Madrid – Park Life

The sultry air hits you when you step off the plane. It always brings a smile to my face, too used to the English summer which doesn’t always get off the ground as soon as you want it to. I felt irresponsible, not knowing too much of the language, and not having a detailed route to get to my accommodation. I could have prepared better.

But I had instructions on which metro station to head to, and the ease of finding the metro, buying a ticket and finding the correct platform gave me the confidence that I would manage. Within 20 minutes I was out of the correct exit from the metro station and heading the right way along the street. One thing about Madrid, and Spain in general, is that there is impeccable street labelling.

Settled in and needing to find a supermarket, I ventured out and happened upon my nearest park. A slightly concrete affair, but with green beds and a children’s play area. The next day we had found a yoga class in the park and this was when I knew I could feel at home.

Retiro park is a haven for runners, walkers, body builders and yogis. Surrounded by big, busy roads, once you’re inside you can really breathe. Our entrance took us under a subway and past a saxophonist working hard to set the atmosphere. We found our green triangle and had an hour to soak up the morning sunshine, stretch and move gently to welcome the day. After breakfast across the highway, I decided I would spend some more time exploring the park: the formal gardens, the Crystal Palace, the boating lake and the roses. It was like a field of floral scent and colour. Ordered – but not the formal uptightness of an English garden – a more free-flowing approach of mixing together and sharing space.

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Retiro Roses

Day two was Parque del Oeste. A more higgledy-piggledy collection of spaces and rumours of another rose garden. We ran out of park a couple of times on our jog-sploration of it, but there it was. A beautiful arrangement of roses and ponds and fountains and pergolas. Leaving the rose garden we climbed the hill to finish our tour at the Templo de Dobod – an Egyption temple dismantled and rebuilt in its current locations guarding a most magnificent view of the casa de campo.

It was no surprise to me that I found more parks on my stay in Madrid. What I liked about them is that they are living, breathing, communal spaces. The community use them for exercising, for meeting people, for picnicking. It’s a real extension of the home and a perfect representation of the sociable Spanish culture.

 

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3000 miles: May

I’ve set myself the target to run, walk or cycle 3000 miles in 2017. 3000 miles is roughly the distance from London to sub-Saharan Africa. I’m doing this to raise awareness and funds for Cricket without Boundaries. If you enjoy reading these posts, please support me to support them by making a donation.

This was always going to be a tricky month to keep up momentum and keep adding to my mileage total with some travel and a conference to fit in.

As my ultra run was done and dusted, I figured I would dust off my bike. Rain stopped play a bit – it turns out that I’m still a fair weather cyclist, which may have to change. My first week of May, when I was determined I would actually up the run rate to start catching up on my target didn’t quite happen as I imagined. But I’m still incentivised to get out and get on.

Travel can disrupt any routine and being on tour made me wonder if it would even be possible to keep up any reasonable mileage. I was chastising myself for not going on a trekking holiday. But it seems that walking across cities does cover a reasonable number of miles. A few runs not only helped me to explore a bit further afield, but also added to my totals.

Harder was that once I was back, I was soon away again – this time for three days of a conference. I packed my running kit so I had no excuses. I did make it out and got to see a different part of town.

It’s hard, but I have a driver to keep going. Cricket without Boundaries works in 5 sub-Saharan countries in Africa to deliver cricket development alongside health and social messages. I will be volunteering to help coach children and coaches to support this worthwhile work. If you can support my fundraising with a donation, you can do that here.

Coming up:

  • 9 June: 50km walk
  • 23 July: Snowdon Trail Half Marathon
  • 10 September: New Forest Marathon

So far:

  • Total miles: 793
  • Miles remaining: 2207
  • Breakdown: walking – 250; running – 448; cycling – 95
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Seville – finding my inner flamenco

“If you want to catch a parrot, build a cage”

I’m in Seville, hunting for my inner flamenco. I was expecting it to ooze from every plaza, with passion and music and dance surrounding me as soon as I stepped off the train. In stead I found a modern, business like station, where the trains arrived on time and there was clear signage to the orderly taxi queue.

The Spanish are night animals. I’m an early bird and arriving after a gin-fuelled night in Madrid meant flamenco-searching was reduced to a trip to Lidl and my Spotify playlist.

Day two, surely I’d find it today. A loose plan to familiarise myself with the city, join in with a siesta and hit the streets later nearly worked. I hadn’t got my meals in sync and I was famished by 8pm. Finding the only restaurant that was open I gave in and ate. The food was surprisingly good. The inauthentic serenading by the waiter’s cousins was not. But sometimes it pays to know what you’re not looking for.

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Day three was built around going out late. I started with a late breakfast in a café near the giant mushrooms. Fabulous Spanish toast with coffee and a conversation about where to find flamenco, how you would stumble across it in a bar unannounced, how you could feel the passion and how it moved you. Yes! This was what I was after, perhaps it was real? Hitting the streets for tapas was the right thing to do. Dinner at home fuelled me to find some bars. I’m in Triana – the home of flamenco. it was going to be good. I gave myself a choice of two bars. The first one wasn’t open: still too early. I found bar 2 and lo and behold: guitars, clapping and the unique sound of cante flamenco. I approached with caution – apart from the performers, the bar was empty. I thought of it as my personal show. Gradually a couple more people entered the bar. I was offered the chance to dance. I remained purposefully in my seat. But there was dancing – somehow it matched the indistinct rhythm and helped to tell the story. But I’m not sure I understood it.

