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Skye Trail Ultra – the race

I guess to understand how good I felt taking off down Glen Sligachan that night in the pouring rain, you have to understand how bad I’d felt just a few weeks before.

I had been on my feet for 15 maybe 16 hours by this point, and I couldn’t believe how different I felt compared to the soggy, sore, slightly broken person who had arrived at the checkpoint in the Sligachan Hotel car park a little while earlier. It was so strange, but also funny, and I heard myself chuckling away inside my waterproofs, wondering what on earth people would think if they came up behind me.

I was wearing clean, dry, fresh, new running shoes. Dry socks.

My feet were dry.

Yes, they were blistered, but they were dry at last.

I was wearing my new waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, my headtorch, my cap, a couple of layers underneath. The rain was really coming down now, but there I was, toasty warm, jacked up on tea and chips, and I felt incredible.

This was known territory now, I was 38 miles into the truly incredible Skye Trail Ultramarathon race, and I was starting to believe that I could do it after all.

A quick nosey at the race website will reveal a little more about the race, but a summary would be 74ish miles along the Skye Trail, an unmarked long distance walking route running the whole length of the island from Duntulm in the north via Portree, Peinchorran, Sligachan, Elgol, Boreraig finishing in Broadford, with a massive 4460m of elevation (that’s pretty much half of Everest).

The race is organised by a tiny team of hardy enthusiastic Scottish folk – runners, mountaineers, climbers with many years of experience out in wild places in rotten weather. Race director Jeff strikes an excellent balance between encouraging newcomers and ensuring people are aware of what they are undertaking.

Make no mistake, this is serious stuff. The race briefing was the longest one I’ve been to, and rightly so. It included extremely comprehensive verbal instructions as to the known tricky bits on the route (with a couple of locals helpfully adding their own excellent advice and lines), how best to deal with large livestock if necessary, and how best to signal to the coastguard helicopter if you needed rescuing. There are no roads or paths up on the ridge and access is tricky if anything goes wrong.

So what on earth was I doing here and why did I want to do it?

I had covered a similar distance before, at last year’s Great Glen Ultra, but on much easier ground. This race involved much more extreme terrain and much more experience and self-reliance. I’m no stranger to the hills, to big distances, to Weather and bogs and fells and moors and getting lost and figuring it out when things go wrong. It would be a massive undertaking for me, no question, but I wanted to try.

This would be a very long post if I told you the whole story blow by blow. If I told you about the drive up through the most beautiful weather I’ve ever experienced in this area of Scotland. About my recent Scottish immigrant parents sitting in the car with a road atlas each pointing out all the things we were driving past as it was all new for them.

About the utter astonishment on arriving at our Air BnB – a croft that was so far along the Lower Breakish road it was almost back on the mainland. About the good luck card and bottle of Prosecco that the croft owner had left in the fridge. About meeting up with the others for Jeff’s race briefing, and getting more and more nervous all the time.

So I’ll leave all that, and I’ll pick up with my mum kindly and firmly sending me off to bed on the Friday night, promising to make the precious rocket fuel marmite sandwiches for me, as I faffed endlessly and pointlessly over my already carefully sorted kit.

My dad very kindly drove me to the village hall in Broadford to get the 3am minibus up to Duntulm for the 5am start. He came in and said hello to everyone in the hall and then left me to it. The midges were out and he is not a fan, so off he went back to bed.

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3am and the sun is starting to rise over the mainland already

At registration I caught up with Donna who I’d met at the Fling a couple of years back. And there was someone else who sounded and looked familiar – it was Barley Sugar Mike from the Great Glen last year (he was so named by me because I pinched his sweets off him when he retired at Drumnadrochit, waste not want not).

Jeff packed us all into the minibus, booted us out to locate the keys, and we arrived at the start just after 4.30. Jeff was worrying about being late, but a few of us pointed out the race couldn’t start without him or us and he relaxed a bit.

We lurked around the car park above the Duntulm phonebox waiting for the time to tick by, feeling anxious and watching the sun come up.

