Tag Archives: inspiration

A pause

I’m flying. I’m out of Clearways and as I come round Clark Curve and onto the Brabham Straight, I wind the revs on and click up the gears, and I’m flying.

I crouch as low as I can over the long tank, in control of far too many kilos for the 48.6 bhp bike I am riding. I’m not fat, but there’s no escaping the fact that this bike was built for posing on Italian piazzas, not hurtling round race tracks.

I see my markers for Paddock Hill. I ease off, brake and tip in. I can’t see it but I know the apex is there just slightly round the corner.

I giggle in my helmet as I feel the swoosh and the splash as I hit the dip at the bottom of Paddock Hill and ride through the duck pond.*

I feel the wind hit my helmet and my arms as I come up Hailwood Hill, and I drift towards the left of the circuit to get ready for Druids. Not too far over, so no one can take an inside line and come past me, but enough to give me a good line into the corner and set up a good fast exit. My knee just skims the tarmac.

I come out of the corner, heading left again towards the edge of the circuit. Not too far over, as Graham Hill is next and I need to move over to the right for the entry to this one.

I tip in as cautiously as possible when trying to go fast on a track. It’s the only left hand corner on the circuit, and so the left side of my tyre will be considerably cooler than the right side.

I’m onto the Cooper Straight now, getting ready to flick through Surtees and McLaren. I know the medical centre is in sight but I won’t be visiting it with any luck. One day, I will turn left here, but for now it’s straight over and ready for Clearways.

My line is terrible through here. I’ve been taught the right line, but I’m not going fast enough on it and it feels wrong, so I am always trying to find a better one for the speed I am going at. My knee touches the floor again, and then I’m into Clark Curve and back onto the Brabham Straight.

It has taken me just over a minute. One day it will be less. I have  hardly breathed. My heart is beating so hard and my legs and arms are shaking so much I will struggle to get off my bike afterwards.

I’ve been here on sunny days, on rainy days and on one freezing day in February when the icy cold air blowing down Hailwood Hill hit my lungs so hard I could barely breathe.

One time round Clearways, I was on the inside of the track, blocked in by a pack of bikes with much more power than mine. If I had braked, or hesitated or moved off line in any, the consequences would have been pretty serious. But I didn’t. I believed I could get round and I hung on, back into Clark and onto the Cooper Straight where the faster bikes would pull away again.

Another time, I spent a weekend here in baking hot sunshine,  watching World Superbikes with the hordes. I barely spoke to another soul, apart from the ice cream man. It was wonderful.

This is Brands Hatch and it’s one of my favourite places in the world.

It will be a while before my next visit, but when I shut my eyes I can hear my bike bouncing off the rev limiter and my kneeslider scraping on the tarmac.

I can feel the rubber of my Renthals and the end of my foot pegs digging into the middle of the sole of my boots. I feel one knee dink the tank as it grips on tight, as the other drops away towards the track.

I think of nothing else beyond getting safely round the next corner.

*a somewhat misnamed puddle, as it is tiny and no ducks go on it

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All is calm – Day 16

I’m just home from work, I feel sick from the bus journey home, I’m tired and I’m just starting to come down with yet another cold.

I live by the hills just north of Glasgow so obviously it’s raining outside.

I check my peak flow. It’s just above the self-imposed limit where running is questionable, but my chest feels OK and after being inside all day, I am desperate for some fresh air. I get changed and head out of the front door.

All my other winter running kit is in the wash so I’m wearing a pair of incredibly badly fitting running tights that were stashed at the back of the drawer in case of an emergency. They are slightly too see-through for daytime public consumption, and they don’t stay up without a good yank every couple of hundred metres.

I’m also wearing a very brightly coloured top that is too bright for daytime public consumption, especially when worn with these running tights. My colour coordination this evening leaves much to be desired.

It’s raining quite heavily now. I’m actually really glad about this because it means the footpaths won’t be icy, and so I am less likely to slip over.

It’s 16th December and this is my 16th day of running this month.

The reason for this madness is Marcothon.

This is an informal challenge to run every day in December (including Christmas Day), for 3 miles or 25 minutes, whichever comes first.

I first heard of it last year, but didn’t think it was something I’d be able to do. The previous winter had been incredibly icy and my asthma had been pretty bad so I didn’t feel able to commit to running every day.

So instead, I challenged myself to log an 80 mile month, a challenge set by Bangs and a Bun, whose running/fitness blog had helped inspire me when I first started out on this incredible journey in early 2012.

