Almond milk custard

So this dairy free experiment was recently tested by a trip home to see my parents. My family love good food. My mum is a great cook and my dad likes to bake. This makes for a reasonably healthy household, with very little store bought, processed foods. However…there is an abundance of milk, butter, cream and everything you can make or bake containing these ingredients. And we were going away for the weekend- so I wouldn’t have the back up of a fully stocked kitchen to make my own meals.  Cue anxiety about what I was going to eat and a serious skin flare-up!!

Impossible to resist!

Impossible to resist!

By Saturday morning, after a breakfast of rice flake muesli and almond milk, I had resorted to experimenting with whatever I could get my hands on…which was not a whole lot.  Apparently 1 banana, some cocoa powder, an egg and almond milk alone do not a great cake make…rather a fail of epic proportions.  Being surrounded by cakes and cheese and crackers was not helping, but I so wanted to believe that I could manage (on a side note, I must have been a barrel of laughs for everyone to be around).  I was thoroughly distracted by a hike for one day, but by the time we returned to my parents’ house on Monday evening, I was ready to eat anything to satisfy my sweet craving.

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Luckily, it didn’t come to that.  Rhubarb was bought on the way home, and the bright idea of making custard with almond milk was born.  I adjusted a recipe for regular custard (courtesy of my father) and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I was very happy with it, as were my family (although this may very well have been because I was no long acting like a food nazi).

IMG_6364I also decided to use powdered stevia instead of sugar, but it can be made with either.  Stevia has a distinctive taste and the custard would probably be nicer with sugar, but I found it okay.  Homemade custard is well know for being challenging.  Getting the right thickness, while avoiding scrambled eggs or burnt milk is not always easy…except when you cheat and use cornflour!

Recipe:

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tbsp cornflour
  • 2 tbsp stevia (or 3oz sugar)
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1 vanilla pod (I only used this because I had it!)
  • 400mls almond milk

Mix egg yolks, cornflour and stevia together in a saucepan to form a paste.  Be careful to get right into the edge of the pot, making sure there’s no powder hiding underneath the paste – as this will burn.  Add a small amount of the almond milk and mix well again.

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On a low heat, stir the mixture, adding the almond milk slowly.  It’s important to heat the mixture very slowly to sidestep accidental scrambled eggs.  Make sure the all the paste is dissolved in the almond milk, as once again, any left on the bottom will burn (and burnt custard both smells and tastes awful).  Now is the time to add the vanilla pod (if you have one) and vanilla essence. The liquid will eventually start to thicken as it heats, but be patient and do it slowly to avoid scrambling.  Check the custard, and add sugar/stevia/vanilla essence to taste.  Once thick enough to be reasonably called custard, take it off the heat immediately – it’s done!

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The Healthy Skin Diet

I have been troubled by my skin for years now. It may not be the most obvious, as when my skin is good, it is great…but I have suffered from eczema, dry skin, red patches, acne, sensitivity and food-related flare ups. Most tend to be related to changing climate, hormone imbalance (I have PCOS) and most of all stress. During one study month in college I spent two weeks attempting to study at home instead of the library because a red rash appeared all over my face, due to drinking coffee – which was one thing I certainly couldn’t live without while studying.   Another time, while on holiday in Spain, I got a rash of red spots all over my back and arms from using a chlorinated swimming pool and had to avoid the pool for the rest of the week. When I’m very stressed I also tend to get a weird type of eczema on my face that stings and only goes away with a prescription cream. Such fun. But through all of these trials and tribulations, I have learned to understand my skin, and deal with it to a certain extent. I have also learned that my skin is like a mirror for everything else in my life. It is the first thing to react to stress or upset and I have begun to listen to it (finally!).