The sunrise was an absolute cracker. There was an incredible sense of camaraderie among this small band of folk, we all knew we were there for something special and that by the end of the next day, we would all be full of stories and we’d all have had a myriad of different experiences despite starting at the same time and place.

We wandered down to the start line. The countdown started after a small debate of 1-2-3 or 3-2-1, and we were finally off after months of preparation and many miles of driving.

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Photo by Fiona Rennie

I soon met fellow competitor Carolyn and sweeper Andy, and introduced myself as I knew we’d be spending a lot of time together.

The first climb was long, hard, incredibly steep and really tough under foot, and a small part of me wondered if I’d been kidding myself about this. But the sun continued to rise over to our left, and gradually things eased off. The views across the sea were astonishing, and it felt so special to be in this place at this time in the morning. All along the ridge we could hear cuckoos and it was just magical.

Soon we were clambering over the fence and heading down to the Quiraing.

I’m glad of the photos I’ve seen from here. There was so much to take in, and I don’t really remember much of being here. Although we did come across a camera club who had come out at an ungodly hour, probably hoping to get nice peaceful pictures of the sunrise, which were of course interrupted by chatty smelly runners.

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actual trails! luxury!
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None of the usual race gurning. Thanks to Fiona Rennie for the fab photo!

The road crossing and water station was a very welcome sight and brief change of scenery. I refilled my bottles as there would be nothing but the slight possibility of stream water for 20 miles, and then we set off for the rest of the ridge.

Endless up and down. The torture of inching your way down some steep descents while confronted with the very visible steep ascent straight back up the next hill. Losing track of all the hills because there were so many of them and really we were just following Andy.

At one point I asked Andy which the next hill was.

I’m not sure, he said, but locally it’s known as…

Beinn Bastard.

There was a chuckle all round as we were all still in quite good spirits, and this grew legs.

I said, well if it was a proper hill, in Gaelic surely it would be the Old Bastard of Something.

Or the Old, Red (or Grey) Bastard of… Something.

Carolyn piped up, aye and there would be a song about it.

We all laughed, I laughed quite hard because I think I’d had my 9am tin of coke by now, and I’m still laughing now at the memory of this ridiculous, sleep-deprived, typical random runner hill chat.

At one point, Neil and Alex from the race team appeared saying there was a problem as someone was missing. They’d set out to look for the missing runner, and to collect Andy who as sweeper would drop back if needed. As he left, Alex helpfully reminded us we were still leading the ladies’ race, which made us laugh considering we were right at the back.

Andy took his leave, and Carolyn and I continued together. We were really concerned for the missing runner’s welfare, and we hoped the others weren’t put in too much danger searching for him.

Somewhere around the Storr just as Carolyn and I were sussing out the best route around it, Andy re-appeared. He dropped straight to the ground on his belly, fished about under the peat and produced a bottle re-filled with water. He gestured for our bottles and filled them for us – we had been starting to run pretty low so we were extremely grateful, bits of peat or no bits of peat.

We reached the last big climb over Beinn Dearg. Carolyn and I were flagging, but we tanked ourselves up on gels and set off to get it done, step by step, working together to keep our spirits up as we hoofed up the side of the hill on hands and feet and tried to avoid the looser gravelly bits. Andy said to take our time and do it in phases, even he didn’t do this hill in one go, but I really think he was just being kind.

The long descent off the ridge was utterly miserable. There were clouds of drizzle starting to pass over, the boggy tussocks got bigger and further apart and my usual cheery patter (that had no doubt been driving Carolyn and Andy up the wall) was now reduced to the odd grunt.

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Finally the road was in sight. Carolyn flew off into the distance and I plodded through the softly falling rain to the Portree checkpoint where my parents were waiting for me. Also, there was Carolyn, waiting with a big smile on her face because somewhere back on the ridge, she had decided to finish when she got here.

I was looking forward to seeing my mum and dad of course, but more so I was looking forward to the can of Coke and the marmite butties that were also waiting with them.

It was an efficient stop, not unlike a slower Formula One or Isle of Man pit stop. My dropbag was waiting, I sat in the chair, swapped my shoes over and then while I nipped to the loo (and got a bit lost), Donna filled my bottles, put all my food in my bag and emptied all my rubbish.

