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Does your sandwich taste like Christmas?

We have reached that time of the year again, when the weather has changed and brought with it some early dark evenings. Late workouts now require some extra layers and high vis accessories, but in early December, it still feels like I am in the lull before the storm. But perhaps I am in denial as there are definitely the tell-tale signs of the upcoming holiday festivities around me. Already, the Christmas tv adverts are on repeat and the annual lighting of the Christmas streetlight displays has taken place. The shops are also filled with the most organised consumers determined to have ordered, bought and wrapped everything before the rest of us even think about it. Many others are hitting the shops while strategically settling in at home, posed and ready to strike online. As the the Black Friday sales stretch into Black Friday weeks, Cyber Mondays, festive Tuesdays and ‘FINAL’ sales, I will eventually have to face the fact that Christmas is coming. In the meantime, before I completely surrender myself to the organisational chaos and frenzy of planning Christmas parties, shopping and of course, cooking, there is a more pressing matter at hand. The battle of the Christmas sandwiches 2017 has commenced and every supermarket has launched their version of holiday spirit between two slices.

It’s game-on again as each supermarket returns this year to try and tempt us with their sumptuous creations of the ultimate Christmas sandwich. The sandwich stakes are high as each is heavily promoted alongside the rest of their Holiday foods and drinks they hope we purchase between bites. It is widely accepted that the gold standard of Christmas sandwiches is based on roast turkey, as it continues its reign at the top of the popularlity charts as the main star and focal point of Christmas dinner. However, over the years, supermarkets have increasingly hedged their bets and diversified by creating more Christmas varieties using different roasts including vegetarian and vegan options. Even so, the range of Christmas sandwiches on offer by different supermarkets is, in general, still very much the same. This adherence to traditional Chrsitmas sandwich fillings means that there is not much scope for supermarkets to stand out from the competition. However, doing so can also backfire…

Who could forget the 2015 Sandwichgate, when Tesco thought that had come up with a lunchtime winner with a chocolate and cherry monstrosity that they tried to pass it off as a sandwich? The decadently thick layer of chocolate and cherry filling with mascarpone cheese made an incredibly stodgy filling that could barely be contained between the slices of cinnamon bread and had no business being there. The flavours just didn’t work and even the hungriest office workers and students found it too rich to eat more than a couple of bites. Not even being part of a meal deal could shift it. As word spread among the sandwich eating masses, they took to social media to share their outrage. Luckily, the lesson of what can happen when a Christmas sandwich goes rogue must have stuck because the retail offerings in 2016 returned to much more tradional fare.

But a lot can change in a year and in 2017, some of the supermarkets have pushed sandwich boundaries again. I had heard the rumours that some of this year’s Christmas turkey sandwiches were unrecognisable and some supermarkets had created what can only be described as turkey sandwich imposters. Even worse, some of the Christmas turkey sandwiches had been lumped together with others that were decidedly unfestive. Taking matters into my own hands, I had to investigate.

With less than a month until Christmas, time was of the essence. I thought it would be wise to concentrate on the legendary Christmas turkey sandwich but also keep a lookout for any rogue sandwiches lurking on the shelves. Now when it comes to Christmas turkey sandwiches, everybody has their own way of making one at home and the question of the ‘right’ way to do it can cause a lot of controversy. Which seems odd because the sandwich is entirely dependent on the variety and availability of leftovers from Christmas dinner. Needlesstosay, the contents of the said, Christmas dinner, varies enormously. Therefore, I am not about to start an argument for and against the addition of chipolatas, mashed potatoes, gravy or Brussel sprouts to a turkey sandwich filling. However, I think it is reasonable to say that as a bare minimum, one would expect a supermarket bought Christmas turkey sandwich to contain 3 essential ingredients, mainly some turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwiched together between 2 slices of bread. With that in mind, I sought out the Christmas turkey sandwiches 3 of leading supermarkets to see if they were sticking to tradition or trying to shake things up this year.

Starting with Marks & Spencer, it’s no surprise that this long-established store has once again brought back its bestseller, the Turkey Feast sandwich. This traditional sandwich contains everything that you would want and expect to find in something made from your Christmas dinner, all wrapped up in festive colours. The sandwich ingredients of turkey breast, canberry sauce, herby stuffing, mayonnaise and crispy bacon are simple and the soft malted brown bread holds it all together like a warm hug. And with 5% of the sandwich proceeds going to the homeless charity, Shelter, this is a sandwich with a heart.

However, sitting right next to the Turkey Feast in another jolly box was another offering from their Christmas sandwhch range which seemed particularly unfestive. It was M&S’s Lobster & Prawn Thermidor with Brandy, sandwiched in a brioche roll. A brioche roll?! Used in a sandwich?! Is that even legal?? On closer inspection, I found that the rogue sandwhich was also part of the Help Shelter campaign. Admittedly, the filling itself does not sound unappetising but I ask you, is it Christmassy? I think not.

