Tag Archives: lessons for life

A Dozen Days

About this time last year, I went to the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival with a few friends.

We were there to see a friend of my friends, Andrew Murray, but had tickets for the whole afternoon programme.

One of the films shown was Paul Pritchard’s The Journey, about a cycling trip across the Himalayas via Everest Base Camp.

His was a name from the past for me, from my rock climbing days when I lived in Manchester. My own climbing career was short and ultimately rather painful, but it further indulged my love of high adrenaline adventures, gave me a freedom I’d never felt before and I loved being in the mountains.

I climbed small crags in the Peak District, bigger ones in the Lakes, my first proper mountain in Snowdonia and I thoroughly loved sea cliff climbing in Pembrokeshire. I loved everything that went with it, the planning, the friends, the kit, the weather, the stories, the travelling.

In March 1998, I had an accident when I fell from my first lead, a VDiff called Pocket Wall in Hobson Moor Quarry. I didn’t fall very far, but made a dreadful mess of my ankle on the way down and the accident had a pretty big impact on my life for a long time afterwards.

A few weeks later, Paul Pritchard had a much more serious accident on the other side of the world while climbing a sea stack, and suffered a major head injury. His was a much longer recovery. I remember hearing about it at the time, being a name I knew but not someone I knew if that makes sense. Everyone had an opinion about it, just as they’d had about mine, and I hated that part of it all.

And then, as I drifted away from climbing, and from Manchester, and from who I was back then, I forgot all about it.

The part of the film that stood out for me was where he talked about a part of the trip that had been unexpectedly brilliant, not the actual getting to the end but a step along the way, one of the days that becomes a defining part of your life.

His words were something along the lines of “you only get a handful of days, maybe a dozen days like this, where you really feel… in tune….., but you should maybe aim for that every day”

I had a couple of these days last year, and when the chips have been down over the winter, as they seem to have been perhaps a little more than I’d realised this year, I’ve enjoyed thinking about them and wondering when the next ones will come around.

There was also a very funny part of the film, where he talked about being able to look at and appreciate the beauty of the mountains and the relief of knowing that he doesn’t have to climb them any more. I could relate to this as it’s kind of how I feel about rock now. I climbed Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis last year, because I’d wanted to do it for years and I wanted to see if I still loved it as much as I had. I really enjoyed it, but it didn’t hold what it used to for me, and it was strange realizing how much things had changed.

The film is here, it’s about life, and about change, and it’s excellent.

The Journey – Paul Pritchard and Carol Hurst

This photo was taken while cycling down Mont Ventoux with my dad last year. It’s one of my own dozen days, and I’ll be writing about these over the next few months.

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All you have to do

After plodding along pretty steadily and mostly pretty happily for the last couple of years, I finally made a big decision on the morning of Day 2 of the Saltmarsh 75.

It was shortly before I took this photo. This is looking out along the Blackwater Estuary towards Bradwell power station, which you can just see on the horizon.

It was a beautiful day, in an incredible part of the country. I had run a long way the day before in some pretty tough conditions. I’d been looking forward to and training hard for this event for a whole year, but I was about to pull out of the race. I’d just had enough, and nothing was going to change my mind about carrying on.

I decided that I really needed to start thinking about running a bit more quickly.

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In theory this should be easy. To run a bit faster, you just… ermm… run a bit faster right?

There’s a great quote I read in a motorbike magazine a few years ago. Something along the lines of:

“All you have to do is lean a little further, get on the gas a little earlier, brake a little later and then you’ll win the race”

See? Easy!

But to lean, you have to understand how and why and when to lean. You have to learn when a little further is a little too far.

You have to learn how much gas/throttle is too much. You have to learn how early is too early.

Learning to go fast on a motorbike can be dangerous, even assuming you are in the relatively controlled environment that is a road racing circuit. It hurts when you fall off, and you can break yourself and your bike. If you are anything like most bike racers, you will cry far more about the latter.

I guess I’m trying to say there are always barriers when you learn something new, or try to improve something you can do already. There is a reason why you do things the way you do them. Mostly it’s easy, or comfortable, or you like doing it that way. And you are scared of the unknown.

The main thing that stops me pushing my running speed is my asthma. I had a bad run last night where it wasn’t settling as it should and it really started to hurt. I know enough about managing it to realise when to stop, so backed off and went home.

But once I start to learn how to go faster, I’m frightened my breathing will get out of control and I won’t be able to calm it down. This can be due to a variety of factors, and a damp Scottish winter is a fairly big one.

