Among the marchigiani hills…

« …..in cima a un monte di media altezza, ma adagiantesi da ciascun lato secondo ogni piega del pendio, di modo che non ha nulla su un medesimo piano e dovunque si deve salire e scendere » Michel de Montaigne

 

On a little hill in the middle of Italy there is a small, very small, medieval town: Urbino. A town full of winding streets, small endearing alleyways and pedestriansied streets that rise and fall in tune with the surrounding green landscape that hug this oversized borgo on all sides.

 

Maybe surprisingly, this town is home to a successful University and a thriving student population. I had the privilege to ‘study’ for one academic year in this captivatingly beautiful town. This was almost 6 years ago, when I left the UK, flying solo, to a country I had previously never set foot in, with a limited knowledge of the language and culture… What a year it was.

 

There are few words that can coherently put that year abroad into accurate perspective; the events and excursions that happened, the emotions that were felt, the friendships that were created.  So naturally when the occasion arose to revisit Urbino I was naturally a little hesitant.

 

 

A few photos don’t even begin to scrape the surface of what was felt during a two-day trip; revisiting old haunts, remembering forgotten memories, filling up with bittersweet emotions, reminiscing about good times, friends and changes. Yes, as cliché as it sounds, this trip was a time where I reflected on the journey that I’ve been on. What was then and what is now; how, fundamentally, Urbino has helped shape the recent past years of my life.

 

I have since been fortunate enough to travel to various places, meet wonderful people and enjoy an overwhelming amount of experiences. Without Urbino, would all of this have been possible? Who knows. All I do know is that I am a very lucky person and I will forever hold Urbino in a special place close to me.

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Back to school

There are times when my alarm has gone off at 6.30 and I just want to crawl over and curl back up into my comfy slumber. The balmy summer evenings and warming dawns of an Italian summer are now almost a distant memory. Dragging oneself out of bed to go to work is almost always never an easy task.

Early mornings, late evenings, ‘empty’ days… I have a fairly sporadic, ever changing teaching timetable – the curse and blessing of working in a private language school. The Business English student who wishes to have a lesson before he goes to work, means I go to work even earlier. The high-school student who wants extra help with her homework after lessons have finished, means I leave work later than most. What students are available during the day? Not many, let me tell you.

I’m fairly sure I spend more hours planning and thinking about my lessons than I do actually teaching. A new job, a new direction, a new mind-set. It has become an all-consuming job where even when out with friends – who tend to also be teachers – the conversation turns to language, to students, to teaching. This has become my life during the past four weeks: A life without structure, no routine, senza confini. A world apart from my previous 9-5 office job.

… and I flippin’ LOVE IT!

“She sells sea shells on the sea shore”

Before the season starts in October, September has been full of individual student lessons; those who want 1-to-1 conversational practice to help them perform better at work, succeed in an interview or pass a certain exam. To name a few things, I teach grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation – especially ‘s’ sounds, as the Bolognesi are noted for having a distinct problem with their Ss – and Simple Past tense (that’s ‘–ed’) pronunciation. You didn’t walkid into town, you walkt.

Adults have the ability to comment and criticise; this makes teaching them equally both a pleasure and a nightmare. They thank you for explaining, for pointing out that “in all my years of studying English, I never knew that”. I’ve even received an email of thanks and gratitude after they left an interview in English feeling positive.

Business adult students:
Make you laugh. They can be at times even more gullible than children: No, my boiler didn’t actually break down two days on the run. No I am not actually visiting Milan and Rome in one weekend. No, I have not climbed Kilimanjaro.
Teach YOU things. A student, who is a tour guide by profession, explained to me all there is to know about Bologna in her first conversation lesson…I now don’t need to go and traipse around museum after museum.
Take the brighter path. Grammar is notoriously boring, so inventing ridiculous scenarios help students be that little bit more interested. During the past four weeks I have jumped across stepping stones, ran through grass, dived in swimming pools, stolen a purse and killed a dog, all within the four walls of my classroom. I have had numerous conversations with an elephant puppet and I recently told a 50 year old gentleman that “I have wet myself”.

Yes, I may be naïvely enjoying this wonderful teaching bubble I’ve just entered. But I expect, no doubt, to be tearing my hair out in the weeks and months to come. Especially when I have groups of moody teenagers and hyperactive 8 year olds to manage… Only time will tell.