Next, I went to Sainsbury’s to see if they had stuck to tradition or gone off piste with thier Christmas sarnies. At first inspection, I breathed a sign of relief as it looked like they had played it safely this year with their own Turkey Feast sandwich. Like Marks & Spencer’s, it ticked all the boxes of a traditional Christmas sandwich, containing turkey breast, pork and chestnut stuffing, maple cured smoked bacon, cranberry and port sauce and mayonnaise on malted bread. However, there was also a decent amount of spinach in it which looks like it was added as an afterthought or maybe just to fill it out. Although the spinach does not add anything especially Christmassy to the filling, I think the Turkey Feast gets away with it. In the end, the Turkey Feast is a dependable sandwich that doesn’t rock the boat too much. Alas, it was joined on the shelf by two new Christmas turkey varieties and it was clear that Sainsbury’s had entered new sandwich territory.

First up was the Christmas Lunch Wrap. A flour tortilla wraps around a filling of turkey, stuffing and a little cranberry sauce but it is also stuffed heavily with sausage and bacon. The Wrap also contains spinach which only helps to dilute any festiveness created from the Christmas filling. In effect, the Wrap does not seem anything like a Chrstimas turkey sandwich should be. It only looks like an ordinary wrap made for a boring lunch, thwarting any holiday spirit. Bizarrely, this disappointing Christmas sandwich is an absolute antithesis to Sainsbury’s second turkey sandwich creation. It is fair to say that they tried to supersize the Christmas cheer in their new sandwich which has been christened, The Snow Globe.

The Snow Globe is unlike anything seen before in the chilled sandwich section of any supermarket. The turkey sandwich is packaged just like a snow globe, in a domed case, and from a distance it looks like it contains something more burger-like. However, on closer examination, the label reveals that it is actually Christmas dinner in a brioche bun. Brioche, again! However, this is not some ordinary brioche but is a brioche topped with edible stars which can be shaken around the packaging like a real snow globe. I had to assume that the sandwich was meant to be shaken far more gently than most children shook an actual snow globe. In any case, the star-covered brioche is filled with the traditional ingredients of turkey, stuffing and cranberry. Now if they had stopped there, they may have kept within the boundaries of Christmas turkey sandwiches. However, Sainsbury’s could not resist adding bacon, more spinach and a Brussel sprout ‘slaw’, thus moving the sandwich further away from tasting like Christmas dinner and only emphasising the presence of the brioche. In effect, the Snow Globe may look sparkly and festive but it’s not really a Christmas turkey sandwich.

Lastly, I thought it would be worth returning to Tesco to see what Christmas sandwich creations they had come up with this year. Tesco continues to have one of the largest ranges of Christmas sandwiches on offer including a Turkey & Trimmings sandwich, Finest Turkey Feast sandwich and a Healthy Living Turkey & Trimmings sandwich. They all resemble traditional Christmas turkey sandwiches and contain similar basic ingredients. They differ mainly in the quantity and quality of ingredients and for instance, the Healthy Living sandwich is considerably sparser and uses spinach as a filler to cut the calories. This makes the Healthy Living sandwich less like eating Christmas dinner and more like the beginning of a New Year’s resolution. Tesco has also come up with one more turkey version, the Turkey & Trimmings wrap. Like Sainsbury’s wrap, Tesco’s gets all the ticks for containing turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. However, the wrap goes all wrong with the addition of shredded lettuce, and only reminds you that it is nothing like Christmas dinner. Like many people, I enjoy eating wraps but it has to be said that it is just not Christmas turkey sandwich making material. Trying to pull off a wrap as Christmas dinner is just sad.

I was relieved to find that this year, there was no evidence of Tesco producing another chocolate and cherry concoction. However, as I scanned for the rogue I came across another Christmas sandwich that stucks out among the rest. Amongst Tesco’s vegetarian range, Tesco’s Finest Bubble & Squeak Fritter with Spiced Red Cabbage Roll caught my attention. It goes without saying that no one would expect a vegetarian Christmas dinner sandwich to contain traditional turkey accompaniments and this sandwich is no different. The sandwich’s carrot and flour roll is filled with breaded potato and cabbage fritters, onion and sage stuffing, cooked red cabbage spiced with cinnamon and star anise, held together with vegan mayonnaise. It sounded like a pretty straightforward albeit different vegetarian sandwich, but the spiced cabbage helps to give the sandwich a Christmassy flavour. However, this vegetarian sandwich comes with a slightly questionable accompaniment: a sachet of coconut bacon flavoured flakes to sprinkle inside the filling, to add some crunch. For a vegetarian sandwich to use bacon flavouring, even if it is strictly vegan, just seems wrong. I cannot help thinking that a vegetarianism (and veganism) is not just for Christmas…

So there we have it, a small sample of what sandwiches are out there waiting for you to munch on while you work on your Christmas preparations before the big day arrives. I am sure that I may partake in the odd store bought turkey sandwich or two but if I’m honest, what I am really looking forward to is making my own. Because only I can make the ultimate Christmas turkey sandwich (although my husband will argue that he does). We may have different techniques, using the same leftovers but one thing is for certain. The best Christmas turkey sandwich will never be made with a wrap!

But now on to the recipe…Without the Christmas turkey leftovers, it would be impossible to recreate the best turkey sandwich. But with all my criticism of wraps stuffed with spinach disguised as Christmas turkey sandwiches, I thought the least I could do was come up with something that would use them up. This recipe for Speedy seedy tortillas is perfect for dipping into the Spinach hummus and Spinach & ricotta baked dip. They are all very tasty and so were quickly devoured by my family. They would work very well as a last minute addition to any holiday entertaining you have coming up but they are so effortless to prepare, you don’t need to wait for an excuse to make them.

