Running on Happy

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

– James Thurber

June was epic. I honestly can’t think of a more fitting word to describe a month which included a world record attempt, the Billy Bland challenge, as well as my first ultramarathon?

I admit that part of me was bracing itself for a mighty wave of those “post epic running blues” (the big bully brother of the post marathon blues). However, I can only assume that he took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, because he surely hasn’t made it to my doorstep.

In truth, this relatively quiet month – in terms of running – has given me some fantastic time to reflect. And the more I think about it, the more I realise how much awesomeness running has brought into my life lately.

The places it has taken me over the past year or so have been incredible. Athens and Rome were city highlights, but much more special to me are the countless summits, remote lakes, mountain trails and coastal paths that I have travelled. This is a beautiful country, and I can think of no better way of exploring it than on foot. I always find that there is something both liberating and grounding about running in nature.

When it came to training for my first ultramarathon, each and every long run was a profound journet for me. Each run is teaching me about being patient and about giving up that which I don’t have in the first place; control. I’m learning that I can only change the here and now, and that I always have a choice. And, perhaps most importantly, running keeps reminding me that everything is temporary; which is prompting me to fully live in the good moments and accept the difficult times in equal measures. These are all amazing lessons, which are having a great impact not only on my running, but life in general.

The more I run, the more I find that the process becomes so much more important to me than any outcomes. At this point, I am not even thinking about any particular finish time I want to target in my next big race, the Cologne Marathon. I am, however, looking forward to just running it. The hunger to race it might yet come, or it might not. It really doesn’t matter. All that matter is that right now, from where I’m standing – or should I say running? – things are pretty darn good.

Finally, I have met some amazing people through running lately. Some of you have found their way into my life via this blog; you know who you are! New friendships have been forged while running my home turf, and I have met some very inspirational people through various running events and competitions – not to mention the wicked and awesome local parkrun crowd. I can’t help but notice how much richer my life is as a result of the new people who have happened to run into it. I tip my cap to all of you, and lift my glass to one of you in particular – you know who you are!

I really don’t know if I’m ever going to top June in terms of running achievements, but it doesn’t matter. I really thought that I had nothing epic to write about. But I’m a happy runner, and what better message could I possibly report on a running blog?

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Keep moving forward!

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Confessions Of An Ultra Runner

Now that I can officially call myself an ultramarathon runner, I think it’s about time that I come clean about what this gloriously graceful sport has done to me over the past few months…

Thus, I will use this space on my wall, my friends, to confess some of my deepest, darkest running secrets (in no particular order):

  • Members of my inner posse take great joy in belittling the fact that I wear dresses, skirts and shorts only in combination with boots. My well-rehearsed response to this is to merrily claim that the cowgirl look is a deliberate attempt to honour the years of my life that I spent living in the Wild West. But deep inside, I know that the world is just not ready to be exposed to the carnage that is my toenails.
  • Whenever I happen to run an 8 minute mile, I consider my weekly sprint workout completed.
  • My speedwork consists almost exclusively of people-leking these days. You know, I go out for a run, but instead of running intervals or even doing a fartlek session, I just run a little faster whenever there’s someone around who can actually see me.
  • After I run, I usually devour volumes of food that would probably leave a beast emerging from hibernation feel somewhat queasy. What I really mean to say is that I pretty much always eat anything that isn’t nailed down somehow. As far as nutritional strategies go, that one’s a winner.
  • In order to run, I bribe myself with chocolate. A lot. Need to get up that hill? Have chocolate at the top! Feeling tired after 25km? No problem! I just tell myself that I can have a Snickers when I reach 30 km… It works every time. However, I have no idea how I’ll ever race a marathon again (that doesn’t involve a chocolate orgy and associated bribery).
  • At the end of a long run, I find nothing more comforting than immediately getting out of my sweaty running clothes and into something warm, dry and comfy. That’s precisely how I came to stand in the buff in full view of a group of hardcore bikers in a parking lot the other day. I’m not even ashamed.
  • While I’m on the topic of cozy clothes: because my pyjamas happen to be the most comfy clothes that I own, it’s only logical that I should change into them after a long run, right? Then I drive home. I pity the fool who thinks that this attire would somehow deter me from walking into a petrol station and buying a Cornetto for the road.
  • Toilet paper is the single most important piece of kit I carry. It’s never on any mandatory kit list and nobody ever dares talk about it (as though it’s against some secret code… hang on, is there a secret code?!?). However, it’s hands down the biggest life saver out there, ever.
  • Hills are to me now what a bell was to Pavlov’s dog… The association between inclines and food has become so robust in my head that my stomach actually grumbled the other day when I was driving up a multi-storey carpark ramp. It defies the laws of my nature to attempt a hill workout in the absence of a Snickers bar. Yes, that includes hill sprints night at my local running club. I don’t care about the funny looks I get, it takes either a lot of chocolate or a violent temper tantrum to get me up those hills.
  • And finally, I’m beginning to think that I may be committing an act of fraud by calling myself a runner. In reality, I do a lot of plodding around. Downhill sections see my technique and form change to something that might best be described as “controlled falling”. And whenever I’m faced with any hill that might actually be a worthy opponent, it automatically triggers a “fuel break” response, which forces me to walk while stuffing something calorific in my face all the way up. At best, I think it’s fair to say that the notion of me being a runner has a tenuous relationship with the truth.

