Highland Fling!

tomandivor

Today I just want to say a massive CONGRATULATIONS to Tom and his pal Ivor, who yesterday completed The Highland Fling: a 53-mile “ultra” race along the first half of the West Highland Way. The race starts in Milngavie, and passes through Drymen and Balmaha, before traversing the East shore of Loch Lomond, moving up through Crianlarich, and finishing at the By The Way hostel in Tyndrum (a familiar landmark to anyone who knows the West Highlands). It took me three and a half days to walk that distance . . . they were hoping to cover it in less than eleven hours.

ivor

Tom and Ivor have been training for this epic undertaking for months now, running long stretches of the Way every weekend, in all weathers. It was Tom’s first “ultra” run, and also the first time that he has been involved with a race where I could literally walk out of the front door to cheer him on, which in itself was quite exciting. There was a small supporting crowd outside our house at the crack of dawn, complete with a fiddler who played strathspeys and hornpipes as the runners went by.

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The weather was kind and the going was good. Taking it slowly, and consuming large quantities of gels, energy drinks and malt loaf as they went, they did really well. Tom completed the race in 9 hours 45 minutes, and Ivor in 10 hours 30 minutes, both of which are terrific times. And after a few beers, a fish supper, and a good night’s sleep, they are both in remarkably good shape.

congratulations

Congratulations, Tom and Ivor!

Meall nan Tarmachan

Yesterday was a grand day to be out and about.

The hills were in their best Autumn colours

highlandbirches

. . . and Loch Tay was looking stunning.

sunlight

We had popped over to Loch Tay so that Tom could run the Meall nan Tarmachan hill race – part of a fantastic weekend’s running that’s organised by the Outdoor Centre in Killin. This is part of the world we’ve spent a lot of time in walking and camping – I’ve been up on the Ptarmigan ridge a few times (here I am, working on a sock up there five years ago), and Beinn Ghlas was the first Munro I managed to get up after my stroke. I remember that climb very clearly, and have to say that it was very nice to be back, and to go for a wee walk not feeling quite so disabled!

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Tom and the other runners could not believe their luck with the weather.

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From our view below we could see them snaking up the mountainside . . .

runners

. . . and Bruce and I spent a happy peripatetic hour enjoying the scenery around the lower slopes.

meallnantarmachan

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Tom really enjoyed the race and the folk at Killin were fabulously hospitable, looking after the runners with lashings of tea and scones in the Town Hall. Tom ran the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow last weekend, and the contrast between the faceless corporate organisation of such big events and these lovely local occasions could really not be more apparent. We all had a grand day out in the hills.

celebration

And after several months of preparing to move, moving, decorating, and generally settling in, it feels very nice to be out and about doing normal weekend things again!

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Slainte!

Jim’s running (and knitting) for Refuge

VeufTricot

Who is this man? Well, some of you may know him as Veuf Tricot, author of the scabrous and witty column in UK magazine Simply Knitting. But I know him as Jim, husband of my good friend and colleague Jen. As well as being a teacher, writer, and all-round good egg, Jim is currently in training to run his first marathon in London on April 21st in support of Refuge — a UK charity which supports women and children who are victims of domestic violence. Not content with predictable methods of seeking sponsorship through through direct donations, Jim whipped out his needles and yarn and got to work to raise some cash. With the assistance of three great independent yarn dyers and, of course, the inimitable Jen, Jim has created a collection of three marathon-themed accessories, with all sales going towards his fundraising efforts. I recently caught up with Jim to hear more about the project.

Tell us about your three designs, and the inspiration behind them. 

It started off with an email from Sarah at Babylonglegs offering to do a special colourway to help with my fundraising efforts. We then both wondered about doing a pattern as well. This was on a weekend when I spent a lot of time waiting at traffic lights driving up to Manchester. I can’t imagine where the colour choices came from! . . .

ready2(The Ready Mitts will keep your hands warm during Winter training, and are knitted up in Fyberspates MCN sport)

. . .The choice of accessories was quite straightforward. Fingerless gloves are a must for winter running, so they are as much practical as decorative. Similarly, the hat had to serve the purpose of having a thicker brim than crown to keep my Prince Charles ears warm without running the risk of overheating. I also had visions of knitters cheering me along the marathon route in London swinging their scarves around their heads like continental football fans as I serenely loped past.

