High on a mountain, a Lonely Goat heard . . .

Yes, I am round. Yes, I am slow. Yes, I run as though my legs are tied together at the knees. But I am running. And that is all that matters.

John Bingham

There’s a bewitching, twitchy feeling here this week, something almost crackly and palpable in the air like the electric storms that brewed here after two days of oppressively high heat. It’s like that moment when you’ve been hoping for good news but hardly dare listen just in case it’s the opposite, that instant when you dare to believe – hopefully, nervously – that there really is light at the end of the tunnel. A corner has been turned and in our valley, it feels like the collective release of a breath held for too long.

After seven difficult, anxious and emotional weeks, Spain has taken its first tentative steps along the phased pathway to lifting lockdown. There is no complacency here; the Asturian president, Adrián Barbón, has said it must be done with surgical precision and any hint of increasing infections or a second spike will see a swift return to us being back en casa. It will take a minimum of eight weeks at best but we have already been warned that we might not be able to leave Asturias until September. Vicky and her family will not be coming to stay here later this month and our trip in June to the UK for family celebrations then Norway to visit Sam and Adrienne are most definitely off, while the journey to my brother’s August wedding hangs in the balance. Disappointed and sad? Of course, but so be it; we all have to do our bit to keep ourselves and others safe. I realise this is part of the necessary adjustment we need to make towards accepting a ‘new normal’ whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, back to this week and the joyful news that for the first time in 50 days, we were allowed out for exercise. There are restrictions in place for settlements with more than 5 000 inhabitants but in rural areas such as ours we can run or cycle any time between 6am and 11pm and can go as far as we like providing we don’t leave Valdés, the municipality in which we live. Conversely – and somewhat bizarrely- if we choose to go for a walk, we can’t wander any further than a kilometre from home. Running it is, then.

It was actually 51 days since I had last run, training in torrential rain for a 10k race that never happened. In the interim, I have at least been able to run in the barn (which is more than most of our running friends here could do) but it has been far from pleasant; the idea of being allowed out on the open road once again had me feeling slightly giddy, even a bit nervous if I’m honest. Still, Asturias does mornings rather well so how could I resisit such temptation?

Now, regular readers will be well aware of my somewhat turbulent relationship with running; I persist with it because I recognise the benefits it brings to my health and wellbeing and I always feel better for doing it . . . but, I’ve never quite been able to love it. Bit of a shock, then, if I am completely honest and admit that during the weeks of running deprivation, I actually missed it. Yes, truly. I did. I tried hard not to, obviously; I did my goldfish thing in the barn, followed a fantastic new yoga course and even started strength training with weights, something quite different and very challenging for me. I’m not sure whether I’m building impressive muscles but something must be happening because I now find I can use the most important of basic man tools without needing the man to go with it!

I’ve learnt that it’s possible to exercise and keep reasonably fit in straitened circumstances and I’m grateful for how much I was able to do, but the bottom line is this: there’s nothing quite so liberating as being out in the fresh air, footloose and fancy-free and drinking in the beautiful scenery around me (albeit it in an attempt to divert my attention away from the struggle of moving my body through space at something very loosely related to the idea of ‘speed’). Social distancing still applies of course, so I passed walking neighbours at broomstick distance . . . but what sheer joy, what huge beaming smiles, what indescribable bubbly happiness at seeing and greeting each other once again! We were like captive birds released from a cage, soaring skywards on ecstatic wings in blissful, unfettered freedom. Those were possibly the sweetest six kilometres of my life.

One of the benefits of having time to think more about running whilst not actually doing any is that I finally took the plunge and did something I’ve been considering for a while: I’ve joined the Lonely Goat Running Club. https://lonelygoat.com/ In truth, there wasn’t really any ‘plunge’ involved as I think it is a brilliant concept which, like Parkrun, is designed to make running accessible and enjoyable for anyone. Everyone, in fact. The idea is simple: it’s a recognised running club with affiliation to England Athletics available but not compulsory, and if like me, you opt not to register for affiliation, the club is totally free to join. There are no club meetings, no training sessions, no coaches, no championships, no league tables, nada. So what, you may well be asking, is the point?

Well, I believe it has filled a huge vacuum by providing a platform for mutual help and support for runners like myself who – for whatever reason – don’t want to join an orthodox club. The running scene in Asturias is fantastic and I enter occasional races to be part of that friendly and inspiring community and to challenge myself with personal goals (um . . . generally to arrive at the finishing line at some point, preferably on my feet) which give me the impetus to train.

