Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It's now or next year

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May lots of great things happen, whenever you choose to make them.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Summit to be proud of

“At midnight, we walk,” said our 70 year old guide, Fataeli, last Tuesday evening.

Over the course of 3 days, we had trekked with our leader and his team of guides and superhuman porters through lush rainforest, across moorland, and up to sparse alpine desert to reach an altitude of 4700 m above sea level and a hut where we could rest for 4 hours before the final ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

We had been given three main pieces of advice before we left days earlier: “Drink lots, apply sunscreen, and go slowly”. Dehydration can contribute to the effects of altitude sickness but, sticking rigidly to the first piece of advice, I was beginning to think someone was having a joke as altitude increased but vegetation cover and temperature decreased. A man of few words, Fataeli didn’t labour the point, he just pointed out suitable rocks and waited patiently as we disappeared to pee again.

Porters walk towards the Alpine desert as Kilimanjaro's Kibo peak lurks behind the clouds.

The idea to climb Kilimanjaro came from my friend, Hong, earlier this year. She’s one of those friends that gets out and does stuff. I like people like that. There’s nothing more flattering then when they ask you to join them; it makes you realise that they think you might be capable of doing it too. As my friend Laura says, “if you want to do something amazing, surround yourself with amazing people.” So when Hong asked me if I’d like to join her on this adventure, I jumped at the chance.

We left Kibo Hut at midnight in total darkness: 10 other inspiring people who say “yes” to things in life and a team of 6 talented local guides there to help make that happen. With over 300 ascents of Kibo peak to Fataeli’s name, a dodgy knee and laboured gait belied a wealth of experience, total respect from each and every guide on the mountain, and a steady pace that would maximise our chances of successfully reaching the summit. I tried to stay in line behind him, following his torch as he picked out the best route through the volcanic rocks.

Looking up the steep scree climb ahead, a zig-zag of head torches stretched above as far as I could see, making it difficult to tell where the mountain stopped and the stars began. Warned that this would be a mental challenge as much as physical, I opted to look instead at the feet of the person in front and just keep moving forwards. I counted 20 steps at a time and, when I reached the target without vomiting from the altitude, I grinned with triumph; when that became too difficult, I mumbled with each individual footstep, “I can... I can... I can..."

Fataeli’s pace continued like a train. Becoming dizzy and fatigued from the altitude, I could only take two steps forward, before slipping backwards one on the scree, or lurching precariously to the side as I lost my balance. I thought that coping with the mental challenge would be my strength, but when you feel sick as you walk, yet even sicker from cold when you stop, it started to feel like my stubborn streak had met its match and I began to fall behind. When I finally came to a standstill, wondering how I was going to carry on, I felt two hands clutch my shoulders and steady me. “Slowly slowly, take your breath,” came a voice, singing gently behind me. One of the guides, Augustin, had hung back to walk with me and didn’t leave my side again.

We reached Gilman’s Point, the summit of the Marangu route, at 5685 metres at about 6 o’clock in the morning. I flopped down onto a rock next to Fataeli and groaned; giggling, he handed me a cup of tea, nudged me in the ribs and pointed to the sun rising behind us, and then to Augustin who was encouraging me to stand up and push on for another 2 hours towards the Uhuru summit, the highest point in Africa. My stubborn streak might have been wavering but theirs certainly weren’t.

Yes we can,” said Augustin, seeing the look on my face, “Obama said that, and now so do we.” Maybe he’d heard my mumbling earlier, or maybe only this kind of positivity can survive above this altitude, but I liked his attitude and I stood up again.

Thawing slowly as the sun rose, we stopped every few minutes for me to catch my breath or drink water, while Augustin took photos on my camera. I normally prefer to hide behind the lens but he was keen to ensure that each moment was captured and, among some stunning landscape photographs, I acquired a fine collection of altitude-induced gurning shots that will allow me to relive the suffering more accurately than any description here could. “Even at our pace, the top is only 10 minutes away now,” he reassured me, taking me by the hand and leading me along the final climb to the rooftop of Africa at 5895 metres above sea level. He took a few more photos before asking, “you know how to ski, right?”; it seems that the descent down the volcanic scree slope of Kibo peak is actually more fun than the climb.