So what can I do about this?

I have to know why I want to do it.

I have to find a starting point.

I have to understand what I am going to do and how I am going to try and do it.

I have to be sure I want to do it, so that when it gets hard, I don’t give up.

I have to practice it. Lots.

I have to appreciate it might not work, and I might have to change my approach several times before I find a way.

Reading through this list, I realise how much of this applies to music and learning a big new piece, and how my time at the RCS changed how I approach things.

I also think back to some of the incredible things I’ve done this year, and how I never thought I’d be able to do them.

But I did.

So there’s no reason I can’t learn to run faster. I have an inhaler, I know when too far is really too far, I know that there might have to be some considerable discomfort and I know it will be worth it.

Ultra running, Ultra recovering

This is Lossiemouth beach, on the north east coast of Scotland. It was last Sunday, August bank holiday weekend (well, if you’re in England) and as you can see, we had the best of the weather while it was miserable down south.

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This was our away day after the darkness of the day before. It seemed crazy not to visit the nearest beach when we were so close, and I had ditched the planned race so we had time to spare.

It was everything we needed and more. We had ice cream and Irn Bru and we bought seaside rock. We softened our gnarly feet on the sand. One of us burst our blisters and got sand in them (ouch). We froze our toes in the sea, and were wearing more clothes than most.

We laughed as we got out of the car and shuffled along the sea front. One of us suggested stealing a walking stick off a passing old man. The other gently pointed out that we would be in no position to run away afterwards. We laughed some more. We saw a small child wearing a t-shirt proclaiming him Small But Epic. One of us wondered if it would be possible to steal this too, and realised that perhaps we weren’t quite in our right minds today. The strop over the lack of coffee at breakfast was further evidence of this.

Back to the day before. We ran approximately 37 miles, or as much as we could of this, along the Speyside Way. We started at Ballindalloch and traced the River Spey all the way to Spey Bay, then followed the coastline round to the village of Buckie.

The course should have been easier than our trip to Kintyre in May. It would have been, had we been a bit more prepared.

The first 12 miles were wonderful. We ran past some distilleries and some disused stations.

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A few weeks before, the route had been under several feet of water in all the floods. It was still damp underfoot, but this made for good soft ground to run on. We made it to the first checkpoint in good time, in last place but well ahead of last place last year.

However, life had got in the way, long runs went out the window and we really paid for this. We got to know the sweeper very well. Through chatting to him, I learnt some good starting points for mountain biking and ski mountaineering. We made it up the biggest climb to Ben Aigan and despite a couple of heavy rain showers, we were treated to the most beautiful view down the Spey to the sea. This should have been the tough bit out of the way, and all downhill from here.

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This was to be rather more literally downhill than I expected. Soon after, the wheels came off. I had a big wobble at 18 miles and had we been near the river, I would have thrown my running shoes in it. Everything was wrong and I just didn’t want to run any more, at all, ever. Surprisingly after a few minutes break, a bit of reassurance in the form of a squeezy hand hold from my friend Angela and then some unexpectedly reviving crystallised ginger from sweeper Sean got me back on track.

It got worse. By the last water station at 31 miles, I was ready to pull out. Everything hurt. But two unbelievably upbeat marshals, who had been at the very first water station as well, kept our spirits high. By the time we left, I’d forgotten all thoughts of finishing up and we were on the way to the finish line. I later found out the pink-haired marshal was Race Director Sarah’s mum, and she promised to pass on my heartfelt thanks. Without her encouragement, I would have given in.

Somehow we made it to the end. The welcoming committee was small as we had missed the cut-off, but we were handed our goody bags and medals, and a chap in a Celtic top seemed delighted to shake our hands and was full of so many kind words we really didn’t know what to say. A couple who should have been running but pulled out with an injury had come up to marshal and waited for us, and gave us a lift back to the car to save us walking just an extra 10 minutes. 10 minutes is a long way when you have run 37 miles, and I can’t begin to tell you how much we appreciated this too.

The support from those people made the disappointment of the day so much easier to deal with. I had been very, very hard on myself and realised there was no need. I spoke to fellow runner Ray McCurdy in Glasgow today. He had run his 120th ultramarathon on Saturday, and had also found himself about half an hour behind where he expected to be. At the other end of the race, a new race record had been set by local runner Terry Forrest – a truly staggering time of 4.01.42.