As a direct result of my 80 mile month, I learned how to manage my asthma on really bad days. I pushed my distances way further than I thought was possible, and just when I thought I’d left it too late, I managed to clock up 50 miles in 8 days and completed the challenge.

Finishing last year's #80milemonth as the sun went down on 2013 - Hogmanay on the Forth Road Bridge
Finishing last year’s #80milemonth as the sun went down on 2013 – Hogmanay on the Forth Road Bridge

On my very worst asthma day last winter, I set out for a short run. It can take a while for my lungs to warm up sometimes, but this time nothing was happening. I almost turned round and went home. But I happened to look at my Strava and realised that not only had I already run a mile and would have to run a mile home again anyway, but it was a fast mile and I was on track to hit a new PB for 5k. So I carried on. I still have no idea where that came from, and it was another sign that my life had really changed.

This year, largely thanks to a great winter of training behind me (which itself was largely thanks to previously unknown levels of commitment and discipline), I did some amazing things. I have run, climbed, walked and cycled in some incredible places and covered some pretty impressive distances under my own steam.

After such a big year, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a bit of a dip. I didn’t finish my last race, back in early October. I took a couple of weeks off to rest and recover, and then just as I was hoping to start running again, I was absolutely flattened for the best part of three weeks with a sinus infection. I had wanted to get going again, but my body could barely make it from my bed to the sofa and back. I’d been incredibly unlucky, but there was nothing for it other than to let it take its course and wait until I was better.

I’d thought about entering the Highland Fling in April  but had no idea whether I was capable of completing it, certainly not in the state I was now in. ntries opened not long after my last race, and knowing it would quickly sell out, I needed to make up my mind pretty quickly.

I reminded myself that I’d felt the same way this time last year about entering my first marathon and ultra marathon, and committing to cycle up a big mountain in France. I had no idea whether I was capable of those either, but I’d said yes and then trained and prepared as much as I could. Knowing this had all paid off gave me a bit of confidence to put my Fling entry in.

We had a wonderful week’s holiday in the north west Highlands, with some running, walking and a bit of scrambling. Marcothon would start just after we got back and this year I felt ready to give it a go.

I didn’t expect to love it as much as I have.

I didn’t expect to see the results I’ve seen.

In just over two weeks, I’m pretty much back to the speed I was running at the start of the year when I’d set a 5k and 10k PB. Admittedly these are short distances compared to my ‘normal’ preferred distances, and nothing like the terrain I will be running on come race day, but given how bad my chest has been recently, frankly I am astonished.

The first week, I was absolutely shattered. Even running half an hour a day on top of a normal working day was more than I had done for a few weeks. But within a few days, I felt fine. My legs haven’t been sore at all, just a little tired on a longer run on Saturday.

The hardest days so far have been Day 3, when I was just getting going again and really struggled to shove myself out of the front door, and Day 9 when I had to run at 6am because I was out in the evening and would be in no fit state to run when I got home.

Icy footpaths have been a bit scary, but the worst thing about the ice has been having to slow down when my legs have felt ready to go faster.

I miss running in the daylight, but I know that logging these winter miles will mean that once again I will be ready to make the most of the long summer evenings when they come.

Running is responsible for so much of the good stuff in my life, and the fitness it has given me has pushed me on to do other things as well.

Marcothon has reminded me of just how much I love running, and how despite this being my third winter of training, it still feels like a complete novelty that I’m able to do it, especially in this part of the world.

I feel a bit more like my old self again. There’s a challenge on the table and I know what I am working towards. Away from running, this isn’t always the case, but it’s amazing how having a running goal keeps me going in other areas of life too.

And everything stops

I was on my way home last night and just for a few moments, I had to stop. I could hear a familiar pattern of notes coming from a guitar. I wasn’t close enough to the busker to start with, but as I made my way further down Sauchiehall Street, I recognised the song. The tears came and just for a little moment or two, I couldn’t move.

A few years ago one of my friends was killed. As is common in the bike racing world, people who you don’t know terribly well and don’t see terribly often become friends, because of shared experiences and passions. It can be hard to describe why you love doing something so dangerous to those who have never tried it, but with people who have, there’s a kind of shortcut and you don’t have to explain.

The church was packed to the rafters with standing room only, and the first few bars of Hallelujah started up as her funeral started.

It’s a beautiful song which I’ve tried to play many times on the harp. As I settle into the next phase, where there are no big plans on the immediate horizon, maybe this will be something to work on. I’m a lot better at playing through strong emotions now, and I hope I can use them to bring something special to my arrangement.