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(Jim’s ears are cosy in his Steady hat, knitted up in in Skein Queen’s beautifully rich and vibrant Saffron ‘Desire’ yarn)



This is your first marathon. What has been the most challenging aspect of the training?



The training itself is generally fine. It’s the worrying when I miss a session due to work, injury, illness, or simple exhaustion that’s the hard part. My real fear is that I won’t be sufficiently prepared. That and getting up on a Sunday morning to leave the comfort of a warm bed to pound the streets in the pouring rain.


Can you turn a heel?

I’ve turned my ankle on many occasions and turned stomachs, but I don’t think I’ve ever turned heads and never a heel.



ready1

Some adventurous marathon runners, like Susie Hewer, have found ways to knit and run simultaneously. Will you be attempting to combine these two activities?

No. I can’t do more than one thing at once. Before Christmas, I couldn’t run and look where I was going at the same time, so I found myself landing face-first onto the pavement. In my defence, it was dark and the recycling box I’d tripped over was black.



Veuf Tricot had a lot to say about the penchant for pompoms this past Winter. What is your knitting-trend forecast for the Spring? 


Cabled onesies inspired by Aran jumpers. Infantile, but traditional.



You have documented Jen’s focused obsession with all things teal-hued . . . but is there a particular shade of yarn that floats your boat? 


My appreciation of all things knitted for me is well documented. I don’t think there’s a particular single colour that I must have absolutely everything in. Having said that, I do like my green Fyberspates Gloucester Tweed socks and the Skein Queen Steady Saffron for the Steady Hat in particular.



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Veuf Tricot documents the world of knitting with a certain amused detachment .  . . and yet you are a knitter and designer yourself, who is completely implicated in that world. What I am saying is that despite your occasionally scabrous remarks you clearly love knitting really. What’s your response? 


I am a knitter and designer, not a Knitter and Designer. While I’ve been satisfied with the outcomes thus far, I’ve no great affection for knitting itself. My being part of Knitterworld is probably more about my marriage than for knitting. I think that the columns I’ve done for Simply Knitting are a kind of alternative to love letters or poetry, neither of which are really me. Despite my antipathy towards Knitting, I still pay attention, take it all in and support her in her incoherent gibbering.

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(Jen will be supporting Jim wearing her Go! scarf, knitted up in Babylonglegs ‘semi-precious’ in a specially-dyed colourway)



Finally, tell us why you are running for Refuge?

Domestic violence is more prevalent within our society than most people realise. It’s not something you often see out in public, but something you learn about long afterwards. We have friends who have suffered domestic violence, or lived in fear of violence, and we simply haven’t known about it until much later on. Refuge work with mostly women and children to help them to escape from their abusive relationships and move on. Some funding for the services provided by Refuge comes from the public purse, but with budgets being cut, fundraising is becoming ever more important. I could have set up a monthly direct debit and been a supporter of the charity, but felt that I could do more.
The second reason is that Refuge has become a family charity. Both my sister and one of my brothers have run the London Marathon to raise awareness of Refuge and my sister-in-law has worked for them. Last summer there was a bit of an awkward family dinner with fingers pointed at both me and my other brother with cries of, “Who’s next?”
Of course, the main reason is that I have tried to escape from having to model for Jen’s blog. Unfortunately, it has all gone a bit wrong as I’ve had to model my own designs. Still, it will be worth it if I hit my fundraising target.

Thankyou, Jim!

Running a marathon is no small feat — living with another runner I know what a gargantuan emotional and physical effort the training takes and what a massive achievement it is to run that distance on the day. Jim’s fundraising target is £2,000. He has currently raised just over half that sum. Please support him and Refuge by purchasing the Ready, Steady, Go! ebook via Ravelry. For just five pounds you’ll receive three great patterns and help him reach his goal. If you prefer to make a direct donation, you can do so here.

go2

Refuge help run the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 08082000247. Call if you are worried yourself or about someone you know.

Lauder morning

We got up early, and drove down to the Borders. It was a beautiful crisp morning.



When we arrived in Lauder, the sun was already turning the frost into a magical, dewy haze.



Today, the Autumn colours seemed even more deeply saturated. I want to knit everything in these tapestry blues and golds.





While Bruce and I were enjoying our morning walk, Tom was making preparations. . .

