Say You Do, Barcelona

A steady rhythm of our steps pounded to the loud beat from the speakers we were carrying. To the curious onlookers, we must have seemed like we’d escaped from a video game as we ran through the streets of Barcelona. As we reached Placa de les Drassanes by the port before 9 pm, there was a brief moment when we held our breaths: “Now what?”. Seeming just as (un)likely, we were equally nervous about whether all or none of the 10,000 people who’d indicated interest in the Barcelona Midnight Run would actually turn up. The latter fear was soon dispelled, as the first interested party appeared. The police car.

The guardia civil soon found better things to do on a Friday night, and one by one small tribes of people started filling the plaza with a cacophony of neon. When I looked around, there were TV cameras. Despite MRs seeming to have some of the coolest gadgets, Greg turned into a human microphone welcoming (or ‘yellcoming’) the crowd. Our salute to each other that night became ‘THIS. IS. FUCKING CRAZY!!’ The doubts I had entertained in my mind, were swept away by the Mediterranean breeze, as I leapt over the benches at the beach as if I had three lives.  When one of the MR captains yelled whether I had seen the back and that we should spread out, I turned around. For the first time that night I was breathless –  not because I’d been running and samba dancing at the same time – and counted, as if I was watching the world’s longest freight train disappearing into the night.

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By Tanya Raab http://tanyaraab.uk

Three days later I was waiting for a train to take me to work. Above me, there was a billboard where two men embrace under the caption “He said ‘yes’”. While fighting back the tears of joy for the men having Lloyds bank accounts, I was thinking that saying ‘yes’ when this society wants us to, tends to come with a life time of compromises and monogamy or eight years of David Cameron. At the same time, when it comes to lots of other things, sensible adults say ‘no’. If you’re female, there are even more denials, and nowhere is it packaged so beautifully as in the cult of motherhood. 

I’ve never been a very good member.

As a single parent, any adventure – well, anything – is about weighing the reasonability of lugging the offspring along versus the (financial and social) cost of leaving them home, while maximising the fun (or minimising the misery) for both. I call it finding your opti-Mum. Sometimes – like earlier this month – my whole family comes to rescue, but as the closest member lives a three hour flight away, it’s not the default childcare option unless I’m in hospital or at the risk of missing a marathon.

But let’s not overplay external constraints. Logistics are easier to fix than attitude. I’ve been thrilled about discovering Midnight Runners, the biggest threat to the gym dressed as just really nice individuals, but the idea of doing one of their trademark high steroid 10k runs 36 hours before the Marathon when other runners get sports massages and eat pasta, filled me with hesitation. A week before the trip, I was sitting at Serpentine Cafe in Hyde Park listening possibly to the vaguest event brief in my life. Greg, one of the founders, was telling us how the Facebook event had gone viral and attracted 10,000 joiners and a million visitors. We had no idea what the average bail rate was in Spain. We knew we were twenty people, had three Beatbringers, six speakers and zero permissions with the local authorities. Fuck it, I’m in!

I was excited about going to Barcelona. It’s hard to explain to Brits, to whom Spain is either party in Ibiza or a pensioner resort in Malaga, that for me, Spain was the context of self-discovery and spiritual growth. When many of the Midnight Runners were still having midnight feedings, I travelled to Spain on my own, and walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage (self-discovery); met my father for the first time and asked him why (self-discovery); and tongue kissed an unknown Italian guy at an unknown tube station in Barcelona (spiritual growth). Flying back was like opening an epilogue to my teenage diary.

Our base camp in Poblenou would have probably sent my mum into a mild hysteria and motherly guilt had that been my accommodation fifteen years ago. The building rising opposite one of the biggest clubs in Barcelona, also housed an African pentecostal church and despite its windowless front, it boasted a concrete step that was enjoyed as a break-out area by local crackheads, who we skipped over on our way out for early breakfast before pre-inspection of the night’s route.

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The HQ

It was colder than what our choice of fashion and Norah Jones playlist suggested. The Midnight Runners do exercise stops every couple of kilometres, so what might have been mistaken for a leisurely stroll along the beach on sunny day, was actually really hard work to confirm and memorise their locations. I can confess that I couldn’t remember any of them. I could hardly remember that I was going to run the marathon hours later or that I had an inflamed tendon. The experience has already been remembered in a confetti of photographs shared by hundreds of people of the 3,000 who turned up. What those pictures don’t tell, is what we reminded ourselves over a dinner at our arrival: none of us knew each other a year ago. Let alone any of the hundreds of wonderful people who we were high-fiving later. Cheers for that.

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Tough day in the office. By Daniel Varga. From the London Midnight Runners FB page.

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Just before I knocked off the cyclist with my enthusiastic high five. Vamos, Barcelona! By Daniel Varga. From London MR FB page.

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I (at the back) may not look like it, but that’s how I felt too. By Daniel Varga. From London MR FB page.

It was hard to beat Friday night, but Sunday’s Marathon was what most of us were there for, and while some chose to run it together, to me it was a return to introspection. I read a lot of running blogs and admire the authors’ ability to recall each kilometre. As established, details are not my forte. I felt strong and chose to ignore what I had thought my pace should be. Underestimating myself had put me in with a later start, which resulted wasting a lot of time trying to get past people, like it was a Monday morning at London Bridge and the world had come for a visit. Ten kilometres in I tripped over on the asphalt, which could have ended much worse than in a few scrapes. I was pulled up by a stranger and was able to maintain 5:00/km pace. I decided I wouldn’t worry about going too fast but accept positive splits (slow down) when I got tired, and still be able to achieve my goal of sub-4 time. I did eventually get tired and started to die – but not before the 40th kilometre (which, by the way is when they always take the official race photos. WHY?)

