History, Running, Travel, UK

All Toes on the Towpath

Belfast is a surprisingly wonderful city for running, with no shortage of greenways, parks and riverbank trails. My favorite place for long weekend runs is definitely the towpath, which runs for 11 miles alongside the Lagan River and forms the backbone of Lagan Valley Regional Park, an area of 4,200 acres that includes meadow, forest, marsh, historical estates and urban parkland.

The towpath is a remnant of the Lagan Canal, a 27-mile water route linking Loch Neagh (the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles) to Belfast Harbour. The canal’s main purpose was transporting coal to Belfast. In an era when roads were undeveloped and there were no trains or motorboats, ‘lighters’ were pulled along the canal by a horse, which was led by a guy called a ‘hauler’ .The stretch from Belfast to Lisburn opened in 1763 and is known as the Lagan Navigation, ‘navigation’ being a term used to describe a river whose water is made more navigable by a system of locks . The second part, from Lisburn to Loch Neagh, opened in 1796.

By the 1950s, the Lagan canal was rendered obsolete. But even today there are a few reminders of the old days—a cute lock-keeper’s cottage, an abandoned canal barge and the towpath itself, the trail along the banks where horses plodded towing the boats. The path is now paved with asphalt and has become a popular walking and cycling trail. In fact, it has even been absorbed into the National Cycle Network of Northern Ireland, which explains the silent wheeled ones who zoom past you every once in a while.

The waters of the Lagan are dark and deep, reflecting the varied greens of trees and plants that grow on its banks. Birds are at home here; I regularly see herons, terns, gulls, coots, mallards and Irish magpies with iridescent green in their black feathers. Allegedly there are also tufted ducks and jays (garrulus glandarius) but I have never seen them.

A lot of the riverside plants are unfamiliar to me, especially the pink things I’ve nicknamed ‘bucket flowers’ that grow in great clusters all along the banks. I’m pretty sure they’re the source of a delicious fragrance that combines elements of watermelon, pepper, honeysuckle and grass. On warm August days it seemed each bucket flower was occupied by a bee and I took care not to bump into them or into the pin-pricking nettles on the path’s verge.

My towpath trail begins at the Belfast Boat Club, the biggest multi-sports and leisure club in Northern Ireland. It’s always pretty busy around there, with the tennis courts full and the joining restaurant very popular.  

Further along the path on the opposite side of the river is Belvoir Forest Park, which is the only place in Belfast where I’ve gotten seriously lost. After running around in circles for two hours and emerging briefly onto  I finally emerged onto a street called Galwally Avenue and guessed my way back into town.

Ever since getting lost in Belvoir Forest Park I tend to stay on the other side of the river until getting to the little red bridge, which takes me over past some restored locks, an old lock-keeper’s cottage and then on over John Luke Bridge. This was named for the famous Northern Irish painter John Luke (1906-1975), who started out working as a riveter in a Belfast shipyard and is considered one of the greatest Irish painters of the twentieth century.

  

Three Dancers (1945) by John Luke

John Luke Bridge takes you past a car park and into Clement Wilson Park. This, was apparently the site of a clog factory until bought by Wilson Management Ltd. in 1929, when it became a fruit-canning factory.  Because the factor was so far from town, factory staff wandered around the surrounding grounds during their lunch break rather than going home. This allegedly inspired management to landscape and prettify the grounds. The city council bought the area from the Clement Wilson factory in 1974 and it is now a very pretty park with a paved trail suitable for wheelchairs and strollers.  

Weaving between dogs, children, cyclists and hand-holding couples, I eventually get to Shaw’s Bridge, an impressive structure that owes its existence to the need for artillerymen to cross the River Lagan to carry out Cromwell’s genocidal conquest of Ireland. Originally oak, the bridge was rebuilt in stone in 1709 and has remained in its original condition ever since.  

Shaw’s Bridge

When I get to the Mr. Whippy Truck and Shaw’s Bridge, it means that I am only a couple of steps away from Barnett’s Desmesne, which is named for its last private owner William Barnett, a grain merchant and the breeder of the first Irish horse to win the Derby (Trigo, 1929). The grounds include woodland, flowery meadows and a grand renovated Georgian mansion called Malone House. This stretch of the towpath is probably my favorite because it is usually very quiet and peaceful and there are some beautiful old trees overhanging the path. Occasionally I have come across people doing a spot of line fishing from the path.

 The next bulk of city-owned green we meet is Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park. This is named for a Belfast ship owner and his wife, who was made a Dame for services to Admittedly the towpath skirts its borders so I have never actually been in the park proper but by all accounts it is a nice place covering more than 128 acres, which includes the City of Belfast International Rose Garden.

Portrait of Lady Edith Stewart Dixon By Henrietta Rae (30 December 1859 – 26 January 1928) (c) Larne Borough Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

After that there is a mile of green water. A BBC article says that it’s probably just duckweed but others think it’s algae. I’m not sure, but it’s a striking sight. Along this stretch of towpath there are some cow fields. That’s about where I turn around.

