Cool points

The major series 2013

I have found that if I tell someone that I have gone for a run (especially in the rain/cold), slept outdoors in a bivvy, done press-ups in the mud, got up very early to exercise, got soaked kayaking, climbed a mountain (or similar) I typically get one of three reactions:

  1. What a nutter (what sane person would do that?)
  2. That is cool, but I could/would never do that
  3. Awesome, I love that too!

If I get the first reaction, that is a shame, if I get the second, I think ‘here is someone to work on’ and if I get the third it is ‘let’s go!’. This has got me thinking though, why do I like doing these seemingly crazy things. Why is it actually fun to exhaust myself in a muddy park on a cold, dark wintry morning?

Over the years I seem to have organically been awarding myself ‘cool points’ (I might also have thought of them as ‘smug points’). Gone for a run, that is x number of cool points. Running in the rain, well that is double cool points. Got up at 0530 to go run in the freezing cold in January must surely be quadruple points right?

It’s worth noting that I never seem to have actually associated any actual numbers or any official scaled chart, only that the harder or tougher it is it, it is worth more. As weird as this system is, it does actually work with me as a motivational tool.

This does raise the tricky question of why I feel I need these points? The truth is probably a long held insecurity that leads to a need to test myself. The good news is that I do genuinely feel better for doing these things. They are not joyless achievements or hollow victories but uplifting and often lovely moments.

I wonder if anyone else has devised an internal reward mechanism or if it is just me? Let me know….

Anyway, cool points for everyone!

Cool points

Microadventure: Cycle, run and bivvy at Houghton Forest

This microadventure started with the unusual motivation of needing some new trail running shoes. I had been very happy with my Salomon Speedcross 3 shoes that i had run almost to pieces. When I spotted an event that included a complimentary pair it seemed a no-brainer to sign up.

The SupBikeRun Night Trails offer a 2 hour off road mountain bike in Houghton Forest and the South Down’s followed by a 5-7.5 km trail run. They let you borrow a bike and give you the trainers.

Houghton wood #microadventure

Mountain bike
It was a long drive from London to a small parking bay near Arundel, Sussex and with a bit of traffic congestion I arrived only just in time. With barely any time to say more than ‘hi’ to the three other travellers I found myself quickly paired up with a mountain bike (with ‘fat’ tyres) and we were on our way!

Houghton wood #microadventure

I do a fair amount of exercise but I do hardly any cycling and this was a tough two hours up and around the south downs. The paths were often slippy and muddy and there were a few proper savage climbs. I may have even pushed the bike up a particularly tough bit.

It was, however, pretty cool to be doing this on a crystal clear night under the stars. Finding our way wasn’t too big a problem as we had some powerful ‘exposure’ headlights illuminating the path. I’m told we did a figure eight but to be honest, if our guide Sam had left me behind I may still be up there now! The last section was a fab single track downhill through a tight packed wood. Definitely the highlight for me!

Houghton wood #microadventure

Trail run
It may have only been two hours in real life but it felt like midnight by the time we got back to the cars. Here we had an energy giving giant cookie and a slurp of water before being handed our brand new trail shoes. I was pleased to get a nice blue pair!

Houghton wood #microadventure

Head-torches on, off we went for an invigorating 40 minute trail run through the forest. I’m glad that my new Alpkit headtorch gives out a good 190 lumens as care really needed to be taken with footing with numerous tree roots and branches were there to trip the unwary. Somehow I got through it with no twisted ankles and the shoes turned out to be a perfect fit and really handy on the slippy surface.

Instead of going on forever like the cycle, the run seemed to end before I knew it and we were back at the cars. All good though, what a cool adventure! Shoes showed at least some muddy respectability by then too!

Houghton wood #microadventure

Houghton wood #microadventure

Bivvy in the woods
Feeling a bit tired but far from ‘smashed’ after nearly three hours of zooming around I now had to decide what to do next. I had brought along my #microadventure kit bag but had planned on seeing how I felt on whether to try and stay out or not.

I have to be honest, much more than my previous adventures, I felt really really nervous about this one. If I was nearer to home I may have even gone there, but thankfully I found some ‘steel’, ‘manned-up’, grew a backbone etc. and went for it.