People, with best intentions, will tell you how fast you should go, where and how often. Sometimes they’re right. But most of the time they’re not me. Passing the 3:45 pacers felt unreal. My Barcelona room mate, a tall blonde woman in her 50s, said she didn’t really think about pace at all. Or bother with a watch for that matter.  She’d just run. And did she run – finishing third in her overall category in three hours and ten minutes.  I still have a lot to learn.

I’d been quietly hoping for a sub-4 time, but with 3:42 at 34 I got a ‘good for age’ for London! It will automatically guarantee me a place in one of the most popular and difficult to get to city marathons in the world. No ballot bullshit! No stressful fundraising targets! I had hardly collected my medal and before I had changed into a dry top, I turned on data roaming just to check that I missed the qualifying time for Boston by a couple of minutes. If I need to beat myself about something, I’ll go with that. 

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The medics not even feigning an interest in my life-threatening injury.

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Four times sub-four time

As to my first love, Spain, I won’t let another fifteen years pass before my next visit. In fact, I’ll be back in late August to walk the Camino de Santiago again, but this time I’ll be taking my daughter with me. I can’t safely say how many miles of ‘I spy with my little eye’ I can put up with, but that’s why we’re going to walk one of the busier routes. Sorry, pilgrims.

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My best photo from the trip. Welcome back.

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Pilgrimage

pilgrim

1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion

2. a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.

3. An idiot who looks like they just got off the boat and haven’t a clue as to where they are. (Urban Dictionary)

Barcelona Marathon is now only a few days away, and my training has been erratic at best.  My regime that is yet to go viral in Hollywood, consists of 10ks here and there, mostly to the office; the occasional jog during a kids’ party; cross-training (a plunge into the pool during the daughter’s swimming lesson); and a 110k trail run.

The latter took place a few weeks ago in early February, as if that made a difference in the era of climate change. The Pilgrim Challenge was my first ever ultra race (that I finished. I’m still writing about the other one), and I had spent more time thinking through childcare logistics than systematic training. Still, I was less nervous than at the start line of a Saturday park run. Pace would be irrelevant on this historic route through South Downs – all I had to do to was to put one foot in front of another, and I have over thirty years of demonstrable experience in this. It is a skill that has only ever been compromised after three consecutive pisco sours, or at 4,500 metres altitude (the ultra I didn’t finish). Surrey is about 134 metres above the sea level and as here I can’t even find Gatorade, except the cherry flavoured one (yuk), my Camelpack carried just plain water.

I’ve been asked many times in the past few weeks by people at work, what is an ultra.  I say it’s basically the only sporting event where you see some people finishing off their fags while others pack their backpacks with Snickers bars before setting off for a run that is still going on when you leave the office. So far, I haven’t convinced anyone to sign up.

But everyone should! It’s a completely unique feeling to check your watch at 17km and know that you’ve barely started. The distance between each well-staffed check point is what most people would consider a full race. And the check points themselves are what most people would consider a kids’ birthday party before kids started to drink green smoothies – loaded with sugar in its various glorious forms.

My arrogance for having ran in the Andes was quickly taken care of by the muddy hills of Surrey.  Who knew there were hills in Southern England? Luckily,  I have no healthy survival instinct running downhill – the right playlist will turn me into a human avalanche on steroids counting aloud the number of black and yellow backpacks passed. The people carrying them were most likely to be training for MDS (Marathon de Sables), the real shit among many ultra-runners. And there I was – there I was among seasoned pilgrims, elite runners and people with a goal to qualify for Rio Olympics – and not feeling completely out of place.

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Check point one: Some were feeling more victorious than others

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The Pilgrim Challenge is a ‘multi-day’ event, which means spending a night on a floor of a school hall and having the opportunity to bond with other runners over the dinner, shower queues and breakfast. Obviously, there’s no drinking or staying up late. To add to the Christian summer camp feel, we had an evening of listening to speakers.  After a sports massage (another great perk), I crawled into my sleeping bag thinking about the women’s MDS 2015 winner, Elizabeth Barnes and what she said about work life balance. There isn’t one. There are work life choices, and you make them. She certainly did, as she cut her management consulting job down to three days a week to be able to train professionally before she became an elite athlete. I wonder if we could have her speak at our next work away day.

I’ve heard lots of motivational speakers, but none of them have told me that life is too short for spending it in an office.  First you’re too young. And one day you’ll be too old. Now I’m in that in-between part when you do a lot of admin and don’t have ANY time. Reading my old diary entries to my daughter have made me realise how big a part sports and running in particular has been in forming my sense of identity, but time after time I have turned down opportunities to make any serious commitment in favour of something more sensible.

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My pilgrimace

Arguably there are some things – like getting a cash ISA or having a pension – that fall into the category of ‘more sensible than getting up at 6 am to have a cold shower and then run 33 miles, having just run 33 miles the day before’. Some of them are also less ache-causing. I’m still recovering from an inflamed tendon that was probably caused by changing into my road runners for no better reason than that I thought my trail shoes were a bit muddy. Since then, I’ve consistently gone against the physiotherapist’s advice to cut down the mileage. I’m hoping this won’t slow me down in Barcelona as my focus returns to pace.

But the Pilgrim Challenge, on the other hand, wasn’t a race. It was a runway.

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We Ran the City

 

Last Saturday was one of those rare nights I was getting ready to go out. I’d tried on the outfits, and then just before the closing time, dashed to buy a new pair of tights after deciding against wearing shorts in November. I packed a couple of tops in my bag in case I’d change my mind.  At least the shoes were comfortable. At their price, they should be.

My feet were sore when I limped home at 3am, my new pair of tights covered in vomit.  A standard Saturday night out. Well, not exactly.

My neighbours – who are also my landlords and live upstairs – had offered to babysit for a night to return an old favour. If you have any idea of the humiliation a single mother experiences in the London rental market, this is nothing short of a miracle. The only issue with the kind offer was that anyone who knows me knows there’s only one thing I like more than sleeping on a Saturday night and that is sleeping on a Monday morning.

