Books of 2019

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Well that was unexpected! Almost without realising it, I hit my elusive 52 books in a year goal. Small changes, like leaving my laptop at the office, and listening to music in the evening, meant that over time my book count crept back up again. Also – I took a lot of trains. (p.s. the bookshelves have moved house since last year!)

Here is 2019’s list:

  1. Swing Time, Zadie Smith
  2. A Very Short Introduction to Russian History, Geoffrey Hoskins
  3. Love, Mogenthau and Me, Lucinda Franks
  4. Darkness Visible, William Styron
  5. The Lost House Revisited, Ed Kluz with Tim Knox and Olivia Horsfall Turner
  6. The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank (re-read from my pre-teen years!)
  7. The Summer Book, Tove Jansson
  8. Birthday Girl, Haruki Murakami
  9. Autumn, Ali Smith
  10. The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane (re-read)
  11. Railtracks, John Berger and Anne Michaels (re-read)
  12. The Cost of Living, Deborah Levy
  13. The Constant Gardener, John le Carré
  14. The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante
  15. Summer, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  16. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (re-read)
  17. Underland, Robert Macfarlane
  18. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  19. The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré
  20. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
  21. The Rise of the Ultrarunners, Adhanarand Finn
  22. Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, Tomi Ungerer
  23. Alanna: The First Adventure, Tamora Pierce (re-read)
  24. In the Hand of the Goddess, Tamora Pierce (re-read)
  25. Hidden Nature, Alys Fowler
  26. Love and War in the Appenines, Eric Newby
  27. Purity, Jonathan Franzen
  28. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (re-read)
  29. Notes to Self, Emilie Pine
  30. The 39 Steps, John Buchan (re-read)
  31. This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay
  32. Normal People, Sally Rooney
  33. My Solo Exchange Diary, Nagata Kibi (graphic novel)
  34. On the Move, Oliver Sacks
  35. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
  36. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney
  37. The Nightshift Before Christmas, Adam Kay
  38. The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman
  39. A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk
  40. Killing and Dying, Adrian Tomine (graphic short stories)
  41. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (re-read… for the umpteenth time)
  42. Heimat, Nora Krug (graphic novel)
  43. The Versions of Us, Laura Barnett
  44. Asterix the Gaul, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (graphic story)
  45. Once Upon a Time in the North, Philip Pullman
  46. Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama
  47. Frost Fair, Carol Ann Duffy (poetry)
  48. The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball (re-read)
  49. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman (re-read)
  50. Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg
  51. Crudo, Olivia Laing
  52. Ness, Robert Macfarland and Stanley Donwood

Looking back on my list, the graphic novels (four) were a new genre for me this year. My highlight in that genre was Nora Krug’s Heimat – a gripping story of uncovering a troubling question: were the author’s ancestors members of the Nazi party?

I still had 10 re-reads despite trying to limit the number of times I revisit! However it’s quite normal for me to re-read favourite books from my teenage years, and since the excellent TV adaptation of His Dark Materials aired in the autumn on BBC, I had to re-read the original books to compare notes.

I’m please that I achieved a 50/50 gender split this year with 26 of my list written all or in part by women. That’s a big improvement on previous years.

Poetry took a hit – though I’ve never been a big reader of poetry volumes from start to finish, I only managed two books of verse and they were both tiny! Carol Ann Duffy’s Frost Fair was delightful but Ness by Macfarlane and Donwood was mind-blowing.

The biggest discovery I’ve made is how much I enjoy reading memoirs and first-person narratives, from runners trying out long-distance races, to medical memoirs, to transformational books of finding yourself. I read 17 memoirs (or books of self-reflection) this year. My favourites were Lean In, by Cheryl Sandberg, and Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama.

And there were still 23 novels. My favourites were Giovanni’s Room for the glorious descriptions of Paris, and both Sally Rooney novels for her exquisite handling of imperfect communications between people in lust and in love.

If you keep a reading list of any sort, let me know in the comments!

 

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Books of 2018

img_2530I have been keeping a record of the books I read every year, partly to look back on my trends and interests, and also as a kind of quasi-diary – I can usually tell what sort of mood I was in, or where I was, by the book I was reading at any one time. It also encourages me to finish my books, as I have an enduring habit of beginning books, getting 1/3 of the way through and then forgetting about them for several years, by which time I have to re-read the entire first section . I still do that, but not as much!

So here are my books of 2018 – roughly one for every two weeks, but as life gets busier it gets harder to keep those numbers up. A lean year I would say…

  1. Winter, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
  3. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  4. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  5. The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks
  6. Conundrum, Jan Morris
  7. 1Q84 volume 1, Haruki Murakami
  8. 1Q84 volume 2, Haruki Murakami
  9. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron (re-read)
  10. 1Q84 volume 3, Haruki Murakami
  11. A Croft in the Hills, Katherine Stewart
  12. Smiley’s People, John le Carré
  13. Call for the Dead, John le Carré
  14. The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal (re-read)
  15. Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (re-read)
  16. Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (re-read)
  17. By the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder (re-read)
  18. The Night Manager, John le Carré
  19. Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami
  20. The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada
  21. A Woman’s Work, Harriet Harman
  22. Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Goto-Jones
  23. The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796-1797, Anne Hughes
  24. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden (re-read)

And that’s it. A bit of a le Carré fest. Some clear Japanese influences brought about by my trip to Kyoto, Tokyo and Kamikochi in October. Some comfort reading with a number of re-reads. And only five non-fiction, of which four were memoir (6, 11, 21, 23). Not my most refined year by any stretch… let’s see what 2019 brings.

