Sunday, 26 February 2017

Winchester 10k Race

Starting at Winchester Guildhall on the High Street 
930 Runners waiting to go.....

Coming in to the finish....

The Finish

With friends Richard and Jackie at the end
Runners Finish Medal. King Alfred, the Saxon King who watches over the city which was once his capital.

We woke up at 7 to drizzle, which isn't as bad as it sounds for running. We got to Winchester, one of my favourite places, with about half an hour to go before the race started to find the car parks filling up fast and the sky now dry. We whizzed off to a little-known car park and found it empty. A quick 5 minute jog to the start and we had time to warm up, chat to some friends and set GPS's to locating satellites before the ten second count-down and we were off, running up the high street then turning right before the market stalls onto Silver Hill and up along St George's street.

I started fairly well back in the field of 900 because of The Knees, and felt like most of the runners streamed past me in the first couple of kilometres, but hills are my Secret Weapon and I was soon feeling good by steadily overtaking a few of them up St George's. We turned right at the top into Jewry Street, ran past the Theatre Royal and down into Hyde Street, past the pub, the White Swan (which is universally known as the Mucky Duck, even on Google Maps I notice!), and on down past the ancient remains of Hyde Abbey.

By now I was settling in to my stride, averaging around 5.20-5.30 mins per km which I figured was a good pace for The Knees. Steve (Physio) had told me I needed to pick up the pace on this run once I'd warmed up and push The Knees a little to test them, so I was Very Good, resisted the temptation to crack on too early and remained steady for the first 5-6k or so and only upped the anti in the last 4k.

At the end of Hyde Street we turned right onto Worthy Road and ran all the way down to a sharp left turn into Church Lane, after which, the lass running beside me informed me in a tone of dread, was a hill. Smiling inwardly, I let her go on ahead then picked her off half way up Nations Hill. So much of running is psychological and anything you can use to give you an edge or a mental boost is extremely helpful. She whizzed by me again on the flat but I knew I'd get her again on the next hill so I concentrated on keeping to my 5.30 mins/km pace. I'm getting better at the discipline of pacing. The temptation is very strong to give in to the atmosphere at the start of a race and rush off way too fast, which of course means you've exhausted yourself before you've gone a few kms.

By now we were about 5k in (Parkrun distance) and I had a chap running beside me who told me he'd undergone 17 hours of bowel surgery in the course of the year and was keen to get his fitness back by running. We chatted a bit and I realised I was really enjoying myself: I wasn't out of breath, I did feel a bit sick on the hills but that soon settled, and I had masses of energy left. The Knees were doing fine and only a few very speedy chaps were overtaking me at this stage- the race had settled into a rhythm and the field had spread out. Around me there was quite a lot of heavy breathing going on, so I reckoned I was in a strong position as my breathing was steady.

I picked off a few more on the next hill and kept the rhythm going at the top so instead of falling back I began to gain on the runners in front. More good headology stuff (as Grannie Weatherwax would say). 

At 7k we turned left onto Andover Road, a long, steady incline which was potentially a little dispiriting because you could see a long line of runners plodding away a good distance ahead and that the incline got steeper towards the end. I concentrated on each step and on chewing away at the distance rather than thinking about doing it all at once, and after a few strides realised I was OK to pick up the pace. I left bowel man behind, and the girl who was afraid of hills, and focused on picking off the next group of runners up ahead. By now people were getting tired. I gradually caught up with the group ahead and was soon past them, which was another good confidence boost. I had a brief tussle with a chap who picked up his pace as I drew level but after a few seconds I realised he was tired and he fell back. The hill bit and people ahead slowed, but thanks to all the hill running I do at home I was up and past them quickly and feeling good.

We turned left onto Park Road at 8.8k and then turned right back on to Worthy Road. Here two blokes cam streaming past me, they looked really confident and were running strongly. I didn't bother trying to catch them knowing that it would be pointless, instead I set my sights on a more achievable target- a lady in a Lordshill Runners tee-shirt who had been ahead of me for the last half mile. I caught up with her at the bottom of a small hill and went past. There wasn't that much left to go, I still had fuel in the tank, still wasn't breathing particularly hard, had a good rhythm and best of all The Knees were holding up well, the ache at 1-2 on a scale of 10 (with10 being too painful to run) as it had been all the way round.

