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Archive for May, 2015

The Hoka One One 25km race was the main reason for our visit to the Keswick Mountain Festival, and also the reason I decided not to take part in Keswick Half Marathon (which took place just two weeks before the festival) for the first time in six years. I figured that a 25km off-road run would be a much better option for my UT55 training, and gosh, I was right.

I’d noticed on the entries list that only 252 people had signed up for the race, which immediately left me worrying that I might come last. Generally I don’t come last; usually I’m around the middle of the pack (and am always happy to be there), once I was sixth in my category (those were the days, eh?), and, just once, I did actually finish a race in last position. Still, for whatever reason I was panicking – I guess I didn’t want to be demoralised at this stage in my ultra training; as it turns out, getting practice at being demoralised is incredibly good for ultra training!

In the starting pen people were bandying around their expected finishing times – I heard a few people mention times over 4 hours, which I thought was odd; I hoped to finish in about 3-3.5 hours, based on my normal ‘ultra(slow) pace’ plus some time for walking and even a bit of stopping. Perhaps I wouldn’t finish last after all – phew! Daniel took the generic starting pen photo and then headed off for his boat to the start of the 10km, and moments later we were off!

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You could say that the race was off to a bad start before I’d even left Crow Park; I was too hot, I had a wedgie (note to self: a 25km race is not the time to start experimenting with different underwear) and my new shorts, which I’d bought two sizes bigger as my normal size was just so…short, were riding up and giving me rather a lot of grief. Still, I got into a nice steady pace, feeling surprisingly good despite the previous day’s hilly 15-miler still in my legs, and at about mile 1 I started to feel more optimistic. The hills came and they were MASSIVE. That’s ok; I can deal with hills – I ran up the less steep bits and power walked the rest, and was able to overtake a few other runners here. I gained some confidence and settled in to the race; by mile two I was flying along, and really enjoying what was a phenomenal course. Trails took us through glorious woodland filled with bluebells, and around every corner was a glimpse of the surrounding mountains before they were hidden again by thickets of trees.

Once out of the woodland the terrain started to get tricky – I found myself walking increasingly often, as the trails were too narrow and totally unforgiving if you should land a foot in the wrong place. It was slow and exhausting, but at least the other runners around me were also having the same issues – we egged each other on and swapped encouraging comments; the awesome thing about these races is the other runners, always. It wasn’t until Ashness Bridge – probably around mile 5 or 6 – that the terrain became a little easier, but even then I was walking more than running. I stopped off for a loo break at this point, and by the time I was back on the course I was completely alone; all the other nearby runners had passed, and I started to feel incredibly demoralised.

There were only two things keeping my spirits up by this point: firstly, the friendly walkers who had endless flattering and encouraging comments – one guy told me I was a hero, which was rather nice. The other was the spectacular scenery, which just kept on giving with every corner and climb. I even stopped to take a selfie, but then a nearby walker (who stopped to check I was ok as he saw me fumbling in my bag) offered to take the picture for me; these were real high points, enjoying the humbling combination of kindness and nature. It made me very happy to be alive, and gosh, if nothing else I really did feel alive. Finally another runner caught up, and we ran together for a while, joking (in all seriousness) about how unforgivingly hard the race was, and how we could always pull out and go to the pub instead. She assured me that a checkpoint was around the corner, but not before the most ginormous hill of the whole race, veering upwards towards Rosthwaite. I pulled forwards at this point and left her behind for a while, and it wasn’t long after we separated that the lows really started to come.

No photographers at this event, so I had to arrange my own...(and why the thumbs up everywhere?!)

No photographers at this event, so I had to arrange my own…(and why the thumbs up everywhere?!)

After the massive ascent there was an equally steep descent, which was so rocky underfoot that I had no choice but to walk very carefully, sometimes using both hands to lower myself down between the rocks. Twice I went over on an ankle, and here I noticed that there hadn’t been a single marshall since about mile 2. I started to panic. The day before I’d been marvelling about how wonderful it was to be completely alone and miles from anywhere in such an incredible place, but now I was becoming pretty fraught for exactly the same reason – what if I fell and couldn’t keep going, who would help me out then? It wasn’t long before the girl behind me caught me up again, to my relief, and here my fear was proven to be justified: she’d fallen in the stream running parallel to our route, and had to get running pretty swiftly in order to stay warm. I think we were going through similar crises, and stuck together until we finally got to the check point at Rosthwaite.

