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Roll Up, Roll Up!

It’s been a while.

One of the problems of blogging about – at times – such personal thing is that when everything isn’t going quite as rosy as you’d like, it can be hard to admit.

I stopped counting calories on holiday, a big step in my recovery journey. This enabled me to eat a greater variety of foods, and more of them. Because when I didn’t know how many calories were being consumed, I found myself less worried about it.

So I got even more into baking than I had been before. And I baked. I baked, and baked until my kitchen was overflowing with sweet treats and I just HAD to eat them all up.

Of course, no matter how much exercise a person does there is a limit to the amount of indulgence that you can partake in before gaining weight. I believe I exceeded that limit. Now we’re not talking piling on the pounds, in fact the weight gain has been barely noticeable and would probably have been overlooked had I not been unable to break the daily weighing habit that has stuck around despite the leaps I’ve been making in recovery. So the scale says I’ve gained a little.

And whereas most people would barely acknowledge such tiny change in their weight, for someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, it isn’t quite that simple. Despite the fact that I probably needed to gain weight, because all of the running and (accidental) accompanying weight loss sort of made me stop getting periods (I know… doesn’t sound healthy, right?), this little weight change has caught me off guard.

The reason I have avoided this blog is because I didn’t want to admit that. I’m supposed to be super healthy all the time now. I’m not supposed to freak out about weight gain. I’m not supposed to try and maintain an artificially low weight. I should be embracing whatever weight my body is comfortable at.

But it isn’t that simple. Perfectionism is probably one of my biggest vices. And if part of recovery from an eating disorder is learning to accept imperfection, then why should I expect the process of recovery itself to be perfect?

It isn’t. And I am not.

So I will break my three week blog-draught with an admission: I am not perfect. And I am learning to be okay with that. I am also learning to let my body be whatever weight it wants. The key word here is learning, because I am most certainly not there yet. It’s a work in progress.

Saying that, I did decide that perhaps I was baking a little too much and letting my previously healthy-to-the-point-of-obsession diet slide. I think this has been part of the journey. I went the other way for a few weeks, indulging a little too often and choosing treats rather than my usual healthy snacks of fruit, and veg, and wholefood bars. So I learned to enjoy foods that would previously have stirred up guilt  – for consuming a lot of calories, but also for filling up on something that didn’t contribute anything nutritious to my diet.

Now I’ve decided that it’s time to find a balance. Of course I still love to bake, and I’m not going to stop doing that.  I also enjoy cooking, and I think I’m going to put some of my energy into playing with savoury foods a little more. And maybe some healthy treats (I’ve always wanted to make my own snack bars).

With that in mind, I listened to my hunger as much as possible today and tried to respond with my body’s nutritional needs in mind. With no sugary alternatives, my post-dinner snack was a bowl of fruit and yogurt.

 

 

I got myself into a bit of a fruit rut – which may have contributed to my desire for baked goods where before I’d be happy with an apple – and so I decided to jazz it up a bit. Admittedly my idea of ‘jazz’ just involved buying a passionfruit (the first one EVER!) and a kiwi (not the first one, but not a fruit that features in my kitchen often).

 

 

I also added some clementines that I bought the other day (to make this vinaigrette – absolutely delicious!). I was so excited when I saw that they had leaves on. It feels so festive!

 

 

To my absolutely beautiful, vibrantly coloured fruit bowl I added some soy yogurt.

 

 

I’ve got to admit, the addition of the yogurt did take something away aesthetically! It tasted lovely though. And I felt so much better for having eaten something nutritious.

I have also discovered a love of sandwiches lately. It’s getting expensive – the hummus salad on multigrain bread that’s on offer at the deli right by my house has tempted me too many times when I’ve needed a quick snack to keep me going while studying (epistemological debates really whet my appetite).

So today I realised that instead of spending my very limited student budget on sandwiches that other people have made for me, why not make them myself? And being the natural-type that I am, this doesn’t mean buying store bought bread and fillings and just putting them together myself.

It means making the bread myself too. With the assistance of my very dear friend, the Panasonic SD-257 Breadmaker.

(I was once a breadmaker snob, and insisted upon making loaves with my bare hands. I shunned modern technology, determined to learn the fine art of traditional breadmaking. It turns out I’m not very good at it, and have neither the time nor the patience to improve. Still wanting an alternative to commercially manufactured bread, I gave in and bought the best breadmaker I could find. It’s one of the most worthwhile purchases I ever made – not only do I adore it but self-titled bread connoisseur Matt loves it too, and we now make all of our bread at home).

It has all sorts of settings – white, wholewheat, gluten free, rye, pizza, loads of fancy breads and cakes, dough… and a funky raisin dispenser that drops nuts, seeds, raisins or whatever else you want to add into the dough at just the right point.

 

 

 

The dough setting on the machine is great fun, because you toss all of the ingredients in and three hours later, it produces near-perfect (we’re not aiming for perfection, remember!) dough that just needs to be shaped, proofed and baked.

I made a batch, and decided to shape it into six large breadrolls. I could have got more out of it, but I wanted them to be sandwich-sized!

 

 

After they’d risen in the oven, I added some extras.