Today was the first race in this series. A hand-knitted running vest is, of course, obligatory on such occasions . . .

Off he goes!

Ah, Cross Country season . . .

Islay half marathon

We have been away, enjoying a long weekend on Islay. The Islay half marathon is one of Tom’s favourite races (mine too, for that matter) — not only does it take place in a wonderful location, but the local support is tremendous — every year the folk of Bowmore put on a marvelous post-race spread for the runners (whisky included), and the race sponsors, Ardbeg, offer a dizzying number and variety of prizes. Ardbeg also happens to be one of Tom’s favourite tipples — the prize of a bonus dram or two is not to be sniffed at, and he was taking this race quite seriously.

The runners assembled at the start line:


And set off, up the hill and out of Bowmore.

It was a warm day, and I was particularly impressed with the efforts of the chap in the giant pink costume, who was running in support of a Parkinson’s charity.

Bruce and I went for a walk . . .


(Bowmore harbour, with the Paps of Jura in the distance)

. . . and timed things to return to the finish line before Tom came in. . .

. . . in a very creditable sixth place!

The pink-costumed chap rolled in, still in good spirits, a bit later.

Being sixth, Tom just made the prizes – the first time he’s done so. There was much whooping and cheering from me later on in the village hall.

He was pleased too . . .

. . . and a few drams went down later in celebration, as you might imagine.

Well done, Tom – Slainte!

A Jura triathlon

We spent last Friday and Saturday on the wonderful island of Jura — one of our very favourite places. The island was as beautiful and warmly-welcoming as ever (though we were very sad to note the closure of the beautiful gardens at Ardfin after their recent purchase by an absentee hedge fund manager). Our pricipal reason for visiting at this time of year is that Tom likes to run the Jura Fell Race (you can read earlier accounts of this race here and here)

To those of you who aren’t hill runners, this event will probably seem pretty bonkers. It involves seven hills, eight thousand feet of ascent, and sixteen miles over some really challenging terrain – bog, boulder fields and rough quartzite scree. But if you have been to Jura, you’ll see why Tom and so many other runners return year after year: the Paps are truly fabulous hills – the sort that demand you to get out and about in them (I climbed them once myself 6 or 7 years ago, but they would definitely be too much for me in my present circumstances). They dominate the landscape of this part of the Hebrides to the extent that it is hard to take a photograph without them looming large and pap-like somewhere on the horizon.

Here they are from Port Charlotte:

From Finlaggan

And from below on the Sound of Jura, where you can really get a sense of how these giant quartzite cones seem to rise spontaneously out of the water.

Like many other places in the UK, the Hebrides have recently been enjoying some glorious weather. At 9am on race day, it was already extremely warm. Warnings about dehydration and heatstroke were added to the usual comforting remarks about the dangers of the race.

And then they were OFF!

While Tom was away facing the Paps, I had my own (small) challenge to complete. For the past month or so, I have been practising my tricycling with the aim of being strong (and safe) enough to pootle on the road up to Three-Arch Bridge to see Tom come down from the hills toward the end of the race, and then cycle back with him to the finish line at Craighouse. This is a round trip of six and a half miles on three wheels – nothing in comparison to the task Tom was engaged upon, but certainly an undertaking for someone whose wonky left side is still suffering the after-effects of a stroke and hemiplegia.

I practised my ride the day before the race and reckoned I’d be fine.

On race day, I timed my tricycling to Tom’s predicted finishing time, and happily made it to the bridge just a few minutes before he appeared off the last hill. You’ll have to take my word for it that the tiny dot in the centre of the picture is Tom (the slightly larger figure to the left is a race marshall).

And here he is coming over the stile just before the bridge.

Obviously there are no pictures of our joint journey back into Craighouse, as we were both otherwise engaged (he on foot, me on wheels). The race was really tough in the heat, but Tom completed it in 4 hours 28 minutes – his best time yet! I was also very happy to complete my own mini-challenge, and happily without attendant bog-water, blood, and bruises.

The third element of our Jura triathlon was, of course . . . swimming! It is not often that one gets a chance to do this in the sea off the Hebrides, and for me it was an opportunity not to be missed, even without a proper costume.

This was the first time I’d swum in the sea since my stroke.

And it was my first time ever swimming with a dog.

The water was clean and clear and cold and full of fish. It was really pretty amazing.

