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Odd things happen in Italy, sometimes so odd that I have to pinch myself.

Take my run last evening, for instance. Tripping merrily along, brain in neutral, soul in harmony with the singing birds, I couldn’t help noticing that the surface of the quiet strada bianca was liberally dotted with sheep poo. Now I normally have this remote rural road all to myself, at any time of the day or evening, so the fact this wasn’t, after all, my own private running track, was all too obvious.

I made a mental note to be more careful than usual, not wanting to end my run by having to attend to mucky shoes as well as the usual heap of clothing.

Suddenly, a battered white Fiat Panda came towards me round a corner. It was moving slowly and I was astonished to see that running alongside it was a sheep. It was one of those catwalk-model type of sheep that litter Italian hillsides, its laughably long, flamingo-thin legs appearing quite inadequate to support a normal sheep-sized body.

My senses were having to take in not just the spindly sheep, looking extremely bewildered and lolloping along beside the slow-moving car, but a loud baa-ing and bleating that was coming from the car.

As the car and the sheep went noisily past me I tried to compose my features into a look that said “Please just carry on. I am aware I’m in Italy where weird things happen and so I am trying to appear unconcerned.”

My calmness lasted only a few seconds until I couldn’t resist turning round to observe the mobile charade from a different angle.

This was when I worked out what was happening. I think a flock of sheep had been down the road earlier, but one of them, my flamingo-legged acquaintance, had got left behind. (Probably draining its caffe corretto in the bar and hadn’t noticed its mates had gone.) The shepherd – i.e. the Panda driver – reached the destination with the flock, found he was one short and drove back to get him.

Now heading once more for the fold, the driver made sure the spindly one kept up by leaning out of the window making very convincing bleating and baa-ing noises.

All was obviously going to plan until they encountered me, aka Blunderbug. When I stopped and turned round to stare in disbelief, so too did the sheep. The bleating shepherd drove on, unaware.

sheep pic

Sheepy and I maintained our stand-off, dismayed and amazed in equal measure by the sight of each other, until the Panda hove back into view, this time in reverse, at high speed. The driver, no longer bleating or baa-ing, jumped out, scooped the surprised sheep up in his arms and bundled it into the boot.

And so ended the evening’s entertainment. If I hadn’t witnessed it I would never have believed it, but of course this is Italy, where anything can happen – and usually does.

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Thoosa blog no. 6 pic 1

SOMETIMES I wish I wouldn’t open my mouth. Why do I not just laugh and say “Only joking!” when people ask if I really mean it when I say I go running? Because, for one thing, I’m proud to call myself a runner, and for another I am not keen on lying, even if it would make life easier.

I haven’t made all this effort to get fit, to go out in all weathers, deal with smelly kit and muddy shoes, plan my running routes, urge myself to go faster, further and for longer, simply to deny it and pretend that I lounge about on the sofa gorging on crystallised fruits.

The price I pay for my honesty is sideways looks of incredulity (after all, I am 62) and all manner of comments about the wisdom of such a habit. I can count on the fingers of one hand – well, half a hand, actually – the number of people who have made encouraging remarks, along the lines of, “Oh, what a wonderful thing to do. Good for you!”

The huge majority, driven perhaps by discomfiture about their own lack of fitness and the fact they haven’t run since the school bus pulled away without them, seize the chance to deliver a clever putdown.

“Your poor knees!” they will cry. “Can’t you imagine the damage you’re doing to your whole body? You’ll be paying for that before long. Replacement hips and knees don’t come cheap, you know!” Ha, ha, you are so funny, I twinkle back at them, humouring them for showing such dazzling originality and wit.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” the slightly more cautious and less bombastic will ask. “You do wear proper shoes, don’t you?”

If only

My stock response for the doubters and cynics is that it is better to run than not to run. The damage I would be doing to my body if I were idle is far greater than anything I might inflict on it by keeping fit and propelling myself at the speed I choose through the countryside. And who, I demand to know, can put a price on the rush of serotonin, the feel-good hormone that is one of the many rewards we runners reap?

The things other people say, when I am out on a run, vary from the drearily predictable “D’you wanna lift, love?” from a queuing motorist, to one that came my way only yesterday afternoon. A large, red-faced man, his Sunday lunch-filled tummy pressed uncomfortably against the steering-wheel of his Range Rover, thought how hilarious it would be to lower his window and show the passing world what a jolly wag he was. Except the best that this born comic could come up with, as I ran up the hill was, “You’ll have to try harder than that to get to the top!” While I pondered his logic, I crested the hill and left him spluttering.

There was no chance of having the last laugh on a pair of schoolgirls last summer, who couldn’t resist taking the mickey when I overtook them one morning. I’d been out for nearly an hour, I was hot and probably not looking exactly catwalk-ready, especially in the hair department. My hair is badly behaved at the best of times but when I run and my head heats up, the old frizzies set in and it looks as though I’ve spent the night in tight curlers.

The two little teenage madams spotted my unfortunate sartorial fail and, as I passed, one of them called out the ultimate putdown: “Ugh! Perm user!”

