Sicily Calling

11893910_10153670574888638_1072313027752695723_o

View from Catania airport

In Autumn 2014, while on a weeks day holiday in Malta I took the opportunity to go on an organised day trip to Sicily. I only needed to read two words about the excursion and I was sold -Mount Etna. There is something alluring about an active volcano, and one with a large population centre so close by. During the day trip I was fascinated that the differences between Malta and Sicily are striking in so many ways even though they are in such close proximity to each other.

Walking around Etna

Walking around Etna

11 months and one eruption later, I took another weeks holiday to Malta with a second trip to Sicily seemingly compulsory. This time I wanted stay in Sicily a few nights and I came across the rather enticing La Rosa Di Finale villa, close to Cefalu on the Northern coastline. The flight from Malta took around 30 minutes, and exiting Catania airport Mount Etna was dominating the skyline with a plume of smoke emerging from the top. Once we picked up our hire car, this was a first destination. After leaving Catania and passing through Nicolosi the road paving and buildings go dark in colour with bricks and blocks that were cut from volcanic rock. My second time on Etna was just as special as the first trip, and I was quite happy to spend several hours there in awe and admiration of both the destructive forces of nature, and it’s ability to regenerate.

The Villa

The Villa, La Rosa di Finale

Driving in Sicily on this trip has given me a new found appreciation for engineering. The bridges, tunnels and aqueducts that traverse the landscape, make for fascinating driving by motorway. These works of engineering allow for ease of transportation around the island. On to the villa, the directions we received from Gavan off the motorway to the villa, La Rosa di Finale, was very simple and easy to find. We were warmly welcomed by Franca who showed us everything we needed to know about the very modern villa. Within a few feet of the front door are olive trees, lime trees, vines, a vegetable patch and next door is a working farm with lots of friendly looking cows. In front of the villa is a sea view and behind is a hilltop village. Each evening just after it got dark, we could hear a bell ringing from the direction of the hilltop village. Staying at the villa really felt like we were engaged with our surroundings.

Hilltop village in the background

Hilltop village from the villa

Over the next few days the villa was quite a convenient location for our visits to Palermo & Messina, we enjoyed the nearby beaches, dined locally in Finale, and acquired some Marsala wine. Having the use of the hirecar and staying at the villa afforded us a pleasantly different experience as visitors, from chillaxing in the morning with breakfast outdoors to returning in the evening and watching the sunset into the sea.

12109045_10153818715497089_5958566831511650287_n

Evening time view

Next year I am already planning another Malta and Sicily adventure which has now become a tradition! I want to stay longer as it is needed to enjoy more of what can be experienced in such a wonderful part of the Mediterranean. 

Advertisements

10353020_10152950156438638_869096985784995922_n

With the Irish Mountain Running Association calendar now released and before the first race comes around, there is ample time to look around and choose a race that takes your fancy and try your luck. Next, there is time and effort required to propose, offer and accept a carpool offer. Travel and transport is needed to get a chance to see if you can run with the flow and express yourself on the evening, but not before the formalities of registration. At the start the ‘ground rules’ and expectations are set, before the entrants start on their way, with some more eager than others… After an initial nervousness and anxiety including ‘sticking to the crowd’, biding your time can be given up and an enthusiastic burst can give you some one-on-one time with the trail. It can easy going at first, but an adrenaline rush can lead to a reckless abandon that is so engaging with the terrain it can leave you short of breath. Every hill is diversely unique, some are more appealing than others, everyone has their own favourite. Reaching the top can give a breathless satisfaction, and things can really speed up from there on. Once back at the finish there is an uplifted atmosphere and a celebratory mood at the prize giving. Everyone there is eager to share their experiences and moves/choices. After a blissful evening of mountain running, will you get a call the next day? Do you run each hill only once, or when you have found your kind of race with a course that you feel is made for you, are you comfortable running on other hills? An uncomfortable decision or a paradox to manage… Ever feel like others don’t understand or even disapprove? They may admire the energetic enthusiasm but don’t want to get involved themselves. For the next sojourn into the hills, some planning is required. Even with the best of planning sometimes the day is hot, sometimes cold, sometimes there’s the embrace of the wind and sometimes the atmosphere is tearful with rain. But always it is an encounter embraced with an elevated heart-rate. The only thing is you can’t take it home with you….except for the selfies.

I WATCH AND I WAIT

Image

The joys of online shopping for new shoes

Running involves movement and travel, some runs are spontaneous while others are planned. No matter how much I crave being out on a run, the biggest impediment to running is holding down a full time job. Some places of employment are lucky enough to have showers to facilitate running to/from work, or even at lunch time. There is an element of mountain running, more so than road running which involves adventure, uncertainty and surprise. Can this mindset be replicated at work in a running related way, even on a small scale? Sometimes I watch and I wait for the clock to strike at my work finish time so I can switch from working time to running time, but this does not bring surprise as the time and place is fixed and known in advance.