To anyone who has survived a stroke, can I say: though we may never be able to undertake a feat of endurance anything like the Jura Fell Race, small physical goals that make our wonky bodies work just a little bit harder are just as important and certainly as satisfying. Try riding a trike! Swim in the sea! I know that I feel a joy at being able to complete these physical challenges that is more intense than any sense of accomplishment I felt before my stroke. These small things — like being able to take to the water, or accompany one’s partner in the final stage of an epic race — remind me just how grateful I am to still be alive.

Stuc a’Chroin

We’ve spent the weekend in the Highlands, where Tom has been running a race – the Stuc a’Chroin 5000

While he was away up the hill, Bruce and I went for a walk. . .

We were lucky with the weather (later we saw hail and snow!)

Bruce was very suspicious of this wee suspension bridge and teetered over, bandy-legged.

After 13.5 miles, 5000 feet of ascent, 2 hours and 51 minutes, the wanderer returned . . .

The running vest I knitted him 5 years ago (sheesh!) is still holding up to its job remarkably well.

It is a good, warm vest for a chilly mountain top. The yarn I used was Rowan “Calmer”, for those who like to know these things.

We went out for a nice meal to celebrate . . .

. . . and camped in one of our favourite spots.

Tom’s next race is on Jura – in just a few weeks time, we’ll be off to the islands . . .

Hope you’ve enjoyed your weekend too!

Inveraray Jail Break

After our Schiehallion walk, we travelled on to Inveraray yesterday, so that Tom could take part in the Jail Break (which is a hill race, in case you were concerned). Have you ever been to Inveraray? It is a sort of eighteenth-century equivalent of Milton Keynes or Livingston – a Georgian new town whose “improvements” include a carefully laid out main street and waterside front (which maximised the picturesque potential of the town’s natural situation at the head of Loch Fyne), good access to the loch’s lucrative and famous fisheries, and a woollen mill (no evidence of which can unfortunately be found in the present-day “mill”, which is of the cashmere-sweater-vending variety). Inveraray’s pretty “new” town has been an attraction in its own right since the closing decades of the Eighteenth Century — and, despite the busloads of tourist-buddies, and the relentless tartan tat, I am very fond of its location, and of the neat restraint of its whitewashed Georgian buildings — a restraint emphatically not matched by the architecture the eighteenth-century Dukes of Argyll chose for their seat, which they built on the site of the ‘old’ town.

As Samuel Johnson put it when visiting in 1773: “what I admire here is the total defiance of expense.”

As its name would suggest, the race began at Inveraray Jail (now a popular visitor attraction). The chap in uniform behind the runners is the inscrutable ‘jailer’. He blew a klaxon, and started proceedings.


The runners dashed through the town centre and headed toward Dun-na-Cuaiche, a densely-wooded hill above the castle, which is topped by a monument commemorating seventeen prominent members of Clan Campbell, who were executed in 1685 for the part they played in Monmouth’s Rebellion.

At a much more leisurely pace, Bruce and I meandered through the castle grounds toward the finish line.

GO TOM!

The escaped inmate flew toward the finish line. . .

. . .in a very respectable sixth place. Then, after a couple of photographs in the rain. . .

. . . he disappeared in search of suitable refreshment.

Just in case you were in any doubt at all, it was an excellent weekend.

marathon

Though I wanted to be there to support Tom, I was really rather dreading the London Marathon. Given that Buchanan Street has been my only post-stroke experience of a busy city crowd, and that being in places in which one is constantly assailed by visual / auditory stimuli is now both difficult and scary for me, the thought of negotiating the noise and general confusion of London on marathon day was, frankly, terrifying. Thankfully, I did not have to face it on my own, and the one thing I was looking forward to was spending the day with Felix. As a carbo-loaded Tom squeezed himself onto a packed train to reach the race start at Blackheath, Felix and I pootled down a deserted Whitehall, to set up camp at the finish. Neither of us had seen the memorial to the Women of World War II which had been erected there in 2005, so we stopped to take a look.


The memorial is in the form of a giant bronze coat rack, festooned with the uniforms of women engaged in many different patriotic activities. It is a very arresting piece of public sculpture, and occasioned some debate. On the one hand, we found something tremendously moving in the monumental nature of the monument. The empty uniforms suggested quiet, collective endeavour and a dignified anonymity, made all the more striking by the memorials in close proximity, which celebrated individual military achievement with predictable bombast.


