#wwwp5k: from writing to running

This morning I went for a 5k run. It’s nothing to brag about; I’ve run that far many times before and for millions of runners far more talented, committed and athletic than myself, that distance is little more than a warm-up. However, this was a really special 5k which is why I’m writing about it: the wwwp5k, an invitation to join in something a bit different with the WordPress community. The challenge is to walk, run, hop, skip, swim (or whatever) a distance of 5k at some point during December as a grand celebration of reaching the 2020 finish line. I’ve never taken part in anything quite like it, but as I’ve been downright lazy all through autumn where running is concerned, it seemed like the proverbial kick up the rear end I needed so I signed up, laced up and went for it.

Regular readers will know that where running is concerned, I tend to blow hot and cold. Actually, on reflection, perhaps lukewarm and cold would be a more accurate description. Despite being married to a keen and very talented runner, I had no interest whatsoever in doing it myself until at 46, my doctor recommended running as the best (albeit also the most difficult and painful) way to fix a herniated spinal disc. I thought the man was completely bonkers but since the alternative was to see a scalpel-wielding orthopaedic surgeon, I decided to give it a go. In the beginning, I couldn’t run for 30 seconds without stopping and the pain was so excrutiating, I cried most of the time. It was awful. I hated it. Every last minute of it. That said, by the time my appointment with the physio came through eight weeks later, I was 95% fixed: good medicine, indeed.

In the intervening eight years, I’ve run many times over distances up to half-marathon (21k / 13.1 miles); I’ve taken part in races in the UK, France and Spain, some for fun, some for charity, some very serious and competitive (not for me, you understand: I just faff about at the back chatting to like-minded folks while the true athletes do their stuff up front); I’ve run up hills and down dales, through towns and cities, beside estuaries, along promenades and seafronts and muddy country lanes, across fields, beside rivers, on beaches; I’ve run in a pink tutu, sweltered in the lightest of vests and shorts, frozen in many layers, wrung water out of sodden trainers; I’ve been escorted to the finish line by a police motorbike in Villaviciosa and was overtaken in the last few metres of the Mayenne 10k by a giant Lego man. I’ve met some incredibly wonderful and inspiring people and I’ve learned a good deal about myself. Yes, it’s certainly been an adventure!

I’m not a natural runner and I still don’t really enjoy it but I persist (on and off) for two reasons:

(1) I think it’s good for me and that is backed up by a fair bit of scientific research. I believe passionately in doing what I can to take responsibility and care of my health and well-being, and running is a fairly simple* way of ticking many boxes. (*By ‘simple’ I mean it’s not complicated; it certainly isn’t easy!).

(2) I always feel better after a run. No matter how reluctant I am about putting on my trainers and getting out there ~ and anyone who has ever experienced a cat or dog stubbornly digging in their claws when they don’t want to be moved will have the right mental image here! ~ I’m always glad I did it afterwards. A favourite mantra for reluctant slowbies like me is that ‘every run is a win’ and it’s that psychological boost as well as the obvious physical benefits that make it all worthwhile (I think).

That said, I have a terrible tendency to ditch the running habit during the autumn months; it’s becoming a bit of a repeating pattern and as we slide into winter where dark days and wet weather present themselves as easy excuses to stay by the fire, I am happy to hibernate and vegetate unless something comes along to spur me back into action. Last summer, I pushed myself uncharacteristically through ten weeks of hard training, determined to finally break the sub-hour barrier for running 10k that has eluded me for years. In the event, at the Ribadesella 10k race in September, I missed it by seven seconds and went into an almighty running sulk until the chance to run in the brilliant Castrillon 8k just before Christmas shook me out of my apathy. I mean, who wouldn’t want to run a tough race in torrential rain and 50mph winds, especially as the 8k is a misnomer and the actual event was a fair bit longer? To be totally honest with you, the main draw for me was the amazing slap-up feast afterwards!