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Certainly what I put in my body has a huge influence on how my skin behaves, particularly when stressed.   All the usual culprits, sugar, dairy, caffeine etc have clearly demonstrated this in the past.  Years ago a doctor remarked that once his patients gave up dairy, their skin cleared up immensely.  Obviously at the time I decided not to believe him – probably because I didn’t want to give up ice cream and milk in my coffee.  Years later, I feel that my attitude has changed.  My baseline of what is normal and okay to eat health-wise has altered dramatically.  I now no longer think I have to eat chocolate every day of the week in order to not feel deprived.  Eating for a healthy body and to have energy has become paramount.  A big part of this shift can be attributed to looking at how my diet contributed to my skin problems.   The Healthy Skin Diet is an amazing book detailing exactly what you should (and should not) be eating for different skin conditions.  I have learned so much from this book, and really become aware of how many things I was eating that were wreaking havoc with my skin. I brought it to Australia with me and back again, and  I think I have read it cover to cover about 10 times at this stage.

One of the coolest coffee places in L.A.

One of the coolest coffee places in L.A.

Coffee is probably my one addiction.  I could give up bread, sugar and possibly even alcohol (that sort of makes me sound like an alcoholic…for the record, I am not) but I don’t know if I would ever be happy to give up coffee.  It’s such an everyday treat, and I definitely notice the kick it gives me…or rather the headache and fuzzy head I have without it.  Since reading the Healthy Skin Diet I have cut way back on my caffeine consumption, I am now down to one cup a day, and some days (which are admittedly few and far between, but they do exist) I don’t have any.

Recently I have been extremely stressed by work, and my skin has decided to revert to a “study month” type state that I hadn’t seen for a while…needless to say, it’s been a barrel of laughs.  Eczema, spots and random dry patches are daily occurrences.  In addition to that I have lost some body fat, while experimenting with a personal trainer.  Karen discusses in her book how fat can store the toxins that influence skin health (or lack of) and how losing fat can cause these toxins to be released into the bloodstream…with an ensuing skin disaster.

So as lent begins, I have been reduced to drastic measures in an effort to win the battle against the blemish.  Since Ash Wednesday I have cut out all dairy, processed sugar and caffeine (ouch -it hurts to even type it).  I have also tried to reduce how much wheat/gluten I eat as it is inflammatory for us all as discussed by I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson.  The first 3 days were…hell.  I had a fuzzy head until 2pm, when I then hit my afternoon slump and slept terribly at night.  It felt like all my muscles were on slow motion and getting myself to do anything in a relatively quick fashion was near impossible.  I had a 10 km race yesterday that I ended up cycling to and from (I am not a great cyclist…its a long story…and I don’t know how I thought it was a good idea) and was exhausted for the rest of the day.

However this morning I woke before my alarm, with a new sense of peace and a lot more energy.  My skin has calmed down considerably – it is by no means perfect but it’s definitely somewhere further along the way.  It does mean that I may be seriously considering a dairy free future, and without the caffeine kick…sad face.  I have already tried to remedy this dilemma: scrambled eggs made with almond milk and coconut oil have become a regular breakfast, and I am currently trying every combination of warmed almond milk/soy milk and spices/cacao powder/vanilla that I can come up with.  No luck with the coffee replacement just yet, but almond and coconut scrambled eggs are delicious.

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I am starting to experiment with raw cacao powder and different concoctions.  So far, there is no success on the actual chocolate front, but I have made a few batches of brownies -and they passed the test with my “regular food” eating housemates.  Below is a rough (still not quite exact with portions- and tend to use whatever I find in my cupboard) recipe for sweet potato “skin friendly” brownies:

Baked sweet potato all mashed up

Baked sweet potato all mashed up

  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 1 cup raw cacao powder or coco powder
  • pinch baking soda
  • 1/2 cup coconut flour or almond flour (I used a mix of both)
  • about 1 cup almond milk
  • 1-2 tablespoons flaxseed oil (good for your skin!)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 2-3 medjool dates
  • 1-2 teaspoons stevia (or sweetener of your choice)
  • 1/2 cup pecans

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.  Soak the dates for 50-60 minutes in water to soften them.  Peel the sweet potato and bake until soft (40 minutes at 180 degrees did it for me).   Mash the sweet potato and mix in the flaxseed oil, cacao powder, 1/2 cup of almond milk, stevia, baking soda and coconut/almond flour.  Peel the dates and blend them together with the vanilla essence.  Add this blend to the main mixture, along with the centre of the vanilla pod.  Break the pecans into smaller pieces and mix in.

