A Breath of Fresh Air

How I'm getting back out into the countryside whilst living with MS

Archive for the category “Beginning to think differently”


I’ve decided to place my blog into hibernation. I started it as I wanted to share the difference in outlook that our tandem had brought to my life, now that MS is part of it. I hope that I’ve been able to get across how it’s helped me, not only to get outside again, but to actively try to be out in as many different ways as possible. And not just to be outside but to be immersed in the countryside once more, to get muddy and rained on and to smell the grass in sheep-nibbled fields again.

enjoying a summer evening

enjoying a summer evening

I don’t want to become repetitive so I thought I’d take a break. I shall only be taking a break from writing the blog though – definitely not from having adventures! We shall continue to cycle, bumping along uneven paths, to track down more bird-watching haunts and to splash about in the canoe. I might even try something new again if something catches my eye. I know it would be worth my while.

by Hebden Water

by Hebden Water

In the meantime, I’ve loved hearing from other people who have tried out new ways of adventuring, be it by adapted cycle, tramper or horse riding.

a little damp on the Camel Trail!

a little damp on the Camel Trail!

We have a weekend away coming up with EMpowered people which I’m looking forward to. It will be good to mix with others who have similar tales to tell again, and to swap our experiences. There are many more Lakeland tarns to glide across and the wheelchair is getting used to being pushed along unlikely paths.

muddy Pennine paths

muddy Pennine paths

Then there’s the Paralympics coming up soon, and when I start to feel a little bit inadequate in the face of their superhuman efforts, I can remind myself of just what I am achieving. Just as the Olympics inspire people to try something out, the Paralympics remind me that I have adapted my life to get out there and do something – there will be no hibernating for me!

tandem happy amongst the sheep

tandem happy amongst the sheep

From Back to Front

Potential frustration: the sun was actually shining but I’ve been struggling with a real lack of energy reserves lately. A tandem ride would knock me out too much. So, what to do?

The sun kept tantalising me by stretching its rays over the patio outside the back door. It was the first time this year the sun had been high enough in the sky to reach this far. I couldn’t ignore this moment!

So I stole outside with my little gardening bag containing all my tools and began digging about in the earth. I did a little planting and some leaf collecting and, as I did so, caught the smell of the soil as it was churned up fresh in my hands, and listened to the birds, twittering loudly but largely invisibly from the hedge.

It did me the world of good.


a daffodil peeks out into the sun

Later, a friend popped by and we had a good old catch-up. It was great. However, afterwards, I could not stop thoughts from whizzing about my head (nothing untoward, just non-stop). They seemed to be ricocheting around like balls in a pinball machine. It was starting to undo my lovely day.

I looked outside and the sky was still uncharacteristically blue. I went and sat on the front step and breathed. I listened to more birds chatting and heard the distant sound of aeroplanes. The odd person walked by, enjoying the day.

Then, feeling slightly daring, I closed my eyes. I began to concentrate more thoroughly on my breath. I started doing some yogic breathing, filling my belly, then breathing up into my chest and lifting my shoulders. Slowly, I reversed the movement, and continued. Gradually, I could feel my mind clearing, fewer thoughts were circulating. When I opened my eyes again, I felt stilled.

The feeling stayed all evening:  a sense of calm and of my body and mind having been completely refreshed. And I’d only travelled from my back door to my front door all day!


Recently, I’ve been escaping to the hills in my mind. I’ve been reading ‘Walking Home’ by Simon Armitage. The book tells of his journey along the Pennine Way, back to his home town of Marsden, which sits in the Pennines a couple of days’ walk south of me.

He’s a poet – I found one of his poems engraved on a stone as part of a sequence, on a previous tandem ride. And so he decided, not only to walk the route home (and a little more), but to provide a poetry reading each evening to ‘sing for his supper’ and bed for the night.

'Walking Home' by Simon Armitage

‘Walking Home’ by Simon Armitage

So he found himself reading to varying numbers of people in out-of-the-way pubs, with an ever-changing band of companions joining him for an odd day of the walk. As for me, I found him easygoing company along the whole journey.

He made me smile as he told of days where he became completely lost in empty landscapes unable to get his bearings, of eating soggy sandwiches on damp grass, and of long days walking, finding his stride and keeping going.

