Thursday, 28 November 2013

Where All of the Fingers Meet All of the Pies

It stuck me yesterday, after having absent-mindedly left my laptop leaning casually against a wall in a rather public place, that in many ways I am starting to become utterly useless. Most of my friends have probably forgotten who I am, my diary is overloaded with illegible scrawls and crossings-out, and, well (I probably shouldn't publish details of my 'beauty regime' on here, I know), I haven't shaved my legs since the day before I got married.

Despite this, I have to say that I'm enjoying myself more than I have done in a long time. That state of drowning contentedly that I referred to in my last post has never been as potent as it is right now; I've become totally obsessed with the work I'm involved with, and it feels pretty good. That is, it feels pretty good while I'm sitting at my desk getting stuff done, but as soon as I try to pull myself away from it I begin to choke on it all, completely overwhelmed by the extent of my commitments and how ridiculous I must be to have so many commitments if I hope to succeed at any of the things I have chosen to commit my time to. The 'PhD guilt', which appears to be an official term for the general state of any PhD student at any point in time, is gnawing away at my every moment of 'down time', and I realize that I'm going to need a whole new approach to 'down time' if it is to be of any use at all.

In a discussion with a friend yesterday lunchtime I realized what all of this is about. I've been working with a professor from a university in Virginia recently, putting together an exciting combination of experimental methods to pioneer a new approach to perception experiments with young infants, and he wisely told me that learning how to pick and choose projects based on personal interest and potential benefit is all part of learning how to be a good academic. All very well. But no matter how busy I was before I decided to get involved with this experiment, how would I ever have justified turning down an opportunity to pioneer a new approach to perception experiments with young infants? The same goes for every other commitment that I have taken on with gusto: how could I possibly say no?

The issue is that, at PhD level, we simply don't have the option of turning down an exciting opportunity just because we're too busy. Every step of the way we're reminded of the need to connect ourselves to the wider academic community - "impact" and "engagement" being the buzzwords to our every decision, as well as that godforsaken phrase "it'll look good on the CV". Has this sort of pressure existed throughout the eternity of academia, or is it a new-fangled thing to match the financial pressure that universities, funding bodies and students face, and the need to somehow be able to 'justify' our research to everyone who might bother to ask (and I wish people would ask, really I do)?

I'm all for addressing the impact of my research, and I'm more than happy to engage with anyone who'll care to listen, but I do wish that there were a little bit of space to simply enjoy the wonder of research without all of the surrounding academic anxiety. And maybe it's just because we're no longer so afraid to talk about our emotional 'weaknesses' and personal issues openly (see beauty regime comment above) but it seems to me that emotional issues go hand-in-hand with being a PhD student: by our very nature we are strivers, bursting from the pressure we put on ourselves to go that extra mile.

So while I'm glad of the many amazing opportunities that have come my way over the past year-and-a-bit (and by gum, I consider myself lucky to have had them), I do wish that the onus was less on the 'added extras' that will make my CV so much more sparkling than it otherwise might be, and more on the general skills that one might need to actually do the PhD itself; emotional skills as well as practical or stats-based skills. Having all of these commitments makes stopping for breath harder than never stopping for breath; it's too easy to bury in work and forget about the world out there, while social, personal and emotional priorities just seem to dissipate into some vaguely familiar shadow of something that I used to know.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Growing Space.

The fresh, light feeling of brand new post-marriage is starting to dissolve now, leaving in its place something reassuring and delightfully unfamiliar. This is the way I wanted to feel this time last year - it's the way I've thought I should be feeling ever since then, but have never managed to grasp it quickly enough for it to manifest itself as any sort of permanent or even semi-permanent way of being. Now I'm swimming in it, boring my new husband with it, getting drunk on it and allowing it to pull me out of bed on a Sunday morning (aided by a pot of Darjeeling, which is simply beautiful) for some quiet time before the 'us' part of this Sunday begins.

The morning after our wedding I woke in York's beautiful Cedar Court Grand hotel to an eerie silence. I was tired and sore after a night of ceilidh dancing, as well as starving hungry and pretty hungover, but aside from this all-over physical noise everything was unusually quiet. My head - for the first time in months, if not more - wasn't shouting out a list of to-dos and to-bes; instead it was lying there almost empty, calmly playing through the images of the previous day without any sense of urgency or even excitement. I was utterly at peace, with the sort of 'internal peace' that I've heard of often and until that point thought I understood, when actually it's possible that I hadn't had a moment's 'internal peace' until that morning after my wedding day. I had no wish to do anything or be anything other than what I was doing and being right there: no external pressures piled up the moment I opened my eyes, and I was struck by how unusual this was.

The next day we set off on our honeymoon in the Lake District, and by this point I had stopped feeling uneasy about the quietness of my mind and instead took it for what it was: urgently-required down-time. I had a week of this peacefulness, accompanied by happy conversations about the wedding, the engagement, and the future that we realised was suddenly ours to hold, all set against the back-drop of Lakeland mountains in late September. It was bliss, and everything we needed from our honeymoon - switching off and slowing down and re-connection and reflection, accompanied by a bounty of fresh air, real ale and amazing food.

We returned home feeling that inevitable sadness that it was really all over, and that reality had to recommence as we always knew it would. But I also felt eager to get back into life without the wedding to think about, without an excuse to sail away on a daydream at 2pm in the afternoon to find myself inadvertently typing 'buttonholes' or 'alternative bridal footwear' into Google Scholar. I'd hated my distracted head in the run-up to September, and at times had really struggled to concentrate on some of the really big projects that I was involved in; my studies had sailed so far down my priority list, and I was starting to feel a little fraudulent and way too flippant about my PhD. But that's where we pick up now, three weeks after that morning of empty-headed newlywed bliss (and it feels so much more than three weeks ago), when I can safely say that my head is no longer empty or quiet, but instead is buzzing in a way very similar to those pre-wedding Sunday mornings when I had to get up and sort out the bunting or the order of service or try out my make up just one more time. Those thoughts have been replaced by big ideas and massive daydreams; a constant stream of ideas and exciting prospects that I'm dreaming up in the space that was for so long taken up by my impending marriage. I feel as if I've been granted space to plan my own future with more confidence, and things are forming before my eyes that I know have always been there, pushed to the side by thoughts frilled with white lace and studded with pearls.

In my wedding speech I said how Daniel made me believe I'm capable of anything, and that has never been more true than it is right now. It's probably a rather conceited thing to think, and an even more conceited thing to put into words for anyone to take hold of, but this feeling is such a strong one and it's available to everyone with enthusiasm and the right outlet in which to express it. I feel very much as if I've landed in the right place, after a year of feeling like an imposter in somewhere that was never quite what I wanted it to be, despite wanting it more than anything else in the world. It was a jarring contradiction of big dreams materialising and also somewhat of a let-down. It was scary, and I spent a lot of conversations with Daniel trying to justify the way I was feeling. Now I realise that my big dreams needed space to move and to grow, and that there was no space, only a crowd of increasingly overwhelming preoccupations. I feel right now as if my mind has been freed, and is finally ready for me to take on this ambition that I've been harbouring at the back of my mind for a year now. I finally feel capable, as if I have the tools, the support and - essentially - the space to build. Having felt as if I were on the edge of something massive for the past 12 months, I've now dived right in there, and am swimming contentedly, even drowning contentedly at times.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

On Being Married

I remember distinctly the conversation, driving through Pontefract in our old Ford Mondeo circa 1996, me carefully deciding on my old, new, borrowed and blue, much to my Mum's amusement (I decided on old flowers - at the time I had no idea about the decadence of weddings, especially not the floral element of it all). That day was, somehow, always going to be: a beacon of sorts on the horizon; the day I'd commit to that other human and my life would truly begin. There were the playground games: sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G with some freckled boy standing on the other side of the rounders pitch, or the twisting of the apple stalk to discover the first initial of my future betrothed (I'm sure it snapped off at D at least once).