 

 

 

After a quick 12 minutes in the oven, they came out slightly crispy, and baked to perfection.

 

 

I brushed them with a little soy milk mixed with maple syrup before adding the pepitas and poppy seeds, and I’m hoping that it’ll add some extra flavour. But I’ll have to wait and see because I haven’t tried one yet! I’m waiting until tomorrow, when I make a sandwich to take to uni.

So I’m going to use some of my kitchen-ergy (see what I did there?) to make nutritious, healthy foods. Of course this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop baking, and it doesn’t mean that I’m denying myself treat foods.

But having an eating disorder is like hanging onto a giant pendulum, which swings wildly between extremes. And part of recovery is using every ounce of strength to hold it still somewhere in the middle, and find that balance. It’s a monumental task, and one which I’m still working on – but I think I’ve taken some big steps lately, and I’m proud of every single one.

I just need to learn that it’s okay to write about the tough times, too.

Parkin Pigs

As useless as I am in cold weather (I’ve been known to randomly burst into tears when waiting for buses because I feel like my bones are freezing through), and although it means darker nights and less time to run in daylight, this time of year has to be one of my favourites.

Having been in education almost solidly since the age of 4, September means a fresh start, even moreso than January. Soon afterwards it’s my birthday, closely followed by Halloween. One of the things that I most adore about Halloween is the food associated with it, and the opportunities that it presents for baking (pumpkin pie, pumpkin cupcakes, pumpkin spice cake, pumpkin everything!).

After Halloween, for many people the next event to look forward to is Christmas. However, I am lucky enough to live in England (one of the few times that I would consider myself fortunate for this), and we have an equally exciting night to look forward to the week after…

 

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent to blow up King and Parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catch’d with a dark lantern and lighted match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip hoorah!

 

…it’s Bonfire Night!

Okay, so as a Catholic it’s possibly a little odd to partake in a tradition that celebrates the failure of a plot to overthrow the monarch and replace him with a Catholic one, and the subsequent execution of the men involved… but I just can’t help but love this British tradition and all the celebrations associated with it – fireworks, bonfires, sparklers, toffee apples… and the little known culinary delight that is the parkin pig.

Now, I had always figured that parkin pigs were enjoyed everywhere. It wasn’t until I spoke to people from other parts of the country that I learned not only are they virtually unheard of in the south of England, they’re actually not eaten in most parts of the north either! They’re a Yorkshire tradition, and one that I have taken delight in nearly every year since I was little. My mum would always bake parkin pigs on Bonfire Night, and we would eat them while we held sparklers in the garden and watched my dad wrestle with fireworks on the lawn.

Since my siblings and I flew the nest, she has stopped making them and so last year, in an attempt to revive the tradition, I made some myself. Being a less experienced baker at that point, I left them in the oven too long and they came out crunchy and slightly burnt. What’s more, my mum couldn’t find her pig cutter and I couldn’t find one in any stores, so I sort of freestyled it and drew the pig shapes into the dough.

 

 

The picture speaks for itself.

This year, I was determined to improve on last year’s attempts. I somehow managed to forget to purchase a pig cutter again but undeterred, I crafted my own stencil from a picture I downloaded from Google and the front cover of the phonebook…

 

 

Figuring that the recipe I used last year would have been fine had I not overcooked the pigs, I opted to use it again this time (this was not a wise decision).

It all started well. I mixed together the sugar, margarine and flour.

 

 

You may notice the box of molasses in the above picture. Or, more precisely, molasses sugar. When a recipe calls for molasses, and you only have molasses sugar, you might be forgiven for thinking that ‘it’ll do’.

Well, I’m here to tell you: it won’t. With hindsight I should have known this, but I will blame my mistake on the fact that I was in a rush to bake the pigs before we headed out to a bonfire, so I wasn’t thinking properly.

 

 

The dough turned out fine. It was just sticky enough to handle being rolled out on a floured surface. I carefully cut some pigs out of the dough, before using the rest to make butterflies and gingerbread men.

 

 

 

With the cookies ready to bake, I popped them into the oven for fifteen minutes – the amount of time suggested in the recipe. And that brings us onto mistake number two – gingerbread is easy to overcook!

Tip: Regardless of what the recipe says, stand by the oven WATCHING the gingerbread cooking, and check it every few minutes! If it isn’t still soft when you bring it out of the oven, then it’s been in too long.

 

 

So out came my impressively pig-shaped, if slightly burnt, parkin pigs (aesthetically, a definite improvement on last year).

 

 

I also had a little collection of gingerbread men, and some butterflies. I left the cookies out to cool, and then packed them up and rushed over to see my parents before heading out to a bonfire three doors down.

Upon arriving, I made a cup of tea and sat down to munch – in true,Yorkshire, bonfire night tradition – on a parkin pig.

It was not a pleasant experience. By now, the cookies had hardened even more, the gingerbread flavour was barely there and they were almost salty. If that wasn’t enough to convince me that they had been a epic failure, I spotted a batch that my dad had bought from the bakery that morning and smelled them. I was immediately transported back to childhood as the sweet, spicy smell tickled my nose. I picked up one of my pigs, and I smelled it. I offered it to my mum, and she smelled it.