He recreated the beauty of the hills and the wonder of suddenly happening on a stunning piece of scenery, usually with absolutely no one about for miles and miles.

The more I read, the more I found that, when I shut my eyes, those hills and moors and rivers and valleys were before me again. It’s been a very refreshing journey.

Taking the Air

I was feeling sorry for myself. I was exhausted and had gone straight back to bed after a very brief early morning appointment. My legs were refusing to take me anywhere. I was forced to lie down and rest, and rest, and rest. Sooo dull, with little sign of any positive effect. And the skies were grey – again.

There was something of an explanation for this. I had spent a good deal of time the previous day in the garden, weeding, cutting back branches and uncovering walls that had become clogged up with moss. It had been lovely and very rewarding – much more of the garden was now visible again.

I suppose this was the down after the high, but it was no fun.

Eventually, I had a brainwave: to force myself outside with a cup of tea and a book. If I could pull myself up some of the steps in the garden, I wouldn’t need to go anywhere else all afternoon. I didn’t even need to read, just have a change of scene.

reaching my garden perch!

reaching my garden perch!

The minute I got outside, I knew I had made the right decision. I made it up to a seat a little way up our unhelpfully steep garden, now knowing that it would definitely be worthwhile.

I sat down and breathed in the air. It was so much lighter and fresher than inside. I could feel it spreading through my head, clearing it, refreshing it. It was remarkable. So simple, so effective; literally, a breath of fresh air!

I sat drinking my mug of tea, watching the birds flitting about, never stopping, hopping from hedge, to branch, to feeder, then off into the next garden.

Later, when I looked up from my book, I caught a squirrel watching me from a fence post. He didn’t move. We stared at each other, motionless.

being outstared!

being outstared!

I haven’t decided if I like this squirrel – he is very cute and his agility is amazing. But he is quite partial to the bird food which we put out for … the birds! Not squirrels!


I’ve come to a decision: to not go to archery any more. Well, to not think about whether I can fit going to archery into my weekend any more. I haven’t actually been able to go for a while now, and it’s not always been because of the weather!

I’ve found that if I do go, that tends to be my activity for the weekend and, if I’m planning to go on a Sunday, then I have to remember not to be over-active on the Saturday. For example, probably not going on a day out, and definitely not going on a tandem ride. It’s just taken up too much thought and there are other things I’d like to have time to do.

enjoying the garden

enjoying the garden

I really enjoy being in the garden and it is at least as tiring as archery (I mean, provides as much exercise!), gives me just as much fresh air, and I’ve usually got something to show for it afterwards too – even if it is just a pile of weeds!

As you know, we’ve been on birdwatching expeditions too recently … and I really want to get back on the tandem. I don’t know where the time has gone!

I’ve really enjoyed doing the archery and particularly meeting new people. I really didn’t expect my trip to the Paralympics taster day two years ago to lead this far! From having a go at archery that day, I decided to take a local course. I had no expectation of taking it any further but the people were so friendly that I thought why not join for a year and see how it goes … and it went really well!

successful weeding!

successful weeding!

I didn’t ever become very accomplished but I enjoyed myself and got outside on winter days where I didn’t really expect to leave the house. And I actually enjoyed the biting cold! (For a while!)

It has also reminded me that I can keep on trying new things … though for now the garden beckons!



You may remember that last year I took part in a cycle event round Anglesey, organised by a charity called EMpowered people. One of the things they do in order to help people with disabilities to cycle is to arrange Taster Days where you can come along and try out different types of bike and see which is most suitable.

One of these days took place locally at the weekend and I got myself along. Unfortunately, Pete’s (other) knee has been playing up so I went on my own and without the tandem.

spoilt for choice!

spoilt for choice!

It was great to see Simon, who set up the charity, and some of the volunteers who had come along with a couple of vanloads of bikes, as well as some possible new recruits for the next Anglesey trip in May.

There were hand cycles, trikes and even a four-person bike, as well as a bicycle for two where you sat side by side (a bit like a pedalo!). It was also explained to me that one of the hand cycles could be partially dismantled and reattached to another bike so that power and support could be supplied by a second rider. There was some very good kit on display, as well as some lovely helpful people to assist.

... and more!

… and more!