This idea stayed in my head throughout my entire wedding day; somehow, my life had always been moving towards this point when I'd choose someone else to share 'forever' with. It's another of those things that is pushed into our psyche by society and expectation and tradition and all of that, and one of the many things that I rejected outright upon realising the ridiculousness of it all. It suddenly became much less ridiculous, though, when I met Daniel, and when I realised that sharing a life path is neither easy nor obvious at times, and that these challenges can actually be fun and wondrous in their own way. I guess that what I mean is that I found somebody who made even the hardest bits of life (and there have been some massively hard bits over the past 5 years, that's for sure) somehow magical, and something inside me went 'pop' - right up there on that bridge over the M6 - and I was, in my own way that can't be put into words, committed. So I've been committed for a while now, and when it came to making those vows to Daniel in front of pretty much everyone we care about, it was the most natural thing I've ever done. The whole day was magical, each moment a complete surprise, but at the same time nothing about it was anything other than the absolutely normal thing to be doing that day.

I laughed the entire day, even though none of it was that funny really - it must be some sort of reflex that I have when presented with something utterly joyful (when Daniel proposed I'm not sure I actually even said yes, I just laughed uncontrollably and took the ring from his grasp). I haven't really stopped laughing for the past week-and-a-bit either, even though life has gone back to a very distinct normality, and it's raining, and the house is an utter mess. Because I thought that married life would just be like going back to how it was before, but with the slight inconvenience of a new ring each on our left hands. It turns out that I was wrong, and I'm glad I was; everything feels just a little bit different, slanted towards the future and big plans that we share now because we promised that we would. Everything feels a little bit more possible than it did before, and the future - by the very fact that it's not only 'mine' but also 'ours' - seems somehow more exciting, more of a mystery.

So married life: so far, so good. I thought I'd be terribly sad that the wedding was over and there would be nothing much to look forward to ever again (how depressing). But as my lovely newlywed friend Louise said on the day, there's a real satisfaction inside me now that we've had our wedding and that it was everything that we ever wanted. Now we can get on with the bigger, more exciting task of marriage and all the challenging things that it will inevitably bring. I like challenges, and I even have time for the massive life-changing ones, however scary they may be. It's just really nice to know that I have someone lovely there to go through it all with, with ultimate soup-making, bubble bath-running, husband skills that will surely be essential in the years ahead.

Thanks to my lovely sister-in-law for the photo :-)
And for the record:

Old - my Great Grandma's eternity ring (as well as my Gran's engagement ring which I've been wearing since we got engaged)
New - pearl necklace and bracelet which my Mum bought to go with my dress
Borrowed - a cotton hankerchief of my Mum's with 'D' for Deborah (my Mum's name) embroidered on the corner. This was for the tears that never came (I laughed instead) and remained tucked in my bra the entire day.
Blue - a bead in my hair which my amazing bridesmaid Emma painted blue for me - the rest of the beads were pearl-coloured. Also, my Great Grandma's ring had sapphires around it.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

26.2 Reasons to Doubt Everything, Ever.

This time last week I was en route to the expo at Brathay Hall, about to collect my race number and a bundle of freebies ready for Sunday's marathon. We jovially took photos of ourselves standing by the finish line, and I was relishing the anticipation of the time between then and the moment I'd see that banner again later the next day. I was looking forward to slap-up pre-marathon grub at Zephirelli's in Ambleside, a hot shower and an early night.

I was excited to see what I could do; to taste the Brathay Windermere marathon for the second time, this time with hindsight, more training, and a more confident approach to my running. I was looking forward to the drum beats of the send-off, the quaint villages around the route, the killer hill at mile 7-8, and to seeing those numbers going beyond 13 and getting increasingly massive. This time it would be an adventure, which I calculated would probably start around mile 15 and keep getting better and better as I pushed through the way I had during miles of lonely training in Stockholm. I was prepared, of that I was sure.

But then the night came and I didn't sleep. And the morning came and I couldn't eat. I arrived at the start line already depleted, nauseous and tense. I was terrified of something and I didn't know what it was; anxiety was gnawing at my stomach and gripping its fingers around my chest. I kept telling myself that I just needed to get to mile 15: both up to that point and beyond that point were separate adventures, and I could deal with them both. The drumming began, the starting shot was fired, and I was running another marathon.

Like every race, my stomach fell to my feet and my heart swelled up into my throat, and I ran and saw the feet and legs moving in a blur ahead of me. My feet were moving but my head was still waiting to start the race. I could do this, I knew, but it didn't feel like it. The block of runners was much bigger than I was used to, the crowds were much bigger than I was used to; my mind was whirling and my heart was pulsating in the back of my throat. I slowed down and tried to calm down. A mile in and I started to steady, the rhythms of my feet and breath finally meeting one another in a regular pattern, lulling me into a state of relative calm. My mind freed itself of my worries and started to drift back to Sweden, or forwards to my wedding: I froze the thoughts and promised myself I would come back to them later, when I needed them - I didn't want to waste any mental energy on any form of thinking so early in the race.

I'm not sure if it was for this reason, or simply down to a already-heightened state of anxiety, but it was at that point, just after the first mile marker, that it started to come undone, and went pretty much downhill from there for the next 25 miles. The running was fine - really quite good for the most part - but my mental state during almost the entire marathon was something I hadn't known until last Sunday, and since then I've struggled to think of the marathon without a sour sensation rising from my gut. The experience wasn't humbling, nor was it revealing in any sort of self-reflectional sense: it was simply hard, there is no other word for it, and it took everything I had in my mind to get past that finish line.

I could talk about the amazing scenes in Hawkeshead as we ran through cheering crowds, banners and a roar of music (truly sensational). Or I could talk about the stitch that felt as if a piece of glass was stuck in my lower intestine, leaving me bent double by the side of the road, trying to vomit and trying not to vomit simultaneously. I could talk about the comments about vegetarian runners that made me laugh even in the darkest moments ("come on veggie, prove it!", [tones of amazement] "vegetarian, as well..."). Or how about those last miles where I couldn't even summon a smile for the constant cheers and encouragement from the onlookers visiting the Lake District that day? But the memories of the race pale into the background still, as all I really know is that I learned a lot about running last Sunday, more than I wished ever to know. Until then I'd done 7 runs of over 20 miles in my time as a runner, and it wasn't until that 8th attempt that I really felt the force and enormity of 'The Wall'. I didn't know until then - and I hope to never know again - how it feels, mentally, to have nothing more to give. Physical emptiness can be addressed with a quick energy gel or a stretch by the side of the road, but what do you do with mental emptiness? What do you do when you can't find any thoughts in your head to hold on to, when there's 9 miles left to run and no part of your mind can convince you that you can do it? There were a few occasions when I literally couldn't breathe: my lungs felt as if they had deflated and I couldn't draw in any air to get them going again. I was terrified, and there was no one there to reassure me that I would be ok. It happened two or three times, and each time I had to stop, to try and hold back the tears, and to resist every physical urge that was screaming at me to give in.

Recounting all of this makes me think that I should feel mentally stronger now, able to tackle anything that comes my way: I did, after all, complete the marathon, and so nearly within the time goal that I had set for myself. But I feel weaker, not stronger. I feel as if I've left something out on the roads around Windermere, a part of me that I probably won't get back, and it's the part of me that made me want to sign up for another 26.2 miles right away after Windermere last year. Whatever it was left me blind to the pains and the immense hardness of marathon running. It stopped me from noticing the other runners struggling to move forwards, the pools of sick by the side of the road, the pains in my lungs, knees, head, stomach, face, neck, back, toenails, arms, shoulders during and after the run, or that crescendo and sudden explosion of agony that hits at full force about 7 minutes after crossing the finish line. Marathon running is hard. We all know it's physically hard - it's supposed to be, as I tell myself on any long run - but the mental challenge is something that hits with startling force, and that can't be prepared for in advance. The problem is that no amount of advice, forewarning or ready-prepared mental acrobatics can possibly be of any use when you have no capacity to think. And when you lose capacity to think, the pains cry out louder, the distance stretches further, and the process of running seems increasingly more ludicrous with every forwards step.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Marathon Training Week 10

I have purposely taken an 'easy' week this week, to follow the previous week's 50 miles, and preceding the impending 21-miler that will come with week 11. It's also been a seriously hectic week with work and my experiment, and I've still not taken a day off in 3 weeks - I'm now totalling at 20 days without a break!! Argh!

