Our first 2016 adventure: Porto, Portugal  

I can’t believe the first week of 2016 has come and gone – how has that happened? Is it already too late for resolutions? I posted a few of mine on Twitter, but I’ll repeat them here for posterity:

My 2016 resolutions

  • Stop going on Goodreads (I have made it a week so far, which is longer than I thought! I love Goodreads and the community but it wasn’t healthy for my creativity, which leads on to resolution number two…)
  • Focus on my art (guilt-free, allowing myself to learn and get better)
  • Eat less sugar (failing slightly on this one already… there’s still time)
  • Live in the moment & not on my phone (hmm)

I’m not so sure I believe in resolutions, but it’s still fun to make them! At any rate, 2016 is going to be Our Year of Adventure, and so starting as we mean to go on, we took off on our first trip of the year… to Porto, Portugal!

I’ve never really thought of Porto as a top destination, but as one of Lofty’s friends (hi Steve!) is a pilot who is based there, it was the perfect opportunity to go and visit him and the city. To be honest, Porto surprised me in so many ways! Strolling along the banks of the river Douro from Steve’s home in Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto proper), passing world-famous Port houses, stunning shops with blue-tiled frontages and buzzing restaurants, I was really impressed.

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Of course, Porto also found a place in my heart because it has a great literary tradition, home to one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores and also once home to that great idol of mine, JK Rowling. And it’s easy to see why so many people tie Harry Potter back to Porto – it’s a got a mysterious, meandering vibe that reminds me of the novels… streets to get lost in, with delights and surprises around each corner. Even the McDonald’s has an entrance that immediately put me in mind of the entrance to Dumbledore’s office… as if you just needed to utter ‘lemon drops’ to be transported from the land of Big Macs straight into Hogwarts. The Livraria Lello is renowned for his magnificent staircase – you do need to pay 3 euros for the privilege of seeing it, but to me it was worth it!

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Porto also feels different to the rest of Portugal because of its climate. It rains here. A lot. And the temperature is fairly stable throughout the year – there is no extreme heat or freezing cold like they get further inland, in the Douro valley (where they grow the grapes for the Port wine). Speaking of which… its climate also made it the perfect destination for Porto’s other major role: as the home of delicious Port wine! It wouldn’t have been a visit to Porto without stopping in at one of the Port wine houses – we chose Graham’s as one of the most recognizable, but there were so many to choose from. We had a tour of the cellar (where the aforementioned temperature helps keep the wine nice and cool as it matures) and, of course, had a tasting of three different varieties of port.

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Whenever it comes to a destination, I’m all about the food. Luckily, Porto did not disappoint. I was already a big fan of the Portuguese custard tarts known as pasteles de nata, and they were available everywhere! But I was not prepared for a ginormous sandwich known as the francesinha – a decadent spread of meats (steak, sausage and ham) between two thick slices of bread, covered in molten cheese, sitting in a bath of tomato soup and topped with an egg. Yes, it was just as rich and hearty as you’re imagining. Yes, we had to split one. I recommend Brasao Cervejaria as the place to go if you’re interested in trying one too!

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Porto is also extremely well known for its rich abundance of seafood. The supermarkets have huge sections devoted to dried cod (a Christmas specialty, apparently), and there was no shortage of seafood on every menu. We headed out to the coastal town of Matosinhos, where the restaurants are just across the street from where the fishermen bring in their catch. The seafood could literally not get any fresher! There are huge grills lining the street where fish is seared to perfection – alas, it was raining (typical Porto) so we headed for sanctuary inside. At the Matosinhos restaurant we visited (called O Valentim), we didn’t even bother looking at the menu. The waiter brought over a giant, fresh sea bass and we gave him the thumbs up. It returned a few minutes later, perfectly grilled and absolutely delicious. Who needs a menu?

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Another beautiful part of Porto – especially during the breaks in the rain – is the beach town of Foz. Here, we watched the waves batter the lighthouse from the cosy comfort of the Confeitaria Tavi, with its beautiful infinity views out over the ocean. Over a cup of strong Portuguese coffee and a nata, it quickly became clear that 2016 was getting off to a pretty great start indeed.

