Sunday, 21 April 2013

The 100m rule

Simon informed me that most tourists only venture a maximum distance of 100m from their car or tourist bus when they are sightseeing.

I pondered this fact as we sat on the wooden bench slurping the remains of the flask of tea and gazing at the little cottage and up at the Coire na Tulaich and the route of our aborted attempt at the Buachaille Etive Mor, more of which later.

The little layby behind us at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase seemed to be permanently full of cars but, on closer inspection, not the same cars as people pulled in and jumped out to take a photo and jumped back in often without bothering to switch off the engine.
The next day was windy and rainy in true Lochaber style so I went off on my scheduled 10 mile trail run from the car park at the Aonach mor ski cable car station. I had considered mountaineering redemption and a crack at another peak after yesterdays failure but I really didn’t fancy tackling the same underfoot conditions and this time in the wind and rain. And alone.  And besides, I was knackered.

Climb it? I can't even see it!
When I got back to the car I decided to re-visit Simon’s theory about tourists while I dried off and slurped more tea from a flask. At this point I was feeling vaguely guilty as it was now lashing with rain and Simon was off on an 80 mile cycle ride with friends based on my forecast for the day…mild, overcast, a bit breezy, dry…. bloody BBC Weather.

Maybe this is what dry and overcast means in Lochaber...?
 Anyway back to the theory. There were approximately 25 cars in the car park and a large tourist coach yet in the space of a 10 mile run I didn’t see another soul. Maybe they were all hard as nails mountain bikers and skiers?  Err…No.  In the space of the 20 minutes or so I was in the car quite a few vehicles came and went but only a fraction of these vehicles seemed to contain “weekend warriors”  - mountain bikers, climbers, skiers and the like. Most got out of their vehicles and headed straight in to the café and vice versa. This was not something I had noticed before but now I was fascinated.

I decided I would go to Castle Stalker visitor centre for lunch. This would be a prime spot for some serious tourist watching! Guess what? The view point for the castle was signposted as being 90m from the gate and 100m from the car! And I didn’t think that this was going to be an exact science.

  Like Kisimul Castle in Barra Castle Stalker stands out on a rock in the sea and has an equally long and bloody history. The visitors centre is everything you would expect – Interpretation Boards to be read? Tick. Coffee and Scones to be scoffed at the café? Tick. Limitless quantities of tat to be purchased at the obligatory shop? Tick. I could really get into being a tourist!  I didn’t have to walk more than 100m from the car although as I watched some of the visitors couldn’t even be arsed walking the 90m to the viewpoint and just stopped at the gate much to my amusement. And it wasn’t even raining.
Castle Stalker
 As we sat on that wooden bench in Glencoe we also ruefully pondered our little adventure.

 That morning we had set off, with no little apprehension on my part, up the path which turned from a rocky trek into a steep climb on a frozen snow slope. Both of us were completely ill equipped for this – Kahtoolas are no substitute for the real deal. It was a gorgeous day and despite the number of parked cars it was obvious that no one else had been up the slope that day. Climbing up that slope was seriously hard work and eventually I tentatively suggested that it may be a bad idea but Sherpa Axon was brimming with confidence so up the frozen slope we crawled.

Already deeply unhappy with the situation my fears were not alleviated any by Simon shooting past head first scrabbling frantically with the ice axe trying to arrest his fall while uttering expletives. Shortly afterwards I sat down in the snow and refused to move. This was just a little too far outside my comfort zone.

Simon went on ahead to take a look but after about 5 minutes he returned saying that the terrain got much steeper and although we could probably get up he had no idea what it was like over the other side and anyway, we probably wouldn’t be able to get back down – at least not in the manner we would wish to. I think it would have been a very silly thing to have done and so I have no real regrets about turning back especially when I later found out that other people in Simon’s group of friends had opted out of various hill expeditions that weekend over fears about the difficulty of the conditions.

On the way back down I felt as though I had started to get to grips with the ice axe and started to feel a lot happier and more secure but I was seriously out of practice having missed yet another winter walking season.  The climbing left me pretty achy and tired. I don’t know about the gym, this hill climbing malarkey is the optimum full body work out!

