Paragliding in Switzerland

With a real appreciation of the risks involved in paragliding I wanted to make sure I found what I considered to be the best place to learn. There is nothing wrong with slow and steady that I could achieve in the UK and it would definitely keep building up my knowledge bit by bit. But you can’t beat an intense period of learning to really boost it. So the prospect of a week somewhere paragliding about the place was all too appealing. After sifting through forums, websites and any other tips i could find I came across Verbier Summits. Run by Mike and Stu who are twins their soul moto is to be the best and safest paragliding school in the world came across as the winner. As the name suggests they are based in Verbier in the Alps of Switzerland. The fact that I would be surrounded by beautiful mountains, swiss/ french food and being outdoors all day was an added bonus.

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I booked last minute and soon found myself on route to Switzerland. Despite a delayed flight by quite a few hours, resulting in me having to hire a rental car that I wasn’t expecting to in order to get up the mountain, I finally ended up at the chalet for the week in the very early hours of the morning. The benefit of this was I was running ridiculously late for my flight so despite the added inconvenience it meant I made my flight. I woke slightly groggy from the few hours of sleep i got to the sight of mountains all around. A quick breakfast and a boat load of coffee before hitting the classroom. We went through the agenda for the week. There was definitely going to be one day at least in the classroom as well as at the end or morning of somedays but the aim was to get us to be qualified to the club pilot level by the end of the week. There was a completely mixed group from beginners to experience paraglider's/ skydiver's and everything in between. 

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Taking the drive up to the gondola we pilled our paraglider into the cabin before diving into the gondola in front. Paraglider packs are not the smallest and it only took a few of them to fill a cabin. Arriving at the launch pad and it was an incredible sight. The views from high above the valley were incredible and we weren’t even flying at this point. They took us through the safety briefing again. Pointing out the various landmarks and ultimately the field we would be landing in. The difference between looking down on the Isle of Wight vs Verbier was equally daunting. 

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Setting up just the same as previously and then it was time to make my first flight. I was given the signal as the breeze began to run up the hillside. Our wind marker fluttering in the wind. I ran down the hillside. Feeling the wing rising above me and beginning to pull me from the hillside.  Soon enough my feet were off the ground and i was flying out into the valley. I was also looking down several 1000 ft. The different conditions felt a bit bumpier initially than what I had previously experienced back in the UK but as I looked down on Verbier it was an incredible feeling. We were directed on the radios, initially this was very regular communication as they watched us all the way into the landing area but as the week progressed it became more about us feeling the glide. To pass we had to show a certain amount of competence from take off through to landing.

The final part of each flight being lining up the landing, as we approached had to consider the direction, speed and height as we came in. Observing the bright orange wind sock showing us the direction of the wind. I did of course have some nerves on each flight but as we progressed and I felt more confident these relaxed a little. As the week went on we managed 3 - 4 flights a day each being 30 mins or so and as we progressed they incorporated exercises into each of them. Building up our skills along the journey. I really enjoyed the experience of learning the new skills each day and you could see and feel the progression through the week. Towards the end we were making solo flights with a lot less input, they were obviously watching and making sure we didn’t do anything stupid but it still felt like we had a lot more within our control. We could start making journeys across the valley, making sure we avoided the other pilots as well as playing a bit of follow the leader. 

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It was certainly sad to see the end come to the week but it had been an incredible experience. I would highly recommend Verbier Summits as a paragliding school and certainly hope to join them in the future.  We all qualified as club pilots, which sounds a lot more qualified than it really is. It is merely a small step in a much longer journey of learning about paragliding. If you fancy giving it a go why not check these guys out, high adventure on the isle of wight or there is always the BHPA (British hangliding and paragliding association) where you can search for an instructor near you.  

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Paragliding in the UK

I have been debating whether or not to write about paragliding for a while. Partly because it has now been a couple of years ago since I did it. But, more importantly, by far, is I unfortunately had a family member who was killed during a sky dive and a few friends who have been injured paragliding. So making the decision to have a go is filled with so many thoughts, questions and concerns mixed in with the excitement of trying something that I have watched for years.

Going back to 2008 I got my first taste of paragliding. I was out in Argentina on a ski trip where we heard of someone offering paragliding tandem jumps. It was near my birthday and I jumped at the opportunity. There wasn't a huge amount of lift that day so it was a fairly short flight but nonetheless it sparked an idea to try it again one day.

Fast forward to 2015 and I had my chance. Whilst on Baffin Island I had been listening to a audio book called Hanging in There by Jon Chambers. It's quite a niche subject but despite not knowing much about paragliding I enjoyed it as it helped pass the time away. It was interesting hearing about how they pushed the limits of technical skill and ability during the competition as well as inspiring me to have another go at the sport of paragliding. 

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Once back in the UK from Canada I had a look round and came across High Adventure Paragliding on the Isle of Wight. Finding a route over from Southampton was easy enough and I made my first journey over to the Island. Jumping on the ferry from Lymington to Yarmouth. I sat on the top deck in the glorious sunshine as it pulled away into the channel not far from Christchurch where I had previously practised ocean rowing. I met up with Pad the instructor where he went over how we would progress and an introduction to paragliding. Outside the office sat a swing setup like a paraglider without the wing where we could go over some of the basics before we headed out to the hill. 