I saw the 9km marker ahead up a small hill and started to pick up the pace properly. I overtook two men on the hill, another on the downhill, then saw my mate Bryn who was marshalling and called out a helloooo, checked my watch and realised I was doing better than expected time-wise. It was all downhill from there so I sprinted the last half km, the time coming down to 4.25 mins/km, overtook two more men and raced flat out for the finish. My finish time was a little over 52 minutes, which I was really chuffed with. What a great race!

Fourteen days to go until the Cub......

CT :o)

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Curlew, Black-Tailed Godwits and Running Through Doris


Black-Tailed Godwit, winter plumage

Lots of Black-Tailed Godwits


Keyhaven, Isle of Wight in the distance
Last weekend we popped down to Keyhaven so I could get a sea fix and see some sea birds. It's is a good place for Black-Tailed Godwit, a reasonably rare wading bird that only breeds in a handful of places in the UK. It has special protection as a result and I was thrilled to see so many of them on the mudflats here. They're in their soft dove-grey winter plumage right now but it won't be long before they morph into bright chestnut summer attire.

Also feeding out on the mudflats was a curlew, one of my favourite birds. I love everything about them but especially their improbably long, curving beaks and that call. So eerie.

Down by the river that flows beneath the bridge and out into the estuary were my all-time favourite birds of the sea: Turnstones. They merged so well into the pebbles that the camera missed them most of the time and I returned with lots of blurry Turnstones in the foreground and perfectly sharp pebbles behind.

Today, Storm Doris is battering us. The heron knows all about it. He's been standing on the edge of the island since 9am patiently waiting for breakfast to swim by while the surface of the lake is whipped into a frenzy by the wind. Feathers have been going in all directions. It doesn't suit a heron's innate dignity to be so buffeted. 

The dogs and I went out for a (still tentative) 3 mile run round the lanes and back across the fields in it first thing. This is the first time I've run since last Saturday and I am starting to feel unfit. M came on his bike, having done a ten mile run on his dodgy knee yesterday (which felt strong, so his half marathon weekend after this one is looking good), and managed to fall off the bike on to the damaged knee while navigating a tight turn with shoes locked into pedals. Oops.

Ted wasn't too chuffed at being out in a storm: his ears kept being swung about his head in a haphazard manner which he didn't enjoy very much. Pop was her usual happy-to-be-out-regardless-of-the-weather self and zoomed off, splashing through puddles, sinking into mud ploughing through sand as per usual. Crows were being chucked about the sky like black hankies, branches were waving hysterically and the pigs were all very pink in a scrubbed-clean-by-the-rain sort of way. Under foot it was squelchy and I came home flecked with mud and spattered by the rain. 

The knees held up well all things considered, I could barely feel them which is a big improvement, and I got home in about 27 mins, so a faster time than last Saturday's 5k but still steady enough for recovering muscles (I hope). I'm getting fed up with the general lack of running and the slow pace though so really hope to be back to more-or-less normal training next week. 17 days to go till the Cub.....

I'm off now to make marmalade, which seems safer on the whole than being outdoors at the moment, although we will have to venture out for L's hair cut this afternoon. I feel a parachute strategically placed would get us there quicker than driving.

Hope all are well?


Monday, 20 February 2017

The Secrets Of The Land, And How To Read Them

Around 90% of England isn't built on. Before those of us who love wildlife and wild places rejoice, let's remember that much of that 90% is fragmented by infrastructure: roads, fences, railways, industry, shops, houses divide and parcel the land, restricting the free movement of wild things; that the brown field sites are polluted; that the farmland is largely monoculture treated heavily with chemicals; that many of the rivers are polluted or still constrained by hard engineering and that the woodland is not ancient and natural, but farmed coniferous or newly planted. All these things reduce the wildlife value considerably.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Wildlife is good at adapting and hanging on in the margins, and even here in heavily managed Hampshire you don't have to go far to step into a wild world where nature is everything and the modern world fades away into the silence of the Earth.

Often, we're too busy to notice the signs, because they are usually small and discreet, wild things having learnt through millennia of evolution that that's the best way to survive. Looking and noticing is what lets you into this world, noticing the small. It's a world that steps you back in time to when the ice sheets had not long retreated and the ancestors trod the earth, when the world was fresh and new......