I approached last Sunday's 15-miler with a really strange attitude: "it's only 15 miles", I could hear myself thinking - amazing when I think back to my early running days, and how hard that first 10k was!* This wasn't a good approach, as 11 miles in I was hot and tired, desperate for the 'meagre' 4 miles that I had left to pass as quickly as possible! This was my first run in my new Vegetarian Cycling and AC vest, and I wore it with pride and delight - it really was a lovely sunny day! My tiredness may have been due to that cursed grit around the riverside paths that I had chosen to cover, or the cobbles as I wound around the streets of Gamla Stan, but there is no point finding excuses - I was tired and the running wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be. My final pace was 9;48 which is perfectly good for the present situation (and faster than I intent to run Windermere), but a better pace would have reflected a better run.

I decided to go easy on myself for the rest of the week, starting with a lovely slow recovery run on Monday evening. I didn't have much energy for intervals on Tuesday morning - especially since it was the killer 6mins fast: 2mins slow session - but I dragged myself out anyway as the weather was amazing. I was going to trudge around a bit and head home after about 4 miles, but I suddenly got a case of 'Runner's Urge', and took an enthusiastic turn towards my intervals - so much so that I ended up running 7 sets rather than 5, and covering over 7 miles: crazy runners indeed! Wednesday was a much-needed rest day, then I had a wonderful evening run on Thursday which I had to cut short due to pain in what I think might have been my Achilles (noooooo!!). It was a forest run, and was amazing while it lasted, but after 9.5 slow miles I was pleased to arrive home and not bothered about sticking to my schedule in the slightest. I stuck to my hill session on Friday as I wanted to say one last goodbye to the amazing hill that I've been using, but I didn't add any extra miles on to the 10 hill reps, and came home to a well-earned chilli and an early night.

I covered 39 miles in total, but other than the interval session I would say that this week was not of particularly good quality when it came to pace or even the way I felt. I'm starting to tire of the training now, and am so glad I'm taking a shorter training period than I did last year (12 weeks rather than 16): tapering can not come soon enough! I'm ready for a break, and almost ready for the race, I think, and with only 3 weeks to go this is a good position to be in. I have enjoyed my training so far, but now I remember how utterly consuming marathon training has to be. Daniel keeps telling me to take it easy, or to not push myself too hard, but every time I have the same response: "I'm training for a marathon, I have to push hard!". I guess it comes easy to some people, but not me! This week's focus is on having fun, even if it's an uncomfortable and plodding sort of fun!

*And 10k is still hard sometimes: I do not want to belittle any sort of distance!

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Nordic Notes #3

It turns out that one month isn't long enough to even begin to get to know Stockholm, never mind Sweden, especially since I am now working 7 long days per week in an attempt to try and complete everything that I need to do before returning home on Tuesday. I am looking forward to home, and to setting myself back in motion in York with the new-found knowledge and confidence that I have gained here in Stockholm, but still I am amazed by the quantity of self that one can muster in only four weeks. I decided two weeks ago that it didn't matter what I didn't know, and rather than dwelling on the problems I have encountered I've pushed myself to keep my mind open to the new experiences and lessons that inevitably come with a new place and a new approach. This attitude has helped me to consider my work holistically for the most part (there have been some really difficult days, more of that to come another time, I'm sure), and as a consequence the whole experience has come as an entirety to me: everything has been a lesson in something.

Four days until I'm back on British soil: how does time pass so quickly? Everything I do now is carried out with my imminent departure in mind: a warm cinnamon bun on a Saturday morning, a strong coffee sweetened with honey rather than my usual latte, listening in to conversations that I can't understand in an attempt to decipher the whimsical prosodies of the Swedish language. I feel as if I'm getting to know Swedish life, and to know the attitudes and habits that come with it. My (painfully British) comments about the rain have been met on numerous occasions by optimism: rain is a sign that the spring has arrived, that the snow has stopped falling, that the summer festival is on its way. Rain is a sign of hope, rather than endless drudgery.

And the weather has changed the landscape over the past week; I have witnessed the great melting of the world around me from a position of wonderment. The first signs came on the frozen Baltic waters of Edsviken, as a great crack appeared through the centre of the ice, splitting the solid surface in half with a great fault line into the ocean. Then it rained and the world was grey for two days, and as the grey melted into blue on Wednesday the snow seemed to disappear in a moment, leaving piles of grit waiting uselessly by the roadside. Now only a few webs of snow cling on to the shadowed hollows around the water, while crocuses and butterflies veer my gaze from the bare trees.

Last Saturday I sat by the water and watched the ice as it melted. It's crust dropped off bit-by-bit into the gloomy water, and so the new crust was formed and began to crumble. Even at 5:30 in the afternoon the sun was pleasantly warm on my face, turning the surface of the sheet of ice into a glossy green pool on top of the water. Every day since the ice reduced and has now disappeared completely; when I think back to the runners and skiiers that I saw enjoying the frozen waters only 3 weeks ago it is a comfort to know how the world can change so much in such a short timescale.

Sweden has left me with a real respect for the humble joy of family life, a love for pine trees and evening birdsong, and an appreciation of endurance and longevity that can be tasted in the breads and pickles and sensed in the Swedish attitude. A huge pile of logs has gathered in the local park, ready for a bonfire on Tuesday to celebrate the start of summer. I'll miss the festivities (typically I am returning to the UK on the biggest celebration day of the Swedish calendar) but will be thinking of the celebrations as my plane lands in the UK: it seems appropriate to mark the end of winter in a festival held around a pyre of warmth and light, maybe something that we should adopt at home to brighten the [inevitable?] grey of our summertime. As I said, I am looking forward to arriving home - especially to a bubble bath and my own bed - but I will certainly miss the positive, bright nature of Sweden: a country with public dog poo bag-dispensers and roadside public bike pumps is one that we can certainly learn from. Brightness, light and warmth have been the resonant themes of this visit, mingled with the scents of coffee and ground cardamom.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Marathon Training Week 9

Week 9 was a busy week for running: I covered just over 50 miles in total, which is the maximum I'd want to do in even the best, most energetic week. As it happens this really wasn't the best or the most energetic week, as I was working long hours all 7 days in order to successfully juggle the many exciting things going on with my project at the moment. But after the events in Boston and the emotions that came with it, I felt there was nothing for it but to run. And when I got out there in the blooming spring warmth it was all worth it - most days I ended up feeling better for having been out than I would had I stayed indoors and crashed out!

On Sunday I headed out for a 20-miler, the second of my Windermere training and the penultimate serious run before the big day. It was warm and sunny, but as I was unsure where I wanted to go exactly I decided to take my backpack again, with an extra warm layer and a waterproof in case I decided to take a route which would require the train home. I ended up in part of the Royal National City Park (which I think might be one of the most amazing things about this city), and did a loop of the Brunnsviken waters with a circuit of the fabulous Hagaparken, which skirts the Western side of the water. I highly recommend this area for visitors wanting to experience some amazing Stockholm running trails! Though it was warm there was still ankle-deep snow in the shade of the trees, so going was tough and a little unsteady in places, but for the most part I was on a high pretty much the whole time. I had some energy gels with me for practise, and took one at 9 miles and another at 15 miles (or at least I thought it was 15 but it turned out to be 14, which was rather demoralising!), but didn't really feel any benefit; I'm still wondering what might be the best approach to fuelling during the marathon as I have never liked gels that much and they don't seem to help hardly at all.

Come 16 miles I decided to run home again, as the route skirts quite close to the community where I live, so I buckled down and hit the hill rising up to Danderyd, which is a cycle track and so perfectly good to run along. My aim was to get in at under 3.5 hours, and when my Garmin beeped the 20-mile signal I had been running for 3 hours and 28 minutes - perfect! This meant that I was just about at a pace of 10-minute miles, which as my target pace for the race was a little fast for a long training run, but since it was a surprisingly comfortable 3 hours and 28 I could think about upping the speed a bit for race day - we'll see. I had another mile to go until I was home, which meant I'd covered a little more distance than I'd have liked, but since I had to get straight to work when I got back I was happy to mosey along in the sun for an extra 10 minutes! I got back covered in mud from the trails around Brunnsviken and crusted with sweat from the lovely sunshine, so I gulped down a heavenly chocolate recovery shake and had a ridiculously long shower as a treat to myself!