If you are ever in Belfast when it’s not raining, or if it is raining and you have a raincoat, I highly recommend the towpath for an afternoon of wonderful wandering.

Asia, Running, Travel

MaxPhht Bangkok

When we arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was that it would not be practical to run outside. The sky was a sludgy color and the evening sun looked like a bright-orange moon over hazy high-rise silhouettes. Traffic on the expressway next to our hotel stretched bumper-to-bumper day and night. Even the little sideroad had no sidewalk and heavy traffic—a mix of giant tour buses and scooter taxis. The scent of gasoline fumes combined with a pungent smell emanating from a nearby canal made breathing something of a chore. And apart from that, it was 33 degrees centigrade on a cool day.

 

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All the same, I did definitely need to run because running calms me down. Two days before, the Indian government had inexplicably refused John’s visa 24 hours before we were all set to fly there and 48 hours before we were required to leave Sri Lanka. The shock of this unexpected set-back, combined with the mental effort of making new arrangements, had left me fit for a strait-jacket.

 

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Our hotel, which boasted of a fitness center on booking.com, mysteriously did not actually have a fitness center. It also, despite attractive ads featuring martinis in the elevator, did not have a ‘sky bar’, so seeking solace in drink was also out. Luckily, one of the non-imaginary services the hotel did provide was a free shuttle service to any destination within 5 kilometers. Accordingly, I searched for a gym and found something called Maxfit Performance exactly five kilometers from the hotel.

So the next morning I got into the van bright and early dressed in an old T-shirt, a little snug around the middle perhaps, and trackpants. The driver, avoiding choked-up main arteries, took me through a maze of roads and I looked with interest at the goings-on. Children in crisp white blouses and shirts headed off to school. Street-food vendors in wide-brimmed hats grilled tiny sausages, chopped mangoes and papaya, and neatly bagged soups and curries. Stray dogs trotted by the side of the road, expert traffic dodgers. Thousands of scooter riders wove between the cars—some of them carrying an entire family with the father driving, toddler squished in between (sometimes standing up!) and mother behind holding on to the child. Interestingly, there were taxi-scooters, identifiable by official orange vests complete with taxi ID stuck to the front. Women passengers in short skirts sometimes rode side-saddle.

 

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After about half an hour, the van dropped me off at the address I’d given. It seemed to be an upscale, brand-new outdoor mall with a dog-centred theme. There was a dog-food bakery, a pet-accessories store, a tea shop with puppy pictures on the walls. I couldn’t immediately see the gym but the helpful driver asked a cleaning lady and she pointed me up a set of stairs.

At the top, I entered a big room that had zero treadmills or exercycles. There was a group of people jumping around holding weights and a guy in a baseball cap who gave me a big toothy smile and Mickey Mouse wave. I started backing away but before I could get out the door, a young guy with bulky upper arms emerged from his lair and asked if he could help me.

“Hi, I’m Adam,” he said in Australian accent. “Come into the office and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

I followed him. The office also contained a beefy blond fellow, an American named Jake who might have been in the United States Marine Corps and done five million push-ups before breakfast. Adam pointed to a chair and I dutifully sat down.

“What are you looking for today?” he said earnestly.

“I was just wanting somewhere to run,” I said, “With it being so hot,” I waved at the window.

He nodded seriously. I could see him taking in my sloppy attire.

“Have you ever been to a place like this?”

“Er, actually, what kind of place is this?” I asked.

“I’m glad you asked. We provide a service that is just like personal training except that it is done in small, supportive groups. Our customers come from all kinds of different backgrounds—yoga, weightlifting, pilates—and we all learn from each other.”

“Well, I was really looking for somewhere to run in the heat. Do you…run?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Do you have treadmills?” I asked hopefully.

“You can find treadmills in any of the commercial gyms on the street,” he grimaced.

“Oh. OK,” I felt heartened by the implication that there were thousands of them out there. I only had to walk a block before tripping over one.

“So let me tell you a little bit about what we do here. You’ve probably heard of the Body Mass Index, the BMI?”

I nodded.

“Well, where most gyms go wrong is not focusing on the fat-to-muscle ration of the body mass.”

Uh oh, I thought and sucked my stomach in a bit.

“How much do you weigh, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Er, I’m not sure. I haven’t weighed myself recently.”

“Probably 63 kilograms,” he shrugged. “And how tall are you?”

“About a meter sixty-five.”

“Right,” he nodded. “And,” he titled his head and looked at my middle, “Probably fourteen per cent fat.”

“Hmmm,” I said. He had the self-satisfied look of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, demonstrating his personal-trainer expertise. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no outward evidence of him having any sustained serious injuries. His nose had never been broken, for example. If his job was coolly estimating women’s fat percentage to their faces, it seemed like it would entail grave risks. He was safe with me because I have iron self-control where violent urges are concerned, but another day he would not be so lucky.