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Race recap: SILVA Great Lakeland 3 Day 2018

The SILVA GL3D™ is billed as “an adventurous three-day mountain marathon with a unique, relaxed and friendly atmosphere that attracts both runners and long-distance walkers”. I ran this race in May 2018 – the date on which the race celebrated its 20th birthday – and can attest to the truth of this! This race was so relaxed and well organised, the food and campsites were beautiful, and the weather could not have been better (except perhaps to be a bit cooler!).

Going into the race, there were two really attractive features: 1. The price and 2. The flexibility of route and distance.

Price: At only £155 (early bird) or £175 (standard) to enter, this race is significantly cheaper than other multi-day events and all baggage transportation and race organisation is included in this price. You only have to pay to get yourself there, and feed and water yourself for the three days.  

Flexibility: You can pick and choose which course you run or walk every single day. There are three levels to choose from – the Expert, the Wainwright, or the Café course. The Expert course is geared towards serious mountain runners covering up to 30 miles per day, with significant elevation gain and loss,  and a greater number of check in points to cover. The Wainwright course sits just on the right side of challenging – with days covering between 20 and 24 miles; this course is aimed at decent amateurs. The Café course sits at around 15 miles per day making it perfect for hillwalkers fancying an extra challenge, slower runners, injured runners or runners simply with a desire to take it easy. Any entrant can run any course on any day. So you could run all Wainwrights (as I did) or pick and choose among all three courses as desired.

With this amount of flexibility, it means you can comfortably sign up and then simply adjust according to your fitness, or if you become injured or unwell. You can also defer the race by 1 year by simply paying the administration fee again. What’s extra nice is that all participants share the same camp and so as runners and walkers arrive back they are cheered by those already enjoying a beer in the sunshine and everyone feels like they’ve achieved something regardless of the course undertaken.

The race

The GL3D takes place in the Lake District every early May Bank Holiday. Precise locations of the race and the campsites are only released a few weeks in advance. Waterproof maps are provided at registration but the point of the race is enjoyment and long days in the hills, rather than complex navigation and orienteering skills. The terrain was quite mixed ranging from standard paths to rough hillsides, bogs and even scrambling using a near-vertical fence (in my longest mile ever, at around 45 mins per mile!). However the race bills this as straightforward running so bogs and rock faces are kept to a minimum.  

Logistics

This race is fairly sensible in terms of kit requirements – everything on the list is there for a reason, even if you don’t use it. The main thing they stipulate is the use of a 60L dry bag for your camp kit. They standardise this to make it simpler for the staff who move hundreds of these bags over the course of the weekend, and at a reasonable price it’s not really too much to ask. 

You are responsible for the putting up and taking down of your tent but once your stuff is packed and left to be collected, the race organisers will handle that for you.

Free hot water is available at camp, and there’s plenty of cake and beer. The year I ran it there were also hot food stalls selling pizza and burgers as well as the best chai latte – I’m hoping they make the food stalls a regular feature as it made the whole event feel like a festival!

Race recap: Day 1 (24 miles)

The weather dawned warm and stunning. We had camped overnight in a field close to Ennerdale, not far from Buttermere, and after packing up and putting my bag ready in the corral to be taken onwards, I set off. Only 20 mins on tarmac before I turned into the fields and headed up over a broad saddle. The climbs were gentle and easy to start out, getting progressively harder as we went over Mellbreak and dropped down to the north edge of Crummock Water. The route rose up over Whiteside, sticking firmly to the ridge line to Grisedale Pike. A quick turn back and contouring around the horseshoe, I ticked off another ridge to the south and plunged down a bracken slope to join the road by Stair. The sun was beating down at this point and I got quite dehydrated on the next ascent appropriately named Ard Crags. Thankfully I was running with someone who had a bottle that could filter water instantly – a relief as I didn’t fancy just using the water tablets in some of the boggy patches we found… Passed through Knott Rig, Newlands and then descended to Buttermere itself, to the wonderfully welcome site of our camp in a field alongside the lake. Those who had already arrived cheered as the finishers came in. I nearly went straight to the beer tent and had to be reminded to touch my ‘dibber’ into the final check point! Beer and food followed, before an early night. I’d been incredibly pleased to have held up as well as I did given I’d been not so disciplined with training (the perils of starting a full on new job just two months before).   

