I’m a Wiltshire Off Road League Champion!

So I managed it. I’m the 2016 – 2017 Ladies V40 Age Group winner of the Wiltshire Off Road League. Phew! The prize will be presented in June, so I’ve a while yet to clear a space on the mantlepiece. To celebrate, thanks to a friend’s suggestion I’ve pulled together a collection of my “most attractive race faces pulled whilst winning this category”.  Enjoy!

Starting in brilliant sunshine was the Marshfield Mudlark. Hiding at the back in this team photo, confusingly I’m not the one with “Lucy” on her vest.

Marshfield Mudlark

Next up was the White Horse Gallop. We got up close and personal with the Westbury White Horse, and I got possibly my most favourite race photo ever.

White Horse Gallop Face
White Horse Gallop. The photographer said “Smile!”

Keeping to the horsey theme, the Wickstead Wander involved horse jumps, ditches, a large amount of water, a rosette and an inflatable dolphin.

Elegance at the Wickstead Wander
Elegance at the Wickstead Wander

The tri-county XC race at Bath University was a scary, serious race. Not only was I last Harrier home, I was the last person home in my race. No race face, but a great warm-up skipping photo.

Coach was there, so we warmed up
Coach was there, so we warmed up

Next up was the big one, the Lungbuster, which unexpectedly had “the hill” twice.

Lungbuster finish stagger
Lungbuster finish stagger

Rounding it all off, the SMaRTT Smasher 10K :-

Where's the finish line?
Where’s the finish line?

After the Smasher, they handed out the team prizes, and I got to stand in for our Men’s team captain who was ill and collect the trophy with Julia, our Ladies’ captain. I wasn’t letting go of the trophy once I got my hands on it!

Wiltshire Off Road League Team prize goes to Chippenham Harriers
Wiltshire Off Road League Team prize goes to Chippenham Harriers

That was quite a season, more so because I accidentally entered the League as an easy way back into racing. I’ve always preferred off-road running, as it’s much easier than all that tarmac and no one minds if you walk up the hills*. There’s mud to mess around in, water to jump into and more often than not cake at the end. Have I sold it to you yet? You also get the usual assortment of goodies at the end.

Swag!
Swag!

Give it a try next season. It makes you feel like a badass – who else runs around in shorts and vest in the middle of winter? (Anyone answering”an idiot” is just being rude.)


*Except in the XC race. No one walked the hill. I think it meant instant disqualification. Or something like that.

The knotted skipping rope of disaster

Anyone who has had to sit with me through our respective children’s school sports day knows the story about me and the skipping rope. It’s a sad tale going back I guess 41 years, so sit down, make yourself comfortable and I’ll begin. Unless I’ve already unburdened this story onto you, in which case feel free to skip to the bit where I try and link it to my current situation.

At school, I wasn’t one of the sporty ones. I was more of a nerdy, glasses-wearing bookworm. One year in primary school I was given the chance to represent my ‘house’ in the Obstacle Race. This was it! My big chance! I frantically grasped the opportunity with both hands (much in the way I had to use both hands to catch anything). I practised throwing strangely smelling square canvas beanbags into plastic hoops. I was small and skinny, so wriggling through said hoops was fine. I skipped as though my life depended upon not catching a foot in the rope and tripping up. My preparation was impeccable.

Come the day, I was primed and ready. As ready as a NHS-glasses wearing klutz standing on a start line can be. The whistle blew, and I threw those beanbags. I shimmied through the hoops. I ran towards the waiting skipping rope and realised that, amazingly, I was in the lead! I simply had to untie the skipping rope, and skip to the finish line, just as I’d practised for the last few days.

I excitedly picked up the skipping rope to untie the knot, and unti-…. and unti… and nnnnnnnnghf!

and realised the rope was tied too tight and I simply couldn’t untie it. As I stood in my lane struggling, everyone else caught me up, easily untied their rope, and skipped off into the sunset. I came last.

Have I had a complex about this incident? Deep emotional trauma?* Well as I said, I’ve retold it many times and I can still feel the mix of fury and frustration that I felt on that day. So, why the need to unburden myself now?