Start with the simple. It's always the best place to begin. Here is a field with an old hedge on one side. You know it's old because it has mature oak trees in it, and natives like field maple, hazel, ash, blackthorn and holly. All trees that have been here since the ice sheets went. The land is farmed (monoculture crop grown with sprays) and there are houses along one side. But on the hedge side, a tiny tiny strip of headland has been left uncultivated. Mainly because the farm machinery can't get right up to the hedge. It's not in great shape, it could be a lot better, but it's better than nothing. It offers the hedge some protection from the sprays, it allows a few hardy 'weeds' (not my favourite word) a place to grow, and it provides space for field signs.

Like this deer slot. In this part of Hampshire it could be Roe, Muntjac or Fallow. It's too big to be Muntjac, too small to be Fallow. The shape (curving inwards), the size (length about 45mm) and where it is (in the field away from cover) make it more likely to be Roe.

On the margin of the field, close under the hedge I found these....

Piles of ash seeds. They weren't under an ash tree, and there were several of them. Had they been gathered? Yes, most probably by mice, who collect large stores of seeds in sheltered places to see them through winter.

Further along the hedge I found these.....

A series of small, shallow pits dug into the earth, fairly close together, some containing poo like this one....

They're a badger latrine. Badgers are incredibly clean, tidy and fastidious animals. Did you know they are the only mammal beside humans who dig latrines for their waste? A badger loo is situated on the edge of their territory. In the autumn the poo is often red with blackberries. Badgers are omnivores, and not particularly choosey about what they eat, although their favourite food is earthworms, which gives the droppings their characteristic grey sludge appearance. Much of looking for field signs involves poo, because the actual animal is often impossible to see. And you can tell a lot from poo :o)

So that's a Roe deer, mice and badgers all within a few metres of starting the walk, all within sight of the local houses and all out in a field used for monoculture.

Half a mile in and we come to the first Green Lane. Green Lanes are ancient trackways, some prehistoric, some later. This one tracks across three fields and has the feeling of an old, old place. Sometimes I don't walk down it, feeling that the Guardian of the Lane doesn't want company at that particular time. On this walk I get that sense so I miss the first section, walking down the field instead, along the hazel hedge where the catkins have unfurled and are dancing along the boughs like dangling lambs' tails, across the valley bottom, past the woodland strip with the badgers have their sett and on up the hill where the buzzards caw.

I pause here to listen, because ears are an important part of knowing the land. Here, in this open field, skylarks nest and last week they started singing. I stand for a good ten minutes listening to the song high above me, playing the age-old game of spot-the-skylark, which is nigh on impossible unless you've watched it rise from the earth and tracked it upwards...

Here's a test for you- how many other birds can you hear singing in the back ground? Answers at the bottom of the post.... :o)

We go on, through the hedge, down the Roman Road, right into the fields again, following the hedge beside the covercrops, Pop putting up a pheasant, Ted wistfully watching a rabbit that he knows is too far away for him to catch. Fieldfares cackle at us from the oaks and in the distance a flock of starlings is chattering.

We turn right at the hawthorn hedge at the bottom. This hedge is a remnant of an older time when thorn hedges were the staple means of keeping livestock in one place. Although the farm is now arable, I know because there are a number of thorn hedges on the farm that it's history pre-war contained livestock not crops.

Here we pick up the green lane once more, and disappear into its darkness. It's hard to tell the story of the land from fields; so many of the clues have been eradicated by modern farming. But in green lanes the story is easier to pick up if you know what to look for. Plants are one of the best and most reliable of our natural story-tellers.

You see the dark green spiky plant growing on the edge of the lane in the photo below? This is Butchers Broom. It's an ancient woodland indicator plant, meaning that it grows in old forests. It's presence here tells us that the green lane once wound through a forest. It tells us that the land now covered in green fields beyond it was once woodland, and an old woodland at that. I checked the maps and the flora doesn't lie- as little as fifty years ago, these fields were covered in a huge wood which stretched for miles around. It was cut down wholesale after the war as part of the drive to grow more food....

Further down the lane and the soil had been scratched clear, small threads of white roots unearthed....

