Probing the dusty corners and the occult areas of academia

  • Friday, December 30, 2016
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Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
I have a son, 13 who is Autistic. He is a subversive autistic, quietly shining to the quiet Moon, a mostly placid surface and off the grid to the casual observer but if you disturb his sense of order or arouse his anxieties you find out who he is. Life is almost always interesting, often unpredictable and you're not always sure what you're going to get. It presents challenges and often those challenges have a profound impact on family life. Like a lot of Autistic people there are no real answers, just an endless slippery wrestling for more knowledge because every person with Autism seems to be uniquely quirky.
Apart from the diagnostic descriptors that mark them as Autistic they are all different.
As they say “If you know one person who has autism, you know one person who has autism.”
It doesn't stop you though, as a parent, from scouring the Internet and books or probing the dusty corners and the occult areas of academia for solutions.
It was on one such search recently that I stumbled across a fascinating man, his Autistic son and an oddball form of Ultra Running. The man is Hal Walter the seven time world champion at the sport of pack Burro racing, a sport unique to the American state of Colorado. This form of Ultra Running is undertaken whilst tethered to a fully laden Donkey. Hal has written several books about the parallels of working with a strong willed and independent animal and having an Autistic child. He deals with his autistic son with warmth, consistency, love and undying perseverance. He is a man filled with empathy and compassion and he has a huge streak of honesty too. I'd love to meet him.
Our kids are fantastic. There is the stereotyped myth of emotionless robots lacking empathy or imagination and it's true those things are often present. There also exists the other side, a sometimes wacky view of life, moments of spontaneous love and a genuine sense of humour. I was speaking to a colleague recently about a pupil. She said that he had copied another pupils literacy work word for word and when she gently suggested that it may be a form of stealing he replied that it wasn't stealing and he was just being a Magpie! Great humour and an alternative view that made perfect sense to him. They are all interesting these kids, they are my passion and I love working with them.
After reading about Hal and buying his book Endurance in which he details his son's cross country running I began to dig a little deeper. I have become interested in the impact of nature on the autistic mind. I am reading Coleridge's poem, frost at Midnight where he worries that his child will grow up as he did,
"For I was reared
In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim..."

Coleridge wishes his child to be able to grow up experiencing nature instead. He wants him to be more balanced and imaginative. I think Coleridge got it right. When I run through the trees I feel a real connection with nature. I feel more grounded and at peace with myself. My senses are engaged and my stresses diminish. Life is simple and beautiful.

"Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw..."

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that animals have a positive impact too. Hal's wife Mary has an interesting thought on why: "We base our decisions on logic. Theirs are based on sensory perception" 
I like this, it makes sense, I think animals have great instincts, they are non judgemental and consistent. They make few demands. They love without question. The evidence suggests that animals can help diminish social stress in kids with autism, they can help develop social skills. I think they are mostly just simple and uncomplicated to an autistic kid and perhaps they inhabit similar worlds.
I'm not going to take up running with a Burro but I am going to look for a dog. I had some great dogs growing up, they did my soul good and I miss having one. I think it's time.

Drowsy with the taste of red wine on it's lips

  • Sunday, November 13, 2016
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Somewhere in the depths of solitude, beyond wilderness and freedom, lay the trap of madness.
Edward Abbey.