Chilling in the Sunshine on the Top deck

Chilling in the Sunshine on the Top deck

 

Pad took the time to show me how to setup the wing as we laid it out for the first time in a small valley looking out onto the sea. I could see in the distance small white horses gleaming in the sunshine.The sea breeze channelled up this small gorge providing the lift for us to play on. He talked me through it bit by bit before showing me the first short flight of him lifting and dropping down safely. The main point being to concentrate on each section of the journey and breaking it down into shorter sections. The first bit being the take off. Wing primed it was a case of waiting for the right breeze before running down the hill. Bit by bit the wing would rise above before it felt like you couldn’t run downhill as it started to lift me from the hillside. Focussing on the direction I wanted to go i ran harder, i probably looked like some odd bird desperately trying to take off in a completely ungraceful manner. I was finally up and enjoying my short and sweet flight back down to the grassy slope beneath me as I was directed on the radio.

Paragliding swing

Paragliding swing

 

The day was spent making longer and longer walks up the hill, setting up under the supervision of Pad before waiting for his signal and taking off for a small hop down the field. The feeling each time was incredible with that small piece of weightlessness cruising  down the field and landing. It is of course a big learning curve and I was trying to absorb as much as I could with the terminology and new technique. In the midst of all this I even forgot to about lunch which soon passed me by.

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As conditions became stronger into the early evening it was time to call it a day. We finished up with a tandem ride. Taking off near one of the cliffs we cruised backwards and forwards on the sea breeze. It gave me a true feel for what it would be like to be able to paraglide by myself with nothing but the wind on my face. I even got a go at steering us along the cliff line. 

We made our final top landing on the cliff before packing up. We made our way back to the ferry and I was excited about my next time already. 

 

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With me being a beginner and it being Britain that next flyable day took a bit longer than expected. But soon enough I was on day 2. This time from a slightly different location and a bit of a longer path to fly. I got to practise some reverse launches. This is where you get your paraglide to form a bank in front of you further up the slope as you fill each of the pockets. Once ready and with the wind at the right level towards you I would pull the paraglider up where it would ideally slowly rise above me before I would smoothly turn around and run down the slope. After I got the knack of remembering which way to turn around, the lines at this point are twisted over one another, I quite liked this method. It was a lot more visual and i felt you could see what was happening through each stage. 

Came across an adventurous Renault Clio

Came across an adventurous Renault Clio

Again a lot of the day was spent marching up and down the hill. Each landing meant the packing up of the wing before quick marching back up the hill for the next round. Not wanting to miss out on potential flying time I marched up and down as much as I could. By the end of the day there was a bit more flying to do and a written test to complete the first stage. I managed a couple of more days in the UK each time heading higher up the hill side and getting more valuable air time.

At this stage though I got the opportunity for a week of intense paragliding.

Windiest Place on Earth

Mount Washington The chance to ski on the windiest place on earth. Why wouldn’t I turn that option down.

Not long after moving to the North east I found out about an organisation called the Appalachian mountain club who were organising a ski tour up the Cog railway on mount Washington. Situated in an incredible area known as the white mountains in New Hampshire. Mount Washington I quickly discovered once had (only relatively recently beaten into second place) the highest recorded surface wind speed outside of a tropical storm coming in at 231mph.

It isn’t the closest ski area but with the warmer than usual temperatures in the north east it was always going to be about travelling further north to get the best snow possible. Unlike the previous weekend, the temperatures had certainly begun to cool down. As I started to make the drive north the weather began to change and by the end of the night it was snowing. I was seriously looking forward to getting out the car after a fairly brutal 7 hour drive after a full days work. As much as I wanted the snow I didn’t really fancy the slowing down of the journey.

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Arriving at the lodge I crashed out as soon as I hit the mattress, it didn’t feel like many hours later than the first people began to stir, all trying to get the best conditions for the day. Munching a quick breakfast all washed down with large mugs of coffee, I made my way to the meeting point. Now despite it once having the highest recorded wind speed on earth there is still a railway to the summit along with an access road. Our plan was to follow the train tracks up the mountain and once out of the tree line see what the conditions were like. Summiting was highly unlikely with forecasts of high winds and a thick layer of cloud covering it.

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I had enjoyed the ski mountaineering racing but this was a completely different experience again. The pace obviously much more sedate with the emphasis being on efficiency and trying not to sweat. Compared to my race strategy of trying to go as fast and efficiently as possible. Which was more of a brute strength and endurance exercise. And certainly less care for the amount of sweating going on. It was however a lot colder, hovering around the -5 to -15F , a balmy -20 to -26C and the  wind chill on top. Despite this it still felt quite warm as we meandered up hill surrounded by trees which looked incredible. Like frozen statues dotted all the way up the mountain side. Pausing occasionally to have a drink and admire the views behind and in front of us, despite the large bank of clouds hiding the summit. It wasn’t the blue bird day we had all hoped for but still fantastic being out on the mountain.

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Arriving at the first split point and we soon bundled up as the temperature plummeted. We had come out of the trees and the wind now had us in its sights. The rail line had clearly taken the full force of this onslaught for quite a while as its frozen structure looked like something from another planet. Not even in the arctic had I seen buildings covered in ice to this extent.

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A few of us opted to continue slightly further up the mountainside. It is safe to say we needn’t have bothered. All that proceed was some skating around on an icy surface of wind stripped mountainside. We tried to get purchase on what little friction we could get but despite this effort we hardly made it any further up for a lot more huffing and puffing. With the wind battering our faces and bodies it was only sensible to head back down. There was no chance of a summit today and the possibility of some better powder round the corner was never going to happen without some more hardware of ice axes and crampons. Even then we were not convinced there would be any great powder.

It was a quick turn around to get out the wind. I say quick but the ice and strong winds made it tough work wrapping up our ski skins to get them put away. Its like trying to roll loose duck tape up in a strong gale into a neat organised bundle.