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(A rare sight: a fledgling ultramarathon runner caught in the act of running)

“Enjoying your runs will be the make or break of whether you stick with it or not. Quite simply, if we don’t enjoy something, we don’t do it!”

–       Sara Kirkham

One Epic Chase On The Cateran Trail

Do you know the feeling when everything just seems to fall into place and things feel as though they are somehow meant to me? In many ways, I feel that way about my ultra run of the Cateran Trail.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch, on the beautiful Cateran Trail)

It was during the long cold winter months that I first began to ponder the possibility of venturing beyond the marathon. Naturally, given my love of trail and hill running, as well as the joy I get from endurance running challenges, it was only a matter of time before my imagination would be captured by the world of ultramarathon running. At the start of the year, I made plans to run one of Scotland’s wonderful long distance trails over the course of a long weekend, as a first exploration of what running very long distances off road might involve. Almost immediately, I found myself flirting with the Cateran Trail; it’s not too far away from where I live and at 55 miles a good, medium length ultra distance – not to mention the fact that it’s a stunningly beautiful trail with very varied territory and a total ascend of almost 3 kilometres.

By February I was in the process of researching accommodation along the route, very much ready to put my plan into action. Just then, I got an e-mail from Liz, who I had met once before at a fell race. In that fateful e-mail, Liz serendipitously asked me if I wanted to run the Cateran Yomp with her and Louise this summer… Isn’t it funny how life has a knack for handing us exactly what we are searching for?

The Cateran Yomp is a fundraising challenge event for the ABF Soldier’s Charity, which requires teams of participants to take on a 55 mile trek (along the Cateran Trail) through the Perthshire Highlands. Liz and Louise had completed it the year before, and right from the start our plan had been to run the distance.

Thus, following a very nifty spring marathon in Rome, my training for the Cateran Yomp started in earnest back in April. I remember feeling a little weak in the knees whenever I glanced at my training plan and the many miles it called for. However, as it turned out, I have found the build-up to the event so rewarding in and by itself that the final event began to feel like the lap of honour I got to run in celebration of a wonderful training cycle. I was always aware that running an ultra would be primarily a mental challenge, but before I embarked on this journey I had never expected to find it so spiritually fulfilling. If nothing else, the many hours spent alone out in the mountains gave me much time to think and feel and play and dream, all while doing something I love and surrounded by amazing natural beauty. All these long runs have led me to countless weird and wonderful places, both mentally and physically, many of which I am sure will stay with me forever. I can think of few things that I would find more rewarding.

On the eve of battle, we all gathered in a field near Blairgowrie, which had been set up to an impressive standard to function as the Yomp Headquarters and campsite for the weekend. The atmosphere was fantastic; 570 people had gathered to take on the Cateran Yomp, with over 100 teams aiming to complete the whole distance. What was more, because it happened to be Armed Forces Day, 120 serving soldiers had joined the event, including a group of US Marines, the UK Parachute Regiment, and a team of Gurkhas (who have run exceptionally fast times in the past few years).

The competition was fierce between the different military teams, but nobody paid much attention to this random women’s non-military fundraising team. You can probably imagine their surprise (and our pleasure), when we got to lead them on a wild chase through the Scottish wilderness the following day.

Yomp Start(Louise, myself and Liz – in that order – about to embark on our big adventure)

We set out at 7 am on a cloudy morning, and right from the start we stuck to our strategy of walking up any hills and running everything else. This took a hefty helping of self-control on our part, as after running out of the start area, we got to stretch out our legs for a phenomenal 100 yard of road before – boom! – we were walking up our first hill. It sure felt rather silly at the time, but trust me, 12 hours later, we were glad to have stuck to our guns!

