Author Archives: Kate

About Kate

Business owner, mother, and relentless blogger

Visiting gorillas in Uganda: a long weekend

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The first prize for the Bradt Travel Writer of the Year in 2016 was a trip to Uganda to visit gorillas. Despite a slight fear of animals and no previous interest in east Africa, I entered the competition; declaring on a boozy November night with two friends that, if I won, we’d all go in celebration of S’s 40th birthday.

I didn’t win (came Highly Commended with this entry on a close encounter with a cobra), but, by the time I found out, the seed was sown, and growing into A Definite Plan. A Plan that, what with various work, family and financial commitments, would have to be squished into a long weekend in September.

So last Thursday my intrepid companions S & J and I bid farewell to our sleeping offspring and caught an unhealthily early flight to Amsterdam where we changed to a KLM day flight to Entebbe, via Kigali.

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Crossing the Mediterranean into Africa

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Entebbe airport was hot, even at 10.30pm, and – be warned – they take a photo of you there that then gets stuck in your passport. Hysterical at this discovery (it was a Bad Hair Day) I lost my mind slightly and to the bemusement of a fellow passenger drove his trolley round in circles when all he’d done was ask if I could help adjust his suitcase. We were all still laughing at this when we limped into our guesthouse at midnight, and we became quite delirious when we discovered that S had brought flannel pyjamas to the tropics, and J had ants in her bed (we bashed the lot to a squishy end with our flipflops).

That was day 1.

After 5 hours sleep, day 2 began. Thunder crashed outside as we had breakfast. Our driver arrived at 7am, doing a triple-take when he realised what he was saddled with for the next three days, and we began to try to pay him.

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Looks all nice and good, but this is 2003, and that means it’s bad.

And thus we acquired learning point one:

1) Money is a nightmare. Most tourist-related things (hotel, tours etc) are priced in US dollars. Unfortunately those US dollars have to be fresh out of yesterday’s mint. Issued before 2006? No. Bent or with a tiny tear? No. Been through a pink washing cycle and initialled? You’re having a laugh. We had clocked on to this a bit late in the preparations and had failed to change our old/dirty dollar notes anywhere in the UK. Thomas Cook refused to swap them at all for money laundering reasons. The banks said they could buy them back and then sell new notes back to me, at which I balked. In retrospect, though, if I’d known how many hours we would spend being thrown around in a 4×4 squinting with our middle-aged eyes at notes to try to identify the ones our tour guide might deem acceptable, it would probably have been worth it. If I were going again, it’d be sterling and Ugandan shillings all the way.

After a lot of faffing around with the money, we finally got going, taking a short-cut down a dirt road to avoid the highway to Kampala which was jammed with traffic. Only at this point did I have the time to really consider the map, where I acquired learning point two, which (as trip organiser) I only shared with S&J with some trepidation:

2) Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the gorillas live, is substantially closer to the Rwandan border and its capital Kigali than it is to the Ugandan towns of Entebbe and Kampala. We’re talking 170km instead of 440km, and a 4 hour journey instead of 8-10 hours. Just saying. You might want to consider this when you rattle along on dirt tracks after 9 hours of travelling, basically going back along the route you’d flown over the day before.

On the plus side, we told ourselves, you see a lot of Uganda (which is good). Lots of sandiness. Roadside brick stacks & ovens. Long-horned cows. Termite mounds six feet tall. Lots of bananas; some pineapples; and tomatoes stacked into towers. Village houses painted bright with advertisements (MTN telecoms, Movit hair relaxer, and a whisky brand with the eye-popping strapline: “spreading legs since conception”). Women carrying huge bundles on their heads. Children playing with sticks and tyres. Men lolling around their motorbikes. The grey-crowned crane (national bird of Uganda) and lots of slightly threatening storks. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant (high security as the First Lady was also attending an event there) and ransacked a buffet of cassava, banana plant, kalo (from millet) and shabwe (a very salty sauce). Beautiful terraces and full brown rivers.

And Bwindi, when you finally get to the mountains, is just gorgeous. Lush, green, and noisy with birds that hoop and chirp and make the incongruous, piercing beep of a lorry reversing. We were staying in a pretty lodge with a verandah looking out onto the forest. And a door on the bathroom (unlike the curtain we had in Entebbe).

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En route to Bwindi, the extinct volcanos that form part of the Virunga mountain range

For dinner we walked up to the lodge’s restaurant, had three courses (including a double helping of chocolate pancakes for extra energy) and then sat by the fire running through the list of things we had to take with us the next day. My biggest alarm was how out of breath I’d become just walking up the steps to dinner. We were already at about 1,850m (6,000 feet*), and the hills reached up high around us. I was suddenly nervous.

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Morning view from Gorilla Valley Lodge. Like Shangri-La.

On Saturday we were up again at 5.45am (this wasn’t a holiday for sleep-lovers), and walking into the forest grounds to meet our guides by 7. I was gasping again. “I’m glad I’m not the only one out of breath,” said K, an American professor who was joining our day’s walking. He was 71 and top-heavily overweight.