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A weekend in… Poland! Day Two, Krakow and the Trail of the Eagles’ Nest

So day two of our weekend trip technically starts the night before, with the most amazing dinner (probably one of the best I’ve had in Europe) at Restaurant Starka in Krakow. Our reservation wasn’t until 9pm (I essentially begged for a table over email!) – if you want to get into this restaurant, especially on a Saturday night, I thoroughly recommend making a reservation well in advance!

We arrived into Krakow at 7pm with the intention of checking into our hotel, relaxing, and changing, before heading out to dinner. But the best laid plans… Turned out that our hotel had given away our rooms (thanks Booking.com) so the poor girl manning the desk had to scour all nearby hotels for a place for us to stay. Two hours of frantic searching later and we finally found rooms at the Q Best Western.

Luckily it was only a short taxi ride back to Restaurant Starka, but we arrived tired, grumpy and feeling grotty (no time after all for a nap or a shower). But it was so worth it. Revived by a strawberry-infused vodka shot, we got down to the business of ordering. All of us apart from the vegetarian (!) shared a starter platter of homemade lard on toast (surprisingly, much nicer than it sounds!), Polish sausage (yum), herring dip and prunes wrapped in bacon – combined with some of the yummiest bread and garlic mayo ever. Suffice to say we were excited for what was to come. But nothing prepared us for the delicious 0.5kg of boneless pork knuckle that was to come for main course! It was like the best, juiciest, most succulent pork belly wrapped in 360-degrees of rich, crunchy, salty crackling. All kinds of perfect.

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Maybe not the prettiest food… but really delicious! Pork knuckle

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Home-infused vodka – pretty much any flavour you could want under the sun

We finished off the evening with a shot of home-infused black pepper vodka that just about blew our heads off. All in all, it was a great evening. Krakow was already showing itself to be a cool town.

The next morning, we strolled across the bridge to look at Wawel Castle. It was early on a Sunday morning, so unfortunately not much was open, but we enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere.

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Inside the grounds of Wawel Castle

The main site that we’d intended to see was Krakow’s Grand Square and the impressive Cloth Hall. It was a picture of the Cloth Hall that had inspired Tania to take this trip in the first place, so we owe it a lot! Krakow is a gorgeous city, full of medieval details – right down to the legend of the dragon that apparently had its lair within Wawel hill. Huge dragon bones hang outside the Cathedral in Wawel Castle, and myth states that if these bones ever fall, the end of the world is nigh. Any place with history that epic automatically earns a special place in my heart!

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The magnificent Cloth Hall

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The Krakow dragon

Also, any city that has a fire-breathing dragon with seven heads as a statue is alright with me.

From Krakow, we made our way back to the airport via the Trail of the Eagles’ Nests. The trail features at least 25 castles, varying from the 14th century to the Renaissance – and we found it hard to choose which ones to visit. Luckily, Tania had done her research. We stopped first at Ojców castle, a picturesque ruin in the woods. It was beautiful because of the setting, especially in the autumn with all the changing leaves. I loved that it appeared to have been reclaimed by the rock and the forest.

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Ojców castle

Next was Pieskow Skała, which Tania picked because it has a cool rock formation near by known as Hercules’ Bludgeon.

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Pieskow Skała

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Hercules’ Bludgeon

Then we moved on to Ogrodzieniec Castle – probably the most interesting of the three we visited. You could walk all the way around the castle, exploring all the rooms and taking in the awesome views. I managed to get some great inspiration for Potion Diaries #2!

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The ruins of Ogrodzieniec Castle

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From there, it was a drive to the airport and home – back to work again on Monday morning! A perfect weekend break away.

 

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A weekend in… Poland! Day One, Wrocław and Auschwitz-Birkenau

The brilliant thing about living in the UK is the ability to head to Europe for the weekend. This time we chose gorgeous Poland as our destination. It’s not a country that’s often on the top of travel lists but, after visiting for only two short days, it’s my opinion that it definitely should be. Great food, incredible history, beautiful architecture, warm people… it ticks all the boxes for me.