Benvenuti in Italia

I had left my life in Brussels and was only 16 small hours away from setting out on my next journey, when I receive a text:

“Apologies, FR 2242 06/06/2014 has been cancelled, click the link to rebook free of charge/request a refund. Check your email.”

Great joke. I check my emails:

“Title: Flight Cancellation: Booking Reference XXXXX”

Ok, that does not look good.

“Message: Dear Customer,
Ryanair sincerely apologises for the cancellation of your flight FR2242, from Manchester to Bologna on the 06-09-2014.

Please see below the 2 options available to you (…)”

$%&#! … Chuffin’ marvellous.

And from thereon started my reintroduction to Italy. Sciopero #1 before I’d even landed in the country. Perfect.

Oh Bologna!

When I finally arrived in the centre of Bologna however the sun was beating down and the smell of fresh coffee, pizza and pollution welcomed me with open arms. I was back.

During the next few days I was pleasantly reminded about the subtleties that Italy carries. I often wonder if Italians themselves, particularly the bolognesi, realise the beauty, the rhythm, the madness and pure ridiculousness in which they live.

Sun, food, portici, aperitivi, caffè, public transport…

So far so good. My news on the job front deserves its own post. But for now, let’s just say the biggest stress I’ve had in the last two weeks has been where to put my fairy lights…!

Ciao for now!

 

Running my first marathon

Weekend after weekend I’ve sat down to put into writing my London marathon experience. I completed the race almost 8 weeks ago…it’s fair to say I failed time and time again on managing it.

Let me do it again. Please.

That is not something I ever thought I’d say. Long over two months ago, after completing my torturous last run, when I imagined running the full 26(.2) miles most of my mind was focused on how on earth do I get through to the end? Would the last 4 miles be as painful and emotionally upheaving as I was imagining? I didn’t give much thought to the first 22 miles as I’d hit that milestone in training. I had accepted that I would have to walk a fair bit, have to stop to stretch out my aches and pains, swear an awful lot more than is reasonably acceptable…and so on.

Can I make it?

During tapering – a period of time before the race where runners are told to “take it easier and let the body recover” – I started to feel lazy, not confident, really question my ability to complete the whole thing, Thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish made me feel guilty after all the successful fundraising I’d completed and had been a part of, unnerved that I wasn’t going to be able to withhold my part of the deal. At one point I questioned if I would even make it half-way; despite running a half-marathon had practically become commonplace every weekend. Tapering plays with the mind. Fact.

 

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
― Dr. Seuss

 

Sunday April 13, London. The sun was shining, I’d eaten my standard pre-long run breakfast of a large bowl of cereal and banana with a slice of extra toast on top for good measure (and a jam sandwich in my bag “just in case”… as I did start to question if I was about to just get on a Tube across London or venture out on a Hobbit-like adventure). I was full of excitement and thankfully my previous nerves had disappeared. My body felt great and my mind prepared; I was ready and raring to go.

I pressed play on my iPod, noting my start time, and crossed through the start line. For the first 7 miles I was very conscious of my pace, being in a new environment – with thousands of people running alongside me, live music on almost every other bend, spectators cheering every step of the way – there was a multitude of distractions. However it was these ‘distractions’ that powered with an overwhelming amount of confidence, pride and happiness that drove me to keep pushing and not stop.

 

 

Highlights:

  • Feeling the party spirit at the Cutty Sark as the first ‘big crowd’ appeared with live brass music
  • Waving at friends and family shortly after
  • Hi-fiving the enthusiastic grinning little boy at 5 miles who, when I had a slight pang of regret and fear about what was still to come, filled me with the positivity I needed
  • Running over Tower Bridge
  • Leaving Canary Wharf and knowing the finish line is now closer than the start
  • The hi-fiving cheering penguin who shocked me back to realising that running a marathon IS fun
  • Seeing dozens of runners having massages and stretching on the road side, realising that my legs actual feel fine and there is lots more left in them, willing me to push on around the corner only to witness the O2 arena come into view
  • Lucozade gels at 18 miles
  • Shower at 20 miles
  • Running alongside: a sunflower, endangered rhinoceroses, Pink Lady apples, a Viking knight, a fridge, a toilet, oh and the Jamaican bobsleigh team (inc. ‘bobsleigh’)
  • Exiting the bridge after 22 miles, breaking the longest distance I’d ever ran, feeling elated to the point of tears
  • Grinning at myself at the ridiculousness of realising I can’t cry because that would mean I can’t breathe (kind of crucial to finishing a marathon)
  • Entering the shade of the tree-lined Embankment
  • Turning the last corner alongside the Houses of Parliament knowing that in 10minutes I will have finished
  • Seeing the Gates of Buckingham Palace, then the red-painted final 100m stretch to the finish line
  • ‘Sprinting’ up to and through the finish line!