Possibly because I was distracted by trying to stay upright, once we set off my breathing settled down. There were the four of us, plus K’s porter (“Everyone recommends one,” he said, but we had left all our money at the camp), John the team leader, several trackers with machetes to clear the way, and two guards with guns in case of “stubborn” bush elephants (they said…). After a quick briefing, we were each given a stick, and at about 7.30 we set off in single file along the Mpororo nature trail.

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At first it was just like a good walk in any British woods. Quite muddy, with tree roots to avoid, the odd fallen trunk to straddle, and streams to cross (or slip into). It was clear why the locals were all wearing wellies. I took one for the team and was the first to fall, skidding on a slope and flying hard down onto on my elbow and bum. Everyone was reassuringly concerned, though that didn’t last long as we started to go down like skittles. We slid gently down the trail into a valley and through the clearing where the trackers sometimes camp. We were aiming to get to the place where the gorilla family we were stalking had slept the previous night.

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S enjoying the last days of being 39 in a relaxed fashion

Inconsiderately, the gorillas had not bedded down next to the trail, so after about 45 minutes the trackers got to work with their machetes and we began climbing back up the valley side. The early morning mist had cleared and the sun was showing signs of coming out. It was close and humid. We scrambled one by one through the undergrowth, pausing from time to time to regroup (K was reassuringly slow in the rear). I yelped out at a nettle sting that penetrated my trousers. S fell forward onto a stream of black ants who punished our earlier annihilation of their Entebbe cousins by biting her hard on the hand and refusing to disengage. The ground got steeper, and sometimes disappeared altogether: it was only when I failed to find firm ground with my stick that I realised I was standing on a network of roots and branches a long way above solidity.

At about 9, we began to find the stripped bark that was a sign of recent gorilla activity, and one of the trackers led us higher up the slopes to find where they’d slept. At this point we lost K, who was taken forward with his guide on the level. He also took our sense of humour with him. I can confidently say that if it had been raining I would happily have aborted the whole expedition. S had more immediate concerns, gasping out “Must eat” at regular intervals. Our tracker, Peace, waved her machete rather disparagingly at this and told us to wait a bit; we were almost at the nests. It seems a rather funny name for something that was to hold a 200kg gorilla, but it appears that before night time the family weave roots and branches together to create individual platforms on the steep ground, and line them with leaves before bedding down.

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Gorilla droppings and nest

S and I by this time did not really care, but J got into the spirit of things and crouched down to peer enthusiastically at the leaves and found a coarse white hair from a silverback. If we’d had a ruler, Peace said, we’d be measuring the balls of poo that had been deposited at the side that morning. “Sorry,” we said. “Must eat,” S croaked again and we skidded away to wedge ourselves into some roots and wash down some oat bars. S dug out her gloves.

3) Learning point three: gardening gloves are good. All the blurb recommends bringing these, and we’d agree. Once she had hers on, S was uncaring about where she put her hands, and swung around the forest like Tarzan. I unfortunately (despite sending reminder emails on this very topic the day before we left) had forgotten to put mine in my suitcase, and consequently had to risk-assess and then gingerly pinch whichever fragile stick or leaf I was relying on to hold my body weight. J had brought some gloves but had taken the brief very loosely and as they were finger-less cycling gloves with fluorescent palms decided that unless the gorillas called on her to do jazz hands or some Marcel Marceau mime demo, they weren’t of much use.

After the nests, we started to slide back downhill, still moving along the valley side. A random single gunshot made everyone freeze, but after a brief phone call (no walkie-talkies here) and some hollering around we carried on. K and his guide appeared from the undergrowth and we staggered on together, before being stopped to take a look across to the other side of the valley where the trackers were scrambling around a vertical slope. The gorillas were, apparently, near. We crashed on a little further and were halted again, and then, opposite us, amidst the leaves, we made out patches of black fur. We moved forward, taking photos frantically in case this was the closest we were going to get. And forward again.

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Several black patches here may be gorillas. Or may not.

But finally there was no doubt about it; there were gorillas all around – sometimes just discernible from agitation in the shrubbery which we then hacked towards; at other times rearing up in front of us. We were instructed to leave our walking sticks, and tottered limbless around, grabbing on to whatever we could, pausing and peering where the guides pointed. Where possible I fell to the ground, which at least gave some time to wave my iPhone camera around, with varying degrees of success…

4) Learning point four: Gorilla photography is difficult. It wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to get some definition in their blackness; it was more the practicalities of taking a shot at all. I’d deliberated hard about whether or not to take a proper camera, and decided against. Too heavy, too precious, and creates an unhealthy obsession with the best shot (while the autofocus persists on taking leaves against a blurred ground of gorilla). So I’d supplemented my iPhone with some CamKix lenses but we were on the move so often there was little time to fiddle around changing them, and the gorillas were sometimes so close there was no need for the telephoto. The tripod was quite redundant in the absence of anything reliably solid to rest it on. It was better just to look.

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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

So for the next two or three hours we just hung out with the gorillas. The silverback dozed off and we macheted our way to sit within a few feet of him for a good 45 minutes. He occasionally looked up but was quite undisturbed. A cheeky baby gorilla crawled around him and kept peering round to take a look at us before overbalancing and rolling off. (S)he’d then come back again, each time getting just a little bit bolder. The other gorillas in the family – mothers and juveniles – kept a greater distance, and there was no doubting who was in charge, when the silverback suddenly leapt up and with a roar flew through air to deliver some admonishment. After this we all carried on moving down with them towards the valley floor, stopping from time to time for the gorillas to poo, eat and mate (twice!) (that’s an image I’ll struggle to get out of my mind).