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At this point I tasted the mixture and added a little more almond milk and cacao powder as it was quite thick and not quite chocolatey enough – adjust as you like.  I ended up with quite gooey brownies rather like a cake, if you prefer them drier hold the almond milk.  Grease a baking tin with coconut oil and pour in the mixture.

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Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the top is nicely brown and dark.

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When ready, let it cool for a few minutes and then serve with some Nobo dairy free ice cream – I used the vanilla and coconut flavour.  Enjoy!

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Personal training gains

4 weeks ago I began an experiment. I finally peeked behind the mysterious curtain of personal training and the results have been impressive….

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To be brutally honest, I was quite sceptical that a personal trainer could add a whole lot to my life. I eat quite healthily – I have been mainly vegetarian since the age of 11 and therefore quite conscious of eating enough protein etc – I run regularly and push myself if I ever step inside a gym. I wasn’t sure how much more someone else could do for me…I have been humbled.  I have only begun to realise how little I know about weights, muscles and how my body works. Over the past 4 weeks I have discovered muscles I have never used (not once in my 26 years, judging by the pain anyway) and been put through trials I have never before encountered.

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“Failure is a good thing when it comes to weights” is something my trainer Jonathan constantly reminds me of – while I am nervously laughing because my numb arms are not responding to my orders. “Failure” or exhaustion of muscles is something so foreign to anything I have experienced before it’s bewildering. I can only look on and giggle as my arms lie powerlessly at my side. It is a whole new world.  Until you have fallen mid-box jump, you have never experienced true pain.  Dizzy spells and tingling sensations in my ears have been humbling (especially as I thought I pushed myself hard before…cue the embarrassment at my arrogance…I hadn’t a clue!) and “the yawns” ( where I literally cannot stop yawning despite a 12 hour sleep the night before) were just downright weird. Apparently I’m not the only one though, which is comforting.

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And the differences have not just been during the training itself. After the first session I experienced pain and stiff, sore muscles that I could hardly believe had been caused by an hour’s effort. I felt as if I had been running for days, rather than exerting myself for only 60 minutes. This was helpful in demonstrating the value of stretching (I was a terror for forgetting to stretch after a run). However, the biggest difference I have noticed is my back. For the last 10-12 years I have always had pain/discomfort when lying down flat on my back. In a yoga class or even when going to sleep I have always had to adjust myself and wriggle around for a while to find a semi-comfortable position. This was probably due to a combination of years spent playing hockey, bad posture in general and atrocious posture while studying or working. Strengthening my back was one of my key areas I wanted Jonathan to concentrate on, and 4 weeks later I can truthfully say I can lie down comfortably for the first time in years (That doesn’t half make me sound like an old man…lovely). It really is amazing though. I could have spent years stretching or doing yoga (with pain and difficulty – my back hasn’t leant itself well to that either) and I still don’t think I would have similar results.  I still have a long way to go to get the strength an endurance that I’m aiming for, but I finally feel that I have started on the right path.

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In addition, I have undeniably increased my upper body strength – without any change to the diameter of my arms (safe from Madonna arms, for now anyway), and lost half an inch from my thighs and waist. My body fat has decreased by 1% and I have gained 2.5 pounds of muscle. Without doubt these are results I could never have achieved by myself in such a sort space of time.   I am very familiar with the mental barriers involved in running, (every runner is acquainted with “the wall”) but I am only starting to recognise the ones in weight training.  Doing a chin up was certainly something I assumed I would never be able to do.  I burst out laughing when Jonathan promised me I would soon be able to do a full chin up when I started…and 4 weeks later I have proved him right.  This really showed me how much I can subconsciously limit myself, which was a profound shock.  I am a very driven person and generally find it quite easy to motivate myself, but weights and strength training is a whole new world for me and I am very much at the starting line.  I am slowly discovering more restrictions that are merely mental, and resolving to break each one.  It will be difficult, and completely different to increasing my running distance…but you only have 3 choices in life:

  • Give up
  • Give in

or

  • Give it all you’ve got

So next up is to move on from “girls” pushups to the real thing!