Two birds are wheeling outside my window, black silhouettes against the grey Autumn sky. I've been sitting on this sagging sofa too long, staring at the skyline, undecided and unconvinced. Is it really only eight weeks since I was cloud gazing, lying back on my summer grass, green and slightly lumpy under my back and looking up. Then the sky was deep and blue and only slightly scarred by a few scruffy clouds. When the breeze blew I could smell Fox wee but this was not about that so I ignored it. This was about stopping and not doing, an emptying of activity creating space to think. The longer I lay still and looked the more I noticed. Dandelion seeds and arrowing birds, also tiny silver aircraft, precise and quick and reflecting the sun, flies and butterflies, dust motes, midges and even my sons face briefly causing a human eclipse of the sun. I'm so good at lazy meditation that I could have lain there forever looking at the hole in the Ozone layer and the dandruff of the sky but I didn't. I rolled onto my side and rose to my feet. I had to act. I had to seek the trap of madness so I slapped my Vibrams to my feet, kissed the forehead of the child who eclipses the sun and went out running. It was easy.
To be frank I may as well have remained in that somnolent state. I think the spirit of running which used to live in me is still stretched out on my grass drowsy with the taste of red wine on it's lips or more likely is roaming the trails leaving a whiff of smelly running shoe and seeking me.
It's become hard.
In the transition between the seasons something has become broken and running has become reasonably rare because it's difficult to move without an engine. We need fire and for fire we need a spark. Frances has a song called Don't Worry About Me and for the first minute she sings Acapella before striking one gorgeous note on the Piano. To me this is where the song really begins, it is the spark that the rest of the song is built on, the piano becomes the engine carrying her stunning voice. I'm seeking that spark, that single piano note that will reunite me with my running spirit and ignite a flame to carry me through the long and cold winter months ahead. I am confident it will happen and I will transition from inconsistent to habitual again, I've come too far and run for far too long, it's deeply ingrained in me and it won't let me go.

The child who eclipses the sun.

The sort of high produced by creativity, beer and extreme hunger

  • Monday, August 01, 2016
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“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”  
Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums.

The best thing about our run a fortnight ago was sitting around an iron table afterwards at the Battle of Britain Museum in Shoreham. Above our heads was a thick canopy of leafy vine and above that blue Kent skies pocked by summer clouds. We talked and refuelled with steaming mugs of Tea and Coffee and the location was fitting for the conversation that stood out, a strangely relaxed and even funny talk about loss, bereavement and memorial, a cathartic conversation rooted in the power of community that gave me a glimpse of what it is to be human, the circle of life, the importance of memory and the resilience it breeds.
Before we allowed ourselves the luxury of tea we gave ourselves the luxury of a meandering run along the banks of The River Darent, the name rooted in the Celtic 'Derva' meaning Oak or river where the Oak trees grow. The Darent is a cold, clear, fast flowing 20 mile tributary of the Thames. For runners it's a scenic backdrop perfect for a shambling run passing Hops, Lavender fields and the historic 9 arch viaduct near the village of Eynsford. We also passed Lullingstone Castle and a small herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle with their red rimmed eyes and clouds of attendant flies.
A badger called Angus. I'm always happy to stay this side of the fence.

I find there is great power in journey and people journeying together. Something creative occurs when we step out of our routines and go exploring together. The subconscious is stirred and ideas float up past the murk to find expression in the warmth and brightness of day. One of the most seminal books I ever read was Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, a beat masterpiece where the central themes of being non conformist, spontaneous and living a simple life are wrapped around wilderness adventure. It's a book about searching for meaning in a crowded and busy life by using the contrast between Bohemia and nature as it's vehicle.
The following Friday I find myself in the Loft, upstairs to the Bedroom Bar in Shoreditch. I'm here with my daughter for an evening of spoken word put on by a massively talented collective of poets calling themselves Rhymes With Orange. It's the sort of dark and atmospheric joint that 15 years ago would have been clouded in a cigarette fuelled fog whilst poets rant hormonally from the stage but I settle for  cold beer instead and leave several hours later on the sort of high produced by creativity, beer and extreme hunger, I am ecstatic, my daughters friend has won the open mic with an impassioned poem about immigration called weeds. She is a weed and so am I and we are proud.

     (Upstairs at the Bedroom Bar. Not my photo)