Scree descent back to Kibo Hut (Mawenzi peak in the background)

We met a lady in the airport on the way home wearing her Kilimanjaro souvenir t-shirt. She and her son had climbed the same route as us and summited on the same morning. When I asked how their climb had gone, she said she would display her Uhuru photo on the wall at home but would never tell the real story of how she made it there: how she was helped to the summit by her guide; how he carried her bag; how he held her hand; how he hugged her when she cried. I was saddened to hear this. Reaching the summit may have been my aim at first but the kindness, patience and persistence of a relative stranger made this challenge more memorable than any bragging rights.

We should appreciate the people around us that help make amazing things happen. Whether you watch their footsteps in front of you, or feel their hand on your back. Whether they nudge you in the ribs and point out a sunset, or hold your gloves and rucksack while you wee on a mountain. Whether they hand you a cup of tea when you feel rougher than you ever thought possible, or make you snort it out of your nose with laughter moments later. Whether they invite you on their adventures, or listen to your stories when you get back. As Laura says, “if you start hanging round with people who think that your dreams sound like a great way to spend your time, rather than those who question why you’d want to do such a thing, you’ll find those dreams become a reality a lot sooner.” The summit photo that I’ll hang on my wall at home has two people in it; I'm grateful for that and proud of the story why.

Kilimanjaro guide, Augustin, and me at Uhuru Peak, August 20th 2014

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Bastion 2014: a long-haul triathlon

An aeroplane from Gatwick rumbles across a blue sky and the sun begins to fall behind me, casting a long shadow ahead on the trail. I look up at the plane and wonder where it’s off to, then down at the pair of unusually long legs created by the trick of the light; the shadow confirms they’re now moving at a mere shuffle. It’s 8.30pm and I’ve been running for nearly 5 hours.

It was an aeroplane flying over my hotel that woke me up at 4.30 this morning, not that I’d slept particularly soundly before that. My alarm bleeped shortly after, I forced down some muesli and coffee, and made my way to the start of The Bastion, a new ironman event from the Castle Triathlon Series at Hever Castle in Kent.

Iron-distance triathlons are a bit like long-haul flights: they make me very nervous before they start; you see a lot of people wearing compression socks throughout; and you only get to consume food in tiny portions. You also live in hope that you won’t need to go for a poo at any point during the process; if you do, there is likely to be a long queue for a very cramped toilet.

This was my second ironman, the first being an event that ran through the night last year; I was looking for a different challenge this time and the possibility of taking part in daylight was a bonus. Having tackled the hills of the half-iron version, The Gauntlet, at Hever last year too, no-one was more surprised than me when I signed up for what has been billed as one of the most challenging courses in the UK.

The 3.8 km swim took place beneath a drizzly sky in the early hours of Sunday morning; while posing no problem in the lake, the weather was causing a few anxious murmurs in the field about what this would mean for the bike course. My concerns lay less with what was falling from the sky and more with what lay ahead over the hills I’d be climbing.

Ashdown Forest summit
Taking in a total ascent of more than 2700 m over 180 km, I had questioned throughout my training whether I could actually finish the bike course within the time allowed. I promised to take it steady on the climbs, to keep fuelling, and to keep smiling. Within an hour or two, the clouds had cleared, drying the roads and making the descents an appealing change from the relentless peaks. With the sun high at midday, so too was the pollen count and the contents of my nose needed clearing all too frequently; I accepted that any weight loss must be helpful for climbing and continued to jettison snot rockets across the staggering countryside of Kent and East Sussex. Only when I made it to the top of Ashdown Forest, the highest point in the race, for the sixth time, did I start to believe that that cut-off time was within reach.

There’s a point in any flight when I look out of the window and think it’s all a bit too amazing that we’re still up in the sky. I know that the physics will explain how it’s happening but I prefer not to question it and I just have to believe that we’re going to stay up there. As I rolled into transition, there could be no doubt in my mind that I would finish the marathon ahead; not because my legs felt particularly fresh (they didn’t) or because marathon running is my strength (it isn't) but because I’d already completed something that I wasn’t really sure I could. Besides, if you let any doubts about finishing an ironman into your head, you’re likely to descend into a nosedive from which it is very difficult to regain control.