Another inspirational note from my Kokoda Challenge supporter Jilly

Another inspirational note from my Kokoda Challenge supporter Jilly

Green Energy

I’m currently trying to improve my nutritional intake, without resorting to a raw, vegan,paleo (and all the other fashionable regimes) and no fun diet.  Smoothies have been a staple for me for a while.  They are quick, easy and only require a blender (as opposed to a juicer – which can be ridiculously expensive, and a pain in the you know what to clean up after).  Juices also seem to be a target in the raging “I quit sugar” battle.  Freshly squeezed orange juice can contain 10 teaspoons of sugar…the same as a glass of coke.  This is because the fibre is removed during juicing, concentrating the sugar into a much more manageable portion.  When is the last time you ate 4 or 5 large oranges in one sitting? So despite my love of fresh orange juice (I will actually get up early on a weekday, just to squeeze a glass), I am trying to swap the sugary stuff for green fibre filled smoothies.

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When making up a recipe for something, I tend to think about what I want from it first, then worry about “fixing” the taste after.  I’ve been feeling a bit tired lately, and my skin has been dry with all the cold, damp weather and central heating, so I wanted to specifically target these problems. I raided the fridge, and even made a trip to the supermarket (very proactive of me) and came up with the following:

Basically everything green I could find!

Basically everything green I could find!

  • handful of baby spinach
  • half an avocado (great for moisturising your skin from within)
  • spoon of wheatgrass powder (energy booster…and makes the smoothie a radioactive green)
  • coconut milk (a good moisturiser and I find dairy can make my skin flare up)
  • spoon of almond butter (increasing the protein, moisturising and so delicious)

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Since I discovered it, I have become completely addicted to almond butter.  Meridian do an amazing roast version with sea salt.  I usually eat it straight from the jar, so it was a surprise that I actually had any lying around.  I have since tried to make my own, (which doesn’t stay around for long either!) without salt and it does taste nicer in the smoothie.  It is a lot of effort though, and a shop bought one is perfect – just make sure it doesn’t contain added sugar.

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Unfortunately I figured this combo wasn’t exactly going to set my tastebuds on fire…so I added a banana and some freshly squeezed lime juice and hoped for the best (Banana is one of the best ways to mask the taste of anything else you want to put in a smoothie).

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Blend all the ingredients except lime juice until smooth.  Then add the lime juice slowly to taste.  It makes enough for two people (or one if you’re hungry).  I poured mine into a jar as I brought with me to the gym for a post work out snack.  I also sprinkled chia seeds on top for bonus superfoods points!

Food…friend or foe?

As part of my trial with a personal trainer, I had to do a food diary for a few days.  This not only allowed my trainer to see what I eat normally, but gave him a baseline to work from to increase my protein, healthy fats intake etc.  During these few days I realised that the diet rule of writing down everything you eat does indeed make you very conscious of what you are putting into your mouth…especially when you know someone else is going to be looking at it!

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Instead of writing my food diary, I took photographs of everything with my phone - so much easier and a more effective way of showing quantities, sauces and sides.  Looking over everything really gave me food for thought (sorry, I couldn’t help it!!).  I’ve always been aware of my diet affecting my skin and weight but never really thought too much about any other aspect.  How much does the food we eat impact on our energy levels, mood and general well-being?

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Are green super foods and smoothies the only way to go?  Or is there room for a bit of sugar in all our lives?  I have never been very good at being strict with myself.  The minute I try to force anything, be it study, healthy food, sit-ups (strangely, I could run forever but find it almost impossible to make myself do sit-ups if not in a Pilates class or similar) it just doesn’t work.  I tend to revolt and push as hard as I can in the opposite direction.