On this occasion I could offer no riposte, but I enjoyed a silent laugh. For sheer inventiveness it’s a remark that has yet to be beaten.

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Barriers that have to be overcome

Barriers 1 Barriers 2

I CAN’T imagine many of us spring out of the door with a light heart every time we go for a run. For me at least, there is too often that little voice inside my head telling me I don’t absolutely have to go and there’s no harm in being lazy just this once. I shout back – and go.

Naturally, we question our sanity when home seems a more sensible option as the rain lashes down or it’s minus 5 degrees. But get out there we must, and thoughts of the comfortable sofa or the toasty duvet are consigned to the bin, along with our own misgivings.

Once out, as we know, it is rarely as bad as we might have expected. The rewards are great, not least the rosy (sweaty?) glow of achievement, and they are always ours for the taking.

Sometimes, though, they may be harder to come by. I thought of this the other day when, having made the superhuman effort to get work out of the way, change into my kit and propel myself out of the house, I found one of my favourite routes blocked off by a bossy sign. My instinct was, I’m afraid, to check no one was looking and just run round it. Then I thought how silly, not to say hurt, I would feel if I got squashed under a falling tree, so I turned away and took another path.

The last time I’d headed along this alternative route was in October, when I ended up ankle-deep in mud, but I thought I’d give it another try. Big mistake. There are several cattle grids along the track and, after negotiating two, mincing my way round the edges while clinging on to the side-posts, I found the third one was overflowing with floodwater.

This was a run that was fated from the start, I thought, as I splashed and squelched my way back home in shoes that really hadn’t deserved to be so severely dunked. I will return there once the water table has gone down and the weather starts behaving again.

It goes like that, sometimes, so that ‘just going out for a run’ turns into a mini-adventure. Yes, there may be barriers, but in my experience they’re all there to be overcome, one way or another.

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THE perfect start to 2013 for me was a seven-mile run in the most delightful conditions. It was one of those all-too rare dry, sparkling, winter mornings with a little chill in the air but not uncomfortably cold.

My run started at Sturminster Newton and took me along the superb North Dorset Trailway – the former railway line restored for public use by volunteers – heading east to Stourpaine. The sun was in my eyes all the way, but I didn’t care. It was such a joy to see it after so many weeks of rain, the results of which can be seen in some of the photos that I took on my iPhone when I could be bothered to stop.

The gate at the start with the Trailway beyond, looking so enticing.

The gate at the start with the Trailway beyond, looking so enticing.

The western edge of ancient Hambledon Hill comes into view.

The western edge of ancient Hambledon Hill comes into view.

It’s unusual to see such flat terrain in this part of the world.

It’s unusual to see such flat terrain in this part of the world.

The puddles weren’t bad here but they became muddy shoe-soakers further along.

The puddles weren’t bad here but they became muddy shoe-soakers further along.

The dormice are lucky to live in Dorset, but to have a whole People’s Trust protecting them as well surely means they are doubly blessed.

The dormice are lucky to live in Dorset, but to have a whole People’s Trust protecting them as well surely means they are doubly blessed.

Flooded meadows with the majestic Hambledon Hill beyond.

Flooded meadows with the majestic Hambledon Hill beyond.

My run took me along the old platform of Shillingstone Station, which is being superbly restored by volunteers.

My run took me along the old platform of Shillingstone Station, which is being superbly restored by volunteers.

Who’d be an allotment holder when the plot floods?

Who’d be an allotment holder when the plot floods?

This shower of old man’s beard against the blue sky was so lovely it stopped me in my tracks.

This shower of old man’s beard against the blue sky was so lovely it stopped me in my tracks.

A bare-branched avenue makes a majestic final stretch near Stourpaine.

A bare-branched avenue makes a majestic final stretch near Stourpaine.

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Stunning countryside, but as our house is the one at the far end of this long, steep track, it makes going out for a run very difficult.

Stunning countryside, but as our house is the one at the far end of this long, steep track, it makes going out for a run very difficult.

The nearest beach, where the running is easy.

The nearest beach, where the running is easy.

LIVING in a small Westcountry market town, with the countryside lapping so tantalisingly at its edges, means, as I explained in my last blog, that I am spoilt for choice when it comes to good running territory.

However, the same cannot be said for Italy, where the house we live in for parts of the year is so remotely situated that it makes the word rustic seem like a description of central Milan. We are so far out in the sticks, at the furthest end of a monster hill of ankle-breaking rubble and pure hostility, that popping out for anything more than a slow stroll around the vineyard or a siesta on the terrace is out of the question.

The result is that when I can rouse myself enough out of my torpor, I first have to pour my hot, sun-drenched body out of next-to-nothing and into something more suited to running and then drive either to the village (3 minutes) or the coast (22 minutes).

A village-based run has its drawbacks because of the unwelcome interest shown in me by dozens of dogs, some roaming on the road, some chained to stakes outside houses, and others loose in gardens where they throw themselves at the fences in a frenzy of longing to eat me alive. They range in size from something you’d wear in your lapel to vast off-white hunting dogs the size of a grizzly bear, with the attitude and appetite to match.