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Around noon we were all tiring again. The sun was burning. Flies were everywhere. The forest was unforgiving. A machete swung round and (I am sure) touched my thigh. The slaughtered undergrowth left sharp sticks at leg and eye level. I grabbed onto a branch to balance and it came loose and hit me on the head. We’d get stuck in bizarre positions when one foot would get trapped in roots and the other would slide down the mud in front, and have to wait for someone else to manhandle us free from the splits. Our trousers, tucked into our socks against the insects, were filthy. K’s legs were like jelly and he was falling over more than any of us, and being so big and tall it took two to lift him up again. We had visions of the local stretcher unit (a long thin basket carried by volunteers) being called out to get him.

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Hacking through the forest

We fell together into a small clearing and were just about to move forward when one of the guides must have got just a little too close and there was a sudden roar and we all jumped. I was behind S & J and just caught a glimpse of a very fierce, very loud and very fangy gorilla storming towards us. In the extended time period that occurs when something dramatic happens, I remember observing, “Oh, I didn’t catch what they’d said earlier about what to do if a gorilla charges” (ie hide or run)**.

So I followed my instincts and hid behind S.

Who hid behind J.

Thereby quite confirming our mutual and intuitive understanding of the hierarchy of competence within our threesome.

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Our roaring gorilla. Sorry, King Kong.

This minor expression of annoyance from a mother (the gorilla had a baby clinging to her and was unsuprisingly feeling fed up at having a bunch of sweaty bald apes following her around) didn’t perturb the guides at all who shushed her away, but it did provide a fitting climax to our “gorilla habituation experience”.

It was now 1pm. The armed guards emerged out of the forest with our walking sticks. I’d not seen them for hours but suspect they’d been close at hand the whole time, making me relieved I’d not felt the need to slope off and christen my She-Wee.

5) Learning point five: However much water you take with you (2 litres each in our case) you’ll sweat it out before it ever gets as far as your bladder.

We were exhausted and starving. K was horizontal more often than vertical, crashing to the ground with agonising thumps; and his porter wide-eyed with alarm. Yet with the prospect of lunch within the next few hours, K suddenly found new reserves of energy and charged off hand in hand with his porter; crashing and thudding forwards to find the trail which would lead, eventually, to the camping clearing. There, with machetes wedged casually in tree stumps, we spread out, collapsed on the ground on our ‘African seats’ (leaves, à la gorilla nests) and wolfed down the packed lunch provided by the lodge many hours ago: cold toasted sandwiches, a boiled egg, chicken, digestive biscuits and a Rolex (the local omelette chapatti).

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It took another hour or so to make it back to the park entrance, where we were each presented with a certificate marking our achievement, and embarrassingly had to borrow money off our driver to show our appreciation of the guides and trackers.

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We all at some point wondered whether we had done the right thing by coming. Basically we had helped ‘habituate’ a gorilla family: i.e. get them more used to humans so they can be one of the habituated families that other tourists pay to spend an hour with (there are many other families still left wild). Visitors to our lodge that evening told of how the habituated gorillas had come up to them, touched them, played with them. Habituation brings risks of disease transmission, and susceptibility to poachers. But it also brings in tourism, critical to Uganda’s economy, and encourages gorilla conservation: so on balance it is deemed a Good Thing.

For us, it certainly was. We drank our beer that evening with the pride of a feat well achieved. And again the next day. And again the day after that, when, before flying out from Entebbe, we had lunch in the most amazingly-located pizzeria on the shore of Lake Victoria.

What a weekend. We had introduced some perfectly clean and ironed money into the Ugandan economy. Habituated some great apes. Killed a few ants. Fed some mosquitoes (remember Malarone!). Crossed the equator three times (we flew direct back to Amsterdam). Waved at local children (bring some pens to give away next time). And had a healthy reminder of the benefits of electricity. When the sun goes down at 6 and you’re trying to pack your rucksack in the light of one feeble bulb while the villages around you are in darkness, it doesn’t half make you think.

Uganda is beautiful. The gorillas are amazing. And Bwindi Impenetrable Forest… well, the name says it all.

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Lake Victoria from Goretti’s Pizzeria, Entebbe

  • * Altitude sickness can kick in at about 8,000 feet
  • ** For the record it is ‘stay still’
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Hiking the Hoerikwaggo Trail. In a panic.

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Please don’t tell my husband, but I loathe walking. In fact I didn’t move much at all until I met him, and it was only out of curiosity during our courtship that I let him introduce me to the Lake District (”Crikey”, I thought, “Mountains? In England?”.) But he bought me hiking boots, and sometimes, feeling guilty, I take them for an airing.

That’s why I ended up last November scrambling around Cape Point in South Africa along the Hoerikwaggo Trail.

“Tell me when there’s a view,” I gasped to my girlfriends. They thought I was joking. We were surrounded by an azure sky and aquamarine oceans. But my legs had gone wobbly at the unexpected bouldering, and I was too scared of tripping to take my eyes off the ground.