 

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A case for the side eye

 

“If you joined us, we’d make a point of measuring your muscle-to-fat ration in order to accurately track your process.”

Over my fat, dead body, I thought.

He produced a folder from his shelf and opened it to a page full of headless female bellies. There was the ab-tastic ideal at the top left and things got fuller and floppier from there.

“Now,” Adam said, “I would say, considering your percentage, you would be somewhere around here,” he jabbed a scientific finger at number eleven, a wobbly paunch that looked like the ‘before’ photo from an infomercial for liposuction.

“Huh,” I said. Inside, I brooded. “What kind of lousy sales pitch is this? This gym should be renamed ‘Masochist Fat Gym’! FFS, I just want to run off some anxiety and now I’m getting lectured about diet by a juvenile steroid casualty! SMGDH.” I’m not saying that there wasn’t justice in young Adam’s remarks. I’m just saying that his approach revealed a lack insight into female psychology, particularly the psychology of a stressed female who just wants to go for a run and doesn’t care to focus on her love handles just at this moment thank you very much.

“The way we measure it,” Adam continued, warming to his subject, “Is with this fat caliper.”

 

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I stared with dull horror at the plastic instrument he was waving around like some kind of deformed lobster pincer. Surely he did not intend to apply it now? If he did, I decided then and there, I would fight him. To the death. Sure he had the big muscles, but I had the crazy. The element of surprise would be an advantage—he’d never see it coming.

“But,” I sputtered, “Why does it matter?”

He looked amazed.

“Less fat means a fitter you,” he explained, as if to a confused child. “If you have a greater ratio of muscle then you will be stronger, faster and fitter. Have you ever done any exercise in the past?”

“Yes, I run,” I said through gritted teeth. Clearly he had not noticed that my T-shirt said ‘Patagonia Marathon’.

“Right!” he smiled brightly. “So with less fat you will be faster.”

“But I don’t want to win any races, I just like running.”

He looked perplexed. He knew I was wrong but I was so wrong that he couldn’t think of any logical way to respond.

“Well, to be honest I just want to run and not do other stuff,” I said, getting up “So I’m not sure this is the right fat–I mean fit–for me.”

“Well, why not sign up for a trial session?” He asked. “What have you got to lose?”

Possible answers: time, money, patience, self-esteem…

“Oh no, I think I’ll just…I’m only here for a few weeks, so I’ll just go to a commercial gym. Thanks very much!” 

As I went down the stairs I thought it was kind of funny that this gym didn’t consider itself commercial. After all, it wasn’t exactly free. What did it think it was? A spiritual gym?

 

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Running, Travel

Trying the Very Trying Trail Vallee de Joux

This Saturday I was in Le Sentier to pick up my bib for my first ultramarathon, the Trail Vallee de Joux (85km). As John and I sat in a café flicking through a newspaper, I saw the news from Vienna: that very morning, Eliud Kipchoge had run the fastest marathon in history: one hour, fifty-nine minutes and forty seconds. This meant that this human comet had managed to run every single one of the 26.2 miles faster than 4 minutes and thirty-four seconds, a speed not so very far away from the world record for one mile (Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:43:13). I think I might have run that fast for five meters once when trying to catch a receding school bus.

 

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Sipping my coffee, I reflected on the fact that not only had Eliud Kipchoge managed to accomplish this incredible feat of physical endurance, but he’d finished with a smile. If he could do that, how much easier would it be for me to run 50-something miles at a mule’s pace without keeling over? Much easier!

Aside from dying, there was only one thing worrying me: the race started at 2.30 am and our hotel was 3 kilometers from the pick-up point with no taxis willing to come to our village (“Désolé ca sera pas possible”). I didn’t want to run an extra three kilometers without getting credit for them. So, when we went to pick up my bib at the Centre Sportif, John, a polyglot, asked the official if he knew of anyway I could cadge a ride. The man looked thoughtful for a moment then said that we should come back in 20 minutes. We took a seat and watched the pleasant scene of families milling around between sessions of ice-hockey or swimming. Gazing wistfully at the beautiful outdoor jacuzzi surrounded by lounge chairs, John murmured wistfully, “That’s what you get when you have a public sector.”

 

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The official returned with a guy who said I should be waiting outside my hotel at one-thirty sharp that morning. The guy seemed very stern and not altogether happy at his new midnight mission, so I promised solemnly that I would be there. I suspected he thought that, as a foreigner, I probably lacked the true Swiss respect for temporal precision.

It was hard to sleep beforehand. For nine hours I lay awake staring at the ceiling and wondering if the bloody cows would ever stand still. Cow bells are the soundtrack of the Jura mountains. The first couple of days I found their gamelan clanging quaint and even soothing, but in my pre-race state of heightened nervousness, the distant, constant racket started to annoy. I wondered why it was necessary, in this day and age, for an animal to wear a great honking bell around its neck. If farmers were worried about losing their giant animals, why didn’t they just stick some kind of tracking mechanism under the skin, as pet owners do? As the watchful hours wore on, I realized that Swiss emigration to America could explained by a persecuted people’s desire for a little peace and quiet.