It struck me that I am currently in the same position as I was on that day standing on the start line. As I have mentioned once or twice I am on course to win my age group in the Wiltshire Off-Road League – I just need to complete the final race, which is on Sunday. If I don’t finish (or don’t start) then my friend will win instead. Obviously I’d far rather my friend won it than someone from another running club but equally I’d rather I won it than her (I knew I had a competitive side deep down), if only because I’ve never won anything like this before.  I’m also unlikely to ever be so close to winning it again. It’s so close I feel a little bit sick.

So on Sunday morning, if I make it to the start line, think of me and make sure my skipping rope is loosely tied, and my shoelaces are tightly knotted.

*Yes I do, as with so much to do with PE in school. Have I told you about the hockey lesson? Well maybe that’s for another day.

Lungbuster 2017

Another cold foggy morning, another off-road race. After much research (i.e. Strava stalking and run club chatting) I’d discovered this 9 mile race was actually 8 and a half and there was only one steep hill on the course (which everyone walked). So far so good. I also heard that last year someone fell into a waist-deep puddle and the farmyard at the start was a slurry-slick which one runner fell face first into after just a few hundred metres. Not so lovely.

The reality was a wet farmyard but no slurry and on the course sticky, slide-y but not waist-deep mud. The pre-race briefing surprised us with the news that this year’s race was a new course which was 9 and a half miles long and sent us up “the hill” twice. With this joyous news still ringing in our ears (or it could have been the noise of numerous sets of teeth chattering and knees knocking) we set off.

At the start. Running and smiling.

The route didn’t sound thrilling, mostly around the edges of fields, but in reality it was lovely. We started in fog, but by the second loop this had lifted and we could see views right over Wiltshire which emphasised how high we were. We ran on a mixture of concrete farm tracks, fields, woodland and paths – the woodland was beautiful and I would run through there again in an instant. The hill was steep and short, but everyone walked up it to the loud encouragement of a marshal. I say encouragement, it was part heckling, part harassing, and mainly shouting. How she had any voice left for the second loop I don’t know.

The hill. Walking but still smiling.

By the second loop, I needed every once of help I could get. Around mile 7 I got a stitch, caused by scoffing a veggie Percy Pig and then glugging my water  too fast.  I had a little walk and stretch to ease it out, but after that my legs just said “No”. They’d had enough, but there was still 2 and a half miles to the finish, so I just had to pull up my big girl pants and get on with it. 

At the finish. Running again, but no longer smiling.

These were some of the hardest race miles I’ve ever run. You know that bit in a marathon where you just have to ignore what your legs are telling you, and get them moving automatically? Well that’s what these miles were like.

Of course I finished, but phew was I glad to see the finish line, and also the cakes back in the village hall. Oh and the medal! Off road races seem to pride themselves on how low key they are. No goody bag at the end for these bad boys (and girls)! Just a cup of puddle water and if you’re lucky you can buy some cake. At the end of Lungbuster, as I staggered over the finish line unable to even smile, a lovely lady put this gorgeous hunk of metal around my neck. I’ll even forgive them the pink ribbon. 

In other news, the running club that put on this race must have the longest name of any running club. Just have a look at my race number – the random letters on the bottom are the initials of the club, the “Royal Wootton Basset Hounds Runing Club”.

In summary, a really good race with great marshals and a good varied route, but it is a proper hard off road race so make sure you’ve done some long runs beforehand.

Neville. 29th March 2015 – 10th January 2017

I was about to apologise for a self-indulgent blog posting, but then I figured that all blog posts by their very nature are basically saying “me me ME!”, so I won’t. However I will say if you’re not a fan of cats, nor of blog posts about cats, then look away now. This is a large post about a big cat.

Neville was a sturdy cat. To say he was fat would be rude and untrue – he was large of frame, width, hat size, and also personality. He was large, dependable, chunky even, but definitely sturdy. On hearing of his death my brother-in-law referred to him as a “stout fellow” which was most definitely true.  Of all the cats I’ve lived with over the years, Neville was the friendliest. Whereas most cats would run away at the sound of the doorbell – someone was going to invade their territory! – Neville would run towards the door to see who was coming. We said he was our “meeter-greeter”, and as guests came in he would run ahead of them as if to say “you can put your coats here, the toilet’s on the left if you need it, straight on through to the kitchen!” You know the safety announcements they make on airplanes when they have to point out the emergency exits “here, here and here”? Well Neville would have excelled at that.

