Part two of WE ARE SPARTANS!!!

Spartan Race

Greetings again!

I bet you have all been waiting in keen suspense for part two of my description of the Spartan challenge. For this, I do apologise. The event was so momentous – and the bruises so colourful – that it has taken some time to generate the energy to tell you all how it went.

The morning

I was picked up by my ridiculously enthusiastic and excited team mate – the perfect counter to my more worried self. We then zipped off in the direction of Leicestershire, belting out some 90s alternate rock classics to get us in the mood.

The event was being held in Marston Lodge, and as we had discovered from a training day held there in January, it is held in a field that defies all modern satellite navigational equipment.

Of course, having been there before, we were pretty confident that THIS time we would find it first time. We didn’t.

However, we did still get there in plenty of time, enough time to seriously contemplate slamming the foot on the accelerator and zooming off to the luxurious spa hotel we had book for a post-race treat.

Somehow I manoeuvred my bouncy companion over to the registration stand where we were given a package that reassuringly warned us of the danger of dying during the event. As you can imagine, we were instantly filled with confidence.

We suited and booted, and pulled on our Spartan headbands. Sadly mine didn’t stay on for long and I lost it within the first 10 minutes of the race (I have a REALLY small head – not my fault!!!). We then stuffed ourselves with essential nutrition, otherwise known as M&S Colin Caterpillars and Percy Pigs.

Eventually it was time to head down towards the race area, which was filled by exhausted, muddy runners. We arrived just in time to see a friend and her team clear the last obstacle. This was a little surprising as she had started very early in the morning, which meant that our hopes of completing the course in about 2 1/2 hours were not going to last. Let’s just say that her description of the course didn’t fill us with a huge amount of confidence.

However, we were there, we were at the start, and the fun was about to begin.

And we’re off!

The start line of Spartan tells you a lot about the event. In order to even BEGIN the event you have to clamber over a little wall. A loin cloth-wearing Spartan (complete with rippling six pack) then bellows at you all to lie in the dirt so you know exactly how low you should go when performing a penalty burpee (cheers).

At this point my heart was thudding pretty hard and I wondered if it would be possible to fake a heart attack and get out of the race, but just as I was beginning to clutch my chest in a dramatic manner, the gun went off and a whole swarm of potentially masochistic runners surged forward.

And so it began.

The challenge

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Straight away we knew this was going to be a tough race, even by Spartan Super standards. First off, we immediately had to ascend a hill, at the top of which were some more gates to clear. It didn’t get easier.

What really made this course horrendous was the cross-country sections. Now, as a runner I thought this bit would be easy-peasy, but the race organisers had managed to scout out some of the toughest terrain EVER (no exaggeration).

The trail wound through the woods, which possessed very alarming gradients that occasionally saw me give up and slide down on my backside. It’s amazing how quickly you lose your dignity once you’re tired.

There were also tree roots to tackle and some massive ditches. These required leaps of faith and, occasionally, a few friendly competitors on the other side to haul you up as you slid perilously into the ravine.

In between these sections were the obstacles. The first large one was a massive cargo net, which was OK apart from being very high. We also had a lot of carrying tasks. This included carrying a tyre around the woods, jumping over a ditch with it, and then hauling it up a giant mudslide while avoiding being pushed down by other people who lost their grip. We also had to take a bucket of gravel for a walk, two logs, some sandbags, and a concrete ‘dog’ on a chain.

There was also climbing, my nemesis.

I will confess – one of two of the climbing obstacles I bailed on. They were simply too frightening for my height-phobic brain to deal with. Towards the end I valiantly scaled a towering structure only to become stuck at the top. As I clutched the top rail with a white-knuckled grip, a rescuer clambered up to the top and talked me over and down the wall. Whoever that man was, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

He was not my only knight in shining armour. I must have really been rocking the ‘damsel in distress’ vibe that day, because when a muddy bog decided to eat my shoe and leg, I quickly had two men rush over and help haul me out. Now, I’m all in favour of feminism and women having equality, but sometimes it does really help to have a burly man (or two) on hand.

Disaster strikes

Time was ticking by and we STILL weren’t finished. It seemed that at every obstacle we would turn to one another and scream ‘how many bloody things are there???’ before mustering up our depleted energy reserves and tackling the next horror of endurance.

About three miles from the end, my muddy, bog-soaked feet slipped off a wall I was trying to traverse. I landed awkwardly and sharp pain shot through my foot and ankle. I hobbled off to the side, impressing observers with my imaginative and colourful language.