The rest of the week was good, but hard. I stuck to mainly evening runs as a way to wind down after tiring days, and this worked in my favour energy-wise. A slow 4-miler helped my legs get going again on Monday (though I wasn't particularly sore - maybe I'm getting used to these big distances now), and a painful start early on Tuesday morning became a rather successful interval session - I'm always so pleased to cross these off my training plan, but they are quite fun once I get going. I had a rest day on Wednesday which was enjoyed with a couple of glasses of wine after I gave a talk in the department - marathon training plus low alcohol exposure meant that I was sloshing my words after only a couple of sips, but it was lovely to enjoy a nice glass of wine after so much time without any alcohol. I maximised my rest period by not running again until Thursday evening, which meant I'd had almost 36 hours off running, and since there was such an amazing spring feeling in the air I ran into central Stockholm to soak in the evening - there was a celebratory vibe rising through the city, and I enjoyed the run so much that I took the train home rather than run back and cut my time in the city short, and so I didn't get back until quite late.

Friday evening came with a killer hill session - the people living on the mountain of a street that I used for this must have thought I was crazy, running up and down and up and down on a Friday night while they were enjoying the start of the weekend, but actually it's a brilliant way to finish the week! Finally, I took a slow 4-miler on Saturday just to uncurl my back from the hours I spent at my desk working (two weekends of working in a row - give me a day off!!), and stopped 3 miles in to sit for a while and watch the ice melt on the waters near my house - it was stunning in the afternoon sunlight, and I'm a great believer in stopping to enjoy the views!

So, training is going well, but I'm glad that race day is almost here so I can have a bit more time to myself again soon! I'm at the point now where I'm always hungry, which is annoying and can leave me feeling quite down. I'm starting to adapt my eating to match the training that I'm doing, with bigger lunches and larger portions of carbs with every meal, as well as a more liberal approach to snacking. Until now I haven't felt the need to change my eating patterns, but after 5 years of running (has it really been 5 years?!) I'm finally learning to read the signs. I often find myself feeling low the day after a hard run, but with a good injection of sugar and copious wholegrains and proteins after a big training session it is possible to avoid these dips before they start. It all takes practise, though, and I'm still learning!

Chocolate recovery shake? Yes please!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Simpler Life

One of the things I've relished most about being in Stockholm for a month is the way it has forced me to strip my life back to its bare bones. I brought two suitcases and my laptop bag along with me, necessarily filling these with winter jumpers, a couple of towels, a set of bedsheets and the books that I'd need to get extra work done while I'm here. That didn't leave much space left over for anything else: enough clothes so that I only need do one load of laundry per week, my running shoes, a couple of bottles of soapy products and my electric toothbrush. Even so, I see now that I could have left more at home, possibly reducing my wares to the one suitcase if I'd had to. If I'd come in summer this would have been no problem.

The flat where I'm staying is about as basic as you could get. A slab of a bed with a tissue-thin pillow lies against one wall, then there is a desk and chair by the window and a fold-out table with two uncomfortable stools against the opposite wall. The walls are white, the floor is wooden, and the room is lit by a stark strip lighter that hangs from the ceiling in a particularly unhomely way. I have a small kitchenette at one end of the room which comprises two electric hobs, a sink, a fridge, and a small space for preparing food; the wet-room hides behind this, and contains the only mirror that I have access to, placed at forehead-height above the sink.

Strangely enough, I'm not yet wishing that I were back surrounded by all my belongings, or with endless distractions in the form of books, films, kitchen projects, or anything else. I have access to the radio through my computer, and have been enjoying more Radio 4 programmes than I would listen to at home. My evenings have so far been spent mostly writing and reading, which is just the way I wanted it to be.

My window faces East and so I wake up early every morning with the sun pushing through the less-than-robust Ikea blinds (I imagine it would be very hard to sleep when living here in midsummer when there is no darkness): thanks to the combination of bright sunlight and my uncomfortable bed I am never asleep beyond 6, and always up by 6:30. This suits me perfectly. I don't have a kettle, so instead I boil up a large pan of water to satisfy my morning tea requirements, and put a pan of oats on to simmer the hob ready for breakfast when I have finished catching up on my emails and the news. Most days I eat breakfast while listening to the Shipping Forecast, which I love, and which seems quite significant as I sit here, miles away from home and feeling a little lost at sea.

The solitude and simplicity of my flat here in Danderyd makes the trajectory of my day more pleasant and more necessary than it would otherwise be. I am lifted from the quiet by the morning chorus of birdsong, and the world becomes more and more complicated with each step towards the Tunnelbana station: the hoards of people streaming through the one door as I approach is sometimes a shock to my dormant mind, but if nothing else it jerks me awake and ready for the day. The opposite is true in the evenings, when I relish moving away from the hurried excitement of the evening commute back through the increasingly peaceful (bird-filled and car-free) streets of Danderyd.

Most evenings begin with a run, usually along the waterside which is changing with every forwards step into Spring. Because of this I usually don't eat until quite late, but my evening meals have been so simple that it hasn't bothered me to go to bed soon afterwards. I am limited by what products I can buy, partly due to the high price of food here, and partly due to quantities that I can use before I leave; brown rice and buckwheat provide the substance for most of my meals, teamed with pulses and whatever vegetables I could afford for the week (normally cabbage, mushrooms and carrots and not a lot else!). I chose to buy a pot of garam masala when I first arrived, which flavours many of my evening meals (dhals, rice bowls, soups and curries), while I treat myself to the occasional lime which allows me to create dressings and sauces using salt, ginger, garlic, and honey or peanut butter. At first I found the lack of flavour in my cooking highly unsatisfying, but it didn't take long before I found ways (such as lime juice or salt) to bring out the flavours of my small set of ingredients, and I'm now enjoying being creative within strict limits. As I begin to run my cupboards bare ready for leaving, this is becoming increasingly challenging.

While I am looking forward to getting back in my kitchen, using my slow cooker, baking bread, and enjoying a good oven-baked pie, I am not wishing away this situation just yet (this may all change next week when my cupboards leave me with only cup-a-soup and oats to work with!). It has been a test of creativity and resilience: I don't find myself weeping into my pillow at night, wishing for something more than my own company and a battered copy of  La Nausée, nor have I found myself craving stodge to the point where I have headed down to the pizzeria on the first floor for a large Vegetariana for one. And when it does all get a bit quiet here, I take myself off - either on the Tunnelbana or on a run - to central Stockholm, where everything makes sense again, and where I find myself thinking that I never want to be anywhere else.

Peanut butter rice noodles - a new favourite!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Nordic Notes #2

I am writing this on a grey, misty Saturday afternoon. This morning brought the first rain in over two weeks; everything is damp and subdued, and spring seems even further away than it has done over the previous two weeks.

I spent most of the morning writing an abstract and catching up on some reading for my study. The rain stopped at 3:30 so I took myself outside for some fresh air with a walk along Nora Strand. The snow has started to thaw, and is turning a yellow-grey colour from the stains of rain and roadside pollution; the parks lie empty, the roads are desolate, and it seems that I am the only person in this bleak place. The absence of blue skies makes the world appear to be in black and white; a grey-scale from the sky, through the bare trees and down to the grit on the floor.

The only warmth is found in the candlelight of candelabras glowing through living room windows, and the smell of woodsmoke, which brings warm memories of family holidays in the mountains and pubs in winter. A month is not a long time to be away, but two weeks is enough to turn an adventure into normality, and today I am homesick for candlelight and warmth and my home which feels further away than ever. Even Radio 4 and Campbell's tomato soup can't fulfil my yearning for redbrick houses, chunky porridge and a slice of carrot cake.

I do not mind being homesick. I believe that as adults a certain homesickness is something that we constantly live with; surely we are all nostalgic for the comfort of a home that is permanently elsewhere? I am also perfectly happy to be lonely; to a certain extent I thrive in solitude, and find myself at my most peaceful and most creative when my head is echoing from a lack of conversation and company. After a week that flew past in the saccade of a one-year-old's eye (pun intended) it is comforting to find a lonely, quiet space in all of this greyness. The bleakness is also a freedom to not rush out and enjoy anything at all, and to instead stay close to home drinking tea and taking in the first ugly day that I have seen in Stockholm so far. I am certain that the city centre will be as beautiful as it always is, but the painfully slow melting of winter in Danderyd is also worth witnessing, all the while daydreaming about those snippets of home that usually I wouldn't care to notice. The grit and the grey bring a refreshing shift in perspective.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Marathon Training Week 8

I woke to heavy snow last Sunday, and all my plans for shorts-and-tshirt running (as I had done the day before) wobbled uncertainly, and I spent too much time dithering around what to wear, what to take, what route to run. Not a good state to be in before 3 hours of running.

