Sunday, 21 December 2014

Winter Solstice

Here’s the science part - At the Winter Solstice the Earth’s axis tilts the furthest away from the sun at 23 and a half degrees, meaning that countries north of the equator see little daylight with the 21st of December being recognised as the shortest day. Apparently the sun rose today in Aberdeen at 8.46am and set at 3.27pm. The actual Solstice itself is the moment that the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun which can actually either fall on the 21st or the 22nd of December. This year it falls on the 21st December at 11.03pm in Aberdeen. I believe next year it will fall on the 22nd.

And here’s the mystical part – Since the beginning this time of year has been celebrated by people as a time of the rebirth of the sun heralding the approach of spring, the world resting under a blanket of ice and snow. At this time of year where there is little daylight many of my runs are done by the light of a torch and in the last month I have run through bitter icy still nights and spotted shooting stars, mild windy nights and frightened myself senseless listening to the eerie creaking of tree branches and owls hooting overhead and then finally, on Friday night, some real winter conditions, bitterly cold, hard packed snow and ice and a freezing wind that threatened at times to knock me off my feet. All this done by the light of a torch. There really is something quite life affirming about it, running in the dark all of your senses are heightened, you are truly aware of every creak of a tree branch and every pair of eyes glowing in the undergrowth. 

The Winter Solstice was celebrated in ancient times
What better way to celebrate the Winter Solstice than running up a mountain? What could be more life affirming than that? When we got to the car park at the foot of Morven, the ghostly white outline of the mountain stood clear against a not-quite black sky with every star visible above. It was chilly hanging around and chatting while folk arrived and got ready but nothing compared to the wind whipping up the snow further up on the ridge. The natural world really was setting the rules tonight.
After a quick head count we set off, a wobbly line of torch light heading up the mountain although Simon who was watching from the “base camp” car park did say at the start it looked as though we were all lost as torches were all going in different directions. 

Torches on the hill
Setting off...
Into the snow...
 The first moment that your foot breaks through the ice into the cold water below is always a heart stopping moment but at the foot of the hill conditions were really quite benign, further up it became very slow going over the icy rocks and deep hard packed snow. I found someone bigger, taller and heavier than me to follow and just stepped where he had made foot prints which made things a whole lot easier. 
It got quite windy with snow blowing through
 Simon, clearly with little faith in my ability to run up and down a mountain in the depths of a Midwinter night without coming to grief, decided he would accompany me to the run….and slept in the car while I was out on the hill. I too had little faith in my ability that night and was very glad to get back to the car with Kirsty while some of the others went on. My ability to pack sensible winter kit seemed to have deserted me. I think I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by how mild it has been and by just not getting out into the hills enough. I was very cold.

Head torches on, ready to go.
I asked him what normal people did on Friday nights...
Recovery and warming up took place at Margaret and Steve’s house in Torphins where a fantastic meal had been laid on along with fruit punch and chocolate cake and I even started feeling a bit more festive. Amazing what a wee adventure with like minded folk can do for your state of mind! 

Many of the aspects of modern Christmas finds its route in the pagan custom of Yule and celebration of the winter solstice such as mistletoe and the yule log although back then the tree and the yule log were for burning rather than putting in your house (cave?) and decorating. The celebration of the birth of Christ has well and truly hi-jacked any other form of winter celebration and it in turn has been hi-jacked by the gods of John Lewis, M&S and Peter shopping at Lidls.

Well it had to happen, all that Christmas procrastination had to come to an end, and it was time to throw myself at the feet of these gods of commercialism and they were not merciful. It didn’t start well, as soon as I stepped inside a store I was blasted with the melodic sound of Cliff Richard which I took to be payback for tormenting Peter Buchanan about Xmas songs last week. After a couple of hours and more than enough of Cliff and Co warbling I ended up with a few presents in my shopping bag. I really haven’t cracked this shopping malarkey and, fighting rising claustrophobia, I bolted for the door and had to go for a Belgian chocolate waffle and a 10 mile run to recover. Looking on the bright side it was a more successful shopping trip than a memorable one a few years ago when I got lost in a department store and had to ask the security guard to show me the way out. I suppose on reflection Simon was maybe right to have doubts about my navigational abilities.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Xmas Procrastination Part 2

