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I woke up at 4am this morning, and then again at 5am, and then again and 6. A typical Saturday start for me, which is often followed by a battle with myself to do something – anything – because it would be too easy to lie around and doze the day away. This morning, like most Saturday mornings since January, I got myself up and went for a run. Unlike all of the previous Saturday mornings, though, this morning I finally made the effort to get to Durham parkrun, something I’ve been meaning to do since I arrived in August, but had never quite managed.

Southern Boundaries Park, where Durham parkrunners meet every Saturday, is five miles from my house, and without transport this requires a taxi ride and thus commitment to the cause. And when I wake up on a Saturday, exhausted from the week behind me and overwhelmed by the expanse of empty weekend space ahead, commitment is the last thing I want. Plus, the idea of going alone makes me inexplicably anxious – the irony of having moved to the USA alone and set up a new life from scratch is very apparent here. Today was a bit different, though. I’ve been particularly stressed over the past week, and this morning I knew that if I didn’t get out there quickly I might easily fritter a weekend away feeling tired and sorry for myself. I had no motivation to go out on a local run, and since I was already feeling not-so-great, the stress of getting myself to the start line didn’t feel so huge. Fast-forward to 9am, and I’d had a great run, got myself some much-needed weekend endorphins, chatted to loads of friendly people, and taken part in a wonderfully uplifting community event. Oh, and I also ran my fastest (non-treadmill) 5km in over a year, coming in at 3rd lady and first in my category. Inevitably, I can’t wait to go back again.

But there is a bigger point to all of this. When I arrived in Durham I had recently fallen out with running and was quite committed to the idea of ‘quitting’. Clearly, this didn’t happen. But what did happen is that I reframed my relationship with running altogether, and over the past nine months it has gone from being a stone in my shoe to serving as a crutch to help me get through some of the toughest days of my time in North Carolina.

I signed up for the Asheville Marathon in January, not as a way to ‘get fit’ or achieve any fitness/life goal, but to serve as an endorphin-soaked protective shield against increasingly frequent periods of low mood. A rather extreme Ulysees contract, perhaps, but the marathon (and notably its $170 entry fee!) served as the running buddy waiting on the corner: I knew that committing to a marathon would push me to get out running every weekend (almost) without fail. Every weekend, I’d do something positive, get some fresh air, explore my new neighbourhood, nodding/smiling/waving to other people as I went. It worked. There wasn’t a single Saturday morning between January and March that I actually *felt* like running, but barring one really tough 20-miler in unexpectedly hot conditions, I enjoyed every single long run, and spent the rest of the day on a high.

I thought I’d stop running after the marathon, but if anything, it has shown me how great running can be when it isn’t tied too tightly to miles and speed. I go out and run until it stops feeling good, and then I go home. I stop to watch the early-morning bird life and admire exotic local plants. And I always feel brighter afterwards. Running has, essentially, helped me work through the hardest bits of being away, through the homesickness and loneliness and weekend time that, when I first arrived, I would just work through to avoid having to find ways to entertain myself. Importantly, running doesn’t give me a migraine, while seven-day working weeks certainly do.

My parkrun experience this morning was a zoomed-in version of all of those good things and more. I arrived into a community that I was already part of; my status as ‘runner’ (regardless of speed, age, experience, or anything else) made it easy to just start talking to people and become a new part of their local group. This is what I love the most about running. There were a few other Brits there, and we all swapped ‘why we’re in Durham’ stories (I was the only one not on holiday), cheered each other on (it’s an out-and-back three-loop course), and took photos afterwards. I got a lift home with a couple who didn’t even live in my direction – they drove 30 minutes out of their way to help me out.

I decided to ‘quit’ running last year because I was tired of the physical and mental aspects of it: the strain of pushing myself physically didn’t feel much like a hobby, the mental discipline I exerted on myself didn’t feel like a hobby, the language around running  – particularly on Twitter – didn’t make it sound like something I might want to do for fun. But being in Durham, running the half marathon and then the Asheville marathon and then even this morning’s parkrun, has given me a constant technicolour display of all the awesome things that exercise in all its forms can provide. I’ve taken my running back to its grassroots, and we’re getting on better than ever. Thanks to running I’ve found a trusty way to experience adventure and joy during some really difficult times. Now, when I feel low or too far from home, I take myself on a 20-minute run just to see if it helps. It doesn’t always, but more often than not it provides a serotonin boost (or something) enough to change my mindset and get me back on course for the day ahead.

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Back in August I was on the plane from the UK heading to North Carolina when I spotted a woman in an Asheville Marathon race t-shirt. I made a note to look into it when I arrived, just in case I changed my mind about never doing a marathon again. As it happened, the 2017 race coincided with my Dad’s birthday – a significant one, at that – and by January we’d signed up for the race and were planning a Great Smoky Mountains road trip, finishing in Asheville and, all being well, a little run around the Biltmore Estate.

I did what I’d consider to be the minimal amount of training for this race. I kept my weekly mileage low, trained over three months rather than the typical four, and didn’t even set myself a training plan. Having fallen out of love with running over the past year, I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself either mentally or physically. I didn’t even tell anyone – except my parents, my husband, and I guess also my four Strava followers – that I was planning to do a marathon. I thought of the long weekend runs as adventures aimed at exploring Durham, and did mid-week runs as and when I felt like it. As the weeks passed I steadily began to enjoy running again; with the pressure off, it became a pleasure to get out there in the sunshine and do something positive for myself. I had only two goals for the marathon: the first and most important was to enjoy it, the same way that I’d been able to enjoy the majority of my long Saturday runs. The second was to finish in under five hours, knowing that spending any longer than that on the course would probably mean that I hadn’t ticked the box for goal number one.

Fast-forward to March, we set off towards Tennessee in blazing sunshine. This is the first year that I’ve ever acquired clear tan lines by mid-February, and in fact I’d come to enjoy running in the heat (and by heat, I mean between 20 and 25C, with accompanying humidity – nothing too serious at this point). I felt ready-ish, and excited for the adventure ahead. As we were checking in to our hotel in the Smokies that evening, a weather warning came up showing heavy snow over the weekend, with 3-6 inches due to fall on Saturday night. It seemed inconceivable at that point; the next day I foolishly managed to get sunburn while hiking on the Appalachian Trail – the prospect of snow seemed very faint.