Or will there still be room for one of these bad boys?

Will there still be room for one of these bad boys in my life?

But Jonathan’s conclusion was that I eat slightly too much sugar and need to increase my protein intake…especially with the weights he has me doing(!).  So I’m trying to focus on fuelling myself with the right foods to help my aching muscles repair (did someone say DOMS?), instead of noticing all the treats I should be avoiding for my own good.

And so begins my attempt to incorporate more fish (I don’t eat meat), nuts and even protein powder into my everyday diet.  First stop…protein pancakes, without any added sugar of course.  I am not great (read terrible) at following recipes…I usually don’t have all the required ingredients and tend to be “creative” with what I have, rather than going to the shop.  Laziness at its best, I know, but sometimes I surprise myself and the result tastes great (sometimes, definitely not always – I have had complete disasters).  So with these I went for what has become my usual route of making it up completely and hoping for the best.  I was pleasantly surprised, especially as I’m not a fan of that “protein powder taste” but had forced myself to buy powder with stevia instead of sugar, and did not have high hopes.

I bought the smallest size I could find, just in case it was disgusting!

I bought the smallest size I could find, just in case it was disgusting!

Due to my lack of recipe, the amounts are quite rough, but this is a general guide to my protein banana pancakes:

  • 1 egg, whisked by hand
  • 1 banana mashed
  • handful of ground almonds
  • 1 teaspoon LSA (optional)
  • 1/2 scoop vegan vanilla protein powder
  • dash vanilla essence
  • heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon (I love cinnamon, if you’re not a fan reduce accordingly)
  • coconut oil or butter for cooking
  • almond milk to adjust consistency if needed
  • chia seeds, berries, natural yoghurt to serve

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Mix banana, egg and vanilla well.  Then slowly add the dry ingredients (ground almonds, LSA, protein powder and cinnamon).  This should give a thick, easy-to-pour consistency, but if it is too thick/dry add almond milk as needed.

Mash the banana as well as you can, or you'll end up with lumpy splodges

Mash the banana as well as you can, or you’ll end up with lumpy splodges

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Melt coconut oil on a non-stick pan at a low heat.  Scoop mixture in small amounts to create pancakes about the size of your palm.  I found any bigger hard to flip as they fell apart, but if you are a hardcore pancake flipper feel free to attempt bigger ones – I just end up with a scrambled mess.

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They can spatter a bit on flipping...as I said flipping is not my strong point!

They can spatter a bit on flipping…as I said flipping is not my strong point!

Serve with whatever topping you like, I went for natural yoghurt, flaked almonds and berries.  Agave or rice malt syrup are great for extra sweetness.

Enjoy!

Enjoy!

 

 

Personal training…why and is it worth it?

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I have always been somewhat curious about personal trainers.   Are they really all they’re cracked up to be?  Do they offer a lot more than a tough boot camp class?  And can it really make a difference if you are a hard-working, disciplined individual who pushes themselves at the gym anyway? Is it such a luxury it should be restricted to the rich and famous that endlessly praise their work?  Or is it all hype?  I was lucky enough to be given a gift of a few sessions recently, and also happen to have a bit more time on my hands than usual, so I said I’d give it a try and find out once and for all.

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I am a regular runner.  Not in a serious or competitive sense (I have attempted a total of 5 road races), but I find running one of the few enjoyable ways to clear my head and dissolve pent up stress and energy.  When I am stressed I can find myself running twice a day for up to an hour each time, in some attempt to relax.  On one occasion (after about 3 consecutive months of this intensity) I ended up with stress fractures and unable to run (or even walk comfortably) for a while….not good, or fun.  I’ve heard about how marathon runners could end up with battered joints, but had never related that to myself.  Last July, during the Kokoda challenge I sustained an injury to my ITB, that refused to go away by itself.  Feeling pain while exercising was a new experience for me, and gave me a bit of a fright.  I have seen my mother struggle with knee surgery and months of immobility and suddenly that became a possibility for me if I didn’t look after myself.