This was until I found out about the Midnight2Midnight event on Facebook. Organised by a group called London Midnight Runners  it was based around a simple but well organised idea of having a 24 hour non-stop relay run in central London to raise money for the Syrian refugees.

I always feel a bit conflicted about charity running events, which is the standard format for the most popular road races in the UK. After your first couple of times it starts feeling like you’re asking your friends to subsidise your hobby. If the idea was that I subject myself to weeks of suffering, tediousness and loneliness that culminates in a painful and inhumane effort, where I lie to myself in order to complete it, I should be asking for sponsorship for doing my ‘annual performance review’, not for running 26.2 miles along beautiful city routes.

Anyway, there was no ‘minimum fundraising’ required, and I had long felt that when my daughter one day asks me what I did in 2015 during the Syria crisis, I don’t want to be saying that I changed the background of my Facebook profile picture. Ok, it’s not the peace troupes, but I signed up  for the last three 10k loops of Midnight2Midnight.

I convinced a friend from work to come along and drag his dinner date to the last slot. Otherwise, I didn’t know anyone in the group, which didn’t bother me. I’m conversational on one or two running related topics, and in any case, unlike at a dinner party, it’s perfectly acceptable to put your headphones on and speed off (or tail behind) when you don’t feel like talking. I was more worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up, not just for having a cold but also a very sore knee. I resolved to a double doses of prescription pain killers I had stocked in the hospital last year. Whether it was this or my erratic training or my new high-energy companions, I might have still ran my fastest 20k at 4:50/km, which made me quite excited about next year’s races.

Each loop, which alternated between Southbank, Battersea Park and Hyde Park, was joined by fresh runners and a sound system duct taped to a bike, which helped keep the pace up. There  were also some veterans who had had very little sleep, including a guy with a haunted look completing twelve loops in sets of 30k.

In the athletics, the longest official Olympic relay distance is run over (4 x) 400m. Yet the human evolution (and Christopher McDougall) suggests that we have been designed for running much longer stretches and as a pack – not 400 metres or 10kms but ultra-marathons! It is this rather than Deliveroo that has enabled our carnivorous existence over thousands of years. Running is about achieving a balance of individual freedom and group solidarity and killing antelopes, and it is in this, not in the suffering, where I find the connection with the people who are crossing Europe in flee of the war.

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Picture from London Midnight Runners FB page.

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Picture from London Midnight Runners FB page.

I was limping my last kilometres in the middle of the pack now, no longer dodging but high-fiving the tourists and party goers on Southbank. Running on the streets of the city has a funny effect: it fills me with love for my city.  Even if its political and economic profile would never normally invite me to use the possessive pronoun, in these kinds of moments you are filled with an irrational feeling of ownership and belonging, exponentially multiplied by the number of people you are sharing the route with.

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Picture from London Midnight Runners FB page.

Still, I bailed the after party.  After finishing on a high, I was shivering cold and a sudden wave of nausea swept over me. I departed to walk towards the night buses on Trafalgar Square. Dozens of colourful sleeping bags lined the road at the other end of which decisions are being made about bombs and human lives by people who actually run this city, and this country for that matter. I got on a bus. That’s where the exhaustion, cold, pain killers, protein bars, energy drinks and I’d like to think my general disgust for the European politics infused with the smell of alcohol breaths, and my body gave up. Judging by the state of the street, this was the standard part of a Saturday night.

I got off and guessing I hadn’t increased my slim chances of getting into a cab, I started the three mile walk to North London all the while thinking about how free and fortunate I was.

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Photo by Daniel Varga. From London Midnight Runners FB page.

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Photo by Daniel Varga. From London Midnight Runners FB page.

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For a Reason, for a Season

“For a time, then, we stay. For a time. Till the changes.” 

Joanne Harris, Chocolat

Our life has settled into a contract with its new landscape, allowing to be shaped by its busy architecture while also leaving its own mark on whatever it comes in touch with. It’s made a few twists and turns and a couple of backflips to get over obstacles on its way – before quickly resettling into a forceful but steady flow.

Getting up before the sun is finally getting easier now that even the sun doesn’t want to get up. The only souls I meet during my morning run in the city of ten million inhabitants are a couple of dog walkers. Saturday mornings are a happy exception: I join two hundred other runners to race two laps around Finsbury Park in the weekly Park Run event. I’ve made it from the fourth to the second fastest woman in my category (aren’t you proud, mum?) in a distance I didn’t much care for in the past. Afterwards, many of us gather in the park cafe for this latest British sports nutrition fad you should try: tea and cake.

I have some fruit in the office, as part of this new ‘old’ life, too. There are baskets of small, unripe bananas, mandarins and figs with the succulent taste of corporate wellbeing. Desperate for a gustatory reminder of our year in South America, I’ve been looking to find a custard apple in London’s best markets and whole food stores, to no avail.

So I sketched new plans on new projects in countries where fruit is being grown. Where people produce and don’t just consume. The advert panel on my browser flashes pictures of apartments in suburbs which I can’t pronounce. But basically what happened next is that when I disabled my out-of-office I mistakenly forgot to disable ‘me’, and soon came a friendly but stern management reminder that this was a “business”, not “a travel agency”. One shall not just butterfly around without a business purpose. One shall articulate her commercial story and take every opportunity to bore everyone to death with it. That’s the company policy.