As with every part of him, Neville had a big meow and a big appetite. On the morning he died, as I was talking to his brother Luna in the garden, I could hear a foghorn-type cat cry coming from beyond the garden behind us. A cry of dismay, the cry of a cat stuck or trapped somewhere? I did not panic, I simply called his name and lo and behold with a loud and untidy scramble, Neville eventually appeared over the back fence. He wasn’t stuck, he wasn’t trapped, he was just shouting.   This was a regular occurrence, although in a “boy who cried wolf” moment I always had at the back of my mind the time when, as a very little kitten, he got completely stuck in our tall leylandii hedge and I had to rescue him whilst balancing on a ladder. Not his finest moment. He would often appear when I was out in the garden, and seemed to enjoy the company. Luna as well often mysteriously appears from the shadowy depths of the borders and hedges, just to check on what I’m doing in their garden. Neville’s finest hours in the garden came when the pond froze. It’s a fairly small pond, he was a big cat, but as the temperature dropped to 0C he would transform into Christopher Dean and slip and slide at speed. He obviously would have loved Luna to be his Jayne Torvill. However to be honest Luna’s extra-fluffy paws have zero friction on the wooden floors indoors so on ice he didn’t stand a chance. Neville would sniff and lick the ice, and chase frozen leaves around and around the icy surface whilst Luna watched on with mournful eyes. Neville was so disappointed each time the ice melted (or became so thin it couldn’t stand his weight).​​ 

​We would know when Neville was happy, because he would purr. Loudly. Like everything else he did, Neville put all of his effort into purring. Not for him the calm, effortless rumble of other cats. When Billy Tibbs sits on my knee and purrs, it’s a warm, quiet, calm vibration deep down in his tummy. When Neville purred, it was all in the throat with a loud raspy exhalation interspersed with a gulp of air back in ready for the next purr.

Neville loved his food. It was quantity rather than quality that interested him, and the sheer speed he could put away a bowl of food left Billy Tibbs astounded, horrified, and growlingly protective of his own (still full) bowl. Neville would eat anything. I’m struggling to think of anything he turned his nose up at. His love of food led him to the depths of his wickedness. The time he unwrapped a jumbo hotdog roll and ate half of it. (It was after this we decided he was gluten intolerant, judging by the litter tray the next morning). The time my daughter threw a party, and after greeting all the guests (naturally), Neville was later found on the kitchen table tucking into a slice of pizza whilst a bemused guest watched him helplessly. The time my daughter left her advent calendar on the table overnight, and like a small(ish) furry tornado he tore through the cardboard and the foil to eat the chocolate underneath.  He was always sneaking up onto the kitchen worktops to see if he could find anything left out. We would often hear the tell-tale “clink” as his magnet stuck to the breadbin, and the muddy paw prints on the worktops drove me to distraction. Fortunately by now we have pretty robust immune systems, but there was way more than a peck of dirt left in the kitchen by that wicked lad.

Of course, all of this snacking led him to put on extra layers of winter insulation. We liked to say that his chunkiness was due to his extra thick winter coat, and to be honest you can see the difference in photos of Summer and Winter Neville. His winter coat was so thick and so soft it was a dream to stroke and run your fingers through. If you tried to stroke Billy Tibbs as much as we did Neville, you’d lose a finger pretty rapidly. Fortunately, Neville not only put up with all of this physical affection, he seems to enjoy it too. He was the most huggy cat we’ve ever had, and was more than happy to be put on your shoulder and cuddled. With his long legs stretched straight out behind you and his head snuggling in close to your neck, I’m sure he enjoyed it as much as we did.

It wasn’t just people, Neville loved cuddling up with his brother Luna, although these cuddles would often turn into wrestling matches. Being so much bigger Neville would always win these physical games, although Luna excelled at “squeezing into the tiniest cardboard box possible”. This didn’t stop Neville from trying, and we have many memories of Neville “muffin top” Jiwa sitting in a box, maybe with one leg hanging out because there just wasn’t room. ​

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​Neville also loved Billy Tibbs, and would follow him around the house and garden exactly like an annoying little brother trying to join in with a much older and cooler sibling. Billy greeted this adoration with the expected hissing, spitting and swiping. However, as time went on, he did relax his guard just a little when Neville was around. When he was asleep he made an easy target, and Neville would often sneak next to him and pretend to be asleep so that Billy wouldn’t attack him. As Billy relaxed and feel more deeply asleep, Neville would ease himself closer and closer until they were touching. We have a lovely photo of Neville asleep with his head resting on Tibby’s back leg. Tibbs is way off in the land of Nod, but Neville has a thought bubble coming out of his head saying “LOOK AT ME! I’M SLEEPING ON BILLY!!!”