Shouldering my bag I started walking up the gravel path, scanning the forest to side of me for a suitable spot. I wanted somewhere flat(ish) but next to some trees so that I could set up a shelter. This proved a harder set of criteria than I would have imagined. The ground was either clumped with brambles or on a severe slope. Not quite despairing, I carried on till I found something suitable.

Houghton wood #microadventure

Once I picked a spot and had started putting my ‘basha’ [tarpaulin shelter] I relaxed a bit and my nerves went away (for now). Despite only being about 10 metres from the path, my camouflaged basha (plus real leaves scattered on top) made me feel I would be hard to spot from the path if an early morning walker came this way.

The sky was clear now, but rain was due in the morning and I was pleased to be prepared for the worst. By the time I was ‘in bed’ it was 2130 and time to sleep, I was certainly tired enough. It is a bit of a creepy cliche, but the fairly continuous calls of owls did get me nervous again. I wasn’t sure if it was one owl moving about or several answering each other but at one point the calls seemed to be approaching me. I also heard the call of something else, possibly a fox (probably not a werewolf). For a city boy like myself this is all wonderful and at the same time, quite unsettling, especially on my own.

Despite all this, I DID get to sleep and only woke once or twice. It was a cool night but far from bitter and I was cozy and warm. There really is something cool about sleeping with a night breeze on your face.

Not sure it is in the spirit of wild camping but I actually set my alarm for the morning as I wanted to get home as quick as I could. In a mere 15 minutes I was all packed and in another 15 I was back at the car, making myself a quick coffee on the stove before heading home.

What a super evening and night of adventure!

Microadventure: Cycle, run and bivvy at Houghton Forest

Kayaking: BCU Star 1 course

I kayaked a couple of times as a teenager, which I remember pretty fondly, especially one sea kayak trip on Angelsea. Unbelievably this was a school trip and I had no previous experience, obviously something that would never take place now.

26 years after my last kayak trip, the idea has sprung up again, this time inspired by microadventures such as this one by Alastair Humphreys or full on 1000 mile expeditions like this one by Dave Cornthwaite. One step at a time though, best to get a bit of training first.


I looked around at several commercial watersport centres in London. They looked ace but were all generally pretty pricey. What looked like a much better fit for me was a kayaking club, in particular the beginners course at Tower Hamlets Canoe Club.

So every tuesday for the last few weeks i’ve been going down to Shadwell Basin (part of the old London Docks) training for my British Canoe Union Star 1 certificate.

I found myself being really nervous when I turned up on the first night, partly because I wasn’t sure what to expect, but also because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Obviously I was fine – the people at the club were very friendly and the others on my course were a lovely bunch and really supportive of each other.


It goes without saying that I had forgotten anything I may have known about kayaking and as a complete rookie struggled with the most basic of maneuvers – going in a straight line. To be fair, everyone struggled with this, especially at the start.

We ended the first session with an exercise that I was slightly dreading – the emergency exit from the boat. This involved tipping the kayak upside down, tapping the bottom and then slipping out. I can’t say that I was cool enough to tap the bottom, I was over and straight out. This october was generally pretty mild and while it WAS cold, it was far from bitter and I’m counting myself lucky.

I’d survived the first session and was pretty pleased with myself and the course. Bring on the rest!

Over the next few weeks I felt I was making some good progress. I could go in a straight(ish) line both forward and backwards and maneuver around mostly in the direction that I wanted. We even enjoyed lively games of tag and water polo.

On the final night we were assessed by a senior club member and put through our paces. Nothing too strict, but enough to make me want to impress. Afterwards we had a discussion on safety and other areas of kayaking and then we got our certificates. I am now officially a BCU star 1 kayaker!

What next?

Well, I’ve made a decent start but I think I’m not quite there for going off on my own yet. The obvious next move is to join the club (a bargain at £100 a year). I can do the star 2 course as fast as I want to (there is no set timetable) and then join in expeditions, probably next year.

Feels good, can’t wait to do more.

Kayaking: BCU Star 1 course

Expedition: Black Mountains, Brecons

Each year, my friend Andy and I go forth to conquer and explore somewhere wild in the UK. This time we thought we would try the Brecon Beacons.