For one solid week I cried over this unsolicited psychoanalysis. It was true and I needed to hear it. Out of all the wicked things one could be in this world, there’s nothing quite as lowly than a person who makes a career out of always wanting to be everywhere else apart from where she is, and transports that over-sized dissatisfaction wherever she goes weighing down not just herself but those who love her:

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Many years ago, I had a dream where I was on a cruise ship. Walking along the corridors, opening doors that blocked my way, I climbed up narrow steps from deck to deck, and passed other passengers. After a while, I noticed that the doors didn’t change. Each deck I arrived on, I had been on before. Not only that, but the faces I saw were the same. The events repeated themselves. It was like being entertained by a 90s Microsoft screensaver. I was locked inside a matrix of de-ja-vus and to get out, I started harassing fellow passengers for directions. Their insouciant answer was that there were no exits, only entrances, but why would anyone want to leave such a great place!

I probably wrote this dream down all those years ago, because at that point I had nothing else to write about. I had finished my degree, broken up with my boyfriend, and been rejected for a grant to study in New York. Because there were no other viable cities on the earth, I returned to my old depressing waitressing job in a sandwich bar and became a 3-D public health campaign against studying Sociology.

Having the sense that tomorrow is going to be a repeat of today is a prison sentence – and I’m basing that analogy on a wholly personal experience of watching three seasons of the Orange is the New Black. It has a catchy theme song by Regina Spektor, which goes “taking steps is easy, standing still is hard”. It’s still bloody hard, even if I’m no longer 23 and have a better albeit fleeting understanding of the seasonality of life.

I think there’s a subtle difference between ‘comatose’ and ‘still’, which is why I’m dismissing ‘hatha yoga’ when I say the closest I get to stillness is when I’m running. It’s when I achieve what  Ultra Runner Girl describes as “the comfort of the void”:

“…when my legs are in motion, I’m there. I’m in the present – I’m at ‘more’, if only for a brief minute. This is the comfort of the void. In the pain, the suffering, the triumph, the struggle, my constant drive for ‘more’ is silenced. By moving forward in space, I allow myself to stand still in time.”  

It is in these moments when I admit that the only thing wrong with the present is that what it is followed by may go wrong. But after a week in an emotional state, my future tapped me on the shoulder and told about her frustration over always being the one that gets judged. I promised to give it a break – at least until I’m in that chapter. Right now I’m on that page where we watch fireworks with friends we didn’t know three months ago. I’m in that part where the autumn days have spilled over to the early winter, and the leaves have missed their cue to die. Their lingering red tones have been so awakening I could hear them. I could hear them in Elizabeth Gilbert’s voice: You. Are. Here. This is not a conviction. Your life is not happening somewhere else, and you’re not on hold until that moment comes. (If that’s not quite what the leaves are saying where you are, you can download the podcast here.)

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An imam once said that whatever is meant for me will not miss me, and whatever misses me wasn’t meant for me. A friend  once said that that was bullshit. So listening to both, I’m choosing to believe that, if you’re called for an adventure, it will come and find you wherever you are – so you better be there. In the meantime, I’ll keep my (bull)shit together.

PS. The other day I walked past my corner shop, like one does. And there they were, understated between your avocados and your mangos: small but ripening.

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Please Disable Your Out-of-Office

In my last post I said this blog was about to get really interesting, and I have more than exceeded expectations.  I’ve been back at work for over two months now, and in my current role as a ‘leadership and cross-cutting issues performance driver’, the following quote in my Facebook feed today resonated with me enough to write a blog post:

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983)

In a glass building in London it is very difficult to make “I ran around 80 km per week” sound like a good use of time – especially if that time consists of a full (financial) year. What, I didn’t found even one teeny-weeny start-up? Or a charity to capacity build  indigenous women to make bracelets perhaps? Taught English? Nope. I just was. In Peru. And occasionally I ran.

“Yes, but what did you actually do?”

The funny thing is why I’m not asking the people in the office the same question. To an extent, a time could have been stopped for the whole year – bar some changes to a desk booking system (which doesn’t work) and the canteen, and a few greyer heads, everything looks more or less like I left it over a year ago.

If anything, I feel even less motivated by this emperor’s new clothes business, where I currently am the one with the responsibility for booking meetings for the senior needle and doing the admin for the senior specialist thread. As you might have guessed from my fancy job title above.

Your identity pends on your job, and not on the other things you do (if you have time to do other things).  On my career break, I used my business card to get access, and in the Immigration forms I would write as my occupation the one that I was having a break from. This would make others see that I’m not just a single mum, I am someone. Whether that job has any point is beside the point, and while it makes me feel worthless it is why I’m worth something, as the Conservative health secretary Jeremy Hunt recently reminded.

I’ve learnt there are a lot of things in the world that make me happy and that are not my job – or maybe any job out there apart from being a judge at the Great British Bake Off, and that’s ok! Perhaps it’s not in your job’s job description to be fulfilling in every sense, just like it’s not your partner’s responsibility to maintain your expected levels of happiness (although there are  some minimum standards).  I’d like to reclaim the word ‘passion’ and ban it from every single CV. I love writing, running, chirimoyas and my daughter. None of them earns me a living, but does that mean they are not valuable for their own sake? Today I managed  to get up at 5.30 am (this is much harder when it’s colder, darker and waaaayy lonelier than in Lima) and run 10km catching the sunrise over Alexandra Palace. A few hours later, in the office I responded to a request to invite someone to a meeting who had already been invited by another colleague, so I sent a couple of apologetic emails to clear the confusion. A bit of email traffic back and forth. Then I printed  a total of 160 pages of documents (containing an options appraisal for instruments to inspect inspectors, or something in this vein), which nobody in the meeting read, so I chucked these in the confidential waste bin.

Economists may disagree, but I think my most productive moment of the day was before 6.30 am.

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On doing what you love and being productive, last month I ran with the guys from Haringey Good Gym. There are GG groups all over London and the UK and they basically do a weekly running session combined with a bit of community work. The picture is from their Facebook page

Disclaimer:

If you are from work and you’re reading this, I’d like to say that I’m completely passionate about my job, the every day challenges it brings, the people I meet, the value I bring and the sustainable difference I’m making. I thrive on solving every day problems with printers and meeting bookings. Just in case that message was somehow unclear.  