 

All of this fur (and insulation) didn’t stop him getting into mischief and scrapes. He would squeeze down the back of the big sofa, and we would only know about it as he pushed past the radiator and his magnet “dinged” on each of the radiator’s ridges. He would scramble up onto the roof of the house, although he did often have problems on the descent and had to be talked down on more than one occasion. As Sheni drove off back to Italy last Saturday morning, both Neville and Luna saw him off from the ridge of the roof, like a pair of furry dragons. He would climb the big tree in our garden, then look disgusted when Luna shot straight past him to swing from an even higher branch. On the morning of his death, he attempted to leap from a unit in the kitchen onto the back of one of the kitchen chairs. He never would have made it safely, but with amazingly quick reflexes my daughter managed to catch him in mid-air, much to his disgust and our relief. Fences would tremble and shake as he hauled himself over them. Plants were squashed when he slept on them. He would knock things over. I’m very glad he didn’t try and climb the Christmas tree this year, as it was wobbly enough without the addition of a large over excited cat. I’m extremely glad he didn’t chew through another brand new set of Christmas lights, and even more thankful that they weren’t plugged into the mains when he did.​

Quite quiet for Neville

I’m thankful for every minute that my son could call this large, soft, furry, naughty cat his cat, and devastated that we lost him so suddenly and so cruelly. I pray that the large (very large) Neville-shaped hole in our hearts and lives will heal quickly so that we can remember him with smiles rather than tears. I know that next time we take another cat into our lives our number one requirement will be that he or she is a huggy cat, because Neville showed us how wonderful a large armful of cat could truly be.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you all! Hopefully everyone is happy and healthy, and raring to go in 2017. Now don’t worry, I’m not going to do a long “Review of 2016” (I think the moment for that has passed), but I am going to have a quick backward glance over my shouder, and then blow my own trumpet just briefly.

I started the year injured and grumpy. I spent half the year still injured and grumpy. By the autumn I began entering off road races because I love them (and they’re easier on my foot), met up with lots of other Chippenham Harriers and rediscovered my love of running. I learnt how to swim front crawl, and now need to work on completing more than a length at a time. I got out more on my road bike, and completed the Coffeeneuring Challenge of 2016.

My coffeeneuring patch. Very proud of this

Brace yourself – here comes the trumpet blowing.

As at the end of 2016, after running in 4 races in the Wiltshire Athletic Association Off Road League I found myself currently 3rd in the ladies league (out of 90 runners), and first in my age group! This is glossing over the fact I actually came last in the tri-counties XC race – that was a hard slog! Just two more races in the league to go, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I’m dreaming of trophies (no idea if they actually give out trophies, but don’t shatter my dreams just yet). Oh, and Chippenham Harriers are leading both the Mens and Ladies Team competitions as well. Toot toot!

The last day of 2016 started with parkrun. A lovely atmosphere there, despite the drizzle and slippy mud. The new year started with volunteering at the same parkrun, not easy in torrential rain and with more runners than I’ve ever seen there (but not quite a record apparently!) My first lesson of 2017 was that the bar code scanners don’t work well in the cold and wet. My second was that some people don’t deserve a free run totally staffed by volunteers. I mean, we were all getting cold, wet and frustrated that the scanners weren’t working, but to throw your soggy paper bar code and finisher’s token at me shouting “Oh just take it then!” isn’t on really, is it?

Anyway, enough wandering down memory lane. Today I’ve run* my first parkrun of the year, last week I made it to my first ‘Efforts’ session of the year (probably my first since 2015), and I’m planning on going to my first swimming lesson of 2017 on Monday. Bring it on, 2017, I’m ready for you!

* staggered, slipped, wobbled

Swimming Nature – Christmas Special Offer

If you’re feeling intrigued by my last post about my swimming lesson with Swimming Nature, then hopefully you might be inspired to try some lessons for yourself. If so, you’re in luck. Swimming Nature have a Christmas Present for all of you!