I’ve been a bit guilty of wishing my life away lately, worrying about the future and making plans for next year so I have something to focus on over the winter.

L/G always reminds me to think of the here and now. I am desperately sad that she has gone, but happy that she had and continues to have such a positive impact on my life.

I hope the weather is kind tomorrow as I fancy a bike ride. I haven’t said that in a long time.

At last …. some Strings!

Given the title of this blog, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth had happened to the harp. As it happens, the harpist has been pretty quiet too, but the world of full time work has been something of a shock after almost a year away from an office of any kind and it has taken a while to adjust to a different pace of life once again.

I left the RCS at the end of October. It was a horrendously stressful time for all manner of reasons, but finally the final bowline was thrown off and the house down south was no longer mine. In its place, a lot of debt and still far too much clutter in the current abode. But the weight had well and truly lifted. January 1st/2nd/3rd came and for the first time in 12 years, no mortgage payment left my bank account. I had made huge sacrifices each month to pay my bills, and it was very hard adjusting to the fact that financially, I had made some dreadful mistakes that I will be paying for for some years to come.

But. I have a supportive family, brilliant friends both old and new, and the constant that is a pair of furry but windy greyhounds.

I’ve had a long break from the harp. I played in a Remembrance Day concert in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, an experience both good and bad for reasons that are not to be shared here. I vowed never to work again for nothing. I promised myself I would never again play orchestral music I didn’t love.

A couple of weeks later, I played the beautiful harp cadenza from the Ravel Piano Concerto with a local orchestra. I had studied the cadenza as part of my first year technical exam at the RCS, and had struggled with it. After  a few months in the pot though, it had matured and felt much more breathy and effortless, which is exactly how it should sound. Nerves on the night got to me a little, but I did a reasonable job and it was wonderful to hear the concerto in its entirety. The harp has a very small part and so I could relax and really listen to the piano. This is one of my favourite pieces of music and was a very special experience.

I then had a late request to play Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio in mid December. This is a gorgeous piece for small ensemble and choir, and was performed in a traditional Scottish kirk on the Southside of Glasgow in an area I had come to know very well. I was dreadfully nervous and unfortunately didn’t play as well as I had hoped. However, it was followed by a good singalong of some carols afterwards and then curling up in front of Match of the Day with company for the first time in many years, so turned out to be a pretty special night.

I’d had high hopes of videoing a couple of carols for friends and family as a Christmas present, but after the Saint-Saens, I was pretty much done for. The harp spent some time wrapped up safely, and I went running and climbed hills a lot.

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The harp didn’t emerge until the middle of January, when he went on an extended holiday to a very smart house again in the south of the city. I was knocked for six by the green eyed monster as I wheeled my harp into their music room which was bigger than the whole downstairs of my house. But I was glad that I was able to help another harpist out of a predicament, and very glad my harp was being played and enjoyed.

There has been much musing on whether to continue playing at all. If I continue to play, at what level? What do I play? Who with? Am I professional? Semi-professional? Amateur? None of the above? Most importantly, do I keep the object worth a five figure sum that I will be paying for for another three years, that takes up a whole room in my house and dictates the car I drive?

All You Need is Love?

You can probably guess some of the answers. Mostly, they are along the lines of I don’t know. But this is reason enough not to sell my harp. I do want to play, and play regularly. Listening to some brilliant music and great radio programmes keeps me in touch with something that is a huge part of me, and reminds me I have a talent that I enjoy sharing in the right ways for me.

Most of all I love playing with others. I love quirky, off beat, different, unexpected. In my old town I was lucky enough to find a bunch of musicians I adored playing with, and who pushed me in directions I never could have imagined.

Back to reality

 

Back to reality

I have struggled without them, and the time has come to begin the search for some others to join in with. This is a scary prospect, and I’m not quite ready to jump right in just yet.

I’ve been inspired by revisiting some of my favourite albums and songs, listening to the radio in the car on the way into work and on the motorway on my way to visit my family.

I’ve been to some brilliant gigs, and travelled to hear and play music in some incredible places. Music has changed me and continues to do so.

I know a few things for certain:

I’m not giving up.

I’m still a harpist, and a musician, and a good one at that.

I have a good tone and a good technique, and I don’t need to worry about not being good enough (whatever that means).

I love performing.

I have something to say.

If I put on a concert I can entertain an audience and they will come back again.

I love practising but am easily distracted when things become busy or stressful.

I’m not selling my harp. Unless it’s for a better one and even then I would struggle.