But indeed, we arrived in Asheville on the Saturday morning to extremely chilly weather, and by lunchtime the snow had begun. We settled in to our rather glorious hotel on the Biltmore Estate and tried to forget about the weather – I convinced myself that it was getting warmer and the threat of snow had surely passed. We tucked in to a concatenation of the few vegetarian options on the menu that night – bean burgers, potato wedges and asparagus – and I was a little nervous of the lack of simple pasta, and the fact that I’d been unable to resist the toasted croissant bun that came with my burger. Experimenting with new food during a pre-race meal is surely the first big no-no of marathon running. I was extremely nervous, and all intentions of a relaxed race felt impossible to summon. Despite the Egyptian cotton sheets and comfy bed, sleep failed me that night, too.

As promised, we woke that morning to a thick covering of snow. Luckily, though, the air temperature felt more bearable than the previous day, so I didn’t have to resort to wearing tights (which is good, since I didn’t bring any). The snow was still falling fast at the start line, and as we set off in the early morning light I wasn’t sure what to expect underfoot. It was a little slippy but the organizers had clearly gone to every effort to make the course safe. There weren’t as many runners as I expected, despite two races – the full marathon and the half – running together for the first 10 miles. But oh, it was magical. The estate is private, so it felt like a true winter wonderland, with untouched snow, no cars, and acres and acres of snow-covered woodland and rolling fields. It was a quiet first few miles, with many people stopping to take photos – you could see the delight on everyone’s faces: weather that had threatened to make this event horrendously uncomfortable had in fact made it truly special.

The first 10 miles passed like a breeze. I was running very comfortably, and slightly ahead of the 4;45 pacers which filled me with confidence. At one point I even entertained the thought of an unexpected PB. At mile 10 the marathon course veered off as the half marathoners headed back to the finish, and from here the course was on rather muddy trails. Nothing too serious compared to what I’m used to, but more ‘trail-like’ than I had expected. It wasn’t long after this point that the slipping around led to some serious aching in my hips. The aching in my hips then led to some negative thoughts. I stopped to walk. I considered turning back and finishing the half marathon instead. I almost did turn back and do the half marathon instead. I ummed and ahhhhed. The 4;45 pacers passed me. The negativity continued. I looked at my watch: zero. I had forgotten to start it! The pacers were long gone, I had no idea of my time, I was in pain, the half marathon finish was just there. I was in a very bad place for a couple of miles, until I reached an aid station. I had some water and the marshall said something kind enough to make my eyes well up with tears. I ran on, feeling revived and saw a sign by the side of the trail: ‘don’t wake up tomorrow wondering what more you could have done today’. Not normally a sentiment I’d be on board with, but I figured that I’d rather pull out at mile 16 than give up on my intended goal before it was truly over, and so I ran on.

As is always the case with marathon running, the low didn’t last long. We were soon in open country again, and the miles were passing quicker than I could count them. I was having a Really Good Time. A field of beautiful black cows watched on as we ran past – I greeted them, full of joy. The same went for the pigs basking in mud a couple of miles down the road. The Smoky Mountains framed the horizon, the sky was turning brilliant blue, and I no longer had any regard for the time. It turns out that running a marathon without any concern for time is so much better than any momentary happiness that a PB brings. Five hours of joyful running in a beautiful landscape: who could ask for more?

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Happy face.

Shortly after I hit mile 20, I noticed that the finish line was only 100 meters or so away. It turned out that the last six miles were absolutely torturous, route-wise: an out-and-back, taking us three-ish miles away from the finish before we turned around to run back towards it again. At this point I passed my Dad, who looked about as awful as it is possible to look while still being alive. He was only 100 meters from the finish line, and I found out later that he was feeling very sick at that point. Pushing hard for 26.2 miles will do that to you, I guess. Shortly after this point I had what I think might be my biggest running achievement yet: I held a reasonably coherent conversation in French, 21 miles in to a marathon. We switched to English when I couldn’t remember the word for ‘uphill’ ( en montée, FYI), and spent the next mile or so laughing, joking, and wailing in despair. It really was torturous, but for me this is where the really amazing memories lie. As runners passed each other, they called out ‘Good job!’ to those heading in the other direction. Every single person smiled at me as we passed. One person shouted ‘Hey! Nice accent!’. It was a parade of the best that the USA has to offer: the friendliest, most encouraging, and most enthusiastic people around. It was infectious, and I could not stop smiling for a second.

I crossed the finish line with a huge grin, seemingly etched on my face for the previous 8 miles or so. With a time of 4;56 I’d achieved both of my goals, but really the sub-5 was only meaningful in that I was back in time for lunch and well ahead of the beer tent closing. This was my eighth marathon, but I don’t think I’ve experienced such an extreme level of joy and pride at finishing the distance before. The first thing I said to my Dad was ‘Oh wow, i’m so pleased with myself!’, and four days later the feeling remains. I smile when I remember the day. I think it felt so good because of the goal I’d set for myself: I proved to myself that marathon running can be about so much more than physical achievement and measurable goals. It can be about getting out there and having a good time, celebrating the goodness of people and sharing something amazing with other runners from all over the world. It also meant that I got to share something really great with my Dad, independent (for me, anyway) of the stresses of training and internal pressure.

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We were awarded with the most wonderful wooden medals and a can of locally-brewed beer, which I drank in the ladies’ loos while waiting in line for the shower. I met some awesome women there, too: awesome people are everywhere, as it happens. I then tucked in to a PBJ toastie and the most delicious chunk of Biltmore banana bread with a cup of real English ‘hot tea’ while waiting for my Dad to stretch off. All of it feels so potent and important. It was perhaps the most important day in my American experience so far: a day when I really got to see the best of what North Carolina has to offer, and I got to say out loud to people ‘You guys are amazing!’ (which I did, numerous times). This race will say with me for a very long time. One of the most enjoyable races I’ve done, in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. If North Carolina lets me back one day I’m pretty sure I’ll be returning to the Biltmore Estate for this race.

