Category: Gray Caws

Nov 05

My first ‘mini’ marathon – Gray Caws

am-groupSunday 20 October, the Abingdon Marathon – my first ‘mini’ marathon. Mini as in my first marathon wearing minimalist shoes. What’s more, not the shoes I’d done the majority of my training in. I’ll admit now to being a bit apprehensive a few weeks out from the start line. A busy work schedule interrupted by one of those terrible hinderances in a training schedule – a holiday – doesn’t help matters! But very few people are lucky enough to be able to prioritise marathon training above everything else. These challenges are part of the process. The process of how best to run a marathon.

“A whole 400m track ahead with a big digital clock at the end – absolute heaven! About a 100m and I can’t resist that final little push and there it is – the finish line.”

My training is a combination of the Chi Marathon programme, RunnersWorld SmartCoach and a few of my own ideas thrown into the mix. I work on good old fashioned effort level, maintaining a constant cadence and pace, and aim to finish feeling strong with little or no recovery necessary – I of course plan a post-marathon two-week recovery period into my schedule. I find these process-oriented goals fundamental to a balanced training programme. I deliberately don’t focus on a time. If the process works and you follow the principle of gradual progress – working on technique and then building distance, the conditions for speed are in place. The key is keeping strong, balanced, your body aligned and relaxed. This creates energy efficiency and I work on being as efficient as possible – get the most out of putting the least in. Equate running a marathon to a long drive up the motorway. Think of how to get the most miles per gallon – steady cruising. I ‘cruised’ my long runs at an effort level (rate of perceived exertion) between 11-12 (on a scale of 6-20) – a good steady aerobic pace.

Energy-efficiency is not just important during the run. I make a conscious effort to keep calm and controlled throughout training. Plenty of rest when not training. Accepting that things don’t always go to plan and being able to adapt with the least amount of stress or effort. I travel to Abingdon the night before with a friend who is also running. We stay at a lovely restaurant/hotel and enjoy a delicious meal of chicken pasta and ice cream – no carb loading for me. My diet throughout training consists of basic non-processed foods – natural fats (butter, full-fat milk and yoghurt, coconut oil, red and white meat, fish), lots of fruit and veg and few carbs such as bread and pasta. Since low intensity exercise predominately burns fat as the main source of energy, getting my body efficient at metabolising fat when glycogen levels become depleted should help avoid hitting the dreaded wall.

A good night’s sleep follows dinner but not before flooding the bathroom by putting bubble bath in the jacuzzi. I wake afresh at 5:30 to the sound of torrential rain! – Don’t panic as this will raise stress levels but in the back of my mind is last week’s run in the pouring rain. My feet were soggy and cold within minutes as my Vibram Speeds seemed to soak up water like a sponge. Not to worry, I have my Luna Sandals strapped to my CamelBak for emergency use.

For breakfast I have a smoothie of oats, greek yogurt, milk, coconut oil, frozen winter berries and agave nectar. I hydrate with CherryActive, a concentrated cherry juice diluted with water. After breakfast we set off for the start about 8 miles away. But the satnav takes us to the middle of a country lane – don’t panic, think energy-efficiency! Surely everywhere will be signposted clearly when we get into the town? – not! We eventually find the car park at 8:20am with the race starting at 9. This in fact turns out to be a bit of a blessing as there is a brief break in the downpour so we save ourselves from getting soaked before the start. The problem comes when I step out of the car as the ‘sponges’ on my feet immediately soak up a few puddlefuls of water. Do I want to run the marathon with soggy feet or in sandals? Another option – Vivobarefoot Ones, but I’ve only road-tested them to 10 miles. They’ll be warmer than the sandals – I decide on the Vivos.

We arrive at the start in the athletics stadium and are immediately surrounded by lots of limbering up club runners. It’s a small field so popular with clubbers looking for PBs. Since we had a good walk from the car park I do a few dynamic stretches and essential joint mobilisation not to waste too much energy. And we’re off – one lap of the track and then out into the unknown. I’ve not studied the course so that I could relax and enjoy rather then think about what is coming up. However just ahead of the mile 7 marker is the mile 17 one so I know I’m heading back this way at some point! I eat Jelly Babies and sip regularly on water mixed with Viridian Sports Electrolyte Fix. At mile 8 I check my Garmin. I’m slightly ahead of my London Marathon 2010 pace and heart rate is good.