Pulling a face, she informed me with brutal, maternal honesty, that it smelled ‘like sweat’.

Tossing the rest of the pigs in the bin, we headed out to watch the fireworks.

 

 

 

 

The parkin pig saga is not over, though.

Even more determined, I sought a new recipe, and sent Matt to buy the crucial missing ingredient.

 

 

 

Although it produced a radically different dough, I could tell right away that this batch was going to turn out better.

 

 

Armed with my new gingerbread baking wisdom, I ignored the baking time suggested by the recipe and erred on the side of caution, hanging around in the kitchen and checking on them every three minutes.

When they were still soft  – so soft it almost felt wrong to bring them out – I slid them carefully onto the cooling rack and hoped they’d turn out to be the right consistency after cooling.

 

 

Apart from the colour, which is a little too brown for my liking, they turned out perfectly. Soft, chewy, and properly gingerbready. Yes, I just made up a word.

 

 

So, after hours of toiling in the kitchen and a day late, I eventually got to indulge in my favourite bonfire night tradition. Having halved the recipe, I managed four parkin pigs, a gingerbread man, a butterfly and a cookie with the leftovers. Seeing as the recipe included icing, I decided to make that too. I didn’t want to overdo it, because traditional parkin pigs are plain. It called for vegan cream cheese though, which I just happened to have in. So I made it – it was deliciously lemony – and used it sparingly. I also added some white glitter to the butterfly and the cookies, but they made it into my tummy way before the camera got to them.

You may be confused at this point by the use of the word ‘parkin’ to describe gingerbread (in fact, if you’re not from England you may be confused by the work ‘parkin’ at all, so here is a little help from our good friend Wikipedia). Parkin is actually a kind of cake, and while the ingredients in parkin pigs are similar, the two are essentially different. Matt and I had a debate about this a while ago, and I rang my mum to clear it up – she was able to confirm that parkin pigs are not made out of parkin. Just to confuse you even more.

But parkin is basically an English, specifically Yorkshire, form of gingerbread. And in the same way that gingerbread cake and gingerbread cookies are different, so too are parkin cake and parkin pigs.

Before I make this any more complicated, I’m going to share the recipe that I used in case you too want to share in this cosy Yorkshire tradition.

I have a feeling the parkin pig saga is still not over, however. Having read up on the tradition (and learned that parkin pigs have actually been granted special status that prevents anyone outside Yorkshire selling them!), I have a feeling that not just any old gingerbread recipe will do. I think I might revisit this one and see if I can improve them. And maybe make some real parkin too!

 

 

Parkin Pigs

(Taken from Vegalicious)

 

Ingredients:

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar (white)

2 teaspoons ground ginger

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 egg substitute, prepared

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup black treacle*

1 tablespoon vegan margarine, melted

2 cups flour

A handful of currants

 

Method:

1. Mix the spices together in a small bowl – ginger, cinnamon, allspice – and the salt and baking soda.

2. In a separate, large bowl, whisk together the egg substitute, brown sugar, white sugar, treacle, vegetable oil and vegan margarine.

3. Add the spice mixture to the liquid mixture.

4. Gradually stir in the flour mix to form a sticky dough.

5. Divide the dough in 2 large balls and slightly flatten into a large disc. Wrap each disc in clingfilm and place in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour and a half.

6. After the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 350 F/177 C.

7. Lightly flour a work space and roll out 1 piece of dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch (6 mm).

8. Using either a pig cutter or a stencil, cut out your pigs. Place a currant in each one, for the eye.

9. Place the cookies on a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes, checking on the cookies every 3 minutes to ensure they don’t overbake. If after 12 minutes the edges haven’t begun to harden at all, return them to the oven and check on them at one minute intervals.

10. Remove the cookies from the oven. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 2 minutes, then carefully remove from the cookie sheet with a spatula and place on wire rack to cool. They will still be soft at this point, so you need to transfer them gently.

 

*One thing to note: the treacle flavour was fairly strong, and although I possibly got a little overenthusiastic and put too much in, next time I’d be tempted to substitute half for golden syrup.

Eat Your Greens!

While I was in Ireland, on my birthday no less, I made dinner for everyone. I didn’t offer. I believe it started with a suggestion that I would start chopping some vegetables so my brother and sister-in-law could go out for a run, and then they would take over cooking when they returned. The next thing, my brother is telling me how much pasta to put on.

Before I know it, I’m cooking for seven people.

Being a typical inquisitive toddler, my nephew James wanted to watch what I was doing. He dragged ‘his’ step up to the counter and climbed up to oversee the vegetable chopping. Before long, he was wanting to join in.

 

 

I managed to find him a sufficiently blunt knife and a plate to chop on, and I set him to work slicing the mushrooms. His eagerness to help made up for the fact that I had to chop most of them again after he had finished. He was taking an interest in food, and learning new skills, and I was grateful to be able to provide him with this opportunity.