In August I moved to Durham, North Carolina, to work as a researcher at Duke University. It’s taken a while to settle and longer than expected to get into a decent running routine (in fact, five months in I’m still working on that) but running has been helpful in pushing me to get outside when all I wanted to do was sit on the sofa and feel homesick. More on that another time, perhaps.

When I signed up to Durham Half Marathon I was taking quite a gamble with myself. I’d hardly run since the UT55 – a few parkruns here and there, a birthday run into town for birthday pancakes – but I felt no interest in running for a long while (and it’s still not fully returned even now). When I moved over to NC it was too hot to do anything, never mind run, with temperatures sticking around 30-35C for the first couple of months. It was too hot, I was too tired, I was too homesick and sad to find any motivation. The city was new and everything felt too hard. Running was the last thing I wanted to do; I was sweaty enough just sitting quietly at home with a book. Over time I started getting out here and there for a 2-mile loop around a nearby trail, and I noticed that on days when I felt bad, after even a short run I felt much better. Little by little I gathered the evidence: even though it was uncomfortable, even though I never actually felt like doing it, when I got back from a run I felt noticeably less terrible. In fact, it made me feel pretty great.

So I signed up to the local half marathon, taking place only a mile away from my apartment on 10th December. The race description drew on the appeal of the ‘mild Durham winter’ while also promising me festivities along the course. The route didn’t look particularly inviting but I put my worries aside and dived in, knowing that I’d push myself to do the training once I was signed up to do the race.

And I did do the training, sticking to almost every run on my 12-week training plan. I ran three times a week with a long run at the weekend – a sensible amount for a half marathon, but for me this was less running than I’d normally put in, with pretty low weekly mileage (I think I did one 20-mile week in that time). Despite this, it was a constant uphill struggle and at every corner I looked for excuses to drop out of the race. The victory I felt after completing the first 7-mile run surprised me, but it also felt really good to recognize that distance as an achievement. Ramping up to high mileage for marathon and ultra running had led me to develop a distorted perspective on my own achievements. Health issues, a long break and eventually a fall-out from running set the clock back at zero, and perhaps this was what I really needed.

I never once actually wanted to get out for my weekend long run, but every week I came back beaming from ear to ear. I ran in blazing sunshine and unfamiliar autumn heat, I explored new areas of Durham and found a great route away from the road on the American Tobacco Trail, and I slowly but surely re-learned all the good things that running had to offer me. I finished my training with a 12-mile adventure covering almost all new local territory, and stopping off at the farmer’s market 10 miles in for a coffee and some blues in the sunshine. Running wasn’t only getting me outside, helping me feel positive and strong in this strange new life that I’ve taken on, but it also helped me forge a better relationship with Durham. I got home from that run feeling (perhaps for the first time) really positive about Durham.

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Still, I was finding running hard, and motivation even harder. It wasn’t until the day before the race that I fully committed to taking part. I woke up at 5am on 10th December to the coldest Durham day I’d seen so far. The world was sparkling with frost and the air was sharp to the lungs. The race started at 7am in a local shopping mall carpark, and it took too much energy just trying to stay warm enough before the race – I huddled in with other runners, since I couldn’t carry anything extra without anyone supporting me. I had a Clif Bar tucked into my sports bra and was planning to take off my outer layer when I got running. We all stood at the start-line as a fellow runner sang the national anthem (in the US every single sporting event begins with the national anthem, even roller derby), and as soon as the singing was over we were heading off, sun rising above the mall and various elves, santas and even a Christmas tree rushing past me and into the first mile.

I took it steady because I really had to take it steady; I knew that even finishing the race, my first half marathon in 7 months, was going to be a challenge. But at the same time I had to rush ahead as best I could, because it was freezing! We turned out onto the open road and I got that surge of joy and excitement that I’ve missed so much in the months of not running – being there with so many other people, the joy of road closures just so I (and thousands of others) could go for a run early on a Saturday morning. The cheering and the music and the first mile of celebration was just wonderful. It reminded me of how much I love big road races – the sort where you can get lost in the crowds and forget where you are. As much as I love trail running, it can get lonely out there on the fells, and when you’re tired and lacking in company it’s generally hard to sum up a party atmosphere.

The route was nothing special, as expected. In fact, it was quite a lot worse than expected – a largely out-and-back course along the Ellerbe Creek Trail, until the final miles when we seemed to loop around every single block in Trinity Heights. It was a lot like trying to make up mileage at the end of a run; I had no sense of where I was going or where I’d been. But I enjoyed it all the same. By mile 10 I was feeling really out of it and unsure if I could continue for another 3 miles – I felt like I was running my slowest ever race, but I purposefully didn’t check my watch because I really didn’t care. I stopped to walk for the first time, retrieved my Clif Bar and spent a few minutes trying and failing to get my frozen fingers to open the wrapper. 10 miles in and I was still wrapped up, still frozen solid – the temperature was becoming quite challenging. I gave up on the Clif Bar but felt revived from the walking, and trotted out the last few miles with a real sense of achievement.

As I crossed the finish line in almost my slowest time ever (only 9 mins faster than my first ever half marathon), I felt 100% sure that I’d given everything I had to give. And what a great feeling! Of all the PBs I’ve ever achieved, all the longer distances and new milestones reached, getting to the end of this race was one of the best feelings of success I’ve ever had. And perhaps the best feeling of all was that it reminded me that I do still enjoy running, and that taking part in races is something I’ve done for fun (because I do find it fun). Perhaps pushing harder and faster can take away the enjoyment, and perhaps as a result the sense of achievement, of doing the race in the first place.

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I worked out that Durham was quite probably my 20th half marathon; for the next 20, I plan to put sheer enjoyment as my main priority. It doesn’t really matter to me how fast or slow I run, so long as the training feels good and the race is enjoyable. So I’m now considering my next race, which may or may not be taking place in the coming weeks. We’ll see!

I signed up to run the UT55 again this year because I wanted to go back and do a better job. I wanted to train harder; to turn up to the start fit and well-prepared, with hindsight from 2015 and a more recent recce of the route under my belt. When I signed up to this race, I was under the impression that my first attempt had somehow gone badly, and that I hadn’t yet earned the rights to call myself an ultra runner, not really. I wanted to  go back to that course and earn those rights.