Hmmm. This is the work of badgers, looking for food. The small, heart-shaped green leaves are celandines, which will soon be out, their bright yellow flowers cheering up the woodland floor. I checked the tree beside the scratched out earth area because badgers also like to sharpen their claws on tree trunks, or rub their backs against them making a shiny area. There wasn't any evidence of that here but it's worth checking for hair caught in the bark or for scratch marks if you find a bare patch of earth near trees.

Badgers aren't the only creatures who find food along the green lane: this is a type of Jelly Fungus known as Jew's Ear, edible for people. It's meant to taste quite rubbery. I left it on the tree.

Hazel catkins are in full flow now. The long, dangly and more familiar ones are male and they appear on the tree in October, seeing winter through before unfurling properly in February when the less familiar female catkins also appear (bright pink tufts on the end of what look like buds, close to the male ones). This branch caught my eye because Dormice are closely associated with hazel and ecologists will tell you that they are so arboreal that they never deign to tread the earth, so branches like this one linking one side of a hedge to another are crucial for them if they aren't to become vulnerable to extinction by being trapped in one small area. I'm not convinced by this argument. I suspect they'll cross the earth if there's no branch conveniently placed bridging the gap. Still, if you're out in a managed woodland and you see two trees close together leaning over a path, or a branch hanging over from one side to another you'll know it's been left that way deliberately, for the Dormice...

Identifying trees in winter from their buds or bark is a useful skill to have. Trees tell the story of the land, they also provide food for people as well as animals. The rings in this bark tell me the tree is a Cherry. If I come back in Autumn they'll be fruit there for me...

Further down the lane Lords and Ladies (another ancient woodland indicator plant) are emerging. We've already established that badgers like to snack on roots. Here they've located the plant and known that if they dug a little way into the earth there would be a juicy treat waiting for them. Half the bulb has been eaten. I don't know whether that's enough to kill the plant or not, I'll check on it again later.

Beside the Lords and Ladies is further evidence of the heritage of this landscape. These straggly looking green things are Dogs Mercury, another ancient woodland indicator. They're growing on the bank but must once have gone right out into what is now green fields...

Also in the bank was this...

Possibly a mouse hole, but I think it's more like to be a Bank Vole front door. It looks the right size and shape. Bank voles are bigger than mice and rarer than field voles (which we get in our garden- you can tell them apart because they make runs through moss and grass), but they are common in hedgerows and woodlands which fits the habitat here. They also have a much shorter tail than the stubby version on the field vole, should you happen to glimpse one and wonder which it is. Knowing the landscape helps narrow down the animal ID because some are more specialist in their preferences for habitat than others. All these clues can be read with a little learning.

All of these signs were found here, in the right-hand side of the photo where the strip of hedge/ woodland is. The green lane is tucked between the edge of the field and the tall trees. It doesn't look very auspicious, does it? Yet all that life is hidden away in here, if only you take the time to look for it.

And here is the other half of the green lane. See how the field follows the curve of the lane? This shows that the lane has been here much, much longer than the field....

I hope you enjoyed that little foray into a secret world. Next time you're out its worth having a poke about and seeing what you can find. There is much knowledge to be had by looking at The Small Things.

I'll leave you with a Song Thrush who was sitting in the trees in the photo above. It's only 50 seconds or so but captures the brilliant phrase-repeating song that song thrushes are known for. There's also a short bonus of Ted and Pops mooching about in the hedge bottom at the end.

Wishing you all a Good Week,

CT :o)

Other birds on the skylark video I could hear were: Carrion Crow, Green Woodpecker, Blackbird, Robin, Song Thrush, Dunnock. Could you hear any others?

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Tendonitis 0, Parkrun 1

Just a quick update, as you were all so lovely about my knee problems yesterday. Parkrun went really positively this morning. My Physio had told me as long as the pain remained about 3-4 on a scale of 10 I was good to keep running. Any higher would have meant a fortnight off training. As it was, it stayed at about 1-2 most of the way round which was far better than he or I had expected, and disappeared completely after the run. 

I ran with patella bands on, goodness those things are amazing! They support the patella, the tendon below it and the muscles above, so lift all the pressure away. I'm wearing them constantly for a week and so far so very good. As a small aside, I learnt an interesting knee fact during my physio session yesterday. Many people associate running with bad knees and blame the increased force passing through the knee. Your knee experiences twice the force of walking going through it when you run, but it has evolved to cope with five times the force of walking, so running alone is not what causes bad knees. The culprit is usually upping distance and/ or speed too quickly and not giving your body sufficient time to rest, recover and adapt between sessions. I think my problem has been upping the distance too quickly, because I felt so good on it. Anyway, lesson learnt.