I love classical music.

I love pop music. In fact there is very little music I don’t love other than happy hardcore (blimey remember that!!).

I don’t have enough hours in the day. But who does.

Other than that, I don’t know. And I’m fine with that.

Two halves, a bit of a hole, and a very important cow

*LONG POST, GET COFFEE*

In September last year, newly arrived off the M6/M74, I remembered seeing fluorescent signs on the roads near my new house warning of a road race coming up. I looked it up, but a half marathon looked like a step too far after my recent triathlon efforts.

This year, Applecross had been and gone, and I found myself with a worryingly empty weekend approaching. Someone was looking out for me though, as the previous year’s race popped into my head while queuing in the Co-op. I got home, found the entries for the Neil McCover Half Marathon (the Kirky Half for short) closed in four hours, my decision was made and the entry was in for the coming weekend.

13.1 miles. The furthest I’d run/walked before this was 10 miles. I’d done this once. I’d done a few hilly 9 milers but I’d never run any further than 10 on tarmac. The furthest I’d gone without stopping for a brief walk or two was 6 miles. At my steady 11-minute mile-ish pace, I would finish just within 2h30 if I could keep going. The website suggested preferred completion within this time otherwise marshall cover would be withdrawn but I was pretty confident I could do it.

The day before the race, I made the mistake of checking the previous year’s times. I was going to be last. I had a big wobble. Having spent most of my bike racing career bringing up the rear, albeit with a huge smile and a lot of giggles, once again I found myself wondering what on earth I was trying to prove, why I needed to spend £20 on a run I could go out and do on my own any time.

The day came. The weather had looked a bit grim ahead of the weekend, and at 6am on the first hound turn-out, it was looking pretty biblical. Others were away on Arran and I felt for them. A couple of hours later and there was some blue sky in evidence. I contemplated pulling out, still questioning what I was doing while my bed was warm, but the need to not waste money and the constant new-girl-in-town buzz of “go along, you never know who you might meet and sitting at home being miserable won’t change anything” helped push me out of the front door.

Lots of very serious looking people were warming up around the start line but I found another girl who was there on her own and we chatted away. She had done her first half marathon a few months before and finished in 2h06min. I was thrilled for her but it didn’t help the nerves, especially as she was running by her own admission in a 99p vest from Asda and what looked suspiciously like a wonderbra.

Eventually we got started. The pack pushed on, and soon there were just a few of us towards the back. It was an interesting experience running along closed roads where I’d normally sit for ages in traffic, and this was my first race with no cycling or swimming involved – ‘just a run’ albeit a long one.

Before very long at all, I was right at the back. Being kerb-crawled by a police car and a St Johns Ambulance. This certainly kept me focused but didn’t exactly settle the nerves any further. I was pleased to trot happily up the hills and before I knew it I was turning off towards Milton of Campsie, again all along roads I’d normally drive along.

There were some cows and sheep in the field next to the road, and I couldn’t help noticing that one cow was ignoring all the others. There was plenty of lovely green grass and friends to moo with in his/her field, but he/she was out on his/her own and had stuck his/her head all the way through the fence in search of more/better grass. It didn’t look particularly comfy, but I had to admire him/her for his/her spirit.

I missed a couple of the mile markers after mile 4, but did notice a little girl in a pram who was waving at us as we ran along. I hoped she wasn’t getting too wet/cold. By this point, I had company in the form of another runner. Angela and I would trade places and chat/puff pretty much the rest of the way round.

At one point I could almost see my front door, and guessed I was approaching the half-way mark. I was still accompanied by the police car, but the ambulance had now turned into 2 ambulance people on bikes. I had to use my inhaler a couple of times as it was rather damp – I was dreading them being over-enthusiastic and pouncing on me in their excitement at something happening. By this point, my lucky knickers had headed into a rather uncomfortable position, but with my entourage so close behind, there was no way I could do anything about them.

Miles 6-7, 7-8 and 8-9 felt like very hard going. Once I got to 9 miles, things started to lift, although I realised that at 11 minutes per mile, I still had at least 44 minutes to run. But, I was still running. By this point, I had decided that police car or no police car, I was going to keep going to see what would happen. I knew if I stopped to walk on the flat I probably wouldn’t get going again.

A big hill came at mile 10, but I managed to keep going up it. Angela and I were swapping places happily, with heads down and a bit of chat when we could manage. Eventually, a point came where the police car couldn’t drive with us, and I was able to have a quick stretch and sort out the undie situation without giving the policeman an eyeful. I could just imagine the radio chat going on and didn’t want to add any further fuel to the fire.