Two or three kilometres onto the trail, there was only one other runner in sight (who happened to be one of the founders of the Cateran trail). We brushed shoulders and chatted with him a few times over the next 20 kilometres or so, but eventually we left him behind and the trail ahead was ours alone.

I should add at this point that the feared gurkhas were unleashed upon the course and hour after we had started. We were fully expecting them to pass us at any point, and I glanced over my shoulder more often than I care to admit. The simple question of “I wonder what happened to the gurkhas?” was a frequently and hotly debated topic as we made our way through the wilderness. However, our explanations as to why they haven’t passed us yet became increasingly wilder and far-fetched as the day progressed. Shortly after the half way-point, just about every statement I uttered started with the words “In my head… “, and whatever rational thoughts remained were lost the moment I began to giggle at the fact that my feet were wet.

Yomp Glenisla(Delirious smiles at a checkpoint around 37 miles into the race. We were so happy to see Bill, our fantastic support person – who took these pictures – waiting for us with dry socks and shoes. Ah, the little things in life!)

Over the course of the next few hours, we nevertheless enjoyed the privilege of being the first participants to visit the aid stations. This not only meant that we could gorge ourselves on the untouched and perfectly symmetrical mountains of chocolate and crisps and cakes that the yomp had to offer; it also meant that we got to enjoy the undivided attention and admiration of the volunteers at each aid station. Their enthusiasm certainly contributed to our relentless forward progress.  Although the responses we got were overwhelmingly supportive and positive, there was one fool of a volunteer at the penultimate aid station who evidently thought he was being funny when he decided to mess with a girl who had just run in excess of 80 kilometres for fun. While I was busy answering a call of nature, he must thought it would be a good idea to shout dumb comments at me, followed by what I can only describe as a very dirty laugh indeed. I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide if he lived to tell the tale or if the wolves of Drimmie wood are gnawing on his bones as I type this…

Although the conditions were good, the run itself was, of course, not always easy; there were swamps to traverse and mountains to climb and one serious downpour we had to weather during the day. Liz and Louise both battled with blisters and I had twisted an ankle only 20 kilometres into the run. In addition, I spent the last hour of our journey wrestling with a stomach that was on the verge of staging a dirty riot. Despite all of this, my overwhelming feeling was one of serene enjoyment. The journey was absolutely epic and more than anything, I felt confident in my ability to tackle whatever beast might rear its ugly head along the way. My body was strong and powerful from the many hours of training and my faithful legs were happy to carry me all day long.

It was towards the end of our run that things started to get seriously epic. Our first clue that something special might happen came in the form of random supporters, who were clearly related to the event, and who had come out to meet and greet us at several road crossings along the way. At one point two official looking men met us in a forest and pleaded with us to slow down long enough to allow them to snap a photo of us, which made us laugh and oblige. We were still somehow leading the whole race at this point, still wondering what on earth had happened to the gurkhas…

When we finally arrived back in Blairgowrie, we received a reception which quickly deluded us into believing that we were skyrunning celebrities. We were effectively the first team to cross the finish line, and in no bad way at all, the first thing I personally did was to burst into tears. This turned out to be rather embarrassing, as there were reporters waiting to take pictures of us, and I just bawled into their cameras for a little while. There were hugs and more tears and champagne (which none of us was fit to drink!) and more pictures. More hugs, more pictures, more cheers. Then, when two reporters asked us for quotes and an interview for a newspaper article, we uttered what I now firmly believe were the least coherent and uninspired phrases that have ever been heard on the meadows of Perthshire. With our bodies tired from fatigue and our brains twisted after hours and hours of focussing on happily plodding along, I think the reporters should consider themselves lucky to not have been trampled to death by our stampede to the food tent.

Yomp Finish Back(Just… epic!)

The gurkhas finally made their appearance only minutes after we had finished our journey. Although they never managed to pass us on the course, they did of course beat us by time, completing the 55 mile Cateran trail in just over 12 hours. However, our finishing time of 12 hours and 55 minutes made us the second fastest team of the day, as well as the fastest female team and fastest non-military team. We went back later to cheer some of the other soldiers across the finish line, and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t feel really cool to have so many of the soldiers, organisers and other competitors come up to shake our hands (in the shower block, over dinner, on the way to the toilets, on the finish line, going to bed, emerging from our tents, over breakfast…) to congratulate us for our speedy traverse of the wilderness.

Yomp Finish Laugh(Note the champagne making a sneaky entrance from the left…)

Please don’t get me wrong though; I have nothing but respect for what these guys are doing every day. I know that in the real world, I would have nothing on these soldiers in terms of toughness and endurance. However, it’s nice to know that in this one particular niche event, this trio of crazy ladies could give an army of very fit young men a run for their money.