I said my goodbyes, someone sprayed Smidge over my exposed skin, Carolyn gave me a big sweaty stinky ultra hug and reminded me I was now first lady (!!), and then I headed through the bluebells down towards the beach. Thanks Andy for warning me about Fiona lurking in the bushes with her camera, and for the suggestion to hold off munching my marmite butty for a few minutes.

I felt really glad to finally be off the ridge, in one piece, in good spirits and on the way to the next checkpoint, and I was looking forward to chef Ali’s chips at the Sligachan hotel, and to Glen Sligachan which I adore.

I ran as much as I could along the road section to Peinechorran, sometimes just a few steps before the next hill came along, and I looked over my shoulder back at the ridge which was by now covered by clouds. We had come down just in time and Andy and I were both mighty relieved about this.

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We’d been lucky with our timing and made it off the ridge just as the mist came in. The rain was on its way.

And then came the path along Loch Sligachan.

Andy had warned me it was a bit stop-start along the beach, but actually we ended up on a path slightly higher up as the tide was in. This was not unlike the Inversnaid path, but much wetter, narrower, more overgrown in places, muddier and with a few crafty twists and bits of nifty footwork required in places over seaweed-covered soaking wet rocks.

Andy went slightly ahead here, and occasionally dropped back and suggested I go a bit higher and see if there was a better path further up. It was pretty soul destroying, very slow going indeed and my feet were now soaking wet and I’d started to get some blisters. At some points, we were wading rather than even walking, let alone running. I was starting to fade – I was painfully aware of just how slow I was going and I’d really hoped to start making up some time on this stretch, but it was just not going to happen.

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one of the nicer sections of ‘path’

I was wearing gaiters after last year’s gritty blistered disaster at the Great Glen, and these kept out the worst of the stones, but still the blisters came. I have run many, many miles with soaking wet feet, in these shoes, and I’d never had anything like this. On reflection, my old comfy soft friendly cosy familiar shoes were actually worn out – and choosing these had been a real mistake that would cost me dearly.

As we got nearer Sligachan, I was unsure whether I could face going on with my feet the way they were. It took ages for them to heal properly after the Great Glen and it was a very painful few weeks.

But then I remembered that at Portree, my dad had produced the box of new Terraclaws I’d brought with me but had decided against back at the croft. Mum and Dad had kindly picked up all the shoes from the croft and bunged them in the car just in case, and I will forever be grateful to them for that.

I’d planned to change my shoes at Portree and then not bother again until Elgol as I knew I’d get wet feet going through Glen Sligachan.

As we got closer to the hotel, I remembered the presence of the shoe box, and I prayed Mum and Dad hadn’t taken them back to the croft.

We reached the campsite and Andy assured me that whatever I decided about carrying on was fine with him, he said I was moving well and not to worry about him as he would be there whatever. I’ve spent time with a few sweepers over the years, but this was a rather more prolonged period than I was used to and I’d been feeling a bit self-conscious about my pace. As we crossed the road into the hotel car park, he continued to reassure me. There’s a lot of bravado at the back of ultras sometimes, about carrying on regardless, and I’m glad he was so kind and listened to me without trying to persuade me in any direction. I think if I’d been whining I would have been kicked into touch, but thankfully I didn’t test that theory.

Sligachan was my first experience of a Fiona/Pauline double act checkpoint. I’ve met them at races over the years  and always swapped hellos and a bit of chat but I didn’t really know them by anything other than their phenomenal reputation.

I sat down in the boot of my car. My dropbag arrived, a blanket was put over my shoulders, and oh my goodness, it was the loveliest blanket ever. It was soft and warm and I felt like I was in a little bubble of love and kindness. However, I was also under no illusion that I was not to get too comfy else there would be trouble. I asked my parents if there was any tea, Pauline overheard and nipped off to the kitchen and I asked if she could let Ali know I was there. She came out with a bowl of chips (I’d asked Ali to keep some for me!) which I struggled to squeeze down but I managed most of them.