Both of those runners will have had good days and bad days, just as I did on Saturday. I nearly pulled out of my next race, the big one looming large in just 5 weeks time, but have decided to leave the decision until nearer the time.

First, there is a good bit more recovering to be done.

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In praise of tea

It has been hectic lately. The tail end of Bertha has caused havoc further north, and has brought some windy whirly weather to Glasgow too. The last couple of days have felt like summer is coming to an end – it has been very cold, wet and very gloomy in the mornings. The nights are drawing in already, the winter dog walking coat has been re-commissioned and there has been a distinct feeling of “how the hell did that happen?”

But today, the weather has paused a little. The sun is streaming in over the tops of the hills and through the harp room window, and the sky is blue. It was too warm for a big coat this morning on dog walking duty.

Today I seem to have more time. I’ve ironed. I’ve had time for a quick blog post. I’ve had breakfast sitting down with the hounds. And best of all I’ve had that most wonderful of things that says there is a little more time than you thought.

I’ve had a second cup of tea.

 

Flop Day

Yesterday afternoon, I started to feel a little as though I might be coming down with a bit of a lurgy. Over the years, I’ve got better at listening to this feeling when it comes. It’s normally preceded by little signs such as a few bizarre tears catching me offguard, dropping/breaking something in the kitchen and utterly insatiable hunger. I left work a little early as the numbers were starting to blur, and went to hunt out something big for my dinner.

This morning, I felt utterly wiped out. I went back to bed, rang in sick and have spent the day at home just mooching about. I’m not streaming snot, but I know now that if I take things easy at this stage, I can often see off a cold or at least dispatch it a little quicker.

After a good sleep, a few mugs of tea and a couple of pains au chocolat that were lurking in the bottom of the freezer, I felt ready to get some fresh air. The sun was out, and the hills behind my house were looking beautiful. I wished I had more oomph, but then if I had that, I wouldn’t have taken the day off…

The dogs were restless having missed out on their 6am weekday walk, so leads went on and off we went.

It felt like the first time in months that I’ve been able to take them for a walk in the daylight. There was no need for their coats – not only was it sunny but it was dry too. There was no need for my horrible fleecy hat, and no need for my headtorch. Gradually it’s getting lighter at 6am, but it will be another couple of weeks before I can walk without it.

It was good to feel the sun on our backs. The hounds are black, and I could feel the warmth on their fur. We met a beautiful black and white English bull terrier – I’d never seen one that colour before, and he was a very handsome boy.

It was a stolen day in many ways, I wasn’t really so ill as to be confined to bed and I probably could have managed at work. I’m temping at the moment and if I don’t work, I don’t get paid, and so I didn’t feel remotely guilty about taking the time I needed. This was a day for the soul as much as the body, and while I will feel it financially, it has been worth it.

One hound needed to go to the vets so we did that. I needed a haircut so I did that. A couple of minor errands were run  but otherwise, I’ve enjoyed being at home taking things slowly. I have a big year ahead of me and I need to look after myself to get through it.

I did an online survey for something or other, and was rather caught out by the following question, and suggested responses:

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I like working. Once my debts are cleared, I will be OK for money (subject to earning money by working). I wouldn’t mind a nicer car but the one I have does just fine, and I have a very nice motorbike which is faster in a more usable way than a Ferrari, and is much cheaper. I’d like to get away for a few days for some sunshine and to get my toes in the sea, but a round the world cruise isn’t my cup of tea at all. I love my life and those who share it with me. I choose those people carefully.

I ticked Other. The only thing I want is more time.

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(The dog picture is of Wendy, mid-wriggle, on a baking hot day, enjoying the sunshine amongst the cool but far-too-long grass and all the weeds in my old garden. Ronnie was away at the vets, and I think she quite liked the peace and quiet and having the garden all to herself. It makes me smile and want to have a wriggle every time I see it.)

Back into balance

It has been an exhausting few weeks. Somehow January ended up being as full-on as November and December, and I couldn’t get going again after having a long Christmas break.

Re-adjusting to full time work in an office has really taken it out of me, a lot more than I realised, and finding space for all the other things in life has come at a price.

February came and the calendar was pretty empty for the first time in ages. Normally this would make me feel uneasy, but actually I was glad as I desperately needed some time and space to bring things back under control. The house was a bombsite, diet and sleep patterns have been appalling and I have generally felt as though I was starting to run myself ragged again.