After stroopwafel #2
The key is to think of the run not as a marathon. So I started by thinking of it as 4 laps. Four beautiful, hilly, muddy, technical, off-road laps. At 7 km I reached a feed station with such an array of goodies I had to stop for a few minutes to consider carefully what I’d like. There, behind the plate of halved bananas and molten jelly babies, I spied an entire packet of Belgian stroopwafels and my eyes widened. These couldn’t be for us. This is the kind of thing that’s best kept on a very high shelf at home. “Help yourself!” announced the marshall. I prised away a biscuit from the top of the packet and scampered away merrily before anyone could stop me. Then it dawned on me that I would pass that aid station 3 more times. This was no longer a run of 4 laps, but an opportunity for 4 Belgian stroopwafels. I couldn’t be happier.

It’s approaching 9pm by the time I start my final lap; my hopes of finishing in daylight are dwindling so I grab my head torch and set off into the grounds of Hever Castle one last time. With light fading rapidly and a full moon glowing behind the clouds, I reset my goal to make it home before the planes stop flying over from Gatwick. There are no in-flight movies and I have to make my own entertainment: I sing as I run alone through cornfields; I chat to the lovely marshalls, who are still smiling after being there for hours; and finally, as I run down through the woods and another flight passes overhead, I stick out my arms and make aeroplane noises to join in. Rabbits, caught in the beam of my head torch, look unimpressed.

From the darkness, I hear the commentator spot my light and cheer me onto the runway towards the finish. There are high-fives from lovely boyfriend and my parents as I bank in for landing, and I’m allowed to run through the finishing tape, arms aloft, as if I’ve won the thing. A dedicated race organiser and his top notch crew are still there after a very long day, ready with hearty congratulations and a medal. The Bastion is no holiday but it truly is a first class event.

Back in my hotel room, waiting to drop off to sleep, another aeroplane rumbles overhead. A little smile creeps over my face: I’ve completed the toughest race I’ve ever tackled and I’ve beaten the planes. I’m also pleased I don’t live this close to an airport.

Thank you to Castle Triathlon Series for the race entry; The Bastion will be back on July 12th 2015, or they have lots of other stunning races to choose from throughout the year.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

An Irish blessing: Connemara Ultra Marathon 2014

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.

According to the race briefing, little could go wrong with navigation,

“Run to the end of the road, turn right, run along this road and turn right. When you get to the end of that road, turn right. Turn right again. Then turn right. Which way do you go?”

“Left!” came the answer from the excited crowd in the race briefing at the Connemara Ultra Marathon.

Based in a remote national park on the west coast of Ireland, the event takes in a 39 mile loop, through the mountains and past the lakes of this beautiful area. Looking at the profile of the course, we were certain that the road would rise up, whether or not it would meet us was a different matter altogether; and, while the nature of the course would guarantee some easy navigation, it would be unable to guarantee that the wind would always be at our backs.

We were asked to stay on the transfer buses while they built the start line, rain lashing against the windows; moments later, the skies were clearing as we were running along an open road towards the mountains.

Source: Connemarathon

May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields

Relaxing into a comfortable pace, I spent the first ten miles running with a changing group of characters - some old hands, some on their first ultra, all happy to chat about what the day might bring - and my two travel companions, Liz and Simon, stretched their legs further along the road ahead.

“Look! There’s blue sky in front of us!” I jubilated to a Belfast man staying in the same B&B as us. “We’re going over there, so we are,” he replied with a chuckle, pointing in the opposite direction towards clouds darker than the tarmac in front of us.

We took a right and headed into the national park with mountains for miles around: the Twelve Bens to the left, the Maumturks to the right, and the road undulating at their feet. I tried my weather forecasting skills once more and confidently told two men from Dublin that the day would remain bright and that the rain had left us alone; moments later, we were slapped around the face by a gust of wind that brought hailstones and a firm message that I was in no position to make these predictions. Runners who’d left supplies in the aid boxes picked up food as we passed the start of the marathon (and later, the half marathon) course, while a silent, bearded man in a marshal bib stopped regularly by the side of the road to hand out bottles from the boot of his car to keep us hydrated.