The very careful chivvying started in the form of a gentle reminder that time was ticking on.

I was so tired now and not quite thinking straight.

It took me an age to change into the shoes – the lovely, new, comfy, dry shoes – and I was talking to myself, or so I thought.

But, when I asked myself if I should maybe put my waterproof trousers, I’d obviously said it out loud as there was Pauline’s reassuring voice replying that yes this was a good idea as they would help keep me warm as well as dry once the temperature dropped through the night.

Same with keeping my cap on – should I swap to a buff? No, keep your cap, that’s a good thing as it’ll stop your head torch slipping and will keep the rain out of your eyes.

I said my goodbyes, trotted through the car park, crossed the road carefully and then went over the bridge towards the glen. The contrast with my previous visit here was marked – I couldn’t even see the Cuillin this time. The rain was coming down heavily, it was just about starting to get dark and it was clearly going to be a very long night.

But inside my waterproofs, I was happy, unbelievably ecstatically euphorically happy.

I had dry feet, dry comfy shoes that had nice stiff new soles, and thanks to these, I could hardly feel the rocks beneath my toes.

The path was so much drier than the last time, following a week of baking hot weather on the island. I could hardly feel my blisters and while I can’t say I ran that much, I could manage quite a march. I didn’t need to wade through any streams this time, and I had enough in the tank to skip across the rocks. This shouldn’t have been happening after 16 hours, and as I bounded along, I decided that maybe it was time to have another crack at the Fling.

I looked behind me a couple of times – I could make out Andy in the distance, getting nearer in his fetching hi vis jacket that he told me had been forced on him.

Then there was another shape too.

Head chef Ali had finished his shift and stormed down the glen to catch up and keep me company for a little bit. It was so good to see him. The thing was, as I talked and talked and was a bit giddy after all the sugar and the chips and the tea, and as I asked him about all his news, I could feel myself getting more and more tired.

I felt like a complete meanie as I asked him if he wouldn’t mind leaving me to it. I knew I would want to keep talking and sharing my race chat, but I had such a long way to go.

Of course, Ali is so utterly kind and considerate that rather than pushing me in a stream for being so rude and ungrateful, he gave me a big soggy hug and headed back.

Somewhere at the bottom of the glen, Andy suggested it was finally head torch time. We had debated and resisted as long as possible, and it felt like a defeat to finally let the day go. The night was here, earlier than expected, but very definitely here.

The arrival of the night coincided with the arrival of a plague of toads.

I’d heard about hallucinating on long races. I’d managed over 20 hours at the Great Glen last year with no ill effects so I was hopeful that I’d escape unscathed.

I had seen a few flickers down Glen Sligachan that I thought were flashes of lightning. I asked Andy if he had seen them, and he very kindly and gently said that while he wasn’t saying there weren’t any, he hadn’t seen them.

I gave in to the fact that I must have imagined the lightning.

But those were definitely real toads on the path.

Here I learned something new. Toads are like rabbits, and when caught in the light of a head torch, they will freeze. This is a nightmare when you are trying to choose your footing around them and you’re assuming they will move and then they don’t.

Just as I count steps going up steep hills, and I’d counted small stream and bigger stream crossings on my previous trip down Glen Sligachan, I began to count toads to keep my brain switched on. Counting is one of my favourite things to do on a long run and I will count anything.

I gave up counting at 22 toads and 3 ex-toads. Yes, I’m afraid I trod on 3 toads. I felt awful.

After the path started to leave the glen, the underfoot conditions got worse and worse. Muddy, wet, horrible. Andy had warned me it was even worse ahead and I just wanted it to be over. Finally we went past the Camasunary bothy and a couple of tents.

I don’t remember much of the next bit, except that it went on for an awfully long time, and my feet became more and more painful. Every time my feet rolled or I stumbled a little, I was in agony and as the time went on it became harder to cope with.

I’d stopped looking at my watch a long way back, I just wanted to get to Elgol where my dad was waiting. He’d been a bit concerned at Sligachan and decided to come to Elgol just in case I needed some cheering on (or that unspoken thing – to stop there).