I recently ordered new trail shoes online and put my workplace as my delivery address (sshhh…don’t tell my boss!). I found that the uncertainty of which day they would actually arrive made the work mornings immediately more enjoyable, watching and waiting for the postman to arrive. Looking to see if there is a shoebox shaped parcel, and hoping no other colleagues are around if and when the parcel does arrive. I saw a theatre play at the most recent 10 Days in Dublin festival, where the character onstage at one point had purchased a new pair of running shoes, and demonstrated an elaborate ritualistic performance of opening the box, smelling the shoes, removing the paper inside the shoe, putting one shoe on and testing the comfort of it, and repeating the process for the other shoe. When my trail shoes arrived, I found myself replicating a similar shoe-receiving ritual. Afterwards I was struck by thrill of something that may have looked quite strange to anyone who would have watched this performance in real life rather than onstage.

I wasn’t looking at the trail shoes as just external objects, their form which I encountered unwrapping the package brought forth the creative impulse and power of the imagination. Their appeal was not on their outward appearance, but the emotion, feeling and pulsation evoked of my experiences of trail and mountain running. Had I unwrapped two pieces of art that opened my mind in a way that directly touched my soul and set it in motion? I give the final words to Tim Ingold whilst writing about art also reflects my changing moods whilst mountain running: “now confident, now hesitant, now mournful, now quivering with anticipation, and finally exultant“ (2011:206).

Running is a lifestyle choice not just a training session

Image

Adventures in Urban running?

The most tangible aspect of running is race day. There are many defined aspects including location, start time, distance, route, number of entrants, your finishing time, goodie bag contents, social atmosphere, etc. As enjoyable as races can be, they are typically a once in a while activity. Sessions can be a more regular occurrence and can be fun when feeling fresh, therefore they are usually not more than twice a week. Training can be done everyday but at a different level, intensity and focus. Should we just accept this as limitations, or is there a way to get more out of running on a daily basis without overdoing racing and sessions? A race and a session are very defined events and perhaps the question should be how to break free of the session and adventure into running as a lifestyle choice? Perhaps mountain running could be an alternative which includes the more rich sensory environment of a trail, comparatively engaging our senses to a greater extent that can animate our imagination. If mountain running is the ultimate and you cant always get out into the hills, is there a way to transfer some of the sense of adventure to an urban environment? If we break down mountain running into an activity we could say that it involves desire, which requires unpredictability, adventure, spontaneity. The question becomes more manageable now, how to facilitate these aspects of desire, unpredictability, adventure and spontaneity to running in an urban environment and on a daily basis?

The biggest stumbling block is that some days are busy days, involving responsibilities, commitments and schedules. What if I have a hectic day, where am I going to fit in my training? I could get up very early to run, but that is not always so fun and is that really my only option? If I get creative and introduce some risk, it is much more adventurous to integrate running and commuting. There is the risk of messing up your appearance (aka sweating, via bad weather, etc), having a reckless disregard for standard procedure (avoiding public/private transport, cycling, etc). Creativity involves how you are going to manage the commute. On a bicycle or on public/private transport, it is easy to carry a bag, even a quite sizeable one without much extra effort. Carrying stuff whilst running can be burdensome, therefore there are decisions to be made such as to carry your lunch or carry your wallet to buy lunch. Do I bring spare clothes or carefully choose items that I’ll present myself in when I arrive? More and more workplaces have showers and lockers which can facilitate exercise as a commute, including leaving workplace clothes in work. You may find things can become unnecessary unless it fits into a bumbag and even that can be dispensed with. A phone and debit card can become the bare essentials.

To integrate running as a lifestyle choice it can change your perception, your focus and spending habits in many ways including:

  • Shrinking the city: Your perception of distance and ability to get around.
  • Increased desire to be self reliant on your own two feet to get around. This may lead to quoting the following: “No one is your friend but your legs, your legs are your friend”, as told to a young Geronimo (We Shall Remain: Episode 4, 2009)
  • What you say to yourself: For example if you aimed to train twice a day, before the second run of the day you may find yourself thinking, am I tried? Do I need to rest? You may find this analysis and questioning and uncertainty absence when running is no longer a defined training session. This can free up energy and focus during day for other things in the moment. When it comes time to go home the focus tends to be more action focused such as, I am here and I want to get home, am putting on my shoes and going on my way.
  • Spending: You may find yourself investing in merino wool running products instead of public transport.
  • Admiration from others may reinforce using running as commuting!