Day 7 Cancer Research UK Pretty Muddy 5km

I woke up early feeling very excited, albeit slightly knackered, on the final day of my running tour. Just one more race to go and I would have done the week! But I also knew that Pretty Muddy wouldn’t be anything like the previous 6 legs of the tour. If anything, the name hardly suggested what I had signed up for. It could have been called Extremely Muddy or even Awfully Muddy because there wasn’t anything pretty about it. The reality was it was a 5km muddy, squelching course full of far too many filthy obstacles that you had to climb over, crawl under and charge between. The final obstacle of the course was the main attraction of Pretty Muddy and was strategically placed right before the finish to draw the crowds. It was a gigantic mud-coated, slippery slide that you had to climb up, hand over foot in order to get to the top. Once there, you faced plummeting it down into a deep, dark mud pool. Of course, the question that comes to most people is simply, why?! And also, who? Who would willingly choose to spend several days after doing a 5km run, still trying to get the mud out of their trainers, kit (and themselves)? Well the answer is that many hundreds of people are willing to make a mucky effort for a worthy cause and the funds raised by Pretty Muddy go towards fighting cancer.

With this in mind, if I had felt slightly pressured at times whilst running in the Tour of MK, then this final 5km leg for a good cause was sure to be at the opposite end of the scale. It wouldn’t even be as competitive as a Parkrun as there would be no chip timing and so no fights to the finish. Understandably, there are more important things to think about than running a 5km PB when you’re being sprayed by muddy water while trying to scramble, climb and run through sludgy obstacles. Which was great as a relaxing, muddy jaunt would help my legs to recover from the week of heavy mileage. The more I thought about it, the more I talked myself into believing that the mud may even have some restorative properties, like a mud pack for legs…Obviously, my tiredness also allowed myself to conveniently gloss over my memories of the last two Pretty Muddy 5kms runs with my daughter. Perhaps I had also deluded myself as a survival technique, as I could not escape the fact that I had signed up as the accompanying adult to my daughter and a friend of hers from her rugby team. In other words, there was no option of pulling out and letting the rugby girls down.

Once again, the high number of entrants for Pretty Muddy meant that it had to be started in several waves of runners. We had signed up to run it in the third wave reasoning that by then, the course would be sufficiently muddy and soft but not yet a complete swamp. However, when we arrived at the race registration, it was clear that it had been raining throughout the night and things were already swampy. For the moment, though, we were warm and dry and we walked up to the warm-up area and into a sea of pink.

There were masses of girls and women of all ages around us, wearing every shade of pink imaginable. As Wave 3 was called up to the cordoned off start area, it felt like we were entering a noisy carnival. We spent the next few minutes entertaining ourselves by trying to spot who was wearing the most elaborate fancy dress amongst the crowd. Above us on a stage, an announcer appeared from nowhere and loudly started to address everyone. As soon as everyone turned to look at him, his shocking pink hair set off a chain reaction of selfies, completely distracting anyone from paying attention to the health and safety fine print he reeled off. With an ear-splitting blast of 90s Europop, two very energetic fitness instructors then came on stage to lead the warm-up. It was unlike any warm-up I’ve ever experienced for a fun run and consisted entirely of kick boxing moves, left jabs and right hooks. As I tried to avoid both kicking and being belted by other runners, I couldn’t help thinking that it was an odd series of moves to practice before the run. Then again, the course was sure to be different this year and I really didn’t know what obstacles we would be facing. With the warm-up done, the announcer came on a final time to psyche up the crowd again and the marshals started spraying everybody with mud. My rugby girls quickly dobbed some mud on their faces to draw ‘war paint’, which in retrospect, I should have taken as a sign.

Once done, they quickly dragged me over to the start of the race, positioning ourselves first on the line. I reminded them that it didn’t matter where we started as we weren’t actually racing. However, as the countdown began they looked primed and ready to go. Sure enough, once the blowhorn sounded, the rugby girls sprinted off with me chasing behind, shouting, ‘It’s not a race!’ They didn’t slow down but sped up and all I could do was to try and run faster. I finally caught them as they paused to weigh up the first obstacle, a series of enormous slippery rollers on a field of mud which we had to get over. They managed to vault over the rollers skilfully like mucky ninjas while my technique of hugging and rolling myself over the top of the rollers only slowed me down. After we cleared the rollers, we were then greeted with several sprays of icy, dirty water fired at us by the race marshals. Since we were the first of our wave to reach the obstacle, we were a clear and easy target.

We quickly sprinted off again in the direction of the next obstacle and as we ran, we started to pass people who had started in an earlier wave. The course then veered towards another muddy area and we approached 3 large metal pipes laid on their side, as makeshift tunnels. Stationed to the left of the tunnels was a happily armed marshal which meant that the rugby girls immediately scurried into the tunnels to the right. Getting the short straw meant I was easy prey for the marshal and before I managed to even enter the tunnel, I was soaked to the skin. Unfortunately, the only way to get through the pipes was by crawling through wet, cold mud. I emerged very wet, muddy and cold and was not surprised to see the rugby girls smiling at my appearance at the other end. We ran off before we could be sprayed any further by the marshal in search of the next obstacle.