As for my recovery, let it suffice for now to say that I spent the following day eating and sleeping like a feral beast. This is not an exaggeration; I woke up at 4 in the morning and proceeded to eat like an animal that has just emerged from hibernation, devouring anything and everything that wasn’t firmly nailed down until I went back to hibernate just after lunchtime. I woke up briefly around midnight, put on my pyjamas and went back to sleep until my alarm clock told me it was time to get up for work on Monday morning. Which I did, feeling surprisingly human.

I couldn’t have wished for a more wonderful introduction to ultramarathon running. I think that every normal runner, upon completion of their first marathon, immediately vows to never do such a crazy thing ever again. It usually takes a few weeks or months to forget the pain and then the mind slowly begins to ponder the “what ifs” and dares to try again. In my case, however, my first taste of ultra running has done nothing but leaving me hungry for more. I guess I’ll just have to come to terms with the fact that there won’t be champagne and reporters and celebrity receptions at the end of every race from now on…

Ladies, it’s been an honour running with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Yomp finish(Tired, but oh so happy and definitely hungry for more!)

Off The Trails

I’m writing this post from my bed, where I’ve put my feet up and am enjoying a glass of red wine; it’s a perfect ending to an amazing day. After a brutally early start and a few hours of driving into a very grey morning, I met up with three friends in Blairgowrie at the start of the Cateran Trail in the Scottish Highlands. Today, we embarked on a reconnaissance run of the first section of the trail, which we will attempt to run in its 54 mile entirety in June.

cateran gate

As soon as we stretched our legs out on the trail, the clouds were blown away by a formidable wind, which although it was responsible for a tougher start to our run than any of us would have liked, also cleared the way for the sun to brighten up the awesome and ever-changing views.

cateran run me

The trail winds its way through three distinct glens, and took us through the some wonderful and wonderfully Scottish scenery. We ran through open farmland and quaint little granite villages, jumped over several little streams and crossed others via bouncy wooden bridges, and enjoyed some shelter from the wind in old pine forests. We crossed wide open stretches of dark, reddish-brown heather, bordered by snow-capped mountains which grew larger and larger on the horizon as we made our way towards them. We eventually climbed over one mountain pass before descending into Spittal of Glenshee, our final destination for the day. We swiftly proceeded to reflect upon our 24 miles of trail running over a round of hot chocolates from the local hotel bar. I know, how hardcore are we, right?

cateran running

As a recce run for the ultramarathon, it has done nothing but inspired me completely. After running the first 10 km or so into the wind, I was feeling so good that I wanted to run the whole trail immediately. Thankfully (or unfortunately?), my comrades weren’t so keen on the idea.

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Having said all of these lovely things, it wasn’t an easy run. The trail is rarely flat and was often wet and boggy under foot. I learned that while salted nuts, crackers and jelly beans work well for me nutrition wise, chocolate macaroons shall be adamantly avoided in future. After running the 24 miles, I was happy to give my legs a rest and to warm my hands on my mug of hot chocolate. However, in less than three months’ I’ll have to keep going for another 30 miles in order to complete the challenge. This is not just going to be a personal journey, I’m also doing this run for a good cause; namely to raise money for ABF The Soldier’s Charity, which gives support to soldiers and their families. If you would like to sponsor me, you can do so here and earn my eternal gratitude!

Cateran Waterfall

Right now, I’ll keep resting my feet, as I’m registered to run the St. Andrews Half Marathon in the morning. It would, of course, be completely idiotic to run it, but since idiocy is a particular speciality of mine, I’ll probably make an appearance. I’m not expecting a fast run at all, in fact, I fully anticipate to run on wooden legs. Let’s see how how far they are willing to carry me, shall we?

Ultra Mind Boggling

Any idiot can run a marathon. It takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultramarathon.

-Alan Cabelly

With the Inverness Half Marathon and Rome Marathon well and truly run, my attention is now naturally turning towards my next target race. In principle, this is all business as usual: I flirt with an event, research it a little, enter it, contemplate/freak out about what I’ve just done, plan the training, and proceed to throw myself at it with bestial vigour. When it’s all done and dusted, I brush myself off and it all begins again. Only this time, I fear that my head might just explode.