It reminded me of when I was little, and I would help my mum out in the kitchen. More often than not, I was a complete nuisance. My interest would wane quickly, and I would end up sitting on the floor playing the drums with a wooden spoon and all of the pans that I had dragged out of the cupboard. Or I would help to mix batter with great enthusiasm, and watch the buns go into the oven – and as soon as it was time to clean up I would decide that I was bored of this whole baking lark and plant myself firmly on the counter with the leftover batter and a spoon.

But my mum never let this stop her from encouraging my interest, however fickle. As a result, some of my earliest memories are of us in the kitchen together, the smell of a warm oven, the sickly sweet taste of unbaked dough, and the pride of being able to say that I had helped.

Everything my parents did in my childhood set me up for a healthy relationship with food. So where did it all go so wrong? I guess if it wasn’t food, it would be something else. Everyone develops unhealthy coping mechanisms at some point, whether it’s too much coffee or too much alcohol or food or drugs… there are just some crutches that are more socially acceptable than others.

Arguably, my eating disorder wasn’t socially acceptable. Binging and purging isn’t sanctioned by society, it isn’t something you go shouting from the rooftops about. On the contrary; I felt ashamed and went to great lengths to hide my behaviour.

But it started with food restriction. The bulimia only came later. My first thought was ‘If I starve myself and become anorexic, my mum and dad will stop fighting with each other because they’ll be worried about me instead’. I actually had this thought, clear as day. I remember where I was when it came into my head. It was like a lightbulb switched on.

And even though my subsequent behaviour caused concern, and raised whispers amongst friends and teachers, I actually think that what I was doing was socially acceptable. Young girls receive messages from everywhere about how they should be – pretty, and feminine, and attractive to boys, and skinny. You learn this early on. Is it any surprise that so many young women choose food (or the lack of it) as their drug? There’s a fascination in our society with skinny women. And despite the faux-concern displayed in magazines that run stories about too-thin celebrities, really what underlies it is a twisted kind of jealousy. Anorexics are untouchable. They’re performing a great feat of self-denial. They’re demonstrating inconceivable willpower.

And other women, who are also battling with their bodies in an attempt to conform to this ideal, look at these girls and feel a little envy at their ability to deny their bodies with such apparent ease.

Yes, some men experience eating disorders. It’s not all about women. But the same can be said for domestic abuse. Yet the vast majority of sufferers are women. And it’s the same for eating disorders.

You have to wonder – what is it about this that makes it such a predominantly female problem?

What messages – direct or indirect – are little girls receiving about who they should be? Everything about the way we relate to children passes on some message, some lesson, about right and wrong, what is acceptable in society and what is not. Every play-kitchen that has a picture of a girl on the box, every monster truck pictured with a little boy… we’re building their expectations and teaching them what they should aspire to be.

So even though my parents raised me in a warm, loving environment and taught me balance, and moderation, and an enjoyment of healthy food, I still developed an eating disorder. Because it wasn’t just about them. I needed some way of coping with the difficulties that we were facing as a family and, no doubt in some part because of the constant association of thinness with success, acceptance, happiness and beauty, I chose to starve myself.

I don’t know if there’s anything my parents could have done differently. If it wasn’t food, would it have been something else? What’s important, I think, is that as a result of their love and security, and by setting an example of how to overcome difficulties and work through problems healthily, I was able to break free of the eating disorder and begin the long process of redeveloping my relationship with food.

In many ways, I reverted to childhood when I started recovering. For my entire adolescence and adult life, I had abused food. Everything I had learnt in early childhood about appetite, hunger and responding to your body’s cues, I had essentially spent the past decade unlearning. The same goes for food preparation. I was way behind my peers when it came to cooking and preparing meals. It just was not a priority for me.

I’m almost two years into recovery now, and I think I’m doing pretty well. Taking an interest in cooking has been an essential part of the process for me, and in many ways I’ve taken my unhealthy obsession with food and replaced it with a healthy one.

It was a nice feeling to be able to take these new skills, and a healthy attitude to food, and share them with James. He is learning so much every day, and the outside world is shaping who he is. I want him to learn about food, and cooking, and the importance of taking care of yourself.

 

 

I even hoped that by getting involved with the preparation of his dinner, he might learn to embrace some of his least-favourite vegetables!

(It didn’t work – when I pointed out what a good job he’d done and suggested he try some of the broccoli he had chopped, he repeated his regular dinner-time refrain –  “I don’t like broccoli!” – and meticulously picked out the pasta instead).

 

 

But even if our cooking session didn’t ignite in him a love of green vegetables, or have any lasting impact on his relationship with food, I hope at least that it gave him a cosy memory, and a sense of pride at having helped, and the feeling of safety and security that I always used to get from time spent in the kitchen with my mum.

He’s just starting out on his own journey in life, learning about food, and relationships, and emotions. And in some ways, so am I. It wasn’t so long ago that this was all new to me, too. We’re learning from each other.

I can teach him how to chop vegetables, and how to wash mushrooms (hint: you wash them inside the colander, not by tipping them out into the sink!), and how to make a healthy pasta dish.

And he can teach me that while healthy eating might be important, there are times when it’s just absolutely necessary to fill your mouth as full as possible with sweets!

 

 

That pure, unmoderated enjoyment of food that babies and toddlers possess, before society and its rules and regulations about how and what to eat get in the way, is what I aspire to now. They feel no shame about enjoying their food, and indulging in treats – so why should I? Why should anyone?