As we ran, we passed several more groups of muddy runners and walkers and I reminded them again, that it wasn’t a race. The rugby girls looked at me incredulously and said, ‘But we’ve already caught up to the front of the second wave!’ However, I also noticed that we were not the only ones. Not far behind us was another girl that I recognised from the Wave 3 warm-up and trailing some way behind, was her slightly harassed looking mother. I could see that the girl was trying desperately hard to hurry her up. However, as soon as the rugby girls also clocked the competition, they took off running again saying, ‘She’s trying to beat us!’ I ran after them and realised that the fun run had turned into a muddy race. I couldn’t believe it! It was my final day of my running tour and it just had to get competitive! I could only hope that the obstacles might at least slow them down.

We headed towards the next obstacle but this time, I was more prepared to watch out for the armed marshals. As we got closer, it looked like we would have to crawl under some heavy netting that was lying, invitingly, on some wet, thick mud. Unfortunately, there were two armed marshals, stationed on both sides of the netting, ready to fire from every angle, at their leisure. Since there was no way to avoid them, my only defence was speed, so I dove under the netting and crawled at what I imagined was a lightning pace. The rugby girls used the same tactic and mud flew everywhere as we power crawled under the netting. Only disaster struck, when my hairband got caught in the netting and I was temporarily trapped like a dirty rat. And just like shooting fish in a barrel, the marshals easily fired their puddle water at me until I managed to wriggle free and crawl to safety.

Completely drenched and with my trainers soaked through, I ran to the rugby girls and we continued around the lake. As we ran on, we passed even more people and realised that we were starting to catch up with the first wave of runners. Every now and then, the rugby girls checked behind us, like watchful meercats, to gauge if we were sufficiently ahead of the competition. Which meant that every time they imagined that the competition was advancing, we had to ramp up our speed another notch. I wondered how many other parents were, literally, chasing their children around Pretty Muddy?

Nevertheless, we soon made it to the next obstacle which looked like a cluster of several outsized punchbags, hanging and swinging together, above the mud. The challenge of this obstacle was to get through the cluster of punchbags without falling or being knocked over into the mud. This time I didn’t hesitate, and I quickly weaved around and between the heavy punchbags whilst trying to avoid getting sprayed by the marshal. My rugby playing daughter, however, approached the punchbags as opponents in a match. In other words, she rammed into the first punchbag, tackling it so hard, that she knocked it completely off its support. As the liberated punchbag carried on bouncing away into the distance, the shocked marshal ran after it, shouting to my daughter, ‘Are you ok?!’ I shouted back, ‘Sorry! She plays rugby’. We could not stop laughing as we ran on in search for the next obstacles.

By then we knew that we were more than half-way through Pretty Muddy and there would only be a couple of obstacles left before the infamous mud slide. We passed through the next two obstacles unscathed as they were manned by unarmed marshals. Whether they out of muddy ammunition or not, we took full advantage of the situation to power through as it was far easier climbing over high barriers and ducking under bungee cords in a mud bath, when you are not being intermittently sprayed by cold, dirty water. Even when we had to immerse ourselves into cold muck, at the back of our minds we knew it could have been far worse if we had been under fire. However, the marshals’ truce didn’t last. We spent the penultimate obstacle being fired on as we bounced around a circuit on dirty, slippery space hoppers. By then, my legs were too tired to bounce with any speed and as I wrestled with staying on the space hopper, I was an easy target.

We ran on but after checking the location of the competition behind us, we were compelled to sprint to the final obstacle. However, when got there, we found that there was a complete bottleneck of people waiting to climb the slide. As we joined the long queue of muddy runners, we could only think about how deep the mud pit we would be sliding into. However, I could see that the rugby girls were still nervously glancing around them, wondering if we would be overtaken by the competition. However, I knew that this was now impossible simply because we were in the UK. We could rest assured that no one in their right mind jumps a queue! We eventually got to the front but by then, the mud on our bodies was dried and cracked. Since I had been fired on so many times with dirty water, I appeared slightly ‘cleaner’ than the rugby girls and in my daughter’s words, I was not muddy enough. I told her that it wouldn’t last much longer as we stepped up to the start, waiting for the signal to go.

Up we went, climbing thick, mucky ropes, towards the top of the enormous, steep slide. After losing my footing many times, I joined the rugby girls at the top. We quickly swung our legs around and pushed off, launching ourselves down the slide, like slippery eels. We splash landed straight into the cold, dark mud bath and before I could react to the coldness, my daughter grabbed a big handful of mud and landed it on me. I quickly retaliated and we all stumbled out of the bath and ran over the finish line, still laughing and dripping with mud.

I was so happy to finally finish the race, and what a way to finish my running tour. After a very long week, full of some crazy challenges, I was more than ready for a break! We headed back to collect our bags and on our way, we happened to spot some more muddy members of the girls’ rugby team. As they began to swap stories, I shared a knowing look with another mother and knew that they, too, had been racing in Pretty Muddy. I can only conclude that children, and especially rugby-playing teenagers, are even more willing and ready than adults, to find competition in just about anything. In fact, they even enjoy it! If there is one thing that I have learned from my running tour it is that I don’t really enjoy competition. Therefore, the challenge for me is to resist competition whilst still participating in events. How to actually do this is the big question and like a running Holy Grail, I guess I will have to continue to search for the answer. In the meantime, the safest bet is to enter events that sound more interesting than competitive…or at least come with a nice t-shirt. I wonder what colour the Tour of MK t-shirt will come in next year??