It has got to be said though when I was hanging on the end of the ice axe with my legs shaking partly from fatigue and partly from fear there was maybe a split second or so when venturing less than 100m from the car seemed like a seriously sensible option….

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The gym bunny's guide to the great outdoors

Lunan Bay
For a period of a couple of years I spent many weekends over on the west coast of Scotland on sea kayaking courses and day trips all with the aim of getting my 4* sea kayak award. Award achieved and a move to Aberdeen meant that latterly I had only been out paddling twice in the last 4 years added to which I was increasingly getting painful tendonitis like symptoms in my elbows whilst paddling, especially in challenging weather and sea conditions.

My new years’ resolutions this year had been to do more cycling and more kayaking although the on-going winter weather hasn’t been particularly conducive to either but when I found out that Seafreedom Kayak, the company in Oban who I did my training with, were now running courses on the east coast of Scotland I quickly signed up for the first available course that I could get to – the rough water paddling course. With the benefit of hindsight this may have been a little overly ambitious given my lack of paddling over the last few years.

Prior to this course I had been trying to work out what was causing my painful elbows and came up with a couple of options.
 A) the wrong size and shape of paddle: Having always had to borrow kit this was generally out with my control but if I ever find a paddle that I feel works for me then I will be buying it as soon as! 

B) Poor technique: More practice and coaching required hence my new years’ resolution.

 C) Poor upper body strength: This is where the gym comes in. I have finally started working on my poor upper body and core strength as they are weak as is the case for many runners and so yes, dear reader, after years of making derisory comments about the lycra clad gym bunny brigade I have joined the ranks and am now a fully paid up member.

The signs lining the side of the road to our meeting point at Lunan bay alerting visitors to the danger of rip tides should maybe have given me the first indication that this may not be an easy choice of course. Meeting the instructors, two lovely guys named Ali and Ross, and rest of the group who were all from the same kayaking club in Dundee and who were all chatting happily about all of the kayaking they had done during the winter should possibly have set off another couple of warning bells in my wee brain that i very possibly didnt have the skills for this.

However it was a gorgeous bright sunny day and Lunan Bay is a beautiful venue. I wondered why I hadn’t been there before, long stretches of golden sands, a little village in a cove in the distance, the ruins of a castle perched on a hill and the concrete war defences scattered round indicated that there is a lot more exploring to be done. But I was here for some paddling.

Golden sands

Getting ready

Today we were to be surfing. It’s just like normal surfing except in kayak. The general idea was to practice getting out to sea and coming back to the beach again in rough water and although at 2ft high the waves didn’t look that impressive from the beach when you are sitting at sea level in a kayak they go right over your head. The most successful technique seemed to be to go straight out through them and keep paddling to brace yourself - and keep moving. Once we reached the calmer water it was time to turn and go back to the beach. There was a 50/50 chance that I would get to the beach without some mishap and, making sure my kayak was perpendicular to the following waves, I made it. It wasn’t for the first time, or the last, that day that I would wish my last kayaking trip had been less than 18 months ago as I felt decidedly wobbly and vulnerable in the waves.
Yes, i know the waves dont look THAT big but from where i was sitting they looked HUGE!
The next few times we had to look more closely at our timing as apparently waves travel in “sets” of 6 or 7 big waves and then you get some flatter water between the sets so on the way back in we have to look behind us at the oncoming wave and time our beach approach for when there was flatter water which meant paddling backwards at some points basically to stay still to avoid coinciding hitting the beach with the big waves and then paddle forwards when the flatter water was visible. This bit was fun and developing some form of technique based on timing rather than pure chance felt good.
Pay attention now…this is the science bit….
Next was the tricky bit – on the way back to the beach we had to try and turn back into the waves before reaching the beach so of course you are very vulnerable to capsize when you are sideways on to the waves. I capsized. In my defence so did everyone else including the instructor who executed a perfect recovery roll while I executed the most incompetent exit from a kayak imaginable. Think beach whale floundering in the shallows and you will get the general idea.
Heading out to sea