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Going Back to Where I Came From

We swapped hemispheres and left Peru for Europe in July after I had stopped counting my opportunity costs. It had almost been two years since my last visit to my native country. This, combined with everything we’d experienced in the past year or so, contributed to my heightened awareness of place: “Look at those Finnish apples!”; “That Finnish man on that Finnish bus stop”;“I’d forgotten that Finnish road signs are written in that font”…etc. It’s quite tiring, this involuntary mindfulness.

Most of these observations were happy: after Lima, even the Greek crisis feels orderly and reasonably well thought through. When Finnish people were moaning about the cold, I was just happy to breath air that doesn’t leave permanent stains in my lungs. DD was excited about being free to freeze on dozens of beaches without anyone demanding our ID, pedigree or bribes. I managed to run a few kilometres in between many coffee breaks (from doing nothing) and got a new reason to freak out over a lost mobile connection when my cousin and her lovely family introduced us to Geocaching.
IMG_20150721_112813445So when I was offered a lucrative job in Helsinki my soul was subjected to so much searching you would have mistaken it for an unarmed black man. I knew that somewhere behind the Marimekko curtains, there was a different #Finland from the one I was uploading on Instagram.

Far right and me, with all respect, have never got on that well.  Growing up, I always understood that “shit face”, “hottentot” or “whatever-its-name-is” were easier to pronounce than my real name, the meaning of which was also a matter of opinion. (My mum’s.) But being kicked or spat at on top was a bit unnecessary. So in that respect, it’s good to know that these people have grown up to be active participating citizens. The bad news is that we now have a democratically elected far-right populist government.

I’m not that shocked. I’m more surprised that while no-one interfered during my Rosa Parks adaptations on school journeys twenty years ago, now it doesn’t take 48 hours for 15,000 people to turn up to demonstrate, only because an MP has nightmares about multiculturalism and shares that on Facebook.

Even if some, no doubt, were there only because they couldn’t get tickets to the Flow music festival, this was still lots of people in a small country. More than there are inhabitants in the Kauhajoki municipality, four hours north from Helsinki, where another historical event was unfolding: a mixed-race woman in her early 30s fighting a war against 15,000 mosquitos and picking blueberries with her godfather.

Before he was my godfather, overt thirty years ago, he worked in Iraq and smoked a lot. Although his life is less dangerous today, he’s just one of those interesting people. Especially his enviable command of swear words. His second favourite story about me (the first being the confusion caused by me and my cousin deciding to be born on the same day) is when he took me to watch the Kauhajoki samba carnival – which is up there with Rio – in 1998 when Brazil lost to France in the world cup. Apparently, the sight of a strange 15-year-old girl dressed in hot pants raised the carnival spirit of the rising generation of farmers and lumberjacks. (If I ever introduce you to my godfather, pretend that you haven’t heard this already. I do – every year.)

Now you understand the multicultural credentials of my fairy godfather. And not only that: he’s taught me everything I know but haven’t had time to put in practice about feminism and money management. (Too busy falling in love with a Latino and giving up my job to start with.)  While I felt my life was so shitty and corny that Paulo Coelho should write about it, he made me see it wasn’t that bad. So when he confessed he could find a racist streak within himself, I thought he deserved what those of us who are in the right are not that willing to grant. A conversation. He didn’t accept that unemployed refugees in remote Finnish towns took their frustration out by kicking grannies. “Not a good idea,” I say. How everyone, regardless of race and ethnicity, should contribute to the economy. “Yup”. Also what bullcrap it was that mother pigs could not be kept inside dens anymore because some city cunt in the government was concerned about their welfare. “Hmm. That’s multiculturalism gone too far,” I said no longer quite sure everyone’s talking about the same thing. There’s a Finnish saying for when people are talking past each other: “one talks about the fence, the other about the fence pickets”.

No, I don’t really know what exactly fence pickets are either, but I guess that’s the point.

I decided then and there that I had nothing to add to the heated multiculturalism debate in Finland. I’m now back in a town called London and – am a management consultant again! “Finally!”, I’m hearing, finally this blog will have some interesting content!

(At least now that I’ve got an iPhone 6 at the courtesy of my work place, there may be some visual improvement. No promises though.)

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Heart Says Yes, Head Says No

I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.
– Haruki Murakami, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’
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“Don’t stop until you get there.”

San Pedro de Casta lies about 80 kilometres from Lima. The road climbs some three kilometres up along a narrow mountain roller coaster to the little village that is home to 500 people, donkeys and cows. It is an access point to an ancient site Marcahuasi, which is famous for eroded rocks mystically shaped into people and animals – inspiring generations of archeologists and UFO believers.

This was the route of last Saturday’s training run. One that I never completed. Which is not to say I didn’t see all kinds of mystical things. I started suffering from a bad ‘soroche’, altitude sickness, less than a kilometre from leaving San Pedro de Casta. Even writing about it gives me a headache.

Of course I’d heard of soroche, but I tend to take a lot of confidence in having generous reserves of physical strength supplemented by mental stubbornness and, if everything fails, a pain threshold far, far higher than the threshold for higher tax rate. And the six years spent as a management consultant on the 9th floor in London – how’s that for altitude?

So I equipped myself with a coca-toffee sweet – coca leaves being an Andean folk remedy for altitude sickness – and was pretty much as battle prepared as I was seven years ago when I confidently waddled to a labour ward with a pill of ibuprofen.

Now I just smile and nod when soon to be mothers tell about their plans for natural birth. And now, I also know that people warning me about altitude weren’t necessarily lambasting my physical condition. Nothing to do with my resting heart rate. Apparently even Olympic athletes get altitude sickness. What happens is that your body isn’t used to the reduced levels oxygen that is available at heights of 2,500 metres and above. In some cases fluid builds up in the brain or lungs, which can even be fatal. Soroche has been described to feel like “flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover”. Pretty to the point, I’d say, although my preferred choice of conjugation would be ‘and’.