Race recap: Day 2 (22 miles)

The day started with mist before the sun broke through. The route took us straight up a hill behind the village (High Snockrigg? Amazing names these hills…) and I witnessed my first cloud inversion! The climbs and drops were greater today and I already had a long day in my legs. Today’s routes took us on an almost inverted picture of the previous day, travelling along the peaks in between the peaks we’d already conquered – truly the route could not have been more exciting than it was! Robinson, then Hindscarth, Dale Head, High Spy, and a beautiful ridge along to Maiden Moor and Catbells, predictably busy given a) the proximity to a road and b) the relative easy climb and c) the excellent weather. This was the only really busy part of the course and I’m sure all the tourists thought we were most curious for rushing about in the heat. A diagonal descent took me into a valley where a lovely deep stream needed crossing – the cold water up to my waist was actually incredibly pleasant. The route climbed again to Scar Crags from which I could see Ard Crags from the day before, before progressing to a few final check points on small-ish peaks. The final descent into Buttermere was along a beautiful springy grass slope down to a bluebell valley… only to find there was one more climb to Rannerdale Knotts – a relatively tiny peak just above Crummock Water but on 22 miles and desperate for water, I was at breaking point, and felt furious all the way to the top! Finally, the path led back into Buttermere where I stopped for a much-desired can of coke, ran into my mum who was staying nearby, and then finished the day with a dip in the lake. Bliss for tired legs!

Race recap: Day 3

The final day was somewhat cooler and shorter in terms of distance, and the lake was clear and glassy. Today was a comparatively easy 16 miles. We first headed up in the direction of Honister Pass, up Fleetwith Pike. Then made a U-turn over the rocky and boggy tops to follow the line of High Crag, High Stile, Red Pike and the whole ridge. At some point, the route turned and made an interesting and beautiful descent along the line of a waterfall above Ennerdale Water, before depositing me onto a long and somewhat winding (and undulating) road and back to the starting point for the finish. I caught up with some other runners, ate food and then drove back to Buttermere to meet up with my mum and relax in the garden of some friends of ours. Approximately 60 miles in 3 days with only one long training run – and I was pretty pleased with that! 

Verdict

The race outline online was really accurate – “Participants should be prepared for 6 to 9 hours on the hill each day, be competent mountain runners or walkers with the ability to navigate and be totally self-reliant. The first day is generally a little longer and the last day a little shorter. The friendly nature of the SILVA GL3D™ means that many solo participants join into informal groups to share each day on the hill. Although some participants race, there are no prizes, just the respect of your peers for finishing!” This made for a really relaxed yet challenging day where you were only battling with your own limitations, and that felt extremely satisfying. Added to that, the weather was stunning, meaning map reading was extremely easy. You could just see the contours and the peaks all around and the only difficulty was figuring out whether you had missed a check point or not. If I was doing it again, I’d be careful to watch out for distractions – it’s easy to follow an Elite or Café course runner down a different route where they intersect or overlap, and although I didn’t miss anything, there were one or two occasions where I had to check my trajectory after I’d already lost some precious height…

I wore:

  • Too many clothes! It was boiling!
  • Sports bra (unbranded)
  • Vest top (unbranded)
  • Salmomon SKIN race vest
  • Sweaty Betty long leggings swiftly swapped for some running shorts with grip on the knees – no idea what brand though as I borrowed from a fellow runner
  • Inov8 merino wool socks
  • Salomon S-Lab Speed shoes

I ate:

  • A lot more real food than in my previous races – sandwiches with cheese, Babybels, that kind of thing
  • Mini chorizo packs from Waitrose were very worthwhile
  • Kendal mint cake
  • Chia pudding every morning for breakfast
  • Nakd bars
  • Cliff bars
  • Salt tabs (essential in the 20+ degree heat)
  • I should have brought a better way of purifying water

Would I do it again?

Absolutely – this race is a great goal in its own right, being a challenging multi day race albeit one without the pomp and circumstance of the big ultras or European races. Alternatively it’s a popular training race for those tackling bigger multi day challenges such as Dragon’s Back or Cape Wrath Ultra (both organised by the same people as this race). It would also be a great warm up to some longer summer and autumn day races in the UK.

Although I haven’t got the 2020 GL3 in my sights just yet, I’m tempted to apply as I have some plans starting to emerge for running in that year…

 

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Laugavegur Ultra Marathon 2017 – Race Recap

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At 9am on 15th July, there was nothing left to feel anxious about. I was dressed in the appropriate clothing. I had stretched and taken painkillers. Two nights of sleep deprivation were fading into forgetting. The lava field rose above the crowd of brightly-coloured waterproofed runners. Off to the side, the ground steamed where I knew hot springs were descending to mix with the cooler water of a stream. It began to rain just a little. There was nothing left to worry about, nothing to do except line up and wait for the whistle. And run. 

Laugavegur Ultra Marathon was to be my first ultra-distance race. Billed as a total distance of 55km (though more realistically 53km) through semi-challenging Icelandic highland terrain, six or seven river crossings, two endless dusty windy plains, and volcanic ground on either side, it was the perfect combination of a race testing enough to stretch myself beyond a marathon without totally consuming my social life or superseding my anxiety thresholds. And it turned out that I was indeed stronger than I thought, and had a lot more to give, even when it felt hard and painful. 

Race Recap – it’s a long one! 

