31 December 2015

Starting out: 2 miles to a Half Marathons

I thought it would be interesting to write about how my marathon training is going so far as it's the question I've been asked most over the Christmas holidays. In case you didn't see from my last post, I am running the London Marathon in April 2016 for Shelter. To be more precise, 24th April 2016. That's 114 days... The last two months have gone by in a flash!

I officially started my training at the beginning of November. Before then I had been playing hockey twice a week, very basic level netball once a week and going for the occasional 2 mile run. I would be quite proud of myself for going on these short runs. I never tracked the distance I just went out with my iPod and did a short lap down to Kings Cross and back. It wasn’t until the week before I started my actual training that I realised quite how short the runs were and quite how slow I had been running. Back then I wasn’t running for fitness or with a goal in mind, I was running to destress, for time to myself.

Now when I go for a run, things are very different. I have to start thinking about it the night before: what am I going to wear? Is the sports bra I want to use clean? Should I have one less glass of wine and one more glass of water? If I’m going for a long run (+8 miles), am I going to get up early and eat before? It’s a lot more serious, but then I getting some good results from the extra effort I’m putting in and I’m raising money for a really important and deserving cause so it’s definitely been worth it.

At 9am on Boxing Day (can’t believe it was only 5 days ago) I ran the distance of a half marathon. In fact, I did a small bit more but that’s because I couldn’t remember what the actual distance was. I didn’t run it very fast (probably because I was carrying around 2 plates of Christmas dinner and 2 bowls of pudding from the day before). But in two short months I went from running 2 miles to 13 miles. For people who don’t really think in distances, that’s running comfortably for about 30mins (I was slower then) to running for 2hrs.

I genuinely think I can put the majority of my success down to two things. I say success because I think most people would call that a decent achievement whilst working 9-5, playing hockey 2-3 times a week and having a social life.

The first is the fantastic support I’ve had from family and friends. Maybe I was just blind to it before but there seems to be more and more people popping-up with an interest in running. I could probably do another post with advice from a second set of experts. I’ve had so much advice and tips and support that it was almost overwhelming to begin with. Not in the sentimental teary way, in the which person do I listen to and which advice do I act on way. But everyone’s training journey is different. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Having a broad range of support has been really helpful and has given me the chance to pick and choose what I want to do.

Even those who aren’t able to give running advice have been great. Every seems to really care – even when I started to sound like a broken record “I just ran 10 miles!”. And this means a lot to me. Running for a long period of time, mainly on my own, although my brother has kindly joined me over Christmas period, can be really boring and mentally tiring at stages, and to know that my friends and family are proud of me and care if I get a personal best or run a new furthest distance really helps.

The second is attitude. Attitude has had a massive impact on my performance. As soon as I realised what a big deal running the London Marathon is, not to mention the £2000 I need to raise for my charity place and the £100 deposit you need to pay, I knew I had to take this whole thing a lot more seriously. When I first thought about doing the marathon in February earlier this year, I just wanted to be able to say, I’ve completed a marathon. Living in London, I thought it would be the best location to do it in. And that’s about it. I didn’t care if it took me 5 hours to complete or if I had to walk for a bit.

Now, the idea of walking makes me angry and I’m beginning to think seriously about the time I could get. I decided, if I’m going to do this, I might as well do it properly. I've been pushing myself to improve in every run I’ve done. I haven’t stopped once or given up, even when I fell over 3 miles into a 10 mile run (it happens…) and most importantly I’ve believed in myself.

I’m not exactly built for running. I’m short with little legs and I’m carrying about 2 stone extra weight for my height (I’d love to claim it’s all muscle but I know it’s not). But I haven’t let this get me down. I can do it. I’m not one of those people who believes that wishing for something will make it happen (I love Disney but let’s be realistic here) but I do believe that if you want something bad enough and you’re willing to work hard for it then you have as good of a chance as anyone else.

This attitude keeps me determined. It’s what sets me apart from all those people who say, “I could never run a marathon”. I’m no more capable than anyone else. I just know what I want to do and I’m doing it.

For those looking for tips to start running, my advice is to start small and build up. Be dedicated, don’t let the rain or a hangover put you off. Set weekly goals and track your progress with running apps – I use RunKeeper which reads your time, distance and pace out every 5 mins. Find a route you like and music you can relax with. After about 20 mins, I don’t even realise I’m running anymore. I think about what I’m doing for the rest of the day, what I can eat or drink later, movies I want to see at the cinema, how the money I’m raising will make a difference and the conversations I’ve had with family and friends over the last couple of days. Relaxing and daydreaming while I run helps me forget the distance and the pain.
Before you know it, you’ll be thinking about your next run as soon as you’ve finished your last.

12 November 2015

London Marathon 2016: Advice From The Experts

I have a very exciting announcement to make: I am officially running the London Marathon 2016!!!