Turning - trying not to capsize
The borrowed drysuit was too big and didn’t seal at the neck and I have a sneaking suspicion that it was leaking round the ankles too so by the time I set out back to sea to try again I was thoroughly wet added to which my hands had turned to blocks of ice as soon as the first wave had hit them that morning. Even sitting in the sun for a while with a hot drink made no difference, I was shivering uncontrollably. Eventually I decided that I could take the cold no longer and it was with a mixture of relief and disapointment that i retreated to the café for a scone and a cup of tea and to warm up in the sunshine and to wait for that welcome sensation of pain in my hands which means that the feeling is coming back. I think realistically i need to start over my kayak skills courses again and do some heavy investing in my own, non leaky and warm kit which fits. I have tentatively broached the subject of purchasing a kayak of my own which admittedly does present certain logistical problems when you live in a city centre flat. I have a feeling that Simon is ignoring me hoping that i will go off the idea but kayaking is such a fantastic way to explore inaccessible and remote locations and you get a completely different perspective of the land when you are out at sea...assuming, of course, that you haven't capsized and are upside down in the briny.

You can see the attraction of kayaking
I was a bit surprised as ive never really felt the cold that badly before when kayaking and ive been out on the water on colder days but given that 4 days later I am suffering from a stinking cold maybe I was going down with some lurgy or other anyway. 

On the plus side though, my elbows didn’t hurt at all, so maybe the gym bunnies are on to something! 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The concept of luxury and relaxation

And the prize for the best dressed team goes to....

Oh the irony. After running day after day in the Himalayas, sleeping in freezing cold mountain huts, eating rice and suffering from the usual list of physical ailments caused by running long distances in mountains at altitude as well as the inevitable bout of “Delhi Belly” I felt better and more alive and healthier than I ever have in my life. After a festive break spent sitting around doing very little other than shovelling in rich food and drink I felt as lethargic and depressed as I ever imagined I could. 

There’s a lesson there. And an eye opener – If the lectures by Dr Andrew Murray and the seemingly endless flow of news reports and government statistics on the health of the nation are to be believed, sitting around watching TV and shovelling food and drink in is how the general population spend their leisure time.  So Shock! Horror! Despair! I had become a statistic - fat, lazy, inactive and depressed. 

After that you would think I would have been itching to get going again but it didn’t seem to be so. The feeling of lethargy was compounded by resentment as circumstances had conspired to mean the festive break was an opportunity lost to get in a decent level of training, after all I had all day for the duration of that week didn’t I?. But the best laid plans of mice and men….and trotters….. I was feeling decidedly miserable and unmotivated. I thought that the Himalayan race would have given me something to build on but instead I had lost all my fitness, and after all the work I had put in it was bitterly disappointing. My beautiful new mountaineering boots lay untouched and unused in their box and to make matters worse the inactivity, and no doubt the alcohol, had caused us both to become argumentative and tetchy – aaah... the festive time of year at its best….

Oh heck! This is beginning to sound like one of those “my life is so hard and crap” postings that frequently pollute facebook and that take all my self restraint not to reply too.  But yes, for quite I while I was wallowing in a very deep bath of self pity.

Time to snap out of it and try to get back to doing the things I love most so Scolty Hill was tackled on a few occasions as was a slow lurgy ridden attempt at leg 2 of the Devils Burdens relay as a means of getting my running mo-jo back. It was a probably a case of too little too late as the annual Lynx Pack pilgrimage to the Inverness half marathon loomed on the not-so-distant horizon but come race weekend any pre-race apprehension and negativity was dispelled by fantastic pre-race socialising with entertaining friends at John’s sister Joannie’s house and I would even go as far as to say I felt pretty cheerful as I toed the start line. As always the weather was the hot topic of conversation especially as the Saturday was grey wet and windy but race day dawned fine and bright and clear. It didn’t last, 10 miles into the race the heavens opened and by the end of the race many runners were looking decidedly chilled.