Beautiful and quaint… Wrocław, Poland 

This truly was a weekend adventure. We left after work on Friday (with a near-miss airport adventure – because of terrible M25 traffic it took us over 4 hours to get to Stansted from Winchester), landed late Friday night and flew back Sunday evening. We booked cheap Ryanair flights into Wrocław, a town in Western Poland that we had never heard of. In fact, the pronunciation of the town turned out to be one of the trickiest words to master – it’s more like ‘Vrots-lav’ than ‘Row-claw’. What we found was a colourful, vibrant town known as the ‘Venice of Poland’ and it took us completely by surprise.

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DSC_0336The main square in Wrocław is full of these beautiful, colourful facades, rebuilt in the original style following damage during World War II. We waited around for a free walking tour outside one of the statues in the square, but ended up doing our own tour from our guidebook. It worked well, as we were able to stroll around the city at our own pace.

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View from Cathedral of St John the Baptist

The reason why Wrocław is called the ‘Venice of Poland’ is because it is actually made up of all of these islands, connected by waterways. There are several stunning churches (two of which are visible in this photo, and we are standing in one of the towers of the third, Cathedral of St John the Baptist), vibrant markets and even its own romantic love lock bridge.

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For lunch, we visited a modern version of a traditional Polish ‘milk bar’ in the university district. Milk bars (or bar mleczny in Polish) were hugely popular under Communist rule, when workers needed to get a good honest meal at a cheap price. While most of them have faded from existence, there are still a few around. We found Bar Bazylia, which really just reminded me of my old university cafeterias! It was essentially a buffet featuring a mix of traditional Polish cuisine with international favourites like pasta, spring rolls and hamburgers. The idea is that you load up your plate with food and then pay by the weight – so either you end up with a ton of food (because you can’t help but want to try a bit of everything) or too little (because you think something is better around the corner). For a huge lunch it worked out at about £4/5 a person so definitely good value.

There was still plenty more to see in Wrocław, but we had a 3pm entry ticket to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum – a two-hour drive from Wrocław – so we needed to get a move on.

I have to say that I was full of apprehension at the thought of visiting Auschwitz. I knew it would be harrowing and distressing, and my closest experience travel-wise thus far had been a visit to the Cheung-Ek Killing Fields in Cambodia, which was terrifying enough. But ultimately, I’m very glad that we went. Lofty had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, which made a huge impression on him and helped him to understand what I did not: that it’s almost impossible to truly comprehend the magnitude of the violence and horror that transpired unless you visit – and, while that’s extremely uncomfortable – it’s so important that it is all remembered.

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We arrived into Oświęcim in the late afternoon, worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything (the museum hours stated that it closed at 5pm, and there are two halves to see: Auschwitz itself and then the Birkenau death camp. They recommend 90 minutes per site at a minimum). At any rate, we didn’t need to worry – although the closing times were accurate for entry, once you were inside we had until 7pm at Birkenau to take everything in. And we needed it.

Walking beneath the ‘iconic’ (feels wrong to say, but I can’t think of another way to describe them) gates into Auschwitz sent immediate shivers rushing down my spine. There are dozens of long, rectangular brick buildings, each one housing its own exhibit – each more devastating than the last. But the exhibitions are also informative, clear and unrepentant: they document the devastation without trying to soften the blows nor to aggrandize the atrocity. Nothing needs to be aggandized. Just the sheer statement of facts is enough.

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As we had our own car, once we left Auschwitz we drove the short distance to Birkenau (there’s also a shuttle bus that goes between the two places). One thing that strikes you immediately upon entering Birkenau is the sheer size of the place. It goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. We entered as the sun was beginning to set, and the contrast of the beautiful sunset against the hideous wreckage of workhouses and gas chambers was almost too much to bear. I wasn’t sure that I was properly comprehending the scale of it, but walking those train tracks – treading the same path of the men, women and children being led to the gas chambers – suddenly made it personal for me. Like the impact of everything I’d read walking through the Auschwitz museum finally hit home. Maybe it’s because walking through Birkenau, it’s impossible to detach yourself from the reality. I don’t know – it’s very hard to express the gamut of emotions that run through you when you walk through a place like this. I don’t ever want to believe that humans are capable of such evil, but when you’re staring it in the face, you can’t ignore it.