In the end I opted for the backpack option again, and was glad I did. The snow kept on coming for another hour or so, but once it had passed the sun was bright and warm, and I did eventually get to run in shorts and a tshirt! This wasn't before slip-sliding around on the newly re-frozen ground, though, and at one point I lost control completely and splatted hard onto a sheet of slippery frozen pavement! The run involved a little too much getting lost, and much too much stopping and starting as I tried to orientate myself towards the city centre. Having my backpack meant I could run into central Stockholm and then get the train back, but I had to prepare sufficiently for the ride home, with a snack, some extra money and some warm layers packed into my bag.

Once I got past the university campus it was plain sailing. I arrived in the city and got straight onto Birger Jarlsgatan, which is probably Stockholm's answer to Oxford Street, only cleaner, more spacious and less high-street-ish. After 9 miles or so of quite unenjoyable running, I was finally having a great time: the bells were ringing out, the streets were just waking up, and the day was just starting to blossom in Stockholm city. I ran past boutiques, glossy windows filled with designer clothing, and an amazing bridal shop which I managed to run past without stopping to go in first! From there I crossed over Gamla Stan and onto Södermalm, by which point the sun was out and I was really on track for a good finishing time. I spotted a large group of runners and decided to follow them for fun: it turned out to be a group of runners called 28x2 (28 pairs of runners, so a 2-by-2 group of 56), and I ran with them for a while, turning some of their pairs into threes as I passed. I was planning to stick with them for a while to help me get through the last 7 miles, but I soon took over (hurrah!) and finished my circuit of the island alone. It was a great last few miles, and though I was tired, sore and desperate to get back home and spend the day relaxing, I felt quite resilient. One problem was that I didn't practise with my energy gels, as I had planned to do; it's getting to the point now where I need to start using them so that they don't shock my system on the marathon itself, but I'm always worried they'll bring about some unexpected side effects! Even so, I arrived back at Gamla Stan Tunnelbana after 3 hours and 5 minutes of running, so I was just over my planned pace of 10-minute miles - I was delighted! I warmed down in the alcove just inside the station, and got some funny looks from passing tourists and travellers, and as I wandered the station in a daze a man hurried over to me to ask why on earth I was wearing shorts and a tshirt on a snowy day. I laughed and told him I'd run a long way so I was warm, but he didn't believe I could have run that far...!

The rest of the week went pretty much to plan running-wise, though I had to take Monday's recovery run on Tuesday as I was just too busy to fit it in. I had a good interval session, and despite dreading my 9-mile longer run on Thursday, I got home feeling so grateful for having pushed myself to go out. My schedule is exhausting at the moment even without the marathon training, so I've found myself feeling half-hearted about running more often than I would like. With this in mind, I'm proud of myself for pushing through, while also trying to stay mindful of the fact that it's ok to stay at home for an extra rest day if I want to: the aim for this schedule was always quality over quantity, and that remains at the forefront of my mind. That being said, Friday's hill session wasn't particularly high-quality, as running up hills in the horrible grit is exhausting and tough. A 48 mile week isn't bad, though, and a much-needed rest day on Saturday means I'm keen to get out there again today!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Experimenting With Eye-Tracking

It seems an age ago now that I was sitting in a Cuban restaurant in downtown Stockholm with my supervisors discussing a workshop I'd attended on eye-tracking with the NorPhLex group. Over a delicious glass of Chardonnay and the most colourful coconut risotto I threw out a suggestion from the very top of my head: "I mean, it'd be great to test how infants respond to cross-linguistic onomatopoeia, I reckon". I still remember the look on their faces: delight mixed with regret that it couldn't be done back in York. Five months later I'm back in Stockholm, using that very same eye-tracker that I was using on that day, and carrying out a metamorphosed version of that very experiment that I suggested over Chardonnay and risotto that evening in Stockholm.

Eye-tracking basically involves displaying words on a screen (with accompanying audio, in my case) and using infra red to trace participants' eye movements and fixations throughout. These are then stored as data in a nice cushy analysis software, which will generate reaction times, p values, averages, the lot. The technique can be used in myriad fields: marketing, (neuro)psychology, medicine, media, cognition, development and linguistics, and is easy to manipulate to different audiences as you can display pretty much any kind of media on there. I believe you can even track the eye movements of animals, but seeing how hard it is to get one-year-olds to focus for 3 minutes and 49 seconds, I imagine that calibrating a dog's eyes is only for those with the most solid determination.

If only all my participants would behave like this.
Conjuring up my own experiment has been a long and pernickety process, very much in the vein of 'one step forwards, two steps back'. Still, having nurtured this project from the tiny seedling of an idea that it was has been one of the most exciting things I've ever done, and seeing it out there in real life, with real participants, is a little bit of a geeky dream come true. Until now I've always worked with databases, using information gathered by others to come up with my own analyses and ideas. This works fine, and it makes me tick in ways that nothing else ever has (I kind of think that I was made for data analysis), but I have felt like a bit of a fraud since starting my PhD, having had the initial intention to ride on other people's hard graft to generate my own results. I work with babies in theory, but in practise I hadn't seen a single baby until Wednesday, when my first participant rolled up in his pushchair, enthusiastic mother in tow.

Running an experiment that is my own has given me the taste of project management that you don't often get in the workplace: the investment, wholeheartedness and obsessive pernicketyness is on a whole new level, and the sense of ownership is both scary and magical. Luckily for me, I am working with a team of PhD students who are astoundingly excellent, and they have shown me the ropes while also respecting the fact that the experiment is completely mine. I have learnt a whole world of new skills and knowledge in only 2 weeks, from input statistics to basic coding to rudimentary Swedish and essential childcare methods. Without them I would have (and just about did) flounder at the first hurdle, and even as I lead the project in its reality, I am still learning from them with each participant that comes my way.

Testing, testing...
The biggest challenge in using eye-tracking with one-year-olds is the one-year-olds. They are all so different, and all so excited by every small thing that happens within the realms of their five senses. It hasn't helped that I am a complete novice with infants; an awkward and rather hesitant Englishwoman whose Swedish is questionable even to those who have not yet learnt to speak it. At first I wasn't convinced that they would even look at my experiment, never mind give me enough data to use in the paper that I hope to write once I've finished here. But they do, they really do look, and they really do respond in the way that one would hope they would respond. It's not consistent or focused, but it's natural and it allows a sight into the developing mind of an infant that can't be found in even the most magnificently detailed database (even Deb Roy's amazing approach doesn't provide details about pre-speech understanding on the input level). Plenty of people out there snub any sort of generated experimental data, believing it to take away from the natural process of language production/perception, but there are always going to be limits in research, and if we want understanding I think we have to be prepared to reach those limits, and considering the potential impurity of the results is part of our jobs as researchers.

So I am excited to be using eye-tracking. I'm excited to see my idea come to life, to have results as a result of my idea, and to lead something that will eventually (I hope) lead me. It's kind of fun working with babies too, as some of them are delightful, but I think it will take a lot of time for me to come round to being comfortable with them. To me, infants are exclusively interesting, and I'm not really bothered about studying adult language at all, so career-wise it has come as a rite of passage to actually work with real-life language learners. Whether or not this will translate into a full-blown turn from databases towards lab work I do not know; seven participants in and I can see that there is nothing less predictable than a one-year-old in an unfamiliar setting. I guess that if I liked predictable then I wouldn't have ever considered a return to academia. It has certainly been a challenging couple of weeks, with organising, setting up, arranging appointments (with thanks to my very helpful Swedish research assistant!), greeting, explaining, playing, distracting, analysing and endless processes of learning and re-thinking, but I feel a little bit stronger and a little bit smarter and oh so in need of a glass of wine!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Nordic Notes #1

Having spent most of my life on the outskirts (at best) of fitting in anywhere, it has come as a pleasant an highly unfamiliar surprise to find myself feeling completely at home here in Stockholm. I was taken by the place back in November, when the air was thick with damp mist and the daylight was fleeting and ungenerous, but now I see Stockholm under endless blue skies and in copious amounts of daylight my initial excitement has swollen to a wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder at how good a place can be.