After this point I knew the trails pretty well, and had walked and even run on them a number of times. I knew it was going to get easier, and so I was able to pick myself up a bit and keep on going. Not long after the check point, though, my ankle started to ache pretty badly. I was able to run, but with every step I felt a dull thud rising through my foot and lower calf, which started to unnerve me over time. I made it through the woodland section near to Grange, but as I climbed towards the foot of Catbells I started to toy with the idea of pulling out. But wait, there were no marshalls: at the very least I had to run another three miles before I reached the next check point. I was lamenting at the fact that I might have to ruin my hopes of running the Lakeland Trails marathon in three weeks simply through poor organisation in this race. I was angry at the organisers and the festival, and this only perpetuated the negative energy that was hindering my running.

Luckily, I came across two other runners who were obviously struggling, and shared some of my chocolate with them as one guy was obviously in a pretty bad way. Chatting to them perked me up a bit  – as I get deeper into despair I put on an increasingly cheerful persona, which actually helps in these less-than-cheerful circumstances. I also had some chocolate, and found myself enjoying the soft terrain underfoot and the opportunity to get covered in mud, safe in the knowledge that there were only a few miles left. At the road the route was completely ambiguous: a sign with an arrow reading ’10km route this way’ but no mention of us 25km-ers. Luckily I know this area well, and decided to follow the arrow anyway as it would eventually get me back to Keswick, whether or not I’d be following the right trail. I didn’t see another runner for the entire stretch, but it was my favourite part of the race – such beautiful running next to Derwent Water, and even though my foot was hurting I was in reach of home. I texted Daniel to let him know that I’d be 20 minutes or so as my Garmin beeped 13 miles, and a comforting sense of optimism started to grow inside me.

I still have no idea whether or not I took the correct path at the road there, but as I came back onto the main road there was a sign reading ‘5km to go’. I’d already run 14 miles and wasn’t in the mood for another three, but I had no choice. The lady at the checkpoint joked that I was getting more for my money but I found this incredibly ironic and couldn’t even feign a chuckle. I was exhausted, in pain and angry. I ate a Penguin bar and gritted my teeth.

In fact, those last three miles were really fun, and probably better for my UT55 training than anything else I could have done that day. I ran past a number of ultra runners who were coming to the end of an even tougher course that was also double the distance, and swapped encouraging comments with them as I ran by. I found some power from somewhere (probably that Penguin) and forgot about the pain in my foot. The crowds got bigger and louder, and it seemed that everyone was cheering me on, as if I was about to win (I definitely wasn’t). A cruel rocky hill up into Crow Park and I could see the finish – I crossed the field and the finish line, and felt more relief than joy or tiredness. I really didn’t think I’d finish that race – mainly because my heart left the building for the last few miles and I didn’t want to risk an injury in a race that I wasn’t enjoying – but there I was, and glad to be there, too. Daniel greeted me with a hot Vimto, and then we headed to a lovely cafe, the Little Chamonix (another great spot – do try it out) for a hot chocolate and a tea cake. We swapped stories, and I was so pleased to hear that Daniel had run a great race and enjoyed every minute – certainly our experiences were very different.

Proud 10km-er

Proud 10km-er

I want to say here that I’ve heard only good things from other people about this race, but for me the organisation wasn’t quite up to it. I’ve never felt afraid on a race until this one, and certainly I’d never felt so alone on a route – I didn’t pull out only because there were no marshalls around to make sure I got back safely, and I don’t think that’s nearly good enough. It cost £28 to enter which is as much as any brilliantly-organised Lakeland Trails event, yet there was minimal support, no photos, and a goodie bag of stuff that we’ve mainly recycled or given away already. I’m not in it for the free stuff, obviously, but when I spend that much money I do want to feel that I’m part of something, and not just on another run. The course was spectacular, though, and I’m so glad that I did it despite all of the negativity.