If anyone found a particular bike suitable, they could take it for a turn in the park then out for a little tootle, supported by someone from EMpowered People. Some people simply used an electric bike, or had toe clips fitted to stop their feet from falling off the pedal – that is distinctly a problem I have without a clip.

I spent most of the time chatting! I caught up with people I’d met on last year’s trip and a local chap who is aiming to come this year, having recently obtained a hand cycle through the charity. Look forward to seeing you there, Chris! He loves the bike but is very aware of the extra effort to pedal using his arm muscles rather than his legs.

I had a go on Chris’s bike and struggled even to steer it! I didn’t get chance to appreciate the extra effort needed as I could barely control it. Fortunately for all concerned, I was tightly supervised and, indeed, barely actually steered it since I would have cashed it several times if Richard hadn’t simply moved the steering column for me! There is clearly a knack to riding such a bike, something akin to learning to drive a car using hand controls.

side-by-side cycling

side-by-side cycling

I decided that it was much simpler to sit on the back of the tandem and let Pete and the electric motor do all the hard work! Though, I hasten to add, my legs do go round and round and provide me with quite enough exercise anyway!

It was lovely to be in touch with everyone involved in the charity again and it sounds like there will be at least double the number of EMpowered riders in Anglesey this time. In fact, we are completely taking over the hotel! I can’t wait … I may even have to do some training!

Bright Skies

What a beautiful end to November! We had experienced three solid days of fog and I was beginning to despair of ever seeing the sun again. Then Sunday dawned: the mist had lifted and the sky was clear blue. Even better, I was off to archery!

It was wonderful to be outdoors. I was even too warm in my carefully put on layers as I sat, putting my bow together, bathed in sunshine.

archery under blue November skies

archery under blue November skies

It is exactly a year since I completed the beginners course and decided to become a member of the archery club. I’m so glad I did. It’s such a friendly place and provides a wonderful setting to spend some time outside.

and surrounded by woodland

… and surrounded by woodland

It was quite odd to see the new members setting up on the field, having just completed the course themselves, and thinking that that was me a year ago. I’m not sure I’ve improved greatly in that time, but that wasn’t ever the main aim. Others certainly have improved, and I’m sure the new people will too. But I’m mainly enjoying mixing with new people, learning something new, and not dwelling on what I used to do.

my archery chair

my archery chair

I’m very pleased to say that I’ve been able to go to archery for three weeks on the trot – I think it’s January since I last managed that! That is definitely the up-side to having had a quieter life recently.

However, I’ve been quite disappointed with my form week on week – instead of improving, I’ve got steadily worse! Experienced members have been really supportive, though. I think it’s a known ‘thing’ that people put pressure on themselves and so get worse (apparently!). They also reassure me that the important thing is to enjoy coming. That it so true … though I’m going to try a heavier bow next time just to see if that helps!

a perfect sunset to end the day

a perfect sunset to end the day

I have started to notice that I’m less wowed by the feeling of happy fresh air tiredness that I get from archery or tandeming or gardening. Don’t get me wrong, I really, really appreciate it, but it doesn’t take me by surprise as much as it did initially, when it stirred a memory from some time before. Now, it is something that I experience relatively frequently and it feels more of a continuation of the outdoor part of my life, which had had a blip in it for a while.

Swings and Roundabouts

I’ve been swimming again, and it was so lovely. I find it very relaxing to gently make my way up the pool, rest, then gently make my way back down again.

I found myself trying to work out how long it was since I’d last been swimming … how long since I last felt that I had the spare energy to go swimming. It was definitely before my last fatigue-filled relapse in February, and could well have been some time before that as I’d not been on great form for a while.

Anyway, it made me feel doubly pleased to be in the water again as it meant that I was still on an upward direction from that time, I was still improving, and hopefully this energy level was going to remain for a while.

I felt on a high all day and couldn’t wait to go again, though I was waiting for the inevitable collapse the next day … which didn’t really happen! Granted, my legs were reluctant to do much for the rest of the day I did go swimming but I didn’t expect them to and I was just buzzing inside anyway so it didn’t matter!

I think that my body is having a bit of a chance to get its act together because it’s had more time to concentrate on doing that recently instead of holding me together through various significant events that I’ve had this year.