My friend rushed over and asked me if I was OK. I wasn’t. My foot and ankle were throbbing but I didn’t think anything was broken. After the pain subsided a bit, I decided to muscle through the rest of the course (idiotic, I know). So I hobbled for a further three miles, stopping occasionally to walk (limp) to reduce the pain.

Finally, the end fences were in sight. These massive fences are about 10 feet high, and once again I had to be helped over. As I swung over the last one, the concluding firepit came into view. Together, my team mate and I hurtled as fast as our weary legs could towards the flames, leaping over and across to the finish.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I was so relieved I nearly cried.

And so, that concluded my first (and probably my last) Spartan adventure. It was hard, and muddy, and scary, but I did it. And if after reading this you fancy giving it a go, I can’t help but conclude that you are completely bonkers.

Epilogue

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Ouch

As you are a lovely bunch, I’m sure you will want to know how my foot and ankle fared. Well, the next morning both were terribly swollen and I could barely put weight on them. I ended up having a trip to A&E to check nothing was broken. They said it wasn’t (after a bit of poking) but I now have a permanent lump on my foot, so who knows? Good news is that it’s all OK now and three weeks ago I ran a half marathon (a post will be appearing at some point).

See you soon! And feel free to comment!

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Part one of WE ARE SPARTANS!!!

Long time no see! I wish I had some fantastic excuses for my negligence – a round-the-world trip, self-imposed reclusion from the modern world, a stint in space… But I don’t. It’s down to plain old laziness.

So I hope this tale of blood, sweat and tears will stop you from thinking that I am a lazy sod who has decided to hole themselves up with the TV from the time of my last post.

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

Like most of my more intrepid adventures, I signed up to the Super Spartan Race a long way in advance of race day. At the time, it seemed like a great idea. My friend (and future team mate) had done the race once already on her own, and I felt that this time I couldn’t let her run it solo. So I paid the entrance fee and let the feel-good afterglow of altruism course through my veins.

But then I realised what I’d done.

For the uninitiated, a Spartan Race is one of the new breed of cross-country obstacle course races that promise to test your limits. For some reason, our comfortable modern lives have us seeking out experiences that make us as uncomfortable as possible. These races involve mud, barbed wire, heights, and basically anything else that sounds horrible. A Super Spartan is a mid-range race. It’s about eight to 10 miles and has around 30 obstacles. (You can find out more about it here.)

THIS IS A BIG DEAL.

Now that I had actually committed to doing this ridiculous race, I realised that I had to get in shape. I’m never REALLY unfit, but a Spartan Race was certainly going to need a bit more muscle.

Training, training, training

The key to building muscle is, of course, weights. Joy. Body Pump became an unmissable class and every few weeks I HAD to go up in weight. But my arms have always been weak and wimpy things and progress was not good. I was also worried about tackling many of the obstacles, which would include the likes of a rope climb and flipping tyres, so in desperation I hired my Body Pump instructor as my trainer for a few months before The Big Day.

Like signing up to the race, at the time this felt like a good idea. It still was, but it was far more tiring than I was expecting. One memorable circuit session left me gasping on the floor. Don’t tell my instructor, but I was actually so exhausted that I got a taxi home afterwards…

Training continued and became more intense. I invested in strange things, such as a foam roller (otherwise known as an instrument of torture to those with sore muscles), and I experimented with protein shakes (all disgusting). But I did start to get stronger and training was fun, especially when my team mate trained with me.

If you’re training for a race like this (not that you will after you have finished reading this), then you can’t do it all from the comfort of a gym. My instructor therefore took me outside to a children’s playground. While there I had to do crazy things such as run over picnic benches, clamber up a slide, and squeeze myself down a tunnel designed for a primary school pupil. I was so bruised afterwards that I couldn’t wear a skirt for WEEKS.

I also tried out a few other obstacles. Some other friends of mine who had also signed up to Spartan went with me to Extreeme Adventure, which has an army-style assault course. It’s an excellent course and the two tracks mean that you can race side-by-side. Obstacles include a high wall, rope swing, monkey bars, and a crawl (among other things). This boosted my confidence a little, but there was still a long way to go.

As race day approached, my trainer then drove me and my team mate to a horse cross-country course. Together we clambered over massive jumps and leapt over ditches. I also caused a great deal of mirth when I squealed girlishly as I was ordered to run into a freezing cold patch of water. My instructor also had yet more reason to laugh herself into oblivion when my team mate and I got lost on the course… She was very surprised when we didn’t turn up where we agreed to meet. Oops.

