Thursday, 26 November 2009

Forest Schools

Every Thursday I volunteer as a 'Forest Schools' assistant with a local school. Forest Schools is an initiative which aims to get children out of the classroom in order to learn about the natural world, to learn how to use tools, to take responsible risks and to cooperate. I'm working with children of only five years old.

Doing the volunteering has been such a learning curve. I don't know any children of that age - so I didn't know what they could and could not do (and I'm still finding out). I've also found assisting the children such a challenge - it is so practical, and involves common sense and confidence (both of which I sometimes lack). With Forest Schools, the idea is to let children take some responsibility, so it was initially difficult not to over-direct them when they pick up a huge, dangerous-looking stick. But I'm learning.

Up until now we've just been using the school grounds as our outdoor classroom - to get them familiarised with the routine. This involves changing into wellies and Forest Schools kit (which seems to take an age!), opening the Forest School door with an imaginary key, and returning to the teacher when the owl whistle goes. The most important thing, however, is setting up the Forest School boundary - with its red and white tape - to ensure the children don't run off. It was very important, initially, to get this properly established.

Over the past few weeks we've been making collages with autumn leaves, learning about nocturnal animals, and learning about the habits of squirrels by hiding and finding conkers. But this week was different. We all walked to a tiny area of woodland in a nearby school.

When the children got into the wood, they were very excited, and ran off in all directions. I tried very hard to keep an eye on my three children - but they soon were hidden amongst the trees. Almost immediately there were children climbing, scrambling in the mud and generally enjoying being outside. Some were a little tentative and worried about getting scratched. Others were swinging from branches.

The children were so excited that we had no time for an activity and spent the whole time playing and climbing trees. However, quite a bit had been learned. By the end of the session we had found a huge worm and heard from one child how they made compost from peelings, we'd found several mushrooms and we'd made a teasle and leaf 'soup'. There were also several kids who had never climbed a tree before climbing. It was great to see. The best bit was when I saw one of the children call out and help another less able child across a ditch (she was stuck and a little bewildered by the whole thing).

It's fascinating see all the different children's abilities and personalities and how they interact. But I am now exhausted after only two hours!

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The trilobite (Richard Fortey, 1993) and a fossil bivalve (Hannah W. 2009)

The trilobite had the shape and feel of an artefact; something of the neatness and symmetry of a medallion. Like a medallion it could sit comfortably in the palm of my hand. The fossil showed a head, with its eyes, and a middle lobe, a tail, and a thorax with perhaps a dozen segments – a complicated animal despite its antiquity. I remember a curious feeling, as if in some way this revelation to my hammer after so long a sleep in the bedding of the rock had not just been a matter of serendipity. Perhaps I had been intended to find that trilobite, to make the blow upon just that piece of rock, and to release that very messenger from the past into the world to tell its story. I became aware of the continuity of things. There was a thread running between this trilobite and this investigator. At the time the only feeling I would have been able to articulate was one of specialness of the moment and of the place, a kind of contentment I could hug to myself. The excitement of the find was physical, like any kind of hunting. But the metaphysical component was there, too, at the very least a species of shock to be made aware of how long this place had existed as a haven for life – why else should this stone-bug, preserved in fossil clay in part and counterpart, have seemed as if sent to me as a talisman?

Richard Fortey(1993) The Hidden Landscape: A Journey into the Geological Past, London, Pimlico.

It turns out that what Hannah found in the Brickhills (part of the Woburn Sands formation of greensands, I think) was a fossil bivalve, possibly from the lower cretaceous. The chap at MKNHS identified it as being a fossil that may have been uplifted from older to younger areas of rock. Wow - I've witnessed the finding of a fossil for the first time!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Runner's high (Mike Spino, 1971)

[With] my first step I felt lighter and looser than ever before. My shirt clung to me, and I felt like a skeleton flying through a wind tunnel. My times at the mile were so fast that I almost felt like I was cheating. It was like getting a new body that no-one else had heard about. My mind was so crystal clear that I could have held a conversation. The only sensation was the rhythm and the beat, all perfectly natural, all and everything and everything part of everything else ... distance, time, motion were all one. There were myself, the cement, a vague feeling of legs, and the coming dusk. I tore on. I could have run and run. Perhaps I had experienced a physiological change, but whatever, it was magic. I came to the side of the road and cried tears of joy and sorrow. Joy for being alive; sorrow for a vague feeling of temporalness, and a knowledge of the impossibility of giving this experience to anyone.