And then the bit we had built up for, the ski down. Despite the odd patch of ice there were some great stretches of powder. The three of us who had tried to go a bit higher made the most of the descent getting in as many tight wee turns to float on the powder. In the hunt for some I managed to find a fairly lightly covered rock. Skiing over it I stopped almost instantly, trying to recover my balance from the forward momentum only to finally pop out of my bindings. Unfortunately one of the guys saw the whole thing unfold in a particularly slow and  inelegant fashion.

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We made it down to the bottom and back to the lodge for a well deserved hot shower and drink.

The next day I headed up to the in famous tuckermanns ravine. You can check out a couple of pro skiers hitting this on the link below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM7YknhIKeU

It isn’t recommended generally to ski it until later in the season but whilst in the area I at least wanted to have a peek at what it was all about. I followed the trail up which is incredibly well marked. Past people snow shoeing up and a number of groups up for the weekend as part of a nearby ice festival learning about avalanche rescue techniques. The wind certainly felt less strong and it was definitely a warmer day than the previous one. Snow occasionally fell from the trees. It was a pretty magical sight.

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Slowly but surely the ravine revealed itself. Each glimpse between the trees showing a bit more until I came round the corner and caught sight of the whole area. With clear views of the summit of mount washington in the background. There in front the huge tuckermanns ravine and the steepest ski descents in the north east, or at least one of the better known ones.

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Arriving at a small cabin and there were groups continuing up as part of their avalanche course as well as some skiers who despite the now windy conditions had opted to try a few routes. It looked pretty incredible and in places pretty intimidating even from a distance. I headed on up the mountain as I wanted to see the full face of it. Some of the slopes are up at 40 - 50 degree range. The wind had certainly picked up though and I was now taking a bit of a beating even if it was warmer than the previous day. Arriving at the bottom of tuckermanns and I could finally take it it. I definitely want to return to the slopes here and take on some of these descents.

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Heading back down the mountain and my legs could finally enjoy a bit of a down hill ski. After trekking up it made for a nice change. Despite this I still had to walk a few bits at the top due to not being able to find a decent route to ski down as well as the path I walked up being really quite tight between rocks, trees and a small stream that with the warmer conditions wasn’t completely covered in snow.

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I soon found myself down the bottom  of the mountain just in time to munch a load of food in the car and before the return journey back down south to new jersey.

An Atlantic Rowers thank you

About this time last year I was arriving a head of my Atlantic row. The festive period had been an incredibly exciting period, in some respects quite a tense one with final preparations and certainly a time to gorge on those extra calories. I thought the timing was right to thank my sponsors, friends, family and work colleagues for all their support as I opted to spend my time training, eating and sleeping on top of my day job impacted on you. The Team Has Landed

When you make a serious choice in your life I don't think you can ever comprehend the effects it has on those around you. I think what really brought it home was first seeing my Dad in Barbados, then Mum and brother who were unable to make it out to the finish and the relief that they had for our safe crossing.

So thanks goes to Binn Skips who have supported me on a couple of challenges now. Skye Skyns who provide the softest and most comfortable sheep skins I have ever felt, we sat on them and it made the journey all the more comfortable. Cameras underwater who provide an amazing camera case that allowed me to take my camera underwater and take some incredible pictures! Patra kindly gave me some silk underwear which despite the harsh conditions held up very well and were very comfortable.

A sunny Dover coastal rowing experience

Numerous people helped me train and prepare for the event Fulontri with their numerous quality training sessions. Rin Cobb from Pnd Comsulting on my nutrition and managed to help me gain the necessary weight in time. Phil Barratt from Physique Body works for regular holistic sports massages. Simon James and Heal physios of Dundee also seriously helped with both my pre-race preparation and post race recovery. Roger Gould from extreme rowing challenges for his advice and enabling me to get some rowing practise including rowing behind the Olympic torch. Dover rowing club enabled me to gain some valuable coastal rowing experience as well as rowing from Gravesend to Richmond with them.

Rowing with the Olympic Torch

River views on our row from Gravesend to Richmond

Finally the Ocean Row Events support team and most importantly Leven, Livar, Tim, Calum, Pete, James and Jan who made for a thoroughly memorable adventure. If you are interested in and ocean row I would highly recommend checking out Ocean Row Events!

Arrived safe and sound

There are many others who inspired, helped and kept me going whilst out there. Maybe if the book deals ever comes about then they can be additions to that...

The main thing is I may have been out there in the middle of the ocean but to reach that point there was a much longer journey that involved far more people than just myself. Regardless of what they are exactly without you all life's challenges and adventures are not possible. So whatever your next challenge remember those who help with the journey in whatever way that might be.

Extreme Dieting: Ocean Rowing

Last year saw me write about my experiences of following a nutritional plan after meeting up with Rin from PND consulting (http://www.pndconsulting.co.uk/) to get me up to the recommended weight to row an ocean. Not only has she worked as a dietician for a number of years but she has also put it into practise completing expeditions and multi-day races around the globe from the arctic to the desert. This I believed gave her great insight into what was required before I set off on my row as well as how I would go about hitting my targets. It had been a challenge to hit these targets initially as the amount of exercise I was doing was burning a huge amount off. Something that I hadn’t talked about previously was how this process makes you feel incredibly hungry every couple hours and then very stuffed following gorging on far too much food and then just sitting in front of a computer. Now I could have spread the eating across more meals than just the main three and some “small” snacks. Ideally I would have but just convenience wise having maybe five to six smaller meals through a day would have felt like I never stopped eating. I’m also not sure that work colleagues would have appreciated the constant crumbs and debris round my desk following trying to cram as much in as quickly as possible as I tried to complete whatever needed doing between each meal.