Another hill came at mile 12. Again I kept going, but by now I was incredibly sore and ready to stop. The last mile was in and out of a housing estate and was deceptive as we really felt we were getting closer to the line. We could see the finish line flags but kept twisting around. The mile 13 marker appeared at last.

On the last corner, we were clapped and cheered by three girls who had waited to run the last bit with us. This really gave us a boost – so many people moan about young people today but here they were, on a Sunday morning probably with much better things to do, lifting our spirits and keeping us going. Angela asked if I wanted to share last place and I was thrilled to accept. We held hands over the line, even managing a brief sprint to a big cheer from those who were still hanging around at the finish.

I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I stopped my Strava and looked at my time – 2h27 something although I wasn’t sure how accurate it was. I was over the moon, in a very quiet and very tired way. I thanked the policeman for his patience and apologised for the likely state of his clutch. He patted his belly and said he admired our perseverance.

Angela’s friend Al was waiting for her at the line. Hugs were being doled out, and I wasn’t sure of the protocol but managed to claim one anyway. The hand of friendship was further extended and I joined them both for an utterly wonderful post-race hot chocolate. Facebook details were swapped, and this being Scotland we worked out who knew who else, and before long, just like that, I had a whole new world of people to run with….

…..And another race to enter, in a fortnight’s time!

The Antonine trail race had been mentioned in a new Facebook group I’d joined at Angela’s suggestion. At 13.8 miles long, it was just over the half-marathon distance I’d done but being off-road it was much more my normal thing. It also had the advantage of being just down the road again. With nothing else planned, I put an entry in. I knew it would be hilly so wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the whole lot, but I was really happy to be going somewhere completely new.

I felt immensely pleased that I was at a stage with my running to be able to enter not just one but two half marathons, on a whim, with just a week to go before race day, and to know I’d done enough work to have a decent chance of finishing. I’ll never be particularly quick but this does have its advantages, in that even the smallest of improvements are celebrated with great joy.

A couple of days before, I found out I would have some company on the start line and at the end. This was really appreciated and made the build up just that bit more special. It was great to share the chat afterwards, although I was in pretty lousy shape at the end this time.

I found this race much, much tougher. The going under foot was much more varied, making things more entertaining but harder work. Ankle deep mud, bogs, tree roots, slippy wooden boards, gravel, rubble, tarmac, there was everything other than ice and snow. I was in my trail shoes, and had never done a long/mixed run in these. With the state of my ankle, I am a bit more sensitive to shoes than I’d like, but I’m getting there.

I had to stop to walk a couple of times – I wasn’t sure whether this was down to me being tired or down to the route. I had much more company at the back this time, and swapped around with a handful of others. There was only one other girl running on her own, everyone else seemed to have brought someone with them. The majority of my running is done on my own, I’ve never really known anything else and am totally content with my own company while I’m huffing and puffing away.

A swan appeared briefly just after the mile-8 marker, and disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived. This picked me up no end, for reasons I won’t go into here.

The route sits just across the other side of the Kilsyth Hills, which are the eastern end of the Campsie Fells and are a major part of home for me. I drive past them almost every day for work. If they’re on the left of me, it’s the morning. If they’re on the right, I’m on my way home. On race day however, the route twisted and turned and I kept losing track of where I was in relation to everything else, expecting to see the hills on my right but finding them somewhere else.

Again there were 2 hills of particular note – one at mile 9/10 which was a beautiful run up through a forest. I could have been anywhere in the world but was really happy to be enjoying myself in my adopted homeland. It was a gorgeous morning by now, there was some sunlight shimmering through the trees in between the showers, and I felt very lucky to be out enjoying the scenery.

Coming down this hill, the monster mile-12 Croy Hill suddenly came into sight. I could see a variety of different colours of running kit working their way up it and my heart sank. I was craving Jelly Babies by this point, and almost utterly depleted. So I couldn’t believe my luck when a very kind marshall appeared with a magic yellow packet of just what I desired. There was a faintly magical feel to the day for a variety of reasons, just a general sense of being looked after by others who weren’t there, and so I took a handful of my favourites – the orange and yellow ones – and set off up the hill.

Ever since I started running, I’ve often felt a magical hand between my shoulder blades, pushing me on when I know I should be stopping. I can’t explain it, but at the same time, I know exactly why it is. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s a wonderful feeling and very much welcome when it comes. Today was one of those days, but this time the signs were manifesting themselves in the physical world a little more than was usual.