I’m proud of my little guy for growing into such a sweet, thoughtful and helpful person. And I’m a little bit proud of me too. For not only taking on the long, hard challenge of recovery but for becoming someone who my nephews can look up to.

Once Upon A Pumpkin

When writing a blog post, it’s sometimes nice to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

 

It’s nice to have a theme, perhaps.

 

And a purpose.

 

Maybe you’re telling a story, or sharing some insights. Maybe it’s funny. Or not.

 

You might have a recipe at the end.

 

Plenty of photos – only ones which add to the story, of course.

 

But sometimes, when you spent an hour hacking away at a pumpkin that your boyfriend didn’t even carve like he said he would, and you made pumpkin apple soup that turned out pretty disgusting and had to be rescued with a jar of pumpkin puree (that you were saving for cupcakes) and half the contents of your spice rack, AND you forgot to do anything with the seeds so they were rancid by the next day…

 

…sometimes, in these circumstances, you just want to post photos of a pumpkin. Because it might have resulted only in a below-par soup, and ended up in the bin, but at least you got some pretty pictures out of it.

 

 

 

I carved it out in a rush on Monday. Having been away all weekend, I hadn’t been able to do it earlier. I was determined to have a pumpkin out on Halloween.

 

 

I went to town on it. Seeing as I was trying to salvage as much of the flesh as possible, I spent ages chopping away at the inside, digging out the slimy guts and trying to sort through it all to decide what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.

 

 

I meticulously picked through the flesh to find every single seed, and washed them all thoroughly.

 

 

I had fun taking pictures of the whole process. I often joke that my camera is surgically attached to me, because at every opportunity I’m there snapping away at things. My nephews know this probably more than anyone – they must get so tired of having a camera shoved in their faces!

When I was done, the pumpkin sat proudly on the kitchen counter, awaiting the carving of its menacing face. This is Matt’s job, because he has much more artistic flair than I do. I went out to yoga, content in the knowledge that when I returned home the pumpkin would be shining brightly in the window.

I came home. No pumpkin. Matt was upstairs, working on a job he had just picked up. I got annoyed, tempers flared, and we fell out for about half an hour (before he came downstairs for a make up hug – he’s such a cutie!). Okay, so maybe it was unreasonable to start a fight with someone over a vegetable.

So I made pumpkin soup, because at least then my hard work would be put to use. I tried to be experimental; it didn’t work. I managed to make the soup edible eventually, but it took a long time and we didn’t have any bread so I had to make a quick loaf. The kitchen looked a lot like it had been ransacked by the time I’d finished.

Anyway, this has absolutely no point to it. I made a crappy soup, I let the seeds go bad and the pumpkin didn’t get carved. We didn’t get any trick-or-treaters (probably because we didn’t have a pumpkin in the window) and it’s a good thing anyway because I forgot to buy sweets.

This is like the opposite of an idyllic Halloween blog post. I don’t have pictures of delicious pumpkin pie, or stories about my cosy perfect Halloween celebrations. I just have photos of a pumpkin.

 

And so I’m darn well sharing them.

 

Run To The Hills…

Last Wednesday night, as I crawled into bed, I started planning what to do the next day. I was done with uni for the week, and I had been to the shop to stock up on ingredients for a baking extravaganza. I had decided to make pumpkin cupcakes for my nephew, and take them over to Ireland with me. I was going across on the ferry with my parents, so I could easily bring them in the car. I bought orange and purple glitter, and a pumpkin which Matt could carve for Halloween after I was done with it.

I was also planning a run, first thing. I wanted to go to the Chevin, find the big hill that everyone complains about (the one I got lost on!) and do some hill repeats on it. It would be brutal, but it’d prepare me more than anything for the Chevin Chase.

So with all of these thoughts in my head, I began to drift off. And then I heard a text message come through. Quite inconvenienced to have been disturbed as I was falling asleep, I picked my phone up and reluctantly checked it. It was from my dad.

“Pick you up at 8:45 tomorrow morning.”

Excuse me, WHAT?! At first I thought he’d got it wrong. Or maybe it was after midnight, and he meant tomorrow as in Friday, which is the day I thought we were going to Ireland.

But no, it wasn’t after midnight (and even if it was, my dad certainly wouldn’t text me at that time!). I rang him in a panic. I suspected that I had made a fundamental error and had got the day that we were going completely wrong.

The phone call confirmed it: we were going to Ireland on Thursday, not Friday!

After the initial surprise had worn off, I remembered my hill session!

“But I was going to run to the Chevin and do repeats on that big hill tomorrow morning!”, I complained.

So, having accepted that I had no choice but to abandon my plans for Thurdsay, and set my alarm early to pack rather than to run, I began the long journey to the ferry port with my mum and dad (the reason they choose to spend all day driving and take the ferry rather than fly and be there, door to door, within three hours, is my mum’s fear of flying. She actually finds this arduous trip preferable to the anxiety of a 45 minute plane ride).

Before we set off, I ran to the deli for some sweets to keep me going. They sell my favourite vegan gummies!