Running has been a bit hit and miss too – my longest ever run of 16 miles went brilliantly, 5 miles last Wednesday felt torturous and finally yesterday I ran out of puff. 2 miles into a run with some speedier friends and I knew I needed to call it quits for a bit. I felt tight, stressed and exhausted both physically and emotionally, and I could feel the tears starting to prick at my eyes. I made my excuses and ducked out, headed back to the car and then determined not to waste the day or the fuel, I decided to go and spend a bit of time on my own further down the valley.

There were some trails on the map that I had wanted to explore for a while. I set off, determined not to put any pressure on myself, and started to feel better. My legs felt better now and the calf that had been screaming at me earlier had settled right down. After missing the correct turning and ending up a bit further along a road than I thought, I turned back and found the right path.

As I headed too far up the road, I’d passed a group of Land Rovers out on a jolly. One of them was stuck in the road and this held up the whole convoy. I wasn’t sure whether it was a puncture or getting stuck in all the snow, but I took great pleasure in the fact that I was so nimble on just my two wee feet, and I skipped past them. We looked at each other, most of them on the round side and in the warmth of their cars, and me on the small side out in the snow in my tights and running shoes with just a jacket and a rucksack protecting me from the elements. I’m not sure who thought who was the strangest, but I felt happy and very glad to be out enjoying the day.

Along the trail, I saw three sets of footprints, one smaller than the others. This was the friends I had left earlier, and I realised where we had been running earlier. In a strange way, it felt like I had a little company along the way. I knew they were just across the valley from me, and while I enjoyed the peace and quiet of being alone, there was solidarity in knowing there were others not far away doing the same as me and loving every minute.

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I ran as much as I could, but stopped for a walk when I needed to. I’d hoped to get further, but called it a day while I still felt good. I’d done enough struggling earlier, and didn’t want to run out of energy again.

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^ Looking west over the Carron Valley Reservoir

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^ Looking south with Meikle Bin in the background

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^ Looking north-west, Todholes farm just visible in front of the hills

Before long I was back at the car. I headed back down into Fintry, past some horses flinging themselves around in the sunshine, and then back up and over the Crow Road which is now such a regular part of my week. Every time I drive on this road, I remember the first time I came up it, just a few days into my new life up here, and I feel incredibly grateful for all that I am able to do now. I have beautiful surroundings and the fitness to be able to really make the most of them.

I’d been meaning to get some proper stretching done for a while, and decided that now was the time. Cutting my run short meant I had some spare time, and after 45 minutes of yoga I really felt like a new woman. Everything was nicely pulled out and rather than feeling more tired, my energy levels were restored. I had a blissful hour soaking in the bath with the fantastic Feet in the Clouds, and I felt very spoiled. It had cost me a couple of pounds in diesel and car park charges, but otherwise my day was free of charge and the benefits were priceless.

I had come home from work on Friday and found my house had been cleaned for me. Today I have been at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival with friends. Body and soul were restored yesterday, but my spirit really came back into normal service today.

Paul Pritchard‘s film reminded me that my body may be injured but it can still do amazing things and the only thing stopping me is me. His climbing accident happened a month before mine, but left him considerably worse off. My right side is considerably weaker than my left, but it still works, and he has managed to complete some fantastic journeys using just his left leg so really I shouldn’t be complaining too much.

Earlier this week I looked at everything I had planned for this year, and wondered if perhaps I had taken on too much again. After spending time with some brilliant people this weekend, I am ready to go again. However, I have been reminded once again that I really, really need to look after myself, and that if I don’t do this, the only person that will miss out is me.

Two halves, a bit of a hole, and a very important cow

*LONG POST, GET COFFEE*

In September last year, newly arrived off the M6/M74, I remembered seeing fluorescent signs on the roads near my new house warning of a road race coming up. I looked it up, but a half marathon looked like a step too far after my recent triathlon efforts.

This year, Applecross had been and gone, and I found myself with a worryingly empty weekend approaching. Someone was looking out for me though, as the previous year’s race popped into my head while queuing in the Co-op. I got home, found the entries for the Neil McCover Half Marathon (the Kirky Half for short) closed in four hours, my decision was made and the entry was in for the coming weekend.

13.1 miles. The furthest I’d run/walked before this was 10 miles. I’d done this once. I’d done a few hilly 9 milers but I’d never run any further than 10 on tarmac. The furthest I’d gone without stopping for a brief walk or two was 6 miles. At my steady 11-minute mile-ish pace, I would finish just within 2h30 if I could keep going. The website suggested preferred completion within this time otherwise marshall cover would be withdrawn but I was pretty confident I could do it.