In the meantime, I made this Warm autumn salad with cauliflower and tahini which went down very well at home and the leftovers did not last very long…

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Day 6 Willen Lake 11.3km

It was the last day of the Tour and I couldn’t believe that it had actually arrived. Finally!! Of course, I realised that this running tour would continue a further day for me, as I had foolishly signed up for the Cancer UK Pretty Muddy event on Day 7. But for the moment, I put the bonus run firmly at the back of my mind. Which was easier to do once I remembered that the final Tour race was cruelly, also the longest of the series. I didn’t know whether this last push was originally set as some kind of endurance test or to really see if ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. What it definitely would do is to demonstrate perfectly how the cumulative effects of continuous racing affects running style. At least I wouldn’t be alone in running with a slightly wonky gait as my ankle was still complaining about yesterday’s race. However, on the bright side, I had heard that this final race was mostly flat and it was routed through grassy parkland and around the same lake that Pretty Muddy would take place at. This meant that during the race, I would be able to have a sneaky peak at what Pretty Muddy had in store for me for the following day. It may even be just enough to distract me from the fact that I was running while knackered.

However, if I arrived at the race believing that the majority of other runners were also too tired to sprint and we would end up taking part in a celebratory relaxing group jog, I was wrong again. In fact, the opposite was true as everyone seemed to be really hyped up and raring to go. Many of the runners were performing different variations of warm-up drills. Some concentrated on doing leg swings whilst others conducted a series of high knees, lunges and stride outs. But they all looked like they were going to be setting some course records. I could not understand how they managed to catch a second wind of energy but perhaps it was more about the competitive spirit of the Tour. I suspected that I was the only runner left still trying to resist it and hoping to enjoy the last race without racing. In any case, on this final Tour day I knew my tired legs would dictate the pace.

I walked to the start for the final countdown and last whistle and off everyone sprinted in a massive pack. As we reached the end of a grass pitch the crowd was forced to thin down almost to single file, and we started to run along an uneven footpath. The footpath edged along adjoining fields home to several cows who didn’t appear to give much notice to the never-ending file of runners pounding past them. Each time we left a field to enter the next, we had to pass through a connecting gate alongside cattle grids. This caused a noisy succession of runners who continuously opened and slammed the gates. It also prompted some uncertainty about the running etiquette of holding gates when racing.

Should you hold a gate open for the next runner to grasp if you are competing against them? How long should you stop and wait, holding a gate ajar, before running on? Is there an acceptable distance, between you and the next runner, by which you shouldn’t be expected to wait? What about subsequent gates?? Should you take turns opening and closing each gate or is it first come, first serve? Do you thank your fellow competitors every time they hold the gate for you or just on the first time?

Some runners had thought enough to completely avoid this dilemma by running straight over the wide cattle grids, bypassing the gates, altogether. Which was extremely wise, considering that there were at least 8 more gates to get through on the way to the lake. It may have broken our stride but I was more than happy with this as the gates gave me the chance to catch my breath. This also caused the race to spread out and by the final gate, the little group I was running with had whittled down to only one other runner.

I recognised the other runner from some of the previous days’ races and she looked relaxed as she ran, listening to her headphones. We kept pace with each other and continued running as the course began to circle the lake. Looking around, I could see that they were beginning to set up several obstacles and deep, muddy baths for Pretty Muddy. As I ran nearer, I couldn’t help noticing the slightly ominous signage of ‘Body slam’ and ‘Get a leg over’. I was beginning to wonder if a lie-in wouldn’t have been a better choice than opting for tomorrow’s early start with a cold and muddy run. However, my tired legs soon caught my attention and I returned to concentrating on the task at hand.

We ran in silence and finished rounding the lake and I could see that we were still managing to keep pace with each other. As we headed back towards the fields again, I wondered if this meant that I was actually running in time to her music. Perhaps the musical pacemaker helped us to stick to a constant pace, as we continued running along the fields. But more likely, it was the companionship and a little running etiquette that was buoying me along when I was tiring. In effect, I had no choice but to keep up to share gate opening duty. Simply put, it would have been rude of me to slow down.

After several more kms of familiar fields and gates, we found ourselves confronted by a heavily blocked footpath. A group of sleepy cows had shifted their bulk over and completely blocked our way. We quickly scanned our eyes around the field for a way out. After a very cautious diversion, we made it to the last km of the race and heard that the finish was near. I found that I somehow had a bit of sprint left in me. My legs, naturally, started to very slightly speed up. I glanced at my running companion still holding to our steady, slower pace and I wasn’t sure what to do next. I hesitated further and looked again to see if she wanted to come but the distance started to stretch out between us. I decided to keep going and soon saw the finished runners in the distance who were cheering everyone on. The finish line seemed to move further away as I tried to keep sprinting as it took forever to reach. Finally, and gratefully, I crossed it. I was exhausted but shortly afterwards I saw that my running companion had also crossed the line. I went over to thank her for keeping me going when I felt like stopping and was surprised when she thanked me back for doing the same.