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I started to read more about running, training, preventing injury and eating for performance and recovery.  Finding and reading the material was the easy bit, applying it to fit my life was a different story.  Fast Track by Suzy Favor Hamilton was very useful for getting a basic idea of what I should be doing (albeit on a smaller scale…professional athlete I am not), but even still I found it quite hard to adapt to my own daily routine.  So it was with high hopes I arrived at my first personal training session, eager to learn what I had been doing right and wrong, and exactly what I should be doing.  To begin, hip, leg, arm and waist diameters, weight, and body fat were recorded, and we discussed what my aims were.

I overuse my quads, and my hamstrings and glutes don’t work hard enough (according to a physical therapist I saw post Kokoda challenge… I did not work that one out on my own!), so this was my number one concern.  Due to sitting all day, I also wanted to try to strengthen my back, and prevent injuries from running.  My enthusiastic trainer, Jonathan, took all of this onboard.  Over worked quads are quite common and he knew exactly how to tackle this.  The first session involved pre-exhausting my quads (which was about as much fun as it sounds) and then doing squats etc when my glutes and hamstrings would be forced to work.  35 sweaty minutes and a dizzy spell later, I was handed a protein shake and booked in for my next session…an hour long one this time…!

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The results?  Too early to say yet, but if my aching muscles are anything to go by (I still wasn’t walking normally 3 days afterwards!), they will be impressive.  Watch this space…

 

 

 

A reason to blog

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I started this blog almost a year ago, with the intent of monitoring my progress as I trained for the Kokoda Challenge.  I did manage to chart most of my journey, but missed posting about the final hurdle itself. At the time I thought the training would be the hardest part, and that the satisfaction and adrenaline of the real thing would make it that bit easier.

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I could not have been more wrong, training was the easy part. I don’t know if I will ever be able to explain the complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion I felt after the twenty six and a half hours it took us to complete the 96km hike.  The exhilaration that accompanied in reaching the finish line  was almost drowned out by the screaming pain in every muscle, blister and cramp that arrived there with me. Mentally and emotionally I walked a path I had never even heard of.  My amazing support person, Jilly had written motivational notes for me to open along the way, and the lift they gave me was huge.  I nearly fell asleep while walking, and felt pretty drunk towards the end. Despite all the preparations, I was completely bewildered by the real thing.  I learned the hard way(literally), that the only way to really experience something is to get out there and do it, practice and training is only the start.

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It was a life changing experience, and marked the beginning of a huge life change for me.  Over the past six months, I have quit my job, spent a few months precariously unemployed, found a new job, travelled, moved to the other side of the world, (back home to Ireland and had a lot of fun attempting to move everything I own with me…) met a lot of old friends, made some new ones and lost a very dear relative.  It has been about as up and down as the Kokoda challenge itself.  This left me with insufficient structure or motivation to continue blogging, despite the enjoyment I get out of it.  I have had more time than I would like to contemplate life since July, and have realised (with more than a little alarm) that I tend to spend most of my time doing the things I “should” rather than the things I enjoy.  I always thought I would reach a stage in my life when I would suddenly have all this time to spend on the delightful side of life.  Call it a “quarter life crisis” if you will, but at the ripe old age of 26 I find myself still looking forward, waiting for the the fun to begin.  The way I have decided to tackle this is best explained by a quote from Dr Wayne Dyer “When you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change”.  So, despite it being February,(and because starting in January would have been so cliched!)here is to a new year  and a new way of looking at things, even if you cannot see where in the world you are going!