 

“Experience is not what happens to a man: it is what a man does with what happens to him” – Aldous Huxley

The reason why I have been able to put my reflections ‘on paper’ now: it’s closure. It is helping draw to an end what has been a significant chapter of my life (I call it ‘Obsessive Running’). The encroaching future is now full of delights that I have to look forward to, to focus my energy upon. For now, I am filled with pride and satisfaction with the knowledge that with those 24 miles I completed a lifetime achievement. Regardless of anything else that comes my way, I know that I can muster up (from somewhere) an obscene amount of will and determination, even when I don’t think it’s possible, to get to where I need to be. With this in mind and looking ahead at what’s to come; I’m pretty excited…

Counting down

I started training in early November 2013. That’s over 5 months of relentless training in preparation for this marathon, almost half a year. To put that into perspective, during that same amount of time other things happened such as:

People travelled and grew beards – whereas I ran.

Puppies became dogs – whereas I ran.

Plants became forests – whereas I ran.

Babies were made – I still ran.

Houses were built – whereas , yep you guessed it, I ran.

During this time I’ve taken note, to the best I could, of each run, jog and training session I did. Looking back, the first 45 minute Fartlek session I did– glorified interval training as I see it – was, in a hailstorm I might add, my first experience of what I could only then describe as “euphoric pain”. Today that session feels so long ago. Now I don’t think twice about going out for a 45 minute session of sprint trials; it’s become second nature to just tie up my laces, pump out some Avicii and get moving. I relish the post-training glow.

Shoelaces tied over 80 times

Over 3600 minutes jogging

Over 65 hours outside in all weather conditions

Close to 650 km (400 miles) travelled

Endless litres of water drank

Kilos of pasta eaten

Evenings lost to stretching

Mornings lost to achy limbs

 This all totals up to a questionable amount of time spent in running Lycra.

Lycra

Since then running has become my life. It has dictated what I do, how I eat, when I meet people. Marathon training has been the pivotal focus of my life for close to the past 6 months; a physically and mentally overwhelming period. On reflection, despite the moaning, the aching, the desire to ‘get back my social life’, I have become a person who has actually enjoyed pushing these limits. I have enjoyed being so consumed by an activity than I ever thought possible – or humanly sane (it’s probably not). So regardless of the tremendous amount of effort that I’ve need to push through this training, I am now excited for race day, excited to prove what I’ve been doing for the past 22 weeks.

Yes, I feel sick to the stomach, on top of what could just be superficial concerns – about the weather, my iPod dying, losing my sunglasses – I am anxious that something major could still go wrong that would prevent me from starting or worse, make me have to drop out so close to the end.

Yet, despite all these panic-inducing feelings I above all feel proud of where I’ve come from. I feel proud, more so, of those who I know have also been training, some individuals with no running experience at all and yet who have pushed through boundaries that they too never thought existed, yet are now against all odds ready to face the London Marathon. It is these people above all who have inspired me, and fill me with the hope and pride that will push me through the finish line after 26.2 miles.

From 5 months, down to 5 days, I’m ready. London Marathon 2014: Bring it on.

Donate: http://www.justgiving.com/barclaycard2014/

Friends on the road

I had lost my iPod charger. Which meant that for my final, longest run, before the day – all 22 miles – I was to be without an iPod…it surely wouldn’t last the full distance on a red light. As if I wasn’t nervous enough about such a distance since my last long run…

Me, Myself and iPod

My solution, mainly to help me keep my sanity, was to reel in the friends. Now, normally as a sole runner – just me, myself and iPod – I was anxious about what good these people could actually do and how they would probably mess up my rhythm, that they were just going to be a hindrance and ultimately mess up my last, potentially most important long run to date.