I was eminently sensible and jogged round the three miles very slowly this morning (as per strict and stern Physio-Steve instructions) and came in in a little over 29 mins, about 550th of 870. Normally I'm around 23-24 mins and in the top 200. I found running at that pace quite tough. It took all my self-control not to pick up the pace and crack on. It was a good test of discipline I guess. Luckily I had the iPod with me and contented myself timing the pace to the music. The result was I wasn't remotely out of breath at the end and didn't really feel like I'd had a run, but it's what the knees need at the moment so I'll stick to it until the Physio gives the thumbs up for picking up the pace and distance again.

At the moment (cautiously), next weekend's 10k is looking like a goer, as is the Cub, but we'll wait and see. I'll probably bin the 5 mile road race that's on between the two, just to be on the safe side. Today I am feeling MUCH happier about the whole thing. The breathing, core stability muscle work, acupuncture, ultrasound, massage and ice packs all seem to be doing what they should.

Finger's Crossed, eh? :o)

Friday, 17 February 2017

A Kingfisher Comes

I've lived in this house by the lake ten years and I've seen the kingfisher who lives here with us twice. Once, in a flash of blink-and-you'll-miss-me electric blue flying fast and low across the water about eight years ago, and once for a handful of seconds perching beside our Robin on the garden fence three summer's back. 

This morning, as I was getting ready for the Physio I became aware of an unusual, out-of-place colour and shape in one of the trees by the lake. I grabbed the bins, already knowing what it was and drank in the sight of her. She sat there for half an hour, preening, looking at the water, occasionally turning her beak to stare at me. I was utterly spell-bound and very nearly late for the appointment. You can tell this is a female because of the orangey red lower bill (the boys' beaks are all black). Kingfishers can live for up to twelve years and they pair off in Feb/March, laying eggs in April so hopefully there will be a Mr KF around somewhere nearby. Their numbers and ranges were dropping thanks to water pollution, but since the 1980s they've recovered a little. They take insects including dragonfly larvae as well as small fish so I'm wondering whether we may see them in the garden up by the goldfish and wildlife ponds at some point. Magic, isn't she? And ever-so-slightly woodpecker-like - or is that just me?

After a slightly gloomy-in-the-not-running-department week, seeing her cheered me up no end, a feeling enhanced by my Physio Steve, who declared himself pleased with knee progress and wants me to try a small, sensible, slow Parkrun tomorrow with the patella braces I've got for tendonitis on. The difference they make is amazing. If running is very painful tomorrow then I'm off games for a fortnight, but still in with a chance of doing the Cub. We just have to wait and see. After acupuncture and ultrasound today it's feeling pretty good and I'm walking without any pain at all. Here's to the power of a good Physio and plenty of positive thinking.

Hope you're all well? The sun is shining here and it's Half Term as of four o'clock. We are definitely ready for it.

CT :o)

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Parkrun In The Snow and Injury, with Only 26 Days To Go!

I've had four days off running, nursing my left knee. The timing is bloomin' annoying as it's now only TWENTY SIX DAYS till the Cub and I really could be doing without running-related knee pain restricting my training when a nine mile cliff run is looming in less than four weeks' time.

I'm having treatment for it. We've worked through a diagnosis (certain muscles not firing properly and putting strain on others which are doing extra work as a result, as well as core muscle strength needing some attention and belly breathing for the whole lot), and the lovely Viv (runner and sports therapist extraordinaire) is confident I'll be OK to run the race, provided I take it easy until then. Those of you who run will understand that, while I know I am nine mile fit and reasonably hill-proof (to a point!) and I can get round based on the training I've done to date, I really want to run it well and I'm frustrated at the curbing of my training.