 

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Public Enemy No. 1

 

There were other bells too. When we booked the hotel, we’d asked for a quiet room. Technically, most of the time, it was a quiet room. But it was directly, as if scientifically measured, opposite the bell-tower of a church. This being Switzerland, the church had an excellent timepiece and wanted everyone to know it. The bell rang loud and clear every quarter hour. On the hour it burst into a long-winded and obnoxiously emphatic explanation of exactly what time it was.

Meanwhile, it being a Saturday night, there was some kind of lively musical event happening nearby. It was loud but I didn’t mind it too much because the singer was doing a pretty good attempt of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. I took this as a good omen, which shows how foolish superstition is.

To make a long story short, one-thirty arrived and I was standing outside the hotel. Just as I suspected, the guy showed up exactly on the half-hour, right in the middle of the ‘dong dong’. I jumped into the car and we set off for Le Sentier. I remarked on the warmth of the evening and he said that it was warmer than he could remember it being at this time of year. I tried a conversational gambit on the topic of Climate Change but there was a language-barrier issue that caused the small talk to sputter out. Thankfully, we reached the sporting center before the social awkwardness could bloom to suicide-inducing levels. I offered him payment for the ride, but he adamantly refused to accept any money, which was awfully decent of him. I can not imagine sacrificing any sleep for a total stranger.

I jumped on the bus saying ‘Bon jour’ to the driver. He laughed and said ‘Bon soir’. I sat down on the bus and watched with growing dismay the other people getting on the bus. They were all half cheetah. Rangy, weathered, sleek and well equipped. And so polite, at two o’clock in the morning. It was inhuman. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, not being able to face small talk.

At 2.15 precisely the bus set off for the town of L’Abbaye, where the race was to begin. The bus disgorged us outside a hotel and so I followed the crowd down the hill, where there was the familiar row of porta-potties, fences arranged in a starting corridor and van for the collection of ‘drop bags’. Soon, though, people started walking back up the driveway. Confused, I followed them. They walked to a hall where runners were gathering to drink tea, eat bread and jam and put on all their gear. I noticed that some people were collecting bibs for other races and suddenly doubted I was in the right place after all. I went out back across the road and down the driveway, but there was no one there yet. Finally, I was convinced that most people were in the tea building and so I stayed there, keeping an eye on them.

 

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Finally, there was a herd movement downwards. For some reason, three men were gathered around a flaming tree stump in the driveway. As we were all gathered at the starting block, someone made a speech in French and then a man with a pistol started counting down. Behind me I heard an American woman confide to her friend, “The only thing I’m worried about is getting lost.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” her friend replied chirpily. “You did study the course beforehand right? So you’ll be fine!”

 

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This conversation unsettled me. The possibility of getting lost had not occurred to me. Aside from a few glances, I had not studied the course beforehand in any detail. I hoped that this interplay was merely a kind of subtle ‘psyching out’ game between rivals and that there really was no need to worry.

The pistol went off.

The first few moments were great. Everyone moved and I felt like a wildebeest setting off with her brothers and sisters on a long journey to a new home. It was something the first, non-gloomy, stanza of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon “Everyone Sang”:

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

 

There we all were, moving at a nice pace, not too fast because we had a whole day of running ahead of us, but not slow either. Our headlights created a road of light in a world that, except for the bright full moon above, was utterly black. The path was narrow but no one was pushing. I focused on the reflective stripes on the pants of the runner in front of me and settled into a meditative rhythm.

This went on for about half an hour, until we came to Le Pont, a town on the northern tip of Lac de Joux. Here, I felt so confident and pleased that I decided to stop to take a few pictures. When I resumed running, the group I’d been in was nearly out of sight but I saw their headlights cross a railway track and turn right on a path that ran parallel to it. I put on a spurt of speed so that I wouldn’t lose the way, but relaxed somewhat when I realized the path was lit by little reflective flags  The night was so warm and the path was so pleasant—it ran around the forested moonlit shore of yet another lake—that I didn’t mind when the headlight in front of me disappeared around a corner and I was completely alone.

The path became less forested and more rural. When I heard the familiar maddening cow-bell clang and saw three cows near a water trough, I considered asking them acidly if they ever got any sleep. Suddenly, beyond the cows,  three headlights in the distance went up a hill to my right. Relieved that I wasn’t as behind as I’d thought, I trotted on and turned up the same road. But when I got to the top, there were no signs or course markers. I thought maybe the other runners had made a mistake, so I ran downhill toward a church. No arrows there either. I retraced my steps and went right back down the hill to where I’d seen those phantom headlights earlier.