 

 

I brought a copy of the yoga sutras to read, and sat in the back of the car munching on sweets and sipping on coffee, while contemplating the meaning of life according to Patanjali.

 

 

By the time we arrived, it was late and there wasn’t time to go for any sort of run. My dad said that he was going to run the following morning, and invited me to join him. Now, the fact that Kildare is probably the flattest county in Ireland pretty much put paid to my planned hill session.

Nevertheless, my dad did his best and the next day we got up early and drove to an area nearby that had some undulations (they don’t qualify as hills where I’m from!).

 

 

See, you can’t even see any hills in the photographs!

 

 

It was a beautiful run though. The air was crisp, and the early morning sunshine made the dewy grass sparkle.

 

 

The sky was a beautiful blue colour. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

 

 

After we finished the run, while my dad stretched and paced around, I skipped the cooldown and had some fun playing with my shadow, which was really long because the sun was still low in the sky.

 

 

One more for the family album!

 

 

Did I mention my dad’s a kickass runner? His half marathon PB is 1:31:-something. It was my aim to beat him when I started getting good at running, and I finally did it in the Kildare half marathon with a PB of 1:31:05. Then he reminded me that he got his PB at 57 years old! And on the same day that I was running in that race, he was running in the full marathon – his first ever, which he finished in a time of 3:53! To make it clear why that’s fast, he was 63 at the time.

He takes it easy when he’s training these days, so when we go for runs I’m now the faster one. But he still runs at a reasonable pace and it’s a great way to spend time together, running through beautiful countryside and chatting easily.

So that was my hill session. It wasn’t the gruelling lung-buster that I had planned, but it was a great way to start my birthday – doing what I love (running) in the early morning sun, surrounded by lush fields and trees, and sharing the beauty with one of the most important people in my life.

A Happy Birthday Story

It’s official. I’ve been referring to myself as a 25-year-old for a few weeks now, but I was always comforted by the knowledge that I wasn’t really that old. Not yet. So I soaked up every last moment of my life as a 24-year-old as my birthday fast approached.

But I couldn’t hide forever. And on Friday 28th October, I officially hit my mid-twenties.

The heat was taken off me somewhat by the fact that my little baby nephew decided to steal my birthday thunder and arrive the day after my birthday last year, and so the whole family headed over to Ireland to celebrate him turning one. This meant that I got to celebrate my birthday there too, with my brother, sister, parents and nephews all together. With my brother living in Ireland, this doesn’t happen often.

I got cuddles with the birthday boy (it was a fancy dress party!)…

 

 

…and admired all of the party food and decorations.

 

 

 

 

Yummy cupcakes…

 

 

 

More cupcakes!

 

 

Green cupcakes!

 

 

As well as all of the cupcakes, there was an abundance of proper, traditional party food. It reminded me of my childhood, when parties were a chance to stuff yourself full of little pizza slices, crisps and sweets…

 

 

After my nephew woke up from his nap and came to join his party, we all sang happy birthday. It wasn’t until afterwards that we realised how unnerving the situation must have been for him when immediately upon waking he was carried downstairs into a room full of people dressed in scary costumes, all of whom began singing to him at the top of their voices while shoving a cake in his face! No wonder he burst into tears!

Fortunately, there were plenty of volunteers on hand to help him eat his cake…

 

 

Everyone grab a spoon!

 

 

The abundance of party food photos is due in part to the fact that I couldn’t eat any of it! There were no vegan cupcakes, no vegan ice cream, and no vegan pizzas… and so I got my fix by frantically photographing everything.

But I had not been forgotten. My sister-in-law failed in her attempts to find a vegan birthday cake for me, and so she improvised with a mandarin orange, raisins and some squares of dark chocolate…

 

 

I munched happily on my birthday orange, and opened some lovely gifts. And when I went to bed that night, I contemplated the kinds of things that you usually contemplate around significant events like birthdays (particularly those on which you turn a quarter of a century old!).

I thought about where I was this time last year, and the year before. This time last year I was in the first year of my MA, and I had been living with Matt for just three months. It was my first full autumn in recovery and I remember throwing myself into Halloween food-making with a vengeance. Despite the fact that I was going through a rough patch at the time, I made a pumpkin pie and ate it defiantly (I even got Matt to take a photo).

 

 

In terms of running, I was coming towards the end of my first year and I was smashing PBs left, right and centre. I had just completed the Great North Run and I was due to run in the Abbey Dash a few weeks later, where I would come tantalisingly close to my sub-40 minute 10K goal.

And the year before? I remember going for a birthday meal with my family and Matt, shortly after they found out that we were together. I had blonde hair (it didn’t suit me). I wasn’t in recovery yet, but I was about to be. I was in the process of applying for the MA, and made ends meet by working as a teaching assistant for an agency. Things were going well, although I was dissatisfied with my job. It was easy work though, and knowing that I was going back into education again the year after helped.

Come to think of it, my life has progressed fairly steadily in the past few years. Previously, when I played ‘this time last year’ games, I was usually astonished at the twists and turns my life had taken. Starting university engaged and living with my long-term boyfriend, and then breaking up and fleeing to Canada, then restarting university after returning to Canada for the summer and travelling around America. Getting together with Matt in secret (because you don’t expect your big brother to be particularly happy when you start dating his best friend…as it happens he was!), taking off for some more trips to Canada and doing generally crazy things, acquiring tattoos. Graduating from uni.