After Castrillon came the Luarca fun run for San Silvestre (New Year’s Eve), a 3k dash round the town under the Christmas lights (at my best race pace ever) and then in February, the La Fresnada ‘Gran Cita de los Runners’ organised by our friend Jose Jorge Fernandez of Asturias SportNature, where I ran a 5k, lumbering in second from last but setting a personal best time. I was on a roll and determined to get that wretched sub-hour 10k business over and done with at a very local race by the sea on 21st March, where the prizes are piles of crabs and Asturian cider! Roger had done it the previous year, so we spent a very happy morning walking the route to help me plan my campaign and enjoyed some fantastic scenery into the bargain.

Ten days before the race, I went out on a training run in torrential rain, willing myself to run each kilometre faster than the previous one; I returned home soaked to the skin and very tired but chuffed with my times . . . only to hear that a State of Alarm had been declared in Spain, the race was cancelled and we were heading into seven weeks of total lockdown. After spending the best part of two months doing all my running in the barn, which was both mind-numbing and knee-numbing exercise, I have to admit I’ve never really found any proper motivation to get back to it regularly; once the initial euphoria of being released back into the fresh air and wide open space was over, I’ve been finding far too many reasons not to bother.

Cue a post on my WordPress reader about the wwwp5k which I totally dismissed at first, as is my wont; however, a persistent little tickle in my hindbrain had me eventually going back to check the details and realising that this was, in every way, a gift. I generally run 5k in around 30 minutes so the chance to get out into the beautiful ~ if scarily steep ~ local countryside again and spend half an hour or so enjoying moving my body in the mild weather to the sound of cow bells and birdsong (they never stop singing here) seemed like a good one to take. When used properly, the internet is a wonderful thing and I love the idea of connecting with the WordPress community in this global, all-inclusive, just-for-fun activity. I get a huge amount of pleasure from writing my blog, even more from reading other people’s and I have to say, whenever I’ve needed technical support, the WP team have been amazing . . . and no, I’m not being paid to write that! Blogging is creative, inspirational, sometimes challenging, always enjoyable and completely enriching so it felt like a real privilege to be able to take part in such a challenge. The only hurdle for me was the request to take a selfie at the end and post it because we don’t have a smartphone and I could hardly run with a chunky camera swinging around my neck. Enter my pet running star and erstwhile long-suffering coach who offered to do the entire route on his bike ~ after his own much-longer-than-5k morning run, of course ~ and take photos at various stages. I ran from home but opted to start the official 5k in the village as it meant finishing on a long sweeping downhill instead of the impossibly steep climb up our lane (yes, I’m a wuss). So, here we go . . .

3, 2, 1, go! Don’t be fooled by the smile, there’s 800 metres of climb coming up . . .
Up, up and more up. Ah, not smiling now!
The scenery is a lovely distraction in the low light of December . . .
. . . and winding in and out round tight bends, the view is constantly changing..
Two kilometres down and feeling warm round ‘Banana Bend.’
The halfway point at ‘Coloured Corner’ in the next village ~ I love the joyful celebration of life in those bright paint jobs.
Horreos are a common and delightful traditional feature of the area.
So are citrus trees. Mmm, I wouldn’t mind a half-time orange.
Head down for home.
The views are stunning this way, too . . .
. . . and so are the wild flowers.
Round the last bend and it’s downhill all the way from here. 😄
Yay, the finish line!
Now for a steep climb home past the neighbours . . .
. . . while my trusty photographer chose a longer route home through the woods.

Wow, even I have to admit that was great! To anyone else planning to do the wwwp5k, best of luck and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. To everyone at WordPress, thank you and maybe see you again next year. Finally, to any other bloggers or their family and friends (including mine, of course ~ you’re all invited to participate, too) who are toying with the idea of having a go . . . there’s still plenty of Decemebr left! 😉 Have fun and happy fives to all!

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! 🙂