Those last few calories
Those last few calories

Towards the end of the year this did mean eating everything in sight to the point where we went round to friend’s houses and they would insist on third helpings or more. Seconds had become the norm by this stage. Importantly however I was making good progress in this final big push to hit the magic 95kg. It’s safe to say between the Christmas celebrations and then the pre-row time in Gran Canaria that this magic number was easily surpassed. One family member saw a picture of me and described it to me when I got back “I didn’t recognise you in the picture, you looked..... chubby”. This had always been the plan with Rin to strike the right balance between lean muscle and some useful fat supplies. I may have taken the supplies side slightly too far but it did make for a very enjoyable Christmas.

The "chubby" start
The "chubby" start

So over the row we joked initially that we were not losing weight as we went across. We had 6000 calories to eat per day and were not generally managing to eat all of these despite eating at all times of the day. I had a reputation for cooking up regardless of the time so super noodles in soup at 2am became pretty normal. However soon we could all notice that the weight was beginning to be shed and pretty rapidly at that. Physically we had all changed shape quite drastically over a short period of time. In particular our legs which had begun to lose their size quite a lot, mine ended up looking like a long distance runner’s legs; skinny, lean and sinewy.

By the end of the trip I had lost around 15 – 17kg in 35 days, a huge amount given it had taken the best part of a year to gain that weight. My kilt had not fitted so well since it had been bought although this didn’t last long. Being given steak at 4am when we arrived washed down with a couple of cold ones was all that was required for our bodies to kick into overdrive and to start eating up everything in sight a bit like Labradors for anyone that has had one. Within weeks most of us had wee pop bellies; I think we all put this down to our bodies still maintaining that we needed 6000 calories a day. Or it could have been that it was amazing to taste everything that we hadn’t done for a month at sea and were just making up for lost time.

The weight loss in progress
The weight loss in progress

Overall the plan we had put in place with the amount of weight gain had worked a treat as throughout the trip I didn’t dip too far below the weight I seem to naturally sit at. This I think means that I could continue to perform despite the weight lose. Although I have wondered what if I had stayed quite lean whether the weight loss would have been as extreme, I just couldn’t afford to risk reaching part way across and finding that I was becoming weaker and too skinny.

James with his minimal 7kg weight loss
James with his minimal 7kg weight loss

If you have stories of extreme diets to increase or drop your weight then would be great to hear. If you want advice on achieving your weight or dietary goals and particularly if your preparing for an event or expedition I would definitely suggest checking out Rins website and getting in contact with her.

http://www.pndconsulting.co.uk/

The Final Stretch

Its taken a wee bit longer to get onto the computer to write this up but I'm now finally getting round to it. Hopefully this will be a bit of a rolling start for the others. Our speeds towards the end of the 4th week had begun to slow, partly due to the conditions but I think also due to the fact that the aim of being sub 30 or even 32 days for the world record had well and truly slipped away. Mentally it was a turning point we had to pull together or face the consequences and end up taking a lot longer than planned, this would also involve rationing our food as well as our water. This was not a pleasant thought for any of us. As a crew we certainly rallied and pulled together constantly monitoring our speed, course and checking on one another.

I think that despite all the challenges we had faced this last push was potentially the toughest mentally of all of the trip. We knew what speed we needed more than ever and so when we weren't hitting this you could see our finishing time slipping all the more than when we had time to play with and thinking that we could claw it back with a better session. To help this I tried envisaging the route I drive from London to Scotland. Despite doing this a number of times I didn't get very far as I never really took in landmarks every hour or so effectively our daily mileage on the boat 80 - 100 miles. Was worth a try...

It was also the time that the lack of a daggerboard began to have its effect on our bodies, or at least that is what I believe to be part of the reason. My bottom was not in a happy place, it dreamed of a bean bags and huge soft fluffy cushions instead it got a well used rowing seat. Despite them being fantastic for the main portion of the journey they had now lost any padding they once had. One very tired and frustrating session I turned to Jan and pointed out the fact that it was a big design fault to have bolts in the cushion of the seat. Livar told a story of a girl going to the doctors and asking why when she poked anywhere on here body it hurt, the doctor looked at her and pointed out that her finger was broken. The moral of the story being that my bum was just very delicate, there were no bolts in the seat but in the middle of the night it kind of made sense.

We made good progress still being affected by eddies and currents a lot more than we had ever imagined however each day seemed to have a good 12 hours in them. It was almost teasing us as to how good it could be when weather, currents, boat and crew fell into place. It was never quite enough to break the glorious 100 mile barrier. Peter had put a great quote up on the wall of the boat before leaving which I will finish with.

"The purpose of a man's life is to live not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them I shall use my time."

 

As we start our 4th week at sea ........

Despite being on a boat 45ft long and a rigid pattern of rowing or not rowing every 2 hours it is incredibly hard to sum up 3 weeks out in the deep blue Atlantic Ocean. There has been a definite increase in on board battering and trading mostly involving chocolate bars which have become "hot currency" and are the pinnacle for trading and bet making for the trip and more importantly the 6 Nations' results..

Now Tim isn't a fan of Snickers so in his wisdom he was putting his all left overs from each day's ration pack including his Snickers into the “spares (or left overs) bag”. Pete spotted an opportunity when sifting through the spares bag, and took the Snickers and munched them, which Tim noticed. One day Tim said that as Pete had been eating his Snickers he owed him a Double Decker! Pete was shocked by this and although he went through begrudgingly with this deal was a little upset as he thought “the spares” were fair game; and to ensure any further raids on his rations by Tim (or the other crew members) munched his way through all the remaining goodies in his ration pack over the next 5 minutes ;-)

There have been many special moments – when we passed the halfway mark between Barbados and Porto Mogan, witnessed shooting stars and caught, but didn't land, our first Dorado. We have coped with rogue waves and issues with our power and have been on water rations ever since.