Not one aspect of my training went properly to plan. I started too early and peaked too soon. I say peaked, but really there was no peaking – the long runs were the worst I’ve done for any long-distance race, and unlike last year, I never felt ready for marathon+ distances; every week I finished my long run with less confidence then when I started. I didn’t manage a single recce of the route despite numerous weekends in the Lakes. Various health issues got in the way of my training, and after a really difficult time on the marathon – planned as my final long run and a pre-ultra confidence booster – I had to reassess my intentions for the race. I considered dropping out and almost committed to it on a couple of occasions, but decided instead to enjoy what I could of the amazing route, knowing that Daniel would be around the course and ready to collect me should it be required.

The day before the race I was resigned to not finishing. I was sad that this wouldn’t be my time, but also had to acknowledge the fact that my health was the priority, and that I could come back another time when I was in better shape to put in the right sort of training [Note: I did train, and put in a lot of miles, but anaemia got in the way and my fitness didn’t seem to improve one bit]. We arrived at Ambleside that evening, and the place was absolutely heaving. I was feeling incredibly negative and the hoards of people and queues of cars only added to my bad mood. After checking in and getting some stuff together I headed out to get my racepack checked – without the mandatory kit, runners would be disqualified from the race. It was here, in the prerequisite stage of the UT55, that I found my first really positive focus. The lady who checked my bag is a familiar face on the Lakeland Trails scene, and we’ve often said hello on previous events. She asked how I was feeling and, rather than giving her my entire life story, I told her I was nervous (which I was, very much so). It turned out that she had been ill for six months, and despite desperately wanting to run the race, she wasn’t able to. She reminded me to be grateful of the fact I was there at all; at the very least, I was healthy enough to give it a good go, and I shouldn’t take that for granted. This was probably the most helpful thing that I could have heard at that moment – I promised her that I’d think of her at the top of Grizedale Hause. I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t sure I’d get that far.

Ultra day came, and the weather kept to its promise. The skies were dark and heavy, and the rain was already pouring when I first dared to peep out of the curtains that morning. MWIS promised us wind, hail, and a strike of lightening or two just to add to the challenge. My dad texted me from over halfway through his 110km run to let me know that it was cold; I packed an extra base layer and decided to set off in my rainproof – combining anaemia with hypothermia didn’t seem like a good idea, no matter how much I hate running in a coat. The start line was quite subdued, but Graham spoke some really helpful words as we gathered and I remembered that this wasn’t about running, it was about moving forwards. I also spotted an incredible dog (maybe a mix of husky and bear?), which the owner kindly allowed me to pet for a while. Anything to calm my nerves. We set off in the rain, and, for the first time in days, I actually felt ok.

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The Struggle to Kirkstone Pass

I had a race plan and I stuck to it. Keep moving. Run whenever possible (even the uphills if I feel able to). Walk fast when I can’t run. The second most important thing: EAT. The first most important thing: talk to people, receive and return positive energy wherever possible. I look back at the marathon and last year’s UT55, and on both occasions I wouldn’t have made it without the help of others. Acknowledging this was key to a good race.

I don’t need to go into too much detail about the various sections (check out last year’s post for more detail about the actual course), but what I do want to say is that I ran a very good race overall. Despite all of the things that got in the way, both in training and on the day itself, my race strategy – mainly my eating and my sharing of positive vibes – was absolutely on point. I really did run as much as I could, and it worked. Running felt so positive, so it helped me keep my spirits up, and converted more positive energy into movement. My body held up incredibly well, and I had hardly any aches and pains until the very last couple of miles, but even then it was minimal. As expected, I walked a substantial amount, but mainly this was walking in the form of ploughing forwards. Later in the race I had to remind myself to walk fast as it didn’t come naturally after hours on my feet, but again, it generated positive vibes. Constant forwards motion was very helpful – I spent no more than a minute or so at the two main check points where Daniel was waiting (enough time to refill bottles and food supplies and grab a quick kiss), and passed all of the others without stopping. My eating was carefully timed thanks to the help of baby food sachets. There’s a useless amount of calories in them, but they’re very easy to take on and keep in place – I had baby banana porridge at mile 3, which meant that my stomach wasn’t empty and acidy at mile 7, so it was much easier to take on solid food. I ate baby food tactically, filling in gaps where I didn’t actually need food, but keeping my stomach lined at all times ready for when I did. It worked wonders.

It was on the enjoyable ascent of Grizedale Hause that, for the first time since March, I allowed myself to believe that I might finish; only 12 miles in – it seemed like a risky thought to be entertaining so early on. The rain was pouring, and as we reached the top the winds were so strong I was almost knocked off my feet. There was also hail, and it hurt. As I passed Grizedale Tarn the winds subsided and the sun came out, there were no other runners in sight and everything was completely still and silent. I was truly lucky to be there, totally exhilarated, fit and able enough to trek/run 15 miles over such difficult terrain. I thought of the lady at the bag-check, as promised, and sent some positive energy her way.

 

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Heading up towards Grizedale Hause in the rain

 

While I’d made it up the hardest ascent with a spring in my step and a smile on my face (very different from last year), it was the descent that I was worried about. Descents are my weakest point by far, quickly transforming me from feeling positive and powerful up the hill to being a nervous wreck who’d happily take a cable car back down. The weather made this one all the more challenging – it was slippy and the noise of the wind was disorienting. I focussed on getting down steadily and promised myself that I’d push forwards quickly to Grasmere once I got to the road section, but all plans were soon scuppered when I found myself on my bum, screaming out in pain, worried (just for a moment) that I might have done some serious damage. I looked up and a group of helpful runners were surrounding me – they looked quite worried too. The lovely lady who I’d been chatting to helped me out and reassured me that I was ok, and so I set off on my way, feeling at best demoralised, at worst injured, and definitely as if I might not be able to carry on beyond Grasmere. Well, spoiler alert: I did carry on, but it hurt a lot. My right bum cheek was (and still is) very badly bruised, and it hurt to move, never mind to run. Daniel checked me over in a car park at Grasmere, by which point a swelling had started to appear – the jury was out on whether I was ok to carry on or not, but my back felt ok and I was determined to give it a go. Just as a disclaimer, I already had my sensible hat on at the start of the race and continued to wear it throughout; I absolutely don’t think it’s ok to run through injury if the running might make the injury worse, but in this case I didn’t think it would be exacerbated by continuing on the race.