It really has been quite a year – full of fab things! It was such a pain that the severe fatigue relapse kicked in just before it all began.IMG_9323

First, there was my parents’ Golden Wedding celebration in March, which was a wonderful opportunity to chat to people I’d not seen in ages, and to enjoy seeing my parents having the chance to share their day with so many people they’d known for so long.

My sister came over from New Zealand to be part of the celebration, and she stayed with me for a few days too. It was great to catch up. I think that we also both appreciated being around someone else who was in a similar position to the other; we didn’t need to explain, our MS is reasonably similar for each of us. I could take her around my town at my pace which was perfect for both of us. (It actually took us three days to do justice to the shops and, in particular, the cafes!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A couple of months later, our eldest turned 18. Another lovely occasion, as well as a bit scary!

Then in the autumn it was our turn, with our Silver Wedding and a trip to Scotland in early September and a party at home at the end of the month.

In between, I took part in a tour of Anglesey on our tandem, when I was still feeling somewhat below par, and enjoyed a trip to Scarborough, again using the tandem.

So, it’s no wonder my body hasn’t had the strength to take me swimming as well! It’s taken a quieter few weeks, with no big events to plan on the horizon, to give my body the time to rest.

Even though on the outside it doesn’t look like I’ve had to plan much – just turn up in a suitable dress with my family, consider presents appropriate to mark these significant events, invite friends to our party to celebrate with us  – behind the scenes, I’ve had to do some serious micro planning, especially to manage my energy levels.

Arisaig, Sotland

Arisaig, Sotland

The fact that I’ve had to think so much about these events in advance, and the difference that I’m now beginning to experience now they are over, just goes to show how much nervous energy was taken up with planning anything vaguely significant.

As I say, it’s been a fab year, and I seem to have got safely the other side of the extreme fatigue relapse. It feels like an exchange I can live with to have had all these great events which I was able to fully enjoy, but to have had less energy for swimming, archery, canoing or as much tandem riding as I would have liked. At least, it does now that, as life has quietened down, it looks like I’ll have more energy for some of these activities again – remembering as ever the MS mantra of pacing, pacing, pacing!

my anniversary roses

my anniversary roses

On Reflection

As it’s the first anniversary of the London Paralympics, I’ve been taking a bit of time out from the tandem to ponder whether the Games have affected me personally. I’m a part-time wheelchair user, (a tandem can only get you so far, unfortunately) and it’s when I consider my wheelchair that I realise I have been affected.IMG_0840

I’ve been a reluctant convert to the use of a wheelchair. Although I’d eventually got my head round the idea of using one for when I couldn’t just walk a small distance, I would cringe inwardly as I was wheeled around in my clunky chair.

I became enormously self-conscious at the thought of getting out of my chair and walking the last part of my journey, say into a cafe or, sometimes, down a flight of steps as it was just such a darned hassle to find an alternative route. I imagined horrified looks from passersby, believing me to be a fraud. I wanted a card to wave at such people, saying, ‘I’ve got MS, I can’t walk very far’.

Then I watched the Paralympics. I was totally hooked and soaked up everything there was to know about the athletes and their machines. David Weir, Hannah Cockcroft and Sarah Storey became familiar names, and I was awed by the brutality of Murderball and the agility of the wheelchair basketball players. I became a Paralympic geek.

I also noticed that sometimes a swimmer would walk to their starting position but would use a wheelchair after having given their all in the water, although the camera remained firmly on their exhausted face during the post-race interview.

I became an avid watcher of the Last Leg too: the programme that took a light hearted view of each day’s events. It was very funny! People with disabilities were laughing at funny things that happened in relation to their disabilities; and about anything else that made them – and anyone else – laugh. (I’m delighted that they’ve now got a regular series; a light hearted look at the previous week’s news by three blokes who happen to have only four legs between them.)

And then I found that I was getting severe wheelchair envy. I wanted to whizz about like these athletes! I realised that I was no longer seeing disabled people playing sport but athletes using wheelchairs as a means to an end. A wheelchair was just a piece of kit, like a car; it got you about. In fact, it was getting some of them about at great speed! If I wasn’t looking at their chairs (except with envy!) then maybe people wouldn’t be looking at my chair rather than me either.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have made one particular change though, to the wheelchair itself. After a final noble trip to Ghent (where the cobbles, although pretty, are totally impractical if you’re in a wheelchair) finally did for my chair (and very nearly me too!), it was quietly retired and I have acquired a sleek, black self-propelling one. I can now imagine myself to be a member of the wheelchair basketball team – so long as no one throws me a ball!