Team Lynx Pack

The Guinness Cake - it was St Patricks day after all
Now which one should i have first?
John asks for a wee top up for his hip flask
And the strangest injury of the weekend was caused by...
 Bert wasn’t running due to injury and had positioned himself on the opening straight of the race to get some photos of team Lynx pack in action – then failed to spot any of us. The frantic look on his face as he desperately tried to spot 5 runners out of the 2000 or so running straight at him kept me chuckling for the first couple of miles. 

I sidled up to Mike on the start line thinking that if I could just stick with him I would have a good run but we lost sight of each other within the first mile and I spent the first half of the race convincing myself that he was behind me and catching up and the second half of the race thinking that perhaps he’d got past without me noticing and had scampered away. I enjoyed the course as I always do at Inverness and the conditions weren’t too bad really although it was a bit of a plod and I started to tie up at 7 miles so it was a case of keep working to the finish. All of team Lynx Pack successfully finished although John was complaining of a sore calf muscle.

The MacPherson Dream Team
Geoff ran a pb
John looking focused and determined
Me looking like a drowned rat
It was cold by the time we finished so it was quickly into the car and then back to Joanie’s for showers, soup and whisky. Talk about the definition of luxury. Simple things, huh?.
The best butternut squash soup ever!
 I pondered this concept of luxury and relaxation during the following week. I have long ago realised that my idea of fun and luxury and relaxation are well off the mark of most peoples and I really don’t think I was designed for “normal life”. The race at Newtonmore the following week just reinforced that to me. A 10 mile race in the snow and ice followed by tea and cakes and beer and socialising with friends in a nice warm pub – bliss!. Particularly when followed by a lovely comfy soft warm bed in a lovely hotel with a chilled out and welcoming staff and a chilled out and welcoming bar. 

Again the weather was THE big topic of conversation. This time last year we were sat outside in shirt sleeves but this year the roads were blocked due to snow although the police were opening and closing the roads intermittently during the night most people seemed to make it to the race and Geoff and Ali bravely stuck to their guns and went ahead and held the race when they could have easily taken the wimpy option and cancelled it.

Nice spring time weather...
Predictably the pre-race chat was mainly about the weather and the all important clothing strategy. Some went for the “less is more” tactic and wore vest and shorts but as far as I was concerned “more is more” and I went for a layered approach. Lots of them.  Fortunately the temperature must have been high enough for the lying snow not to have frozen over night making underfoot conditions slushy rather than slidey and so trainers were the ideal footwear. Just as well, as I really didn’t fancy running the 10 miles in fell shoes.

I dont remember it being THAT snowy! (C Innes Sloss)

The race route (C Innes Sloss)

The warm up. It was needed.
The first two or three miles were a little unpleasant mainly because of the biting wind blowing straight in the runners faces and because I really struggled to get my hands to warm up and they were quite painfully cold for about 20 minutes or so. When they did warm up I was able to relax into the race and started to take more of an interest in the competition than I had done the previous week in Inverness. I was 4th at the half way mark but lifted the pace sufficiently to drag myself into 2nd. I must have been concentrating as I failed to spot Innes shouting encouragement and taking photos at the side of the road, although to be fair he was dressed for an ascent of Everest and it was hard to discern who it was hiding under the hood. (Innes so far has the distinction of being the only Lynx pack member who can take a decent race photo!)

Ivor (C Innes Sloss)

Innes. Self portrait.
The post race tea and cakes were as good as ever, just what is needed after a race and there seemed to be a few trotter prizes won as well as the usual extensive selection of spot prizes. I think the trottettes placed second team behind Perth with myself, Jess, Carrie, Becky and Cath making up the team. Simon seemed to be under the misapprehension that this was a purely a cake eating competition and managed to miss the race but miraculously appear just in time for the cakes.