Add to that ever-present discomfort the disconcerting habit that rural Italians have of staring – really staring, without flinching and with no trace of embarrassment – and you will understand that these village runs aren’t top of my pops. I get so strung up and nervy, fearful of being attacked and left bleeding to death or, at the very least, deafened by the cacophonous barking, that I willingly drive the extra distance and go to the beach.

Here I am transformed from a solo act in a freak show to something close to normality as I join scores of other runners pounding out their daily quota in the relative cool of the evening. I have at my disposal about 10km of flat sand, which, depending on how close I run to the turquoise sea of the Adriatic, can be splashy underfoot, or very dry, soft and energy-sapping, or, in the middle, just yielding enough to make a perfect running surface.

You can guess which I choose.

Whenever I run on an Italian beach – and my experience so far extends to three different ones: two of golden sand, one of white – I feel overwhelmingly privileged. It’s not just the fact of being able to run at all, but doing so in such a magical and beautiful location.

I can run and run until the vast, blood-red sun drops over the horizon like a dinner-plate falling from a table, and then round off a perfect day with the best reward I could wish for: a few glasses of vino rosso and the world’s best pizza. As I said, overwhelmingly privileged.

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A path stretching ahead of me makes my feet itch to run.

A path stretching ahead of me makes my feet itch to run.

The grass verge keeps me off the unforgiving metalled road, which is good.

The grass verge keeps me off the unforgiving metalled road, which is good.

An old railway line – miles of it, all to myself.

An old railway line – miles of it, all to myself.

I AM lucky to live within an easy trot of several lovely running routes, so I never need to resort to taking the car to reach somewhere suitable.

Closest to me are the well-trodden pavements of my little market town, useful for when I’ve left it late for a run and need my way to be illuminated with a gentle sodium glow, but I always prefer a rural run.

Within a quarter-of-a-mile of my front door I have these to choose from, depending on how energised I feel: riverside paths through water meadows, woodland paths, a two-mile driveway with grass verges leading deep into the countryside, a nature reserve with a mile-long tarmac circuit, and, joy of joys, two long sections – one going east, one west – of an old railway line now restored and resurfaced for recreational use.

I know it’s a huge privilege to have such running riches on my doorstep and I never cease to be thankful for that and for the fact I don’t have to cross major roads or even encounter traffic on more than a minor scale.

So, depending on time available, the weather, my mood and if I feel like tackling hills or wimping out and going for a flatter option, I dress up like a real runner in my Thoosa kit and head off out of the door, turning to the left (for the tough-guy stuff) or the right (the wimp’s choice). Anything up to two hours later I’m back, sky-high on the adrenalin of achievement and smug satisfaction, the endorphins clamouring like drunken fans in a mosh pit, instantly making me feel I want to go back out for more.

The high lasts way beyond shower-time so I bring myself down to earth with a serious belt of strong Italian coffee and a look at the day’s diary to see what has to be achieved. Not that there’s much of greater importance, in my opinion, than the joy of a run. And I guess you’d agree.

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The tortoise and the hare

T and H

I’ve lost four stone so I can run faster than
my grandchildren and live longer than Methuselah. I live mostly in the
south-west of England and partly in east central Italy

Since I started running in March this year, I have found that I operate at two speeds.

There’s my running speed, which is when I cover real miles, wearing real running kit and with that wonderful runner’s zeal filling my heart, and there’s the nipping-about speed, for everyday stuff, when walking just won’t do.

I am one of those irritating people who can’t walk sensibly along a crowded pavement. Instead, I do a speeded-up zippy version of jaywalking by sprinting along the gutter to overtake the human traffic jam.

I have to be here, there, everywhere in the shortest possible time. There are places to go, people to see, goodness-knows-what to be achieved, all quickly, now, yesterday.

I run to my Pilates class, run to the riding stables where I help with the Riding for Disabled, run to the Post Office, run to the doctors’ surgery – not so clever when I am due to have my blood pressure taken – and run up every flight of stairs that presents itself. Show me an out-of-order escalator and my spirits rise. Off I go, race you to the top.

Except there isn’t anyone to race. My husband, a determinedly one-paced walker who hasn’t even broken into a trot since he was in the under-11s football team, is determined not to be drawn into anything so demeaning. “It’s inelegant,” he says, stating the blindingly obvious, when I burst back into the house, eyes wild and hair on end. “But I’ve got the milk!” I announce, catching my breath and checking my watch to see if I’ve broken my own land-speed record to the shop and back.

And come the evening, when I finally slow down enough to park myself beside Captain Sensible on the sofa, light and shade flicker through my eyelids as the 10 o’clock news plays out its dramas. I wake up for the local weather forecast, eager to know if tomorrow’s run will be wet or dry.

“Not much news tonight, was there?” I remark to Captain S, who is smug and full of knowledge that will never be mine.

Yes, he is the very definition of Aesop’s tortoise – which I’m afraid makes me the hapless hare.

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