On the plus side, I don't know a single runner who hasn't had to cope with injury at one time or another. We have lots of friends who are ultra endurance runners and they just take it as part of the sport. You just have to factor it in and be sensible about rest and getting treatment. There are two races before the Cub, a 10k and a 5 mile, both on roads. They may end up being sacrificial victims if I decide my knee isn't strong enough to do all three. It's interesting how some races mean more to you than others. I'll be sad to miss the other two, but I'd be absolutely gutted not to run the Cub. If I have to I will be crawling round it on my hands and knees, face set in Grim Determination :o)

I didn't do Parkrun on Saturday as a result and to be honest I was rather glad not to: it blew a blizzard and it was freeeeeeezing. M ran it in shorts (!) but most others were in head-to-toe thermals. I volunteered instead and was helping out with the funnel. Persuading exhausted runners to keep moving along to the token point and to keep in their race positions was an interesting experience! I met a lovely Czech lady called Varma (I think- we were so muffled with layers it was hard to hear her name properly). She's a maths lecturer. My maths is crap not very good so I was keen not to get into too deep a conversation about fractions and formulas lest I betray my ignorance  We did flamboyant and giggling star jumps together instead to keep warm until the first runners appeared (in a little over 15 mins, which for a three mile run is just rude, no?) :o)

I did get out for a 2.5 mile trot round the fields with the doggy folk this morning. As an experiment. The knee help up until the last half mile and now its aching again. So more half clams, plank, belly breathing and various other abdominal, glute and quad exercises for me, plus another session with Viv on Friday. On the plus side it was lovely to be running again. We had a close encounter with a buzzard who wasn't at all bothered about us running past him while he stood on the ground, and two skylarks who rose into the air trilling. They've just started again so that means Spring is definitely on the way.

Hope you're all well?


Friday, 10 February 2017

February, Iron Clad Among The Birds


Pink Punk-Rocker Female Hazel Catkins are out on the bough now

Male and female hazel catkins together

February has settled in with iron. It is freezing here at present. The temperature may say three degrees but I think someone's forgotten to tell the air. It's flowing straight down from the North East and it feels colder than it has in ages. It is Proper Winter; I've been smelling snow on the air since last night and this evening, while walking the hounds through the fields around the time of the gloaming, it came; a flew flakes floating down out of the clouds, speckling the air around us.

The birds are flocking to the garden at the moment, making sensible use of the energy-giving fat sources they know are always available here. Keeping up with demand has been a full time job these past few days. They're getting through a suet-filled coconut half a day, as well as peanuts, fat balls and seeds. Whenever I look outside there are woodpeckers, great tits, blue tits, robins, dunnocks, blackbirds, collared doves, chaffinches, long tailed tits, pigeons, coal tits, nuthatches, sparrows, goldfinches, a marsh tit, a song thrush and a moorhen all clustered round the feeders hungrily eating up whatever they can get their beaks on. The lawn heaves as if it is a feathered thing.

This afternoon I discovered a little Dunnock lying stunned and disoriented on the patio beside the greenhouse. Pop was keen to investigate closely but I managed to persuade her it was better to let the little feathered friend be and give it time to gather its senses, which it did, eventually flying off into the hedge. I was glad. I am very much concerned for them all in this cold snap and losing your life after an altercation with a greenhouse, having survived December and January, seems most unfair.

There are siskin about this week, in great numbers. I hear them all whistling and popping in the trees that line the lake near the house, although we rarely see them. Occasionally a Brave Male will venture into the garden and everyone else is very accommodating and shares the feeders with him, eyeing the colourful speckled green plumage enviously (apart from the goldfinches, obviously- after all, if you've got red and yellow on you what's a bit of lemony-green?). 

We had a Tree Creeper pay us a visit this week- I saw him crawling up the trunk of the willow as I lay in bed looking out of the window at the cold, grey sky summoning the courage to get up. I tried to point him out to M, but of course they are so perfectly blended with tree trunks that he couldn't see the little one at all. It's only the second time I've seen one in the garden so I was thrilled.

When I did get up, it was to see the Heron fishing on the edge of the lake. He is huge and very mistrustful of people. He will just about tolerate me, as long as I don't make a noise or move, but anyone else comes near and he's off, great wings open to the air and feet trailing behind him. I see him most days - he is my new avian love :o)

Further out, beyond the boundaries of the garden into The Wild that surrounds the house, heard but not seen, are greenfinches, bullfinches, green woodpeckers, a little grebe, a kingfisher and a pair of stock doves. The stock doves have a kind of revving purr, like an engine getting going. They've been at it for a while now, sorting out their territory. The Kingfisher, (who once sat beside one of our Robins on the garden fence!) whistles. The bullfinches utter soft, single 'boos' year round, and the greenfinches make a trilling sound, like rolling your r's with your tongue. I hear far fewer of them and I worry that their numbers are down. The green woody yaffles as he flies, predicting rain, and the little grebe calls only once Spring has really got going. He doesn't let up for the summer then but falls silent again as the light fades from the year.