I always felt unstable, sometimes in a good way but sometimes in a bad way. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or who I was. And I lurched around, trying to find something to cling onto that would define me. I used the eating disorder for that, a lot. As friends settled down and seemed to be growing up, I felt myself becoming more chaotic. My parents stood back and let me do my own thing, but I’m sure they despaired when I announced another trip to Canada where I stayed with a dear friend who was very much in the same place as me…I don’t think either of us knew what we wanted from life, or where we were going. We sure had fun trying to find out, but it wasn’t always healthy.

I am reminded of these times every day by the little maple leaf that sits on my left wrist. And the huge fairy, curled up sleeping on a bunch of leaves on my right wrist. And the spiral on my foot that says, “When she dances she goes and goes…”

I got all three of these tattoos in one summer, with no more than a day’s thought going into each one. I laugh now, but really…who gets themselves permanently inked with such little care?

One day, as we were driving along, I saw a sign that caught my eye.

 

 

It felt profound. I suspected that it carried an important message. But back then all I could do was photograph it, and store it away somewhere for a day when I was ready to truly believe it. And it’s only recently that I feel as if I really appreciate who I am, rather than trying to be someone else.

I also saw this…

 

 

I imagined myself living in the Beaches, in a big house with a balcony and a hammock. And I would get up on a sunny morning, and I would do yoga on the beach. Never mind that I hardly ever did yoga back then. It wasn’t about the yoga. It was about the image, the ideal. I created a picture in my mind of the perfect existence, and I saw my life as being so far away from this. I allowed myself to dream of living this way, without any real idea of how to get there. I thought that in order to achieve happiness, I needed to work out a way to move to Canada. And afford one of the pretty houses that I would drive by and admire. And meet a handsome Canadian husband.

It never occurred to me that, while all of this was no doubt a desirable way to live, it wasn’t the key to true happiness. It took years before I accepted the reality – that in the quest to be happy, you have to start by looking inwards.

So, twenty-five years old, eh? Despite the chaos I’ve lived through over the years, it seems that I’m pretty much where you’d expect a girl to be at this age. I’m living with my long-term partner, and I’m a postgrad student. I worry about grown-up things like paying the mortgage. I’ve started to prefer staying in and baking to going out drinking (okay, confession time –  I always preferred staying in. But now I’m getting older it’s becoming socially acceptable!). I’ve made some sacrifices – I’ve chosen to abandon the Canadian dream to stay in England, close to my family. I’ve realised that you can spread your wings and fly away, and you can experience a taste of true freedom by taking off to a new country and opening up a whole new world of experiences…but eventually you have to make a choice. And my family are more important to me than any of that. I couldn’t move that far from them.

So I have begun to develop a little of the wisdom that comes from experience. Some of Matt’s younger friends (team mates) recently went to university and I found myself smiling knowingly at their optimism as they insisted upon staying with their current partners. I remember saying that myself, and I remember other people’s equally sceptical attitudes. And now I am one of them. I watch them starting out in a new phase of their lives, and it feels a million miles away from where I am now.

This has been a rather long train of thought, and although I have so much more to say I think I should save it for a later entry. It’s time to go to yoga anyway. I’m not going to get there by walking out of my large house in Toronto to the end of my street, where I will perform perfect downward dogs in the sunshine with the sand between my toes. Instead, I will wrap up warm to cycle in the dark to a studio, where I will fight myself into a very imperfect downward dog.

But this is real. This is my life. I will meet my friend at yoga, and we will giggle together at lion’s breath and catch up on the gossip and I will come home to a cosy house with a freshly carved pumpkin (Matt doesn’t know it yet, but this is his first job when he gets home later!) and make soup. The Canadian fantasy life is just that; a fantasy. I have all of the ideas in my head about how my life would look, but none of it is real. It’s empty.

Meanwhile, my real life is full of family and friends and love. And I appreciate that now. I realise that everyone else is taken and unless I want to be completely unhappy and dissatisfied, I have to find joy in just being myself.

 

A Misty Morning Run

With only two months to go until the Chevin Chase, I’ve decided it’s time to step up my training and get back out on the hills. The period of time that I had off due to injury over the summer has affected my leg strength, I think. I’m finding it harder to run over trails and up hills, and I don’t have the same confidence that I used to have when running up steep inclines. Back in the spring I was running between 14 and 18 miles every Sunday, beginning with a big hill, running up a hill in the middle and ending on the same hill that I started with.

The Chevin Chase is a particularly special race for me. It was while standing up on a snowy hill with my dad and nephew on Boxing Day, waiting for my brother, sister in law and Matt to run past, that I had the idea to start running and maybe sign up for the race the following year. I was a few weeks into recovery, and had the feeling that almost anything was possible.

I took to running so quickly that I ended up running in five races before I got anywhere near to doing the Chevin Chase! In the weeks leading up to it I started to feel excitement at the prospect of finishing my first year of running the same way that it began – up on that hill, on an icy festive morning – only this time I would be taking part myself.