I've told most of my family and friends already but I wanted to do an official announcement here as I'll be aiming to do (at least) monthly updates on how my training is going, including: fundraising plans and events, any running tips I pick up along the way, diet and much more...

Early in 2015 I applied for a ballot place along with hundreds of thousands of hopefuls. This was my first time applying so I wasn't expecting to get a place (I have friends who have applied three times and still not been successful). So I wasn't surprised when I didn't get a place in the main ballot. However, I knew that I really wanted to do the London Marathon this year though so I moved straight on to applying for charity places. For about a week I had two charity places (my mistake.. too much enthusiasm I guess) but I decided to go with the charity I had always intended to run for called Shelter.

Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing and homelessness across the UK, as well as campaigning to prevent it. Since moving to London this time last year I have become increasingly aware of the current housing shortage in the UK and the serious homeless issue London has. This is a cause I feel passionately about and I'm really excited to do more than buying a stranger a 99p cheeseburger from McDonald's every so often.

I have never run a marathon or half marathon before. The furtherest distance I have ever run before I started was 10km. It's clear that I'm lacking in experience. However, I have quite a few friends who have run marathons before so I decided to ask four of them the same 10 questions, hoping to gain enough knowledge to last me at least up until Christmas. Check out who they are and what they had to say below.
Emma Connolly - a new hockey friend from East London hockey club who has done two marathons in the last year, London and Edinburgh!

Chary Smith and Siân Cree - university hockey friends who did the London Marathon in 2014. These two were part of my inspiration - they were able to balance their medical degrees, training and a social life! 

Charlotte Sullivan aka Sully - another university hockey friend who has done so many marathons I've lost count! A couple of months ago she even did a 100km race in Spain - one absolutely crazy chica! 

1. What advice would you give yourself starting out again?

Emma: Get into a routine and be consistent with your weekly training and mileage. Make sure you use your rest days. Find other people to run with who are a similar speed to you. Stretch well! 

Sully: I would tell myself that it was my first one, there is no PB to break, enjoy the training and enjoy the atmosphere and the crowd during the race. Linking negative thoughts and long-distance running isn’t good, it will only make you despise going next time even more.

Charly: I would say to start training early. Buy yourself some good winter running gear, including running armband for your phone/iPod. 

2. What was the best training decision you made?

Sian: To train with other people, even if just for small runs, for example we'd have friends coming on the first 4 miles of our long run etc. Also a great decision was to aim for something, so we aimed for doing a half marathon by the end of xmas holidays.

Emma: Join a running club and follow their running plan. Do some intervals regularly. Do the chasers 20 mile run (Thames 20).

Sully: Not drinking a single drop of alcohol 2 weeks in the run-up to a race and trying to get a few cheeky big hills into at least 1 training session a week. It may feel like hell when you’re half up one of these hills, but your legs (and mind) will thank you on race day!

Charly: You should plan the route for the long run beforehand. Some people prefer to plan their route as a loop, other prefer half out then half back in, it's up to you. We preferred loops as you avoid tracing your same path. Make sure you vary the routes. A good website is walkjogrun as you enter your postcode and it shows you some pre-set routes tried by other runners which can be useful if you're stuck for ideas.

3. What foods did you find really helpful before and after training?

Sully: I have always had porridge before every single race I have ran and it has never let me down, having always beaten my previous time in all distances I’ve raced in!
Also, during training and during a race I have never ever taken on gels, nor did I in the 100km. Just like with absolutely everything DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING FOR RACE DAY WITHOUT HAVING TRIED IT IN YOUR TRAINING!!! Whether that be food, different trainers, sports bra, pacing, absolutely everything, changing just one thing could be the difference between making it to the finish line and not.

Charly: Before the runs we usually had porridge with blueberries on, and in actual fact we had this on the day of the marathon too. The best thing about the long runs is you can pig out that evening on fish and chips or something and not feel bad!

4. How often did you do you long runs, twice a week or more?

Sian: We did 3 runs a week: 4 miles fast, 8 miles normal pace, and 1 long run on a Sunday at slow talking pace. The long run would increase by 1 mile every 1-2 weeks. We started at 10 miles, and my longest run was 22 miles. 

Sully: For my first marathon and for those that followed, I have only ever done one long run a week. I would be cautious of doing any more long runs in a week as you run the risk of injury, you need to let your muscles rest and repair the small tares they have every now and then to ensure you make it to the start line.

Emma: One long run a week and 1 medium run (never more than 1 long run a week). Built up the long runs over time. When I was running 15 miles I would also do an 8 mile that same week. 

5. How many pairs of trainers did you go through and did you always use running trainers?

Sian: I'd recommend running trainers, definitely for a marathon! I got a new pair in January before the marathon in March. My previous pair was 2 years old and had done 2 half marathons so I was well overdue for a new pair!