The day before the race, I made the mistake of checking the previous year’s times. I was going to be last. I had a big wobble. Having spent most of my bike racing career bringing up the rear, albeit with a huge smile and a lot of giggles, once again I found myself wondering what on earth I was trying to prove, why I needed to spend £20 on a run I could go out and do on my own any time.

The day came. The weather had looked a bit grim ahead of the weekend, and at 6am on the first hound turn-out, it was looking pretty biblical. Others were away on Arran and I felt for them. A couple of hours later and there was some blue sky in evidence. I contemplated pulling out, still questioning what I was doing while my bed was warm, but the need to not waste money and the constant new-girl-in-town buzz of “go along, you never know who you might meet and sitting at home being miserable won’t change anything” helped push me out of the front door.

Lots of very serious looking people were warming up around the start line but I found another girl who was there on her own and we chatted away. She had done her first half marathon a few months before and finished in 2h06min. I was thrilled for her but it didn’t help the nerves, especially as she was running by her own admission in a 99p vest from Asda and what looked suspiciously like a wonderbra.

Eventually we got started. The pack pushed on, and soon there were just a few of us towards the back. It was an interesting experience running along closed roads where I’d normally sit for ages in traffic, and this was my first race with no cycling or swimming involved – ‘just a run’ albeit a long one.

Before very long at all, I was right at the back. Being kerb-crawled by a police car and a St Johns Ambulance. This certainly kept me focused but didn’t exactly settle the nerves any further. I was pleased to trot happily up the hills and before I knew it I was turning off towards Milton of Campsie, again all along roads I’d normally drive along.

There were some cows and sheep in the field next to the road, and I couldn’t help noticing that one cow was ignoring all the others. There was plenty of lovely green grass and friends to moo with in his/her field, but he/she was out on his/her own and had stuck his/her head all the way through the fence in search of more/better grass. It didn’t look particularly comfy, but I had to admire him/her for his/her spirit.

I missed a couple of the mile markers after mile 4, but did notice a little girl in a pram who was waving at us as we ran along. I hoped she wasn’t getting too wet/cold. By this point, I had company in the form of another runner. Angela and I would trade places and chat/puff pretty much the rest of the way round.

At one point I could almost see my front door, and guessed I was approaching the half-way mark. I was still accompanied by the police car, but the ambulance had now turned into 2 ambulance people on bikes. I had to use my inhaler a couple of times as it was rather damp – I was dreading them being over-enthusiastic and pouncing on me in their excitement at something happening. By this point, my lucky knickers had headed into a rather uncomfortable position, but with my entourage so close behind, there was no way I could do anything about them.

Miles 6-7, 7-8 and 8-9 felt like very hard going. Once I got to 9 miles, things started to lift, although I realised that at 11 minutes per mile, I still had at least 44 minutes to run. But, I was still running. By this point, I had decided that police car or no police car, I was going to keep going to see what would happen. I knew if I stopped to walk on the flat I probably wouldn’t get going again.

A big hill came at mile 10, but I managed to keep going up it. Angela and I were swapping places happily, with heads down and a bit of chat when we could manage. Eventually, a point came where the police car couldn’t drive with us, and I was able to have a quick stretch and sort out the undie situation without giving the policeman an eyeful. I could just imagine the radio chat going on and didn’t want to add any further fuel to the fire.

Another hill came at mile 12. Again I kept going, but by now I was incredibly sore and ready to stop. The last mile was in and out of a housing estate and was deceptive as we really felt we were getting closer to the line. We could see the finish line flags but kept twisting around. The mile 13 marker appeared at last.

On the last corner, we were clapped and cheered by three girls who had waited to run the last bit with us. This really gave us a boost – so many people moan about young people today but here they were, on a Sunday morning probably with much better things to do, lifting our spirits and keeping us going. Angela asked if I wanted to share last place and I was thrilled to accept. We held hands over the line, even managing a brief sprint to a big cheer from those who were still hanging around at the finish.

I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I stopped my Strava and looked at my time – 2h27 something although I wasn’t sure how accurate it was. I was over the moon, in a very quiet and very tired way. I thanked the policeman for his patience and apologised for the likely state of his clutch. He patted his belly and said he admired our perseverance.

Angela’s friend Al was waiting for her at the line. Hugs were being doled out, and I wasn’t sure of the protocol but managed to claim one anyway. The hand of friendship was further extended and I joined them both for an utterly wonderful post-race hot chocolate. Facebook details were swapped, and this being Scotland we worked out who knew who else, and before long, just like that, I had a whole new world of people to run with….