Autumn colours in Glen Tanar

Last weekend I found a relay race to enter. Perfect. And it was in Glen Tanar. Even more perfect. Another reason not to go Xmas shopping. Perfect! Perfect! Perfect! Just a fun relay race organised by Dave Hirst of Deeside Runners who kindly invited runners from other clubs to make up the teams and it had a format that I have come to really like – turn up, no entry fee, run, no prizes and that is very refreshing given the quite expensive entry fees to many events these days. One of the  highlights of the day of course was the huge post race lunch at Aboyne bowling club where everyone had contributed some food and needless to say there was far too much, it was mince pies as far as the eye could see.
The Chapel
When I first emailed Dave to register my interest in running he sent me the leg 1 map (short leg, 3 (ish)miles) the leg 2 map (the medium leg at 4 (ish) miles) and the leg 3 map (Long. With a Hill) Dave had divided us into teams of almost equal ability, the idea being that all the teams finished close together. I noticed from the team listing that Simon had been put on leg 1 and I was on leg 2 for a different team so I handed Simon his leg 1 map and off he went to warm up and recce the route. 5 minutes before the start it became apparent that the plan had indeed changed and Simon's face was a picture as I ripped the map from his hands and replaced it with the 3rd leg map which was now, in fact, the first leg map. He was doing the long hilly leg. At least it didn’t give him time to worry about it as the runners were lining up next to the gorgeous old bridge in Glen Tanar waiting for the off.
And they're off!
Leg 1 runners head off into the distance
It wasn’t particularly cold waiting for the first leg runners to come back which was fortunate as I had no idea how quickly my first leg runner would be, a lovely lady named Sally. Luckily for me she was very fast and so I set off along the path past the chapel in Glen Tanar. I met Simon on his way back and stayed as far to the other side of the path as I felt safe as he didn’t look like he was smiling... Once I started climbing up through the woods I assumed that all the first leg runners were in so I was most surprised to see Bob Sheridan run past in the other direction and he was most definitely not smiling. It later transpired that he had gone the opposite direction to the way the arrow was pointing and had got lost. Oh well, at least he got more running for his entry fee….
Bob at Race HQ
Leg 2 route
Leg 2 elevation
My legs felt sluggish on the way up the hill which Simon put down to the half marathon the previous weekend and that was a bit of a shame as I couldn’t take advantage of the position that Sally’s great run and put the team in. Two runners came past me quite early on in the run and the stiff chilly breeze was noticeable as I climbed however  I warmed up during the climb and chased down another runner…only to have another runner go past me. From the turn it was all downhill (after a quick glance at the beautiful view and sigh that I didn’t have a camera with me) and easy running on wide forest tracks, my legs started to feel better and I enjoyed the descent and happily nobody else passed me. I’m not sure it was one of my best runs for my composite Cosmic Hillbasher/HBT/Deeside Runners team but I handed over to the third leg runner not in last place.
Leg 1 finish
Leg 2 finish
Pauline having way too much fun!
By now Simon was changed and eating biscuits so seemed happy, or at least unlikely to kill me, and regaled me with stories of his arduous adventure. Anyone would think he'd just ascended the Matterhorn, such a drama queen. I pointed out to him that at least the race had got him out of doing Xmas shopping to which he informed me that he had done his. Meh! If that's not one-upmanship I don't know what is...

Friday, 12 December 2014

Xmas Procrastination Part 1

At the start in Balerno

The water of Leith race was started as a self-help group for those of us in need of psychological help to get over the withdrawal symptoms of the Heb Half marathons being over for another year. The cure of course being that we run another half marathon. We poor Heb Half runners suffer particularly badly after the final half marathon of the series with the awful realisation that it will be a full year before it all kicks off again, hence the Harris half marathon, the final race in the series, is always bitter-sweet. 

The Water of Leith race embodies the good old Heb Half ethos of simplicity - a half marathon on a scenic course with good friends followed by lots of pints and, being held the last weekend of November, it is an excellent way of delaying the start of any Christmas related activities. If the truth be known it is the first day of many in the coming month where I look for a way of trying to escape it all. Don’t get me wrong, there are some aspects of Christmas that I quite like, winter races for example, and I’m quite partial to a mince pie and mug of Gluhwein at the German market but that’s just about where it ends and running is the perfect avoidance tactic for avoiding doing any Christmas shopping whatsoever. There are now plenty of running related articles and books floating about saying how humans were made to run, Chris McDougall’s best selling “Born to Run” is one example, and that it’s an inbuilt primitive ability that we have. I beg to differ and respectively suggest that the hideous American import known as “Black Friday” which signals the start of the Xmas shopping season is actually about as primitive as you can get….but then I am as likely to be queuing up at 5am for the boxing day sales as I am going to win the London marathon so I guess I will never understand. Nevertheless it still depresses me greatly and reinforces my determination not to get caught up in it all.
I based my estimated time for the race on my times for a half marathon 6 months ago which, in hindsight may have been a mistake as it handicapped me out of sight but on the plus side I got to line up alongside Simon and watched with amusement as he shot off down the hill like a scalded cat glancing nervously behind after every 5 strides. I felt a bit low for the first 3 or 4 miles, tired from a few rubbish weeks at work (and when I say rubbish I mean RUBBISH) and the onset of Christmas which, as you may have gathered by now, is not my favourite time of year. A lot of runners seemed to be passing me and I was passing no one, still I consoled myself with the thought that no matter how slowly I was moving at least I was avoiding Xmas shopping and that cheered me up considerably. In fact it gave me something to relish. The earliest starters had set off at 9.30 and our handicap meant we didn’t get going until 10.22 and so I was a good 4 miles into the run before I caught up with anyone. However the unseasonably warm conditions suited me and by the time I got to the 5 mile mark I started to enjoy myself, taking in the scenery and autumn colours and stopped wallowing in self pity. I have promised myself that one day I will do this race route as a training run or on the bike and take photos along the way as it is very scenic and if it wasn’t for the road crossings it would be easy to forgot that you are running through the centre of a city. 
The race route
and it's all downhill...well who knew..
The race itself was pretty peaceful and for long stretches I seemed to be running alone without anyone else in sight, drifting along in my own dream world, probably exactly what I needed to do that weekend if the truth be told but really I should stop doing that and pay more attention as one day I’m going to end up taking an unintentional swim. By now I had no concept of who was in front or behind me and how far away they were and I ran along quite happily until during the last mile it dawned on me that Robin Livingstone had not passed me and if that is not an incentive to pick up the pace I don’t know what is. Good thing I did too as by the time I had turned into the finish straight he was closing in fast.
Holding off Robin...just!
The post race soup, tea and cakes supplied by Eric and Lynda were as good as ever and then it was off to the pub for the prize giving and real ale.
Real Ale
Jim Bruce presenting the prizes
As we all know the pub is where many a genius idea (and “it seemed like a good idea at the time” idea) have been hatched so needless to say out came the maps and plans for next year’s adventures, the latest seems to be some sort of cross Scotland triathlon but maybe that’s just the beer talking but whatever it is - Bring it on!
Making plans for 2015...
Thanks very much to Peter and team Porty for their superb organisation of this fantastic race. I’m particularly grateful for being able to spend the day running rather than Xmas shopping. And everyone is getting amazon vouchers for Xmas this year. Bah humbug. Never mind, only 5 ½ months to go until the Stornoway half marathon…