But it wasn’t to be. A few days before Christmas I started to sniffle, and then sneeze, and then cough… and by the day of the race, I was struggling to even walk up to the finish line to cheer on Matt and my dad without wheezing and spluttering, never mind run the course.

This year, I’m determined to take part. And I want to do well, too. I’ve seen the results from previous years, and they’re good… so I’m not expecting to win or even place in the top three. But I’m just going to train really hard and do my best, and I’m hoping to maybe surprise myself.

The great thing about the race is that it takes place in an area that is right near me, and that I often train on. But I didn’t know the exact route, and so Matt and I decided to run it together today so he could show me. That way, I could train on sections of it or do the whole thing to get a feel for the course beforehand.

I was hoping it would be a sunny day. The Chevin is a beautiful area of woodland situated high up above a valley, and on a clear day you can see for miles. Seeing as Matt is a slower runner, and we set off with the aim of sticking to an easy pace, I decided to take my camera and try to snap some pretty photos along the way. It turned out to be a grey morning, although the sun came out later on.

I took photos anyway because I really love it up there and I often find that when I’m running through a particularly beautiful area, I want to photograph and document it. My runs, especially the long ones, often feel like adventures. And they sometimes feel like my little secret, because no one else is there with me and I’m out exploring forests and trails and paths. I don’t think photos can do the beauty that I see on these runs justice. But I still want to take them, because I feel so lucky to live in such a stunning area and I really want to capture it.

 

 

We started by running about 2 miles from our house to where the start line would be. From here, we began the ascent towards the Chevin. The first couple of miles are a gradual uphill climb, starting on the road and then turning into trail. Eventually we reached the woods.

 

 

Matt ran ahead when I stopped to take photos. In this one he looks a little crazed!

 

 

The middle section of the run is mostly flat, with a little downhill. Of course this means that you have to climb up again later! I showed Matt how to run downhill like a fell runner – windmill arms and try not to think too much! I pelted at full speed down a couple of the descents.

 

 

You can just make out the valley in the distance, but it’s not all that clear here because of the mist.

The steepest part of the course comes about two thirds of the way through. Apparently most people walk it, but having done Hellrunner I felt confident that I should be able to run up the whole thing. Matt told me to go ahead and meet him at Surprise View. “Run to the top and turn right”, he told me. I wasn’t sure that I’d know where to turn; he assured me it was obvious.

 

 

After running for a little while, I spotted a wooden post that marked out a path to my right. “This must be the right turn”, I thought. I also felt a little smug; while it was certainly not easy, the first portion of the hill was nowhere near as bad as other people had made it out to be.

Apparently Matt had overestimated my navigational skills (he should know not to do this… the first time I ran alone on the Chevin I managed to run right off the path and into the middle of a steep, slippery hill which was impossible to run down but which, having already run about 10 miles, I didn’t have the strength to run up. It was getting dark. I stopped running, stood still and began to cry. Eventually I found my way out by running through a tiny path and jumping down a wall into a car park, where I began to recognise my surroundings).

I quickly realised that this couldn’t be the right path, and I ran back down it, shouting for Matt. There was no reply. I noticed that after levelling out for a few metres, the hill continued further along. I realised that I was probably not at the top of the hill, and so I continued running.

Turns out the second part of the hill is where it gets really hard, and although I made it to the stop without stopping or walking, I did stretch the definition of ‘run’ to include a clumsy, slow stagger as I tried to lift my legs over the rocks and progress up a gradient that was steep enough to warrant having steps built into it.

Upon reaching the top, I saw Matt waiting for me.

“Only you could get lost there!”

 

 

The clearing at the top of the hill is known as ‘Surprise View’ because, well, the view is a bit of a surprise when you get there (unless you’re a local who is already familiar with it, in which case it isn’t remotely surprising but it’s certainly a nice sight).

The mist is obscuring the view in this photo, but if you look closely you can make out the fields and trees in the distance. It’s hard to see just how high up it is unless you’re there.

 

 

Instead of running back towards the finish line, we took a different route home. As we picked up the road I tried to up the pace and we settled into a nice rhythm. It felt comfortable for me, and although I wanted to go faster I stayed with Matt. It turns out he wasn’t feeling quite as at ease as me! But I pushed him to speed up with a few hundred metres to go, with the aim of getting the pace of that final stretch under an 8 minute mile.

My legs are surprisingly sore now. I guess it’s been months since I ran that far (apart from Hellrunner). I need to start upping the distance of my long runs again. I haven’t felt any shin or calf pain in a few weeks, and I think that’s a good sign. I’m going to try and do at least 10 miles on a Sunday from now on, and I think I’ll do those runs on the Chevin. My speedwork and hillwork will also be done there, using the toughest parts of the course. Within the next few weeks, I want the distance of my long run to be around 15 miles.

After I had showered, I quickly threw some more muffins in the oven (using the rest of the ingredients that I saved from yesterday), before heading over with my sister to see our parents. I took muffins, and we shared them out and ate them with coffee.

As I predicted yesterday, it was the perfect accompaniment to a delicious muffin. And the ideal reward for a delightful run.