Emma: 2, yes always used running trainers. You can buy the same trainers on Amazon much cheaper when they become last season's trainers.

Sully: I have always used running trainers and definitely always will! I have only recently invested in a pair of Asics having bought 50 quid Karrimor running trainers from Sports Direct for my previous marathons! I never have due to money, but you can go to specialist sport shops and get your feet analysed for perfect fitting trainers (they analyse how you run, whether you have high or low arches etc.)

Charly: I went through 1 pair of trainers that I got for Christmas after a gait analysis. I would recommend Brooke's running trainers. Yes always run in running trainers. 

6. What would you change about your training if you could go back?

Sian: To be honest my training put me in great stead on the day - I felt I could've gone faster! All you can do is train as much as you can at the time! 

Sully: I think for my first marathon, I would have tried to add a cheeky bit of cross-training in my plan. They say swimming and cycling are really good sports for runners to do as cross-training, the gym too! 

Charly: I would change it so that my longest run was 22 miles, not 20 which is what I did. This is because I found the last 6 miles an absolute killer, and feel if I'd done another really long one then I would have been better prepared on the day. 

Emma: For the long runs really push it at least some times. I would often find that I was congratulating myself for getting the miles under my belt but didn't push myself to run at pace. If you are going for a long run get on with it so you can enjoy the rest of the day.

7. What were the best fundraising things you did?

Charly: The best fundraising things we did were the curry nights when we cooked for about 30 people each time and charged £10 for a curry.

Sian: I did a tea party at home where we invited family friends/neighbours. Mum and I baked loads of cakes and did tea/wine and a raffle - it raised over £280 and wasn’t too difficult to do!

Sully: I would say a sort of jumble event that my mum and I did in our town’s square. We had a cake stall, a raffle, a tombola, jumble stall (books, toys, ornaments etc.) and little games for kids like a lucky dip. 

8. Were there any fundraising things you really wanted to do but couldn't find the time?

Emma: Not really, I could have done more fundraising though! 

Sian: We'd wanted to do a charity pre drinks/cheese and wine. 

Sully: I would have loved to have made knitting goodies or haberdashery type goodies (little purses etc.) on the cheap and sell them for a couple of quid each. However studying got in the way!!

Charly: We wanted to do an event at the union but didn't manage to get it organised in time really. 

9. What was the hardest part of the whole process?

Sian: The hardest part was planning training together, we'd have different schedules so had to do a lot of runs on our own, and then on the day we were at different starts. 

Sully: I think the hardest part of the process was being at the start line and NOT doubting whether everything you had done was the right way and whether you’re going to get to the finish line. You have to believe in yourself, believe all the food you’ve eaten was for the good, all the decisions you took in your training were for the best and keep thinking that people have given you money for your chosen charity and that you can’t let them down. 

Emma: Balancing running and hockey. Worrying that it can become all you talk about! Being 7 miles through a 16 mile run and being knackered! 

Charly: The hardest part was the training. Fitting it into a busy life can be tough, but you HAVE to make time. I had to miss Saturday hockey matches for the long runs. It was tough but so so worthwhile. Also for me, I used to dread the 4 mile fast runs as they felt like sprints to me! But we think they were really useful in terms of speed training, and the more 4 milers we did, the faster our long runs got.

10. What was the best part of it all?

Sian: The whole day of the marathon - nothing else is like it, an incredible atmosphere from start to end. I honestly don't remember being in pain or wanting to stop - I wanted to do it again!! You thrive on the people there cheering you on, and the stories everyone has to tell about why they're running.

Sully: The best part of it is definitely the feeling of accomplishment. When you’ve finished 26.2 miles on race day, you’ve got that medal in your hand and your family and friends are beaming big smiles at you, and you think about all the training you’ve done, all the sacrifices you’ve made and all that money you’ve made for your charity, you realise just what you’re capable of, which for me was more than I ever thought I was!

Charly: The best bit was the feeling afterwards, knowing you've achieved something that many people would never even attempt to. And also I got very toned and despite not losing huge amounts of weight, I felt my body looked a lot better and I was happy with that.

16 October 2015

My First Year In Advertising

Believe it or not (I'm not sure I really do) the end of this month marks my first year in advertising. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to work in this industry. When I was younger I used to play a game with my best friend where you would choose an object for the other person and they'd have 30 seconds to come up with an advertisement and present it. Now that I'm in the place where this actually happens - it takes them longer than 30 seconds, obviously - it's pretty hard to believe it. Although I'm not creating show-stopping ads (yet) I'm definitely climbing the right ladder.

I've learnt a huge amount in the last year, more than I imagined I would. If I met myself from a year ago now, I'd be shocked by how little I knew - I don't think I'd even heard of Campaign magazine (advertisers' version of BBC News) and now I spend my day scouring it for new ads, hires, mergers and industry news.