From a rowing perspective the 3rd week meant we hadn't got as far, or as fast, as we hoped due to broken daggerboards, bad currents, low winds and a natural spectacle of a lightening storm. This was particularly impressive although thoughts of what was higher than an ocean rowing boat in the middle of the ocean with nothing else around did get us thinking about the odds of a direct hit by lightening. Fortunately the storm tracked away from us and we were just left watching the all night light show of forks of lightening came down.

All that is left is more rowing, eating, sleeping and now a new addition more time is being spent by everyone looking after sore bums and other aches and pains

Attack of the flying fish

There have been slight technical problems as I thought I was sending updates to my blog but they haven’ t arrived so… I have a lot of catching up to do after this update; possibly going to be a bit of a catch up session on everything that has happened so far, will see how it pans out. So before heading out I heard from a lot of people that flying fish manage to get everywhere and will find the smallest of crevasses to hide in till you find their smelly remains. At the time I didnt really appreciate how true this would be till the other night. Now, regardless of conditions outside, the cabin has become a cosy, warm and safe haven from the elements and there are some things you just don’t expect. This is definitely one of them.

I had finished my second shift of the night and was curled up in bed in the front cabin fast asleep when I was woken up at about 2.30 by a wet slap on my bac! I momentarily disregarded it as I wanted to go back to sleep. This was only brief as I then heard what has become a common sound of flapping around and realised there was a flying fish in the cabin! Whilst trying to process this fact, I jumpedup onto to my knees and started trying to grab the wet, smelly, flappy thing with both hands whilst it squirmed around my bed and ultimately “snuggled“ under my pillow and where I managed to grab it and throw it out of the cabin roof hatch which was open. Meanwhile 2 other crew members had overheard the commotion and were curled up with laughter watching the scene unfold – as a naked man fumbled ed round a small enclosed space on hands and knees after a sliipery invader. What makes the whole thing so amazing is that this fish had to fly out of the sea, above our cabin and either drop perfectly down through the hole of the cabin roof hatch which is only 2ft by 1ft or bounce off the cover and in through this hole. It still makes the crew crack up when they hear the story. I seem to have become a flying fish magnet as on my next shift a number flew over our heads and one bounced off the rear cabin just missed me and landed by my feet!

Avalon Sea Trials

Yesterday was the first sea trials in Avalon in Gran Canaria and what an experience it was. The morning started earlier than recently meeting at the marina for 8 am as we had been informed that our boat was to be moved by this huge crane.

Sunrise in Gran Canaria
Sunrise in Gran Canaria

Couple of issues with this. Firstly there was another boat and a car in the way and the other problem was that the man due to move it wasn't there. We managed to solve the first after lots of discussion in mixed Spanish and English. The later was more interesting and the pace was purely dictated by island life or the length of time it took for his cigarette to be finished. Even with the boat in mid air he stopped to take a phone call while we were all precariously standing on the boat waiting for it to be lowered into the water. It all happened though without a hitch. As we rowed to our berth in the marina we were only interrupted by our apartment landlady to kindly inform us that she wasn't happy as we were late leaving our apartment and could the other team members get over there now. As soon as we were tied up we were over there to the apartment and literally throwing stuff out of the door to give it a clean down as the previous one we had been told was not clean enough. It took a wee bit of pleading and charm by our ozy crew member Tim to secure the 2nd apartment. According to the cleaner who inspected it, this one was cleaner than we had received it in. This made the landlady a bit happier and kindly helped us find a 3rd apartment.

Next stop the boat for the actual sea trials. Myself at stroke, then James, Peter and Calum were up first on the row. A nice gentle hour with the odd burst to see how she felt at a higher speed. The boat was rising and falling on some small waves, the sun was shining and the occasional wind blew on our faces. What could be better. Next up Tim at stroke, Jan, Livar and captain Leven. The rest of us chilled in the boat and checked out the beds otherwise know as a coffin, tube or pilot berth depending on who you speak to. They are quite wee and certainly a bit of a squeeze. The aim of the session was to see how she performed, calibrate and test some of the systems as well as do a man overboard scenario (a fender kindly offered it services).

The Fender of Choice
The Fender of Choice

The boat performed extremely well with it achieving good speeds in the conditions. More importantly the crew was delighted to be out on the water, despite a bit of tweaking being required she is looking in great shape for a fast crossing.

Avalon in the Water
Avalon in the Water

Next stage fixing the tweaks, some more rowing trials and then chasing down and overtaking team Titan who left this morning.

Final Preparations in Gran Canaria

Last weekend I left the wet and windy shores of scotland bound for Gran Canaria ahead of the start of the Atlantic Row 2013 campaign. I was very fortunate and managed to get extra leg room, a bit of a blessing on a 4 hour flight! I was sat next to a couple who were reading the same book as me and we ended up discussing ocean rowing and other adventures for the duration of the flight. After a quick flight over the speakers came the usual chime to signal that we had landed safely and on time.

I had to wait in the airport for one of my other team mates to arrive, James, who was arriving not long after myself. After meeting up and managing to find the bus stop we were quickly ushered onto a bus and could only hope that it was the right one and that the point where we needed to change would be obvious. It wasn't and we soon found ourselves at the end of the line and the bus driver scratching his head. We opted for a taxi ride instead to get us to Porto Mogan.