To my relief, after an hour, the path levelled out to a gentle undulation. I emptied the sand from my boots and laced them super tight. We squinted down at the sea, searching for Great Whites. Charlotte was developing an unhealthy obsession with Africa’s extensive selection of homicidal creatures and was threatening us with a shark dive once we’d conquered Table Mountain in three days’ time. Failing to spot any killer fish, we had a consolatory snack, and I looked at the map.

It was not a reassuring sight. We had only gone a mile, and had nine to go. But our campsite closed in six hours. We needed to get a wiggle on.

With renewed purpose, we shut up and got going; at least Charlotte did. French-born Latifa – six weeks pregnant and reeling with heat and nausea – shrugged and said, “I ‘ave one speed.” I hopped around annoyingly at the back, encouraging her to discover another.

We were craning to spot our scheduled lunch venue. A building emerged over the horizon, but refused to get any closer. A family of baboons enjoying a picnic on a rock just made us feel hungry. And isolated. Apart from a prehistoric black lizard, they were the sole creatures we’d seen all morning. We were three women alone in a game park, armed with a Swiss army knife, a leaking bottle of TCP and some emergency chocolate.

Suddenly Charlotte froze. Latifa and I careered into her.

“Snake” she hissed. “Snake”.

For a nanosecond I thought “You wish.” Then I peered over her shoulder and saw an enormous golden brown serpent slither around a rock on the path, and head towards us.

Time stood still. We stood still. The snake did not. I have never seen anything move so fast.

“Back,” Charlotte urged. “Slowly.”

As a breathless six-legged unit, we reversed, until, many metres later, with the snake now out of sight, it seemed safe to stop. Wild-eyed with adrenalin, we leapt around from one foot to another, swearing with abandon and scanning the shrubbery frantically in case the beast appeared again. What on earth was it? Where had it gone? How were we to move forward? You were supposed to stay still, we knew, but for how long? What if it was lurking on the path? Waiting for us?

Charlotte phoned our local guide, who’d lectured us so enthusiastically that morning on dealing with threatening animals. What was the best way to check the path was safe, she asked? He recommended stones, to throw into the scrub and frighten anything away. Latifa and I looked at the sandy ground, and picked up some twigs.

Where exactly were we? I heard him ask.

“We’ll be at the Visitor’s Centre soon,” Charlotte lied, “just a couple of minutes.” It was not the moment for a telling-off about our lack of progress. “What do you think it was?”

“Oh”, he said, “for sure, a cobra.”

“But it didn’t have a hood!”

“That only comes out when it’s about to strike.”

I cannot recommend “Possibility of venomous snakebite” as a motivation when walking, as we stalled at every rustle in the scrub. However, “Possibility of being locked in a game park overnight” works exceptionally well – for me in any case. Ignoring my burning ankles, I charged up and around the steep green peaks of the Cape for the next four hours like a woman possessed. Latifa, now pleading for an early death, was kept company by Charlotte in the rear. I confess to thinking that at least one of us should get out alive, and nobly took on the responsibility.

Thankfully, we all made it. And that evening, gathered together around the smoking braai with some beers, there was nothing quite like the exhilaration of reliving the Great Snake Encounter. Despite sunburnt armpits, and agonising patches of micro-blisters in the pattern of the knit of my socks, I had, secretly, had an amazing day. Walking.

But please don’t tell my husband.


This story – to my absolute excitement – was awarded a ‘Highly Commended’ in the Bradt Travel Guides New Travel Writer of the Year competition, January 2017. The theme was ‘Brief Encounter’, and entries had to be between 600-800 words. You can see the 3 short-listed entries here. Well done them.

PS: Charlotte and Latifa (still pregnant and feeling awful) have been very good humoured about this; thank you so much for being such fabulous travelling companions. Latifa points out that I failed to mention taking a photograph of the cobra as it approached. So here it is. PLEASE don’t anyone tell us it was harmless after all…

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(L-R) Me, Charlotte & Latifa having a brief moment of togetherness towards the end of the day. We had walked the length of the Cape, from the dip just to the right of Charlotte’s hat.

Boys’ dinner party – updated

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I started posting this last night but it was supposed to be on the children’s blog so I deleted it, but not before accidentally garnering some interest.

So for the Roaring Kate record, this is what the conversation between five children aged 5-7 goes like over a gourmet meal of fish finger sandwiches (and beakers of water, which I said they didn’t have to finish):

  • Heidi: My mummy says I have to drink all my water at the table. It makes your poos soft.
  • Jonny: Yes, you don’t want hard poos. I have a medicine called syrup of figs to keep my poos soft.
  • Sam [J’s little brother]: Yes, Jonny sometimes does very big poos. [Cackling and gesticulating wildly] Sometimes they are even like a LOG!
  • Jonny bristles with pride at this.
  • Charles [7 going on 57]: Do we really have to discuss this while we’re eating?

At which point the conversation returns to a contemplation of who loves who, and how Jonny can negotiate back a particularly desirable Pokemon card that he’s given/surrendered/swapped with someone in Year 6.