I've realised since that I'm not the only runner to draw parallels with Kerouac and running. Jenn Shelton, Ultrarunner, lover of Beat writers and one of my heroines draws inspiration from Dharma Bums. She attributes her running philosophy directly from the books text,
"Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don't look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by" And in her own words,"I love just being a barbarian, running through the woods."
This Sunday I returned to Shoreham with Jerry and Michael and this time we were joined by George. We are wild men, trail bohemians and beat runners. During the Internet chatter organising the run the question of a route was put forward and I delegated it to Jerry, the ultimate route guru. You can always trust the bugger to come up with something interesting and unique, he decided that we should go in the other direction and came up with a 10 miler out towards the village of Otford. Like poetry our run became eclectic, a mash up of trails and railway crossings and even a quarry. At the village of Seal we ran through the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, parts of which date back to the 13th century and where the grave yard has a superb view over the North Downs. We talked to a man in the church yard, saw horses and crossed a motorway bridge. We climbed stiles and passed through kissing gates. I even found time to take a hard fall. From there we looped back to Shoreham once again and the Battle of Britain tea garden. Quote of the day goes to George, delivered in his dry, Northern Irish accent as Jerry minced over some sharp stones in his Monkey feet, "That's why the Monkeys swing through the trees Jerry"
Succinct, poetic and insightful.

Dog in the River Darent, Shoreham Village

Unshaven Zimbo, a proud weed.

Viaduct at Eynsford.

Peace surrounded by peace.

The ford at Eynsford. Jerry taking the dry option.


 St Peter and St Paul, Seal.

 View of the North Downs

Wild men, trail bohemians and beat runners.

The race was a mixture of exhilarating yahoo running and grunt grinding

  • Wednesday, June 15, 2016
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Saturday was a slobby armchair sports day. One of those days where you don't change out of your PJ's and you turn a blind eye to your kids pinballing off the lounge furniture. It started early with the All Blacks v Wales Rugby on a shaky, buffering Now TV day pass via the Xbox and Virgin Broadband. This is Sky Sports on the cheap as I can't bring myself to do the illegal stream thing. From there we moved through a marathon of sport, more Rugby with England v Australia, Cricket (England v Sri Lanka/ Australia v South Africa) and finished with Euro 2016 Football. We watched the latter whilst eating a Beef stir fry I whipped up with mushrooms and bean sprouts. I use the word eating advisedly, enduring would be more accurate as it was more reminiscent of gnarly African goat, tough, stringy and tasteless.
This was my way of preparing for the Orpington High Elms 10K, a hilly trail event organised by local club Orpington Road Runners. I know and love High Elms, it's 250 acres of undulating woodland bordered by the North Downs, I've run there often and it's the sort of terrain where it's necessary to be a gnarly African goat with the requisite streak of stubbornness thrown in.
For this jaunt I was #236, elegant in my threadbare Helly Hansen shirt but also wearing brand new shorts and once again I enjoyed a start line chat about my taped together Vibrams. I also had the joy of seeing an old friend, Michael, he of the rock star looks and wild locks. When the gun sounded the pack ran down the field, towards the nearby cafe and tangled up the first climb together before I settled my breathing, got my mind into the zone and found some space.
From this point the race was a mixture of exhilarating yahoo running and grunt grinding up some pretty bastard hills. Anyone who knows me well knows that I love this sort of running, plenty of twisty turns, rocks, roots and the odd gate thrown in. Mostly we were under trees on wide, stony trails but with the occasional foray into slippery grassy fields. It rained too, a steady and continuous drizzle which was particularly refreshing especially given that my watch showed an elevation gain of 668 feet during the race. Despite the climbs I was able to finish strong and fast before collecting my medal and falling into the bosom and acclaim from my wife and kids. I love these guys, they never fail me, never doubt me and happily turn out in the rain to be my cheerleaders. I owe them.
Thanks ORR, it was a great event, the marshals superb and the child's scribble of a route a proper challenge. I'm really looking forward to repeating this next year.

Collecting and propagating grass seeds in my hairy legs.

A flying finish, a poetic blur.

Medal, remnant of shoes, number.

Me in 2007, my first race and the only previous time I've run this event.
Some hair, no glasses and a Zulu bead necklace. Several thousand miles have passed since.

A neon stream of happy, painted carnival clowns.