Since then we have met up with the rest of the team, the boat has arrived and now the majority of the work has been done on it. Including many hours spent putting on all the vinyls from the various sponsors that have been accumulated by the team members.

We are now waiting for the all important weather window which is currently looking like early next week. In the meantime there's some more jobs on the boat to finish up and catching as much sleep as possible a head of our 2 hours on and 2 hours off for 30 days.

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20130113-095437.jpg

Marathon des Sables A Year on Reflection

Last week I met up with some of my tent mates from the marathon des sables and chatting to a competitor this year with some last minute tips. It got me thinking about this this time last year and since.

Even before finishing the marathon des sables last year my mind was already whirring with ideas for possible races, expeditions and trips. Just meeting all the people who made it to the start line and hearing many incredibly inspiring stories made we want to experience more challenges.

Since then I completed my 100 mile race, completed an ultra running event called the Hardmoor 55 (still writing the review) and dipped into adventure racing. Also over the last 6 months or so I have spent a wee bit of time researching and discussing various ideas about adventures with some of you (hopefully your reading). I am sure many of you have your own ideas for adventures, challenges and dreams to fulfil over the coming months of 2012 or maybe you have plans for past that point to which is even better. The next challenge will be announced soon....

Whats your next challenge? Have you got plans for the year or maybe a longer term vision? Would be great to hear about them as I know many of you have got them lined up.

Mt Everest
Mt Everest

The Finale of The Worlds Toughest Footrace

Having travelled 250km through the world’s largest desert, running across munro sized sand dunes, over jebels, through wadi’s, in +50°C whilst carrying all our food, equipment and clothing for the week the beginning of the end was approaching. After almost 2 years of dreaming, planning and preparing the end was clearly in sight and yet even though it was close it still seemed far as the effects of the mileage were taking their toll. It had been a rough and restless night but the final day had finally arrived as the sun rose over the camp for the final time. As it was the last day the Berbers left us with the tents for slightly longer than customary upheaval of just after 6am. Instead they and all the volunteers did a victory lap round the camp in the lorries, cars and on quad bikes beeping the horns, clapping and shouting. All the runners stopped their normal routine to join in and soak up the spectacle.

For the final stage the initial section of the run had been marked out to go straight through the centre of the camp and the bottom 50 were given a head start in the hope that the field of competitors would finish closer together. Many of these competitors were in the band of the walking wounded including the two British women who had persevered to finish the long day alone in just over 30 hours (the top guys took just over 20 hours running time for the whole thing). The remaining competitors lined the running track to send them out the camp. Already a bit of a party atmosphere was building.

We got final photos in the desert and of our tent mates before trudging over to the start line for more photos. After 7 days in desert our tent group had gone from a mixture of meeting each other occasionally at a race of two or of never meeting before to being a tight knit group after experiencing the highs, lows and intimacy of being chucked into this environment.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

With thoughts of only 17.5kms of arid desert separating me from the finish and the sudden realisation that in a couple of hours time we would leave what had become the norm of eating, sleeping and running made it an incredibly exciting point in the race. The nerves and a restless night had taken their toll and made it very difficult to stomach my final meal, not a mild curried beef but a chicken tikka after trading the previous night. As I strolled to the start line I realised I was feeling the effects of living off minimal calories for the week as I my body felt weak.

No more mild curried beefs left in my pack and the thought of tasty food in a few hours time was something to be very happy about!

We stood on the start line in the group that had formed tent 76 for our last experience of “Highway to Hell” in the desert. The final countdown started “TROIS, DEUX.... UN” and we were off. We were off at a seriously quick pace which I was sure and hoped that people wouldn’t continue it after the 1st mile. It stayed fast for the entire way. It was almost a sprint through the checkpoints, grabbing water, getting the water card punched for the final time, grabbing a quick bite and then continuing on. It was turning out to be one of the toughest days with so many miles already in the legs it was all adrenaline that was pushing and driving me to the finish.

The run was tough but certainly going well and the reintroduction into society saw us travelling from a mixture of sand dunes and rocky, scrubby flats to small and secluded villages. Running past kids that seem to come from no where, wells that just dropped deep into the ground and mud built buildings. The final couple of miles brought us from rural morocco to the outskirts of the town that we were to finish in. Running past kids, chickens, goats and ancient cars and lorries chugging out fumes. The rich mix of smells awakening the senses.

It was quite a sight not only entering civilisation but passing through some incredibly deprived areas with a number of kids begging. We rounded the corner and joined the 1stand only section of tarmac of the race. Running with Si and Karin, two of my tent mates, we ran along the streets passing coffee bars, pizza places and shops selling cold cans of cola. My focus at this point certainly seems to be on one thing only. All that remained was the sprint to the finish; regardless of the miles already covered or how tired our legs felt it had to be done as the 3 of us cranked up the pace to towards the finish line. Besides there were still people to overtake. The last couple of hundred metres were of running through a festival atmosphere passing musicians, locals and family who had come out to welcome in the finishers as we joined other competitors in the finish area.

DSCF0274
DSCF0274

The next wee while was a whirl wind of collecting the medal off the organiser of the event Patrick Bauer, being funnelled through quickly to collect the packed lunch, have a quick relax and a bite to eat before jumping on the coach back to the hotel. The next couple of days were spent taking in copious amounts of food, drink and sleeping.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

I finished the event in 127th overall, 2nd U25 and 15th Brit with a time of 36 hours, 1 min and 16 seconds.

As it has come to the end of this chapter I would really appreciate it if people left their own comments on anything they have finished, challenges they have done or coming up or any comments on reading about this adventure.