As I rapidly fell behind the group, in between taking photos, I used the voice recorder in my phone, because that is how much I care about this blog. On retrospect, Felipe, who later tried to call me, had a point in questioning the foresight in leaving my other phone that had network  (but no Spotify) in his car. Yet on the other hand, I bet Haruki Murakami wished he had thought like me.

Here is what I thought, as transcribed from the ‘black box’:

“3500 metres… never felt like this before. Is this the point where you turn back? Or maybe there are rewards for stupidity? Probably the oxygen is not going to my head… Oh my god, those cows – I should ask how do they do it? Absolute hell. Oh dear. Ouch. These fucking insects are going to eat me alive.

Why can’t I just go to Virgin Active, like normal people? I can’t see properly. I see everything like it was a filtered Instagram picture where the saturation and contrast are just off… There are people up there, I can hear them. Are these insects getting bigger and bigger? Is that a man in an orange coat or is it just a rock? Oh God… next time I want challenge, I’ll just wrap a plastic bag in my head and run up and down the stairs to Malecón. 

The lethargy I felt was worse than in all of the last year’s team meetings combined. There is a four minute clip about wanting a sausage with proper mustard, or alternatively a Peruvian ‘sanguiche’ with ‘salsa criollo’. No eternal light. No Heaven or Angels. Just a sausage with mustard for me, please.

I found a rock to lie on and slept for a bit, until someone told me to get up. Sleeping could lead to unconsciousness.

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…Ok so, I’ve moved 5.3km. That’s 300 metres progress in the past hour. I feel so ill… There were two girls returning, they said they couldn’t find the group anymore. They said the best thing to do was to turn back to the base, and that’s what I’m doing right now, and I already feel better. My legs are fine, my heart is absolutely fine, my breathing is fine, but it’s just this bloody head! I’m not even sweating, and why would I? I haven’t been able to run apart from the 20 metres for the photographer…

I thought it would feel like shortness of breath, but no, it doesn’t feel like that all. You feel like you need to vomit, only if your brain didn’t explode first. There’s a shortage of oxygen in my brain. A shortage of reason as well. I have to go down, find the bus… it’s a bit of  a defeat, you have to return, but I have no desire to go much higher and then get lost anyway.  I’m not running. I’m not sure I can ever become an ultra marathoner. I’ll be happy to run on the asphalt. Bring on the traffic lights, dog shit, congestion, people on your way! 

…Then again, I’d never have this view again, and I’ve never in my life seen anything like this. There’s something depressing about the remote beauty of these mountains. I feel like Ninny, the invisible child, in the Moomins, who wept at the enormousness of the sea. 

Beautiful but so big. I’m thinking about love and my relationship and these mountains. Impressive… make me feel so small and lonely. Part of me wants to carry on, but part of me tells me that I haven’t prepared. I don’t know if I could have. But now I’m so sorry I didn’t make it. We didn’t make it. About leaving in the past a future that never got the chance to be the present.

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San Pedro de Casta seen from above

Some obstacles are external, some are internal. I find the latter harder to bear. It took me glorious four hours and four minutes to complete 10k – two weeks earlier I had run 42k faster. Turning back implies failure and, for a moment at least, a lesson learned is a bitter consolation prize. Yet I don’t know if the winner feels any sweeter than the surviver, who returns to the base to the relieved applaud of her worried companions. Those are your friends. But if your attitude to life is ‘better to be sore than sorry’, you also deserve some background noise from people who kept their wanderlust in check and were just more capable of controlling their carnal incontinence.

I wish I never climbed that mountain. I wish I never fell in love with that person.

Yeah. Whatever.

That next mountain training is just over a week away. I wonder what the view will be like from there? (Any tips on how to cope with altitude, please comment.) There are those who say life is not a sprint but a marathon. I’m starting to think life is a trail run.

Hey, you think this is Chicken Run?

“I have nothing to do with her running metaphors.”

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Jack (or Jill) of All Trails

Having ran the 42k last week, got a diarrhoea for the following two days and then my period, I thought I had a fairly good reason to put my feet up. I mean, really up: about 2,500 meters above the sea level, and  join a group of experienced trail runners for a 3 hour vertical jog.

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Picture by the SRT, although I failed to get the name of the photographer and will stand the risk of being sued.

I’m more of an asphalt person even if all “long-distance” (over 1500 metres) running in my childhood took place in the Finnish forests. Still, back then nobody with any self respect or healthy concern for their social status would self identify as a cross-country runner.

But now cross-country is back – with a vengeance. Trail running (or fell running in the UK) where backpacking meets running usually happens on a mountainous or at least hilly terrain with a lot of mud/snow/scree. As my very last challenge in Peru, I’ve signed up for a 50k ultra-marathon in Cordillera Blanca, the Andes. Yeah, I know. Never been in altitude. I thought I could start with having the right kind of shoes. Although I’m someone who reads a lot of running magazines and blogs (Google ads think I’m a 65+ multilingual female), the technical language and the expected level of knowledge of shoe anatomy left me bewildered. Besides, in a few months I’ll be worrying about snow and rain, instead of jungle undergrowth, and then I won’t be able to afford (yet) another pair. I email the training organiser for a recommendation and get a pair of Salomon Speed Cross 3.

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A custard apple a day…

I meet the Salomon Trail Runners (hence the recommendation), who I found on Facebook, at 5.30am on Saturday and introduce myself. Having spent my life in Finland and England, language barriers have meant that I’ve not had to endure a life time of jokes about my name – just some phonetic abuse. This has changed in Peru. “Dulce?” they say and “On a good day,” I respond. Having also satisfactorily responded to some questioning about my vital numbers and running CV, I feel socially approved. “No – it’s just that yesterday there was someone emailing me who didn’t even know what kind of shoes to wear!”