Felix and Field Marshal Brooke: Masters of Strategy.

On the other hand, though, there is something just a little troubling about the women’s monument. The discarded uniforms are just that: discarded. The uniforms had been put on; the duties appropriate to such uniforms had been performed, and then, post-war, women had resumed being themselves again. These clothes were chrysalises from which drab, be-uniformed creatures would re-emerge, butterfly-like, into the hyper-femininity of the late 1940s.


Dior’s famous ‘Bar’ suit (1947)

I have since read that, when designing the monument, the sculptor, John Mills, was “interested in the concept of these women hanging up their uniforms and going back to their normal lives after the end of the war” (my emphasis). What does that say about femininity and patriotic endeavour? Would the effect have been the same if the memorial depicted men’s uniforms? Is the New Look to blame? What do you think?

From Whitehall, we proceeded to St James’ Park, where we found a small hillock which would afford good views of the marathon’s closing minutes. Then, from her tardis-like rucksack, Felix produced an entire room.

Examining this photograph you may see: teapot containing freshly brewed tea, biscuit barrel containing tasty home-baked treats, Monkl clutching congratulatory golden banana, and mysterious brown paper packages, whose contents will be revealed later. But the most important items of note are 1) the comfortable folding chairs and 2) the singular lack of other people. These two items are closely connected. As the day went on, things grew busier and busier, but, whenever Felix unfolded those chairs, she created an instant oasis of calm around which the mêlée surged insanely. You will also note the lack of other people in all the photographs in this post. That is because I spent the day happily inured from the crowd in Felix’s oasis. Anyone who has been on a trip with Felix knows that she comes notoriously well-prepared. On Sunday she really outdid herself. While poor Tom pounded the streets, suffering from the heat, and struggling to find his own space among 36,000 other runners, we spent a relaxing couple of hours drinking tea, eating snacks, and knitting in the oasis.

An Italian bloke approached and asked to take a photograph of us in our oasis. We suspected we were being pigeonholed as marathon-day curiosities, English eccentrics quaffing tea through all eventualities, but we did not care.

mmmmm. Jam!


Then the runners started to come in. From our vantage point we cheered wildly, particularly when a brown-vested bloke went by at around the three hour mark. We then made our way over to Horse Guards Parade to retrieve the heroic runner. Tom made it in at a very good time of 3:05 – 7 minutes slower than his best marathon in Dublin a couple of years ago. It is fair to say that he did not enjoy himself – having trained all Winter in Scotland, it was really too hot for him. However, he cheered up immensely as soon as we got him to the pub and presented him with the contents of Felix’s brown paper packages.

Could it be . . . no really . . . could it possibly be . . .

A PIE?!

A homebaked sourdough-crusted rabbit pie, no less, with which Tom was the envy of the post-race crowd. This was swiftly polished off, washed down with a pint, and followed by . . .

A congratulatory wagon wheel! The snack choice of heroes!

Running a marathon really is an epic thing. Huzzah for Tom! And a big huzzah to Felix, too, for indomitable pie-baking, chair-carrying, space-creating, conviviality-inducing marathon-like achievements on Sunday!

Cheers, Felix.

see them shufflin along. . .

There is not much I can say, except that this lopsided shuffle SEEMS LIKE SOME SORTA BLOODY MIRACLE. It feels especially good for me to pootle past the lamp-post that you can see in the final moments of this clip, as I saw it from a very different perspective just under a year ago – viz, lying on the ground, freaked out and fookin freezin, with one side of my body completely paralysed. It really is incredibly hard for me to run at all – my brain has to ‘tell’ my left leg and arm exactly what to do as I am making each step; I can only move like this on entirely flat ground; I have to wear giant boots and orthotics; and I can only keep it up for about 30 seconds at a time. Still, it is improving every day, and it seems to help my walking, too (over the past months, I have often found that trying to do things that are physically difficult seems to really help me to accomplish movements that are slightly ‘easier’). I must stick at it, and buy some new running gear (this gnome-outfit is clearly not activity-appropriate, but I chucked all my running stuff away in one of my recent purges). Anyway, can I also say that I am feeling damned proud of myself? And that it has taken some BLOODY HARD WORK to get here? I think a celebratory ale may be in order. . . CIN CIN!

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