Minty Whiskey in The Desert

It all started on the evening before we had to hand in our extra kit. As we all checked and rechecked our equipment, clothing and food for the week in a bid to ensure we had everything and that it was as light as possible I was feeling how heavy my old faithful hip flask felt. It had been on many challenges with me including upBritain’s three highest peaks amongst other places. As most competitors continued these checks or beginning to look at the map, talking of race strategy and cooking I was hunting round camp for an alternative to old faithful. After carefully consideration and searching the only option was my half used toothpaste tube. With the help from my fellow tent mate Andy we managed to clean it out and make a clever contraption out of a bottle top to fill the tube back up with single malt whiskey, Old Putney if anyone is interested. With only a small toast to the desert (for good luck obviously) followed by one to Andy and myself (also for good fortune) the task was done. Fast forward to the end of the race….

After catching my breath I took out the victory whiskey, unscrewed the top and took a swig. The taste wasn’t quite the same as when I had first filled it. In the heat of the sun the concoction had warmed and over the course of the week had taken on a new minty characteristic. It wasn’t the celebratory drink I had envisaged when I first packed my hip flask in my bag for the journey over to morocco. It still tasted sweet though, especially when it was added to the mint tea that was provided at the end of each stage.

Marathon des Sables - The Forgotten Marathon

Now your probably wondering how can you forget a whole marathon, but it not only happened to me but many of the other competitors. There was so much anticipation and mental preparation followed by serious amounts of physical and mental exertion to finish the "long day" that the focus on the ultimate goal of finishing was momentarily lost. However waking up just before 6 as usual I was brought straight back into the thick of it. The day didn't exactly start well. I woke up to a stomach that felt like it was doing back flips and trying to get down my 3rd from last mild curried beef down was certainly a challenge, made marginally better by it at least being served hot this time.

Now stomach problems seem to be quite a common thing when it comes to ultra running. However when you aren't sure whether its from the fact that you have been running in the desert and this is the effect of the distance and heat plus 10 mild curried beefs, a number of gels and cereal bars as well as an unknown number of salt tablets or the starting of a nasty stomach bug getting ready to cripple my race I decided not to take chances and load myself with antibiotics. This is certainly not the recommended approach medically but a personal twist on making sure I made it to the end.

I reached the start line and wasn't sure whether I was aiming to sprint to the nearest toilet or start the race till I remembered that the toilets had been taken away and what had become the classic and number 1 hit of the week "Highway to Hell" started blasting from the speakers.  I had missed my chance, the race had started.

I got a good trundle on, almost surprisingly good as we made it up and down several hills before tracking a long a ridge towards the 1st of several check points for the day. The views from the hill tops especially as the helicopter shot overhead were spectacular. But even still there was a nagging feeling of imodium or not to imodium, looking back the fact I could even ask myself this question meant there was no need but with only 1 pair of shorts it became a critical decision.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

This coincided with the hottest day easily hitting 54°C in the shade which was affecting every competitor except the top few who it seemed were just having a run in the local park. At some check points I saw competitors being led off by doctors . As my diary points out:

"It was unbearably hot and towards the end even a light jog was hard work"

Coming round the final corner I thought they had pitched our camp next to a massive lake... it took a bit too much convincing to put my mind straight.

I was running with another Brit and we guessed that the finish was about 2km according to his watch and my guess on timings. It turned out we were wrong on the distance it was more like 4 or 5. At the time it certainly felt like the longest 2 km I had ever done. This didn't stop a sprint finish to try and overtake a guy in front of us. I cant remember if we did but I can remember that the cup of mint tea on crossing the finish line tasted amazing. I finished in just over 5 hours 20 mins and was lying in 124th overall, I was really chuffed as I was still n the top 150 with only 1 day to go.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

As it was the penultimate day sponsors had arrived and a surprise was on the cards. You could tell they weren't racers or organisers by the fact that they weren't limping or covered in bandages but had gel in their hair, aviators on and generally looked far too clean.

It turned out they wanted us to get new numbers on our front and back to look good for the cameras at the finish. Under the circumstances its very difficult to convince a load of tired and weary runners that this is a good idea. So a touch of bribery or a good wee incentive, depending on your thinking, was used in the form of what I hoped was an ice cold can of Fanta. Ok it wasn't ice cold but it was delicious.

The icing on the cake was the surprise, the Paris Orchestra had been brought in and set up with a desert backdrop. It was such a contrast; the desert, a lot of very tired walking wounded men and women and this pristine orchestra. I walked back to my tent under a blanket of stars, with the music in the background and was greeted to a sea of head lights. You cant ask for much more.

Check a video of the opera out, by clicking on this.

A further treat for the night, I managed to swap my last 2 mild curried beefs for a vegetarian curry and a chicken tikka which tasted amazing. It certainly made a very good change, as my tent mates kindly pointed out:

"Variety is the spice of life"

It was the final night and a mixture of emotions was coming with it. Excitement having made it so far, apprehension if I don't finish the final stage (as that would have been soul destroying) and sadness that it would be coming to an end. Sleep wasn't going to come easily.

Marathon des Sables - Resembling A Disaster Zone

You have almost 2 days ( 34 hours) to complete the "Long Day" on the Marathon des Sables, and a number of people do manage to finish before sun up the following day. These lucky individuals then have a day of rest to catch up on sleep, e-mails, eat, drink and chill out watching the day fly by as the remaining competitors demonstrate huge amounts of courage and endurance making their way to the finish. Many of whom will have been on there feet for over 24 hours in the heat of the desert while some choose to bed down for a few hours before finishing the remainder of the distance. I managed along with all my tent mates to finish well before sunrise on the 2nd day, so a rest day for all.