Day 4 and back to the parrot quote at the top of this post. Am I trying too hard? I’m giving up on the understanding and I’m trying to feel it. To let go of expectations and see what happens. I can enjoy the tourist show in Casa de la Memoria as much as the ad-hoc busking at the Puerta de Jerez interchange and the authentic gitana music in the bars of Triana.

Still searching.

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3000 miles: The first quarter

I was in denial. If I didn’t tell anyone, it wouldn’t matter. But I started recording my miles anyway, you know – just to see. That was enough, that was my commitment. I am supporting Cricket Without Boundaries this year, by fundraising and volunteering. I needed a challenge and covering 3000 miles on foot or by bicycle seemed impossible and therefore at the right level for me to have a go at, to see what happens and to use as a hook to ask for sponsorship/donations.

A double parkrun on 1 January got me off to a good start. A couple of weeks later, I entered some running races – a couple of half marathons. Ordinarily this would be no big deal for me. This year, it gave me something to talk about, something to train for and I had a bigger reason for doing it. Since 2005, CWB has worked on 60 projects in 9 African countries. Over 250,000 children have been coached and received valuable, life changing messages about health and especially HIV. Over 3,500 adults have been trained as ICC accredited coaches to support cricket development. I want to help this work to continue.

By the end of January, I was feeling happy about things. The number of miles I was covering (running, supplemented by walking) was increasing. I was training with people aiming for a spring marathon and by the end of the month I had run further in a week than I had ever before and covered nearly 50 miles that week.

February rolled on and I got a cold. I managed a few walks and reality hit home. This is a big challenge. I hadn’t met my target number of miles once. But I couldn’t do much about it till I was feeling better. This didn’t take long. I was still feeling fit and I threw in a couple of big runs. I also entered my first ultra-marathon that would happen in April. It didn’t matter about time, it mattered that I did it to add a fabulous 37 miles to my target. A little bit of sun and warmth meant that I ventured into my shed and was reassured that my bicycle was still there. I dusted off the cobwebs and tested it out a couple of times. Nothing too far. I still had to focus on my running: training for an ultra involves a lot of running!

March appeared and the feeling of Spring. I was feeling good about putting in a good time for my half marathons. Except my body gave me some strong messages that this wasn’t going to happen. Three weeks out with a back injury meant I didn’t run the half marathons, that my whole aim of 3000 miles was in jeopardy and I had no idea how I would get round this fundraising hurdle. But in the present moment, there was nothing I could do (except lie on the floor watching House of Cards). The focus on recovery meant I did things properly and was back out running again. Starting slowly – the achievement of running 1 mile, properly, with no shuffling felt so good.

So I’m back on track. I still haven’t reached target miles in any one week, I’m behind schedule, but I’m still committed. I’ve consistently run further in a week, I’m using my car less and I’m looking forward to cycling more. There’s a long way to go and your support would be gratefully received. Please donate here. If 3000 miles represents a straight line to central Africa, I’ve currently got as far as Lyon in France….

For those interested in the stats, in the first 3 months of 2017 I’ve:

Run: 304 miles

Walked: 125 miles

Cycled: 19 miles

Total: 448 miles

 

 

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3000 miles: The Fox

In truth, I’d been wanting to test the waters with a running distance longer than a marathon for some time. So when a race was launched that started and finished in my home town, I felt it was a sign.  It also gave me an excuse to do lots of running and rack up some miles for my 3000 miles total.

The only thing I knew about ultra-running was that you go slowly and you eat cake. This sounded like excellent preparation. The Fox Ultra was in April, which is perfect for being able to find training partners who are ramping up for spring marathons. I found myself a schedule for a similar distance and started following it; sort of. I’m an experienced marathon runner so I tend to think that at some point, muscle memory will kick in and I can keep going. After a couple of long runs, I was beginning to doubt this though.

My training led to me running more miles in a week than I’d ever done, which inevitably led to fatigue, but thankfully no injuries. Until I rolled up my yoga mat one morning and my back kind of popped. This wasn’t good. I lay on the floor for a couple of days. I had some treatment from an osteopath. I had to admit that I couldn’t run the first half marathon I had pencilled in as training. I would probably be ready for the one I had scheduled the week after though: speed didn’t matter, as long as I could make it round. The days ticked over, more treatment, still not walking properly, still can’t sit down comfortably and failing on my “fitness to run test” (can I put my socks on without some sort of contortion). So another DNS – I may have been able to shuffle round the course, but I couldn’t actually sit in the car for long enough to get there.

I decided that my priority had to be to get to the start line for the Fox, so I gave myself another week to recover. That left me a month to build up and then taper down my running distance. I started with 1 mile, and went from there.