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The race actually began at 4:30am, boarding the bus from Reykjavik. The firm but kind Icelanders running the race checked our wristbands to make sure we were on the right bus for our predicted finish time of around 8 hours. I had packed a neck pillow, which felt indulgent, but I really needed the extra two hours of bumpy sleep that I managed to snatch. At 7:30am we pulled up at a hostel, where breakfast was available for us. Without knowing how long we would be there, we rather foolishly queued for the toilet before getting food, meaning that I was stuffing porridge into my cheeks and making sandwiches as we were hurried out. 

Properly awake now after some essential coffee, I was pleasantly reminded of the familiar sights of the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the start of the race at Landmannalaugur. As we rolled into the campsite, the traditional array of souped-up jeeps and camping vans lined the perimeter, while tents surrounded the inner huts, held down by rocks instead of pegs as the ground is often too firm to hold them. We made quick use of the bathrooms, deposited our main bags in the bus to be taken to the finish, and after some stretching got swiftly into our corral. Having read a few race reviews online, I knew that there was likely to be a queue to get up the short hill which led onto the lava field, so Laura and I got to the front of the corral pretty quickly. A short amount of hanging around, and we were suddenly going, gently moving over the easy paths and then fast-hiking up the lava hill. 

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Once on top of the lava field, the running could start. Fairly level for the first kilometre, the race route then starts going swiftly uphill in the toughest part of the course – at least, if you don’t like hills. Surprisingly, although I live in a very flat city, I love going uphill, and really enjoy the pressure to push myself to the top. As we ascended, the rhyolite mountains on either side gave us fantastic backdrops of red, orange, blue, green, yellow and white. 

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Steep climb completed, the going got more tricky underfoot with long slushy snowfields that proved awkward and energy-sapping, although to my mindset, they fell into the category of “hills I must defeat”… so mentally it didn’t feel too bad. Having hiked this trail twice before, I wasn’t expecting this much snow, and the obsidian fields that I have learned to expect before approaching Hrafntinnusker were invisible. At this point the wind became much stronger and brought hail, snow and sleet with it.

First checkpoint

We passed the first checkpoint at approximately 1hr 30mins, our goal time, despite all the snow and weather. (This race famously has strict cut off times at 4hrs and 6hrs and many of the field did not make it in time). From this point, the rain kept up reasonably regularly, blowing into our legs and soaking my bottom half. I was running in thick long leggings that had kept me incredibly warm on a recent training session in Norway, but this rain really got into my bones and made my lower legs heavy and stiff. 

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And yet, the snowfields continued to be exciting and interesting to cross, even though they turned the legs to jelly. My favourite regular snowfield is one that remains all year round and is wonderfully patterned by dirt and glacial blue reflections. It was strange to find it on the trail so quickly – even though we had walked most of the uphills, running was clearly much quicker than hiking the trail with a large rucksack…

As the route climbed again, we reached a wide ridge and turned directly into a headwind. The rain had stopped and we started to descend, gradually and then swiftly. The course marshals had warned about the difficulty of this section, indicating it would be slippy underfoot and that we should even police each other about not going to fast (!). In the end, the path down seemed fine, and we dropped out of the weather cloud into gentle sunshine to our first river crossing. At mid-calf height, this was not one to be concerned about. 

Reaching Alftavatn, second checkpoint, not feeling great

Here, on the flattest part of the course, I started to struggle. At not even halfway, and nursing a hamstring tear on my left side, I was finding the flat running really tough. My taper had been an enforced three-week ban on running, except for a 0.8 mile limp around my local park. At this point, the stress of not having made the halfway mark, feeling tired and lacklustre, and with rising pain, made me stressed and unhappy.

Laura, thankfully, responded to my request to “just talk at me” by regaling me with stories about near vertical races near where she lives, and how she occasionally runs into Norwegian ultra runner Stian Andermund-Vik in the mountains (Stian recently came second to Killian Jornet in the Mont Blanc Marathon). Buoyed by the distraction, I managed my pain, and after some flat coca cola, pretzels, stretching and some painkillers at the second checkpoint, I was ready to go on.

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The sun came out and we wound our way through some of the prettiest parts of the course. Alftavatn sits on the edge of a large lake and the mountains here are deep black, footed with vibrant green. The wind was light, and the running felt easy, and even our times were on track.

Crossing rivers

About halfway into the race, we tackled the largest river crossing of the trail. Having done this twice before whilst walking, I knew what to expect, and wasn’t too phased by it. The support crew were also amazing – one of them stood directly in the water to hold a guide rope for us sugar-depleted runners, and there were plenty of others on hand in case of accidents. It seemed as if the best way was not to overthink it and just plunge in – the same could be said of the whole race, really. The swift shock of the cold water felt phenomenally good, and buoyed us up for the next part. 

Later in the race, some concerned hikers expressed shock at me running straight through a shallow river – “But your legs, won’t they remain wet?” they asked, as they dodged the water by balancing themselves and their large packs on rocks. I did feel a tad smug as I shrugged off their concerns – but honestly, it just felt better to get wet, and then drain and dry off naturally. 