The day went very quickly, however there was a noticeable difference with people hobbling around, covered in bandages (not just on their feet but all over where bits of clothing or bags had rubbed their skin raw) and looking incredibly dirty. It was also the day that saw some tents lining up in a row and using spare water to wash butt naked in the middle of the desert.

I spent a happy day eating (only 3 mild curried beefs were left by the end of the day), watching the hobbling people about camp and a spot of cleaning. I was hoping this would improve my now salt, sweat and dirt encrusted clothing in the and that they would feel as good as new when it came to wearing them the following day.

There was also the need to sort out our feet, with most of our tent now suffering from blisters. However having wondered round the camp I noticed how lucky our tent was I met many who's feet were practically falling apart as blisters developed under more blisters. All the running was definitely taking its toll on people as the medical tent was packed from dawn till well into the night as a stead queue of people entered it suffering from everything from blisters, to upset stomachs and heat exhaustion. I certainly felt very lucky having not suffered too badly.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Marathon des Sables - "The Highway to Hell"

The long day had finally arrived it felt like all my training and preparation had been for this very day. Hence a very restless night thinking of the following day and how it would go. On finishing the stage I felt like having a single line in my diary:

"The long day can only be described as very hot and very long"

However after a wee break (sleeping solidly till the next morning) I managed to fill in the details.

The day started very well with another chorus of "Highway to Hell" as we all ran out under the start line. The biggest issue today being that the top 50 competitors (who knew the route) started at midday. This lead very quickly to a small issue, no one really knew where to go, as 3 groups quickly formed none of which were taking an obvious route. I ended up going with one group who went straight through what felt like several large hedges. It also turned out we were all going out rather quickly, including myself as I bumped into a Scot who was always in the top 100. Normally in a race I would say this is a good sign when your near the front but when  you remember there is still 80 odd km it kind of changes things. Anyway we were off to a flying start with  as the sun kept rising into the sky and the temperature along with it hitting about 50C in the shade (I think), it was just incredibly hot. This along with a few more passes through hills and over them (as if the day wasn't hard enough) was making for a very challenging day.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

I passed the time chatting initially with a guy whose experience was in the much colder climate of the Arctic and later on another guy joined us who normally competed in endurance motorbike races. You do really get people from all walks of life. It was too hot during the middle of the day to run, so we ended up briskly walking across the desert. As temperatures cooled (still in the 30's) we reached the dunes and luckily for us before dark. It turned out some local kids moved all the markers come night fall.

The sun began to set over the desert and the first stars became visible, it was an incredible sight but unfortunately the end was still no where in sight and there was still a couple of check points left to go through and a huge laser display to follow into the finish line.

At this stage I realised I had hardly eaten any of my days rations and was beginning to feel the effects of this, the heat and the distance. So I began stuffing my face with the one luxury for the week of cashews nuts. They tasted incredible.

As the night set in I was passed by Britains best hope of making the top 25 Tobias Mews and decided that I had done enough walking through the day and it was time to run to the finish. I started chasing down the  white bobbing lights of the head torches a head of me. I felt strong and the constant changing target of those up a head kept me going. Features and things oozed out of the dark, like the big rock you dont see till you have gone over on your ankle, the odd camel skeleton or the sudden appearance of a 4 * 4 with flashing lights on. I reached the final check point and could finally see the sight I had been wanting to see all day a massive laser shining into the night sky and highlighting the route into the finish line. After a very quick refill and a chat to a fellow Brit I started making my way into the finish now knowing it should be only an hour to 2 hours away at most. Just before the finish I met my fellow Scot who I had run with at the start (who was not only in the top 100 but also had a pacemaker, a truly amazing effort ) and we crossed the line after sheering heat and 82 kms of desert in 12 hours 40 mins. I was over the moon and wondered over to my tent to congratulate 3 of my tent mates who had finished a head of me. This was quickly followed by removing my trainers, which felt incredible to be finally out of them and collapsed into my sleeping bag for the night.

Marathon des Sables 2011
Marathon des Sables 2011

Day 3 - Blisters and The Doc's

Unlike day 2 I wasn't woken to the sounds of a gale or my tenting flapping in my face but to glorious sunny weather... it appeared that the end of the week was going to be hot. However even with relatively still conditions my fuel did not want to light again so another morning of luke warm mild curried beef. Only 8 mild curried beefs left and more importantly the pack is feeling much lighter but my kit doesn't seem to pack any easier into it. The day started really well, I was taking it easy as day 4 was "The Long Day" and I wanted to be as fresh as possible so I could make some real gains. I ended up running and walking with another brit for most of the day. The heat seemed to be particularly strong today which wasn't helped by having to climb a few large hills. However the views from the top of each was more spectacular than the previous, with views of the desert flats. Looking back along the route I had just travelled I suddenly appreciated how many people were in the race with a line of participants going in both directions. Rachid the eventual winner was no where to be seen.

I finished the race feeling great and only at that point did I realise that I had some blisters, its amazing how your mind blocks out the feeling of discomfort after a while. I decided to try the "doc trotters" who I had been told had a reputation of slicing and dicing peoples feet. They were fantastic though queuing briefly before shuffling in front of a nurse who was quick to get my feet up and got to work on them by bursting them with a scalpel before before injecting this pink antiseptic into them. Compared to the antiseptic I had brought this stuff felt considerably less painful but it did make your feet look like they were bleeding and dyed anything they touched pink.

The nerves for the long day the following day were showing with everyone deep in thought and preparing

Views From the Top
Views From the Top

physically and mentally for a big push.