  • Saturday, May 28, 2016
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So as we walked through fields of green
Was the fairest sun I'd never seen
And I was broke I was on my knees
But you said yes as I said please
(Marcus Mumford)

You put on a good race Richard my old son, yes Sir, a good race indeed with organization as slick and professional as a travelling rock n roll cowboy's light show. The good race was the inaugural Chislehurst Half Marathon, a long overdue event run in aid of a local charity called the Maypole Project. This charity supports children who have complex medical needs and their families, I have more than a passing interest as some of my colleagues and parents have benefited from their work.
I walked up to the start in the local Football ground with my second son, an 11 year old with a wise head and a thirst for experience and knowledge. He talks a lot too. Together we grabbed race number 49 and pinned it to my drab olive shirt. Together we sipped water and watched the crowd build. We watched the frolic of the official warm up but took no part. Together we jogged up and down the field, me to shake off my pre race nerves and he because he is my loyal friend. When Richard squawked and croaked through the PA system I went alone to my starting pen to find a GPS signal and have the inevitable discussion about my Five Fingers before we all shuffled across the timing strip and started the race, a neon stream of happy painted carnival clowns.
If this run was a Mumford and Sons song it would be Not Without Haste, a song of freedom and hope and lessons learnt. A song about making the most of our lives and our opportunities, filled with the usual riotous banjo and yearning vocals;
"So we will run and scream,
You will dance with me
Fulfill our dreams, and we'll be free.

We will be who we are,
And they'll heal our scars.
Sadness will be far away."

That was my race strategy, to run at peace with myself, be myself and enjoy every moment especially the trail sections along paths that I have run and loved through the years. I was noticeably stronger off road, more assured, intuitive and light. God and the day were kind to us, it was warm, sunny and the trails were dry. I felt no pressure especially in the first two miles when it is easy to go out faster than is wise. I can confirm the race being tough, the course design both Machiavellian and ingenious with plenty of hills. I was never bored. I think my strategy mostly worked too, I took time to drink at the water stations and walked the last hill. I smiled at people and thanked them for their support. I took jelly babies from kids even if I didn't want them and yet...and yet the last two miles hurt and I missed out on a sub 2 hour finish by two minutes, I just didn't pay enough attention to my watch. It's not a big deal because I enjoyed the race so much. Next time.
Thanks to My family, the organisers and the fantastic marshals especially James and Sarah D. Also those runners who endured my conversation and the bearded man sitting as grave as a garden gnome in the middle of his front lawn, great support makes a huge difference.

A great and worthwhile medal, #49 and tatty Vibrams

I'm not picking my nose, I'm drinking.

Eventual winner Lee Rogers (um, above)

The race photo's are not mine, I don't know who the photographer was but whoever you are, thanks.

Shoe Goo, rubber patches, strips of plastic cut from a Milk carton and Stormsure adhesive

  • Sunday, May 08, 2016
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I'm writing this in my modest garden. I'm dressed as I would be in Africa, barefoot and in shorts. I should probably have a cold Chibuli next to me but I don't. There is a Cherry Blossom tree in the next garden and in it is an invisible bird. This is Summers first kiss, hot and hazy and full of promise, the breeze filled with erupting seed and clumsy butterflies. The last few weeks have been marked by chilly early morning runs, scampering through the woods with the Woodpeckers silent but the birdsong continuous and pure.
The Bluebells are out and riotous which is an obligatory mention for any self respecting trailrunner as well as Wild Garlic, wood anemones, ninja brambles and bastard Stinging Nettles. There must be a high pollen count too because I run with the sniffles, snorting like a cocaine addict desperate for their next fix.
My routine is continous and established apart from the occasional foray into other Woodland areas during holiday periods, workclothes folded into my bag, an early breakfast and a mug of Rooibos tea, grab a satellite signal and off I go in my extremly tatty Five Fingers.
The latter are becoming a cause for concern, I have to patch them with strips of Duct Tape before every run as they are literally falling apart. I've tried so many solutions to keep them going including Shoe Goo, rubber patches, strips of plastic cut from a Milk carton and Stormsure adhesive. I have a new pair on order but Vibram keep pushing the release date back frustrating me greatly. Which brings me to this:
What the hell is going on here? Looking for socks to run in this afternoon brought me to my knees. Five socks, all right foot and not a single complete pair. It must be the left foot sock thief. I have no rational explanation for this, the lefties have vanished into thin air. Gone.