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Sobering indeed.

From the museum, it was a one hour drive to our next stop of Krakow, Poland – a place of great food, castles and dragons. More on that in the next blog.

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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow & The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

I can’t really believe that next week THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW makes its US debut. Hello America! Flux have done an absolutely amazing job with the package – I love how atmospheric and intriguing it looks. They must be doing something right because The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is a Junior Library Guild Winter 2015 pick (yay!) and has had some awesome reviews stateside:

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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is easy to dive into and will keep readers engaged… An excellent choice for those looking for a compelling and detailed fantasy novel.” – School Library Journal

“Middle-school readers looking to get lost in another world will enjoy this adventure-packed read.” – Booklist

“An intriguing start to McCulloch’s planned series” – Publisher’s Weekly

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has always been inspired by my travels. It feels like so long ago now, but at the end of last year, L & I had the chance to visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which I knew would just be full of inspiration for future books – but also would take me right back to all the research I did for Oathbreaker. In fact, I spent a lot of time looking at windows and doorways that could easily work on the front of my book cover!

Granada is one of those perfect city break destinations. Easily accessible from London, full of amazing sights, beautiful hotels, delicious food – and one of the cheapest cities we’ve visited by a mile. As it was partly to celebrate L’s 30th birthday, we splurged to stay in the Alhambra Palace hotel at the very top of the hill. It had the most glorious views and a balcony overlooking the city – not too shabby whatsoever.

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But let’s just take a moment to talk about tapas. Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that still offers free tapas with a drink, and we indulged. We wandered up and down the twisting side streets, stopping for a drink and to eat little plates of wonder. But it was only when we squeezed ourselves into the absolutely packed Restaurante Oliver that we understood the true meaning of tapas. I also fell deeply in love with ‘tinto de verano’ – the on tap red wine and lemonade combination. Take me back there right now!

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Tinto de Verano at Restaurante Olivier & One of the tapas streets

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Iberico ham, a must.

It wasn’t just about tapas, of course. We also strolled around the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter. The Albaicin feels like stepping back in time, to a different era. Market stalls pack the streets, tea houses offer up amazing Arab delights, and – of course – it offers incredible views of the Alhambra itself.

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A market stall in the Albaicin & Me inexpertly pouring tea

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Delicious mint tea

Now onto the Alhambra itself. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I visited, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling complex we entered. We had pre-booked our tour slot a few months in advance (this is worth looking into so you don’t worry about not getting in – it’s very easy to do and tickets are picked up from local ATMs). We were then able to walk leisurely around the Generalife – a beautiful palace/villa with stunning grounds.

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A stunning pool inside the Nasrid Palace

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The Generalife and the Court of the Lions and Fountain

The visit to the Nasrid Palaces was the final item on our agenda. And it was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Walking through the highly decorative Moorish Palace, there were delights around every corner. The highlight was the wonderfully evocative Court of the Lions and Fountains. The sheer level of detail of the carvings on the walls made you appreciate just how much work went into building these luscious palaces. I encourage anyone to go and visit if you have the opportunity.

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These windows would fit right in on the cover of my book

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Incredible detail

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The walls of the Nasrid palaces are covered in script and mosaic

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More highly Oathbreaker-y windows

The perfect place to inspire more novels… and to remind me of upcoming ones!

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Edinburgh Marathon race report

Wow. I’ve now completed the Edinburgh Marathon, the culmination of over 8 months of training and more focused exercise than I’ve ever done in my life. Looking back at my Nike+ training shows the last 8 weeks (minus two Sundays while I was in Egypt/Jordan) featured at least one 10 mile+ run, the last 6 weeks all being half-marathon length or longer. Just the thought of doing that kind of training a year ago was nausea-inducing – ten years ago, it would have been nigh on inconceivable. I find it a bit surreal to see how far I’ve come since my colleagues at John Blake convinced me to sign up for the Royal Parks Half Marathon in Oct 2009.