The sun was shining, but my iPod was on its last legs before I’d even set foot outside. My first recruit joined me at the 8km mark, my headphones were abandoned and the catch-up chitchat began. Some 15 km later my friend is still with me, whether through actual enjoyment or maybe because I’d taken a route unknown to him through a forest and he was ultimately lost and afraid to be left alone. I’d completed over half of my full distance for the day, and I’d barely noticed. I’m breathing fine; I’m laughing; and have learnt all the juicy gossip about my friend’s personal life.

Soon we meet my second recruit, perfect timing as the first has just, unintentionally, ran 20 km, and is ready to call it a day. With new water supplies being passed around, for which I’m grateful as the sun was becoming relentless and I could feel a dull ache starting in my legs, we continued on for the last 12 km. Some more catching-up, albeit a lot less talkative on my part at this stage, helped me the next 5 km until the dull ache started to nag a bit more persistently. Reflecting back on how negative I felt during this stage on my last sole long-run, I was now comparatively fairly content, even if it was because there was somebody there just to give a sympathetic ear to my cursing. The last mile came and I could probably have been walking faster than I was ‘running’. I stopped a few times to stretch out some dodgy knee pain and an excruciatingly achy back. Each time I just wanted to curl on the floor and stop, my friend would make sure I got home right? But no, he nagged, he annoyingly beckoned, he persuaded me to keep going. Even though the only thing my legs wanted to do were to stop, my head was now focused on keeping going. So 22.3 miles and a little over 4 hours later I reached my target for the day, cursed a little more, drank some water, and smiled. I hobbled aside to stretch out, I cursed some more, I smiled. I walked back to get a shower, I smiled.

Running long distance can be a complete bitch, especially when there are factors such as weather conditions and no music that have the ability to mess up your run. This run proved that running long distance can be fun, especially when you have people to support you, to cheer you on, to not lose faith in you even when you’re so close to doing so yourself.

Friends are who make us stronger than we ever think we can be

So to all those who have supported me – in every shape and form – up until now, you supporters who will be there cheering the runners on in London on 13 April, the runners who will be beside me on the day (you may not know it, but you are already my friends), this is my eternal Thank You!

 

Donate: http://www.justgiving.com/barclaycard2014/

Too emotional to care?

It’s been a while since I’ve put my training progress down on (hypothetical) paper. This does not mean that I have quit, far from it in fact. The main, overriding, single reason is that there has been little I could really say about my training at the time; apart from grunting and a wide range of expletives thrown in here and there for good measure.

“%$^#@!”

On reflection this past month has culminated to the most amount of physical exertion that my body has ever put itself through (roll on 13 April hey?) When I pushed 18 miles it coincided with the start of Belgian Spring time. The sun was out and those fine rays of heat were definitely noticeable as I rounded up my 3 hour-something Sunday jog. I took a long walk back to my apartment to help stretch out and ease off the hobbling.

Hitting the emotional wall

My next long run was to be 20 miles. I’d planned to deliberately slow my pace, as I knew I was currently running too fast to comfortably complete such a distance. It was this run that was the changing point in my training. I was alone. I had been running for almost 3.5 hours. Pain was starting to creep into my quads. “Why am I doing this?” (Not an unusual question to be asked.) “I can’t do this” – the first negative thought that has passed through my head since Christmas (nobody wants to train in freezing rain, on Boxing Day, but it had to be done). “I don’t want to do this”. That there, was the moment, at almost 19 miles, after I’d just completed an uphill section. My first glimpse of self-defeat.

For the next week I was concerned about my own emotional commitment to the Marathon. I reminded myself about why I’m doing this, the fundraising I’m undertaking, that helped push me a little further back into my positive comfort zone. But the realisation of potentially not being emotionally strong enough had really shaken me.

On top of this, being used to running at my half-marathon pace, running slower to allow myself to cover more distance came as the physical shocker. It made muscles scream which I never knew I had – how many more can there be? When I had previously reached 18 miles I was, what I believed, in the most amount of agony I thought possible. I was wrong. The timing of this 20 mile run also threw me. Used to completing 13 miles in less than 2 hours, it was demotivating to learn I was running slower than I was capable of – even though I knew this needed to be the case. This became one of the most crucial learning curves of my training., the saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” now resonates well with me on many levels.