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At this point in the race, you can opt to stop and change into gear that you have in your drop bag. Some people even change shoes! However, Laura and I were not feeling uncomfortable, so we agreed that, since we both had clean dry socks in our race packs, we would continue on to Emstrur before changing. I also knew that the next part of the course would be mentally and physically challenging, and I was keen not to waste any time. With two long, exposed stretches of plain, and a 20mph headwind coming at us strong, we would need to work hard to ensure we didn’t miss the cut off times.

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The endless, dusty, windy plain

At this point, Laura and I pursued different tactics to get us through. She opted for music, whilst I put my head down and counted steps, occasionally chatting to people, but mostly focusing on passing. There was a bit of a race dance taking place, as I overtook and then got overtaken by the same group of runners again and again.

The pass started to rise and get narrower, and looking at my watch, I was distressed to find that we were behind our planned times. We had wanted to arrive at Emstrur with a comfortable 50 mins to spare, but this was looking more like 20-30 mins to spare. At this point, I was desperate not to DNF so I spoke to Laura and we agreed that we would both keep pushing for the next 5 miles at our own pace, and that we would meet up again at Emstrur. Mentally I just needed not to stop, to continue at a pace that I knew worked for me.

Making the final cut off – Emstrur in 5hrs 30 mins!

The second plain arrived, and with it, two or three mini hills, each one not revealing the expected sight of hut roofs beneath… at least until I saw one of the race buses gloomily parked on a promontory and knew that the cut off point could not be far. With 30 minutes to spare, I sang happily to myself as I descended that hill right into the waiting checkpoint. “I’m so happy to be here!” I cried, to which the charming marshal replied, “It’s very good to see you too.”

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Home stretch

Now it was certain that we would finish the race. I changed my socks, refuelled, and then headed off for the final 10+ miles. We took it easy to begin with, walking through the green and black landscape, but a nice steep descent beneath a glacier got the legs moving again. A calm, windless valley followed, and then another short sharp climb. The final sections of the race were gently undulating, across a steppe-like landscape, with grasses and distant volcanoes. Our final climb at the 44km mark was a long slog but at this point I felt balanced and meditative, as if I could keep going and going. With our final long descent we could see the last river crossing and the sight of Thorsmörk (Thor’s Forest) on the other side. 

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The final few miles through the forest were charming to experience but longer than I remembered, and I was very thankful to hear the loudspeaker calling out names through the trees. We turned the corner in the evening sunshine and ran across the finish line hand in hand, crying and laughing. They even called out our names individually. 8 hours, 22 minutes of movement, and the race was complete. 

Post race

To begin with, I couldn’t stop crying. The emotional weight I had been carrying throughout training had been lifted. I had done what I had never thought I could manage – run an ultra marathon, run close to 35 miles. I – who was never sporty at school and who struggled for years with running – could do this. Laura had to keep convincing the marshals that they were happy tears! Finally I pulled myself together and went off to get changed and fed. The buffet put on by the race organisers was delicious, even though I found real food a touch challenging at this point. Without any energy to look around at Húsadalur (a shame, as it is a stunning place), we boarded the race bus back to Reykjavik, exhausted and happy. 

I wore:

  • Inov8 leggings
  • Inov8 merino socks (untested before race but fantastic!)
  • Salomon S-Lab Speed trail shoes
  • Inov8 gaiters
  • Icebreaker long sleeve top
  • OMM Kamleika waterproof jacket
  • Kari Traa head buff
  • Buff
  • Combination of fingerless gloves and wool mittens (purchased in the Icelandic Hand Knitting Association shop)
  • Sweaty Betty peaked cap
  • Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek vest (men’s)
  • Cheap vest top (unbranded)
  • Sports bra (unbranded – elastic crop top style)

I ate:

  • Dried meats (biltong, Norwegian sausage)
  • Nakd energy bars
  • Kendal mint cake
  • SIS gels
  • Mule bar salted caramel gels
  • Bounty bar
  • Pretzels
  • Salt pills
  • Painkillers

I drank:

  • Water
  • Rehydration tablets
  • Flat coca cola
  • Half pint of beer (right at the end!)

Would I do it again? 

For now, I think I’m done with the Laugavegur trail for the time being. It’s been amazing to walk it twice and then run it, but I need a new challenge. 🙂

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Ditchling and the Downs

In April, I visited the recently-opened Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. The tiny Sussex village of Ditchling was home to Eric Gill and his apprentice Joseph Gibb, where they founded the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic. Gill gathered around him a number of talented men and women artists, who were inspired by the ethos of the late-Victorian arts and crafts movement whilst evolving a new kind of English modernism that bridged the medieval and the present day. (Gill, of course, is well known for his iconic typeface Gill sans as well as for his unorthodox sexual practices).

The exhibition is smart and high quality – less is more for this architect-led redesign that unifies a collection of farm buildings through strategic use of honest metal and wood materiality. The interpretation is, as expected, beautifully designed by graphic design heavyweight Phil Baines, with elegant wayfinding symbols (also found on the cafe’s cups and plates). Sadly, I found the writing on those panels failed to catch my attention, and often left panels half-read, even in this very small exhibition. Given that I had an existing interest in the subject matter, I suspect I just wasn’t in the mood, or that the text was dense or dull in a way that made it hard to digest whilst standing up and walking around. I’ll be interested to revisit and see how my outlook changes.