Lovely matching winter woolies.
Numbers at the beer festival in Newtonmore were boosted by HBT having a training weekend there organised by Murray Strain in conjunction with his birthday. The beer festival was a great opportunity to introduce lager drinkers Geoff and Mike to the joys of real ale which was a lost cause despite there being 3 different, and very lovely, real ales on offer to sample. Bert, on the other hand seems quite able to appreciate any form of alcoholic beverage – preferably in substantial quantities, and goodness knows how much Simon had “sampled” by the time I had got there.  Probably the same amount as Robin who was receiving “the look” from Cath, no doubt related to some beer fuelled misdemeanour…

Geoff isn't sure about that one.
Mike isn't sure about ANY of them (while Bert polishes off the left overs)
Meanwhile YP and Carrie are very sure about the beer. Top Trotters!
and Ivor particularly likes that one...
The hangover mile on the Sunday morning was a sobering experience….and I do mean this literally as many of us were over qualified to take part but it is short, brutal and sharp and quickly over and, most importantly, it is followed by a big cooked breakfast. Although it wasn’t snowing, it felt even colder than the previous day or maybe that was purely because I had pretty much fallen out of bed on to the start line and my body was in shock.
It was as much fun as it looks
A small but hardy band of runners

I wanted to borrow Mikes wooly gloves
It was John’s turn to sit out the running this weekend due to the injury he had picked up at Inverness the previous week and so he was team photographer for the hangover mile. He failed to take ANY photos at all but managed to record over an hours video footage of kerb stones, lamp posts, walls, tarmac etc... what is it with Lynx pack runners and inability to take race photos? 

The afternoon’s entertainment was mountain biking. Plan A had been well and truly knocked on the head by the snow as it was to be an epic 35 mile route into the mountains and, not to put too fine a point on it, I was worried that I might die. As it was I did a pretty good imitation of dying on Plan B which was a considerably shorter route around Rothiemurchas forest. The group of eager cyclists signed up for this outing seemed to decrease directly in proportion to how much it had snowed overnight and how much alcohol had been consumed. There were 3 of us who actually set off.

Rothiemurchas Forest
I was very slow on the descents provoking dark mutterings from Simon about “getting hypothermia waiting for you” but I warmed up nicely on the climbs and in the shelter of the trees. Both Simon and I had invested in some flash expensive new winter cycling kit and so I had nice toasty feet and both of us were amazed how Bert had coped in trainers, although he did concede that he should have maybe “worn 2 pairs of socks”. At a stream crossing Simon and I stood and shook our heads in amazement as Bert peddled straight through the icy water giving himself a thorough soaking....then we delicately picked our way over the footbridge.  Aye, there's nowt as strange as folk.

It was beautiful in the forest and in its snowy ghostly silence you could hear every cone drop or branch crack – interspersed with me swearing loudly as I fell off for the umpteenth time. Although at no point had it been bitterly cold the trip to the lovely little warm cafe was a welcome finish to the expedition and felt like luxury (there’s a theme developing here…) and we headed back to Aberdeen with that lovely contented feeling only real relaxation can bring. It had the added bonus of inspiring me to get back training properly, that all was not lost and that it wasn’t too late for me to realise my plans and targets for the coming year (injury permitting) but that I need to be a little bit more focussed and not let silly distractions get in my way and wreck my plans. 

Look how far we cycled!
Snack stop
Lest you think it always involves cold weather the converse can be true – have you ever submerged yourself in a mountain stream on a baking hot day after a run or a walk? Or sat in the sun on a hebridean beach midway through a cycle ride? Again, luxury...and complete relaxation.
Maybe it’s the case that I can only truly relax when I’ve had the adrenaline rush of a good workout first and made myself properly tired, preferably in the company of like minded friends. Maybe its also something puritantical about having to have done something to deserve relaxation. Anyway, whatever it is all I know the happy and relaxed endorphins don't kick in unless i've pretty well trashed myself with a good work out. Sad, huh?

But, like I say, I’m not cut out for normal everyday life, although from various things I’ve seen doing the rounds on facebook such as the picture below I suspect maybe I’m not the only one.

C Shamelessly borrowed from facebook
And as for next years festive period? –  You’ll find me up a mountain somewhere!