I am obsessed with the way the light sparkles through the trees, and the sound that the birds make which is so much louder and more robust than at home. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm in a capital city, because most of the time I just can't tell: I walk to the Tunnelbana in the mornings and back in the evenings, and hardly see a single car. The birdsong is the loudest - and sometimes the only - thing I can hear, and the soul obstacle blocking the light from my eyes is the clusters of lanky trees hinting at the thick forests that are only a couple of miles from here. I can't help but stop when out running in the mornings to look out over the water that is frozen into a thick white slab of stillness. Maybe that's why everything feels so peaceful: nothing is moving because nothing is able to move. Streams of ice are frozen to the pavements, as if they were stopped in mid-flow by a curtain of winter.

Finally this curtain seems to be lifting (despite some recent flurries of snow), but it has left its mark in the inches of hard grit which has already worn down my boots, and the shafts of solid ice that stand foot-deep at the edges of the pavements. People sit in the midday sun, faces turned to the sky, eyes closed as if hypnotised by the light. Like rainfall after a drought, people drink in the sunlight - you can almost see them quenching their thirst as you pass, and it seems it would be rude to disturb them, or to join them, in their silent annual ritual.

Stockholm is a good place to be alone. It seems as if it could be a city built for loners, and meandering silently through the tangle of streets and islands is a perfect way to spend some time - you will always bump in to countless other people doing the same. Commuters, runners and other passers by keep themselves to themselves - there is no nod or smile, no runners' code, no polite commuter conversation - but it isn't a hostile silence; possibly the individual's sense of the individual, instead.

And it really is individual. Rather than feeling inelegant or unfashionable in my fleece and Dr Martens, I am perfectly comfortable to be as scruffy as I please. The majority also appear to be wearing DMs, and while there is a definite sense of Scandinavian style parading the platforms of the Universiteit Tunnelbana station, it is neither arrogant nor scripted: less 'us and them', less vanity, less garishness, less pretention.

So far I am besotted with this place, and having a brilliant time working at Stockholm University; I can't help but feel that a month is not long enough. Certainly, I won't be able to know Stockholm as much as I would like in this time, though I am trying. For now I am allowing myself to stop and stare, to not rush, and to wander on my own as aimlessly and as often as I can. Maybe I'll be back again one day, but I want to take it all in now, just in case.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Marathon Training Week 7

I've covered 45 miles of Stockholm's pavements this week, trying each day to become a little more familiar with my new surroundings without daring too much of the unknown in one go. I'm getting there, only slower than I'd like.

On Easter Monday, after seeing Daniel off to the airport, I took off from T-Centralen for my first 20-miler of my Windermere 2013 schedule. It was freezing, possibly the coldest weather I'd ever run in, and I was grateful for my jacket and scarf which I kept on for the first 2 miles before stuffing them into my backpack. I've run with a backpack on a couple of occasions in the past but never more than a few miles, so I was nervous about having it with me even though it was necessary. It was fine, though, and I ceased to notice it after a while, even though it was packed full with my warm layers from our early start!

My plan was to run around two islands - Södermalm and Djurgården - before getting back onto the main island and running home via the University. I immediately went wrong and found myself on the beautiful island of Kungsholmen, which I had never visited before, so I ran around the edge of this island instead, sticking to the gorgeous waterside paths as much as I could, with wonderful views out towards the Swedish mainland. I ran through the beautiful Stadshus (City Hall), too, which was a treat! I must go back when I'm not on a run to explore it further.

Stockholm's Stadshus
After encircling Kungsholmen I returned to my original plan and headed along the long quayside towards Djurgården. There was so much to see here and such lovely views across the waters that I didn't need to worry about mileage - the distance was a sideline to a great morning exploring Stockholm. I was looking forward to running around Djurgården, too, which I'd wanted to do since I visited back in November and saw so many runners there taking in the scenery. It proved to be much harder than I'd liked, though, as all of the footpaths were drowned in an inch of thick, uncomfortable pebbled grit. It got in my shoes, provided an uncomfortable landing with each step, and took double the energy that running on solid footpaths usually takes. I started to get tired really quickly, and there was still another 9 miles to go. The island is also much bigger than I'd realised, and every corner I turned presented more of the same footpaths, going on for miles ahead! I was starting to feel really fed up and uncomfortable, with sore knees from all the grit - I haven't had knee pain in years, and I started to get incredibly anxious about getting an injury. Rather than enjoying the run I decided to stay focused on the miles, working towards the distance one mile at a time and not thinking about the 6, 5, 4 miles that I still had to go. I arrived at the University at mile 18, and I knew that there was no way I'd be home by mile 20, as it's 3 miles away even without getting lost (which was inevitable given the state of my mind by that point). Instead I finished the run with a loop around the gorgeous campus, which was comparatively grit-free, and I even found some energy from somewhere to get my speed up a bit. My Garmin finally beeped that 20th mile and I could have cried with relief - I was cold and so so tired, desperate to get home and shower the horrid dust away. It had taken me 45 minutes longer to run 20 miles than it had to run 18 miles in high winds the previous week, which is a reflection of how agonising the whole ordeal was. I warmed down outside the underground entrance, my legs shaking like mad now I'd finally stopped. I got on the train and got myself a flapjack from my bag, and two minutes later realised I was going in the wrong direction! I got off, got on another train, and proceeded to enjoy my flapjack and the sense of elation from the huge achievement I'd just endured, all the while cursing myself for prolonging the journey so stupidly!

The regal grandeur of Djurgården - lovely except for the grit!

Over the next couple of days I really felt the after-effects of those miles, and struggled along on a 4-mile recovery run on Tuesday, and then an interval session which was almost pointless on Wednesday. The grit where I live is even worse than in the city, and my feet were so sore and swollen from the terrain, as well as my knees still giving me angst. After two whole days' rest I was feeling much more optimistic for my longer run on Friday, and had a quick half-banana before I set off into the early morning sunshine with directions in my back pocket. I was enjoying the run, and enjoying having some energy at last, but as I got to 5 miles I suddenly doubted my directions completely - I was running somewhere completely new, and turning right instead of left could be a big mistake when I didn't know where I was going. Rather than follow my directions (which said to go right) or my instinct (which said left) I turned back and went back the way I came - 10.5 miles on half a banana was not good, but it was probably better than ending up in Norway thanks to an early-morning cartography error. I got to the end with some discomfort, but my spirits remained high, especially since I found out that the council have started to remove the grit now that winter is over.

Thankfully I ended the week on a high, with a gorgeous waterside run this morning - wearing shorts and no extra top layer, to boot - which included 12 hill sprints, taken on a nice gentle, grit-free hill near the waterfront. I enjoyed every step in the morning sunshine, until I got lost again and panicked that I might never get back. Luckily I was right to trust my nose in this case, which took me back home for a gorgeous Saturday lunch of poached eggs, malt bread and a big bowl of cous cous (I am carbo loading, after all!), enjoyed while catching up with Any Questions on Radio 4.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Long Weekend of Plenty

Daniel's train pulled out of the station at 8:35am on Easter Monday, and as the lights disappeared from view around the corner I stopped being on holiday and landed instead in the middle of an unfamiliar city completely on my own. I stood for a minute on the platform, completely at a loss with what to do next, where to go, how to be in a place where I know almost nobody, where almost nobody knows me. Luckily I had come prepared: I was wearing my running gear, and was carrying energy gels and drink in my bag, so, naturally, I went for a 20-mile run around Stockholm to soak up the last of the Easter sunshine, and to indulge myself completely in every newly-hatched memory from the wonderful four days behind me.

Normally I get no more than 3-4 waking hours with Daniel every day, but still I couldn't get enough of his company this weekend, with every waking hour spent mostly walking and chatting, while sleeping hours were intermittent, disturbed by the familiar discomfort of squeezing two full-sized people into one very small single bed.