At mile 15 it’s raining heavily. All is looking good but I remember from the first lap that we are heading for Windy Ridge again, a house at the top of a steady incline. I love these ‘flat’ courses that have ‘steady inclines’. It feels like climbing a mountain with the wind and rain lashing in your face but I keep focused on low intensity – keep metabolising that fat as by now I’m sick of Jelly Babies!

I feel confident at mile 20. I’m encouraged by a number of marshals, and a couple of runners I pass, who comment on my form saying how strong I look – any bit of encouragement at this point is a great help. Lap two now around the industrial estate and some runners ahead are walking. Keep going, keep the cadence high I tell myself. Those that are slowing pace are also dropping cadence, becoming heavy and plodding. Remember what I teach day-in day-out – our body loves rhythm and a constant quick cadence equals energy-efficient running. I’m experiencing this first hand. I think how difficult it would be now if I lost rhythm. I know I would struggle.

Mile 24 and we’re back in the town centre. I’m dodging Sunday shoppers and trying to spot the next marshall. I’m confident but I know anything can easily go wrong at this point. As i turn a corner people are heading towards me with medals – the runners that have finished. I can’t decide if this is encouraging or not but I get a boost as one guy shouts “looking good for a sub-4”. We turn left into the stadium, not far now – wrong! We’re taken on a meandering path though the park. Four guys ahead are looking close to collapse. At last onto the track. There’s just two of us now (the others didn’t collapse), a whole 400m track ahead with a big digital clock at the end – absolute heaven! About a 100m and I can’t resist that final little push and there it is – the finish line.

My friend ran a great time and I meet her at the end. We head up the stadium steps (not a good idea for the glutes at this stage) for tea and biscuits. Then back the to car – a good recovery walk pumping blood back from the calfs to the heart – Iron Woman Helen Hall gave me that great tip. Then a two hour drive back to London in torrential rain – almost another marathon in itself. Recovery food was a massive Sunday dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding followed by sticky toffee pudding and custard.

The following day I was absolutely fine. I had no muscle soreness, aches or pains. My legs felt fresher than they often do after a long Sunday run. I was back training clients at 4pm and with my Beginners Chi Running Club at 7pm.

I’d achieved my goals: I ran my first minimalist shoe marathon; felt strong throughout; followed a sensible, basic diet without the need for any over over-hyped sports supplements; was 5 minutes quciker than my 2010 London Marathon time at 03:54:24 and, ultimately, needed little or no recovery. Bring on the 2014 ultra!

Gray Caws is a certified Chi Running and Chi Walking Instructor and Personal Trainer with a REPs Level 4 Certificate in Specialist Exercise. Fore more information visit www.N8pt.com

Sep 18

The air that you breathe…

BUWi5MICcAAxxzr.jpg_largeI’m writing this whilst on a relaxing break in Crete. Energised by an amazing thunderstorm last night and the inspiring environment of this beautiful Greek island, the focus during my run this morning was on breathing. Since a number of forums have recently debated and discussed this topic, here’s an update of an article I previously posted on tribesports.com.

We can live for weeks without food, days without water but only minutes without air. So, it goes without saying that breathing is somewhat important in the scheme of things. Most of our breathing is a subconscious response affected by physiological, psychological and environmental factors. When excited, stressed or anxious you tend to breath shallowly, using the wrong muscles, and ventilating the wrong part of the lungs. When sad or depressed, breathing becomes collapsed and half-measured. When relaxed and at ease emotionally, you breathe more slowly, deeply and smoothly. Food and drink, the weather, illness and medication also have an effect on our breathing. We can also, to some extent, consciously control our breathing rate and muscles used.

Optimal resting breathing creates an essential foundation, since any physical activity will increase the breath rate. If we start from a poor base then we don’t have far to go before we are out of breath. Breathing is a present-time, mindful process so, as a Chi Running Instructor, I encourage a natural, unforced coordination of breath with the movement principles of T’ai Chi and Qigong.

Natural and unforced are the key words here. If you are a beginner to running and/or the breathing focus I would suggest you first work on the core components of technique such as postural alignment and relaxation whilst monitoring your effort by having a conversation (with yourself or other runners). This will ensure you don’t get out of breath. At this stage don’t ‘think’ about  breathing. When you’ve got the basic elements of technique you can then introduce breathing as a form focus.

