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! 🙂

Ageing gracefully: run, stretch, balance and breathe.


Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.

Victoria Moran

Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me  – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.

An easy read over a cup of tea but a big message to influence the rest of our lives.

Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.

The penultimate runner in a long, hard race: very hot, very tired, very slow but very happy . . . and my own police escort to boot!

Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.

(For anyone interested, the brochure can be read online here http://bmaf.org.uk/health-well-being-performance-improvement )

That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time
like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.

I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.

Who needs dumbbells? Lifting and hauling several of these full to the brim every day is great weight training.

Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! 🙂 ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!

Number 74 heading for another trophy!

He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!

I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.

Well, it looks pretty simple . . .

Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.

Not a bad backdrop for a little early morning stretching.

Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful    Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps  . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!

Healthy eating is part and parcel of our approach: here, homemade pizza, mixed roasted vegetables and a pile of salad straight from the garden.

It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? 🙂