Just imagine the ignorance of some people!

We head out of Lima, and two hours away hides a little village called Callahuanca, which is Quechua, and means ‘divided rock’. It is also known as the land of ‘chirimoya’, my absolute favourite fruit in the whole world that I didn’t know existed before I came to Peru! Mark Twain apparently called it the most delicious fruit known to men and quite rightly. I love it for its bubble gummy flavour as well as for its texture. (Daughter thinks it’s completely embarrassing I buy the same fruit from the fruit vendor every single day.) It satisfies my sweet tooth, fills me up and is apparently one of the healthiest fruits out there. On top of this, because training in high altitude increases the production of harmful free radicals in the muscles, what a better idea than supporting local farmers and taking home a few kilos of these green antioxidant powerhouses. How many super foods can just one country grow?

Apparently I’ll be ok, as ASDA sells these as ‘custard apples’, but I can’t imagine they compare to the ones in Callahuanca. I may need to take some seeds home with me in any case.

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Callahuanca is popular among trekkers and mountain bikers.

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My gym last Saturday.

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There was some undulation…

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…and even a pool with ice cold water waiting for us after 9km. 

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Between the Pasta Party and the Post-Marathon BBQ

Tomorrow it’s the Lima Marathon – for those to whom such things matter – ‘el maratón’, which is to be distinguished from ‘la maratón’. The English translation could be ‘the marathon’ vs “a marathon” in quotation marks*, i.e. the actual official distance of 42.195 km vs whatever distance some deceived marketing department has decided to call a marathon. No, Pheidippides the Greek messenger, of the legend on which the race is based, didn’t collapse to death after a 5k, even if by today’s general standards that might seem completely credible.

(*This may not clear the confusion if, like my daughter, one doesn’t know how to use quotation marks, which I hope is the reason why on the mother’s day card she wrote that she was very quote-unquote “happy” that I was her mother.)

So while I’m still digesting yesterday’s pasta and thinking about tomorrow’s BBQ, I’m taking a quick look back on all the preparation that has gone in for tomorrow.

Training

Around 1,500km since August. My clothes have a permanent smell of sweat only a little less notable than that of the synthetic turf of our local football pitch.

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Playlist

The other downside of the above is that I’ve got sick of my Spotify playlist. Here’s the partly updated backbeat.

Gbese – Lil Kesh

Wild for the Night – A$AP Rocky

Ride Wit Me – T.I.