At first practice breathing in a standing posture stance with feet hip width apart and knees soft, feet and lower legs relaxed. Visualise lengthening the spine. Gently exhale by pulling your huiyin* (situated between anus and genitals) up to expel air through nose or mouth. Allow breath into the belly through relaxed nostrils down to the dantien** (energy centre). The abdomen will expand as your diaphragm naturally descends. The belly will fill like a balloon. Encouraging the diaphragm to descend will get more oxygen into the blood, pump more blood around the body and help massage vital organs. As the final part of breath enters the upper chest avoid tensing the ribcage, shoulders or neck. You should feel as relaxed as possible. Focus on a single breath cycle and let your breathing proceed at its natural pace. The important thing is not to hold or force the breath as this is worse than doing it ‘wrong’.

When you are comfortable with breathing statically bring the focus into movement and running. Breathing plays a major part in energy-efficient running. An aligned and relaxed posture when running will help your breathing to also relax (Check out my article on posture at http://www.n8pt.com/?ID=104).

A common error many new runners make is to over-breathe. Your perceived effort level is greater than the effort actually needed, so you think you have to breathe harder. Not breathing out enough is another error, creating shortness of breath. If you are short of breath, check that all the air is fully expelled as you exhale. A natural vacuum will then be created and the breath will automatically flow back into the abdomen if the upper body is relaxed. If you are out of breath and exhaling fully, you are probably using the wrong energy system for a beginner to start off with or indeed for a long slow distance run. A great way of ensuring that you are using the correct energy system (aerobic) is to breathe totally through the nose as long as you have no restrictions in your nasal passage. It takes practice and can be a bit messy but it is an amazing experience. The body will self-regulate to find a mid-range aerobic pace.

Chi Running teaches a constant cadence (foot strikes per minute). This is great for coordinating breathing with movement since the body is at it’s most efficient when certain rhythms are maintained. Start with your normal breathing making sure it’s deep into the belly, not forced or shallow, then progress to breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. Visualise movement following pace of breathing. Follow your slow breath and then build to quicker breathing on a shorter count as the pace increases. As you become proficient at practicing breathing when running you’ll begin to experience a meditative, mindfulness where you are ‘in the zone’. When comfortable try total nasal breathing.

Breathing is fundamentally a natural process so try not to think too hard about it as this can create unnecessary tension. But we do pick up bad habits so make sure you practice regularly and then just let the body do what comes naturally. In most cases you’ll be doing the right thing. In running, like with anything in life, we need to put in the effort to aspire to effortlessness.

Gray Caws
Certified Chi Running Instructor and REPs registered Advanced Personal Trainer
For more information on Chi Running workshops, the London Chi Running Club, Chi Running Costa Brava and personal training visit http://www.N8pt.com
* At the very root of the torso, at the center of the pelvic floor, a half-inch in front of the anus, lies Huiyin, the first point on the Ren Mai (aka Conception Vessel). The English translation of Huiyin is “Meeting of Yin” or “Convergence of Yin.” The point is also occasionally rendered as “Seabed.” (taoism.about.com)
** Dantien: In T’ai Chi and Qigong an energy centre located three finger-widths down from the belly button and two inches into the spine.

Jun 20

Think big! Increase your speed by focusing on the core muscles

This month’s post is inspired by Ian Hicks who raised a question on the Barefoot Beginner Facebook forum about the correlation between cadence, stride-length and speed. Optimal cadence (number of foot strikes per minutes) reduces impact with the ground and, along with correct alignment, relaxation and balance of the body, takes excessive loading off the ankle, knee and hip joints. It encourages a mid-foot landing close to the body’s centre of mass,.

Chi Running recommends an optimal cadence of between 170-180bpm (85-90 strikes per foot) for efficient running. Research by Heierscheit et al. (2011) backs this up.

So to increase speed when running you simply increase your cadence? – Wrong! Our body loves rhythm and works more efficiently when this rhythm is maintained – think heart beat, breathing, eating and sleeping patterns. So cadence remains constant. Increased stride-length, not cadence, creates speed.