The biggest lesson I've learnt this year is that advertising can do more than just sell. This was definitely some thing I was aware of (see my post from Blogtober last year on Why We Should NOT Ignore Advertisements) but I didn't know the extent to which advertising was moving towards this. The most successful campaigns from Cannes Lions (our version of the Oscars) this year were doing more than selling, they were impacting popular culture and creating change. People have started coining phrases such as 'solvertising' and 'goodvertising' but really it's just advertising at its best. Advertising of the future. Some people think advertising is slowly dying off but I think what these ideas show is that it's alive and making a difference.

I've also found out just how much time and effort (and how many people) go into creating these amazing, award winning ads. What I used to think happened was: a client told you what they wanted, a strategist turned this into a brief and gave it to the creative team (an art director/designer and a copy writer), they brought the ideas to reality and the account manager delivered them back to the client who then jumped for joy at your amazingly innovative yet refined ideas. Obviously I didn't think it was quite as simple as this but I never imagined how complicated the process was and how many different roles are involved. Collaboration is such a buzzword in the industry but it seems that to be truly successful you need to have a 360, fully integrated, cost effective solution. 

What surprised me was the unspoken hierarchy in advertising agencies other than CEO to Account Executive or Intern. The hierarchy of brands. The first question you'll get asked when you meet another advertiser is "what do you do?". In the normal sphere of employment this is taken literally but what ad people really mean is "who do you do?" and they're not being crude, they mean what account do you work on, who are your clients. Secretly (or sometimes not that secretly), they will judge you on who your client is - whether they're blue chip or a bigger (money-wise) account than their own. Working in the PR/Communications department I've been spared from this, sort of. My client is our own employer so no one has the nerves (or stupidity) to degrade part of what they represent - it's almost like I work in HR - and yet they're not particularly interested either. It's a really interesting place to be and has given the opportunity to be involved in a broad range of areas in the company.

Luckily, in advertising (an experience based career) 22 is considered young once again. My friends and I are always complaining about how old we're getting but here I'm considered youthful, fresh and Millennial. A key trait of Millennials is that we are 'digital natives'. Any technical issue and we're the first person to be asked (it's like living with your parents all over again..). But in fact it's actually quite a popular trait for employers. We don't need digital training, we just get it. Before I started working in my current role, and actually before I started working full-time, I didn't know how sought after this was. So instead of grumbling about my age (I'm definitely starting to get bags under my eyes, no grey hair yet though), I'm revelling in the fact that I've not hit 30 yet.

Finally, one lesson I've learnt in the last year which applies to any profession is the importance of making time for yourself outside of work. It's so easy, especially in the digital age, to spend your personal time talking about or doing work (whether it's checking emails, making notes or reading extra articles). And while I think this is great that my friends and I care enough about what we're doing to want to do this, if all we do is work, we're not going to be as productive as we could be. I read a really interesting article today about a company that has reduced it's working hours to 5-a-day. I'm not saying everyone should work less, I'm saying taking time to do what you want to do is really important too. At university I had such a flexible timetable I could easily balance my work and personal life. Now I work 40 hours a week it's not quite so easy. But it's still important that I find time to do things I enjoy such as hockey, seeing friends and writing my blog. I want to do the best work I can and I believe that being happy in my personal life enables me to do that.

I'm interested to know what you've learnt either about yourself or your industry in the last year or so. Leave me a comment below if there's something you'd like to share! 

15 August 2015

Why It's The Right Time To Facebook Cull

It used to be a real competition when you were younger to have the most friends, followers or connections on social media. When I was at school, you knew you'd made it once you reached the top row of more than five friends' Bebo page. Even now I still care about how many follower I have on Twitter and Instagram - not to the same obsessive point, thank God. And I'll admit, I used to be quite proud of having nearly a thousand friends on Facebook. 'Used' being the important word here - past tense.

Recently I've started to realise that having so many friends on Facebook isn't necessarily a good thing. Other than for work, I use Facebook to keep in touch with all my friends. Social media makes it really easy to stay in contact with people wherever they are - as long as they have a connection to the internet. I'm fortunate enough to have travelled a lot, without even taking a gap year, and Facebook is the best way too keep in touch with all the people I've met. I'd never go as far as to delete my Facebook account but recently it's been starting to lose it's appeal, and it's not just me (which is probably why they've started advertising on the TV in the UK). 

I think the problem for me is that I actually have too many friends on Facebook. This makes me sound really arrogant but if you think about it, it's probably true for you as well (unless you've only recently joined, recently culled or have always had really strict rules about who you accept). 