I don't have a small drill bit and I don't trust my subtlety

  • Sunday, April 17, 2016
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The Pobble who has no toes
      Had once as many as we;
When they said, 'Some day you may lose them all;'--
      He replied, -- 'Fish fiddle de-dee!'
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink,
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said, 'The World in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!'
(Edward Lear)
Big toe anatomy 101.
I have a big toe. Well actually I have two but only one is (marginally) blog worthy at the moment. One Hallux which is Latin for big toe. One bruised and throbbing toe sporting a blackened toenail.
Here are some big toe or Hallux facts for your enjoyment, feel free to share them with your loved ones and random strangers in the street...
I've learnt that that big toe in humans has two bones in it unlike the rest of the toes which have three. The big toe and little toe have muscles that are unique to them and the Hallux is flexed by the flexor hallucis longus muscle which is deep in the back of the lower leg. Who would have thought that a muscle in the leg would be responsible for toe movement? Five nerves provide sensation to the toe's skin. Sensation to the Big Toe comes from the Deep Fibular Nerve. Gotta love that Deep Fibular Nerve. Blood comes from the plantar metatarsal arteries and drains into the Dorsal arch. Huh? The Big Toe is the most vital of all the toes allowing us to remain balanced and bear weight, the Hallux bears twice the amount of weight of the other toes combined. Finally, our toes are in contact with the ground 75% of the time we are running so they're reasonably important.
I love the complexity of the human body.
This week I've become an amateur toe surgeon, a goalkeepers football stud coming down with full force on my big toe led to an immediate subungual hematoma or in plain English, a shitload of bleeding under the toenail turning my nail black. It may sound silly but the pain that night was so intense it kept me awake and I wondered if it was broken and had visions of another enforced break from running. Quickly turning to Google I learnt that the blood and pressure could be reduced by boring a hole through the affected toenail. At first I tried the hot paperclip method which meant straightening a paperclip, heating it and burning my way through the nail but I couldn't hold it tight enough and the paperclip cooled too fast. Some forums suggested a 1mm drill bit but cautioned against going to far and drilling into the nerves (remember the trusty old Deep Fibular Nerve?). This would lead to further excruciating pain and probably loud screaming, tears and snot. I don't have a small drill bit and I don't trust my subtlety so I tried a pair of extremely sharp nail scissors, sterilising them with a gas flame and carefully boring into my nail and, BAM!, a small geyser of blood erupted from the resulting hole. Immediate relief followed and doing a daily drain over the next few days has done the trick, my nail looks almost normal and apart from some slight pain from the bruising to my flesh I am pretty much OK to run.

The dead hand of winter scrabbling at my window.

  • Sunday, March 27, 2016
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Tonight the clocks go forward and British Summer Time starts. Outside it is dusk and I am sitting on my sofa with my kids kaleidoscoping around me while the rain from storm Katie lashes down and the wind velocity is picking up. Yesterday I sat shirtless in the sun, this evening I took down my garden umbrella least the wind launches it into my neighbours garden. Hopefully this is the last of the Winter storms, the last kick of a dying horse, the dead hand of winter scrabbling at my window.
Despite the storm spring has been making a slow arrival, out on the trails I've heard the Woodpeckers and it's been getting steadily lighter in the morning, so much so that I'm able to get six miles of running in on my way into work and have time to spare. I'm on my Easter break at the moment and by the time I go back I should be able to extend this to Seven. Summer is my favourite time of the year for running but spring comes a close second. I've never particularly been an early morning runner but started last year to experiment with the inbound commute to work - and I've grown to love being out early. I love the stillness and the solitude and the sense of freshness in the air, especially when it is clear. I love knowing that at sunrise I am the first human to pass on the trails. Strangely I'm also beginning to love the intimacy and the routine of running the same trails over and over. My connection to woodland that I am already very familiar with has deepened considerably and it is a habit that is bringing deep peace to me. It should be boring but somehow it is ever changing and I try to run mindfully and see new things all the time. For the most part my mind and my spirit are clear and I have a strong sense that this is going to get stronger the longer I do it.
I was reflecting a few days ago how my running has evolved over the years, it's always renewing and revealing new facets and I'm enjoying this latest incarnation.