As muscles began to get stronger, my fears then turned to the distance. I hadn’t run more than six miles since Christmas, so I decided to organise a long run for when I returned from holiday (another top tip folks – DON’T go on a holiday two weeks before the event…). So the weekend before D-Day was spent running 10 miles along Marriott’s Way (where we also almost got lost). Luckily the sun shone and we just about made it.

In the last few days leading up the race we did a bit more running and weight lifting. And then we stopped, to give our poor aching bodies time to rest before the race.

To find out if I made it across the finish line, stay tuned for part two…

 

Visiting My Lady at Ta’Pinu

Ta'Pinu

Ta’Pinu

The island of Gozo, which is situated off the coast of Malta, boasts many amazing examples of Catholic devotion rendered in stone. Ta’Pinu is one such site, which has the added allure of being a place of pilgrimage for many people.

The building alone is very beautiful – it is fairly ‘modern’ as churches come (I think it was constructed in the 1920s), but what it lacks in age it makes up for in bright walls, towering domes and some truly stunning mosaic artwork. It also contains items of strong human interest, which is where the charm of this place really lies.

Ta'Pinu

Inside the church

Ta’Pinu is renowned as a place of pilgrimage for its apparent powers of healing: the Mother’s presence is held to be strong within its walls, and many believers credit her influence for the curing of illnesses or protection in times of bodily danger. As a result, the back part of the church is crammed with items sent or donated by pilgrims who have felt her touch: hair, baby clothes, casts, walking sticks and back braces are littered among hundreds of photos and letters sent in by grateful worshippers. Some of these stories are truly extraordinary, and it is well worth your time to take a few moments to read some of them: one that struck me was the story of a girl (now a teenager at the time of her letter) who was thanking the Virgin Mary for her help when she was seriously injured as a 10 year old. Her list of injuries was truly astonishing (and very painful-sounding!), and the medical profession prepared her family for her seemingly inevitable demise. However, after praying to the Mother, she recovered and is now living a full life. Accompanying her letter was a long plait made of her hair, which was cut off at the time of her accident in order for doctors to operate. Hers is just one of many stories you can read, but it gives you an idea of the scale of items kept there.

Ta'Pinu

Casts, photos and other items gifted by grateful pilgrims.

As a result of these miracles, the church has been visited numerous times by various popes. Pope Benedict XVI left a gift of a golden rose, which can be seen at the far end of the church.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, wearing respectful clothing when visiting places of religious interest is a must in Gozo – either bring a shawl with you or be prepared to swathe yourself in borrowed cloth to cover bare arms and excessively bare legs.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Ta’Pinu, which was a shrine long before the current church was built, follow this link: http://www.tapinu.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=93&Itemid=533&lang=en

“Pork at walking pace, beef at a trot, game at a gallop”

Walsingham Abbey

Walsingham Abbey

Quote by Joseph Delteil.

Surely nothing can be better than a long walk in the North Norfolk countryside with some friends? WRONG. A walk in the North Norfolk countryside with some friends AND some incredibly tasty food along the way is infinitely better.

Those of you who have been following my blog for a while now (hello you lovely people!) may remember that last year I took part in Walk with a Fork – the brainchild of Ormiston Families, an East Anglian charity. I enjoyed my foodie adventure so much last year that I decided to sign up for this year’s event, along with a couple of equally food-obsessed friends.

As the date approached, I kept a fanatical watch on the weather reports – the weather promised to us in summer suddenly arrived the week beforehand, leading me to wonder whether Sod’s Law would strike us when the weekend arrived, dousing us in a healthy amount of rain.

However, the god of bad luck was evidently on holiday, as Sunday dawned clear of rain, if a little overcast.

This year’s event was based in Walsingham, starting on the site that houses the remains of Walsingham Abbey (well worth a visit). The walk itself was set to be around eight and a half miles, with eight food and drink stops along the way – that’s a pretty good munch to exercise ratio.

Walsingham

Walsingham Abbey

We set off at a cracking pace, our bellies driving us forward to the first stop. Once fuelled with hot sausage and a cup of coffee, when then powered through some woodland that circled us around the remains of the abbey. We were warned beforehand of some ‘troublesome’ fields but sturdy walking boots saw us through.

The next stop brought us through one of these meddlesome fields to a selection of canapes. Scotch eggs and delicate miniature apple pies were washed down with fruit juice, and then we set off on our way once more.