There is no way I could name all of the friends I have on Facebook, or even communicate with all of them. There are some people that I have on there who I haven't ever met, who I can't remember or haven't spoken to in over 5 years. I'm not saying I should delete all the people who fit in these categories, I'm just saying I have a lot of different connections on there who in real life I might not call 'friends'. 

So gradually, I've been 'culling' my Facebook friends. I've been doing it over the last year or so, and there's still more to go, but I think it's the right time to do it. It's like de-cluttering your wardrobe - I should know as I'm a ridiculous spender (literally just Rebecca Bloomwood from Confessions of A Shopaholic but without credit cards, yet) and I've just moved to a bijou room in Clerkenwell. We all have dresses, tops, jackets, shoes that we've only worn once, that don't fit, that are completely over worn, that we've changed our minds about or have never even worn. Holding on to all these items isn't going to help you choose what to wear, just in the same way keeping loads of 'friends' on Facebook isn't going to make you happier. 

I've trying to get down to a core group of about 400 people that I genuinely would like to keep in contact with and care about what happens in their life. It's now over a year since I graduated from university and I'd probably say that about 70% of the people I met from there I have't talked to in the last year. And there's probably about 40% I won't ever speak to again. It's also 4 years since left school, I no longer live in the same area and I only go back and visit every couple of months. So do I need to keep a virtual connection with people I don't even know any more? 

There's no easy way to decide who you may or may not want to contact in the future but there's nothing to say that in 5 years time you can't re-add someone you'd like to reconnect with. In fact, there's nothing to say you can't do it straight away other than social media etiquette. 

One tip I would like to share that I've been using is asking yourself a simple question: would you say hello to them if you saw them in the street? If you wouldn't do this then you're not likely to do it online either. 

Once you've had a good culling session you'll find that Facebook is just as good as it used to be. The algorithm on Facebook works so that pictures or statuses that are most popular among your friends come to the top of your News Feed. If you only have connections with the people you want then your feed will be filled with interesting updates from all your friends and you won't spend as much time browsing through it. That's the plan at least! 

So if you've been a bit bored with Facebook recently, maybe it's the right time for you as well!

28 July 2015

10 Things You Have To Do In Marrakech

I understand that not everyone gets the chance to go to Morocco in their lifetime, let alone Marrakech so this could be a bit of a niche post. But I had such a great time and I've such had great feedback on my Instagram pictures (thanks guys!) that I decided to go ahead with this anyway. Hopefully I can paint a good enough picture with words and images that you feel like you're really there.. hopefully.

I went to Marrakech at the beginning of July with one of my closest friends from university called Leonie . I can't even believe it was only a couple of weeks ago because it feels like much longer. We found a great last minute deal which we booked in June so it only ended up costing £211 each which included flights, hotel and breakfast. July and August are some of the hottest months in Morocco and although everyone in the UK was experiencing a heat wave that month, it was still even hotter there, averaging 40°C each day. It was also Ramadan whilst we were there. We thought this might cause us some issues with getting served food etc. but apart from one embarrassing faux pas when we tried to order room service at 7:45pm when they were all sitting down to their first meal of the day, we had no problems at all. In fact it was really inspiring to see a nation so dedicated to their faith. We weren't aware that during Ramadan you can't drink anything at all, not even water, so there we were downing bottles right in front of them. It really shocked us; it was amazing really.

If you ever do make it to Marrakech, then here are 10 things you absolutely have to do:

Leonie checking out lanterns & tea pots

1. Visit the souks

 Every travel guide will tell you that you must go to the souks. Souk is just the Arabic for market but these are not like markets you will find anywhere in London. There are certain sections which sell certain goods such as spices, leather, carpets, materials, slippers and the list goes on. If you want to know more about the specific streets then here is a post I read before we went (I think this is the right link). There aren't really any maps for the souks because it's such a maze but people there are pretty helpful. They will always direct you back to the big square (Jemaa el Fna) so don't worry about getting lost. In fact it's the best bit, after haggling. There is ALWAYS a deal to be done in the souks. None of the shops sell unique items so if the price isn't right for you, move along. You won't lose face or anything like that because there are hundreds on shops there and they're unlikely to remember you the next day. I'd advice going for 1/3 of their starting price. Leonie was really good at haggling, her main tactic was to refuse to change her price, and it seemed to work, so it you have the nerve, give it a try.

2. Eat at a roof top restaurant

Surrounding the main square, called the Jemaa el Fna, are lots of rooftop restaurants. At night the square comes alive with loads of pop up stalls and cafés but it's actually quite nice to sit above the choas and watch. We did this on our first night and apart from the stray cats, which are everywhere anyway, it was really nice. It's such a relaxing atmosphere and it will be your first opportunity of the day to enjoy the heat without sweating unbearably.