So, back to my awesome race strategy, which had been scuppered slightly by the fact that it hurt to run, because running made my bum jiggle around. It did at least make for some good jokes, and a number of people shouted ‘How’s your bum?’ to me as we passed. One lady offered to firm my jiggle up with some rocktape, and a marshall suggested that I use a Buff as a bum-holding device. So here we return to the first most important thing: with or without the injury, as usual it was the other people around me who made this day what it was. I met so many amazing people, many of them tackling their very first ultramarathon, some of them seasoned to the graft, familiar with the challenge of long days out in the wilds. A number of people were also signed up for the Lakeland 50 four weeks later – I wish all of you well! We laughed and joked our way around, sharing low points and positive energy wherever necessary. For me, the hardest part of the day was a long section around mile 26 when I was completely on my own. I couldn’t see anyone ahead or anyone behind, and the yellow flags which marked the route were my only comfort and company. As mile 26 arrived I felt a surge of tiredness so strong that I wanted to lie down in the rocks and sleep. Fearful that my anaemia was hitting and would lead to heart failure and I’d die in the rain and mud on my own in the fells, I tried to sum up some positive energy. I came up with a single positive thought – how depressing. I decided instead to sing, but couldn’t even make it past the first few lines of my favourite Green Day songs. Clearly my thinking mind had shut down in order to conserve some precious energy; I commanded myself to ‘WALK FAST!’, and managed to catch up with two ladies ahead who I stuck with for some time. Positive energy restored; Operation: Complete Ultra was back on!

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As I mentioned, my body held up amazingly. As I ran in to the final checkpoint at mile 31, a number of people commented on how fresh and lively I looked. Bum pain aside, I felt fresh and lively – my body felt great, which made the bum pain a little more frustrating than it might have otherwise been. But no time to dwell on that. By this point the light was starting to fade, which provided simultaneous motivation to press on quickly and the ultimate in Lakeland running awesomeness. After 16 miles of painful movement (and 15 miles of comfortable movement before that), I finally managed to put the discomfort aside and focus on the last 5 miles. And with this, I was about as happy as it is possible to be: running, in my favourite place in the world, the dusk chorus just starting up, the most beautiful pale light all around, running through empty fields and past still tarns, knowing that in a couple of miles I would have completed the UT55 for the second time, against all of my expectations. I didn’t want it to end quite so soon – I desperately wanted to hold on to those last few miles for as long as I could, knowing that I wouldn’t be back running in the Lake District for a long time.

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Only four miles left!

With that, the sharp descent into Ambleside appeared and I crossed that finish line. Unlike so many of the finish lines that I’ve crossed over the past 12 months, this one brought the ultimate in joy and pride. I’ve typed and re-typed and re-typed a number of sentences to follow that one, but perhaps if you are a runner (or indeed any other sort of person) and you’re reading this then you’ll know what I mean without me having to explain. The fact is that I didn’t need to have another go at the UT55 because I didn’t go a good enough job the first time around – I was already an ultrarunner (if that’s really so important anyway) before I crossed the finish line. In fact, I was slower this time, by a good hour; I didn’t necessarily do a better job – those who care only for time on a watch might say I did a worse job the second time around. But it doesn’t feel like that – I genuinely feel that I excelled myself that day, in numerous awesome ways. Getting to the end and acknowledging that I’ve done something really, truly difficult, and that I actually enjoyed myself while doing it is the best outcome I could have hoped for. Other people might run further or faster, but what anyone else does is totally irrelevant: as the saying goes ‘it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’.

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And my bum? What was a small swelling at Grasmere ended up looking like I had a banana planted underneath my skin by the end of the race, and certainly horrified the sports massage therapist two days later. I won’t be posting a photo. I got checked over by my doctor on the return home, and aside from a bruised coccyx everything is in working order. Unfortunately, I now want to return to the UT55 when I get back from living in the USA to see if I can manage it without damaging myself on Grizedale Hause – the challenge awaits!

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write about this race. Partly, I didn’t want to write an account that sounded in any way like a bad review, or anything too negative. Partly, the story is kind of personal, and I can’t write about this race without going into Personal Stuff in at least some detail. But I like to write these reports for my own records, and after reading a comment on the Lakeland Trails Facebook page this morning about someone else going through something similar to me, I thought it might be of use to someone if I were a little bit open about this stuff. So here goes.

This race was almost a DNS (did not start) on countless occasions. On almost every long run I’d make it to the one mile mark and consider turning home and dropping out. I never did. My training runs were poor at best, but I did every single one, totting up some of the highest weekly mileage I’ve ever managed. Running became increasingly difficult, and when I went to see my doctor (also a marathon runner) who said I probably wasn’t over-training, I went for some tests to work out what was going on. Two days later I got my B12 anaemia diagnosis, and my first thought was that I’d finally have a real excuse to pull out of this race.

And I was looking for an excuse. In the paradoxical world of being human, I was pushing myself out on runs of up to 20 miles, when even walking around the corner to Sainsbury’s was becoming a problem. The long runs were a nightmareish story of grumbling anxiety peppered with full-on panic – I did one 16-miler without straying more than a mile from my front door, just looping around a nearby 3-mile circuit where I felt ‘safe’. To put it bluntly: panic attacks. Daily, sometime hourly, bursts of near-death experience. As I write this I’m wondering why I didn’t just give myself a break and pull out of the race.

The panic wasn’t enough to stop me, and neither was the anaemia. I found myself in Coniston on 4th June, overwhelmed by the brightness of the sun and the greenness of the trees. There was so many people, children everywhere, bright colours and shrieking from every angle I turned. There was no peace, my mind was raging with the explosion of newness around me. I really really tried to look forward to the space of the marathon the next day, but there was only dread, and under that, utter terror. After a night of almost no sleep, I found myself at the startline at 6:45am, where finally there was peace as runners assembled all with their own nerves and fears about the day (and the heat! it was already hot!) ahead. I cried into Daniel’s chest, totally resigned to feeling too fragile to run a marathon. We had agreed weeks before that I would pull out at the first nudge of anaemia-ish symptoms – I was going to start the race, that was all. A DNF (did not finish) seemed inevitable.