Sirtfood diet: week 1

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It’s been a million years since I posted on this blog, which is basically a repository for random thoughts on marathons, motherhood and marriage (and alliteration 101), but having survived Week 1 of the Sirtfood diet, I wanted to note my thoughts in case I ever come back to it. So:

  • Weight loss: Last Monday 63.8kgs. Today (a week later) 61.4kgs. So 2.6kgs lost (5lbs 11 ozs). Not bad, though not the 7lbs as advertised (and I can’t believe it was all because of a microscopic slice of DS1’s birthday cake yesterday).
  • Trend: Most of it came off unsurprisingly in the first couple of days (3 juices & 1 meal), and for the second half of week 1 (2 juices & 2 meals) I’ve stayed the same at between 61.6 and 61.4. Frankly I’ll be surprised if much happens for the next couple of weeks, not least because:
  • The portion sizes: are enormous! Which is good because when you’re just on one meal a day it has been useful to hold some back and finish it later. (Maybe this was where I went wrong?) Also not helped by the fact that…
  • The recipes: are delicious. Who’d have thought one could have combined kale, rocket, red onion and a few other bits and pieces in so many different ways (though I do seem to have spent hours in the kitchen peering over my laptop (Kindle version of the book, no pictures)). The recipes have definitely been an unexpected bonus, for both DH and me, and we’ll definitely be cooking many of them again.
  • Sleep: another surprise bonus. I didn’t think I normally slept particularly badly but I’ve noticed that I’ve slept really well this week (to the extent that DH heard the children first HA HA), APART from the one night on which I had a tiny glass of red wine. So some of it is probably the absence of alcohol, and also, possibly, the absence of carbs in an evening meal.
  • Green juice: After spending day 1 vigorously squashing blended leaves through a sieve I gave up and spent a fortune on a juicer. This works pretty well (certainly better than a sieve) but I get no where near the amount of juice the Sirtfood authors say I should expect, even if I shove in extra kale. I have small hands so maybe ‘a large handful’ is worth two of mine. Anyway, I have stopped worrying unduly about it as it is totally revolting (particularly with matcha tea), so I juice what I’m told and swallow it as quickly as possible. And then break out the 85% dark chocolate as a chaser (it’s incredible how long one can make two cubes last…)
  • Exercise:  I went for a run for the first couple of days in the morning according to my normal routine, but when I ran on day 3 it was a disaster. I really felt weak and feeble and kept find excuses (mud, shoelaces, tights falling down) to stop and walk. For the second half of the week I had the family sore throat and so didn’t do much exercise at all (again, was that a factor in it not ‘working’ perfectly?) But this morning I felt a bit better and I managed to stagger out, and I imagine that I’ll feel back to normal in that department from now.

Today is the beginning of the final fortnight, which has the joy of involving three meals a day, though I am going to try to apply some common sense and try to be mindful of my fullness, rather than my usual ‘just in case’ approach to eating (ie “At some point in the future I may never see a cake again so I’d better eat as much of this as I can just in case.”)

In general though, the introduction to Sirtfoods has been a success. My waist is certainly slimmer, which is what I was concerned about after Christmas, but most surprising has been discovery of my own willpower and my ability to really NOT EAT all the usual suspects: cakes, chocolate, children’s sweets, puddings. Even yesterday when I had some birthday cake (I had made the blasted thing after all, and it was a good one), to have been able to stop at a small slice, and That Be OK was transformational. The first few days were definitely hard while I was at home working, where usually I’d have been sustained by lattes and biscuits, but with lots of distractions (including the daily visit to the supermarket on the kale run) I managed.

I’ve never been a great fan of diets (though the 5:2 was a success), and don’t care particularly about not losing 7lbs etc, but this has been particularly useful for just kickstarting a trend for healthier eating, and hopefully reversing a weight-change and midriff growth that was slowly but surely heading in the wrong direction. Sure, I could have just eaten better anyway, but for me having a definite day to start a new regime, and a challenge of getting through the first few days has worked. I feel as if I have eaten super-healthily, I feel slimmer generally, and if this diet has done nothing other than recalibrate my sweet tooth (even if only for a while), that in itself has been a colossal achievement.

Roll on this next fortnight!

London Marathon 2014: unofficial race report from reluctant runner

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After working myself up into a bit of a tizz on Friday, it was a relief to have Saturday afternoon to carefully pack my bags, pin on my number (in the right position – that took a couple of goes), write a pre-marathon blog post, and generally get myself sorted out.

Scoffed a high volume of pasta for tea, but didn’t sleep particularly well so it was a relief when the alarm went off at 6am and could just get on with things. Quick dither about whether or not to wash my hair (obviously no one else would care but ‘Standards, Katharine’ I could hear someone saying, so did so, and then tried to quietly and quickly dry it in the kitchen to avoid waking everyone else up). Beetled off to the railway station where, suddenly, there were loads of people with red plastic marathon bags (the first one I saw nervously puffing away on a fag (was that really a good idea??)), and a few other people wondering why the train was so full of people in Lycra. I’d queried going on so early – theoretically getting to Greenwich at 8.30 – but it was entirely sensible as the trains from Charing Cross were rammed, and the one we were on (I’d met up with a couple of local girls in Paddington) was delayed, and actually the venue is so massive it takes a while to orientate yourself.