Out in the fields the calls are different still: the cackling of huge flocks of fieldfare (who are sensibly staying put in Hampshire while their Scandinavian homelands are deep in colder winters than we get here) greet me whenever I venture out into the land. A few redwing are mixed in with them but they are almost always silent, distinguishable at a distance by the fetching Adam And The Ants eye stripe they wear, as opposed to the creamy grey tail base of the fieldfares. Starlings still cling together in sizeable flocks, whistling and sliding up and down the scales in very un-birdlike ways. Rooks gather, settling in the tops of winter roosts like ragged black hankies, cawing as we pass beneath them, the odd jackdaw or three thrown in beside them for good measure. The Ravens come in from the fields to cross over the house most days, groinking. There is something ancient and wonderful about a Raven's call. I find I am smiling and my heart surges whenever I hear it. They love to play in the sky, as if for the pure joy of being able to. You can almost hear them sigh with pleasure as they stretch wings and twist and turn and tumble effortlessly through the air.  
I watched one this week doing just that, turning somersaults with such abandon that you find yourself rushing forward with arms outstretched and your breath caught in your throat, anxious to catch him, certain he will fall out of the sky, so little attention does he seem to be paying to the way the land is rushing up to meet him. But of course, he knows exactly what he's doing. A Raven would no more fall out of the sky while turning somersaults than a flying bat would get caught up in your hair. 

Possibly my favourite call of winter is the 'chiswick-chiswick' of the Wagtails. Greys and Pieds are still out in the fields and occasionally I get them at home too. Once you've heard the call it's very easy to distinguish so go out and have a listen for them if you're UK based.  They too are guaranteed to make you smile. Such dear little birds. 

My bird friends do not withdraw and fall silent with the darkness; on clear, frosty, moonlit nights such as the one's that's brewing outside now, the Tawny Owls wake and call to one another. The females' 'kee-wick' answered by the familiar 'hoo. Hoo, hoo, hoo, hooooo' of the male. Once or twice they have been kind enough to answer me as I hung out of the bedroom window calling to them. Once, I got the shock of my life when one floated on silent wings out of the night and landed on the fence a few feet away. I nearly fell out of the window when he replied. M of course found the whole thing very funny. In the morning there was an owl pellet left for me by the gate, the tiny bones of voles twisted through it a network of shards of black glass. 

Are you feeding the birds where you are? Every little helps :o)

Have a good weekend all,


Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Fell Shoes 1: Muddy Fields 0

In anticipation of running nine miles across muddy cliffs and over ankle-zapping pebbly beaches in a little over a month's time, I've been getting used to training in fell shoes. Sparer than either road or trail shoes, fell shoes are more versatile than cross country spikes in that you can run on roads in them, while still having the benefit of nobbly bottoms (don't say a word), that afford grip in boggy conditions. 

M won an age category at a marathon last year and was given a fifty quid voucher for a local running shop as a prize. He kindly donated it to me so I could get the fell shoes. With all the rain we've had here these past ten days they have come into their own and I am flying with confidence down muddy, slippery slopes where previously I trod with caution.
I think it probably says something about me that my favourite and most treasured shoe collection has little to do with kitten heels or expensive leather boots and instead consists of brightly coloured gor tex in various grades of cushioned sole :o)

The cold bug is still lurking so, mindful of that and the knees (which are improving with the right exercises- the culprit is the gluteus medius- you'll find me doing lots of corrective half clams throughout the day), I've been keeping training steady with regular three mile sessions during the week as well yoga, Parkrun on a Saturday and a long run on Sundays. I'm averaging 15-20 miles a week with some hills thrown in for good measure, which I reckon is about right.