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And so we were off and I was crying as we set out, but soon enough it was ok. I focussed on my steps, upon setting a gentle pace that I could keep up for a while as my thoughts slowed into a comfortable rhythm. It was ok, I was ok. Not great, but ok. Not even two miles in and sweat was dropping from my face, but the heat wasn’t really an issue; if I could deal with my head I could deal with the heat no problem. At mile 8 there was a feed station and I noticed that one lady was dropping out. I could join her. A car will be coming, I could wait and get in that car and we can go back together. I carried on, reluctantly – mile 8 seemed too soon to drop out without an injury.

We got to the beautiful Tarn Hows section and I remembered walking here on the last day of our honeymoon. We talked about all of the things, it was warm and sunny, I was totally content. I tuned in to that day as hard as I could, remembering that feeling of joy and newness, tucked away in the Lake District far from all of the normal life stuff. I chatted to a few other runners here, pushing down the nausea and battling forwards. My Garmin beeped 10 miles and a small group of us cheered – 10 miles already! Around and around Tarn Hows and then up a track past some super marshalls to find James basking in the sun with his camera. I think I felt good by this point – certainly good enough to have a joke about suncream. It was hot, and not even 10am. It was getting really hot.

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Another feed station, almost 12 miles in and just before Grizedale forest. I had been looking forward to shade: there was no shade. The sun was blazing right above, and everyone kept stopping to walk, drink, moan quietly. I stopped to reapply suncream, afraid of heat stroke, alongside everything else. This was getting hard and I didn’t think I’d be able to finish. But all the time, as always, amazing runners sharing the dregs of cheer that they could muster up. Some familiar faces from previous races, a lot of new people to talk to. The next feed station was at 19 miles – Just another 10km and then I’ll see about pulling out. I looked forward to being shuttled back and sitting in the sun waiting for Daniel to finish his half marathon. Dreams of pulling out pushed me forwards, albeit incredibly slowly.

At mile 16 I saw a marshall. It had been a very long, lonely mile or so and I was at rock bottom. He told me I was halfway. But I’ve done 16 milesOh you know these events, 26 miles is just an estimate, he replied. I had done the run last year, I knew it was 26 miles, not 32. But my spirits dropped from low to rock-bottom. The next 3 miles are a blur in my mind. I was dying the entire time, seemingly encapsulated in panic, far from anyone or anything, with no shade from the sun. I was in one of the most beautiful landscapes I’d ever run in, and I couldn’t think coherently enough to enjoy it, only feeling surges of dread all over the place as I clambered over the rocks. It was here that I encountered The Guy Who Got Me Through, though it wasn’t until later that he really saved the day. We were both in a slump – he said he’d love to be sitting at home drinking a tea. I hadn’t even had a cup of tea that day (no wonder I didn’t feel good), and all I could think of was sugary tea from there on (note: I felt too ill to eat by this point, and was relying on coke from the feed stations to get some sugar in me).

This is a long account. It was a long day.

Every story needs a hero, and there are many many heroes in this one, but my first hero (and probably that of many other runners that day) was the ninja feed station at mile 19. It was here that I was supposed to drop out – I had actually decided that this would be the case – but instead I came across a little table and two friendly people handing out water and Kendal mint cake. They had done the race before, but had decided this year to hand out refreshments to runners instead, setting up outside a friend’s house where they could use a tap all day long (bearing in mind that the official feed stations were usually tap-less, so precious water had to be shipped to us – water really was at a premium that day). Here I got chatting to a small group of people and it turned out that we were all struggling with major issues. I WAS NOT ALONE. I told them that I had decided to drop out, but that their company might be enough to see me on a little further. We ran together for a while, and stuck together on and off for the remainder of the race.

This was the turning point for me. It took 19 miles (and who knows how many hours) of journeying forwards before my mind started to calm, but I got there. By this point the heat was seriously bad, and I was aware that it would be too much for many people, but miracuolously I felt ok. I had ample water and was soaked in suncream. I also have to mention here the lovely family of one runner, to whom I’d mentioned that I was getting some chafing from my backpack. She had given her family a description of me, and as I approached them they were holding out a tub of Vaseline, complete with kind words and well wishes. I wasn’t surprised – this level of kindness and camaraderie is what I’ve come to expect on Lakeland Trails events. If you’re reading, fellow runner, thank you – and well done on such a great run 🙂

The last six miles? Easy peasy compared to the first 20. I had blisters all over my feet, I was starving hungry, I had a grumbling headache and I hadn’t had a wee for more hours than is probably safe, but I felt as if I could do it for the first time since March. I ran along chatting to the same guy who I’d met earlier (now known as The Guy Who Got Me Through since we didn’t bother asking for names), whose company and really good conversation (how is it that you can be that tired and still really enjoy a conversation?) took me from enduring to enjoying my time out on the fells. He was one of a number of really awesome people who I met – always a theme at Lakeland Trails days out!  I actually felt kind of cheerful, and when we reached the final aid station (3 miles to go!) it was a veritable festival of joy. Here I bumped into Mark (sorry I called you Jeff – was a bit delirious by this point!) who was ploughing along like a running machine, and who offered me some great words of encouragement to see me through those last couple of miles. Up a bit, then meet the lakeshore and just a couple of miles of flat from there (oh and a wall to climb over).