Buoyed with confidence at the 27 mile mark, realising I was now in “ultra” territory, I felt invincible and contemplated when I thought I would tackle a fifty-miler. A lady drew along side me, wearing unfathomably tiny shorts, and keen to tell me about her sore calves, her sore back, and her blisters, and about how desperate she was for the race to end. “And you?” she enquired. Unsure whether the polite response was one of mutual negativity, I simply offered, “my knickers are chafing a bit.” Solemn silence fell and I looked bashfully at my shoes, wondering if I’d shared too much. She broke the lull as she skipped on, “Well, I'm fine. I don’t wear any anyway.” I vowed to learn from this and offer details of a different sore bit when asked again in future.

Moments later, a head wind and a hill brought me to a near standstill; my hamstrings felt like they were pushing the world backwards under my feet and my hip flexors were having to drag my legs back like heavy sacks to have another go. Maybe the fifty wasn’t such a good idea after all. More messages from those mountains that they got to call the shots, not me. But just as the weariness set in, the sky cleared; the yellow grouse flowers seemed brighter, the sheep seemed happier, and the scenery opened up into the most beautiful yet. These mountains were far kinder than they appeared. So too was the silent, bearded man, who now drove up and down the road alongside us, smiling at us, cracking jokes and offering bottles from the window of his car.

and until we meet again,
may the hills hold you in the palms of their hands.

With less than 10 miles to go, Liz and I regrouped, both having emerged from our own dark places, and we trotted along together sharing hopes, fears, and a packet of ibuprofen. Occasionally, the wind would push so strongly at our backs that it picked us up and forced us to run faster than our aching legs were ready to. We mused over what had been promised at 36 miles - a hill known simply as the “Hell of the West” - and wondered just how bad it could be. A friend who’d run the marathon before had told me it wasn’t so much a big hill as a small mountain; each of the three race distances takes it in so that no-one feels left out and everyone finishes looking mildly stunned by its magnitude. We turned another right and saw a small yet completely exposed mountain pass stretching on for well over a mile in front of us. We marched up, taking the chance to eat the last of our food and trying carefully not to let the howling wind consume our remaining supplies. Some sheep leaning at 45o looked quizzically at us, their fleeces blown sideways into wooly comb-overs; I sensed they had questions for which we simply didn’t have the answers.

Shuffling over the top of the climb, a mile of leg-knotting downhill took us awkwardly yet eagerly to the finish line where we were met by hot soup, chairs, and the congratulations of a dedicated race organiser and his team. Liz and I looked at each other and grinned, stunned that we’d completed nearly 40 miles of brutal yet utterly beautiful running in 7 hours and 20 minutes. Simon finished shortly after with another huge smile. The wind had been at our backs, our fronts, our sides, and had occasionally sent weather straight up to slap us around the face.

Among the first-time Connemara runners like us were a loyal crowd of competitors that return year after year and I considered whether this would be an event I’d run again; while I’m still undecided, what I think keeps people coming back, other than a very well organised event, is the guarantee of a different experience every time, thanks to the unpredictable Irish weather. Would I recommend it? If you want to run a race lined with supporters, swamped in space blankets and goody bags daubed with flashy commercial sponsors then this is unlikely be the race for you; if you want to spend a day humbled by the majesty of Ireland’s scenery and the kindness of strangers, and to run through mountains that hold you in the palm of their hands like the tiny humans we are, then yes, you should definitely do Connemara. May the road rise up to meet you.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

"Can't do" won't do

"She'll never be a rower as long as there's a hole in her backside." This charming sentiment came from a "coach" when I was 17, clearly underwhelmed by my aptitude for the sport. Around the same time, the Head of Chemistry at my sixth form college warned me, "I think you're in over your head", about my university application ambitions. A year later, I rowed for that university in a crew that overturned a 10-year losing streak. Perhaps I was in over my head but I was there and, thankfully, everything was as it should be under my shorts.

My mum jokes that the worst thing anyone can tell me is that I can't do something. Like telling somebody NOT TO TOUCH THE RED BUTTON, I set my mind about proving them wrong: pushing that button, setting the alarms off, regardless of the consequences. Surfer Layne Beachely said, "there are so many people out there who will tell you that you can't. What you've got to do is turn around and say, "watch me"." Until fairly recently, I thought this was all true.