Eventually everyone had finished and after some milling around, the crowd moved inside for some awards and food. I ended the evening very tired but on a high as I really enjoyed the final race of the Tour. The Tour, itself, was quite an experience and I now understood why it is described as something that runners simultaneously dread and look forward to. Although my Tour had its ups and downs, I was overjoyed at completing it in one piece. I proudly put on my Tour t-shirt in Hawaiian blue, and as I ate I realised that I was now a vet! The only problem was that I was finding it hard to ignore a slightly nagging thought. Vet or not, I had another day left to run and Pretty Muddy was looming. But then I reasoned that maybe I could try to use it as a cool-down run. After all, it’s wasn’t going to be a competition. How little did I know…

In the meantime, with the stormy autumnal weather approaching, you might as well warm up with a warm plate of pasta. This Spaghetti squash with Autumn pesto makes a great recovery meal, as well.

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Day 5 Brickhill Woods Hill Race 3.2km

With two more days of the Tour, we would be returning to the woods for another cross-country leg. On paper, it sounded great because a nice, short race on some soft woodland trails would help our legs to recover before we had to run the longest race, on the final day of the Tour. However, I also knew by then to expect the unexpected and so I once again, sought out the opinion of a Tour veteran. The good news, he told me, was that it really was only 3.2km of a trail lined by pine trees in a pretty forest. But the bad news was that it was the toughest race of the week and consisted almost entirely of several extremely steep climbs followed by some treacherous downhills. I couldn’t help asking why there were so many races in the Tour that were renowned as being the toughest of the week? However, the Tour vet assured me that this race really was the absolute worst and included a climb so steep that it was known as ‘vomit hill’. Well that’s just great, I thought. At least it didn’t sound like there would be any repeats. In any case, I decided that race plan would be similar to that of Day 2: Go slow and just finish.

When I arrived at the woods, I found that I had another reason to follow this strategy as my stomach was a bit on the dodgy side. I knew I didn’t want to literally be running up vomit hill, so the order of day would have to be to take it nice and easy. However, it was clear when I ambled up to the start of the race that there were those with other ideas. As it became abundantly clear to everyone that it was going to be another uphill start, many of the runners started regrouping and manoeuvring themselves into a good starting position. Several runners even set themselves strategically off piste among the ferns, ready to sprint with a clear path. I, however, concentrated on standing somewhere where I could see the ground in front of me as I knew there would be plenty of things to trip up on.

Off we went with the whistle and the mass of runners surged forward while others seemed to spring out from different directions in the trees, like speedy ninjas. As we started to climb, everyone was funnelled together into a narrow trail. It became so congested that I couldn’t see what I running on and could only hope that I wouldn’t stumble over a tree root. The trail started to get even steeper and before long, the bunched runners began to disentangle and space out. The race then turned into a survival of the fittest and the natural climbers ran far into the distance. Like the rest, I struggled on and continued to climb what felt like a never-ending hill. I attempted to up my speed in an effort to finish climbing sooner. However, this only made me feel like I would be creating my own vomit hill and I quickly slowed back to my previous pace of dead slow.

Eventually, I made it to the top of the hill but if I thought that I would get some much-needed relief, I was mistaken. Down we went thundering on steep, uneven trails full of forest debris scattered about, almost inviting a fall. I tried to slow myself down without losing my step as I skidded on pine needles and fallen leaves. But I felt myself speed up again and was nearly knocked over by another runner who careered by, apologetically, but out of control. I somehow managed to regain control of my legs again and made it to the bottom of the hill in one piece, but barely.

The trail levelled off temporarily and I tried to catch my breath before we began another uphill ascent. But the flat was hardly a relief as the trail became uneven and thick with sand. I trudged on still trying to avoid tree roots with a slow and heavy stride. At least I was achieving my aim to take it slowly. It wasn’t long before we approached another hill, which looked even steeper than the last. I knew that my stomach had met its nemesis full-on and I braced myself to begin another climb. Up vomit hiIl, I went, slowly and steadily but at least I wasn’t alone. This hill wasn’t one for overtaking and all eyes were firmly focused down as we shuffled upwards in a long queue of grunting runners. Every now and then a runner abandoned the queue and walked up almost in defiance of the impossibility of the course. I only reached the top because I was so tired that I feared if I stopped, I would tumble downwards, knocking the other runners over, like dominoes.

I tried to catch my breath but before long there was another downhill to contend with. By this time in the race, everyone’s legs were knackered which meant that it was even more difficult to control them. I hurtled down with several other jelly-legged runners at what felt like breakneck speed. I managed to weave around several collisions of other runners who had attempted to slow down by windmilling their arms. I glanced at my watch and saw that we were finally nearing the end of the race. However, as I looked back up, I missed my step and landed awkwardly, twisting my ankle in the process. I tried to ‘run it out’ as I knew that there wasn’t much choice other than continuing on, as it was the shortest route back. I carried on running with a slightly uneven gait until eventually I could hear that the end was near. I ran down the last bumpy descent as slowly as my wobbly legs would allow until I finally crossed the finish line. The relief of being able to stop was almost overwhelming and I completely forgot about my ankle as I began to commiserate with the other runners.

This truly had been the toughest race of the Tour so far and I cannot say that I enjoyed it. But it was also another day under my belt and in the end, I had managed not to christen vomit hill. With one day to go of the Tour and Pretty Muddy in sight, the end of my 7 days of crazy races was approaching.

But now for the recipe and to fuel up for the final days, it has to be more bread! Here’s one of my favourites, Olive bread.