This Sunday I decided to take the phone with me so I could show you what the Chalk runs we do locally are like. This one is an eight miler that goes across some lovely countryside through woods and valleys, over parkland and up along the top of a huge Chalk escarpment. It includes the Famous Chocolate Mousse Hill, although I'm not convinced you get much of a sense of scale from the photos.

The dogs know the way and set off ahead up the track, an old Green Lane that escaped the embrace of tarmac and as a result retains echoes of the way-farers of the past.

This is a view I am very used to... M and dogs out in front. Much of our long runs follow this pattern :o)

The way leads across fields through an old farm yard where geese wander and ducks waddle...

Then it's down a deceptively steep claggy hill, across a lane, through some woods, up a hill, over a stile and out onto a private drive, climb over a gate into parkland where Curious Cows graze, over another stile, down a footpath and out onto a lane where Ted is sometimes allowed to remain off the lead because he stays at heel. Pop, to her indignation,  remains on the lead because she's naughty :o)

A quarter of a mile along the lane a hole opens in a hawthorn hedge. The path beyond snakes up through fields high onto The Chalk. There are lumps of flint and the ground is hard here, glassy when it rains. A kestrel flew over my head as I navigated my way through the hedge. It lacked the silver head of the male so must have been a female: I watched it soar above us for a moment before turning to climb up on to The Chalk. Steadily, steadily, ever up. Pop likes to quarter pheasants in the wood on the right. You can gauge her progress from the position of the indignant squawks. Ted stays on the field side, keeping a wistful eye on any birds that explode out of the trees. 

At the top of the climb a stile leads into a beech wood....

And on the other side another stile, which Ted always finds hard to navigate. He whimpers, worried that we'll leave him behind. I show him where badgers have nudged the fence up and made a respectable Ted-sized hole through which he wriggles, clearly relieved, while Pop waits impatiently on the other side having long since leapt over the stile with her Pa...

Stopping to take photographs to document the run means I fall further behind than normal, and while Pop is happy to run on ahead, implicitly trusting that I'll catch up eventually, Teddy is anxious if we're not all in sight at the same time. He does not like his family to be too far apart. I hear him before I see him, as I emerge from the wood out onto the Chalk, high above the rest of the world. He has a particular bark he does when he's worried: it's mid way between an instruction and a plea to catch up. He finds me coming out of the trees; there is a worried look on his sweet face that catches at my heart.

His relief when I put the phone away and start running again is evident. He stays just a little in front of me, turning his head every now and then to make certain I am following. We soon catch up with the others and enjoy a half mile or so of flat ground before the land dips again, this time tumbling away down the Chocolate Mousse Hill which is heavy-going after the rain. It isn't long before the base of my fell shoes are thick with mud, the added weight of it tugging at knees and ankles. M and the dogs become specks in the distance as they disappear down the gradient.

I run all the way down and all the way up, which is an improvement. At the top the path snakes between two fields passing gates gloopy with mud where horses gather to watch us, and on into the woods where a cinder track winds through the trees. It's pockmarked with puddles. I run through them, washing off the mud. Ted skirts around them; M jumps over them and Poppy aquaplanes through, her vigorous shake afterwards scattering hundreds of droplets of muddy water in a brief, rainbow-shimmering arc.

It's another mile or two back to the car over the fields. By now we're in a steady rhythm of running, side by side and chatting, turning over the week that's been; our achievements and the things we want to work on; the children and how they're getting on; friends; colleagues; irritations and joys; what the week ahead brings. The dogs know the route well and settle into a different rhythm themselves: Ted's labour-saving economical trot, shaving the corners off so he can catch up without exerting himself  Pop still surging ahead, racing off, circling back. The GPS attached to her collar switched itself off at 4k, but we reckon she must run a good mile further than the rest of us.

We reach the car in about an hour twenty, which is not fast but not too bad given the terrain, the cold bug and two sets of aching knees (M managed to slip on ice last week and has wrenched something. It's all about the knees in our house right now). 

All my focus now and for the next month is on finding and understanding that steady rhythm that will carry me round the Cub. All thoughts of hitting time targets have ebbed away, although I'm sure they'll be back once the Cub is done. The discipline of running has become the glue that holds my days together. I'm not sure where I'd be now without it.

Certain folk were gratifyingly sleepy that night. There's nothing quite so cosy as a dog stretched out asleep in front of a fire after a long day, eh?

Hope all are well?

CT :o)