From Ditchling, you can follow a very lovely walk across the Downs to Lewes, only 5 or 6 miles away, and from there, take the train back to London. A perfect little day.

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London Marathon with a Pacemaker

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Me and my brother at the start of Edinburgh marathon in 2015

I’m not running London Marathon this year (one of the many who didn’t get a place) but my brother is. Not only that, but he’s also running it with a pacemaker – a battery heart – owing to a rare heart condition he had when he was 12. He’s already raised over £5,000 for the British Heart Foundation, but the donations keep coming – click here if you’d like to give.

My brother’s story…

“I am raising money for the British Heart Foundation who have worked tirelessly to halve the number of people dying from heart and circulatory disease in the U.K. Quite simply, I would not be alive today without the research and development of the BHF.

When I was just 12 years old, I was diagnosed with Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, a rare type of heart disease that is best described as having an accessory pathway in the heart. The additional pathway caused my heart to “short circuit” and beat erratically, at times in excess of 320BPM. At the time, it was curable with an operation called an ablation; but because the technology wasn’t as sophisticated then as it is now, the operation was unsuccessful and I was left with complete heart block. The doctors felt the best solution was to input a Cardiac Pacemaker, which is exactly what they did. I was one of the youngest children in the U.K. to have a Pacemaker.

Now in my twenties, I am on my second Pacemaker and it’s ticking along nicely. This year I’m running the London Marathon, with a target time of 3 hours 5 minutes. In fact, I’m aiming to set a world record as fastest person to run the London Marathon with a Pacemaker. I have applied to Guinness World Records and if they approve my claim I will update this page so your donation can also be a part of history….

As you can imagine, this charity is incredibly close to my heart. Thanks to the BHF, the technology I needed to keep me going as a young athletic child was available to me, and their research and expertise continues to help thousands of people to live healthy and fulfilling lives. It’s only thanks to support from people like us that the BHF can create new treatments and discover new cures. £25 could pay for an hour of research by an early career scientist, but every pound helps so please give what you can to help me hit my target.

Thank you so much for reading and please give generously to a great charity!”

We made some banners for him and we’ll be there cheering along on Sunday!

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Twilight People: Stories of Gender and Faith Beyond the Binary

LBI Cheryl Smith 4.02.16-4759

This time last year I was deep in a volunteer project; this year I’m freelancing and full-time working… Here’s a quick recap on that project and what it meant to me. 

Cast yourself back to February 2016… for LGBT History Month, I was part of a brilliant team of volunteers and professionals to realise a temporary photography and oral history exhibition called Twilight People. It featured beautiful photographs by Christa Holka, media by Susanne Hakuba, graphics by Lai Couto, and took place at Islington Museum. Subsequently, the exhibition has toured to Coventry, Manchester and had a pop up event at the LGBT Police Conference at the Guildhall in London.

The exhibition features intimate, face-to-face encounters with people who are at the intersection of gender and faith. Pictured holding an object that means something precious to their identity and faith journey, they are also accompanied by their own words taken directly from their oral histories. Together, they give a powerful insight into faiths and identities that are often not seen as compatible, and confounds many stereotypes. For some, faith is the way they have come to terms with their identity; for others, being accepted by a religious community has been a positive marker for them in their transition.

I was honoured to be involved in such a project, not least because I got to work with Surat-Shaan Knaan, whose energy knows no bounds. With my co-curator Sean Curran, and the fabulous volunteers who took part in workshops and played a part in scripting the exhibition, we had such fun leading workshops, choosing images and creating a beautiful space, so here’s a few of the photographs from the install and launch.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, who kindly provided the money to be able to carry out the project, asked me to write a blog post for the project which you can read here.

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2016 in books

img_2530Next to running, the thing I most enjoy doing is reading. I set myself the challenge of trying to read 52 books a year sometime ago, and though I’ve only ever got as close as 51, I now keep a running list of books I finish every year.

So here’s my list of books I’ve finished in 2016. By “finish” I mean: read total contents thereof from front to back. As a result, this year’s list obviously does not reflect books begun in 2016 but not completed: they will go on next year’s list.