I petered out in the last few hundred metres and ran in a sort of ‘creeping’ style over the finish line – not the strong finish that I usually like to go for. But who cares? Somehow I’d made it, battling on past the lowest of all lows to actually gain some real positivity from the run. Ask anyone who has ever run a marathon and they will tell you that the challenge is almost completely mental. Mostly, I agree with this. But somehow this run showed something different. I had no mental strength that day, none whatsoever. The thing that got me through that marathon was the strength of others. So, while I am free to think what I want of my own mental strength, which may or may not be available at any point, at least I know that there is a goldmine of strength to be found in other people. And I really hope that I can give back as much as I take – the runner who got treated to my ‘Last few miles rap’ at mile 24 (sorry) may have something to say about that one…

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*To the tune of So Solid’s 21 Seconds, but replacing the seconds with distance as you get closer to the end…

Die Wellness. The first time I heard this now commonplace word was probably some time in 2003, courtesy of my GCSE German textbook. Back then, ‘wellness’ had not seeped into and overtaken our health culture – at least, my world was free from its connotations – and instead it was a new word for my expanding German lexicon: easy to remember, difficult to translate, conjuring up images of Germans doing aerobics or Nordic Walking. My edition of the Duden gives a rough definition of die Wellness as ‘good, well, shipshape’, with a reference to ‘light physical exercise as a way to reach desired wellbeing’. There is no mention of avocados or headstands; my Duden gives me no reason to believe that wellness is now a strict and relentless regime that will somehow make me Good.

I don’t need to introduce the more recent understanding of Wellness (with a capital ‘W’) and the industry built around it. I should, however, point in the direction of Ruby Tandoh‘s brilliant analysis of this regime, which is definitely worth a read. No, wellness with a small ‘w’ has been on my mind a lot over the past weeks and months, as I have found myself, relatively speaking at least, not well. And, ironically, as I begin my return to better health, I am finding that many answers lie in avoiding what is preached by Wellness, and instead navigating feeling healthy by trying out new ways of living that are definitely not endorsed by any of our beloved Wellness ‘gurus’.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing seriously wrong with me. I’m suffering a very sudden onset of B12 and Ferritin anaemia (only 6 weeks ago my iron levels were Popeye-esque), and have to have some extra tests to work out why this quick plunge in blood health might have occurred. But I’m female, semi-vegetarian and training for an ultra marathon: likely this is No Big Deal. One thing that is a big deal: the symptoms of anaemia, which generate tiredness that sleep can’t cure, inability to think straight or remember things, breathlessness and sudden need to sit down and have a rest. I have been able to return to a more functional physical state only a couple of weeks after being diagnosed thanks to relentless B12 injections and some small changes to my diet and lifestyle. And this is where wellness comes in.

This time last year I was in the process of becoming a ‘proper’ vegan, and had just about cut out dairy and egg from my diet. I was also consuming a very large amount of veg, easily managing 12-15 portions a day (hint: veg = fibre). I took a vitamin supplement, as advised by my doctor. I was also doing lots of running, and while I felt like I was doing all the ‘good’ things, I was feeling increasingly bad. I wrote about my vegan phase here, so I won’t repeat myself. I chose veganism for ethical issues, but it also coordinated handily with the sudden explosion of vegan cookbooks and recipes in newspapers: it seemed like a good thing to be doing. Moreover, everywhere I looked I was being told to ‘just eat more’ fruit and veg, and that red meat and sugar-laden supermarket bakes would inevitably lead to my early demise. I also read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run at that time – there is no doubt that veganism worked for him as a runner, so why not me too? All in all, it seemed like a good fit.

(I appear to be having an anti-vegan rant, but as I’ve never tried to subsist on the meat-laden diet of the Hemsley sisters I can’t comment on that. I only know that spaghetti that is really just raw courgette makes me fart excessively, and the fact that the existence of spaghetti is demonised in some circles makes me very sad.)

So fast-forward a year and back to my health. As I mentioned, I am feeling better. The doctors’ advice is consistent: I need to eat more of the stuff that is deemed poison by many Wellness ‘experts’. This includes fruit juice, breakfast cereal, dried fruit, meat (trying to work up to red meat but am a bit scared), fish, eggs, dairy. I also need to rest more, and do what I can to feel good again. For me, this has included lying on the sofa listening to old REM albums, gardening, walking painfully slowly and shouting at my husband when he keeps speeding up, lots of bubble baths, cuddles with my cat, gin and tonic, time off work, time off from my running schedule, allowing myself to feel rubbish and have a good cry/moan about it, chocolate cake. And lots and lots of  really slow yoga (I love this amazing gentle morning sequence by Yoga with Adriene). This is how wellness currently looks, for me and my current situation.

We all have our own version of wellness and what makes us well. Often it involves tablets or injections, or perhaps a strange sachet to pour into your morning glass of evil fruit juice. We’d be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all Wellness, with expensive food and cult lifestyle choices as the main bringer of physical and emotional well-being. Matcha tea, dynamic yoga (with lots of ‘inversions’ of course) and avocados might work for some people, but for most of us a bit of balance is enough, occasionally supplemented with a trip to the pharmacy when things go awry. The fact that there are now wellness ‘events’ where attendees pay to be told how to live ‘healthily’ in one very specific and perhaps damaging way is both mind-boggling and sickening. This whole thing is just one big lie. I know, because I tried at least some of it (I’ve never managed a headstand, I must confess) and it made me unwell. Now, in order to undo this Wellness-induced unwellness I am enjoying bowlfuls of sugar-laden cornflakes with a side of supermarket-bought orange juice and a sachet of something pharmaceutical. I might even go for some red meat at some point. This is my wellness. It won’t sell millions of recipe books and I won’t be writing a newspaper column any time soon, but if it leads me to feeling fully-functional again then I couldn’t care less. And if we can return our understanding of wellness to those smiling Nordic walkers enjoying some gentle exercise before a bit of tea and cake, then we’ll all be a lot better off.

Good Habits.

I had some big successes in 2015: getting a PhD, running an ultra marathon, starting a job that was both satisfying and challenging. But, while I’m proud of all these things, life is so much bigger than all of them, and none of them guarantee stable happiness and well-being for any decent length of time. Alongside these big successes, there was a slightly larger number of small successes; I managed to fix a few good habits in place over the course of the last 12 months, which have improved my happiness bit-by-bit, and which I can carry with me through the weeks, months and years regardless of whatever else life might throw at me.