Mike Spino (1971) 'Running as a spiritual experience', in J. Scott (Ed.), The Athletic Revoltion (p. 222) New York, Free Press.

New superheroes spotted!


Friday, 20 November 2009

Record of this week's training

Tuesday was the pleasantly-titled 'Fartlek' or 'speed play' session with the OURC. I am not sure whether what we do on a Tuesday is technically fartlek or more properly 'intervals', but we did a set of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 along a 10 k route, with variously timed recoveries. I was pleased with the training - I felt much stronger than the previous week (when I'd also been fighting nausea from a very heavy weekend).

I was able to keep up with some of the faster ones, but I wasn't very consistent. I tended to start off slowly and then try hard in the last minute. It's a good route that we do, with plenty to look at - part of Willen lake and the 'enchanted forest' by the Ouzel on the way back.

Today was the (as Mark would put it) murderous 800 m intervals around Woughton Campus field. We had to do eight of these, with sixty-second recoveries. Boy, it was tough. Our first splits were 3 mins, and then 2.58, but then we slipped to 3.05. After that it was very difficult to keep below 3.10. My legs felt very heavy, but the lungs were (relatively) fine. I have so much fitness to build up before December 13, let alone for the London Marathon on April 25. On reflection I think the short recoveries and the sponginess of the grass make this session very hard. It's also much more monotonous. But I feel pleased to have got through it in reasonable splits, and running on grass (if flat) is better training than running on the road for Calderdale.

My last session of the week will be hill running with Leah in the Brickhills - which should do a slightly better job of emulating the hills of Calderdale. We'll try for 1 hour 30 mins I should think - running up and down as many horrible hills we can find.

Hill run
This was much more fun than the relentless field intervals. Leah called for me on Sunday pm and drove us to the woods - Milton Keynes's adult playground (the car park is packed, even early in the morning, with the cars of walkers, runners, mountain bikers, and people who do 'cross-country theatre' in capes and masks, with sticks). Somehow we managed to avoid a deluge and caught the last of the afternoon's yellow sun. Leah took us on a circuit which involved a variety of hills, and we practised splurging through mud without caution, and running downhill over leaves (which can be tricky as you don't know what tree roots etc lurk underneath them).

As we were running, we saw four or five fantastic fly agaric in full bloom, which gleamed out, wet and jelly-like, from plump cushions of brown leaves.

Once we'd done the circuit, we ran over to do the biggest hill we could find - which basically takes you from the level of the road up to the top of the Brickhill Woods mound. We ran down the whole thing, and then ran up. It was terrible - and once again, Leah (despite her week of gruelling training) was way ahead of me. Still, I ran the whole thing and recovered quickly, which is the best I can hope for I guess. Ahh - I'm looking forward to feeling strong in the legs again ... wonder how long it will take.

As I was running I was wondering how Brickhill Woods formed, geologically speaking. Why this lump in the middle of all this flat? Why all the sand, with occasional patches of clay? Is the thing that my friend Hannah found there, a few months ago, a fossil ammonite? I am hopefully about to find out as I'm going to a talk on Milton Keynes's geology tomorrow at Milton Keynes Natural History Society (which I have just joined). This should mesh nicely with my work on Exploring Science (The Open University's Level 1 Science Course). I've just read Book 2 (Earth and Space) which covers some basic geology.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Fiona's Moustache

I feel compelled to blog about Fiona's moustache. Fiona is raising money for prostate cancer by wearing a moustache for the whole of November. But, as usual, she has her own creative take on this - she wears a different moustache every day, complemented by a different moustache-inspired costume. The office waits to see what she'll be wearing each day!
Here's the link to her page - which shows all of her different outfits and moustaches so far. Feathers, fake eyelashes and fake fur are just some of the materials she has used to decorate her upper lip!

Calderdale Way Relay Part 1: recce

A couple of months ago, I received an email from Milton Keynes AC, my running club, asking for volunteers for the Calderdale Way Relay. This is organised by the Halifax Harriers AC, in the middle of December. It is a relay of 6 legs, run in pairs, over 50 miles of the Calderdale Way. MKAC has sent two teams up to the race every year for several years, but they have never sent up a mixed team. This year, however, enough women signed up to do so. 'Club history', so lovely legs Brian says!