3. Stroll around the Jardin Majorelle

This garden was owned by Yves Saint Laurent before he died. It was the most interesting city garden I've ever seen (not that I have many to compare it to). The plants are a mix of cacti, ferns, palm trees and more from hundreds of different locations around the world. It's really well looked after (you'd expect it to be as the entrance is 50dh - about £3 - which is quite a lot for Marrakech) and the contrast of blue, yellow and orange against the green foliage was really strong - especially when all buildings inside the city wall have to be painted a terracotta colour. This was one of the best parts of the holiday for me.

4. Eat in the square

Eating in the square is a must-have experience. Although be careful not to let them pick the food for you, otherwise you will end up with one expensive bill like we did. It's a chance to taste some authentic Moroccan food while soaking up the atmosphere and local culture. If you're in a group or feeling brave, the best time to go is late, around 10pm, however we weren't feeling that brave.

5. Try the fresh orange juice

Oranges are abundant in Marrakech, I assume it's to do with the climate. In the big square there are loads of orange juice stalls, probably about 30+, and each squeezes the orange juice for you there and then for the amazingly affordable price of 4dh (30p). So when you've found your way out of the souk maze with more bags than you can carry, definitely stop off at the orange juice stalls to refresh.

6. Walk around the wall

 The city centre of Marrakech is called the medina and is surrounded by ramparts (a huge wall). Wikipedia says.. "[The ramparts] were built by the Almoravids in the 12th century as protective fortifications. The walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the "red city"; they stand up to 19 feet (5.8 m) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them" (read more here). But basically it's an interesting place to walk around and something cultural to do that's free! However, after I initially suggested walking the full circumference, I changed my mind when I realised the distance was 19km! If I had had the right clothes and shoes maybe I would have done it but considering how hot it was we decided against this. So instead we found the most picturesque gate we could, called 'Bab Agnaou' which was built by the Almoravids in the 12th century. It's in a bit of a random location but if you're going to the Palace (which we didn't go to because it was Friday which is their holy day) then it's really close by and definitely worth a visit.

Although I initially thought these holes were made for the birds I later found out they were made by the scaffolding when the walls were first built.

7. See the evening prayers

I'm not sure if these are outside everyday but on our first night they were and it was so interesting. There was an electricity in the air as muslims rushed along the streets with their prayer mats. To see such a large group of people all kneel and bow down as one will definitely stay with me for a while. Their devotion was like nothing I've ever seen before and there must have been thousands at this one mosque. So if you get a chance, you absolutely have to see this.

These are used for lipstick, apparently!

8. Have the spices explained

 Think of the scene in Aladdin (the Disney movie) where Jasmine first enters the marketing place and every street vendor is trying to sell her things (or watch it here). Well this is sort of what the souks are like, except a lot more crowded! Normally it's polite to walk on unless you intend to actually buy. But if you find yourself in the spice area of the market then it is well worth taking time to have all the spices explained to you. It's quite common for them to try to show you every single product they have to offer - we spent about 30 minutes having about 15 different spices shown to us, smelling each a number of times and having small amounts poured into our hands. Then we had Moroccan and Arab make up explained to us which I found really interesting, especially the lipstick we were shown which looked like a terracotta pot or dish of sorts.

9. Try Berber tea

All the spice vendors sell the local green/mint tea (they call it Berber tea) and you can also by it in the main square in the evenings. It's traditionally served with loads of sugar but it's quite nice and an inexpensive souvenir to take back with you.

10. Watch the sunset from a rooftop terrace

We were really fortunate with our hotel. It was really nice but very quiet. There were probably only about 15-20 groups staying there whilst we were. Most buildings in Marrakech seem to have rooftop terraces rather than gardens and we are lucky enough to get the rooftop to ourselves most days. Either it was too hot for everyone else or too quiet but it was ideal for us. On our penultimate afternoon we decided to sit out on the roof top and watch the sunset - sounds romantic but it wasn't!
I'm no bird expert, far from it in fact, but all these small sparrow-like birds seem to come out when the sun starts to set and it was like nothing I've seen before. They were all rushing around us, moving in big groups, it was really pretty and interesting to watch while we waited. If you get a chance, and you have access to a rooftop, then you should definitely do this. The orange/tan colour of all the buildings really added to the view.

Marrakech was a truly outstanding place to visit and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone! If you have any questions at all, please ask me in the comments box below or tweet me @_Sam_Blundell

25 June 2015

Old Girls Nostalgia

Last weekend I went back to my old university (when I say old I don't mean that old, I only graduated last summer) for an Old Girls Hockey Day and a Red Leicester Reunion night out. The hockey day is a tradition that we try to keep every year, where those from the university hockey club who have graduated return to see all the current students and members of the club, and play a game of hockey.