Having finally found the red start (for charity / slow runners it seemed) we finished our preps: for me plasters and sponge round my semi-healed blisters; vaseline around the edges of my brand new control knickers, suncream all over. Socks and shoes on, then remember calf supports, so off and then on again, by which time my companion (the other was speedy and had gone to the blue start) heard the tannoy announce that we only had 4 minutes to get our plastic duffel bags on the trailers, and so we had a mad dash to hand them in, which got the adrenaline going. Then there was a dither about loos, but the queue for the ladies was so long it appeared to have no end, so we got in place instead, and proceeded to continue to lurk about there for about 25 minutes after the starting gun had gone off. Thankfully there were also loos just before start, so I and a bunch of other people beetled off there BEFORE crossing the start line. VERY cunning, I thought.

Then, in summary, followed 13 miles of hot running south of the river; amazing drumming resonating under the A102; brief excitement when seeing family at Tower Bridge; running straight past a friend yelling my name (but so many people were shouting ‘Kate’ (et al) you gave up trying to spot someone you actually knew); a weird endless Kafka-esque period running hotly around Docklands and the East End (unnerving coming back down The Highway seeing the odd lone runner and the clearing up team (reminded me too closely of Junior 4 obstacle race when they were setting out the new one while I was still struggling with hopping along in a pillowcase)); then finally becoming overwhelmed by the noise and reading endless emotional stories on the back of people’s vests and putting my music on at about mile 18 which made the world of difference, and carried me through along the Embankment (amazing once you’d hit about 23 miles, and you knew that it’d then be 24, and then 25, and that’d the LAST ONE!); finishing in a sprint finish for the last 10 metres up to the finish line. Then I said to the guy next to me, ‘Is that it? Can we stop running now?’ and burst into tears, with some helper saying, ‘I know, it’s emotional, it doesn’t matter what time you do.’ I suppose he was looking at the clock that showed the starting gun had gone off about 5 and a half hours before when he made that comment, but NO IT DOES NOT MATTER, I had just run 26.2 miles.

In an ideal world I would have collapsed into the arms of a loved one and howled, but actually by the time I found them in the meeting place emotions were more in check and we were dealing with the practicalities of tired dusty children and closed tube entrances.

So, 48 hours on, thoughts on the run.

#1: I am, I admit, absolutely GUTTED I didn’t make it in less than 5 hours. My official time was 05:02:02. My pace in training had been suggesting about 04:40 would be good, but I’d hoped that that gave me enough buffer to make it under 5. So I’m currently tormented by thoughts such as:

  • If I hadn’t stopped to speak to the family I might have done it. But I read of someone whose children were distraught when she beetled on by, so that was pretty non negotiable.
  • If I hadn’t stopped twice to pop some paracetamol I might have done it. But the heat (my worst nightmare) was making my head throb even at about mile 5. It would have made the whole experience really unpleasant (as opposed to the walk in the park I found it…).
  • If I hadn’t taken a loo stop at about mile 25 I might have done it. It cost me about 7-8 minutes (about 6 minutes queuing, and then 2 minutes swaying slightly in a confined space searching for a tissue). But I felt I’d already tested my pelvic floor quite significantly and just wanted to try to minimise the risk of embarrassment downstream. THIS IS WHY PAULA RADCLIFFE WON IT AND I DID NOT.
  • If I’d actually got to grips with my frigging Garmin watch I’d have had a better idea of how I was doing. Most of the time during training I used my iPhone for music AND endomondo tracker, but it couldn’t do both for runs of over about 3 hours, so I’d invested ambitiously in this ridiculous gadget that is too big for my wrist (hence sweatband) and totally unintuitive to operate. Thinking I was on top of it, I pressed start when I crossed the line, but on the interface I was monitoring a) the time b) my average speed and c) something else not too helpful. What I should really have shown was a stopwatch, to encourage me to get my arse in gear – particularly around mile 25 when it seemed to go particularly slowly (but that was when we went through Blackfriars underpass so maybe that messed it up).

HOWEVER in the process of writing that last paragraph I have logged on to my Garmin data and all its sins are forgiven as it has quite cleverly measured my mile speeds AND my moving speeds. So I can see that paracetamol cost me 10 seconds, family about 50 seconds (really? I was jogging around as I talked…) and loo stop at least 5 minutes.

So can I hold myself up at being under 5 hours? Please??

#2: See how mad it makes you? It’s a bit like having a baby: totally obsessing for months leading up to it, a long period of physical effort, then exhilaration, adulation, and a bit of anticlimax. I keep telling people not to let me do it again. I shall channel my 5-hour angst into trying to do sub-2hr half marathons instead. Much more realistic, and tend to hurt less.

#3: The medal is really good and heavy and people are impressed. The t-shirt is one size fits all (and there were all: including fridges, a Womble, and a million bloody rhinos which I never seemed to be able to overtake, there was always another one on the horizon), and is recreational rather than running. Pretty hopeless, as I’d hoped to be able to wear it out locally on my next run to show all the people I see regularly that I was Officially a Runner (rather than a Pretender).

#4 The weather was my worst nightmare, ie v hot sun, but the sprinkly showers along the course were good and I was just v relieved I’d remembered sunglasses (and paracetamol).