Mum texted me as I was leaving Sligachan to tell me the plan, but thanks to the total lack of signal I didn’t get it for a few miles. I tried to reply while things were going well, saying to let him sleep as I was feeling good, but of course it never sent, and in the end I was extremely grateful for that.

A couple of tears started to sneak their way out along the cliff section. The pain was getting worse and there seemed to be no end in sight. Andy stopped a bit ahead and I caught up and asked how much more there was to go. He really couldn’t say anything other than, there’s still a good while yet, and I told him I’d be stopping at Elgol.

And then of course, he asked if I was alright, and I said I wasn’t, and I managed to choke down a big old sob so there was no actual tantrum visible to anyone else, just to me in the comfort of my cosy waterproofs.

We started to see lights as we came towards Elgol but I had no idea what or where they were. I’d been able to see a light from back at Camasunary and it had seemed so near at the time.

One of the marshals, Karen, appeared out of the night by one of the gates. She’d been a bit worried as it was getting so late so she had come out to investigate. She saw us and trotted off back to the checkpoint. Now that I knew the end was in sight, of course it felt further and further away.

Every step down that bit of horrible steep tarmac was horrific.

And then a little white building appeared, and a light, and voices.

I stopped after 22(ish) hours and 50(ish) miles.

There was a little hardy bunch tucked away in the checkpoint. Karen made me some tea and I sat for a few minutes with everyone before heading home. I dread to think how many hours my dad had sat there waiting for me, and how worried he would have been. I knew I would be OK, despite the abnormal appearance of a few tears there was never a minute where I was worried for my safety. This is normal for me now and all part of what I choose to do in my spare time, but this was his first time coming to one of my races and deary me, what a one to choose!

I hobbled back to the car and started to shiver once I was inside. I put my down jacket on to try and get a bit warmer. We drove along and saw a couple of people with head torches at the side of the road. One was fairly obviously Ruaridh – easily identifiable as he is so tall. He was weaving about a bit but thankfully he had some company. I contemplated stopping to see if there was anything they needed but realised I didn’t have anything to give them really, and I was conscious that my poor dad probably just wanted to get to bed. Next we saw the light by Terry and Susan’s camper van at the Blaven checkpoint. I wondered about sticking my head round the door to say hi but I was just too tired.

And then before I knew it, we were coming through Broadford, past the Breakish horse, and turning down to where the croft was. Mum was awake when we got in around 4ish. I’d wanted to clean my feet up a bit but in the end, I just went straight to bed.

I’d had strange dreams of still being out on the ridge in the dark wondering where everyone was and who had finished and when. I woke up a few times to the sound of sheep outside the window. I thought they were coming past for their breakfast but actually it was a late lunch they were after – I’d slept through until gone 3pm.

Two days after our arrival, we ended up full circle, back at the Broadford hotel but for dinner this time. Before long we spotted a very slow moving person entering the restaurant. He looked slightly familiar from the briefing, and with the hobble, he could surely only be a fellow Skye Trail Ultra survivor. We invited Michael to join us for dinner and much swapping of tales ensued.

So.

Would I do it again? Yes I would, definitely. It won’t be next year as I have some other plans, but it will be the year after if not.

Do I regret stopping? Yes, more and more and I’m still upset about it, and a bit embarrassed too. However, the sensible side of me knows it was the right thing to save the skin on my feet for the big run in Switzerland. The only reason I had given myself permission to stop was if I felt Switzerland was under threat at any point.

What went right? Well, almost everything apart from getting blisters.

I’d done a lot of strength training all winter to survive all the elevation changes on the ridge (and to get ready for Switzerland). My legs felt amazing, so strong, I didn’t get sore shoulders, and my fitness is better than ever. My running training hasn’t been quite what I hoped or planned, but everything else was streets ahead of where I was last year.

Food and energy levels were great. I ate every 30 minutes religiously, I ate everything I took with me and could have eaten more. I’ve found my list of magic foods that work for me – bounty bars, marmite sandwiches, mini pork pies, McVities Nutrigrain ginger bakes, a few SIS gels, Lucozade sport diluted 50/50 with water, occasional mini tins of coke.