It’s time to start thinking big! Focus on the core muscles not the legs. Shift the workload to your ‘energy centre’ (dantien). In Chi Running the dantien is a reference point for the body’s center of mass located three finger widths down from the belly button and approximately two inches in towards the spine. By engaging this point you activate the big core muscles to stabilise the pelvis, keep a neutral spine and allow a balanced leg swing.

To increase stride-length increase the forward lean of your aligned posture. As you lean more relax the hips and legs more and your stride-length will open up behind, not in front, of the body. Create a ‘wheel’ underneath the body with your leg swing. Think of each inch of increase in lean as changing up a gear – the lower the gear, the smaller the wheel (slow speed/pace). As you go up a gear relax the lower body and allow the natural momentum of the leg swing to make a larger wheel increasing the stride-length and you’ll speed up.

If your cadence is much higher than 180bpm and you are not ‘sprinting’ this can indicate that the hip flexor muscles are tight and gluteus maximus (large bum muscles) are switched off, creating short choppy strides and overusing the leg muscle. This is a common muscular imbalance due to too much sitting.

When increasing the lean, it is important to make sure that the pelvis stays level (neutral) and that the hip and not the back extends when the leg swings reward. You should feel a slight pelvic rotation around a vertical axis, not a tipping back and forth. Pelvic instability when running can create hyper-extension (over-arching) of the lower back leading to tension and again those poor leg muscles get to take the brunt of the work.

Sprinters and distance runners use different energy systems and biomechanics. Sprinters’ races are usually 400m maximum. Distance runners shouldn’t try to emulate sprinters and should aim to keep cadence close to 180bpm. Cadence may rise  slightly when interval training but if this is the case there should be a clear correlation with increased speed.

Speed is not something that is created by reaching forward or drastically increasing cadence but rather by relaxing more into a balanced forward lean allowing a natural stride-length to open up rearward. It’s not about ‘pushing’ with the leg muscles but rather visualise working from the core, take a focal point ahead and being drawn towards feeling the ground pull away from underneath.

Gray Caws

Certified Chi Running Instructor and Personal Trainer

www.N8pt.com

PS: This weekend I’m heading to the Barefoot Connections Conference 2013 to present and workshop the Chi Running method. For more information check out www.n8pt.com/?ID=109
My next post will no doubt be a review of the day and I’m sure I’m going to meet lots of you there!

May 15

Going with the flow – Gray Caws

CR-1-728x90-bbsMy ‘process of personal change and development’ to mindful running

I often get asked why I chose to study and teach Chi Running rather than other techniques. It is often considered a soft option or a little bit ‘hippy’ but I can assure you this is not the case. Chi Running can take your running to a level you never imagined. If you are prepared to put in the work, be patient, persistent and approach your running as a skill that needs to be nurtured, you will reap great physical and mental benefits.

When I first read Danny Dreyer’s book it made complete sense and as I started adopting the principles into my running I found it actually worked. I like Chi Running for it’s simplicity as well as complexity. A straightforward drill to ensure your arms swing correctly can quickly improvement your whole body movement, whilst working on relaxation and meditation can become a life-long process. Also, as a minimalist runner, I like the fact that Chi Running was promoting mid-foot strike and quick cadence well before any running magazine dare mention barefoot and five fingers were attached to your hand. The fact that I transitioned from a supportive Brooks Adrenaline shoe to Vibram FiveFingers and barefoot without any issues (allbeit gradually) suggested to me that my technique supported barefoot running.

In a previous life (not literally) I was a graphic designer and web developer. I loved the groundwork of creating a structure for a project (web coding) then allowing creativity to take over (the design process). At school German was one of my favourite subjects – learning the complex structure then allowing the mind to take over to become as fluent as possible in the written and spoken word. Chi Running works in a similar way for me. Focussing on technique (doing the groundwork) and then building on this by allowing yourself to relax – to go with the flow!

At mile 10 of the 2010 Bath Half Marathon just as I was expecting things to start getting tough quite the opposite happened. All of a sudden everything fell into place. I felt calm and relaxed, my breathing was deep and steady. My body was working harmoniously as a whole with flowing, no-interrupted movement from one step to the next. I felt a surprising amount of power from very little effort. Movement was happening with no pushing, my legs seemed to be floating underneath me, momentarily supporting my body weight with each landing. It was an amazing feeling. I saw then how Chi Running had improved not only my physical fitness but also general health, well-being and mental focus so, after over 20 years designing, I made the decision to change career. I wanted to incorporate my love of running with a business that helped others attain their goals and realise their potential. In 2011 I took a course in personal training then certified as a Chi Running Instructor.