 

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Sure enough, there were pink chalk arrows pointing up the hill. But then I noticed that there was a reflector-flag in the other direction, straight ahead, so I followed it. Fifty meters on, I saw a pink arrow indicating that I should turn around and go back the way I’d come. So I did. I went back up the same hill the other runners had climbed. This time, when I got to the top, I carefully inspected the road for any marker or arrow. Nothing. I’d already turned left last time; this time I went right and, sure enough, a few hundred metres along the way I saw another of those pink chalk arrows pointing up a little track between two fields.

I bounded up that little track, which was quite a climb, until I got to an asphalt road. Here, there were three possible directions. Left was to ‘Mouthe’ in France; straight ahead was up a farm road; right was downhill. Squinting at the  asphalt, I saw a faint white arrow pointing right. It really looked quite old and didn’t conform to the other signage, but it was all I could see, so I went right. This took me past more fields and I looked vainly for more reflector flags to reassure me. At last I thought I saw one that had fallen down into a field. On closer inspection, , I realized that it was just a cat staring up at me.

 

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Finally, I got to the bottom of the farm track I’d already climbed; I’d come full circle. Another unnecessary kilometer. Okay, I gritted my teeth, don’t give up! Let’s try it again…This time, at the top of the track I crossed the asphalt road and went straight up the farm road. At the top was a dairy barn with lights on. There was a road that turned to the left but it looked so dark and someone’s house was there so I concluded it was a private driveway and retraced my steps back to the crossroad.  

 

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Third time lucky! I thought. So, when I got to the bottom (again ascertaining that there were no reflective course markers), I decided to try the road to Mouthe. My reasoning (flawed, but I hadn’t had any sleep) was that even if it wasn’t the right way, it might be nice to go to France and have a pain au chocolat for breakfast before getting a train back to Switzerland. I hared on up the hill for about a kilometer when I realized that this might not be the best plan after all because (a) I didn’t know how far it was to Mouthe and (b) I didn’t speak French and (c) I was running low on water. I really needed to get to the 16-kilometer point, where I could get a refill. Besides, there wasn’t much of a verge on this road. I was also pretty sure by now that this was not the right way.

When I got back to the intersection, there were now suddenly heaps of little reflective markers! They led a little way up the farm road and then to the right, along a trail I hadn’t seen before. Not pausing to wonder how this miracle could have happened, I felt a leap of joy and got going. The markers were very clear now and I pranced across several kilometres of gravel, muddy fields and forest paths. All the way the markers were glinting at me encouragingly. Occasionally there was even a flashing light embedded in the ground. It was a little strange to be all alone, but in an enchanting way, as if some elves had arranged a VIP forest tour for me personally. The air smelled good, like all-spice and pine. Sometimes I heard the hoot of an owl.

 

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On and on I went, wondering where on earth the aid station was. I’d now been running five hours, which meant I’d definitely gone more than 16 kilometres and should have reached it. Something was wrong. Why hadn’t I seen anyone else? Had I missed a loop? How come no one else had gotten lost? Did they have information that I didn’t? Or were they simply so mentally and physically superior that they could tell what to do? A thought struck me. Maybe they had apps. Maybe they had technology that told them where to go so that they didn’t need physical signs! At once, I realized this was the real answer. My stubborn analog tendencies had rendered me obsolete. I was like the elderly couple who’d almost perished in their own car because they were so confused about the keyless entry system. This was it. This was the moment when the modern world passed me by in its fancy jetcar, throwing space-litter at my head.

Yet, I kept going. As long as those reflective flags were there, I would put one foot in front of another. I was thirsty but that was OK. People had survived worse. Helen and Bill Thayer stumbling through the Gobi desert after one of their camels rolls over the water supply, Salvador Alvarenga surviving 438 days at sea, Mongols riding 10 days eating and drinking nothing but horse’s blood…we humans can take a lot of punishment!

But when I got to yet another intersection and there was no marker, I decided to quit. I had no more drink and didn’t know where I was. I guessed the trail probably went uphill, to Mount Orb, but I didn’t know for sure. Besides, I could see the lights of a town down the hill—Vallorbe judging from the road sign. In a town, I thought dreamily, I could catch a bus and make my way home. I carefully unpinned my bib and put it in my backpack.

 

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Will o’ the Wisp

 

After deciding to quit, I felt better. The landscape became more interesting at walking pace. There were mossy trees and limestone chunks, fallen logs and luminous mushrooms. At first I thought they were phosphorescent but close-up I realized this was an optical illusion caused by my headlights on dewdrops. I noticed that there was a large amount of daddy long-legses. The smell of the forest was intoxicating—Christmassy and fermented. It occurred to me that more people should get up in the middle of the night and walk around the forest. It was a experience I, for one, won’t soon forget. 

 

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Fun with fungus

 

As I descended, the sun started coming up and I could see a lake blanketed with mist. People were waking up and starting their daily routine—I met a couple jogging gamely up the hill who cheerfully called “Bon jour!” Down at the bottom of the hill, I blessed the orderliness of the Swiss because there was a large sign to the ‘GARE’, which I promptly followed.