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And, in terms of negativity, this is something that I’m now glad to have had practice with. I felt so low, and I’m sure I’ll feel similar at points on the UT55, but I was able to practice picking myself up and drawing from the other runners, as well as giving back to them. I didn’t come last, and I met some great people en route – I see that they did all get back ok in the end and I hope that they have some good memories too. Running is so much more mental than physical, and timing the most mentally-challenging event I’ve ever done only six weeks before the ultra was in fact excellent planning!

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Escaping to Keswick in May is becoming a yearly ritual in this house; neither of us are ‘summer people’ so this is the perfect time of year to get out into the mountains for some fresh air before a busy summer of conferences begins – it tides us over until Autumn, which is our preferred time for a main holiday. This year we decided to time our trip to coincide with the Keswick Mountain Festival; I missed out on my annual Keswick Half Marathon fun this year but we planned instead to take part in the trail events put on at the festival – Daniel signed up for the 10km trail race, and I opted for the 25km race as a training run for my upcoming ultra.

We took the Friday off work and headed up to Keswick early that morning, under the usual cloudy skies and with the inevitable promise of challenging weather. The town was already buzzing when we arrived just before lunch, and we struggled to find a spot to park in the rabbit warren of streets around our B&B: every single window declared that there was ‘no room at the inn’ – Keswick was packed to the rafters for the weekend! We headed to our favourite Saddleback cafe for a much-needed mug of builder’s tea and some lunch; this place has just opened when we first found it last year, and it was brilliant to see how well they were doing – very pleased! (Is it just me or is Keswick really lacking in great places to eat and drink? Finally this appears to be changing!).

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After lunch it was time for the first challenge of the weekend: to get myself kitted out for the ultra marathon. I managed to spend a rather disproportionate amount of money on some ultra lightweight waterproof running trousers (costing about £5 a gram!), and also picked up some funky new shorts and a super comfy bra – chafing is starting to become a problem, and Keswick is the place to fix that! Then it was time for Running Inspiration of the Weekend #1 to take place: Graham Patten, race director of the Lakeland Trails events, was due to finish the Bob Graham Round at about 17:40. I’d been keeping an eye on his progress with an online tracker that afternoon, and noticed that he was well ahead of schedule, and would be finishing at 16:30ish instead. I changed into my trainers and ran to the Moot Hall, to find him sitting on the steps with no shoes on looking as bright and as lively as could be, surrounded by a friendly support group. I was disappointed to miss his arrival but so pleased to be able to congratulate him in person – he was running to raise money for BLISS, and can be sponsored here! “See you in three weeks!” I said, as he headed off to celebrate in the pub. GULP.

I regret to say that it wasn’t long after this that we decided to hit our favourite pub – we had a talk to attend at 9pm and wanted to secure some food and some chilling out beforehand. Plus, it was very cold outside and pretty windy – I hate cold weather and could find no better reason to tuck up in the Dog and Gun. If you’ve never been to the Dog and Gun then I would suggest that you brave the crowds and try it out if you’re ever in the area. It’s hard to get a seat (for good reason!), but if you’re prepared to prop up the bar for a while you usually get lucky, even if you have to share with strangers. They serve an excellent goulash (meaty or veggie) with dumplings, potatoes and garlic bread – there is surely no better way to fuel up or recover before/after an energetic day in the hills.

We got chatting to another couple from Yorkshire who were attending the festival along with everyone else in the pub, and it didn’t seem two minutes before they headed off to the music along with most other people and we were able to get a seat. Not long afterwards a wiry and weathered-looking old man sat down at the adjoining table with his wife, but at the same time a better table came free and we shifted places again. As I sat down I realised that we’d just passed on an opportunity to share a meal with Joss Naylor – legendary fell runner and retired shepherd, whose talk we were due to attend in a couple of hours! I couldn’t help but kick myself, but luckily the enormous bowl of goulash was enough to distract me from this silly mistake!