A stunning blue sky over Edinburgh

I have to say, Edinburgh looked absolutely gorgeous when we landed on Saturday afternoon. The temperature was perfect and sunlight bathed the famous castle in a gentle golden glow. The atmosphere was enchanting, full of people sitting out on restaurant terraces having a good time, and I immediately regretted not being able to stay for longer. It was probably in our best marathon interests that we didn’t arrive any earlier than we did – otherwise I would have used up all my energy just wandering around the city.

We checked in at Budget Backpackers, which was the perfect place to stay, really. Cheap, cheerful, and having forked out for a private room (it was still cheap!) we had all the facilities we needed. Getting down from the bunk bed the morning after the marathon was interesting though!

In terms of fuelling my body for the marathon… I didn’t overdo the carb-loading, but my diet before the race consisted of:

Friday night – Spag bol with wholewheat pasta & garlic bread
Saturday breakfast – pain au chocolat (that surely counts as carbs!)
Saturday lunch – leftover spag bol & a bit more garlic bread
Saturday dinner – Jambalaya Risotto from Giraffe at the airport, banana, Twirl bar while watching Eurovision
Sunday breakfast – Espresso, toasted bagel & cream cheese, banana

I also drank a lite Lucozade energy drink on Saturday and tried to maintain my hydration throughout the week (especially considering how hot it has been in London). The hostel really came into its own on Sunday – having our own cooking facilities was amazing as I could prepare breakfast exactly as I would have done if I’d been at home, plus they had a cafe downstairs so I could get a shot of espresso. I didn’t want to have to stop during the race so the espresso was to make sure the digestive system kept on moving!

Before the race, a last shot of a beautiful Edinburgh morning

The weather actually looked slightly overcast as we left the hostel at 8.30am for the race start, but it quickly burned away and was replaced by glorious sunshine. We dropped off Tania’s bag at the big luggage trucks (all very easy and well-organized), then headed up to the corrals. Tania was technically supposed to be two corrals ahead of me, but as her training had been scuppered by an injured ITB band (hip-area), she hadn’t done nearly the amount of training she wanted, so she decided to start with me, horray! One quick pitstop at the portaloos and we were ready to rock. In my pockets were: mandatory packet of wine-gums for energy (only allowed after mile 14 – I’m strict with myself!), tissues in case hay fever got the best of me, my iPhone with motivational running tracks, and bottle of full-strength orange Lucozade in hand. My Lucozade acts as a security blanket over those first 10 miles – I’ve always run with one in training and so can’t imagine starting a race without it.

Tania and I in the Blue starters pen

The atmosphere at the start was brilliant, and I was glad that we could actually hear the race announcements as normally I’m so far back the loud speakers don’t reach me. We all joined in the countdown to the starting gun, although we didn’t move for at least a minute after it went off. When we did finally start to run though, it was a great feeling!

The course itself was stunning – downhill from the starting line and out towards Arthur’s Seat, then along a beautiful stretch of boardwalk-running by the beach. The benefit there, of course, was the sea breezes! Really enjoyed those as it was hot hot hot. For me, the goal was to do 10-minute miles, and I did that pretty well right up to the half-marathon point which I completed at 2hr15.

Starting line – can you see it?

Strangely, mile 15 was my fastest mile of the race. The elite runners had just gone past and cheering them on gave me a bit of a boost. My favourite running track (‘A Matter of Time’ by Foo Fighters) came onto the iPod and I was feeling good. At mile 16 I picked up an energy gel from the station which was a calculated risk on my part – I’d never used them before but I’d heard good things. The taste was pretty disgusting, in my opinion, but I didn’t have any problems digesting it. Others, including my running pal Tania, weren’t so lucky – but more on that later.

Edinburgh Marathon route map

After mile 17 came ‘the turn’. I’ve been reading on several running forums that many people found this the hardest part of the race, and I was no exception! The course turns back in on itself and heads slightly inland at this point – away from the breezes, away from the crowds, away from the water stations. I was in pretty dire shape by the time 18 miles came around, barely able to pick up my feet. Even the prettiness of Gosford House couldn’t distract me from the pain! We then started running through a farm, and thankfully the farm had set up an unofficial water station – which became the first station I walked through. It was only a break of a few seconds but it was enough to make sure I got proper hydration and a boost to keep going. Also it was a bit pongy out in the fields, and the terrain was pretty slippery which required concentration I didn’t have!