They say:-

“Give the gift of swimming this Christmas

This Christmas, Swimming Nature are offering you the chance to help someone rediscover the joy of swimming, no matter how old they are. Swimming Nature gift vouchers are available at the special rate £139 (in London) or £109 (outside of London) for a three-lesson adult package. As children, we all loved swimming, but as we grow up and our lives get busier and we seem to do less and less of it – let alone consider taking up lessons. It’s easy to feel that swimming is something only kids learn and, by the time you’ve grown up, it’s too late to improve.

Swimming Nature lessons can have tremendous benefits, no matter if you’re an accomplished swimmer or starting from scratch. It’s a great way to keep in shape, you can improve technique and fix any bad habits picked up over the years, and it’s low-impact so it’s easy on the body.

To treat someone (or yourself!) to the gift of swimming. Call Swimming Nature now on 03445 04 05 06 and quote “Christmas gift” and we’ll pop a voucher in the post. We can send it either direct to your recipient or straight to you, so you can present it to them on Christmas Day. Just make sure you order before 18th December so we can guarantee delivery before the 25th”

Contact them if you have any questions. I can really, really recommend this approach to swimming, and am wondering if I can treat myself for Christmas, or persuade a loved one to buy me a special present…!

Swimming Nature – a new way of learning to swim

I am sitting here trying to write this post, with my head still buzzing from a swimming lesson I had. I try and go every week to a swimming lesson, so what was so different about this one? Well, I received an invitation from a company called Swimming Nature to come along and have a free lesson from one of their qualified teachers and see how I got on. I read their website, was intrigued, and arranged a session at Fitness First in Bath.*

Meeting someone for the first time is often a slightly anxious moment, so you can only imagine doing this in a swimming costume on the side of a pool. Fortunately Paul, my teacher, was friendly and professional and put me at my ease. We had a chat about my swimming experience so far and what I was hoping to get out of the session. Due to the water being a little cool at the moment due to some technical problems, I was offered a swimming hat to help keep my head warm. I give you exhibit A:-

It actually did keep my head warm, so I won’t complain too much about it. Also due to a lack of mirrors I didn’t have to look at myself wearing it.

Paul went on to explain that the Shaw method of swimming, which is what they teach, is based on principles used in the Alexander Technique. I know very little about this, only that it involves having good posture from your head, down through your neck and into your spine. One of the first things we practised was how to glide and then stop. Sounds easy, but doing it without sticking your head up is difficult. Easier when your teacher is holding your head – oh yes – it’s very hands on, this teaching method. Holding my wrists to make sure I had floppy, relaxed arms; holding my head to keep it in the right alignment; having me hold his hips to feel the rotation – it sounds strange but if I didn’t think about it and just went with how it felt then it all made sense. My brain was buzzing, as it tried to understand what I was being told and reconcile it with how my body was moving. I have never had a swimming lesson like it – and I’ve been going to lessons all year!

When I got home, I jotted down what I remembered. I wrote “gliding – moving with the water. Power from arms, legs for balancing. Relaxed. Two stages to each movement – power and release, e.g. legs, breathing. Head / neck position”. Probably doesn’t make much sense to anyone else, but hopefully this will help me think about what I should be doing next time I’m in the water.

Another way to remind me, is to watch one of several videos that are available. Watch this one to the end, and just see how easy and relaxed this swimming looks:-

If you’d like to know more, do check out their website here.

If you’re really intrigued by their lessons, then they have a special Christmas offer. Have a look here.

* I was given a lesson, free of charge, with a Swimming Nature instructor with the agreement I would write an honest review of the session.

More Swimming – from Zero to One Mile

A couple of weeks ago I tried to start a swimming training program which would take you from “zero to one mile”. After all my swimming lessons this year, I still can’t swim further than about two lengths continuously with having to stop, so this sounded ideal. I set off to the pool all excited, rushed in, and failed miserably. I had a terrible swim, I felt panicked and out of breath and hated every minute.