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
  2. The Shaking Woman, Siri Hustvedt
  3. The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
  4. What Goes Around, Emily Chappell
  5. Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
  6. A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland (re-read)
  7. The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami
  8. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden (re-read)
  9. The Night Bookmobile, Audrey Niffenegger
  10. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
  11. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf
  12. To the River, Olivia Laing
  13. The Life Writer, David Constantine
  14. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing
  15. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  16. Modernist Estates, Steffi Orazi
  17. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
  18. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee (re-read)
  19. The Three Hostages, John Buchan (re-read)
  20. Clear Waters Rising, Nicholas Crane
  21. The Gifts of Reading, Robert Macfarlane
  22. The Past, Tessa Hadley
  23. Railtracks, John Berger and Anne Michaels
  24. Solo Faces, James Salter
  25. Consolations of the Forest, Sylvain Tesson (re-read)
  26. The Isle of Sheep, John Buchan (re-read)
  27. The Devils of Loudon, Aldous Huxley
  28. A Summer of Drowning, John Burnside
  29. Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane
  30. Ways of Curating, Hans Ulrich Obrist
  31. A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson
  32. Some Rain Must Fall, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  33. City of Glass, Paul Auster
  34. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger
  35. Style Council, Sarah Thompson
  36. Ghosts, Paul Auster
  37. The Locked Room, Paul Auster
  38. Walk Through Walls, Marina Abramovic
  39. Dubliners, James Joyce
  40. Nutshell, Ian McEwan

Not a bad haul, really! Being in two book clubs helps for sure. I’m pleased to see that the first six books of the year were by women, and 17 in total had female authors. I don’t choose my books based on gender, but it’s interesting to observe nonetheless. There are some very thin/slim books on the list too (nos. 9, 21, 23), a couple of photo+interview books only included because the interviews were quite long-form, so I thought they could count (nos. 16 and 35), and some sharp-eyed readers will quibble with my decision to class Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy as three books (nos.33, 36 and 37). But I shall live with their quibbling! In the “should have read” category (i.e. books I feel that by now I should have already digested) there are fewer than I would wish for (no. 39 is the only candidate). And there are six re-reads (nos. 6, 8, 18, 19, 25 and 26) largely because I was in the wilderness and wanted to read about people in similar situations, and my kindle curation is geared towards such novels.

So what will next year hold? Perhaps tackling the big Russians I’ve previously overlooked in favour of fewer re-reads. Since reading Adam Curtis on how to be more Tolstoy and less Wes Anderson, I’m gravitating towards a lower overall number of books in favour of longer, more difficult texts. And there there’s work and running to balance with all that… more on those subjects later!

What about you? Any books I shouldn’t miss in 2017? Any thoughts on the list above? Talking about books is one of my favourite things to do, so go ahead!

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Race recap (long overdue): Reykjavik Marathon 2016

So a little while (in August. Wow.) ago I ran my second marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland. This was to date the most enjoyable race I’ve done though I did not smash my PB of 3 hrs 49 mins achieved in Edinburgh in 2015. In the end, that didn’t matter one bit, and has helped my mindset to improve around times and races and the pressure I put on myself to finish in good time is slightly lessened as a result. This is quite a long race recap so settle in!

Pre-race organisation

I flew into Reykjavik the day before the marathon, arriving mid afternoon. I deliberately avoided the early morning cheap Easyjet flight as I knew I wanted to be well rested. Two friends and I rented an Air Bnb which meant that we could buy and cook our own food – very welcome in advance of a marathon abroad.

However I was slightly too relaxed about getting to the race Expo, located in the large sports complex a couple of miles east of the city centre. If you’re staying in the campsite or big youth hostel it’s super convenient, but for me, at the opposite end of the city, getting there required a taxi ride.

I’m not going to whine about the cost of this trip – but suffice to say, it was expensive. Iceland is normally quite a pricey place to visit and Brexit has pushed the pound right down. Things that cost £5 in 2012 now cost £7. So taking taxis was far from idea!

Race morning

2016-08-20-08-22-08We could not have had better weather! 17 degrees celsius, beautiful sunshine and absolutely no wind. This never happens in Iceland! It was almost too warm for some people. There were a stream of runners walking down to the start line which was easy to find and not very crowded. This is a small race, and so they allow the marathoners, half marathoners and 10K runners to start together, meaning the atmosphere for the first 10K is really energising.

Having my support crew of two in tow was a new experience for me and one that I loved. To have someone to laugh with at the start line was a really positive experience for me. 

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The only critique of the start was that the timing pens were not clearly marked. Pacers carried balloons with times written on them, but it was confusing for a first timer here what they referred to and I worried I was in the wrong pen / place. I should have just relaxed, as things made much more sense later.

During the race

The first 10K were incredible. So many Icelanders came out of their houses to cheer, and it was clear that many runners were personally recognised by family and friends. This made for a very happy and relaxed atmosphere – there were few clock watchers here. A series of live bands played a good range of music – traditional stuff and covers – and many people handed out cupcakes, sweets and drinks. The aid stations were well set up using cups of water rather than bottles (and the cups did make it slippy underfoot). Most stations had a mix of energy drink and water. The food offer was limited though – mostly just bananas which I don’t like – so I carried my own gels for the whole race.

Note to runners going abroad for marathons: I recommend carrying your gels for the race in your carry on plastic bag – just in case your hold luggage gets lost and you need your race fuel to be just right!

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To begin with the streets were quite crowded with runners, though nothing too difficult to navigate, but this quickly thinned out once the 10K runners peeled away. At half time, the field really thinned out as the majority went on to complete the half marathon. The rest of us turned left to finish the full 42km by heading south of the city. This was probably the prettiest part of the race. As we headed south and then west again, we were running through suburban Reykjavik, filled with interesting architecture, and lit up in splendid sunshine. We then ran south of the domestic airport, which serves flights to other parts of the country, and ran alongside the sea for ages. An arctic tern flew beside me, and the sunshine was warm on my legs and shoulders.