 

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Dawn in Vallorbe

 

The trains were not working but there was a bus waiting outside. The driver looked at me and I looked at her.

Bonjour. Le Pont?” I said in my exquisite French.

Oui,” she said.

I showed her my bus voucher but she said something to the effect that it didn’t apply to her bus line. I took out some cash but she shook her head and indicated that I should sit down anyway, for free. At Le Pont, I transferred to another bus that took me back to Le Brassus and to John, who was just getting ready to have breakfast.

The winner of the 85 km was Sange Sherpa, who has run more than hundred of these things  and now that I’ve done a bit of one I can understand exactly how impressive that is.

 

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Italy, Running, Travel

Jolly Shoes and Tiramisu

The other day I had to make a trip to Jolly Sports Shop. I have a scary race coming up and needed new running shoes–my old ones no longer had the old spring in them and still bore the traces of the peat bogs of Patagonia and the maple-scented dust of Vermont.

A journey into downtown Torino involves waiting around for a bus, catching it and then looking at all the interesting people: tall African boys, young mothers in hijabs, old Italian ladies in elegant dress, men in djeballas, the odd rambunctious drunk banging on the window. On this occasion there were even dogs—a little auburn mutt growling at a goofy rottweiler puppy. A phlegmatic Italian man was imparting some wisdom to the owner of the auburn mutt, a rangy woman with long hair, also auburn, who was listening to him with scepticism. I couldn’t be 100% sure but I believe the tenor of his speech was that dogs should be left at home.

 

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The world outside the bus was just as interesting as the people inside it: cobbled streets, fountains and statues, fancy architecture and vendors packing up after the morning market on Via Madama Christina. We got off the bus near Lo Scoglio (‘The Rock’) fish shop and spent a few moments peering in the window at the weird creatures: ricci di mare (sea urchins), acciuge (filleted anchovies) and trota iridea (rainbow trout) before turning the corner for Via Nizza.

When we got to the shop it was 2.30 and a big rolling metal door was pulled over the entrance. A lot of Italian shops close in the early afternoon from about 12-3 and sure enough a sign on the wall said it would open again at 3. This gave us half an hour to loiter in the vicinity.

Hungry as usual, I persuaded John to stop at a nearby bar (what we would call a café or cafeteria except that it also sells alcohol). I ordered a square of flat pie that the waitress called a torta salata and was very good. As I munched and John sipped his drink I gazed at the posters on the wall for Spaghetti Westerns, old Vermouth ads and signed photographs of Juventus squads from the 1970s and 1980s. A couple of women sat at another table, chatting over sandwiches. At the bar men came and went like stubbly reef fish in beige jackets.

 

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“You know what I’m telling you, you’re a big son of a…”

 

When the clock struck three, we went back along to the shop. From the beginning, there were troubles. We stood outside the entrance wondering what the big arrow pointing to the right signified. After a consultation, we concluded that the arrow was on the left half of the door, we should try pushing the right half and proceeded to do just that. It didn’t work. A lady inside the shop came to let us in and then pointed a couple of metres along the wall to where there was another door—the entrance.

The shop was vast.

“Where do we go?” John asked.

“I don’t know, let’s just have a look around,” I said and turned left, little knowing that I was entering a three-dimensional Escher sketch. First there was a room of skis, then another one of ski suits, a hall devoted to skateboards. A woman asked me if I needed help, to which I replied, “Sì, dove sono scarpe da running?” She proceeded to give me instructions which amounted to ‘Turn right, then go straight ahead, then go down some stairs, then turn right again.”

 

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shoe department upper right

 

We wandered along through rows of sports bags, tennis clothes, football jerseys, swimsuits and down stairs to the golfing section. I made a u-turn and ended up near a desk monitored by a very elegant woman. She pointed me straight ahead and said that I had to go through there and up another set of stairs.

Off we went and eventually ended up in sport-shoe central, where a couple of humanoid mountain goats were trotting around assisting customers. When I asked one of them for trail-running shoes, he looked surprised and pointed to the specialized trail-running-shoe display area in front of which we were already standing. 

These shoes, I gathered from the labels, were examples of apex sporting technology. The soles had thick treads and were made of some chemically engineered for ‘maximum stickiness.’ The uppers were structured to give maximum support and the soles contained space-aged shock-absorbing gel. The whole was water-resistant.

 

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Trail-running-shoe factory

 

I was standing there dithering when the other goatman approached, jittering like an adrenaline junkie stuck in a sports store. I gave him my shoe size and he vanished into the store room at the back. The shoes he brought back were very comfortable and what’s more they were ‘wild-orchid-and-Neptune’ colored, so I decided to get them.

He took the shoes over to a bench and wrote down the price on a little yellow piece of paper. He handed me the paper and the shoe box then pointed to the floor with an expression of quiet horror.

Signora, sock.” Indeed, a sock had fallen out of my backpack. I laughed lightly and picked it up. The final straw.

“OK, let’s go,” I murmured to John.