Hungry walkers

Lunch proved to be a substantial affair – after all, we were exercising in the fresh air, which is enough to give anyone a healthy appetite. Perching on hay bales overlooking the empty Norfolk countryside, we munched on a hog roast (with apple sauce, of course) and refreshed our parched throats with several cups of beer.

Alcohol may now have been coursing through our veins, but our pace failed to slacken, and soon we turned up at the village shops. Ducking inside the famer’s shop, we received a chilli sausage roll that induced a pleasant tingle on the tongue. We then shifted to the chocolate shop, which was handing out creamy, mouth-watering cups of hot chocolate, along with chocolate coated cocoa nibs and slabs of Peruvian dark chocolate. We lingered for some time…

The next stop was just up the hill, so we eagerly scampered up like mountain goats to get our teeth into the next offering. Here we received a cup of cider accompanied by cured ham and a selection of chutneys.

Criss-crossing a number of fields and clambering over a few stiles brought us to our next stop, which was located on a barren bit of field. Cordial and cake were quickly received and dispatched.

Walsingham

Troublesome fields

The penultimate stop took us through more rugged fields, where we received a cone of popcorn (what else?). Finally, we looped back round to our starting point, where tea and scones were waiting. After such a punishing day, we were in need of them.

Walsingham Abbey

As you can probably tell by this over-long eulogy on the food, I rather enjoyed this event and will definitely be signing up for next year. If you live in East Anglia, there are several events like these that are held over the autumn, so keep an eye out next year if you fancy stuffing your face for a good cause.

Thank you to Ormiston for yet another great day out, and thank you to all the kind food providers who kept us fuelled for the duration!

Autumn pickings

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Berries for gin

The nights are drawing in and jumpers will soon be dug out of the wardrobe. But autumn doesn’t have to be depressing, especially if you know how to make the most of what it has to offer.

Last year I posted about my sloe berry picking escapades, and I enjoyed the giddy, addictive results so much that missing the opportunity to collect a glut of berries for sloe gin again this year was just inconceivable.

Marriots way was once again our hunting ground of choice, and fortunately a few passers by pointed us in the best direction for collecting the super sour purple fruits. Unlike last year, when my hands were torn to shreds, I managed to escape with minimal scarring. Result!

Of course, sloe berries aren’t the only goodies to be gifted to us by the onset of the colder months. Apples now abound, and thanks to the pretty miserable summer we have had, it looks like this year we will have a bumper crop. Scrumping is an age-old tradition in the countryside, but although I am not recommending sneaking into people’s gardens and orchards to pilfer, there’s nothing wrong with picking up the spoils found lying around on a walkway. We found loads of abandoned fruit hidden among the leaves on a recent walk, so we took advantage and filled our pockets. Of course, the apples HAD to fall among the nettles and brambles, so my smugness at avoiding injury while sloe berry picking quickly disappeared, particularly when my leg was speared by some very vicious thorns. But the apples were worth it! We also managed to gather a few from our tiny tree in the garden. It’s well worth keeping an eye on neighbours who have more established trees – often they are happy to part with some,  while others will put a box outside their door for you to help yourself from.

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Scrumped apples and apples from my garden

Now is also prime blackberry picking season, so search among the hedgerows for the juiciest selection. After all, what’s better than an apple and blackberry crumble?

Gozo: a visit to the Citadel

Citadel

With autumn on its way and the first cold of the winter settling itself on my poor nose, I thought now would be the perfect time to sit down and remember the baking hot days and the sights and sounds of Gozo, an island off Malta.

After spending the previous day travelling and locating our villa, my family and I finally set out to explore. We made a beeline for Victoria, which is a bustling city filled with things to do and great places to eat. Your eye is instantly drawn to the imposing feature of the Citadel, which is located right at the heart of the city. The Citadel, or Cittadella, is essentially a small, fortified city designed to protect inhabitants from raiders. Although the area was first inhabited during the Bronze Age, the fortifications that can be seen today stem from the medieval period, although sadly some of it has fallen to ruin. Still, it remains a magnificent structure, and is an absolute must-see if you visit the island.

The site features several museums that are well worth a look, including one on the prison that was located on the site. Of particular interest are the hundreds of etchings and graffiti carved into the walls by those incarcerated inside. Many of the images feature ships, although handprints and names can also be spotted. When standing inside one of the cells surrounded by these remnants of the past, it can be quite an eerie experience.

A walk along the walls is also a must, because the Citadel boasts some impressive views thanks to its situation high above Victoria.