#5 Music made such a different on the last stretch. Although there were loads of fantastic bands (drummers in tunnels were particularly amazing) with great songs you only caught a snatch of them as you ran by. I was worried that I would seem ungrateful to the crowds to have my headphones in, but as that is how I’ve been running for the last n years, I had them in from the start as a sort of comfort blanket, and only turned the music on further down the line. It put a spring in my step when I really needed it, and gave me a rhythm to run to. I could still hear everything going on outside but it just helped create a zone that made a difference when it was all just getting overwhelming. I’d already been in tears 3 times before we even started listening to the reasons why my companion was doing the run, and if you really started to read the backs of all the t-shirts, with photos of loved ones who’d clearly died in tragic circumstances, you’d turn into a gibbering wreck. In this context, it was a blessed relief to spend a mile or so running behind a Womble.

#6 The results. As per above I am obviously far more competitive about something I’ve got no natural inclination to do (ie move fast) than I expected. Virgin post a whole load of data online (frustratingly with splits in kms rather than miles), which aside from driving home that I took MORE THAN 5 HOURS, also helpfully point out that in the rankings I came in at 26,022. So instead of dwelling on this, I try to cling to the fact that I was still faster than 9,744 other people, ahead of 20% of male runners (I can believe this; towards the end I passed more and more fit looking blokes who were walking as if this was something they’d signed up to one night in the pub but wasn’t quite going to plan), and (and for me this is the killer stat, as I really tried to put some welly into the last bit), over the final 7.2k (so about 4.5 miles), only 3 other runners passed me, while I PASSED 1,404.

Thank you, and goodnight.

PS: if you’re actually looking for helpful tips on the marathon rather than my insane meanderings, I found the following useful:

PPS: didn’t (and never have) Hit the Wall. Though perhaps this is because I never actually Hit the Accelerator. Did however fuel up quite well, to the extent that the Lucozade gels started repeating on me and I thought I was going to throw up on the Highway.

PPPS: All of this is put further into context after someone dies: and with all the other runners and their families my thoughts are with the family of Robert Berry. It was an amazing day, and I hope he went peacefully, having enjoyed a great run and London looking at its finest. His JustGiving page is here.

One year on: London marathon to go

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So I note with some amazement it’s been almost a year since my last post. The wedding happened but as was probably evident from my last post there was a high degree of stress around the organisation of it and although we had a lovely day and honeymoon, I still tend to burst into tears whenever I think of it (and not in a good way). I think it was mostly a function of having FAR TOO long to think about it. And losing the wedding planner (so suddenly having to make all decisions myself) (I’ll not even pretend to include DH in that process. I went mad).

Anyway, that dealt with, and in replacement for child #3, I managed to get myself in to a sponsored place for the London marathon (tomorrow, as I write). I’m running in recognition of Victorian nurse, Kate Marsden (which is where all my blogging efforts are currently going), and I’ve almost reached my £2,000 sponsorship target (though feel free to donate…).

Having assiduously followed an Asics.com online marathon training plan (which I kept rescheduling when I found there were too many long runs until it protested that I was running out of time), I’ve run up to 20 miles (round and round Dorney Olympic running lake, including an hour through hail storms). I have vacillated for weeks about what to wear and am consciously making the cardinal mistake of wearing new underwear tomorrow which Holds Me In under some very loose shorts. Rather upsettingly, I’ve put on colossal amounts of weight during training (none of this muscle business, it’s totally fat) and my dressed up body feels like a half deflated balloon with elastic bands round it. I’ll be wearing fluorescent yellow socks, shocking pink calf warmers, an orange sponsored top, and a red wristband under my otherwise unwearably uncomfortable Garmin watch. People say you shouldn’t worry about what you look like but psychologically it would help to feel a bit less self-conscious. But what can I do? Couldn’t find an orange wrist band anywhere…

It’s also been alarming to find myself getting slower through training than faster. There was a period of time when I was running some miles in 8mins something (fast for me), but that’s long ago, and now I struggle to hit less than 10. I’ll definitely be averaging 10:30 to 11 tomorrow, and it may be worse if the semi-healed blisters on my big toe stage a protest. I’ve taken to running long distances with a sponge tube around my toe which protects it quite successfully from blistering, but has the side effect of very slightly throwing my body out of its normal alignment. So another dilemma for tomorrow is sponge or no sponge?

Finally, I’ve had to resort to the purchase of a pelvic floor trainer (for this blame DS#1 and #2 totally) and with monthly hormonal changes also scheduled for tomorrow (male readers, please just feel so relieved you’re not in this situation), frankly if I manage to get round without any major embarrassing leakage it’ll be a result.

So off now to repack my bag for the millionth time. See you on the other side…

On cycling like a native in Amsterdam

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At the weekend, DS1 (age 3) and I went for a jolly to see some friends in Amsterdam. It was supposed to have been a long weekend en masse with the rest of the family but financial, time and health considerations eventually meant that DH stayed at home with DS2 and a bout of pneumonia – so bad that he had to call in my mother as a reinforcement on Sunday afternoon – while DS1 and I took the overnight ferry there, coming back 36 hours later.

On Sunday we were taken to the beach, which of course for a 3 year old was the most exciting thing ever, regardless of the fact that it was November and the North Sea was on the nippy side (I didn’t go in the water myself but I ascertained this fact after DS1 paddled for an hour and then went blue when he had an icecream).