Help

You see, my next target run happens to be a 55 mile ultramarathon. I’ve got thirteen weeks to prepare myself for the ordeal fun. Here are just some of the thoughts which are currently haunting my head:

  • The distance is more than twice as far as I’ve ever run. I’m trying to imagine running a marathon, but instead of limping across the finish line, I’ll just keep going and run: Another. Whole. Blooming. Marathon. And then, instead of limping across that finish line, I’ll still keep going to stagger on for another 3 miles, just for the laugh. After that, I can hypothetically limp over any line I like, but I’m pretty sure I’ll just drop dead instead. Seriously, this is a distance that most people would refuse to cycle.
  • This ultra-distance-I-can’t-comprehend will all be run on the trails. Sounds really lovely, doesn’t it? It will be, I’m sure. Especially the bit where none of it is flat. My quads hate me already.
  • I’ve worked out that I will need to consume around 6000 calories during that run. I honestly can’t even being to comprehend how I’m going to achieve this. Presently, the mere thought is enough to provoke my stomach into staging a dirty riot. It’s like eating the equivalent of a Christmas day dinner on the run. I’m beginning to suspect that ultramarathons are basically falsely advertised binge-eating contests with a little bit of running in between.
  • I’m actually paying money so that I can spend a day eating obscene amounts of sweets, lose all my toenails and pee/poo/vomit repeatedly in the bushes. Whoever markets these events is a genius.
  • There’s a good chance that I’ll start the run in the best shape of my life. There’s an equally good chance that I’ll finish the run in the worst shape of my life.

Still, I have got all these overly romantic visions of spending many wonderful hours on the trails as part of some spiritual journey in which I find myself by running away. Clearly, there is a seriously masochistic aspect of my personality that is longing to be discovered.

My training plan is ready. So am I. I think.

Funny Ultramarathon Sign

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

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“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

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Cateran trail3

cateran trail 4

I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!

On the Long Run

Oh, Sunday morning – in my world, that means one thing: long run! And what a glorious day it was today; in the midst of the cold, grey Scottish winter the sun managed to melt away the clouds for the morning and even the wind was howling with less vigour that before.

Today, I ran out of my front door and along the Fife Coastal Path for 20 miles. I absolutely loved the feeling of going on a running journey – while circular runs are very convenient, it’s always a bit frustrating to run for three or four hours only to finish where I’ve started. The only downside to the point-to-point run was that I had to catch a bus back home, but it wasn’t all bad – while waiting for the bus, I had time to grab a massive sandwich and a Chai Tea Latte – heaven! The ground conditions on the coastal path were ever changing and ranged from harbour roads and crossing flat, bouncy grass tracks to staggering through deep sand and unrunnable scrambles over slippery rocks on the shore. I took each hurdle as it came and stayed happy and relaxed the whole way, as evidenced by the fact that I kept stopping to take photographs:

Heading to the trail:

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Is it just me, or is this just asking to be run?

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I passed several pretty fishing villages:

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Stopped to admire the views:

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This came out of nowhere – I suspect  that I took a wrong turn somewhere and ran into a fairytale…

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Passing some interesting rock formations on the route:

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This is where the going got tougher, but the end (St. Andrews) was in sight:

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After 32 kilometres the sun was still shining on me:

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When training for a marathon, my long runs involve running up to 35 km (or 22 miles) at a reasonably steady pace. In those runs, the goal is to keep moving forward, to dial into a pace and stick to it for the next 3 hours or so.

However, in preparation for the 88km ultramarathon in June, I’m aware that I’ll have to make some significant changes to my approach to running for a really long time. For a start, my long runs will have to get a lot longer; I’m hoping to clock several long runs of 6 hours and in excess of 50 kilometres before then. Right in this moment, even writing about those kind of distances makes me feel a little queasy! I’m sure that training my body to endure what I’m planning on inflicting upon it will be the relatively doable part – it’s the taming of the craziness that is my mind which leaves me feeling a little twitchy!

I’ll also have to take my long runs onto the trails a lot more often before the ultra. At the moment, I like to alternate my long runs between the roads and flat-ish trails and footpaths, which I find is a good combination to prepare me for a road marathon.

Finally, I’ll have to slow things down a lot. At the very least, there will be several pit stops on race day. Although the plan is to run the whole 88km, the reality is that there will of course be stretches that I’ll walk: necessitated, for instance, by particularly steep climbs, eating dinner on the go, giving sore muscles a stretch or break, or even the temporary surrender to fatigue. The idea of walking on long runs is new to me, and while I won’t have to practice the walking itself (duh!), I need to get used to the transition back to running as soon as possible. And I have no doubt that this will get increasingly harder with every passing mile!

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What have you been up to this weekend? Did anyone else get to enjoy the surprisingly fantastic weather?