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Oddly, another enjoyable experience stemmed from a wander around the silos built into the main structure. These giant storage spaces are pretty atmospheric, and if you are willing to stoop to our level, you can have great fun making use of the echoing quality of the interior. Apologies to all other tourists who may have overheard some eerie singing from the uppermost silo.

Gozo

Inside a silo

Within the Citadel’s giant walls also stands the Cathedral of the Assumption. This is a stunning example of a Baroque church, which was built in the late 17th and early 18th century. Inside are some spectacular chandeliers and paintings, and if you look up, you can see a brilliant example of an optical illusion.

Cathedral of the Assumption

Inside the cathedral

Cathedral of the Assumption

Optical illusion

If you do visit the cathedral, or indeed any place of religious significance on the island, it is best to dress modestly. Bare shoulders and excessively bare legs are not appreciated, so don’t be surprised if you are given an armful of shawls to wrap around yourself before you enter.

A ‘tour’ of the rooms beyond the main cathedral hall is available, which gives you access to the cathedral’s silver collection and other artefacts (such as a cardinal’s slippers in a box, which was gifted to the cathedral many years ago). There are also a great deal of paintings, including one of a future saint, who had her breasts cut off by her father for refusing to marry. According to the guide, this is a true story. Nice.

You can find out more about the Citadel by following this link: http://www.visitgozo.com/en/item/sight-seeing-places-of-interest/citadel-cittadella-1123/

Glorious mud: Race for Life Pretty Muddy

Race for Life

Bye bye trainers!

My Sundays are typically begun with a nice lie in swiftly followed by a round of tea and toast in bed with a good book. True bliss I hear you say! Well, this Sunday still began with tea and toast, but it certainly wasn’t preceded by a good lie in and I pretty soon found myself venturing outside beneath leaden skies to jog to Earlham Park. Why? Well, because my friend and I had decided months ago that we would have a bash at Race for Life’s Pretty Muddy, and of course, it fell on a weekend of dodgy weather.

The Pretty Muddy event is a little different to the other races hosted by Cancer Research and their Pink Army: rather than just a nice simple run, this event involves several inflatable obstacles and – as the name suggests – rather a lot of mud.

Strangely enough, this event is massively popular – I don’t think I have seen so many people gathered together to slide around in mud in the rain before – so a great, almost festival, atmosphere is created. It was easy to separate those who had already tackled the brown sea – many were almost unrecognisable as humans.

Having arrived early, we had plenty of time to get excited and eye up the final obstacle on the course, which was a giant muddy slide. I was suddenly very glad that I had kept a very old pair of trainers to wear.

Eventually it was our turn! We did a crazy five minute warm up with our group of pink soldiers, which involved a great deal of ‘whooping’ and arm waving, and then we finally got going. Earlham Park, and indeed all of the green areas surrounding UEA, are well-known for their rabbit population, so everyone was warned to watch out for the many rabbit holes around the course. Other than that, the ground wasn’t too sodden or bumpy, so the going was pretty easy in between the obstacles.

Of course, the second the gun had gone off, the rain started. At least it would keep the worst of the mud off, I thought grimly. The first obstacle was very straightforward: a row of giant inflatable logs that you had to straddle/leap like a beautiful gazelle over. I did the former – very elegant! The other obstacles were similarly very easy and not over-facing – we had to crawl on our hands and knees underneath a net (with lots of mud), run over a series of pink tyres, escape a maze of elasticated ropes, jump into a muddy pool of water (hello soggy feet), crawl through a tunnel, obey a crazy man who demanded push-ups and climb up a wall of rope. Finally we reached the piece de resistance – the mud slide. First, however, we had to do some more crawling through mud. Unfortunately, I decided now was a great time to get the giggles, so a lovely man kindly dumped an entire shovel of cold, oozing mud onto my head.

Now looking completely unrecognisable as a rather dishevelled brunette, I finally scrambled up the ropes to the slide and slithered down into yet another wet pool of mud. Mission accomplished! As we dragged our muddy, wet bodies over the finishing line, we were greeted with the best sight ever – my friend’s boyfriend clutching two cups of steaming tea. HOORAY!

The fun wasn’t over though – after many attempts to get the worst of the brown sticky stuff off, I ran home decorated in mud through the rain. However, I couldn’t actually get inside my own house, which is furnished with WHITE carpets. You can image the possible destruction. So, I ended my rather interesting day with my head underneath the outside tap with freezing water running over my face. So, why on earth do I want to do it all again?

Race for Life