I’ve not done a lot of hill walking for a very long time, but what I have been lucky enough to do this summer really helped me up this particular hill. Others were flagging but I kept myself going.

The last mile came, and headed back down towards the start of the race. There were a couple of small hills before the end, and for some reason I decided I needed to run up these. The last one was a total mistake and I felt the sudden and very real terror of an approaching asthma attack. The sharp and audible rasp, the complete contraction of my lungs like when you scrunch up a crisp packet, and the feeling of a very determined elephant being sat on my chest and stomach.

I tried to keep calm but the tears started to come and I knew if I couldn’t pull myself together I would be wearing a nebuliser at the end. I heard someone shouting/cheering at me from further down the path and I got more upset. As I got closer, I realised who it was (he’d got changed from his running kit!) and started to panic even more which was very silly. Somehow I managed to calm down and keep breathing and made it to the line. Gradually everything subsided, but it was incredibly frightening and I was glad not to be on my own.

The first race hurt more in my hips and my feet – I had several layers of blister on my big toe (thanks to my road shoes) which took a good few days to calm down. I felt OK the next day as long as I kept moving. Sitting down for 2 hour long lectures was definitely not a good idea though. By the day after, I felt fine.

The second race really tired me out. My legs were fine the day after, but it took me a good couple of days to really bounce back from it. I’ve lost a stone in a six-week period, unintended and mostly due to not eating enough through house-selling stress. This is a lot for a small person. I’m not sure how much of an impact this has had on how I felt after both runs. It wouldn’t have made me any faster, but maybe I’d have felt a bit more with it afterwards. Definitely something to think about though, as the urge becomes stronger to run further and further to new places.

So now I’m left with a bit of a hole. I hadn’t planned anything else after Applecross beyond continuing to enjoy my running over the winter, but I’ve been grateful for having a couple of big things in the diary. I doubt I would have run all 13.1 miles for quite a while if I’d just been out running on my own. I’ve also met some brilliant people, been supported by some brilliant marshalls, and enjoyed being in the company of others who also enjoy what I enjoy. There are lots of routes planned for the winter, partly to push my distances but really just to continue to enjoy myself being outside in the country that has become home.

I was awful at sports at school, excluded because of my asthma and too frightened to challenge this because it meant getting my wobbly thighs out in front of all the thin girls. My dad always described me as built for comfort not for speed. He’d hate it if he knew now but I carry those words with me everywhere, and when I look in the mirror, even at a body that is shrinking before my eyes, all I see is an overweight teenager.

Even my mum had to ask what the aliens had done with her daughter when I said I was doing my second half and going in for a marathon next year. It has always felt like a bit of a joke, but I guess I can call myself a runner now.

So what of the cow? I’m sure it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do to stay in the field and eat grass with your mates. Sometimes it’s right to poke your head through the fence in search of something new, something better, even if it means risking getting stuck, or hurt, or worse. Sometimes it’s right to move between the two. There’s only one way to find out.

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Mooching of an afternoon

(Written on a gloriously wi-fi free Thursday)

This afternoon finds me in Leiden in the Netherlands. A quick tot up on the plane revealed that this is my most visited country which both surprised me and made me happy.

I’ve been here before, on a school trip some 20+ years ago. I can’t remember why we came to Leiden, I think it was on the way to somewhere else. We didn’t see much anyway, other than a slightly strange artistic installation of wedding dresses in one of the canal basins.

This time I’m here for a rather different reason. This is my second visit to the Jazz Harp Academy. It’s a full-circle thing – the first time I came in 2010, it was in a bid to do something that scared me silly during one of the lowest points in my life.

It worked, and led to many wonderful things, including my move to Glasgow. I met a very dear friend and we have supported each other on our own individual musical adventures.

We are very similar and yet very different. Someone asked how they would recognise us to collect us from the airport once. I said we are both very small with big smiles and we will probably be the noisiest people there as we will be laughing so much.

My friend arrives this evening so I made the most of an afternoon in a different place. For all intents and purposes it’s a new place, as I don’t really recognise any of it.

It was raining heavily when I got off the train from Amsterdam. The windmill count was up to 2 within 15 minutes. I saw a museum and wondered about going in, but at 11 euros I decided against it. Not a huge sum but I figured I could make better use of the time and money.

I had a map but only used it to make sure I was heading in the right direction from the station to check out the venue for the next few days. Other than that, I just strolled, taking whichever street or canal I fancied.