My asthma was absolutely fine, I had a few puffs on my inhaler after the steeper ridge sections and heading towards Elgol once I had started to give into feeling tired, but otherwise no problems.

All my kit was BRILLIANT and totally worth all the money I spent and the time I waited for all the prices to come down so I could afford everything without compromising too much.

Mum and Dad enjoyed their trip to Skye. I was glad of their support and while I’m not a stroppy runner, I was extra aware that I needed to be nice to them in checkpoints. Every time I see my dad he’s still talking about the race, and I caught him nosing at some of my running books last time he was at my house. We looked through all Fiona’s photos together and he had endless questions about everyone’s kit and what other races they’d done and what this race tshirt was etc. I sent him home with the Feet in the Clouds book, so who knows where that will lead.

Worst bits – struggling on the first climb and wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and that coming so early on. Worrying about the missing runner, worrying about the stress and risk this created for Jeff and the race team. Realising Carolyn was serious about stopping at Portree. The path along Loch Sligachan. The onset of the blisters. Mud at points where I didn’t expect it. Feeling the usual embarrassment about my pace and keeping everyone waiting, with bells on this time. The pain of the last couple of miles and realising I would have to give in to it.

Best bits – So many!

The joy of just making it to the start after a couple of illnesses and minor but at the time quite worrying injuries. The drive up. Staying in such a beautiful spot. Jeff’s briefing – extremely comprehensive and practical.

The start – the sunrise – the teeny band of brothers who set off into the day. Getting off the ridge. The first round of marmite butties. Finally feeling confident that I hadn’t taken too much stuff with me.

The Sligachan blanket and support and kindness and putting clean fresh dry shoes on. Tea and chips. Feeling positively euphoric battering down Glen Slig despite the pouring rain. Seeing Ali and knowing I could send him away without him being too offended.

Being among such lovely supportive people at Elgol and knowing my dad had been so well looked after. Andy’s kindness and patience and reassurance, and his ability to stay out of the way or be around for a natter, and to know which to do and when.

Jeff’s kindness and support and encouragement to come back again. The fantastic race team. All the kind words in the Facebook group during the race, which I read afterwards. The fact that no one, absolutely no one, made me feel bad or silly for being slow. No one, not at all, at any point.

If you’re thinking about doing this race, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is not an easy undertaking, and if you are used to big races where everything is laid on and all you have to do is turn up and follow the signs, make damn sure you do some research. If you can look after yourself when the chips are down, you fancy something completely different, a bit (OK a lot) unusual and utterly life-affirming, this is the one for you.

A huge thanks to Jeff and all the marshals and race support team, and my mum and dad for coming all that way for something that wasn’t related to music or cycling. Special thanks to Karen for the pre-race calming messages!

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Favourite post race snack – Mr Kipling’s French Fancies – and a huge pizza in the oven back at mum and dad’s in Dunoon

 

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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.

 

No. 18 Stay Up Late

Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far,

been up too long,

worked too hard,

and you’re separated

from the rest of the world.

BRUCE MAU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big week

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard the news today, oh boy

Somehow it’s the middle of January already.

I’m sat on the sofa, disentangling one greyhound from a phone charging cable while maintaining a respectful distance from the other, who will startle and bolt for her bed if I move too quickly.

The new year has brought good things, bad things and sad things already. A poorly friend, hard going at the day job, and then of course the news of David Bowie’s passing came through yesterday morning.

I finished Marcothon on Hogmanay. It was my biggest ever mileage in a calendar month. Then I took a couple of days off running. I should have run the Hardmoors 30 on New Year’s Day, but I decided against it in the end. I felt a little sad about it, but I missed it for the right reasons and it will be there another year.

There are new things in the calendar this year. 3 days in the Lake District at the end of April. 70-odd miles inside 24 hours along the Great Glen Way between Fort William and Inverness in July. Hopefully third time lucky at the 75 miles between South Woodham Ferrers and Salcott cum Virley (with an overnight stop).