“But don’t you need other stuff?”

“Yes, but there was a sock incident.”

“You don’t want to come all the way back here, do you? I’ll ask.”

“No, I’ll ask,” I sighed and went over to the other goat man.

Mi scusa,” I opened. “Ho bisogno di un emergency blanket,” I attempted to mime it.

He nodded enthusiastically and pointed down the stairs.

“OK, grazie!” I said. He gave me the thumbs up.

I got an emergency blanket and water bottle. A different man wrote down the prices on a little yellow piece of paper.

Finally, I realized I had to go to yet another desk to look for running tights. I was beginning to feel as Odysseus must have felt sailing all around the Mediterranean and encountering various monsters. Next up was the elegant woman who’d previously given me directions to the shoes. She could be Circe.

 

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Store directory

 

Buona sera,” I said.

She nodded.

Vorrei comprare i pantaloni da running.”

Spessi o medii?”

I seemed to remember that spesso means ‘thick’ so I said medium.

There commenced a lot of trying-on and finally I got two pairs of tights along with a pair of hiking socks, which the lady was determined to sell me. She enclosed all this in a plastic bag and wrote the price on a little yellow square of paper. Now I had a mountain of stuff and three squares of paper to take to the cashier upstairs.

After this excursion, we decided to stop by a place called Tiramisu around the corner. It was not the traditional Italian café/bar, more like a Japanese toy version of an English tea shop, with elaborate pink cakes, pastel teapots and chalkboards scrawled with quotes like ‘The diet starts tomorrow.’ The waitress was a smiling, friendly girl who looked like a high school student. She was something of a relief after the scornful ultra goats.

 

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I *also* love sweet

 

When I took off my jumper, John exclaimed, “My God, you’re covered in sweat!”

“Yes, well it was very intense,” I replied defensively. “There were a lot of interactions. Also language. It was difficult.”

“But when you ran the marathon you didn’t even get that sweaty.”

“There were very few interactions in the marathon and it was well sign-posted, unlike that accursed Minotaur maze.”

He shook his head, baffled.

The sweet girl came over to take our order and I ordered tiramisu. She brought back a deconstructed tiramisu: six ladyfingers, a cup of cold espresso, a bowl of sweetened mascarpone and a cocoa-shaker. Then she explained that I should moisten the sponge with the coffee until they were ‘bagnato’ (bathed), then pile on the mascarpone, then shake the cocoa over the lot. 

 

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Elementary Tiramisu Particles

 

After the magic of tiramisu I began to feel a little more philosophical about Italian life. On the one hand they have extremely stressful departmentalized sports stores but on the other hand they have delicious coffee-flavored desserts. La vita è bella

 

 

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Anche le scarpe sono belle!

 

 

 

Italy, Running

The Trials of Trail 27

Sunday is my ‘long-run day’, and when in Turin, it’s the day I go up and over the one big hill close to the city, which is Superga. Although this hill has several forest trails, I prefer the road because it’s easier to measure the distance that way and also it’s just easier: I don’t have to think about where I’m going, the ground is even and there are no fallen trees or rockslides to contend with.

Much to my consternation, though, a large crowd of runners had gathered at the foot of the hill, waiting to start a road race. The usual, comfy route was off-limits! With great reluctance, I trotted off in a different direction, seeing where my feet would take me.

Things started out well. I saw a big old villa with fancy statues on the gate, which was interesting for a few seconds. But soon the road turned into a fast-car-only affair and I glumly considered giving up, turning back home and starting all over again. At that very moment, however, I looked across the road and saw a trail leading up into the forest: Number 27.

 

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It was fated; the sign had spoken. Besides, there is always an inviting sense of mystery in an overgrown trail, especially if you don’t know where it leads. I crossed the road and peered at the informative sign. Summoning all my powers of Italian-deciphering, I read the following:

 

Vines and Villas

The Traverse Road crosses many old villas. Nearby we find the Richelmy Villa, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which sits on the rural side along the foothills and has a large portico in its inner courtyard. The little isolated chapel can still be seen, which was reportedly built in 1626.

Downstream from the Richelmy Villa, the course passes the eighteenth-century Villa Bocca, previously Villa Capello, and affords glimpses, upstream, of Villa Cannone. These are three precious examples of the residential houses typical of the Torinese hills, built between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, to which has been given the name of Vines. This term aptly represents the buildings’ dual role as holiday houses of nobles and wealthy bourgeois and as sources of agrarian income from the planting of vines, fruit and vegetables.

 

The prospect of gawking at old buildings definitely added an extra incentive to the climb, so I ignored the other sign about how the hill is infested with wild boar and set off.

Almost immediately, running turned into walking. The path was very steep and root-riddled and to my mind, walking up hill counts as running. Geoffrey Kamworor, who just smashed the half-marathon record this week, would probably beg to differ. He can run 13 miles an hour, whereas my average is about 4. “But Geoffrey, Geoffrey,” I would tell him if he were there to tssk at me, “Imagine all the nuances you miss by rushing around as you do. Life is not a race, my man! What about all the little butterflies? The way you rush about, they probably die on your forehead as if it were the grille of a Maserati. By contrast, they are completely undisturbed by my elephantine grace—” I stopped talking to myself abruptly at a horrifying sight.