…..And another race to enter, in a fortnight’s time!

The Antonine trail race had been mentioned in a new Facebook group I’d joined at Angela’s suggestion. At 13.8 miles long, it was just over the half-marathon distance I’d done but being off-road it was much more my normal thing. It also had the advantage of being just down the road again. With nothing else planned, I put an entry in. I knew it would be hilly so wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the whole lot, but I was really happy to be going somewhere completely new.

I felt immensely pleased that I was at a stage with my running to be able to enter not just one but two half marathons, on a whim, with just a week to go before race day, and to know I’d done enough work to have a decent chance of finishing. I’ll never be particularly quick but this does have its advantages, in that even the smallest of improvements are celebrated with great joy.

A couple of days before, I found out I would have some company on the start line and at the end. This was really appreciated and made the build up just that bit more special. It was great to share the chat afterwards, although I was in pretty lousy shape at the end this time.

I found this race much, much tougher. The going under foot was much more varied, making things more entertaining but harder work. Ankle deep mud, bogs, tree roots, slippy wooden boards, gravel, rubble, tarmac, there was everything other than ice and snow. I was in my trail shoes, and had never done a long/mixed run in these. With the state of my ankle, I am a bit more sensitive to shoes than I’d like, but I’m getting there.

I had to stop to walk a couple of times – I wasn’t sure whether this was down to me being tired or down to the route. I had much more company at the back this time, and swapped around with a handful of others. There was only one other girl running on her own, everyone else seemed to have brought someone with them. The majority of my running is done on my own, I’ve never really known anything else and am totally content with my own company while I’m huffing and puffing away.

A swan appeared briefly just after the mile-8 marker, and disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived. This picked me up no end, for reasons I won’t go into here.

The route sits just across the other side of the Kilsyth Hills, which are the eastern end of the Campsie Fells and are a major part of home for me. I drive past them almost every day for work. If they’re on the left of me, it’s the morning. If they’re on the right, I’m on my way home. On race day however, the route twisted and turned and I kept losing track of where I was in relation to everything else, expecting to see the hills on my right but finding them somewhere else.

Again there were 2 hills of particular note – one at mile 9/10 which was a beautiful run up through a forest. I could have been anywhere in the world but was really happy to be enjoying myself in my adopted homeland. It was a gorgeous morning by now, there was some sunlight shimmering through the trees in between the showers, and I felt very lucky to be out enjoying the scenery.

Coming down this hill, the monster mile-12 Croy Hill suddenly came into sight. I could see a variety of different colours of running kit working their way up it and my heart sank. I was craving Jelly Babies by this point, and almost utterly depleted. So I couldn’t believe my luck when a very kind marshall appeared with a magic yellow packet of just what I desired. There was a faintly magical feel to the day for a variety of reasons, just a general sense of being looked after by others who weren’t there, and so I took a handful of my favourites – the orange and yellow ones – and set off up the hill.

Ever since I started running, I’ve often felt a magical hand between my shoulder blades, pushing me on when I know I should be stopping. I can’t explain it, but at the same time, I know exactly why it is. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s a wonderful feeling and very much welcome when it comes. Today was one of those days, but this time the signs were manifesting themselves in the physical world a little more than was usual.

I’ve not done a lot of hill walking for a very long time, but what I have been lucky enough to do this summer really helped me up this particular hill. Others were flagging but I kept myself going.

The last mile came, and headed back down towards the start of the race. There were a couple of small hills before the end, and for some reason I decided I needed to run up these. The last one was a total mistake and I felt the sudden and very real terror of an approaching asthma attack. The sharp and audible rasp, the complete contraction of my lungs like when you scrunch up a crisp packet, and the feeling of a very determined elephant being sat on my chest and stomach.

I tried to keep calm but the tears started to come and I knew if I couldn’t pull myself together I would be wearing a nebuliser at the end. I heard someone shouting/cheering at me from further down the path and I got more upset. As I got closer, I realised who it was (he’d got changed from his running kit!) and started to panic even more which was very silly. Somehow I managed to calm down and keep breathing and made it to the line. Gradually everything subsided, but it was incredibly frightening and I was glad not to be on my own.

The first race hurt more in my hips and my feet – I had several layers of blister on my big toe (thanks to my road shoes) which took a good few days to calm down. I felt OK the next day as long as I kept moving. Sitting down for 2 hour long lectures was definitely not a good idea though. By the day after, I felt fine.