 

Bread web

Day 4 Campbell Park 8km

Day 4 of the Tour meant a return to a longer race and a second 8km course through some very hilly parkland. With the weather turning slightly colder, I was beginning to dread the event but at least it wasn’t meant to be routed through another stream. I went into this race with slightly low expectations after the miserable mile but I reasoned that at least, I could only go up.

I arrived with barely enough time to glance at the map of the course but it looked like yet another race running twice around a loop. As I made my way to the start, I couldn’t help wondering if I was the only one who struggled with repeats. Does everyone else really like the mental torture of running the same course twice?! But before I could continue whinging, the race began with the whistle.

Off we went over a grassy field like a stampeding herd of cattle until the course started to veer towards a steep downhill. Down we all ran in a thumping unison of heavy steps and I tried to not collide with the rest of the runners who were packed in beside me. I began to pick up more speed as we ran en masse and I started to feel like a running machine. However, I also realised that the faster I ran, the more I was starting to lose control of my sprinting legs. There began my attempt to put on the brakes by flailing my arms while shouting warnings, that I was incoming. After nearly tripping myself up (and others), the hill thankfully started to level out and I finally slowed at the bottom. I continued running but by then I was also laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

As the race went on and stretched out as the leaders sped ahead in the distance, the rest of us began to migrate into smaller groups. I soon found myself settling into one where I could run at a comfortable pace and as the course weaved through pretty parkland, I realised that I was starting to enjoy the race. Despite this, in the back of my mind was the recent steep downhill because like all runners, I knew that there had to be some payback. I ran on, taking my time and trying not to think about the inevitable uphill climb. But before long, the course started edging towards the beginning of a modest incline. Although it did not seem to be very steep, the runners seemed to slow to nought. The reason why was clear to me at once. It was precisely at that point in the race that every runner could feel just how much effort their quads had made in the previous day’s mile race. Despite coming last in my mile heat, my quads told me a different story.

I carried on slowly and dug in deep as I headed up more inclines and the final long hill before reaching the end of the first loop. But as I glanced at my watch, I was surprised to see that it had only recorded 3.6km of what I thought would be a 4km loop. Looking around, I wasn’t the only one doubting the distance as I heard a runner query the marshal as we passed. He replied that the race was in fact, 5½ miles long. That was an extra 800m or two more laps of the previous day’s race!  Although surprised, I was grateful to know this and knew I had better save some energy to run much further.

In the meantime, I had another loop to run and I began the second one knowing what to expect. This time, I mostly managed to control my downhill speed and kept up a steady but conservative pace for the next kms. However, there was much less movement between different groups of runners and it felt as if no one was going to change tack on the second loop. I enjoyed it so much that I almost forgot I was running a race as I relaxed and let my mind wander. I spent the next kms thinking about what to eat for dinner and whether it might rain or not. But I also kept wondering where the extra 800m of the course was going to come from. I prayed that it wouldn’t turn out to be an extra hill or a partial repeat of the course.

There was no sign of the missing 800m as I carried on up the inclines. But I began to gear down as I approached the last steady hill. I glanced at my watch which confirmed that at 6½ km, I had well over 1km to go. Oddly, I could see in the distance that the runners ahead of me were ramping up their speed and starting to increase the gap. I didn’t worry about it because I knew I would soon catch them in the extra 800m. Just like yesterday’s race plan, I decided that I would start my sprint with 100m to go. Strangely, as I carried on up the hill, I saw a crowd of runners really cheering everyone on. I didn’t know why they weren’t standing closer to the finish as we still had the extra 800m left. I carried on up at my steady same pace with my extra energy safely stored for the final sprint. As I reached the top of the hill and followed the course route, I suddenly realised that I was only 20m from the finish line. I quickly sped over it not knowing if I had truly finished or not. I looked at my watch which showed that the race was only 7km! But as I looked around, I could see others who also seemed confused and kept looking at their watches. However, there was nothing I could do but smile and feel relieved because I had made it to the end.

And the missing 800m? Well, after speaking to some Tour veterans I found out that this leg was simply a distance anomaly of the Tour. It wasn’t a secret and I would have known about it if I had made more of an effort to study the course map. Fortunately, because I hadn’t, I ended up saving some extra energy and I finished Day 4 feeling slightly less exhausted than on previous days. Which made we wonder if perhaps going slower is the best way to get through the remaining days? With 2 more days to go, I was getting closer to the bigger finish line.

In the meantime, for an easy dip that works as a perfect recovery snack, try this recipe for Beetroot hummus. It works with any dippers and if your children do not demolish it as quickly as mine did, the leftovers make a great filler for a sandwich, wrap or jacket potato.

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Day 3 Stantonbury Track Mile race (1.6km)

Although I finished on a bit of high after Potterspury, I was still a little intimidated by the prospect of running the next leg of the Tour around an athletics track. Considering that I hadn’t run a track race since I was a teenager, and never for anything over 800m, I had absolutely no idea how to approach the mile. The fact that I was going to be running 4 laps of the same thing also put me off because I couldn’t imagine it being anything other than boring. Even worse, there is no escape on a track. How could I enjoy my workout if everyone would be watching my every step?! I realised that I was probably the only runner who didn’t actually want to race anybody and who truly preferred the mile to be run en masse. I wondered if there was any way that the mile race could be run for fun? But I reasoned that even if some people were really racing, it was a short distance to contend with. It should be possible to run a little mile without succumbing to the pressure of competition. After all, it’s all in your head, isn’t it?