A beautiful example of an early spring morning, crispy, sunny and misty at the same time


Late afternoon, Good Friday

Somewhat agitated he asked me if I'd seen anyone riding a silver bicycle.

  • Monday, February 01, 2016
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This is a desultory peck at my keyboard, it's Monday pm and I've stayed off work today with a cold that started late Friday and intensified on Sunday. I've slept most of the day away and I don't feel significantly better.
Such is life I guess.
I've had a bright start to 2016 on the running front, once again building up my fitness after a quiet December. I intend to slow down a bit this year and enjoy what the woods and the beauty of creation has to offer. I want to be more mindful of what is around me so I'm going to try be aware of colours, lines, light, shapes, textures and words (stories) I want to take more photographs too. It's a slight shift of perspective away from purely running to running being a creative springboard and a vehicle for observation. On my homeward run last week I noticed a burly figure in the dusk running up the gravel road toward me, he turned out to be a gruff individual wearing jeans, Workman's boots and a thick olive jersey. Somewhat agitated he asked me if I'd seen anyone riding a silver bicycle. It turned out that he had been taking a short cut through the woods and had a sudden need to urinate, he propped his bike against a tree and stepped off the trail to relieve himself. By the time he returned his bike had gone. It reminded me of my own bicycle, a proud and shiny red model with three speed gears and a carrier that was stolen out of the school bicycle shed when I was aged around 14. Bizarrely the police recovered it a year later at Harare airport, the thief had poured a tin of grey paint all over it in an attempt to disguise it and if memory serves it was the crudeness of this paint job that alerted them that the bike may have been stolen. I rode it for a few more years but it was never the same and I never got rid of the streaks of industrial grey paint.
I felt for my gruff inquisitor, there are not many people around in the woods at dusk in winter so it must have been a real opportunistic thief or perhaps someone who thought it had been merely abandoned.

I will have faith, live and run simply

  • Wednesday, January 06, 2016
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In the early 80's I used to watch a television sitcom called Mork and Mindy starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber. Williams played the role of Mork, an alien from the planet Ork sent to earth to study human behaviour and he had an Orkian expletive he uttered when things went wrong  - Shazbot. This two syllable word was adopted by my mother and I and we used it as often as possible in conversations between us. Running in to work just before dawn on Monday after a few days of steady rain brought back the memory of this. I was struggling to maintain any form of adhesion to the earth, it was devilishly slippery and I found myself chuckling as I reflexively muttered shazbot after a particularly sharp slide. This is a word that hasn't passed my lips for at least 20 years. People had better pray it doesn't again soon.
I loved the show so much that I named one of my Bantam hens Mindy, I used to leave my bedroom window open for her because every afternoon she would fly into my room and lay her egg in my clothes cupboard.
As for running, these are my thoughts so far in 2016.
My regular commuting runs to and from work are the boilerplate of my fitness. This is where I will lay down the foundation and forge my running year. The route may vary little but it wont be boring because the skies and seasons will rotate and change around me and there is always comfort in liturgy.
Secondly, a few days ago I was watching Jacob Barnett, an autistic genius delivering a TED Talk where his message was, forget what you know, stop learning, begin thinking and start creating. His idea is that when we are able to stop structured learning it gives us the time and freedom to think instead and creativity flows from there. I like that and I'm going to try and apply it to running and life. Maybe we try and learn too much. I knew an ancient Jewish lady once. She had survived Auschwitz and yet had a deep and unshakable faith in God. I remember her saying to me once that we spend too much time trying to learn about God, we read endless books and listen to people who try to teach us who He is. It stifles us and puts Him in a box. The reality is, she said, is that God is a mystery and that is how we should approach him. As for me, she went on, I just believe, no more, no less. Simple. It had a huge impact on me and transformed my view of faith. So this is my new thing, I will plunge in and treat life and the running trails as a mystery to be enjoyed. I will have faith, live and run simply, I will think and I will create.

The almost gothic dawn on Monday

Just a hint of sunrise on the fence poles along the river path. Monday. 

Mist and mud. Wednesday

Footbridge in the mist. Wednesday.

Um, the crack of dawn. Wednesday.