However, I have struggled from the very beginning with the fact that the local runners are so amazingly speedy and I am terribly slow. While I am still wrestling with the demon that is my inability to master a sub-hour 10k, the other ladies in my age group breeze it in 50 minutes or under without so much as breaking into a sweat. It can be hard to keep going and keep smiling and yes, I know it’s the taking part and all that jazz that matters, but actually tight cut-off times matter too, especially if it means the threat of having to walk back to the start after being disqualified as a slowbie. So far I’ve just managed to scrape through – and I really, really mean scrape as in by a few seconds – but it’s tough. Roger is massively supportive and patient and I couldn’t do it without him but he’s a brilliant athlete and I’m not, so in the Lonely Goat RC I think I’ve found a huge network of running soul mates who feel my pain completely because they’re feeling it, too.

There is a social media chat forum which currently has over 17 000 (!) members; you don’t have to join it if you don’t want to and the idea is that if you do, then you dip in and out now and then rather than be a slave to everyone’s posts. There are no experts or show-offs or anybody trying to score points, just a group of incredible people getting out to run despite whatever obstacles are thrown in their way. It’s all about friendship and encouragement, shared elation and commiseration, about people finding a little bit of time in their busy lives to be decent human beings towards one another. How amazing and inspiring is that? When I posted a couple of photos from my first run after lockdown, I was overwhelmed to receive more than 700 likes and almost 70 comments from people who simply wanted to share my joy. We might run as Lonely Goats but we are very definitely not alone. Oh, and I was chuffed to find there is a little herd in Spain, too!

Like affiliation and chat group membership, there is no onus to buy a club strip, either, but I liked the idea of doing at least something to support the organisation so I have bought a vest (which I was delighted to find had been made from 100% recycled polyester). I had a big decision to make over badge colour, with blue, green, purple, pink and yellow on offer. What should I go for? Well, in the end I plumped for purple, partly with Jenny Joseph’s wonderful ‘Warning’ poem in mind (not that I think I am an old woman just yet) but mostly because I suspect Annie would never have forgiven me if I’d gone for anything else!

There’s a lot of friendly Goat banter about the different colours but they don’t actually mean a thing: whichever colour you choose, it’s still one big team. I wore my new vest out for that first run; I stood in the lane on our mountainside and heard the rhythmic scratching of crickets and the screeching of swifts in the valley below and the nervous beating of my heart; I took in an enormous breath of rose-scented air, smiled to myself then launched myself like a crazy child down the steep slope. It felt like I was part of something good.

The 10k race I was training for on the 21st March has been moved to the 20th June; of course, there’s every chance it won’t be allowed to go ahead but I’m training for it anyway. If and when it happens, I shall wear my Lonely Goat vest with pride and an immense feeling of gratitude that I am alive and healthy and able to run through the stunning Asturian landscape with a wonderful bunch of equally daft like-minded people . . . and you know what? I won’t be giving that wretched sub-hour goal a single thought. Not one. 🙂

Slow and smooth

Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.

William Shakespeare, Othello (Act I, Scene iii)

I’ve written before about how one of the biggest bonuses of living our simple life here is the time we have to indulge in and enjoy exercise in a way we never have before. Now don’t get me wrong: I am not – and never have been – the sporty type, but I am a fidget and I like to be active and on the move. I find it sad, frustrating and very ironic that in our modern world, there has never been such a wealth of research and information about the benefits of lifelong exercise nor so many activities and pieces of kit to choose from (although I suspect much of the latter has more to do with marketing than movement) . . . and yet, the hustle and bustle and rush of life leaves so little time to spend on what must be one of the very best things we can do for ourselves. Human bodies are designed to move. A lot. We are not made to sit on our backsides, stuff snacks or stare at screens. We’re better than that – aren’t we? Trust me, I am not preaching: in the years when I was raising a family and working full-time, exercise came at the bottom of the pile, especially as I’ve never been very good at turning out in the evenings or making much effort when I’m tired. For six months of the year, I travelled to and from work in the dark which made walking or running impossible during the week and living in very rural places always meant a drive to leisure centres. I managed to go to netball club for a while and a few terms of salsa classes, otherwise it was down to manic activity in the garden at weekends plus a walk if we could find the time.

What a difference having time has mades to my outlook and attitude; it is the most precious of commodities. If someone had told me ten years ago that early 2020 would see me pulling on screaming pink trainers to run three or four times a week in the Asturian mountains, I’d have stared at them in total disbelief. Yeah, right. Yet here I am, doing just that. I don’t particularly like running and I’m not very good at it but I appreciate and respect the benefits it brings to me physically, mentally, spiritually and socially. I’ve come to realise that no matter how much I don’t want to make the effort to get out there and do it, I always, always feel better when I have.

