, and then it will be time to go.