Hitting 19 made me feel better again and I wasn’t prepared for the boost I’d get at mile 20. I’d never run further than 19 miles in training and 20 really felt like a massive accomplishment. I was in the “2”-s! Horray! Everyone around me was dying for water and energy by the time we reached the next station at 22. I was also in countdown mode at this point, so 4 miles to go meant all I had left to do was my run to work! Easy, right?

The crowds here were unbelievably helpful at this point. At every mile marker I had done a little jig and cheer, and everyone cheered with me. To anyone who turned on their sprinklers or hoses or even waterguns – bless you! Running through a sprinkler a) released the child within me for a second and b) provided instant relief from the heat. Another thanks to mum & dad who reminded me to take extra water to throw over myself as well as drink! The only downside was I inevitably washed off all the sunscreen on my back, so my shoulders are a little burnt as a result. I also have to shout out to the girls handing out orange slices (so yum) and the man handing out Jaffa cakes at mile 24 – you are a legend as I’d finished all my winegums at that point and was bored of jelly babies!

Mile 22 was also greatly improved by the fact that Lofty’s podcast came on over my iPhone speakers. For my first ever half marathon three years ago, Lofty had made me a radio-style countdown playlist and hearing a friendly voice made things so much better! It also was another reminder of how far I’d come in training and I became all emotional while running. I’m sure that didn’t have anything to do with feeling completely spent and still having miles to run!

The sight of the mile 25 marker was bliss, the crowds were really buzzing at this point. I picked up my pace considerably, finding energy out of nowhere, but that 26 mile marker took FOREVER to appear. Literally forever. I think I was lucky to not start swearing at the crowd as much as I was swearing in my head – Where the *&^% is the end? Even when 26 FINALLY came, I still couldn’t see the finish line. Wasn’t it just 0.2 miles until I was done? What was going on?

Then I rounded the corner into the racecourse and the terrain changed from road to a black rubber, slightly-bouncy surface lined with spectators that made me feel like I was at the Olympics. The finish line loomed large and I only glanced at the time quickly to see that I was still in the 4hour-zone – that’s all I wanted! I sprinted across the line with a huge smile on my face, hands in the air… what a feeling!

Me and Tania, with our medals

I changed into my finisher’s T-shirt straight away, and within minutes of crossing the line I had a text message with my provisional time. Very good service 🙂 I was a bit disappointed with the goody bag – I really could have done with some kind of protein drink at the end, but the medal is lovely. I sat and stretched in the park while waiting for my fellow runner to finish. I’d left her after the first mile as I was aiming for a slightly faster time – and obviously, I had had the benefit of proper training while she had been injured! It turned out that she had suffered a bad reaction to the energy gels at mile 16, and in combination with the heat and lack of hydration she felt really nauseous and had to walk the final 9 miles. She still completed in a remarkable 5hrs 39mins, pushing right on through to the finish. What a champ.

The half-hour walk to the buses back to Edinburgh was aggravating but probably did us both some good as it is always tempting to do absolutely nothing post-run! It meant I was a little less stiff this morning when we had to get up at 4.30am to catch the plane back to London. I wore my medal all day at work – hey, it’s not very often that I get to wear a medal, okay?

Here were my official split times:

Race Number: 9787
Full Time: 04:42:59
10k split: 01:04:01
Half marathon: 02:15:49
30k split: 03:15:45
Overall finish position: 5461

Obviously dropped off a bit between 30K and 42K but having averaged 10.48min/mile over the whole race, I’m very happy. I think I could get sub-4hr30 though… oh god, is this me accepting I’m going to put my body through all this again one day?

In all seriousness, I know I will. Pushing myself to that limit actually proves to me that there aren’t many limits. And now that I have nothing to train for, I feel strangely empty. I’m going to need another goal, another challenge, and pronto 🙂 Although my running watch said I did 27.1 miles – how much weaving and swerving did I do?!

And so for now, I’m just going to allow myself to enjoy the moment. I’m officially a marathon runner!

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