One thing I have learned in my time here is to pick and choose races very carefully; it’s a balance between having a goal, something that makes me stick at training without putting myself under the kind of pressure that leaves me resenting the whole running scene. I’ve found out the hard way that some races here are really for elite athletes and the fast times and tight cut-offs make things very tough for me; I’m far happier when I can relax near the back of a pack with like-minded people who aren’t fast or flashing a lot of fancy kit, just there to do it because they can . . . and, most importantly, to enjoy it.

Salinas 6k beach run last May and my feet barely moving . . . playing to the camera instead of focusing on a sprint finish. 🙂

Of course, there’s no harm in setting personal challenges but it’s been a steep learning curve in understanding how to handle the fallout when things don’t go according to plan. Last September, I set out to try and finally run a 10k race in under an hour. For ten weeks, I trained harder than I ever had before: I ran five times a week without fail; I did training sessions I’d never done previously – interval training, tempo runs, hill repeats; I did one 12+k run a week in the hope that it would make 10k seem easier. On the big day, I ran the race two and a half minutes faster than I had the year before, despite thundery weather, blistering heat and a stiff onshore breeze. I missed my target by seven seconds. I was devastated. What I should have done, of course, is smile at all the positives, dust myself off and get back to it; in reality, I went into an almighty self-indulgent sulk, hid my training shoes and refused to run for the next two months! Well, let’s face it, I’d put in all that effort for nothing and I don’t like running anyway, so what was the point? Sulk, sulk, sulk. 😦

Ribadesella is a spectacular place to run . . .
. . . but try as I might, that sub-60 minute 10k still eluded me.

Then in November, I went to support Roger when he ran for Wales in the British Masters Cross Country competition at Aintree and something inside me changed (for the better, I’m glad to say). Watching the hundreds of athletes wearing their national vests with pride, powering round 10k of grass and mud in a bitterly cold wind not only left me feeling inspired – as it always does – but thoroughly ashamed, too. Many of those runners were much older than me (in fact, plenty of them were older than my parents) and yet there they were, giving it their all in a wonderful spirit and atmosphere of enthusiasm, friendship and movement. I had absolutely no excuse to be so peevish; it was time to give myself a good boot up the backside. Home again, and I ran in the Castrillon 8k in December, a fantastic local community event with a slap-up feast afterwards. I didn’t ‘train’ for it, just ran when I felt like it; I didn’t set a time challenge, just went with the flow – which was pretty tricky in high winds and stormy weather; it was tough, but I found myself smiling all the way round just from the sheer joy of being out there doing something slightly mad and under no pressure at all. It was lovely to exchange a few words with fellow runners, high five the children along the route and even acknowledge the traditional Asturian band piping me over the finish line. That’s how it should be.

Castrillon 8k: no pressure, no expectations and a lot of fun . . . even though the weather was dire!

I’ve entered a couple of similar races in the next few weeks purely for the fun of being involved in local community events with no personal challenges involved. One of them is a 10k race in a beautiful coastal spot, running from a village out to a lighthouse and back. I’m not even thinking about that sub-hour time because I’ve come to realise it really, really doesn’t matter; I might never crack it but so what? My life won’t change either way but ultimately surely it’s better to be a slow, smiling plodder – hopefully for years to come – than an inert couch potato?

I love yoga and usually try to do at least a couple of practices a week, more if I’m not doing much running. On some days I do my own sequence either in the house with gentle background music or, in warm weather, in the barn with the relaxing sound of birdsong and gentle village murmurings for company. At other times, I like to follow a yoga class video; there is a wealth of yogic treasure available online and it’s a great way to work with a range of teachers, try different styles and really mix and match practices. The only time I have ever attended proper yoga classes was during the two years we lived in France and those sessions benefited me hugely in three ways. First, it was a good way to socialise and meet new people (I was the only ‘foreigner’ in the class) in a relaxed and friendly environment where I could chat without being under any obligation to speak too much. Second – not surprisingly – it taught me much about yoga, and in particular the importance of breath and seeing the practice as holistic, not the hurried set of stretches I’d squeezed in between marking books and cooking dinner in a previous life. Third (and of most relevance here), it did wonders for my French, in particular my ability to listen and understand. I have an A-level in French but I studied at a time when the emphasis was on reading and writing and conversation was something of an afterthought. The chance to spend a couple of hours a week truly concentrating on spoken French was wonderful, especially as our teacher, Sophie, insisted we did much of the practice with eyes shut, so I couldn’t just watch and copy my class mates. Even now, seven years on, I still sometimes hear her soothing voice reminding us all to ‘Ne pas crispez les orteils!’