Race Report: IMRA Dublin Peaks 1st Sept 2013

ImageImage

When I looked at the IMRA calendar at the start of the year, this was THE race I wanted to do above all others. Only problem was during the entire year a number of non-running issues was significantly limiting my training. So much so, my last mountain running race was 12 months previous. With such limited training, even 2 weeks beforehand I thought I wouldn’t make this race even if it was used as a training run. Until that is, I went on a recce (which was purely a chance for me to run in the hills) 10 days beforehand with Laura and John, and it inspired me to think maybe I could do the Short Course. After a second recce 4 days before, I thought ‘definitely’ I could do the Short Course!

On the day, I had a 30mins cycle to take up a kind carpool offer, which I considered my warm-up. As I figured I’d be running somewhere between 3-4 hours, I thought why make that time running longer with a warm-up? After the Race Director got us underway I found myself struggling a bit going up to Fairy Castle. Seems a 30mins cycle 2 hours before a race isn’t much good as a mountain race warm-up. John had kindly shared his local knowledge to show myself & Laura shortcuts up to Fairy Castle. Although it seemed others knew about those short-cuts too (or maybe just one runner and everyone followed). Halfway up I found myself behind Alan, and I thought ‘perfect’ remembering the IMRA saying ‘if in doubt follow Alan’. Summiting Fairy Castle, Alan has stored his punch-card in a not so easily accessible place so I punched my card first and ran on. Alan very kindly then sprinted back up to me and past me to shade me from the wind…or at least that’s how it seemed, but thanks Alan!

When we got to Tibradden, Alan again had stored his punch card in a not so easily accessible place. So again I punched my card first and I thought if I run on Alan is sure to catch up again. At this point I was joined by Frank, who was making his mind up which way to go after everyone in front of him seemed to ‘just disappear’. I had not recce’d a line directly off Tibradden Cairn to the road, but thought I would take a leap of faith and give it a go anyway. After all, it was such a long way into Tibradden woods and back out what could go wrong? Going directly through the heather off Tibradden cairn, was quick going at first, and when we looked back to see where Alan was, he was no where to be seen. Then we got drawn into the clear-fell (a big no no) which meant a long circular route around. When we eventually crossed the road, and started making our way up the river we had no idea if Alan was ahead of us or behind us. By the time we got to Cruagh we thought we wouldn’t know until we got to Kippure.

The good visibility meant there was no problem finding Cruagh summit, and the path the other side of it. We were quickly on our way to the main road and then the Bog Road check-point for a sup of water. There was no cloud down on Kippure and as I was feeling good I thought ‘how could I not go on to Kippure?’ Long Course it was!. We made good progress on the Bog Road and ascended really well up Kippure, giving a shout to some of the leading runners. Although with lots of early-starters already coming down we weren’t sure who was leading the race. Near the summit we saw Alan on his way back down. This confirmed that we had taken quite a long route off Tibradden…doh!

Got to the summit of Kippure (which was also my first time ever on Kippure) in 1hr 45mins and feeling good and still with Frank, who also gave me a brief history of copper-burning in the area on the way. I found it slow going down Kippure and a bit of tiredness starting coming on. The wind was blowing my hair into my eyes, and I am at the point now I have to decide: haircut or bandanna? When we got back to Nora at the checkpoint, had another sip of water and we were on our way. Managed to overshoot Cruagh…doh! After punching, then lost Frank along the river descent through the trees back to the road. After messing up coming off Tibradden Cairn, there was no way this would happen on the way back and I found a trail through the forest which led directly to the carin. As it was v steep and slow going, it afforded plenty of opportunity for blueberry picking, aka re-fueling.

As I had never run more that 2.5 hours ever (and only once in 2013) tiredness really started to creep in from Tibradden to Fairy Castle. I took the short-cut on the way and it started shredding my shins. Maybe I should wear shin-guards next time? After punching at Fairy Castle I missed the trail between Fairy Castle & Three Rock…doh! On the tarmac road I could feel I’d lost a number of studs in my shoes, a letter of complaint may be forthcoming. Finally & eventually I came in to finish and to a nice round of applause. Fantastic race, great conditions, no idea how far I ran but the time was an hour more than I’d run ever. Although me thinks I need to do a few more recce’s before the next edition, but roll on Powerscourt Ridge!

For Every Runner Who’s Gone Off Course

Image

The appropriateness of ‘not lost, just exploring’

There is a time and a place for everything. Exploring new trails and routes is part of the adventure of mountain running, but just not when you’re in a race. On a defined course, to step off it brings serious risk. Sometimes you can be off-course for a while without realizing it. If it can be quickly rectified, a minor inconvenience at best. The longer it goes on for the greater the risk it puts on your race participation status, no one wants this kind of breach. Adjusting to the realization can be tricky, as your focus can easily be distracted, such as the uncertainty of what would have happened if I had stayed on course ….if I had made a different directional choice ….if the course had more markings/marshals… if I had done a recce…. In this situation there is so much to lose, such as:

  • Time.
  • Placings (sometimes bragging rights).
  • The chance to be competitive over the full course.
  • Race entrant status (ie receiving DNF for non-compliance).
  • Navigation reputation.
  • Ability to compare this races performance with recent ones.
  • Often a full weeks wait is required for the next race to ‘get back in the saddle’.