The relay is, in essence, fell running - which I have never done before. I have run the Dunstable 20, on the Dunstable Downs, and the Ridgeway run (Tring AC's 10ish-mile race). These were off road, autumnal, and undulating, but nothing like running in Yorkshire, in the middle of Winter. However, I have been wondering for a while whether I'd be able to tackle more difficult terrain. I like running off road - for the views, the variety and the hopping about. I find it exhilharating (unlike Gary who hated breaking his 'rhythm' and thought it was a recipe for injury)!

The big problem for me with this type of race is navigation. I have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever. I get lost walking home. If a tree drops its leaves on a route I've learned, I'm scuppered. This is where my friend Leah comes in. Leah is both extremely tough (she is training for an Ironman competition in July next year) and she can tell where she is going. And she has agreed to be my partner for Leg 5. She is also extremely reliable: she'll never cancel a run, even if it is pouring down with rain, and she's always on time. She's brilliant.

So last weekend, we went up to Yorkshire to try out our leg. The Calderdale Way passes just by Gary's parents' house, so I thought it would be a good excuse to drop in on them, and get to know the area in which Gary grew up. We arrived on Saturday after a long, slow drive up the M1, and were immediately sat down in front of lovely hot bowls of soup from Gary's mum, Janette. No sooner had it finished, that Gary's dad, Glyn, whisked me and Leah out in the car to show us the points on the route he'd found (he'd already been doing some detective work during the week and marked up some maps with highlighter). We both got a sense of the terrain and the landscape as we peered through the car windows at the pale yellow winter sun filtering through the low cloud and down over the valleys. Glyn was at pains to let us know that it was hilly, it was muddy, that we were mad. And, what's more, it was hell up north. I was beginning to feel a not inconsiderable amount of trepidation, especially after the threat of a post-run cold hosepipe.

Anyway, we got back home, consulted Leah's map and realised: it was the wrong one for our leg. However, just before we'd left for Yorkshire, I had chanced on a posting on the Halifax Harriers website that stated that a group from their club was planning on recceing the route that very Sunday. At this, Gary's dad sprung into action and called the contact on the bottom of the information sheet. Within minutes, we were invited to tag along with them the following day. This was a Godsend.

The next day was mild, calm and sunny with just a little cloud. This, too, was very lucky as the preceding days had been windy and rainy. After trying on various combinations of layers (somewhat nervously) we set off, with Glyn, to the start. When we arrived at Winstalls there were already several cars lined up along the road by the starting stile. Various beshorted and betree-trunked-thighed invidividuals were warming up. They looked formidable. We hoped they weren't the Halifax Harriers. They were. But luckily, they weren't the group we were going out with. After a couple more car loads of people arrived (from different Northern ACs), our group appeared. Two men (Paul and Mike) and two women (Sharon and Deborah). Hope I have the names right - I am bad with names. Leah and I felt very lucky to have been allowed to accompany them.

I was really quite nervous when I set off, and my breathing was shallow. As we plunged straight into a bog of chilly water, I began to think about how little hill training I had done, how unused I was to rough terrain, and how southern I was. How would I compare? But these fears soon left me as I started to concentrate on my rhythm, and got talking to everyone -the group was so warm, welcoming, friendly and encouraging. They were also very helpful, pointing out where we'd been, showing us the difficult-to-see gaps in the holly and giving us sips of water and tips on how to run in mud up hills.

I must say that it was very difficult to concentrate on where we were going as we needed to look at our feet in order to stay upright. But we tried our best to note all the twists and turns and to take in the stunning views. What is left in my memory is a somewhat blurred but bright impression of the day - with the end of the autumn colours.

Leah ran very strongly up the hills. She was up there with the men. I was in the middle, looking up at her pink jacket in the distance. I didn't perform as well as I could with training - but I kept going, and ran all the way up the three main hills. I think that was a good accomplishment given the amount of training I've done so far. And I was pleased that I was left with some strength at the end. But I must say that I have been trying to work out just how much hill training I can fit in between now and December 13!

The leg took us 1 hour and 30 minutes, and we were picked up by Glyn who took us straight home for a tasty curry that he had cooked up for us, and some of my rather solid banana cake (better heated, I think). Leah and I both really enjoyed the run and felt grateful for all the help we'd had with lifts, food and shelter from Glyn and Janette, and navigation and encouragement from the Halifax Harriers. We're both really looking forward to the race now - but plan to walk the route the day before to refresh our memories.