The second race really tired me out. My legs were fine the day after, but it took me a good couple of days to really bounce back from it. I’ve lost a stone in a six-week period, unintended and mostly due to not eating enough through house-selling stress. This is a lot for a small person. I’m not sure how much of an impact this has had on how I felt after both runs. It wouldn’t have made me any faster, but maybe I’d have felt a bit more with it afterwards. Definitely something to think about though, as the urge becomes stronger to run further and further to new places.

So now I’m left with a bit of a hole. I hadn’t planned anything else after Applecross beyond continuing to enjoy my running over the winter, but I’ve been grateful for having a couple of big things in the diary. I doubt I would have run all 13.1 miles for quite a while if I’d just been out running on my own. I’ve also met some brilliant people, been supported by some brilliant marshalls, and enjoyed being in the company of others who also enjoy what I enjoy. There are lots of routes planned for the winter, partly to push my distances but really just to continue to enjoy myself being outside in the country that has become home.

I was awful at sports at school, excluded because of my asthma and too frightened to challenge this because it meant getting my wobbly thighs out in front of all the thin girls. My dad always described me as built for comfort not for speed. He’d hate it if he knew now but I carry those words with me everywhere, and when I look in the mirror, even at a body that is shrinking before my eyes, all I see is an overweight teenager.

Even my mum had to ask what the aliens had done with her daughter when I said I was doing my second half and going in for a marathon next year. It has always felt like a bit of a joke, but I guess I can call myself a runner now.

So what of the cow? I’m sure it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do to stay in the field and eat grass with your mates. Sometimes it’s right to poke your head through the fence in search of something new, something better, even if it means risking getting stuck, or hurt, or worse. Sometimes it’s right to move between the two. There’s only one way to find out.

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Mooching of an afternoon

(Written on a gloriously wi-fi free Thursday)

This afternoon finds me in Leiden in the Netherlands. A quick tot up on the plane revealed that this is my most visited country which both surprised me and made me happy.

I’ve been here before, on a school trip some 20+ years ago. I can’t remember why we came to Leiden, I think it was on the way to somewhere else. We didn’t see much anyway, other than a slightly strange artistic installation of wedding dresses in one of the canal basins.

This time I’m here for a rather different reason. This is my second visit to the Jazz Harp Academy. It’s a full-circle thing – the first time I came in 2010, it was in a bid to do something that scared me silly during one of the lowest points in my life.

It worked, and led to many wonderful things, including my move to Glasgow. I met a very dear friend and we have supported each other on our own individual musical adventures.

We are very similar and yet very different. Someone asked how they would recognise us to collect us from the airport once. I said we are both very small with big smiles and we will probably be the noisiest people there as we will be laughing so much.

My friend arrives this evening so I made the most of an afternoon in a different place. For all intents and purposes it’s a new place, as I don’t really recognise any of it.

It was raining heavily when I got off the train from Amsterdam. The windmill count was up to 2 within 15 minutes. I saw a museum and wondered about going in, but at 11 euros I decided against it. Not a huge sum but I figured I could make better use of the time and money.

I had a map but only used it to make sure I was heading in the right direction from the station to check out the venue for the next few days. Other than that, I just strolled, taking whichever street or canal I fancied.

It is so quiet here. It’s a mixture of old and new and they sit comfortably with each other.

The reason for the peace is the humble bicycle. This is Holland, where the bike is king. Near the station, bikes are all you can see wherever you look. There is an occasional car in the town but they are conspicuous by their sound.

I found a gorgeous cafe to have lunch in. I settled down with a book and enjoyed seeing the world going past outside. The cafe was quiet too – unusually in a world of piped music, there was no soundtrack at all, not even a radio. I enjoyed this. I’m a musician but there are times where silence is just what’s needed.

I’m reading Miles Davis’s autobiography and have just read about the first time he heard Thelonious Monk play. He was struck by the spaces left in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.

My harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals. As a classical harpist, when I’m improvising I often feel obliged to use as many of these as possible. (With some orchestral parts it is not so much expected as compulsory to use all of them at once!)

This often adds unnecessary pressure and complexity, and leaves no space for breathing (for me or the music) or thinking about what comes next.

My first time at the jazz academy taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around me, and thinking about bass, rhythm and lead. Now when I create music of my own, I try to use as few notes as possible, to leave room.