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Sub-zero Style

Training began in earnest with a freezing weekend in the Bunya Mountains.  On the Friday evening, we arrived after an hour’s drive, to a chalet right out of an Austrian ski holiday, and equally as chilly.  Attempting in vain to heat the house up somewhat, with the seriously underwhelming wood stove was eventually abandoned and we depended solely on the numerous electric blankets instead, which proved a more rewarding exercise.  An early retreat to bed was therefore quite a popular option with all seven of us, and I drifted off to sleep with childhood memories of dark, wintry weekends in Kerry very fresh in my mind.

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Waking before dawn, we all struggled to get out of bed.  Once out, getting as many layers of clothes on as possible was the immediate goal.  But the many layers appeared to do little against the stinging wind outside.  However, as every well weathered walker knows, you soon warm up and 20minutes in we were all feeling a lot more cheerful.  Less cheering was the sign at the start……

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We managed almost 20 kilometres  before stopping for a short break, to wait for some more people with more determination than sense. Another 15 kilometres passed by more slowly than one would have thought possible, punctuated by chilly spells and breathtaking views.  Lunch was a brief and tortuous experience, with each of us becoming colder and more discouraged with every passing second.  Even a bagful of jelly snakes was not enough to brighten us up this time.  The returning twenty kilometres were an improvement, but chat and banter were at an all time low.  We drifted apart as we each settled into our natural pace, and the group spread out in twos and threes as we neared home.

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I, stupidly enough, managed to end up on my own rather than even in a pair.  I think once we turned homewards after lunch, I was so over the whole experience, my legs went into overtime.  This was no bad thing as it did mean I was getting closer to the finish line and a well deserved glass of wine.  However, I had somehow underestimated how dark it would get as the evening drew to a close beneath eerie shadows of the trees.

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Combined with feelings of fatigue, and relatively little food (despite my guilt assuaging “extreme preparation and research”, I had gravely misjudged what, and how much, I would feel like eating on a cold, painful day. (The types of soup and thermos I may use is the current topic keeping guilt at bay).  Pain echoed through my legs and shrieked at my hips with every step.  Inevitably, as I struggled to distract myself from all of this, my mind wandered to………dingoes.  Lovely.  Every broken tree, unusually shaped bush and rock thereafter resembled a merciless mongrel, determined to eat me for dinner.  Gathering the remaining energy I could find, and finishing off the end of my last protein bar, I actually managed to run the last three and a half kilometres to the carpark.  Happily, the shop was still a full fifteen minutes from closing, and I celebrated by sitting down, drinking a can of diet coke in two gulps, and shoving seven fizzy jellies into my mouth, in no particular order.  Finally, the day was over.  In dribs and drabs we made our way back to the Siberian shelter that was posing as a house.

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Refreshed by a hot shower and warm clothes, we all thanked the Lord that the day was over. Stiff and sore, we had a mediocre meal, washed down with far too much alcohol, and wondered how on earth we were supposed to manage the real challenge, all ninety-six f**king kilometres of it!

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Jelly beans, snakes and dingoes

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A few months ago, I posted about The Kokoda Challenge that I had signed up for, and promised (myself, at least) that I would chart my training progress here as a way of making myself accountable.  Far too many months on, and I have finally started “training” of any sort.  I have been steering my way towards this over the last few weeks; checking out different protein powders, how and when you are supposed to take them and the different types (I would personally like to avoid the muscular biceps loved by Madonna).  Reading up on what equipment I would need, and bulk buying batteries for my headlamp also helped to assuage my guilt at doing nothing.

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One night walk was enough to dampen any curiosity I may have previously had about hiking in the dark.  A mainly bitumen path was all the outskirts of Chinchilla could offer, and my feet and limbs began to feel the effects far too soon as a result.  I discovered that a night hike was also very useful at turning even the most hardened dare devil among us into a scared little girl, capable of creating snakes from any relatively slender object.  Recovery from these fabricated incidents was managed with a handful of jelly beans, and some snakes of a more likable nature (the sugary edible kind!).  Eighteen and a half kilometres into our twenty kilometre walk, and we were all beginning to feel quite happy with ourselves.  I thought I had a pretty good idea of how I would handle a night hike, and started to think about the possibility of some more in the future.  As if on cue, that was when we first heard the howling.  This alone I think I could have managed, due to our proximity to the cars, and my relatively non-existent fear of dogs.  However throw in a brief explanation of how to behave when confronted by a dingo, from one of my fellow walkers and I very quickly descended from this calm position.  Dingoes?!