The talk was held at the Theatre By The Lake, and featured Joss Naylor and his ‘rival’ Steve Birkinshaw, both telling their own stories of their completion of the 214 Wainwrights: Joss was the fatest man to complete the round, in seven days and one hour, in 1987, and Steve was the first runner to beat his time, bringing the record down to 6 days and 13 hours in 2014. Both men were excellent to listen to, delivering completely different but equally entertaining and moving accounts of their own attempts. It was quite startling to hear Joss Naylor, known as ‘Cumbria’s Iron Man’ or ‘King of the Fells’, describe his amazing achievement as ‘done badly’; it was very humbling to listen to them speak so frankly about what was no doubt an equally torturous and amazing venture. I finally got to meet Joss in person afterwards when he signed my ticket and put up with a rather bumbling conversation on my part. We left the venue feeling very inspired: there was no ‘celebrity’ involved in the evening – it was just two runners talking about running, and I was so glad that we decided to attend this event.

Me and Joss getting on famously, of course..!

Me and Joss getting on famously, of course..!

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast spread provided by our hosts Sue and Iain (seriously, if you need somewhere to stay in Keswick, their B&B is the place), I decided to make up for my missed Keswick Half Marathon this year and run the route on my own. Door-to-door it would be about 15 miles, which alongside Sunday’s trail race would make for excellent back-to-back training for UT55. I set out towards Portinscale, weaving through the hoards of people and their teeny tiny dogs (one of my serious running (and normal life) pet hates) in the town centre. It took a while to get onto quiet roads, but once I did it was absolutely marvellous. I’ve only ever run this route in a race, so this time I had chance to slow down a bit and enjoy the views, and even take some photos. Such a gorgeous course. But – and I say this every time – I swear it gets hillier each time I run it! Barring a bridge closure at Stair the run went really smoothly – I did have to go cross-country to get back on course here, but I was running steady and in no rush to get back (Daniel had gone for a morning hike). The last three miles of the course is along the rather hairy Borrowdale Road from Grange, and here I decided to play it safe and take to the lakeside trails instead. It would have been wonderful, but as I was wearing my road shoes I wasn’t confident enough on some parts, as I had no grasp of the terrain. It was cool to notice how different the off-road experience is when not in the right shoes, though.

Views towards Buttermere

Views towards Buttermere

The last couple of miles into Keswick coincided with the running leg of the triathlon, which was taking place that day, and I found myself coming back towards Crow Park alongside some of the runners – it was a bit awkward when people started cheering for me, and I had to explain that I wasn’t actually taking part in the race (they continued cheering anyway)! This was a great way to end a brilliant run though, and I started to really look forward to my race the following day.

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We spent the afternoon browsing the tents and stalls in the festival village. It was so cold, and I was so tired, and definitely didn’t enjoy this bit as much as I’d have liked. We decided to take refuge in a large tent where a great folk band were playing a brilliant variety of music from around the world, including a few Yiddish tunes. The plan was to come back for the evening music after some food, but I was spent and longing for a good sleep before my race the next day, so after some triple-carbs (seriously, lasagne AND chips AND garlic bread in one meal?!) I headed back to the B&B while Daniel went back to the festival to watch Seth Lakeman’s set.

I’ll review the trail race in a separate post, but all in all the Keswick Mountain Festival was a great way to spend an outdoorsy weekend: sport, music, talks, food and drink, in one of the loveliest locations in the UK world. Keswick was busier than I’ve ever seen it, but if you plan ahead AND allow yourself to go with the flow it does work well. It was strange to spend an entire weekend in the Lake District and not find any real space or peace, and I admit that I returned home feeling less rested than when I set off (and am paying for it now with the flu – a serious impediment to my training!), but if you arrive prepared for that, or perhaps plan in some solitary time, then it’s less of a problem. Thanks to the organisers for putting on such a fun weekend!