Fortunately running became easier and I managed to fit in a 30 mile week, alongside lots of stretching and back mobility exercises.

The week of the run came round very quickly. A couple of days before I was feeling a bit strange. I realized that I was feeling nervous. This event was something new, that I didn’t know if I could do, and I’d told a whole heap of people who had generously donated and were waiting to find out how I did.

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20km in, munching on carrot sticks

Fortunately the race started early so there was no hanging around! The route takes runners on a 60km (37 miles) loop around Guildford, taking in the best of the Surrey countryside. Despite worrying about getting lost, I managed to only make a slight detour from the well-marked out route. The feed stations appeared when they were supposed to. I felt like giving up between 35 and 45km. I felt like giving up a lot during that period, but I knew I was running for a good cause, so stopping just wasn’t an option. The downhills were more painful than the uphills in the last 20km, but finally I was back on familiar territory and I knew that I would make the finish.

What can I say? It’s a long way. It’s hard work. I kept remembering why I’d entered: to raise awareness and funds for a super-cool charity. It’s the kind of distance where people ask you “WHY?” I had a good answer. Cricket Without Boundaries uses cricket to deliver crucial health and social messages working across sub-Saharan Africa tackling HIV, FGM and more.

If you can make a donation, it will help me to recover a bit more quickly so I can catch up on my 3000 miles target. There’s still a long way to go and you really will make a difference – to me, to one of the many children I’ll be coaching in Uganda and to the world in general.

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3000 miles: the why

It’s well into an October evening. I’ve just finished an interview for my website (which you can find here, if you’re interested) and a final question is ringing in my ears. Unexpectedly, it was one that was asked of me: Why don’t you volunteer?

Simple.

I’ll think about it, I’d said. To the trained ear, this is code for there’s no way I can do it, there are so many reasons why not.

I have a trained ear, mostly for other people, but nowadays more so for myself as well. I went through my reasons in my head, dismissed all but one of them as excuses and almost immediately decided that I would volunteer. The one that stuck: fundraising. I can barely ask people for money for the work I do, when I’ve genuinely earned it. To ask people to donate to a good cause, when there are so many around… how am I ever going to do this?

I needed a challenge. Something that was ultimately do-able, but was something that I’m wavering on whether it was possible for me. As soon as the idea came to me, I immediately tried to forget I’d thought of it, I tried to push it from my mind. A sure sign that it is the right target to choose.

It went something like this. So, how far is Africa from London? Now, Africa’s a big continent and I didn’t know exactly where I’d be volunteering, so I picked on of the countries: Cameroon (probably the closest, thereby making things a bit more manageable). Roughly speaking, in a direct line, Cameroon is 3000 miles from London. I am going to run, walk or cycle 3000 miles in a calendar year.

To break it down, that’s roughly 58 miles a week. I’m a runner, that’s a long way, but I’m fairly active so I can walk to places. I’m not a cyclist. Yes, I have a bike, but it only comes out in fair weather and usually only for a few miles to get into town if I think parking might be tricky. This will have to change. This is a challenge for me.

A little bit more about the why. Cricket without Boundaries (CWB)is a charity that combines many of my passions. Most importantly using sport to give benefits that are more far-reaching than for physical fitness: maintaining and teaching a sense of play, learning life lessons and how to be in a team. CWB work in sub-Saharan Africa to use cricket to deliver important health and social education messages around HIV prevention, female genital mutilation and inclusion. Volunteers coach children over two week periods, and also coach local coaches so that this education can become sustainable.

If you think this is a good cause, that by donating, you could help a child develop skills and live their life to the fullest, then please do here. That child could change the world. You can change the world.

Thank you.

 

 

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When in Japan…visit Italy

“This is mad!” I couldn’t count the number of times that this thought ran through my mind on my short trip to Japan.

It was autumn in Hakone National Park. This is a mecca for autumn colours and promised views of Mount Fuji. I had my instructions on how to get to the ryokan where I was staying and this left me slightly on edge. I was happy with the first part – bullet train from Tokyo. But then there was a bus involved. How do you know if they’re going to stop? When do you know you’re at the right stop? How far is it between stops, should you get off too soon? Or too late?

I needn’t have worried (as is often the case) – public transport in Japan is almost impossible to get wrong. Signs and announcements in both English and Japanese and the right bus stop for me was never in doubt.

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Glass tree, Hakone

After the compulsory tour  through the autumn colours to see the clouds and mist that hid Mt Fuji, I had a spare day to fill. I decided to visit the Venetian Glass Museum. Nothing is done in half measures  and this was like stepping into little Italy. A combination of Italian flamboyance with Japanese precision. There was beauty everywhere – even when it seemed impossible – the trinkets, the gardens, the glass trees – madness!

And that’s what’s so great about Japan. The impossible becomes possible. Anything goes, even when you least expect it. Especially when you least expect it. From vending machines up mountains and at beauty spots; to pirate ships steaming across a lake in the national park.

And as a visitor it works. Don’t worry that you can’t read the language, or that in cities they don’t really have addresses. You’ll find a warm welcome and have a wonderful time.

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