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Eskimo Rolling

Paddling in a pond
The weekend started in a pond. Considering my last paddling outing before this was around the dramatic islands of St Kilda this was quite a contrast. Still, it was a nice pond, complete with ducks, and these were manoeuvrable little kayaks that could whizz around the pond and turn on a sixpence which was great fun (although a tad traumatic for the ducks) It was kind of like a game of dodgems on water as we tried to avoid crashing into each other. Although at times the stiff breeze propelled us from one end of the pond to the other on its own we were able to practice lots of kayaking skills without fear of being knocked over by a big wave. Number one skill being whenever wearing a fancy new dry suit always make sure the zip is done up, eh Simon?

Next we moved indoors for the afternoon pool session where the real fun began.
The kayak rolling pool
 After the St Kilda trip we had both decided that we really should make the effort to do some proper kayak skills training, in particular rescue skills and learning to roll a kayak so that we were less of a liability to ourselves and others. I have done some rescue training in the past but could really do with a few refresher courses and despite spending a not inconsiderable amount of time in both the sea and various pool sessions I felt I’d never got close to mastering a roll convincingly.
Rolling a kayak is much trickier than it looks which is why I signed the pair of us up for this course in kayak rolling. It is very difficult to work out the not-quite-mirror-image-but-upside down movement and damn near impossible to practice it in any other scenario. There is something quite counter intuitive about it. I actually quite enjoyed the hanging upside down aspect of practicing a roll. It’s incredibly peaceful underwater, very therapeutic. I wish I could develop a set of gills. Good job I enjoyed it as I was doing it rather a lot over the 2 days. 
Upside down
 The sequence of moves that required to be mastered seemed to be as follows: Put the paddle on the water alongside you parallel to the kayak and roll over in that direction. Once upside down flip your paddle up and down to ensure that it is above the water (this takes practice as you can’t actually see where your paddle is) sweep the paddle round, bring your knee up, flick your hips sideways, keep your head low and…hey presto… Well that’s how it’s supposed to happen but generally it simply resulted in a lot of flailing arms, waving paddles and gasping for breath desperately before the instructor turned you the right way up. 
Upside down again
 Simon (type A personality, competitive, good at everything, you know the sort) didn’t take well to not perfecting the role immediately. I doubt somehow that many people do which is precisely why these “intensive kayak rolling clinics” exist but that was of no consolation. At one point he stayed under water for so long he turned blue and had to be hauled out and semi resuscitated before threatening to get out of the pool much to the bemusement of the others on the course. I pride myself that I can spit the dummy some distance on the rare occasion when I am suitably annoyed but in reality I am a mere amateur…
Simon was delighted that I signed him up for this course...
 The main difficulty I had was that while everyone else seemed to be wearing a swimming costume or single wetsuit, I was wearing thermal top and trousers, wetsuit, cagoule and at times a buoyancy aid and I was the one shivering and having to disappear into the sauna to warm up. And this was in a swimming pool. A heated swimming pool.
and upside down again....
 The group was comprised of 6 people who had varying degrees of success over the course of the weekend. Tony was the only one of us who could really say he “got it” and convincingly pulled off a series of rolls. Four of us, myself and Simon included managed something with a semblance of a roll and the sixth person gave up and got out. I get the impression that Simon’s roll was more skillful than mine but to be fair mine was all a bit of a blur really. I suppose I can say that I can now master at least 270 degrees of an Eskimo roll convincingly with the last 90 degrees a bit hit and miss. Success of sorts, although at this stage I would be reluctant to put it to the test in, say, the middle of the North Sea…
Back on dry land and running through the forest