In recent years the tradition has run a bit dry but this year we managed to have a proper game. The reason for this, other than the fact that we all deeply miss student life and wanted to see our friends, was that it fortunately coincided with the Red Leicester Reunion event. For those of you who didn't go to Leicester, I'll give you a bit of back story. Red Leicester was a student night not so subtly named after the cheese that first started in 2005. Obviously the music played was always cheesy, 90s music that all the old folks dance to at weddings such as 'The Macarena' or dance mat classics like 'Cotton Eye Joe'. Red Leicester was always on a Wednesday, after BUCS sports matches, and accompanied by an outrageous fancy dress outfit.

Well last year, after we graduated, the company that runs student nights at our university (or ex-university) decided to cancel Red Leicester! Nooo I hear you scream, but it's true, it happened. The institution that had been running for 10 years came to an end.  Apparently the first years joining couldn't relate to 90s music.. So instead they replaced it with LetsDisko (if anyone knows why they chose the 'k' speak now or forever hold your peace).

Anyway long story short (or actually long maybe) they decided to bring the night back for a one-time-only event on a Saturday so that all us working people could come and spend our hard earned cash on VKs and Food Factory.

The hockey in the daytime was fantastic! Although we only managed to convince 4 official Old Girls to kit up and come play, we had some great fourth year medics and some strong third years join our side. So we managed a 10 players v 13 players game. It was clear early on that neither side was keen to lose. Also, neither team had a goalie so this made the match a bit controversial, not to mention the umpire for the first half was on our (Old Girls) team.

After conceding a number of goals early on we paused at half time 4-2 down to the current hockey girls. However after a quick refresh we managed to up our standard significantly and some how pull off a 5-5 draw (if I'm honest I think we were very lucky there..) This was quickly followed by a afternoon pub dinner and some drinks, then off to host houses to get ready for the evening event!!

Georga and Grace's amazing retro outfits
In standard ULLHC (Uni of Leic Ladies Hockey Club) style we had a fancy dress theme - it wouldn't have been Red Leicester without one. And in remembrance of the night's beginnings a 90s gym wear theme was chosen. There were some absolutely cracking costumes on display from leopard print leotards to Barbie blue unitards.

Before attending the main event of the evening, we all went for drinks at the Loaded Dog, our traditional pre-Red Leicester pub and current sponsor. This was a nostalgic and fitting start to the evening with the usual hockey chants and games played. For me at least, it felt like we'd never left.

Another excitement was the arrival of some REAL Old Girls. I mean girls who had graduated before the oldest members I knew from the club had even joined! Some girls were talking to us who had graduated in 2007! I was still at school then! It was so nice to see that people who left that long ago still treasured hockey as some of their best moments of university life.

From here on the night played out as expected! There were some crazy events going on in hockey corner (yes we have our own designated space - the bottom left corner of the club dance floor), a lot of VK drinking (sugary, disgusting alcopops which come back to haunt you the next day), unusual dancing and we even managed to break one of the lights at some point but none of that mattered because we were all there, together, having fun.

The next day we were awoken by the harsh reality that we're not 18 any more and hangovers need to be short-lived because we have to be back to full fitness for work on Monday at 9am. The cure? A ceremonial breakfast with the girls who could make it out of bed by 11am followed by a long journey home and an early night.

It was so nice to go back to Leicester, a place where I've had so many great memories. There are rumours that they might do another Red Leicester night next year and I'm undecided whether I'd be interested or not. Being a student is really an incredible experience and probably not one I'm ready to leave behind just yet...

29 April 2015

Escapades in Madrid

Part 2 (Read Part 1 on Amsterdam here)

Escapades makes this sound as through I had a wild and crazy time in Madrid but half of what I'm referring to here is the epic journey I went through to get there.

So my flight was booked for 6:30am take off on Saturday (the cheapest ticket of course is at a time no one sane wants to fly). But in order to get there in plenty I've time I had to catch a 4am coach from Stratford, which was a 20 minute walk from my house. This meant getting up at 3am. Well me being me, I decided to go for drinks with my friends on Friday night and didn't get home until midnight, and I still hadn't packed. Now if that doesn't sound like an adventure you should probably stop reading now.

On the plane I got turfed out of my seat by a young girl who was desperate to sit by the window and who has started to create a scene. I quickly admitted defeat and gave up my perfect sleeping position. So with the 4 hours sleep that I managed to scrape together, I turned up in Madrid ready for some chica time with one of my best friends from university, Charlotte (a.k.a Sully).

The three day trip started with brunch at a café aptly named Charlotte (apparently it's a chain in Spain) and was quickly followed by a short siesta. Feeling much revived we set out on a short walk around Madrid and ended up going to a tapas café (just a warning we did a lot of eating and drinking in these three days). Here I tried my first tinto de verano (which is basically like cold red wine with lemonade) yum!