If I had believed those two men in my teens, I would never have met my friend, Acer: a much-missed mate who passed away a year ago today. In the eulogy at his memorial, among the awe-inspiring list of his accomplishments, ran a theme of achievements that many people would have dismissed as impossible: a top first at Oxford, boat race victories, an Olympic medal, marathons and an ironman, repeatedly beating the doctors' prognoses with his indomitable spirit and determination. He was not a man who said "watch me" but a man who said "I can", and his intelligence, talent and dedication normally meant that he did. I'm proud to call Acer a friend, not just for what he achieved in his life, but also for the dignity, humility and wisdom that shone throughout.

For a long time I looked back at what those two men said and thought about how I'd stuck two fingers up to them, like a belligerent underdog at the end of their own Mighty Ducks montage; however, over time, I've started to think differently. I have never seen either of them again; I doubt they would remember what they said let alone who I was, even if I ran up to them pointing at my backside shouting, “Look! It’s still there!” I imagine they wouldn't have thought about the dangerous seeds of doubt that they planted, making me wonder if they were right; luckily for me, the small part of me that believed them was eclipsed by the enormous desire to do it anyway. They said what they said with no understanding of how much I wanted it and I doubt they'd have given another thought as to whether they were right or not. Fortunately, they underestimated more than just my ability.

When they said "can't", it didn't matter a jot if they watched me prove them wrong or not; it does matter a lot that their careless words could have created a very different outcome. Underestimation can be a dangerous game and it's better to avoid it at all costs. If I underestimate the young people I work with, sometimes they overwhelm me with expectations exceeded, but the consequences can be far worse if they believe me. Underestimate the January jogger, out wearing something resembling their pyjamas to run, thinking they'll never last the month, and you might be right; or, give them six months and they might be giving you a run for your money at the local 10K. Underestimate yourself and you run the risk of never finding out quite what you can do. “Never underestimate anyone” is a little reminder I offer myself on a pretty regular basis.

Among my plans for this year, I've entered three races that push me far out of my comfort zone: Connemara Ultra, The Bastion, and Snowdonia Marathon. There is a big fat "can't" looming under every one of the hills on the courses that, some might say, leave me in over my head with questions about the anatomy of my back passage. I don't care if they're watching though; I just have to make sure that the will to achieve my goals is greater than any part of me believing them.

In memory of Acer Nethercott (28 November 1977 – 26 January 2013)

Friday, 3 January 2014

Those health muffins

"Guess what's in them! Guess what's in them! You'll never guess what's in them!"

This fun guessing game was how these muffins were first presented to me as I walked in through the door from work.

"Those health muffins"

They contain a curious ingredient: butternut squash. Yep, that funny looking vegetable you pick up at the supermarket and snigger at. Don't deny it. We all do it. Amazingly, it adds a bit of sweetness and moisture to the mix; a dose of Vitamin A to help you see the potholes on those dark, winter runs; and plenty of dietary fibre to keep your colon moving like a marching band.

The original recipe is this one by Jamie Oliver; with a bit of trial and error, I've replaced the sugar with dried fruit. The spelt flour and milled seed mix gives a nice nutty taste but you could follow the original recipe with 300g of plain flour (or gluten free rice/potato flour). I didn't ice these like Mr Oliver suggests but I think a bit of peanut butter works well instead.

Cake won't make you thin (thank goodness for that) but occasionally it's nice to make something that gives back a bit more than it takes. Known in my household as "those health muffins", the recipe for these cakes took a bit of getting my head around at first: I believe in the principle that if the mix tastes good then the cake will too. In reality, this recipe's healthiness stems mostly from the fact that I have no interest whatsoever in eating this mixture in its ore form - when you make it, you'll see why.

The mixture doesn't rise much so you can afford to be generous when adding it to the tins. If you want to make 12 mega-muffins, you may want to try these tall muffin cases (made from 15cm squares of greaseproof paper shoved into the wells of a muffin tin, or available pre-made and much prettier from Waitrose, I think), unless you fancy cleaning a volcanic muffin eruption from the bottom of your oven. Failing that, I reckon the mix would stretch to 18-24 smaller cakes, baked for slightly less time. Once cooled, the muffins can be frozen, or they'll last a few days in an airtight container (less if you store them in your belly instead).
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