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 Like, I assume, all non-Aussies, I was aware that crocodiles, dingoes and sharks were feature of Australia.  However to know that there was more than one within howling distance while I had still very much not reached my car, on a lonely country road, after midnight on a Friday night (when even hope of a random farmer passing was perhaps at its slimmest) was a completely different consideration altogether.  As the pitch of all our voices ascended, the speed of our pace increased with it.  A couple of howling dingoes really does have a way of bringing attention to previously unrecognised energy.  So as I was slowly coming to terms with the idea of being eaten alive by dingoes (at least it wasn’t a boring story of how I die), a pair of glowing red eyes drifted onto the road, cloaked in the deepest ebony.  I honestly do think my heart stopped for a split second, as we stopped so abruptly even the breath caught in my throat.  I think the words “Holy s***t” sum up the general mood at the time pretty well.  It was a moment frozen in time, until we realised……it was a cow!  We all burst out laughing, relief loosened our limbs and unfastened our lungs.  The rest of the walk was still done at a breakneck pace, albeit with a much cheerier atmosphere.  There was a mutual agreement formed that the next night walk attempt could be left for the real challenge in July.

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I carried a watermelon

I carried a watermelon

Ok, so I may not have actually carried a watermelon.  But I could not survive my first Chinchilla Melon Festival without remembering one of the best lines ever written.  Chinchilla is the melon capital of Australia.  (That is why images of boths rats and watermelons appear when you google it.)  Although I do believe it is now out-ranked as far as melon produce is concerned, the title is still celebrated every two years with a long weekend of melon related revelry.  The Beach Party on the Friday night isn’t really connected to the melon theme, but the fact that a beach party is held so far inland is interesting in itself.  The street next one of the pubs is walled off and covered with sand.  There are chip vans and drink stalls scattered throughout, and a DJ on a big stage.  It does feel relatively realistic, and I must applaud the effort involved.

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The main event of the beach party is linked to the festival theme- the “Miss Melons” competition.  Vulgarly clear how this fits into the spirit, I was prepared for the worst.  Apparently the girl who won this coveted title two years ago stripped down to her birthday suit on stage.  Despite this forewarning, I was completely amazed that 6 or 7 girls got up in front of the 2000 strong crowd to display their melons.  It was definitely one of those “I can’t not look”, “is this really happening” moments.  One contestant clearly thought this was her one moment to shine.  Before giving the crowd the show they expected, she borrowed the DJ’s microphone and began singing her heart out.  Not only was this met with a torrent of booing from the disappointed audience, but a swift dismissal from the hijacked DJ, “This isn’t X factor, get your t*ts out!”

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There was also a Mr Melon competition, however it  wasn’t quite so explicit……….

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The  next morning involved some more child appropriate activities.  After a visit to the markets, and my first takeaway cup of coffee in 3weeks, it was time for the parade.  There is a competition for the best float in the parade.  The prize is a minimal amount of cash, so similar to the Miss Melons competition, it is all about the prestige of winning.  Being a part of the dental practice, we had a float called “The tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth”.  I got the dubious honor of being a ‘melon felon’, complete with a stripy jumpsuit and blacked out teeth.

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It was great fun, and certainly an experience to drive 5 blocks throwing sweets to all our patients.  Thanks to the artistic talents of some of our team, we didn’t look half bad, and everyone easily understood the theme-something you do tend to worry will be misinterpreted when drawing black eyeliner over a couple of your front teeth.  Unfortunately we didn’t win the honor of best float.  This year’s victors were  the medical practice, who managed to make it look like someone gave birth to a watermelon.  To be fair, it was going to be tough to beat that one.  Better luck next time!

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