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When we do our weekly online shop I inevitably envisage a relaxing Sunday evening sitting around the table with a bottle of wine and a lovingly-prepared veggie roast dinner. I optimistically add leeks, Savoy cabbage, sweet potatoes and a whole number of other Sunday-roastesque ingredients to our virtual basket, looking forward to what will surely be a feast. But then Sunday evening comes and I never quite have enough time for that couple of hours in the kitchen, with a glass of wine to accompany some slow and indulgent weekend cooking. Instead I’m often tired and lazy from all the running, as well as a little fooded-out from all of the indulging that has taken place in the previous days. In reality I rarely feel like cooking up a veggie shepherd’s pie or a nut roast, and a number of times I’ve ended up turning my Sunday dinner ingredients into this amazing stew. The first time I put its deliciousness down to the fact that, at that time in a busy weekend, anything quick and easy will taste like the best meal that ever happened. But then I did it again, and for the second time I found myself rejoicing at this quick and healthy stew was actually more enjoyable than the product of any massive cook-off that I could muster. This Sunday saw the third instance of me being ‘too tired’ to cook a big meal, and when I sat down to the first spoonful of this meal I decided it was worth sharing with the world.

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Bar some cabbage and leek-chopping it’s relatively easy to prepare, and can be left for 20 minutes or 2 hours (and probably more – it’d do fine in a slow cooker) to cook up, depending on whether you’re starving hungry or eager to sit in the garden with a Sunday evening G&T while you work up an appetite. There’s not much to it other than a bunch of veggies and some herbs/spices, making it a simple and gloriously healthy choice for the end of a treat-filled weekend…but the tahini added at the end gives it an amazing creaminess and indulgence, which to me turns it from a normal veggie stew to a delicious treat. This recipe would probably serve 4 with some bread on the side, or 2 large portions and a smaller one for lunch the next day. We ate it all between two of us and spent the rest of the evening groaning on the sofa. It was worth it.

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Tahini-Beany Stew

2 leeks, sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch piece of ginger, chopped
Half a savoy cabbage, finely chopped
4 medium-sized sweet potatoes, cubed
2 tins beans (a combo of borlotti, cannellini, chickpeas or butter beans all work)
2 carrots, chopped
Veggie stock
2 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 large Tbsp tahini (or more – add liberally!)

1. In a large casserole dish, fry the leeks in olive oil on a low heat with the lid on. When they’re soft, add the ginger and garlic with the sweet potato, carrot, rosemary and chilli. Put the lid on and sweat for a few minutes while the kettle boils.

2. Add enough stock to cover the veggies and bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. After about five minutes add the beans, stir and leave to cook with the lid on for another five minutes or so.

3. Stir the cabbage into the dish and maybe add a little more water if it’s getting a bit dry (you can make it as soupy or as non-soupy as you like). Now you can leave it, with the lid on, for as long as you like: if you like your cabbage bright green and just-cooked, 5-10 minutes will do fine. If you like your cabbage soft and slurpy, leave it for 20 minutes or more!

4. When you’re just about ready to eat, dollop in the tahini and stir gently. Turn off the heat and let it melt into the stew.

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It’s Saturday morning, which in many ways has played out just as any other Saturday morning: a slow breakfast, radio, and endless tea refills as we catch up with ourselves after a busy week. Except it’s not quite as normal today as this picture implies. Fruit and yogurt – normally something I’d grab as a quick snack whenever I feel a suggestion of hunger – tasted like heaven, and buttered crumpets with jam were more buttery and fluffier than they ever have before. It’s good to notice how wonderful this small selection of choices can be, and how much enjoyment and satisfaction can be found in just a simple (but healthy and varied) meal.

This challenge got easier for me as the week progressed. I was tired, cold and unable to concentrate for the duration, but it became less noticeable, and my appetite had almost disappeared by Thursday – possibly from food boredom, or possibly due to my body getting used to the smaller quantities. It’s funny to see how quickly we adapt to new versions of normal – my fear now is that I’ll get used to having quantity and variety again too quickly, and start taking it all for granted as I always have. We are so much more privileged than I had even realised before this challenge started. I knew it would be tough to reduce the quantity and the variety of the foods that I have access to. I knew I’d feel below-par and frustrated, and that I’d struggle to battle with cravings. What I didn’t know was how important food is to my existence on a larger scale, and how it costs so much more than I had imagined to keep one healthy normal adult functioning properly. This cost was meaningless to me, but over the past five days its meaning became a bit of a burden.