So what does Chi Running have to offer which other programmes may not?

Chi Running is based on various T’ai Chi principles – think slow down (not necessarily speed), simplicity, balance, appreciate opposites, whole body movement, a connection between mind and body. Chi Running creates internal, mindful, smooth movement. You gain strength, calm, inner focus, energy, balance, better proprioception (awareness of where your body is in space), a controlled body.

Exercises and drills are your building blocks to create good running form. They are easy to learn and practice, not just when you’re running. The main components of Chi Running are practical and teach biomechancially correct movement patterns: how to develop good static posture and translate this into movement; how to allow gravity to help with the intention of forward movement; upper body stability and arm swing; optimal cadence; how to relax muscles that don’t need to be used – check your neck and shoulders now, are they holding tension? Muscles that don’t need to be worked should be relaxed. Unnecessarily tense muscles waste energy. Neck tension suggests that the chin is pushing forward forcing muscles to overwork and carry most of the weight of the head (around 5kg). When your posture is correctly aligned your head will be sitting on top of your shoulders, distributing the weight throughout the whole structure of the body. Imagine your head is suspended above your body, lifted by a piece of string from the crown. The neck gets longer and muscles release.

Once confident that you are progressing with the main components, Chi Running allows you to take your training to another level and to me this is one of the big differences from other techniques and where creativity can really begin. All to often we’ve got one eye on tomorrow and the other on Facebook and don’t spend time in the moment. Focus on the moment and a whole new dimension to your running can open up. Chi Running becomes a life-long practice such as T’ai Chi or yoga. Progress happens gradually with each stage of training forming a stable foundation for the next: learn good basic technique and get a real understanding of how this feels in your body; good technique is a stable foundation for increasing your distance; with good technique and increased distance your body becomes conditioned to allow speed to happen naturally rather than pushing or forcing – my 10k PB was two weeks after running the 2010 London Marathon.

When you take your running to this level, training programmes become multifaceted, much more interesting and lots of fun. The development process is emphasised rather than focusing purely on performance goals. Here’s a few examples of some of the more advanced focuses you can try:

  • run a hilly route at the same effort level (or heart rate), total nasal breathing and shift the focus to the upper body on the uphill
  • increase speed by relaxing and creating more of an intention to move forward and see how much easier this feels
  • create a pyramid with your ‘minds eye’ (point at centre of forehead) and ‘eyes’ at each of your shoulders and direct your energy towards an object ahead, feeling yourself being drawn by this point (perhaps a runner in front of you in a race); focus on a point on the bottom of each foot at the front part of the instep (beware not to run on your toes) and feel energy from the ground feed up from this point to your dantien (a point three finger widths below belly button and about 2” in towards the spine) and a point in the middle of your lower back – a great focus for barefoot and minimalist runners.

On my long slow 10 miler last Sunday – in preparation for a 10k race this coming Sunday – I practiced the following breathing focus:

  • looking at your body side on visualise a circular flow of energy (chi). Your breath pumps this chi continuously through two of the largest energy channels – one up the front and one down the back of the upper body
  • breath into the belly (dantien) keeping the chest relaxed
  • as the in breath hits the dantien it pumps chi from the base of the spine, up the spine, up the back of the neck to the crown of the head
  • as you exhale the chi runs down from the crown of the head, through the forehead and down the chest, through the dantien to the perineum
  • be sure to keep breathing and chi flowing continuity in this way with each breath
  • as you run keep the pace slow so your breathing is controlled but keep a high cadence of 170-180 strides per minute
  • hold the focus for 1 minute on, 1 minute off (breathing interval training)

I did total nasal breathing but to start with your normal breathing but make sure it’s deep into the belly and not shallow. This ensures maximum oxygen intake which in turn leads to more energy efficiency. You can progress to total nasal breathing as long as you have no restrictions in your nasal passage.

These focusses, and many more, can be combined with the standard intervals, fartlek and long slow runs and resistance training to spice up your training programmes keeping your body alert, responsive and constantly challenged and your mind active and engaged. At a recent workshop when I asked the group what motivated them to book the session one replied “I want to look forward to and enjoy a run. Not just think I want to get it over with”. Chi Running can change your approach to running.