I wasn’t feeling so certain as I arrived at the track on race day, so I decided to ask my teenage daughter for some reassuring advice. After considering things for a mere millisecond she waved away my concerns and said I would be absolutely fine and wouldn’t have any problem, at all. She explained that all I had to do was simply run at a good pace and then speed up for the last 100m. The race ‘plan’ sounded pretty easy and I relaxed because if she wasn’t worried, why should I? Besides, as the race was ordered into several heats of runners, there would be many chances to watch how it should be done before my own race.

As I watched several faster heats set off and finish before me, I noticed that many of the runners were running really slowly around the track. At first, I thought that they must be following a different race plan from my own. However, even as they sprinted to the finish, they seemed to be putting a lot of effort into what looked more like jogging. I couldn’t understand how they could be getting such fast times when they were hardly sprinting. The more I watched, the more convinced I was that this mile business was going to be just fine.

Unfortunately, I found out that it is extremely deceptive to estimate speed when you are watching others running on a track. As soon as I started my race, I knew that I’d massively underestimated the speeds of the previous runners I’d watched. My mile race was being run at a fierce sprint from the go. In fact, it was impossible to keep up with the other runners and it didn’t get any better as the race went on. Despite the cheering for No 1 from the trackside spectators and my family, my legs simply would not go any faster than my breath allowed. It felt as if I was running in slow motion and I had to keep looking down to see if my legs were still moving. I suddenly remembered why I had never done a mile race before, because I had always hated sprinting for races longer than 100m. My brain was swiftly flooded with all the worst swears. As each lap went by, my legs seemed to shift down into even slower gears and gradually, I slipped to the back of the race like an abandoned caboose. I then faced an internal struggle to carry on running and with many eyes upon me, I knew that the mile could not finish soon enough. I prayed that when I reached the last 100m, I could find just enough speed for a final sprint. But I had nothing left in the tank, so to speak, and my number 1 could only cross the line, last of the pack. However, if I felt slightly downhearted, it didn’t last for very long. As the next heats of runners were up, like the rest, I cheered them on knowing that it was going to be tough for them. But as I watched them I also couldn’t help wondering to myself, why they were running so slowly?

It has to be said that I definitely found out the hard way that without question, the mile race cannot ever be described as something that is ‘fun’ to run. It is a highly competitive 4-lap mad sprint and running it on a track only increases the pressure of competition, ten-fold. Personally, that is not something that I would like more of. I may have finished Day 3 surprisingly tired for such a short race and a little frustrated but at least I was officially half way to the t-shirt.

Well, another day means another recipe so here’s a great one for Oatmeal soda bread. Be warned. The smell of this bread baking will tempt any teenager out of their room so you would be advised to bake two.

Oatmeal soda bread blog

Tour de force? Day 2 Potterspury Cross-Country 8km

After the baptism of fire on Day 1 of the Tour, I was slightly apprehensive about what was to come. This time, I would be prepared and what better way to do this other than simply asking someone who had done the Tour before. It was easier to find a Tour veteran than I thought and they were more than willing to share some vital course information. They advised me to wear my oldest trainers for the race as the course was not only mucky, but involved running through a stream three times and climbing stiles. This sounded tricky enough but I knew from my past cross-country experience that the 8km course would also feel considerably longer on such terrain.

I decided that the only way I would be able to complete Potterspury in one piece would be to run the race at a much slower pace so I could watch my footing. I would have to focus on finishing and run it more as a fun run, so I would enjoy it as much as possible. I tried not to think of the fact that I would be running another race of repeated loops, even if there were only 2½ of them. And I was really dreading the stream…

But before I knew it, I joined a long queue of other runners walking to the start which was at the base of a very steep muddy hill. I couldn’t believe it! We were starting on a hill?! Before I had time to question the injustice of it all, we all went off at once, albeit at a slightly slower uphill pace. The course, itself, was very hilly and uneven and it winded itself around several muddy fields. After circling for some time, we ran through a forest trail and of course, in and out of a murky stream. However, this managed to help me slow my pace as I followed other runners who dodged verges, clambered over stiles and leapt over logs. As for the stream, it was very mucky, indeed, but at least it was not too cold. My attempts to clear it, however, were futile. Each time I geared myself up to leap, my tired legs only landed me in deeper water. But with my trainers literally squelching as I ran, there was no point in worrying about the time or distance. Unlike the previous day’s race, it felt less like a fierce competition and I was surprised to find that I was starting to enjoy the race. I continued to run past another field, another climb then a steep downhill before the finish was in earshot. The course rounded the perimeter of a grass pitch for the final sprint to the finish. However, it also circled all of the speedier runners who had hung around after finishing to cheer everyone on. It felt more like a victory loop as I ran and unlike the previous day, there wasn’t a mad scrum to get over the line. I finished Day 2 enjoying running at a slower pace, without any pressure and I felt more confident that I would complete the Tour. With two races down, I was almost halfway there.

In the meantime, I could only think of recovery and mainly, nourishment. With that in mind, here’s another easy one-pot recipe for Fruity cauliflower pilaf to try.

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