It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks they’ve seen a miracle if I get out of my chair to walk a little – they probably aren’t watching and I should skip down stairs when I can anyway! (Okay, ‘skip’ is a bit of a stretch but I liked the image!) I always have a seat when I want one, and I have also (almost!) embraced being wheeled at terrifying speed by one of the teenagers. A white-knuckle ride all of its own! IMG_0808

Being Inspired

Calamity struck a few days before I was due to attend the Sports Fest event in Sheffield: Pete woke to find that his knee was extremely painful and he could barely walk. Clearly, this was not great for him; it also had a knock-on effect for me. I couldn’t drive there myself and then take part in any activities – I’d only have the energy for one or the other.

We made a right pair, hobbling about the house. In fact, I was suddenly the more mobile parent!

There then followed many frantic phone calls to all my friends to sell the idea of an unusual day out at a couple of days’ notice. Most were happy to come in principle but unsurprisingly already had things arranged. Fortunately, just when I had all but given up hope, Steph picked up my text and came to the rescue!sp2

We had a great day out! Once there, I headed straight for the archery area. I’d always fancied having a go at archery and now I had the chance. My instructor was very helpful in showing me exactly how to hold the bow and adjust my aim. I initially used a very light child’s practice bow, then moved on to a heavier one whilst sitting down, which I actually found easier. I am pleased to report that most of the arrows found the target! Afterwards, another volunteer took my details and will be forwarding me information about archery clubs near me – so watch this space!

I also tried rifle shooting. I know that sounds like an ominous couple of activities but there is no hidden agenda! I just thought they would suit someone less mobile and with decent eyesight, honest! Anyway, I discovered that my arm was too short to hold the rifle appropriately and shoot. (Probably much to the relief of everyone who knows me!)

One thing I tried, having had absolutely no thought of doing so beforehand, was horse riding! There was a rather impressively real-looking mechanical horse to ride. There was no queue; I was feeling adventurous, or mad, so I jumped on. Well, more guided on by some very lovely and knowledegeable volunteers. Before I knew it I was cantering rather sp3too fast and gripping horse and reins tightly. Rather too tightly it turned out: it goes faster the tighter you grip. So, totally counter-intuitively, I had to relax my legs and arms, and sit back in the saddle. It worked … well, that and the fact that the lovely lady pressed some buttons so that she could control entirely what speed we went. It was really good fun and apparently they use such a device initially with novices, which seems like a great idea. They reassured me that they always use very placid horses with beginners … I’ve got leaflets for that too!

We did a spot of chatting with a celebrity as well. Hannah Cockroft, double Paralympic gold medal-winning sprint wheelchair racer (and local Halifax hero!), was at the athletics stand, happily handing out her medals to everyone to hold and having her photo taken. (Yes, obviously, we got photos too!) There were lots of youngsters around her and she was cheery and encouraging to them all as they tried out the racing chairs or simply wanted to be photographed with her.sp5

There were several Paralympic athletes helping out at the different sports stands, easily distinguished by their Team GB tracksuits and distinctive red trainers. Three of them also gave a short talk about their experience at the Paralympics, how they had got into sports initially and what sport meant to them. That was when I discovered that one of the women who had been talking to me at the horseriding stand was actually Sophie Wells who had won team gold in dressage as well as two silver medals! Also speaking were Will Bayley, the very enthusiastic table tennis player who won a silver and bronze, and powerlifter, Ali Jawed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also had the chance to try rowing, using a machine that kept my legs in place so all the effort was in my arms. I noticed that someone was punching my details into a laptop and before I knew it I was in a race with the two chaps either side of me! My personal coach encouraged me to speeds I didn’t know I could achieve … but I still lost! I think I’ll stick to two-man canoes, where my input isn’t essential!