I ummmed and ahhhed about new year’s resolutions for 2016. Part of me felt as if I should want to improve myself in some way, and so I resolved to drink more water and cut out sugary food just before bed. Both lasted almost the entirety of January (almost), but neither made me happier, and while I might be more hydrated, possibly a little thinner and saving more on dentist bills (see below), the effort required to do both of these things took something away, rather than adding something good to my life. As a used-to-be-overweight person I know that any real changes need to be easy to implement, make you feel good, and have some sort of measurable outcome. And they need to be enjoyable eventually, if not right away, in order to continue with them long-term. Aside from the satisfaction of ticking off glasses of water each day in my head, there was no real carrot to these two sticks. Inevitably I gave up, and I now continue to enjoy late-night sugar fixes thank you very much, no guilt required.

But onto the good habits – the things that really are making me that bit happier each day, and which bring stability and meaning to even the glummest and hardest weeks. Here is my small list: they’re all works in progress, but they have shown me how making positive changes reaps benefits in the long- and short-term.

Pilates
For a long time I did yoga almost every day. Everyone seems to talk about how great getting ‘on the mat’ is; how spiritually invigorating and healing it is, how in touch everyone feels with their bodies. Years of yoga later and I started to feel totally out of touch with it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved yoga in places, and had an amazing teacher when I lived in Bradford who just about saved me. But we moved to York and I just couldn’t reconnect with it; it wasn’t right for me anymore.

Daniel had been attending a pilates class for some time, and so, intrigued, I decided to give that a go instead. One class later and I was adamant that it wasn’t for me. It made bits of me hurt that I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t see the point in doing strange movements that I never had to do in normal life. I knew it was good for me, but it wasn’t fast-paced or sweaty enough to keep me interested. But then I started training for an ultra marathon, combined with excessive amounts of PhD-related stress. I forced myself to go by paying for 7 classes up-front, so I attended those 7 classes, always a little bit reluctantly. And then I paid for 7 more. After 14 classes I could do this:

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This might not seem a big deal, but no kidding, I have never in my life even been able to sit with my legs out straight, never mind bending forwards and touching my toes on top of it all. I could see the benefit, and I was sold. Now, I look forward to pilates. It’s become an hour in my week that is solely for me – all about doing good for myself and tuning in with my body. A hard-won habit, but one I’m sure I’ll stick with.

Flossing
I know it’s really gross to not floss. I’ve tried and tried to become a nightly flosser since meeting my dental-health-freak husband, but my OCD makes it incredibly difficult to floss owing to the hand-to-mouth proximity that it requires. Last August I had to have my second filling, which my dentist put down to eating chocolate before bed. I knew that if I wanted to stick with my chocolate and avoid any more fillings, this had to change. I found a way to make it work for me without excessive hand-washing practices beforehand, and as I kept doing it, I noticed time and time again how great it feels to go to bed with a lovely fresh mouth. Better sleep, (hopefully) cheaper dentist bills, fewer fillings, more chocolate: what’s not to love.

Meditation
Veggie Runners’ review of Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier totally changed my life. Convinced by their enthusiasm, I bought a copy for myself and laughed and cried my way through it. Only a few chapters in and I started to try out meditation for myself: first three minutes, then five, and now I’m up to seven minutes most days. It’s totally imperfect: most of the time my mind wanders to a place where I’m simply unable to observe my thoughts, and sometimes the alarm goes off without my having experienced a second of mindfulness. But just showing up to do it is enough for me; I am more aware of my thoughts, and it’s led me to some pretty soul-shifting revelations about myself and my thought processes. And, I’d agree with Dan, it’s made me around 7% happier for now – there is still a lot of work to do!

Walking
In the midst of my PhD I found myself routineless and lost. I was staying in my PJs for way too much of the day, feeling useless and without direction. I decided that I’d go out on a morning walk each day, before starting work. I’m lucky enough to live right by the River Ouse, where we have the wonderful New Walk, which was built for wealthy Georgians to promenade after their evening meal. It’s lined with huge trees, and there are two bridges crossing the river a convenient mile apart, making it a perfect 2-mile morning circuit, totally free from traffic. I walk this circuit almost every morning, come rain or shine, and it is wonderful. It never gets old: the light through the trees is different every day, the birdsong changes with the seasons and the light. And it’s valuable fresh air, headspace, and time for myself; it didn’t take long for me to reach the point where I simply couldn’t start work without my walk.

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Writing
For years I have kept diaries, and written in them sporadically at best. Last year saw the start of this becoming an almost daily occurrence – something I’d been striving towards for a long time. I didn’t force it, but like the walking habit, it became a daily need. A time each day for me to reflect on what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, what I’m hoping for. I know I’ll be grateful for it in years to come when I can look back, but it’s also helping me look forwards too, as I try to make sense of where I’m going, and balance up the various things that I want from life. Writing each day is probably the best gift I’ve been able to give myself: I don’t plan what to write, but the words fall from my head as if they’re desperately trying to escape into reality.

Swimming
This was a good habit, but I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in the new year as everyone in York seems to have made ‘swim at 7am every Monday’ their resolution, and they’re sticking with it, too. But I used to hate swimming, and now I love it. Again, it’s an OCD challenge, but just facing these challenges makes me more powerful. I also used to hate it because I’m rubbish at it, but now I love it because I’m still rubbish at it. I love how tired I feel afterwards: how easy it is for me to run 1km, but how difficult I find it to swim the same distance. I love watching the super swimmers tearing down the pool as I potter around in the slow lane doing breaststroke. I love admiring them yet not feeling rubbish about my own incapacity to swim well in response. It allows me to drift away in my thoughts, one repeated stroke after the next. Wonderful.

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I’m pretty happy with this bunch, but they are all works in progress. As life changes, no doubt some will fall away, but hopefully I’ll gain new habits in their place. There are a few new ones creeping in that I’m keen to get established:

  • Parkrun – I’ve done Parkrun on 3 out of 5 weekends this year so far, and I love it. I really want this to become a regular weekly ‘thing’, as I love the sense of community. It’s so great to be part of something so positive!
  • Blood donation – I’ve done it twice, and I fainted the second time so now I’m scared to go back. I want to make it to five times and see how I feel after that. We’ll see.
  • Shopping local – more to come on this, but it’s our challenge for February, and I am really enjoying connecting with local producers when buying my food.