I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to get a solid grounding in technique but sometimes we can spend too much time focusing on detail and not letting ourselves relax and go with the flow – focusing on a particular part of the body rather that the body as a whole – why do my calfs hurt? Am I landing correctly? If you are prepared to put in the work, be consistence, patient and precise you can then relax and let things happen. You’ll develop your inner power of intuition, be able to listen to and trust your body and be amazed at what you can actually achieve, not just in fitness and running but in your health and life as a whole.

PS if you are wondering about the subtitle, blame The Xfactor – I can’t bear to use the word journey!

Book a Chirunning workshop with Gray here. He is now doing half day introductions and refreshers to Chirunning which are a great idea.

© Gray Caws N8pt.com

Soft Star RunAmocs

Apr 23

The key to good running form

Website_banner_1When Chris asked me to write for this site, it took me two seconds to decide on the first topic – posture. Every runner should focus on posture and correct alignment of the body to create strong, fluid, balanced movement and a natural, relaxed mid-foot landing.

At the gym today I saw an amazing feat of athleticism. Picture four ViPRs (hollow rubber tubes used for strength and movement training about 1m long) standing on end, spaced about 2m apart. A guy squats on a platform, drops off, lands and springs over each ViPR in turn. Absolutely stunning to watch – effortless, elegant movement.

The power comes from the alignment of his body combined with appropriate relaxation. There is no forced pushing or over-tense muscles. A natural ‘spring’ creates the efficient forward momentum – think sweet spot on a tennis racquet as the ball hits then fires off with minimal effort. Every part of his body is correctly aligned to create power with the least muscular effort.

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Correct vertical alignment of the body with the shoulder, hip and ankle in line creating our column. When correctly aligned the column is leaned forward from the dantien (energy centre) to help create forward momentum.

So how does this translate to running? Well, each step you take as you run is in essence the same as what this guy is doing. Your body is at optimal efficiency when aligned vertically, directionally and symmetrically as you run. During the support phase of your stride your body weight needs to be supported by your structure (bones, ligaments and tendons). If there is any misalignment (chink in the wall) such as feet splaying out, knees twisting, hips dropping, bending at the waist, chin jutting, muscles are overworked and the return force from the ground is blocked at that point creating resistance to momentum (think heel strike). Common running injuries often occur where the ‘chinks’ appear – ankle, knee, hip, lower back, shoulders. Due to the repetitive nature of running, at some point the weak link in the chain will give if your body is consistently out of alignment.

Perry (1992) describes good posture as ‘quiet standing’ and suggests that during perfect alignment the only required muscular activity is that needed to accommodate the pulsatile surge of the circulation.

Here are a couple of simple posture drills:

Wall posture

  • stand with your heels a couple of inches away from a vertical wall
  • place the small of your back, shoulders and nape of your neck against the wall
  • engage your dantien and gently try to flatten your lower back against the wall and level your pelvis (In Tai Chi the dantien is your energy centre. It is also your centre of mass and a focus for engaging the core muscles. It is located three finger widths down from the belly button and 2” in towards the spine)
  • visualise lengthening the spine up the wall
  • keep the glutes, leg muscles and shoulders relaxed, focus on the engagement of the lower core muscles

One-legged posture

Stand face on in front of a mirror balancing on one leg with knee soft (not locked out) and check your posture. If you find difficulty balancing use your trail leg the keep steady by lightly resting the ball of the foot on the floor behind you, keeping the majority of weight on the support leg.

Points to look out for:

  • foot should be pointing directly forward
  • knee should be directly over the second toe
  • hips should be horizontal
  • shoulders should be horizontal
  • arms should be dangling by the side and relaxed
  • visualise a strong central line running vertically through the body

Movement patterns are drawn towards your dominant postural position so it’s imperative to good running form that you first address your static posture. The great thing is you can practice this all the time – sitting, standing, at work, in the supermarket queue. Your body learns by repetition so the more you practice the better your posture will become and it follows that your running will become more effortless and pain free.

Gray  http://www.n8pt.com/

You can comment or ask Gray a question in our Barefoot Beginner facebook group. There are nearly 200 of us and the mood is warm and friendly. You will be made very welcome.

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