It is so quiet here. It’s a mixture of old and new and they sit comfortably with each other.

The reason for the peace is the humble bicycle. This is Holland, where the bike is king. Near the station, bikes are all you can see wherever you look. There is an occasional car in the town but they are conspicuous by their sound.

I found a gorgeous cafe to have lunch in. I settled down with a book and enjoyed seeing the world going past outside. The cafe was quiet too – unusually in a world of piped music, there was no soundtrack at all, not even a radio. I enjoyed this. I’m a musician but there are times where silence is just what’s needed.

I’m reading Miles Davis’s autobiography and have just read about the first time he heard Thelonious Monk play. He was struck by the spaces left in between the notes as much as the notes themselves.

My harp has 47 strings and 7 pedals. As a classical harpist, when I’m improvising I often feel obliged to use as many of these as possible. (With some orchestral parts it is not so much expected as compulsory to use all of them at once!)

This often adds unnecessary pressure and complexity, and leaves no space for breathing (for me or the music) or thinking about what comes next.

My first time at the jazz academy taught me the importance of listening to what was going on around me, and thinking about bass, rhythm and lead. Now when I create music of my own, I try to use as few notes as possible, to leave room.

It’s hard to find space in everyday life, and today has been a great opportunity to sit, to breathe and to think before the next few days of full-on learning and bashing against my comfort zone in an attempt to push myself forwards som more.

My afternoon cost me considerably less than 11 euros, but was worth much, much more and I’ve probably learnt more than I would have done in the museum. It did have an awesome totem pole outside, though, so I’m off for a proper look at that tomorrow.

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Transition….Transmission

Often, when people make big changes in their lives, you hear lots about the good things. There is a lot of pressure (mostly put there by you) to demonstrate it’s all working out and was the best move you ever made.

Sometimes, it goes catastrophically wrong. Whether the signs are there or not, actually realising and accepting that things are not how you thought they would be, and aren’t going to be no matter what you do, is incredibly difficult and very very painful.

Three weeks ago, I had another one of those defining moment phone calls, of the variety that I haven’t had since 2010 and before that, 2007. The news was devastating – another buyer had pulled out of the sale of my house, at the eleventh hour, and after months of waiting for them to sort everything out with lots of reassurance from all sides.

The feasibility of the Scottish adventure rested on the sale of the house. I’d fought very hard to keep afloat over the last year, and it was becoming harder and harder to keep going, both financially and emotionally. This was a house I’d bought with my ex husband expecting to raise a family in, and then worked hard to keep after we separated as it was the longest I’d ever lived in one place and the most ‘at home’ I’d felt anywhere.

Gradually after some bad news at the start of 2012, I came to realise that life had moved on from the hopes that took me to that house and had kept me feeling at home there. Nothing was going to change without a pretty drastic step, and I felt sure I could make the break, with just the house situation to deal with.

I’d hardly eaten in the two weeks before as everything became more and more stressful. Constant requests for ridiculous paperwork, phonecalls to and from so-called professionals every 5 minutes. This was the day when an exchange had been promised and it hadn’t happened. It got nearer 5pm and it became obvious nothing was going to happen that day, but I missed a call on my mobile and then it was returned later on.

Now it was all broken. In the grand scheme of things, nobody died and nobody else had cancer. In terms of the immediate impact on me and everything I’d worked for, it was pretty significant.

But I was on my way to Applecross, one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, for the duathlon I was so excited about. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to get enough of the distress out of my system to promise myself I wouldn’t let it spoil the weekend.

I slept but barely ate. I was excited about the event itself but at the same time as this, I was dreading the run and was extremely apprehensive about the ride. I knew I needed to get some food down my neck but didn’t want to risk the upset of being even more sick.

On the run, I couldn’t get into a rhythm for the life of me. I’d run a lot in the preceding weeks – I was wary of doing too much after being ill the month before, but I was loving my running and didn’t want to stop. Whether it was the lack of any meaningful food or too much running before, even after my requisite 3 mile warm up period, nothing was happening and it was all I could do to keep walking. Sometimes this can be an asthma issue, but not this time – just nothing in the tank.

I’d swapped to the Challenge to remove the pressure of possibly missing the cut-off time, which meant I didn’t need to worry about getting back and could take my time.

The wildness of the landscape was staggering. I’d been to Skye before, and to the Summer Isles just a fortnight before. But I’d never been that far off the main road, let alone the beaten track, and I’d had company. Now, I was out on a sunny day pretty much on my own. A couple of people behind me, and a good few a fair way in front. But if I’d had Inspector Gadget style arms, had I reached them out to both sides, they would have gone for miles without touching anything other than sheep and mountains.