I posted in the Facebook group for this training plan and received lots of advice and encouragement from the lovely swimmers. It mainly revolved around relaxing, not trying too hard, and not holding my breath. Buoyed up I headed back to the pool to try again – and couldn’t park anywhere.
I was beginning to think this swimming thing was jinxed, but headed back to the pool yet again to give it one last try. I managed to park (I went earlier!), paid and headed in. This time I put no pressure on myself about how far I’d try and swim, or how many lengths I’d try and do without stopping. I got into the ‘slow’ lane (which already had 2 people swimming slow breast stroke) and calmly started.

I tried to do 4 lengths before stopping, and if I felt tired or panicky I switched to a length of breast stroke before changing back to front crawl. I kept it really slow and tried to stay relaxed, really focusing on my breathing and steadily breathing out rather than holding my breath. I’d bought a little cheap lap counter, and was amazed when the laps were adding up.
After about half an hour, I’d swim 32 lengths – 800 metres – which I reckon is half a mile! I was delighted! I sent much love and many thanks to the swimmers in the Facebook group, and felt enthused to try again.

Sadly, after this breakthrough, events conspired against me and although I made it back to one swimming lesson (where we did tumble turns. TUMBLE TURNS! HA HA HA AH AHA!!!) I’ve hardly been swimming since. Serendipitously I then was asked if I’d like to attend a new style of swimming lesson which was starting up at a gym in nearby Bath. Of course I said yes, but what happened doesn’t deserve to be tacked on the end of this post. Read on to find out more. Spoiler alert – it involves a bright pink swimming hat…

A tale of two races

Two weeks, two races. A muddy, hilly trail race and a fast, flat 10K. Both pretty chilly, both hard work but both an achievement in their very different ways.

Last week was the Wickstead Wander. A 5 mile meander over hills, down paths, through farm yards and over horse jumps. And through water jumps. It was good fun, despite being able to see runners in front of you then learning there’s actually an extra sneaky loop you can’t see between you. I loved the marshals who helped runners leap over a stream, and the biggest water jump had marshals armed with cameras and a safety inflatable dolphin. In my defence, I couldn’t see how deep the water was so tried to lower myself elegantly into the black, smelly water.

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All the elegance
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Made it!

I enjoyed the race and would do it again. 5.3 miles in 58:42

Race number 2 – the Bromham Pudding Run. This is 2 lap race around the village of Bromham, organised by and with all profits going to the village school’s PTA. There’s no medal at the end, but every finisher does get a Christmas pudding. Does this make it sound like it’s a small, amateurish affair? Don’t get the wrong idea – this race is a flat and fast course, so it attracts serious, speedy runners. It is fantastically organised with some of the most enthusiastic marshals around (clapping, cheering, playing Christmas music – these guys are pros!)

After being injured and not running ‘properly’ for so long I felt like a beginner in my first race. I didn’t know what pace to run, or what time to hope for, but I vaguely knew I’d be very happy to get anywhere near an hour, as I remember how hard I worked first time around to do that.

I ran with a friend from my running club, who was aiming for just under an hour to beat her PB.

Swishy pony tail!
Swishy pony tail!

We worked hard together, enjoyed the sunshine despite the frost and although I left her in the last mile (she told me to go!) we finished within 30 seconds or so of each other. The photo shows me crossing the finish line feeling shattered but happy.

Finish line in sight!

I collected my official time, and was split between being pleased with getting so close to an hour and being annoyed at how close to the hour it was.

Just 3.9 seconds!

6.2 miles in 1:00:03.9 – I’ll take that!

I’d forgotten just how hard ‘proper’ races are (ones that don’t involve mud, water or hills) but I’m very glad I did this one as it’s boosted my confidence no end.

Next weekend, it’s back to the mud and hills again …

Running – remember that?

Oh yes, running. Not been much talk of that lately around here. It’s all been cycling, cycling, a bit of swimming, more cycling and a little bit of running. Not much good for a blog called “Black and Tabby Runs”!

Well, I have been running. Usually twice a week (if I can fit it in with all that cycling and swimming). With the start of the cross country season I’ve been loving getting out in the mud and puddles. The softer ground seems to be kinder to my foot, and to be honest I’ve always loved getting out in the middle of nowhere, splashing around and freezing my toes off. I have a race report to write up from the weekend (I’m waiting for the photographs) so in the meantime, here are some photos from today’s run:-

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Frosty fields
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Icy puddles
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It’s icy down there!

Beautiful – and worth the cold to see it!