We got to know Stockholm from its gloriously wide boulevards and sweeping waterside walks, wandering around the islands hand-in-hand, taking photos and getting increasingly excited with each stunning view that appeared around the next corner (and there were many). I'm living right on the edge of the main city area, on the last stop on the underground heading northeast, and there are some stunning waterside footpaths and forest trails right on my doorstep. Much of the water around Stockholm is still frozen solid, and you can hear deep groans from way beneath the surface of the ice as it begins to pull apart in the relative warmth of the impending springtime. On a chilly morning run we climbed up to a viewpoint and watched and listened for a while, taking in the foreign landscape, the moaning of the ice's underbelly, and the freshness of the air.

We slept in and breakfasted late, lunched on lingenberry bread and cinnamon buns with strong Swedish coffee, wandered the modern art gallery, wrapped up from the freezing temperatures (which came as a shock to us even after the recent British weather), ate the perfect late-night pizza, tucked up with a film and desperately weak cider, soaked in the sunshine on a waterside terrace and ate crisp sandwiches in the snow. But mainly we walked and walked and walked for miles, and talked constantly about everything that exists between us: the past, the present that we're building together in York, and now the future too, which is ours to share. I explained again my views on language acquisition (the theories of which are difficult for a literature graduate to grasp, it appears), while he told stories of travelling in Colombia and Ecuador - stories that I love to hear time and time again (mainly because I often forget what the stories are about).

It was an Easter weekend almost free of chocolate, free of the celebrations that are going on worldwide that I never feel quite right taking part in. The treat instead was being together so completely for a blissful four days, being on holiday while also being on an important working mission of my own. We finished off the mini-holiday with a slap-up meal at a vegetarian all-you-can-eat buffet, looking out onto the most famous Stockholm views. While walking back to my flat, full of good food, numerous refills of Yogi tea and talk of our up-coming wedding and the amazing year behind us, I was struck again by how abundant life is, and how responsible I need to be in taking it and drinking it in as completely as I can. The emptiness that currently has hold of every cell in my body is also the most wonderful fullness that I could ever wish to have: the missing is part of the having, part of the lucky happenstance that it is simply not possible to have all of the joy all at the same time. The space that has been left by Daniel's absence, by the home that is waiting for me back in York, by the exciting parties, weddings and hen dos that I'll be missing out on while I'm here; this is surely important space to fill with Stockholm, with Swedish cinnamon buns, with long walks or runs by the melting Baltic waters, and with the exciting project which I have come here to do. I feel as if this might be a second (or third?) chance at grasping something a little bit scary and making it something completely awesome. Hindsight is to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it isn't often that we get to act upon that hindsight and make it count. I'm fuelled up on joy and cinnamon buns, and about ready to start my month of Stockholm.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Marathon Training Week 6: Wind and Stockholm

It has been an especially good running week, all things considered. I can't believe that it was only a week ago that I set out early, wrapped up in my warmest chill-proof gear for an 18-mile run in sharp, slicing winter winds. I decided to take a chance and do the run in my new shoes, having tested them out on a 10-miler the previous week. I was nervous, and doubting why I'd ever even signed up to do another marathon when the last one was so hard, and the training so all-consuming. After a lovely lazy Saturday I wanted so much to be still wrapped up in bed, hiding away at home from the extended winter that is on the forefront of every British person's mind at the moment.

I ran through Copmanthorpe and from there decided to take a route I'd never ventured before, through the village of Askham Bryan and then back into the city via Acomb. This was partly tactical - the less familiar the route, the less I had to think about the wind and the distance - and partly because this would be my last long run in York before the marathon, and I wanted to explore a few more new roads rather than sticking to the ones I already run on every day. As it would happen, Askham Bryan is one of the most charming places I've seen for a while, with the tiniest church, rows of crooked cottages, and a huge duck pond were bundles of small children wrapped up against the cold were feeding the ducks with their parents. It was a joy to run through the village, envisioning what life might be like if we one day decided to move out here and take on one of the ramshackle houses for ourselves. The route was easy to follow and it wasn't long before I'd racked up 10 miles, but the weather was getting worse and the winds were becoming unbearable. I didn't even bother to look at my Garmin - I just wanted to plough unthinkingly forwards and get home to a sugary cup of tea as soon as possible! At times the wind was screaming right in my face, making it difficult to even move forwards, never mind run. But once I was back on familiar territory at 13 miles I knew I had no choice but to keep going - my route was good, at least, and there were plenty of other runners (probably also training for marathons, I guessed, since no one else would be crazy enough to be out in those conditions!) to grimace at as we crossed paths. Whether out of desperation to get home or recklessness in the face of awful conditions, I found myself speeding up in the last few miles: a welcome energy boost had appeared from nowhere to help me through the breeze blocks of tiredness and freezing wind.

I arrived home aching in that sickly sort of way that comes with high mileage - everything hurt, but my lower back and calves in particular were screaming out, helped on by wind burn on my face and sharp pains in my lungs. According to my Garmin I had made the 18-mile route in 10-minute miles, which I still can't quite believe since I was almost walking into the wind at certain points. It did give me a real boost though, since I hadn't crawled the last mile either, but had found plenty of energy to finish the run the same way I'd finish any short run - with enough energy to get up and do it all again the next day.

And that I did, with a nice short recovery run on the Monday. It was supposed to be a slow one, but somehow that didn't feel natural to me so I stuck to my normal gentle running pace and didn't worry about looking at my watch. After a longer run on Tuesday I'd stacked up 30 miles in 3 days, but was still feeling good despite being incredibly busy and unable to sleep thanks to nerves over the impending move to Sweden.

After two days off during which I rested and then travelled to Stockholm, Daniel and I had a fabulous run around the island of Sodermalm on Good Friday morning. It is much colder and icier in Sweden than it was when I left the UK, but the sun is shining and everything feels so relaxed and spring-like - the streets were calling out to be run on! We mistakenly had a huuuge breakfast at the hotel buffet before we set out, so we took it easy, and even stopped to sit by the frozen water for a little while and balk at the people walking their dog on the ice!

The next morning I was all moved in to my new flat, so we set off before breakfast this time, not wanting to make the same mistake of the previous day's regurgitated eggs and yoghurt. We ran out by the nearby water through a forest (wow I am so lucky, it's like the Scandinavian dream here in Danderyd), then tied in a hill session before heading back to the flat. There are some marvellous hills right on my doorstep, so I did 10 uphill repeats, up to the Swedish flag in someone's garden and then right the way back down. Thanks to the layers of grit covering the roads at the moment it's not particularly easy underfoot, but the hill is steeper and anything I could use in York: you win some, you lose some, I suppose!

 Ok, it looks steeper in real life!

I surprised myself on various levels this week, first with the ease of the incredibly difficult long run, then by the continuing energy over the next few days, and finally by managing to rack up over 40 miles during a week of serious upheaval. I'm already looking forward to tomorrow's 20-miler and the coming weeks of exploring this lovely place!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A Few Stern Thoughts on Marriage

Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about marriage lately. About what it means for me, for us, for the future; both the good things and the bad things, and I think there are numerous of each. For a while I didn't want to get married at all, ever; I wasn't prepared to take part in an institution that didn't accept all humans as equal, and I don't and never have considered marriage to be a pre-requisite of anything, or proof of the validity of any relationship.

I felt, and still do feel, that a wedding and a marriage are two almost separate things. Having been engaged for over a year now I can confirm that my worst preconceptions about weddings are in fact truths: weddings are about women, not men; they appear to be designed to play to the most traditional and repressive stereotypes that exist between the sexes, and women seem to love it. There are no bows on our invites, which has caused a stir in a way that truly terrifies me; ours will be a wedding free of all the sentimental feminine cliché: no bows, no love hearts, and no pink roses. There will, however, be an off-white (oyster?) dress, I will walk down the aisle by my father, and I will - probably - shave my legs for the occasion. I was originally planning to wear a green dress and for us to come into the ceremony together - as a couple, the way we plan to spend our married lives, incidentally - but having picked apart every traditional aspect of the wedding day itself, I have settled for those traditions that can actually mean something to me. Because let's not pretend that a woman is walked down the aisle by her father as a symbol of ownership and a dowry trade-off; in 2013 I think we can safely assume that the father is not playing any symbolic role, but is actually just supporting his daughter in one of the most important commitments she will make. Personally I'm looking forward to that precious few minutes with my Dad, linking his arm for maybe the first time ever, and knowing that the whole gesture is probably just as emotional for him as it will be for me.