Yesterday I took myself out for a 16 mile run – part of my training for the ultra in June. It’s the only ‘real’ training run I did during the challenge, and I was cautious to save up some of the week’s food allowance for Thursday and Friday, so that I’d have as much in my stores as possible beforehand, and enough to replenish with afterwards. While breakfast was as substantial as it would ever be before a long run, it wasn’t long before I felt the deficit that had been building since Monday. I was tired and found it hard to focus, and by mile 9 I had searing hunger pains which made it difficult to move forwards both in terms of morale and physical discomfort. I ate 3 custard creams while out, which didn’t really cut it, and I felt so much worse in the last 3 miles than I’d felt at any point during last week’s 20-mile run. At this stage, 16 miles usually feels like an ‘easy'(ish) day, squished between weeks of much higher mileage, but yesterday there was nothing easy about any of it, and it certainly wasn’t a relief from the training I’ve done over the past few weeks.

The main issue, however, was the return home, to a very small quantity of food. Normally I’d refuel with a large glass of milk or a protein shake right after the run, but there was none of that: I had a quick shower and then rushed back downstairs to make some lunch. A large plate of spaghetti with some leftover lentil dhal – very tasty and plenty of food to tuck in to, but hardly any protein (11g) and so not a good recovery meal at all. More importantly, the run left me with 2,500 calories (the ones I burned on the run + the ones I need anyway to function – breakfast) to get back over the course of the day, and with only 85p left in my daily meal budget this was not looking realistic. Luckily a few extra pennies from Monday and Tuesday meant that I could tuck in to a toasted bread cake topped with peanut butter without going over-budget.

While running 16 miles sits towards the more extreme end of the exercise spectrum in the society I live in, doing this much physical activity on little food is the reality for many of the people who live at the extreme poverty line: manual labour, collecting food and water, lack of access to transport – the list goes on. I made the (possibly not very sensible) decision to take myself out for a run yesterday, and more importantly I did it for fun, while actually this is nothing compared to what people have to do on a daily basis in many parts of the world just to get by. What has been equally striking to me is how the variety and quality of my diet allows me to do, and to be, so much. Being fit, healthy, academically successful at school or work, sociable: all of these things require physical and mental capacity, which is provided by the foods we eat. Over the past five days we subsisted mainly on refined carbohydrates: every day MyFitnessPal warned me that I’d ‘eaten too many carbs’, while my protein, vitamin and mineral intakes were minimal for the duration. If we live in a world where fruit and veg is so much more expensive than processed food, is it surprising that people who don’t have all that much choose not to buy these products? And, in turn, is it surprising that young people are not concentrating in school, or getting any exercise?

I’ve learned a lot from just five days of relative struggling. And I genuinely hope that this stays with me for a long time. I don’t want to stop spending my money on good quality foods, ethically-sourced or local products, unprocessed and wholesome ingredients – this is something that I value above, say, buying the latest iWhatever or going out to nice restaurants. And that’s my choice, which I realise is a privilege that many people will never have. But through recognising this I hope I will be able to enjoy it more mindfully, which perhaps in turn will lead me to do more to help others who don’t have choice or much else to keep them going.

Last night’s tea, and our last meal of this challenge, was a pile or white rice topped with lentils, beans and mixed veg. It looked gross, and upon first mouthful it tasted pretty gross too, but a few spoonfuls in it seemed like the best meal I’d had in ages: we savoured it, and scraped the pan clean afterwards. I realise that the things we enjoy are always relative to what we have at any point in time, and perhaps this means that the more we have, the harder it is to find enjoyment in things. To me, it seems obvious that constantly striving for more and more is a road to a world where pleasure is very hard to find in the simple things; the more we have, the more we need. So while I don’t intend on living on £1 of food a day for as long as I don’t need to (despite the fact that I realise that it really is possible to eat very cheaply), I hope that I’ve learned a bit more about the gap between what I have and what I need – a gap that I realise is much larger than it could be – and how to keep that in check.

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I have genuinely been humbled by this challenge, and while it was much harder than I thought, I do think it’s worth giving it a go. The money that we have saved on our weekly shop is being donated to relief efforts in Nepal. Find out more and donate at www.dec.org.uk.

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