 

Donate: http://www.justgiving.com/barclaycard2014/

Let there be cake

What’s a better way to help raise money for charity than to bake and eat cake? … Bake and eat LOTS of cake!

I’m running the London Marathon – in less than 7 weeks, which is a seriously scary yet equally exciting prospect – in aid of Cancer Research UK. A cause which touches the heartstrings for many reasons.

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So this weekend, I let the tables turn and  found myself having to squeeze in training around other activities. Lately I feel my everyday life has been dominated by my running regime, so I was pretty excited to get back in kitchen and throw some flour around. I revelled in baking heaven, passing away hours in the kitchen; staying up till 2am making chocolate muffins and quiches like a crazed women. Waking up early, making an olive focaccia dough and allowing it to prove while I got my weekend long run completed. But there was no rest for the wicked. There was still to be made: a Victoria Sponge, a Mascarpone and Berry tart, flapjack, Scotch Eggs and three types of sandwiches (obviously not forgetting the iconic triangular, crust-less cucumber morsels!) Add several large pots of Earl Grey, two dozen hungry guests and there we have a glorious Sunday Afternoon Tea – a perfect fundraiser!

A massive public heartfelt THANK YOU to all of those that came and supported the cause. I recommend such events (or any excuse to drink copious amounts of tea and eat cake) as a great way to raise money for charity! They are so much fun!

For donations: http://www.justgiving.com/barclaycard2014

Whine or wine?

As the training is getting more intense, the motivation is rapidly starting to dwindle. More and more frequently do I find myself asking “Why am I doing this?”, and more so “Do I really need to run today?”, “Another day of rest surely isn’t going to make a great difference”. Well it does.

So after a long 11-hour working day, the last thing that I wanted to do was go out in the frosty, dark night air and exert the remaining strands of energy that were left after such a day.

Here is what’s surprising; 7 km later, puffy faced and cold nosed, I found I was even more alive – invigorated one could say – than 1 hour previously on leaving the office. It’s reassuring to think, that even though a bath, a bowl of cheesy pasta and several glasses of red wine would have seemed more reasonable, it was in fact pounding the pavements into the evening’s late hours that was more self-satisfying. Satisfying because I felt like a new person again? Satisfying because the stresses of the day had disappeared? Or satisfying because I felt proud I had been able to shun away from the easier, indulgent, option? Whichever the case, I’m once step closer to hopefully making race day that little bit less painful.

Il Grasso

It was always going to be dangerous taking a long-weekend break to Italy mid-Marathon training. The food, the drink…the temptation. Now not only was it a trip to Italy, but it was a trip to Bologna – “il Grasso” (the fat one) – Italy’s food capital.

That was it, for three days I ignored the threat of the rapidly approaching race day and gorged. Just as one should when placed in the home of tortellini, ragù, mortadella. Not to mention it is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, which hosts world famous Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and balsamic vinegar. The list of mouth wateringly good foods is endless. Welcome to food heaven.

In the back of my mind there was the silently simmering guilt of taking three, (okay four) leisurely days ‘rest’. The quickest I moved was to top up my plate from the range of delicacies on offer at aperitivo time.

On deciding upon taking a day trip to Verona, we entered the North Italian region of Veneto – the birth place of Aperol Spritz. After a day of strolling through the Romanesque streets, the time came once again for apertivo and we sipped on this first-quenching, incandescent orange drink. With the mellow evening sun glowing on the grand ruins of the Veronese Arena, our bellies were warmed with fresh focaccia and the refreshingly bitter yet sweetly orange bubbles delicately danced around the palate, running was now not only a distant memory it was a near impossibility.

Aperol Spritz; it’s orange. Carrots are orange. Carrots are healthy. Aperol is healthy. That's how it works, right?

Aperol Spritz is orange. Carrots are orange. Carrots are healthy. Aperol is healthy.

Was this weekend of gluttony a bad idea? Does diverting from a training regime and diet really impair how you run? I guess only time will tell. But for now I’m going to have one last souvenir biscotti before I tie up my laces.