It was during one such moment recently, whilst mentally checking in with my orteils, that I had a bit of a lightbulb moment. How it’s taken me so long to have this thought I do not know, but at least I got there in the end: why not look for yoga videos in Spanish? In France I could cycle to my class, here it would involve driving a fair distance and I don’t particularly want to commit to that but there is no reason why I couldn’t have a Spanish ‘class’ at home and – in the name of supreme efficiency aka laziness – I could kill two birds with one stone by combining my Spanish study with yoga sessions. Splendid.

One of the beauties of yoga is that the names of the postures in Sanskrit serve as an international language for the yoga community, in the same way Latin is used the world over for identifying living organisms. It doesn’t matter what individuals with different mother tongues call a particular posture such as the one I know as ‘Mountain Pose’, we would all recognise it as tadasana. This makes following a yoga class in a foreign language slightly easier, because at the very least I can pick out the posture names when Sanskrit is used. However, in the name of really developing my language, it’s fun to learn the Spanish names, too, and I was really thrilled to chance upon a helpful website which literally spells them all out. I was also quite chuffed to find I’d made a correct guess at ‘Downward Facing Dog’ being perro hacia abajo. I’m just very grateful that I don’t have to say it aloud, though, as my attempts at training my tongue to trill that rr have proved futile. This means my oh-so-Anglo-Saxon pronunciation ditches the dog and renders a translation of ‘Downward Facing But’ . . . and to the English ear, there’s far too much inuenndo and word play to be had with that one!

Although I recognise the advantages of attending a yoga class and working under the guidance of an experienced teacher, the great thing about a video class is that I can watch it beforehand to familiarise myself with the sequence and flow of postures and hopefully not find myself left trailing too far behind during the practice. Strangely enough, I actually felt slightly nervous when I tried the first video – ridiculous really, but a good sign that I’m challenging myself once again to shift out of my comfort zone and engage body and brain in something new and fulfilling. Standing at the top of my mat in tadasana, eyes closed, toes flat, spread and relaxed (merci, Sophie!) I heard the words ‘Tomamos unos instantes preparando nos mentalmente para la práctica‘ and understood completely, without any need for translation, reflection or even much conscious thought. It was like a happy sort of homecoming. Namaste.

Where healthy living fashions are concerned I must confess I’ve never been a fan of smoothies; I love fresh fruit and vegetables and eat copious amounts of both every day but I much prefer them as they come rather than whizzed up into a drink. Several years ago when I was still working, I was completely mystified by the ‘must have a Nutribullet for Christmas’ craze that swept through the staffroom. I couldn’t quite get my head round spending a large sum of money on what seemed to be a glorified blender and filling it full of bought kale, frozen blueberries and a host of ‘superfood’ boost products to create a gloop and call it breakfast. Definitely not my cup of tea. However, after a recent couple of debilitating weeks and feeling an urgent need to top up my mineral and vitamin levels, I decided perhaps the idea of a smoothie wasn’t so bad after all as long as, in line with my general attitude to life, I could keep it simple. The internet literally buzzes with smoothie recipes but in the end I just did my own thing . . . wandered into the garden and picked a handful of kale and a few kiwis.

That’s it. No bananas or avocados (we don’t buy either here, they are imported and pricey), no plant-based milks or oils, no fruit juices, no yogurt, no seeds or spices, no protein powders, no honey (I don’t have a sweet tooth, the kiwis are plenty sweet enough for me). The kale is fabulous stuff, an heirloom variety called ‘Cottagers’ which I planted for the first time last year. It’s an old cross between kale and brussels sprouts which was then re-crossed with purple sprouting broccoli, of such interest in Victorian times that it even caught Charles Darwin’s eye. It has easily outperformed all the other varieties I’m growing here but being the daydreamer that I am, I failed to realise it is perennial so perhaps didn’t plant it in the most sensible of places. No worries, here’s to five years at least of healthy green gorgeousness!

Where the kiwis are concerned we are still picking them and there are plenty more to come; I usually eat the whole thing, furry skin and all (I’m too idle to do the ‘boiled egg’ thing with a teaspoon and anyway, it’s a good source of fibre), but in the interests of a reasonably smooth smoothie I did peel them just this once. Into the food processor they went with a dash of cold water to loosen the mixture up and that was that. The verdict? Well, it was very green and I have to admit, very tasty. Yes folks, I actually enjoyed it. Enough to want to repeat the experience, in fact, this time with a handful of fresh mint thrown in for good measure. I even found myself thinking a splash of apple juice would be a good addition, perhaps some grated root ginger, squeeze of lemon juice, few leaves of lemon balm. Mmm, slippery smoothie slope, maybe? ¡salud! 🙂