After we'd suitably stocked ourselves up with food and drink, Charlotte gave me a walking tour of all Madrid's most important and well-known sights, like the Royal Palace, the Templo de Debod, the Plaza Mayor, Pueto del Sol and the Plaza de Cibeles (the pictures will help here).

Plaza de Españ

Templo de Debod

The Royal Palace

Plaza Mayor

Kilometer 0 - the point from which everywhere in Madrid is measured from

The Statute of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree in Puerta del Sol

Plaza de Cibeles

As you can probably imagine this meant a lot of walking and by the end we had definitely earned more drinks. So we took the Metro back to the area Charlotte lives in and found a bar nearby that was showing the local derby football match Atlético v Real. During this we had what the Spanish call 'copas' which literally translates as spirits but it does actually have a mixer with it. It's served in big wine glasses/tumblers with lots of big ice cubes and is definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.

When the game finished and we'd had more than enough copas, we went to the local supermarket and grabbed enough nachos and toppings to feed a hungry family.

The next day started with a bit of a lie in (got to be done on a Sunday). Then we headed out to El Rastro, which is the most popular open air flea market in Madrid. The weather on this day was absolutely amazing and even though it was packed by the time we got there, it was really nice just to stroll around and browse through all the random things they had. We also saw quite a few performers while we were walking around. Everything in Madrid is so so cheap that I ended up buying loads of random stuff - I got some nice floral espadrilles for €15 and this unusual necklace for €2.50. I probably didn't really need to buy anything but it was fun anyway.

The sign reads: give me a theme and I'll write you a poem

By this point we were hungry and thirsty again so we found another café. This one was in the sun and had those shiny metallic tables and chairs which definitely helped boost the sun tan. In fact I actually managed to burn my scalp along my parting - rookie British mistake of course. We weren't really dressed for sunbathing so we decided to head back to Charlotte's, shed a couple of layers, pick up the left over nachos, some sangria and head to the park (Parque del Retiro).
Snacks and new shoes at the park

When we got there the weirdest thing happened. Two guys came and sat near us with their pet rabbit! They were taking their rabbit for a walk! They didn't have a lead or anything. But they just let it loose to hop about even with dogs walking past (good thing my dog doesn't live in Madrid or that rabbit would have been dead in about 5 seconds). This entertained us for quite a long time - although I'm actually not great with animals (in case you didn't know) so I spent a lot of time thinking it was coming for me.

After this week walked around a really pretty pond at the park and this massive glass building (Palacio de Cristal). Annoyingly the sun was going down really quickly so I didn't get any good pictures of the building but I tried.

Monumento Alfonso XII

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

Charlotte is not impressed
Then we met up with one of Charlotte's local friends who took us to a traditional tapas bar. I definitely think I was the only tourist there! Apparently the sign of a good place to eat in Spain is that it has a dirty floor because they don't have time to clean it. Well this place had a pretty damn dirty floor. It was hard not to step on some piece of rubbish or dropped food (this seems to happen a lot because no one sits down to eat tapas). It was quite strange being completely surrounded by everyone speaking Spanish, especially as I can hardly understand any of it, but it was really nice to experience some real Spanish culture.


Real Spanish tapas seems to be the weirdest combination of foods, chicken wings with super buttery chips, ham chunks and tomatoes, these small white fish which look like a mix between worms and spaghetti (I did not try them!). Dessert was a weird sort of baked milk thing - I can't remember what it was called - I'm not sure I would try it again. It tasted a bit like a bad crème brûlée.

The business area where Charlotte works.
The next day Charlotte had work unfortunately. I met her for lunch and we went to a place called Montaditos. Montaditos are basically mini baguettes and this chain has over 100 different flavour combinations for fillings. Normally each roll is €1 but on Monday's they're 50c. So we went all out and had 4 each and nachos to share (I starting to get a bit sick of nachos at this point but it was all they had).

Luckily in Spain they get 2 hour lunch breaks, unluckily they have to work until 7pm! So after walking back to Charlotte's work, I went off to explore Madrid with a map she'd lent me. I was trying to find the company I work for's Spanish office. This only took about 15 minutes and I felt I needed to burn off a few more calories so I kept on walking (I was also trying to build up more of a tan). This ended up turning into almost a 2 hour stroll, which I needed the toilet for the last 1.5 hours of (damn bladder).

Grey Spain's Madrid office

Funky artwork by the National Library which I found on my long walk

Sadly after this it was time to pack, shower and get ready to leave at 4am to go straight to work from the airport. Not quite sure how I managed it really but I did.
Landing back in the UK - did I bring the sun back?

Massive massive thank you to Charlotte for having me to stay! It was a great way to use up some of my holiday and chill out. It was really really nice to catch up and see some real Spanish culture. Hopefully I'll be able to visit again some time in the future, maybe even with a group.

The Pig Cup at the park!