It’s hard to find space in everyday life, and today has been a great opportunity to sit, to breathe and to think before the next few days of full-on learning and bashing against my comfort zone in an attempt to push myself forwards som more.

My afternoon cost me considerably less than 11 euros, but was worth much, much more and I’ve probably learnt more than I would have done in the museum. It did have an awesome totem pole outside, though, so I’m off for a proper look at that tomorrow.

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Don’t Look Back

Birthdays are supposedly a time to celebrate, with family and friends. For me they are also a big indelible mark in the calendar that another year has passed, and this provokes an intense period of serious introspection and the resulting reflection.

This year was to prove no different. Mid-way between two fairly big numbers, and supposedly now at an age where seemingly everyone is pretty well sorted and established, this was my first birthday in a new country and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The last few weeks have been the most wonderful rollercoaster, but pressure outside this has been building and building, with nowhere to go but inwards.

A couple of good runs have helped lift things however temporarily, and it has been truly wonderful to compare photos of my surroundings now to those a year ago.

These pictures below were taken on my birthday last year, on a Friday evening. This was the longest I had ever run at the time – a mighty 4 flat miles from my house down to Alresford Creek in Essex.

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Brave? or Stupid?

Last Friday evening, the day before my birthday, I went out to one of my new favourite places to run. It is reasonably hilly, and takes you through a big forest and out the other side with stunning views up and down the valley, and then takes you back round the edge of the forest and down again. I’d been hopeful of a gorgeous sunset, but the weather wasn’t looking particularly obliging.

As I came out of the forest for the first time, what I did get was a beautifully clear view out to the mountains around Ben Lomond. This was more than enough for me and I still stop in awe at this spot every single time I run here, to look at the hills around me and that I now call home. The green hills are the western end of the Campsie Fells – and the neck and shoulders of what is known here as the sleeping giant (the head is just slightly round the corner).

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In a recent blogpost I wrote about beginning to dream again. I feel as though I’m a long way from where I was when I wrote that, and I am desperately hoping to get there again. But not by looking back. There comes a point where constantly looking back and beating yourself over the head with all your mistakes becomes utterly futile, and becomes damaging not just to you but also to those around you, and I have reached that point over the last few days.

There is a lot of what I call grunt work to be got through over the coming days and weeks. No other way through then keeping your head down and trying to keep everything else as balanced as possible and in perspective.

In between all this is a fantastic trip up to Applecross to take part in another long awaited adventure – the Applecross Duathlon. I need to make sure that nothing gets in the way of this as I am desperately looking forward to it, despite expecting to find it very hard and risking getting even more tired out.

I finished my birthday weekend with another run, an unexpected gift from someone who was also on a tricky journey of their own over the weekend.

We headed up Cort ma Law, over the other side of the valley from the forest where I stood to take the picture above, and just behind my house. The weather had been on the changeable side all day, but we were treated to some incredible sights which were thankfully happening further down the valley from us. Here, the sun is shining through a rain shower over Dunglass (just outside Strathblane).

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It was a steep old climb up in places, but well worth it to get to the top, in so many ways. I’d wanted to be up there for a long time, and needed the space that comes from being high up and having done something new and big, this time with fantastic company.

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I was not prepared for the bog run at the top – I thought it was further over from where we were. I’m afraid this former Essex girl had a bit of a moment when a brave jump off a rock was required to clear a particularly large area of bog. Admitting to someone else (who you hugely admire and does this kind of thing in their sleep) that you are incredibly scared just now takes some doing, and was probably harder than making the leap itself.

As usual, this post has ended up longer than I planned. I’ve missed getting my thoughts down while everything else has been so crazy.

Don’t Look Back is my dad’s favourite quote – from a former speedway champion called Barry Briggs. It has been written in numerous birthday cards over the years, and is often muttered by me but not often enough heeded.

(On another note, a gratuitous scary mountain shot of an entirely different kind – well it was my birthday recently, and I was very scared in this picture too)

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Tick follows tock, or being bad at waiting

It’s been quiet on here for various reasons, the main one being that I crashed and burned last week.

I couldn’t give in and take to my sick bed as I had a long trip south to do which I couldn’t cancel, but once I got home I managed to grab a couple of days of serious sofa time, and at last I seem to be coming out of the other side.

But I’m impatient, and I want to be better now. I have things to do and I don’t want to miss out.

I’m waiting for a lot of things which are completely and scarily out of my control at the moment, and I’m not very good at it.

This always comes to mind when I think about waiting. I know it’s an advert, but it’s a brilliant one and the message is superb.