I’m so excited about everything that’s coming my way. A little extra food consumed over New Year wasn’t quite run off thanks to those few days off, but I know the extra warmth around the middle will soon disappear once the miles climb up again. I love the security of building my training up – the feeling that progress is being gradually made, and that the preparation I put in now will be felt in every mile I run later this year.

There is a mountain on the German/Austrian border with my name on, and I hope to climb it this year. There’s talk of a trip back to Mont Ventoux, a big (motor)bike ride around the north coast of Scotland, and of hills and mountains to be walked up, run up, cycled up. A couple of long distance trails to be explored. There’s a tent and assorted camping kit to be researched and chosen, and navigation to be practised in whatever weather Scotland cares to throw at me.

Right now, most of all, I can’t wait for the days to draw out a bit so I can get up in the hills behind my house after work.

And for now, I’ll be listening to a lot of music. David Bowie was a huge part of my teenage years after I borrowed the Singles Collection on tape from Stratford-upon-Avon library when I was about 14. It was a great introduction to his music over the years. My dad was a big fan too, and listening to the music that he loved helped me learn a bit more and gave us something else to share.

Dad’s favourite song is Let’s Dance. I have two, and I couldn’t choose between them. I adore Sound and Vision, and I also love Everyone Says Hi from the Heathen album.

I’d had the album for a good few years, but for some reason, I had it in the car the weekend I made the final trip north from Essex to start my new life up in Glasgow. I listened to that song on repeat for much of the journey.

It includes the wonderful lyrics, which are among some of my favourites ever:

Don’t stay in a bad place,

where they don’t care how you are

That’s not to say no one cared because that’s just not true, but I needed to move and start again, and the song felt like a letter from the past wishing me well in the future and reminding me I could come back if it didn’t work out.

Mr Bowie, thank you for everything you did and everything you left behind. I was angry enough about cancer, now even more so.

Someone posted something somewhere yesterday, I can’t remember it exactly, but they were saying how the earth was however many billion years old, and how lucky we’d been to be on the same planet at the same time as David Bowie.

I agree.

Daydreaming

The last few weeks have been rather more jam-packed than even I’m used to, and not with good things. Each night I’ve been arriving home utterly drained, with a to-do list longer than I can possibly keep up with.

The way forward has been a bit clouded so I’ve had my head down trying my best to get through it.

Daydreaming has been a really good way of keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Warm evenings in Alpine villages with cold beer and live music

A beautiful 1980s Mercedes SL

Deserted west coast of Scotland beaches

Flights on a teeny plane

Summit cake shared with friends

Sofa days with wet noses, tails like whips and skinny ribs

The moment on a run when the rasp from my lungs disappears

Racing the sunset home through the lavender fields of Provence

The secret whisky drinking club

Warm tarmac and tipping into Paddock Hill followed by the bounce at the bottom

Pizza, pizza, pizza

Freezing my bum off in a football stand sipping hot chocolate with my Dad

A wee restaurant that takes an epic journey to get to

An open house in the hills with huge windows and a long drive lined with Lombardy poplars, and filled with friends, food, drink, music, pets

Cycling up short sharp climbs round the Applecross peninsula while remaining completely relaxed

Freshly smoked fish eaten on the shore of a turquoise Bavarian lake

IMG_6014

 

 

Inspiration

People. People you’ve met. People you haven’t met. People who’ve done amazing things. People who have done nothing but sit and moan, and who make you determined not to be like them. People who have been ill. People who are still ill. People who have died. People who never lived.

Places. Places you’ve been. Places you haven’t been. Places you never knew existed and that you heard of while you were somewhere else. Places you always wanted to go. Places you went to accidentally on the way to somewhere else, and you never knew you wanted to go. Places you promise to visit again. Places you never ever want to go back to. Physical places. Psychological places.

Events. Races, challenges, celebrations. Big races. Small races. High. Cold. Fast. Things you want to do. Things you have done and want to do again. Things you never want or need to do again. Times you survived unexpectedly. Times things went right. Times things went wrong. Times when you were alone. Times when you met someone new, or old, or different.