The best aspect of Sunday for me, however, was not the water, but the fact that it did not require us to Get on a Bicycle.

I have had a bike for most of my life, and have indeed cycled quite happily round various university towns without much mishap apart from hippy floaty skirts getting stuck in the chain, and one occasion where the heel of my boot fell off half way down the Woodstock Road. However it has been a while since I’ve cycled on a regular basis. DH is going midlife cycle mad (clear victim of the Bradley Wiggins Effect) and the garage is filled with his (what I would call) ‘racer’ bikes – all of them with crossbars too high and saddles too hard for me to see any pleasure at all in trying to go anywhere on them. I also have a fundamental fear of speed, and of being out of control, so I do approach bicycling on random machines in unknown places with a degree of trepidation.

So imagine my delight when we met our lovely Dutch Friend (DF) outside the railway station, and she said she had thought we should hire a bike with a bucket at the front for DS to sit in. At this point I thought that was a fine idea, because I was under the impression that they were three-wheeled. Suited me. However when we got to the bike shop it turned out to be a two-wheeler, with the front wheel about the size of a saucepan lid and a lonnng way away from the rest of the machine. I didn’t fance wobbling that around Amsterdam with my first born and my luggage in the front, so went for the least worst option which was to ride DF’s bike.

Down side #1 of this was that DF was about a foot taller than me, and her bike was such an old rusty boneshaker the bike guy could only lower the saddle a couple of inches. So I had to jump down from the seat to touch the ground.

Down side #2 was that it was reverse-pedal braking. This is frankly a total nightmare, not least because I like to kick off pedalling with my right foot on a high pedal. But when I braked to stop and jumped forward off the seat to put my feet on the ground, the right pedal was invariably down. You couldn’t whizz it back up to starting position (as you would on a NORMAL bike) when you were ready to go, so to start again I had to stagger forward by foot until I got to the top of a bridge (of which there were many, thank goodness) and freewheel down it until my pedals got back into the correct position.

If DH had been there he would have noticed the alarm in my eyes and perhaps kindly suggested I take a taxi, but instead I just had to bite the bullet and go for it. We then spent the next two hours on a ‘scenic’ bike rid round a freezing Amsterdam, me with my eyes glued firmly on the back of DF, running through red lights in a desperate attempt to keep up and not to have to stop. At one point she turned round to find me and I tried to wave but my sleeve got caught on the handle which lurched the bike to the right; at another point, when she and several other cyclists actually had stopped at a red light after all, I somehow couldn’t get my wobbly legs to manoeuvre correctly and sailed straight towards her and a right-turning car, yelling ‘Fuuuuuuuu….’ – a disaster which DF calmly averted by just jamming her left arm out across my chest.

When we finally got to her flat I was a gibbering wreck, and had seen none of the sights at all she’d been trying to point out.

Her (British) boyfriend was thankfully a bit more sympathetic, and when we set out with him in the afternoon to see the Van Gogh exhibition (which, despite priding myself on my knowledge of linguistics AND art history, I’d failed to realise we were going to, thinking we were going somewhere unknown involving something called Ven <guttural cough > Hoch), no one suggested I got back on that bike.

Instead I was challenged to take a ride in the bucket at the front of the rental cycle, which was equally horrendous, but thankfully DS was desperate to go back into it so I was relieved from that position. Instead, after trying various people/bike configurations, it was decided that DF took DS in the bucket cycle, and her boyfriend took her bike … giving me a backie on the back.

I have never had a backie in my life. It has always seemed to me to be totally unnecessary. However the combined assumptions of everyone else that I was capable of this meant that I had to go along with things, or feign madness and fall in a dribbling heap in the middle of the street. So for the rest of the afternoon we mosied around Amsterdam, with me side-saddle on the back of the bike, on a metal structure apparently built for people to sit on. I can assure you that the state of the bruises on my bum do not regard that as true.

The most astonishing thing of the whole experience, however – and one which I still can’t quite get my head round – is the process for mounting. The boyfriend had to start pedalling to get some steam up, with me beetling behind him, and then when he gave me the nod, I had to somehow propel myself forward with my right hip in the lead, fast enough to keep up with him, and land accurately with my right buttock on this metal bit. Then I’d wriggle around until most of my bottom was in the right place, cross my legs at the side, shove my right hand round his waist (cunningly hiding it in his puffa jacket pocket to keep warm), and with my left holding for dear life onto the bike. And we had to do this every time he stopped, which as he is British, was at every red light, and sometimes at the bottom of slopes where our combined weight was defeating him.

Despite all of this, it was Not Too Bad. I couldn’t see where we were going, so just gazed left at lovely Dutch houses lit up in the gloaming, and fairy-lit bridges shining over canals. My bum got numb after a while, so to speak – though I can still feel the aches 3 days later – and before we knew it, I was leaping on and off that bike like a native.

Though when it came to going out for dinner later that day, we took the tram. What would they have proposed otherwise? 3 men on a bike? And alcohol? I knew not to push a good thing.

And thus endeth my observation on backies by a 41 year old woman. Wear padded pants. And look before you leap.