At one point, I looked behind me and the mountains around Torridon took my breath away. I wanted to stop for a photo, but knew this would mean seeing the time on my phone and I didn’t want to look at that. I promised myself I would come back, and would remember the sight for a very long time.

Geographically, I was completely isolated, probably the most alone I have ever been. But not lonely. Conversely, the most lonely I have ever felt was sat in a traffic jam on the M25, surrounded by people and cars as far as I could see, on my way home from a wedding I had played the harp for on what should have been my own wedding day.

I realised I was getting nearer the Transition area. At the start of the run, I’d wondered if I would make it round the bike ride. The humiliation of not getting up the hills and/or crashing trying to get out of my pedals was worrying me after a rather embarrassing incident up the Tak ma Doon nearer home.

By the time I got to the last mile of the run (on tarmac which felt very strange), I had calmed right down and was excited about the ride. The thought of those beautiful hills around Torridon had really lifted me, and I felt so lucky to be where I was. No thoughts were of the wider situation – I was truly enjoying the moment and loving every second.

Transition gave me a further lift – there were a few more people there than I had thought were immediately ahead of me, and I managed to head off before them. I even got a very unexpected sweaty sloppy kiss (not from a stranger I should add). I was really buzzing and looking forward to getting going after I’d fished my bike out of a small bog.

(The Transtion area at Applecross is not an average one!)IMG_2045

The hills came, and some of them were quite sharp, but I got over them. I talked to myself a lot and surprised myself with how much I could relax and still keep going. I went past a couple of people up a couple of the hills which amazed me. I guess being a few pounds lighter really does help!

A Eureka moment occurred when I finally realised the difference between tension and effort, something that is critical when playing the harp. I have been affected by tension-related injuries for a while, and my playing has often been restricted because I’ve become too tense. Feeling my legs working hard while my shoulders were completely relaxed was a pretty bizarre thing to get my head round, and I actually chuckled out loud.

I felt very connected with my bike and my body, and with the scenery which I just can’t describe adequately, and I was really, really enjoying myself.

Gradually I realised I’d probably done the last climb, and I cycled round the Bay towards the finish. The pipes at the end brought tears to my eyes, probably combined with the fact that I was shattered.

Although I’d had a good head start, I was one of the later finishers and it didn’t take long before most people had wandered away in search of tea and (wonderful!) cakes at the village hall.

This is my bike, doing a pretty good impression of how I felt afterwards. In need of a lie down. (Note the lucky Rossi turtle stickers had actually proved lucky this time by keeping me going)

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The evening brought some fabulous food and company in the Applecross Inn, having had a wander across the beach on the way to the pub. Finally I got my toes in the sea, for the first time since the Clacton triathlon last September. It was cold but there was no way I was missing out. For a girl who loves to be beside the seaside, it had felt like far too long.

Excellent beer, wonderful food and even more excellent whisky after a fantastic day spent in such a special place with someone you love is something to be treasured.

The Applecross leg of the Scottish adventure was over all too soon, but I know I will be back, and for longer next time. Crucially, the experience of being there, and the release that it brought, will keep me going for a good while yet.

I surprised myself by just how much I could leave behind when I really needed to, and when in such an incredible place.

Admittedly I was very very far from home, and I know this adds an extra dimension. Sometimes it can feel like going away won’t solve anything, that the same problems will be there when you return.

But this trip gave me a lot of strength to face the truth of what had happened, and to cope with the fallout that will come. Accepting you’ve made a mistake is very hard. Moving on from it and not letting it hold you back is even harder.

It might have taken a lot of strength to keep going physically (and I am really not sure where this came from!), but the emotional strength that comes from completing a significant physical challenge should not be underestimated.

September has been a difficult month. It started with such promise in the wilds of Achiltibuie, dancing (indeed shoogling!) insanely after the consumption of ‘some’ whisky and staggering back from a gig in utter darkness. It ended with another new start back at the RCS for the second year of my course. This had looked impossible even just a few days before, but sometimes even the most stubborn of us have to ask for help in difficult times, and it often comes from unexpected places.

(Thanks to Graham for this photo – if you look carefully, you can just see a person with her toes in the sea…)

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PS The post title is one of my favourite lyrics, from TVC15 by David Bowie. I loved the thought of going from transition where you are effectively faffing about and changing, to transmission and getting going again.