Things. Actual physical things you can touch. Things you can’t touch but know to be real. Big, big things. Tiny things.

Visual art, music, theatre, dance, film, poetry, literature. Words. Quotes.

Concepts, ideas, ideologies, religion, lack of religion. Maybe even love.

What inspires us, what pushes us forward?

For me, inspiration is inextricably tangled with dreams, desires, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, motivation, commitment, drive, action.

I take inspiration from friends. A friend who has moved away to another country to fulfil a dream. A friend who has retired from the corporate world to fulfil a dream. A friend who lives her life in uncompromising pursuit of what she believes is important to her and that makes her happy. Friends who have survived the toughest times, addiction, serious injury. Friends who hear of something unlikely going on somewhere in the world and think I might want to have a go. Often they are right.

I take inspiration from acquaintances. Someone who ran across some ridiculously difficult terrain from one corner of Scotland to another. Someone else who stepped away from the corporate world to fulfil another dream. Someone who ran a race in a time I can only dream of. Someone who built a home they’d always dreamed of in a really difficult location to access.

I take inspiration from family. An aunt whose time was called way before it should have been. An uncle who recovered from a brutal form of cancer and continues to live with the significant and cruel after effects. An aunt who is on watch and wait with a different but related cancer.

I take inspiration from places I have been, and things I have done, that lead me to want to go to new places, bigger, higher, further, faster. I take inspiration from places others have been, or have suggested I might enjoy. Places where I have felt happy, or with a buzz about them that suggests a promise of good times ahead.

I take inspiration from music. Those who play the harp in a way I could only manage if I committed myself completely to that and nothing else. Those who sing, write, play their own music as well as that of others. Those who are brave enough to risk making a living from their talent in a world that wants music for nothing.

I take inspiration from words. Spoken, written, sung by those who have been before or have yet to go.

I take inspiration from people I’ve never met, possibly never likely to meet. The fastest. The best. The bravest. Those who have made a journey, those who have documented it, shared it so that I might find it and use it.

Most of all I take inspiration from time, and the knowledge that there is only so much of it. Sometimes this is all I need to keep me moving forwards. On some occasions it makes me stop, re-evaluate and change course.

(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 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.

IMG_6420
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.

Ouch!

I’m lying on a hospital bed in Austria. The doctor and nurse move closer so they can have a good look at my leg. Just as they do so, I start to sniffle. Just a little, really quietly, but the nurse sees the tears rolling down my face and asks what’s wrong.

There are a million things but there’s also a language barrier, and ultimately it forces me to boil it down to one simple thing.

I’m afraid.

I’m in pain, I have made a bit of a mess of my leg and I have no idea what they are going to do to sort it out. I’m on my own, in another country, I don’t speak much of the language, and it is perfectly logical and normal that I should feel a little bit scared.

Don’t worry, we are going to fix it, she says. Does it hurt? she asks.

No, not really, I say.

Stupidly I look while they are digging around, and immediately I wish I hadn’t. I see a little dark thing in the wound and am worried in case it’s something really bad. But it’s a little blood vessel that has been damaged which is why it keeps bleeding.

Do I need stitches? I ask. Yes, but it’s not too tragic, the doctor says. I smile at the choice of words.

We move to another room, and I am given a green cap to cover my hair. We joke about its attractive appearance. The nurse says I can keep it as a souvenir.

The local anaesthetic goes in, and it really hurts. Then nothing, except the cold of the saline they use to wash the wound out.

I cry again, just a bit, and each time they are worried I am feeling what they are doing. Does it hurt? No, I’m OK. Don’t worry, we are nearly finished. One more stitch.

They are kind without fussing or being overbearing. We talk and laugh about English and Austrian football teams.

I’m thinking a lot about simplicity at the moment, having had a recent period where things have become overwhelming again.

This has been a simple exchange.

I had an accident, I am injured and it is their job to help me.

I cry, and they are worried I must be in pain and they reassure me.

Now they have fixed me, and I am sent on my way so they can be ready for the next patient who needs them.

It was just an accident, my leg will heal with a small scar, and everything will be fine.