It is potentially the beginning of the end of your race unless it can be rectified and time is of the essence. To get back on course can have two different outcomes:

  1. You’ve run more than the official course (the most common outcome).
  2. You’ve unintentionally run less than the official course. In an effort to get back on course and after rediscovering course markings you realize you’re now ahead of people you haven’t passed during the race. This brings extra risk because the perception of whether this was intentional or not brings very different responses.

Being in non-compliance of the official race route doesn’t just affect your race day. Usually your training has been adjusted the few days prior to the race in order to be competitive. On the day, it is often another week before a ‘get back in the saddle’ race is available, which can potentially stretch the dissatisfaction out for the same period.

If we take a step back and look at it from another perspective. If we love something, love strives us for the other to become familiar, predictable, safe. Mountain running also involves desire, which requires unpredictability, adventure, spontaneity. These feelings energize us, cause us to feel more alive. One of the hazards of mountain running is there is always the chance you’ll go off course. This can be fun in training as you tend not to be lost, just exploring. However in a race, you risk forfeiting your race entrant identity (ie gaining a DNF). This has the added on effect (in addition to the above) of the realization: race entrant fee + DNF = ‘pain of paying‘. Mountain running has this brand of the familiar and the unexpected, a mix which can increase and diversify the experience. The lure and fear of mountain running is an individual dilemma which needs to be managed. A balanced amount of fear is important to respect and engage the course. Too much of it can overwhelm the lure. So far the best advice I’ve heard is from Gerry Brady, “if in doubt, recce”. Sometimes it is not enough to just rock up on the day, the mountains and trails need us to engage with them and get somewhat familiar in advance. My interaction with the mountains is an ongoing relationship. So far it is an affair that has not abated.

The Lure & Fear of Mountain Running: Part 2

Reframing the Fear and Facilitating the Lure

600940_10151686924183638_61510315_n

In our lives there are times we seek safety and times we desire adventure. If we apply this to running, is it reflective on our mood or our environment? Is there such things as safe runs and adventurous runs? We all have familiar training runs that are predictable, safe and potentially dull. Mountain running tends to be viewed as for the more adventurous, it can be unpredictable and involves risk. It is the more predictable and safe road and track running clubs and races that are much more popular numbers-wise in general compared to the minority sport of mountain running. By comparison, are we looking at a choice between safe and predictable versus risk and adventure? Perhaps this is not really an accurate reflection. In terms of a majority choosing safe over adventurous running, is this a general trend or an individual dilemma to be managed? I would like to suggest a reframing to explore a different viewpoint.

It is interesting if we compare track athletes with cross-country athletes who compete over similar distances. Although track athletes run at faster speeds, it is said that cross-country athletes are comparatively less likely to experience pain. In a study by Cioffi, it was concluded that track athletes tend to deplete resources focusing on the pain in contrast to cross-country athletes who receive a much more rich environmental sensory stimulation enabling them to pick and focus on a distracting stimulus.

Many would consider the safe aspect of track and road running as being the predictable environment we run in. If something is known and predictable, safety is presumed. If we consider safety as a construction rather than a given, and inverse our perception that instead of the risk being ‘out here’ but rather inside us. The risk of high intensity and pain of a track or road race is right in front of us in our minds, detached somewhat from the environment.

The more rich sensory environment of a mountain trail, comparatively engages our senses to a greater extent and can animate our imagination. In the inversed perception, the danger is no longer ‘out there’, but within us in how we move and use our bodies in a skilled way to traverse the terrain. This inversed perception changes the focus away from what surface we run on, to our movement and an embodied experience. The more skilled we are in our movement the more the risks are minimised by becoming suitably responsive.

The above indicates the possibility of a split. There is some anecdotal evidence that a lot of people try mountain running briefly and do not pursue it further. There is the possibility they drop out before developing skilled movement. Are they focused on the danger being inside them or ‘out there’? What if there is a synapse for some to cross to perceive accurately the risks, which can motive someone to develop appropriate skills in response. Those who are reluctant may perhaps need to give themselves permission to encourage and facilitate their embodied experience, expression and imagination in order to overcome. If it can be said that the body holds the individuals history, then this split derived from memory can be healed through the body experience through movement. Feed the lure of the mountains by getting out on the trail, not just at races but in training as well and develop skilled movement!