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I was glad to have my own hydration pack with me (I wasn’t sure if I would need it, having not used one in Edinburgh) but the combination of only cups to drink from, and a lack of water stations for the second half of the race meant that I was really relieved to have my own water supply. In fact I even had to top it up at the penultimate aid station as I’d run out. This obviously lost me some time, but hey, did I mention the arctic tern?!

Also, though the field was much slimmer and supporters were fewer, there were still fantastic people cheering us on, smiling and clapping. Favourite Iceland expressions of encouragement include:

“You are good!” (succinct and to the point)

“Keep up!” (I think this would be better as “keep it up” as it sounded a bit like they were chiding my speed!).

The other runners were also super friendly and I chatted to a number of different people around the course. Towards the end, we were right out on the grassy headlands to the west of Reykjavik – I would never have visited these without this race – and stopping briefly because of some pain in my leg, I was encouraged by a Dutch girl who told me to start again and that she would help me back. I was grateful to Aukje as she saw that I really needed a kick up the backside to get running again!

As the race came to a close, I was a little perturbed to see that roads had been reopened, even with tons of runners coming in on the 5 hour mark. This meant you had to dodge traffic a bit – hardly ideal when you’re knackered.

The final few kilometres were tough, especially as you’re running along the sea front on the north side this time, and you can see runners streaming ahead of you for a mile or two, but no finish line. However, as we approached the looming darkness of the opera house, I heard someone say it was just around the corner. My favourite song came on in my headphones and I pummelled my way to a sprint finish with a huge smile on my face.

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For the supporters

The experience for those watching the race was immeasurably better because of the good weather. The course is also set up in such a way that spectator spots are a short walk from each other but well distributed across the race. My friends were able to see me off, cheer me at 10 miles and 15 miles, and watch me cross the finish without too much hassle.

Post race

The medal and the T-shirts we were given were pretty standard – nothing too special. Post race food was below average though – a kind of hotdog was the only food on offer, which was not what I wanted at all! However, we did get a free ticket to the thermal baths in the city which was definitely put to good use at Vesterbaerlaug. I even got to spend a few minutes in the same hot tub as Björk!

The night after the marathon is Reykjavik’s culture night – a music-filled street party where everyone turns up in their traditional sweaters and drinks and watches fireworks. We found a great little bar called Vinyl who had a fantastic live DJ outside, and started dancing. We began as three, but ended as a street party of 40+ people dancing away. I seemed to have tons of energy despite the marathon and got very tipsy on one delicious Icelandic beer.

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I ran in…

  • Cheap Sportsdirect vest top (unbranded)
  • Sports bra (unbranded – elastic crop top style)
  • Sweaty Betty marathon shorts
  • Sweaty Betty technical socks (highly recommended)
  • Asics Gel Lyte 33.3 trainers (no longer made)
  • Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek vest with platypus hydration system

I ate…

  • 4x SIS gels (lemon and mint are a new favourite)
  • Cliff Bloks

I drank…

  • water

Would I do it again?

I’m heading back to Iceland for a different run next year – but I’d never say no to more street dancing in Reykjavik (look at those jazz hands)!

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Oh dear…

Oh dear… what a difference a day makes.

Everyone I know and love is still processing the intense upheaval, betrayal, bafflement, anger, incredulity and realisation caused by the controversial in/out referendum, which, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, has seen the people of my country vote 52% to leave the European Union. Gulp.

I’ve been glued to the news ever since, ashamed by our government’s inability to address a much longer standing problem, horrified at those who have gambled with the lives of thousands to gain a leg-up for themselves in Westminster, and saddened by the vitriolic abuse from leavers and remainers, and from a minority against people of different cultures and countries. We were never meant to be like this.

What to say in the face of all this? The storm is barely quieting down. The economy continues to flounder. The future looks uncertain at best, catastrophic at worst. This article from Medium writer Jeff Lynn captures fluently the wish to stand together and lead the UK (such as it is) into a brighter future, while at the same time speaking some key truths about the nature of our union with the EU that I wish fervently had been part of the playing field before people took a vote. It’s a must-read, a welcome break from the quite frankly scary reporting happening on the Guardian, Independent, Evening Standard and Daily Mail sites. 

And running? I’ve been trying to move my body and get out there, trying to re-set the tenor of my days through exercise and focus. But it’s hardly working. I went for a great off-road run on Sunday through Epping – intense mud underfoot – and found myself running through every emotional spectrum: pure joy at flying downhill, followed by anger when running back up, and tears when on the flat. This morning I managed a quick 6-miler before work with some of the best times I’ve done recently in the first three miles, but halfway through I started to flag, to give up. My heart just wasn’t in it. I managed to finish pretty strongly, pulling my legs through their treacly feeling.

And that’s how it feels to be a remain voter in Britain right now: halfway between despondent and hopeful, halfway between resignation and fear. I guess the only way is up, but what road we will take is a mystery to me.

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