Shots – Broiler Remix – Imagine Dragons

If It Wasn’t For You – Alesso

Hold You – Radio Edit – Basto

Next To Me – Otto Knows

Are You with Me – Radio Edit – Lost Frequencies

FADE – Radio Edit – Wild Culture

Siberia – Instrumental – Tez Cadey

Holidays – ft Alan Palomo – Miami Horror

Stronger – Clean Bandit

Of The Night – Bastille

Tarantula (Ft. Fresh, $Pyda & Tenor Fly) – Pendulum

A Sky Full of Stars – Hardwell Remix – Coldplay

Falling – Radio Edit – Fedde Le Grand

Heroes (we could be) – Alesso

Save Me – LISTENBEE

Firestone – Kygo

Shooting Star – Radio Edit – John Dahlbäck

RIVA (Restart The Game) – Radio Edit – Klingande

Seve – Radio Edit – Tez Cadey

Stole the Show – Kygo

Sexual Healing – Kygo Remix – Kygo

Beautiful People – Ultimate Fitness Playlist Power Workout Trax

Kickstarts – Running Music

If I Go – Ella Eyre

Hold My Hand – Jess Glynne

Waves – Robin Schulz Remix – Mr. Probz

Listen (feat. John Legend) – David Guetta

The Nights – Avicii

Numb/Encore – JAY Z

Nobody To Love – TS7 Remix – Sigma

Nobody To Love – Radio Edit – Sigma

Rather Be (feat. Jess Glynne) – Clean Bandit

The Last Ones Standing – Tep No

You’re On – Gramatik Remix – Madeon

The Hanging Tree – Rebel Remix – James Newton Howard

Fade Out Lines – The Avener Rework – The Avener & Phoebe Killdeer

Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall – Coldplay

7 / 11 (Originally Performed by Beyoncé) [Instrumental Version] – Brant Ivory

Alive – Empire Of The Sun

Pompeii – Bastille

Running On A Rainy Day – Paul White

I Had This Thing – Röyksopp

Letter To TINA – Fuse Odg

Outside – Calvin Harris

Alright – Logic

First – Cold War Kids

Last Nite – The Strokes

Red Hands – Walk Off the Earth

A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay

Break Free – Ariana Grande

Prayer in C – Robin Schulz Radio Edit – Lilly Wood and The Prick

Midnight City – M83

We Come Running – The Knocks Remix – Youngblood Hawke

I Follow Rivers – The Magician Remix – Lykke Li

Midnight City – M83

Do It Again – Röyksopp

Work Hard, Play Hard – Wiz Khalifa

Can’t Do Without You – Caribou

All of Me – (Tiësto’s Birthday Treatment Remix) [Radio Edit] – John Legend

Say My Name (feat. Zyra) – ODESZA

Waiting All Night (feat. Ella Eyre) – Rudimental

Sinnerman – Felix Da Housecat’s Heavenly House Mix – Nina Simone

Alive – Chase & Status

Children Of The Sun – feat. John Martin – Tinie Tempah

I Need Your Love – Calvin Harris

Powerless – feat. Becky Hill – Rudimental

Move – Original Mix – Mausi

Sweet Nothing – Calvin Harris

Without You (feat. Usher) [Radio Edit] – David Guetta

Youth – Foxes

Save the World – Radio Mix – Swedish House Mafia

End Credits – Chase & Status

Spotlight – Moto Blanco Radio Remix – Jennifer Hudson

We Found Love – Calvin Harris

Changing – Sigma

Starry Eyed – Ellie Goulding

Safe And Sound – Capital Cities

Red Lights – Tiësto

What You Know – Two Door Cinema Club

Blame – Calvin Harris

Goodness Gracious – The Chainsmokers Extended Remix – Ellie Goulding

Houdini (RAC Mix) – Foster The People

Prayer in C – Robin Schulz Radio Edit – Lilly Wood and The Prick

Changes – Original Mix – Faul & Wad Ad

That’s Not Me – Skepta

Still Speedin’ – Radio Edit – Sway

Spaceship – Dappy

Pasta party

I should have known that carb loading in Peru is an excuse for another social event. On Friday we shared two delicious pasta dishes between eight of us. My take on  Gordon Ramsay’s pancetta spaghetti with Peruvian dry cured ham went down well, although I’m taking no responsibility for any after effects.

Gear

Happy with the official deep blue sleeveless race top and found a matching pair of shorts. However, I realised only afterwards that it only came with a very small side pocket, and after much deliberation I had already decided against my ultra-fashionable hydration belt. I won’t be carrying any water – let the volunteers work for their money. I then bought a much sleeker belt by ASICS, but after I’d stuffed it with four gels, under inspection, from the side, it made me look fat. Given I may not look my best for the photographers anyway, this was something I wasn’t very fond of. Hence I’ve managed to cram two gels in the little pocket, and one will possibly go in my bra. I don’t mind if one of my boobs looks fat and symmetry is overrated. I’ll update later if this was a good idea.

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Route

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Strategy

Reminds me of school.

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Support

Gladly no quotations marks.

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Post Marathon BBQ

Booked for the whole family. Apparently this is the most important part of the day.

Sleep. Now.

Blog. Later.

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Run, Run, as Fast as You Can

There’s nothing as natural as running. As anyone who’s ever survived a school holiday knows, children run all the time. You tell them to stop, mainly because it’s annoying, distracting, stuff breaks and you can’t focus enough to finish a bloody blog post. But parents also fear the horrible accidents that might leave them unable to run, climb or jump ever again – and so we’re always telling them not to run, climb or jump.

Kids don’t ‘jog’ or ‘do exercise’. They don’t run because they missed the train. There’s the sheer joy of movement, even before we were upright, and the language of running is universal. Among my daughter’s first Spanish words was “chapadas”, “tag” (in Peruvian Spanish).

Last Sunday, over 1,500 adults were playing catch in Lima in the Wings for Life World Run global event that drew over 100,000 participants in 35 different countries. Irrespective of time zone, the clock starts at the same time for everyone, but whether you’ll be running a 10k, a half marathon, 42.195 km or even an ultra is up to each runner. Winning in the race is not about being the fastest but also about running the furthest, because once a ‘Wings for Life’ car catches up with you, your life as an antelope is over.

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Picture by ifitness.

But it was a good life nonetheless for the Lima participants – no rain, no blaze and temperatures of around 20C. I don’t know whether the race organisers do something to ensure that the race conditions are as level as possible, but in any case, it seems for the top Peruvian runners there’s no mountain high enough. Last year’s men’s silver medallist Remigio Huaman running this year’s race in Austria came third in the global category. Remigio made it to 78k, a distance equal to London to Cambridge. To give perspective, he’s had to average 3:50min/km. I just got out of the city onto the motorway as my journey stopped at 23k (So it would have been Uxbridge and a zone 6 travel card for me).

I have nothing but awe for this humble runner, who I was lucky to meet at the North Face Endurance Challenge earlier this year. The father who doesn’t speak any English, says he could have never imagined travelling the world with his young son, which is what he did with his last year’s prize. Social mobility as literal as it gets.

The event was organised for the first time a year ago to raise funds and publicity for spinal cord injury research. In Peru, the charity running format is still relatively rare and no-one’s heard of fund raising. There are probably various reasons for this, including socio-economic, but I feel that as in Peruvian society in general, there’s also a strong sense of entitlement, with little sense of responsibility. For example, “banditing” – joining races and taking advantage of facilities without paying the registration fee – is not frowned upon like in Europe. In fact, the Spanish expression “correr libre” (run free) has a cute anarchist ring to it, a personal choice a bit like the Paleo diet but less annoying.

As this scenario inevitably changes  – Peruvians are getting richer and international donors are pulling out one by one which means fundraising will become vital to the survival of many charities – Wings for Life seems a completely appropriate cause in Lima.  Most spinal injuries are caused by traffic, and Lima’s traffic being among the most dangerous in the world with nearly three deaths per 100 vehicles. There was some finger in the air pleasure in facing the anger of Lima’s drivers stuck behind the police lines that were providing security for the runners.

It is said that spinal injury is among the worst pains one can experience. On my personal pain scale, I’d give birth without epidural anytime over having vertebral compression.  The nights before I’d convinced myself that it might be a good idea to pop in the clinic, I would lie on the floor in spasms, unable to finish my sentences, while my 6-year old would be fetching pain killers, water and warm towels, or massage my back by walking on it. How we were up for school and work a few hours later, I can’t remember, but if I was a grumpy bitch to be around, I’m sorry.

I know I’m bit of a broken record about the (once) broken back, but it’s partly for me not to trivialise or forget the memory only because in my case it turned out well. For many, especially in lower or middle income countries like Peru, it doesn’t. But it’s also partly because the Wings for Life asks ‘what’s your reason to run’, and the experience just gives a bit more depth to the ‘because I can’.

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The ‘quantified self’ there checking her pace too busy to smile for the cameras. Luckily. Picture by ifitness.

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Together again! Picture by Luis Antonio Roldan for Peru Runners.

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