Finally, I tried hand cycling. It’s deceptive: you think it looks very gentle as you’re practically lying down but then you have to put all your effort into your arms to move. Apparently they are very aerodynamic and you can go pretty fast for the effort put in. (Though cheating on the back of a tandem still wins for me!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was lovely to see so many people there, particularly youngsters whom, you never know, we might see in Rio in 2016! But it also gave you a chance to try something new. It’s funny, I’ve never been what you’d call sporty and before having MS I would never have gone to a day dedicated to trying out different sports but now, with MS, here I was! See where getting on a tandem has taken me!

Also, Steph was mulling something over all the way back and when I got home I received an email from her: she’d just bought a bike! The spirit of Being Inspired continues to spread!

Thinking Differently

I’d been living with MS since 2004 and was feeling the increasing frustration of not being able to get out into the countryside with my husband, as my legs were no longer prepared to carry me any distance.

Pete, clearly not prepared to let this be a permanent problem, hit on a solution whilst we were on holiday in France, where everyone was enjoying travelling to the beach by bike. He arrived back at our tent one day, having hired a tandem for us to try! I have to say, I was sceptical at first; I hadn’t been on a bike for many a year and now I was expected to ride on the back of something when I couldn’t see where I was going and wasn’t in control of the brakes.

However, after a few anxious squeaks (by me, not the bike), I had to admit that it was fun, cycling along special cycle lanes the few odd miles to the beach in the sun. I mastered the art of letting my legs move round on the pedals without actually putting any weight down and so minimising my effort. I could see that I was successful when Pete looked more tired than me as we dismounted.

First steps, west coast of France

First steps, west coast of France

We didn’t initially consider getting a tandem ourselves. After all, we live in the Yorkshire Pennines; there are lots of hills there. It would be a silly idea. So for a couple of years we just hired a tandem for a sunny two weeks. At least it was something, and I looked like everyone else as I pedalled away; no stick, no wheelchair.

Taking it easy near Lake Annecy

Taking it easy near Lake Annecy

In the meantime, not to be thwarted by our home geography, Pete kept thinking and came up with the notion of canoeing. Again, the Pennines are not known as great canoeing territory. The solution was to get an inflatable canoe and escape to the Lake District when we could. We discovered that it is feasible to travel there and back in a day, and still have a lovely few hours out on a lake. My parents also live up that way so we can even claim a bed for the night. We’ve had memorable days on Coniston, Windermere and Ullswater … and there are many more to try yet. It’s becoming something of a challenge to “bag” them all.

One great day out was to canoe about half-way down Ullswater with the wind behind us to Howtown, pack up the canoe into its, not exactly portable, but manageable, bag, and wait for the steamer to take us back up to our car at Glenridding.

Ullswater, near Howtown

Ullswater, near Howtown

An important trick that I’ve learnt in order to minimise fatigue is to only paddle when I feel like it, generally when other boats are nearby, so that it looks like I’m pulling my weight, but otherwise just dipping in a blade now and again, to “help out”. Fortunately, Pete is great at doing all the hard work, which also includes getting the canoe inflated and deflated.

It then occurred to us that maybe it would be feasible to use a tandem round where we live if we used the car a little, either with me driving to the start of a flatter route and Pete cycling solo there, or putting it on a bike rack. After all, I’m never going to give Bradley Wiggins a run for his money; I’m just tootling short distances of about five miles. So, we took the plunge and bought a mountain tandem (yes, they do exist!) a few months ago.  They come with lovely fat tyres which absorb a lot of the bumps. To make it as suitable as possible for me we fitted a crank-shortener to the back pedals which makes it much less tiring (since my back pedals still have to go round in time with the front ones). In order to minimise any complaints about my sore backside, we also got a very wide springy seat and a seat post with a spring shock absorber which is very helpful over all the bumpy paths.

Moors near Widdop

Moors near Widdop

So far we’ve made several trips in the local woods, had a bit of an epic trip following a reservoir road amongst the moors and a cycle along a canal towpath. The railway follows the same route at that point and we left the car at a station so that I could travel back by train but, after a good rest and refuelling stop at our destination, I was really chuffed when I made it back again too.

We have plenty of stops to admire the scenery and rest, and cafés are always popular, or flasks of tea. I stagger off the bike feeling utterly exhausted but extremely happy. I am out in the countryside again, smelling the earth and feeling the fresh air in my eyes. I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain and, whilst part of the tiredness is fatigue, that speciality of MS, most of it is the same as that old feeling of happy tiredness from having been outside on the fells all day.

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