In my Mum's wedding dress. One of the many weddingy things I've encountered that just wasn't 'me'!
So I have tried really hard not to lose sight of the fact that my wedding day is about a commitment, one I will be making with every inch of my being, and not about the guest list or the invites or the table decorations. It's been hard when faced with dozens of enthusiastic sales people, all trying to sell me the most beautiful and traditional wedding a woman could ever dream of. In the midst of all of this a friend confided that the parts of the day she remembers the most - and the parts she found to be the most emotional - were the vows and her husband's speech: that is, the words she and her now-husband exchanged, most notably those words that made the essential commitment to their lives together. So far this is the single most important piece of knowledge that any married person has shared about their day, and I've kept it solidly in mind for the duration of our planning so far.

I've found myself fiercely defending our choice to get married, both to those who are outwardly cynical about the whole idea, as well as to those who I suspect may be cynics of lifelong commitment. We were recently at a neighbour's party where almost every other guest was divorced, and we were both self-conscious about our perceived naivety among the crowds of knowing hindsight. But still I defend our decision to get married, completely and whole-heartedly, and I believe that we have a right to the optimism that we share in these earliest years of our relationship. Without optimism that it's all going to work out - that we'll still be madly in love in 50 years' time, let's say - then what do we have? What is there without hope and good intention? That's not an existence that I want to be involved in, anyway.

The defining moment in my continuous dialogue with myself about my feelings towards marriage was on the train to Leeds after work one day. The journey was an extension of the Carlisle-Settle line, and there would often be day-trippers travelling back to Leeds armed with a flask of tea, some scones and a guide book on the treasured route that the train takes, which shows off much of the North's most incredible scenery from the comfort and warmth of a train carriage. An old couple, probably in their 70s, were sitting together with their flask, not talking much but occasionally pointing out of the window at something noteworthy. When the train began to pull in to Leeds the man got up, brought the coats and bags down from the overhead rack, and then helped his wife into her coat before they painstakingly made their way to the door. It was then that I saw the importance (to me) of marriage, the idea of lifelong love, but more importantly friendship, that we will inevitably need more and more as time goes on. When my Gran was in a nursing home she said that her biggest regret was not realising until it was too late that her husband was her best friend. Luckily for me, I've already realised what an amazing friendship Daniel and I share, and I intend to take this on into the best and worst bits of my life to come.

So I'm having a lot of thoughts about marriage. And about the wedding too, which I am getting increasingly more excited about as time goes on. But already I feel a change in myself, as I see Daniel as the person I'll be sharing forever with and not just the other half of my relationship. We're a team now, and I stop and remind myself of that each time I find myself snapping or getting impatient with him: dealing with disagreements has become almost a pleasure, as we wind our way through the complicated dealings of life together. My journey to my wedding day has already been a long one, and the decision to leave the bows from the invites was just one of the many superficial choices we have made in an effort to signify what the day is about for us (not just for me). But I'm paying a great deal of attention to the words, because somehow we have to make an out loud commitment to something that is becoming more and more deeply routed inside us with every day we share together - as I said to Daniel after he proposed, the commitment has already been made, and now we get to find a way to make it outward-facing, with all of the optimism and wonder that lies between us.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Cartmel Sticky Toffee Trail Race, 2013

Marathon training is still going strong, but after a hard 50-mile week last week I'm having a bit of an easy week this - I need to save my energy for moving to Stockholm on Thursday! I'll get back to some training updates soon, but for now here is just a highlight of my recent running exploits!

Every Christmas morning my Dad presents us all with a white envelope containing some form of adventure that he has carefully selected, with the intention of pushing us to our limits in the name of a good family day out. For my Mum, these white envelopes have become an annual burden, and she makes sure that at least one G&T has been consumed before she dare face what horror might be folded into a simple A5 envelope. In the past we've tried out Honsiter's Via Ferrata (which, sadly, has since closed) and Keswick Half Marathon (my Mum did the York 10k), and last Christmas we were treated to the Cartmel Sticky Toffee Trail Race, one leg of the amazing Lakeland Trails running experience.
Above Honister Pass, August 2011
The Lakeland Trails events are divided into four races: a junior fun run, a 10k race, and then the Challenge and the Race. Runners doing the Challenge get an extra hour to complete the run than those in the Race, where time is cut off after 2;45. Normally this would be plenty of time for an 18k road race, but what with the mud and the hills and the cold nothing could be certain!

We arrived at Cartmel with only an hour to spare, and were already muddy within minutes after picking up our numbers from the mud bath that was race registration! The weather had been awful over the days before the race, and it was a given that the run was going to be incredibly difficult underfoot: even the start line was more like a bog than a racecourse! It was really cold out, too, but after a trial jog around the racecourse in my shorts I decided to stick with the 'less is more' approach to racewear; nothing is more waterproof or washable than skin, after all!

At the start line I began to get really nervous - a big case of the 'everyone looks fitter than me' syndrome amplified by the fact that there were so few people taking part in the Race. As is often the case with trail and fell running, I also noticed that (apart from my brother) I was probably the youngest there: small fry in all respects! The atmosphere at the Lakeland Trails events is just fantastic, though, and the drumming band and friendly crowd lifted my spirits, as did the sudden bout of unexpected impotence from the inflatable 'Start' banner, which delayed proceedings slightly. We finally set off through a sea of mud, and it was heavy going instantly as my shoes sunk in to the ground and came up heavy with sticky soil. On top of the general struggle to stand upright and wade forwards, I was also tired from a week of lots of running, so my pre-race nerves were at an ultimate high.

As usual, though, it didn't take long for me to forget everything other than the awesomeness that was the very moment I was in. The sky had started to clear and the scenery was magnificent - sunlight was strewn across the water of Morcambe Bay to the West, and the snow-topped Lakeland fells loomed to the East, and there I was running through the mud in the chilly March sunshine. The bottom half of my legs were covered in mud from the outset, which meant I was automatically set free into a muddy carelessness that meant I could tractor along with the un-matched freedom that comes with off-road running. I was also exceptionally happy with the shoes I was wearing, as I had taken a risk wearing them for their first run on an 18k race after my trusty trail shoes gave up the ghost only two weeks before. No blisters: it all adds to the joy!

The hills weren't too bad on this run either, and they gave me an opportunity to take over a few runners who had set off faster than me only to falter on the hills. I was bounding along completely alone for some miles, with only paper flags and the occasional marshal to point me in the right direction. While crossing one particularly muddy patch of fell I slid sidewards right into the mud, covering hands, thigh, and the whole left-side of my shorts in mud. The landing was deliciously soft, and part of me wanted to stay there for a while to frolic in the dirt, but with the cut-off time near the front of my mind I ploughed on.

At around 12k I started to tire, as almost every step became an effort as the ground sank beneath me. Parts of the course involved ploughing ankle-deep for some distance, and uphills were a relentless struggle to stop sliding back down again - it became pretty annoying! My back was hurting from the constant need to keep my balance, the sun was right in my face (my sunglasses were left in the car, incidentally!), and I was really hungry. Still, I was having a great time, always amazed by the privilege of being able to run like a mad woman through the Lake District's most beautiful landscapes on a Saturday afternoon.

A photographer was waiting at the last mile to take photos of runners splashing through a stream, which would have been a nice way to wash myself down if it wasn't for the final mile of mud! It soothed my poor feet, though, and freshened up my legs for the last push. After a slippery ascent into and then through some tricky woodland terrain (my Dad had warned me about the slimy tree roots, which are a nightmare when you're tired from running) I came back down onto Cartmel racecourse, and headed towards the finish line which was literally a brown bog. Finishing the race knee-deep in filth was fitting, and I was glad to see that my Dad and brother were just as muddy as I was. I collected my hard-earned sticky toffee pudding, then wrapped up in the car with a hot chocolate and a cereal bar. Next time I won't forget to pack baby wipes.


We finished off the day in typical style: my Mum had prepared a slap-up meal of veggie chilli, garlic bread and rice, with crumble and sliceable custard for pudding. Fittingly, I reached the end of the day feeling Christmas levels of fullness, but the wind burn, grazes and dirt in my toenails were a nice reminder of the adventure we'd enjoyed earlier that day.