 

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LOG

 

The log was about thigh-height and there wasn’t enough room to crawl underneath, which meant I had to actually climb over it. There was a time when I was a great one for climbing over logs and even up trees. I have a distinct memory of sitting atop a macrocarpa hedge giving condescending praise to my little playmate Damien for his feeble efforts. Alas, those days are gone. What would have once been the work of five seconds now took me a full two minutes. First, I had to decide where to put my foot, then what to grab onto, then how to pull myself up off the ground. Once on top of the log I needed a short rest to take a breath, but I still had to keep my balance. Then came the business of figuring out how to get back down. Exhausting.

Luckily, that was the only log incident on the trail. In fact, after about five minutes the trail disappeared altogether and became a paved driveway. There was a sign saying ’27’ though, so I knew I should keep going. Items of interest included this sign warning against a ‘Guard Poodle’ and a large house that looked like an historic villa but there was no official indication of the fact.

 

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Chinese Lantern

 

A little way on, the trail became an actual trail again and I was immersed in something approaching wildlife. There were small strange strawberries, a fluffy yellow sort of flower and a physalis alkakengi or ‘Chinese lantern’. All this greenery reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my parents on Skype the day before. Shortly before my mother had started playing with a phone app. that turned Dad into a fire-breathing dragon, he mentioned a plant called the ‘Touch-me-not’, which shrinks from contact with any person it doesn’t ‘know’. Apparently, once you’ve approached it daily and given it water and complimented it on its looks, for about three months, it tolerates you and no longer retracts its leaves. This in turn reminded me of another odd creature boundary between ‘animal’ and ‘vegetable’, the Elysia Chlorotica, a sea slug that steals plant genes to make chlorophyll and execute photosynthesis.

Whilst musing thus on various forms of plant life, I happened across a crumbling archway, probably belonging to one of those Vine-Villas.

 

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ominous portal

 

This was the stuff. Abandoned ruins! Moldering stone choked with greenery and a deathly hush broken only by the gentle buzzing of bees! Actually, the buzzing wasn’t so gentle. It was very loud and a bit ominous. There must have been at least two hundred of them lurking about. I hoped they were honeybees and not wasps, for instance. I hoped they wouldn’t mind my passing by. Eventually I came to a large shrub where they seemed to be concentrated. They were going mad for its flowers and didn’t even seem to notice I was there, even when I shoved my camera in their faces.

 

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This got me thinking about the human apocalypse. “If it has to happen,” I thought, “For God’s sake, let it happen before the bee extinction. That way they’ll get some time to make their honey and do map-dances in peace.” It was amusing to think of great metropolitan areas such as New York or Rio de Janeiro turned into jungles filled with the sound of bees.

 

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calves of steel

 

All of a sudden, I popped out of the forest trail and back out onto familiar territory, the road. There were no other runners in sight—they must have passed by ages ago—but there were two cyclists bravely pedaling up the slope. Cycling is a big pastime here and there are always a few elastic-legged specimens, usually men in pairs, though today I saw one lone woman.

From there it was only about a kilometer to the town of Superga, where I was hoping to buy some Powerade at the little shop. Unfortunately, it was closed but there was one of the distinctive-to-Turin water fountains in the shape of a bull’s head, where I stopped to fill my water bottle up and to eat some gummy bears.

 

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fangs of tungsten

 

From Superga to Baldissero Torinese I don’t remember much, except that all the dogs were very happy to see me because I gave them the chance to show what excellent guard dogs they all were. One dog saw me coming and barked its head off, thereby alerting the dog next door, which did a little dance of joy but held its bark in until I was right next to the gate, when it really let loose. Then the dog next door to that one had its turn. It was like a dance—each dog waited impatiently for its chance to give me a good telling off. The loudest greeting committee was probably this trio of chihuahuas, or two chihuahuas and one miniature Dachshund, which stood threateningly at the gate and roared like a bonsai Cerberus.

 

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Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.

 

After much slog, I was finally headed back down the hill and paused to take a picture of hazy Turin, when I noticed something on the road. It looked like a little ball and I saw that it was some kind of fat little wood mouse. Alarmed, considering the speed and frequency with which cars come along at that spot, I scooped it up and noted with interest that it didn’t seem to mind in the least. In fact, it rolled back onto my palm with a blissful compliance, as if still drunk from all the sun it had been soaking up. Finding a dark, leafy area away from the road, I placed it in the litter and hoped it wouldn’t be clever enough to find its way back to the death trap. 

 

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When I got back, I told John all about the mouse and he asked me queasily whether I’d washed my hands, which I had, but I could still almost feel the silky, warm surprisingly heavy heft of it.