Things have been incredibly busy of late and I’ve not had tons of time to plan the trip. What has been a huge help though is Bing Maps. I have to admit to never really taking much notice of Bing with Google being my go-to online map but they have one killer feature – an Ordnance Survey map layer. This is incredibly handy!

Black Mountains 2015

After a slightly late get away from London we made it to a mountain road at one end of the Black Mountains (part of the Brecon Beacons) at nearly 4pm. We quickly made for the hills knowing that we only had, at most, two hours to get into the wilderness and make camp.

Black Mountains 2015

The weather was a bit grey and there was a bit of nip to the air but it was still ace to be up in the hills. The general plan was to follow the route of the ‘Beacons Way’ as far as we could and then head back along the same path. We made it as far as Foel Fraith and made camp on a flat but boggy piece of ground half way up. The ground in this area was either boggy or rocky (or both) which made finding a tent sized pitch quite a struggle!

Black Mountains 2015

Black Mountains 2015

The night was fairly mild and it was pretty cosy inside, despite the howling wind and lashing rain. The morning, however, gave us a blanket of mist and sporadic showers and we were in no rush to emerge from our den of warmth.

Black Mountains 2015

Eventually we bit the bullet and in a small break in the rain quickly struck camp and got on our way. I’m sure the vista was superb, however, we will just have to assume that as we couldn’t see any more than a few feet in the fog.

I’m pretty pleased with my navigation skills as we spent the entire morning following compass bearings with hardly any features to go by. This is adventure!

Black Mountains 2015

Black Mountains 2015

We did come across some wildlife on our journey, some alive, such as this lovely frog but quite a bit dead, such as the many sheep bones we found. i have to say that it was quite macabre walking across a misty heath stumbling across piles of bones. It did make me think about ‘American Werewolf in London’ – ‘don’t leave the road’, ‘beware the moon’ (seriously, there was a full moon that night).

After 7-8 miles of low visibility I was pleased to only find myself a few hundred metres off of the path as we descended down into Llanddeusant. This did mean negotiating our way through a farm where we were sarcastically (and possibly harshly) asked ‘can’t read a map?’ by the farmer.

Black Mountains 2015

It was still raining heavily so we sheltered in the porch of the (closed) Youth Hostel. At least this allowed me to brew up a coffee and have a dry(ish) lunch. We also assessed our options. Head back the way we came and trust my navigation was going to work on the way back or head back via the road?

We were soaked through and andy had some bad blisters so the prospect of slogging over the hills (with no view) seemed a bit masochistic (even for me). The road it was then. The only minor issue on this plan was that the road went off of my map so it was ‘fingers crossed’ that it actually joined up.

It was actually a fairly pleasant walk and the cars on the country lanes were few. Late on in the afternoon the sun even came out for a lovely sunset (that I managed not to photograph). Back at the car, in the last bit of daylight, we were shivery and damp and the (now) clear skies promised a sub-zero night. I guess we could have ‘manned up’ and slept out again but I have to confess that we didn’t fancy it much in our current state. Hotel it was.

This proved to be a wise move as I came down with some kind of food poisoning in the night and while this was awful, it was have been catastrophic in a tent in the wilderness.

Black Mountains 2015

Black Mountains 2015

Before going home, we spent a very lovely couple of hours at ‘The Mumbles’ on the Gower. The sun was shining and it was glorious – if only we had had this weather the day before!! The luck of the draw I guess. Despite the harsh weather, it was great to be out in the mountains and i’m proud that we gave it a go.

All the photos from the trip on Flickr.



Expedition: Black Mountains, Brecons

How do I have time for all this…stuff?

I have been asked a couple of times in recent days “How do you have time for all that stuff you put on Facebook?”. I’ve been slightly startled by the question because I didn’t actually think that I did do that much really.

I think it came about in a short period where I posted (read ‘bragged’) about completing a marathon, going kayaking, BMF, joining ‘project awesome’, baking a cake plus some family time too. This got me thinking about my use of time, especially as I hold down a full time job and have young children.

First let’s go back in time to my 20s when I had, almost literally, ALL the time in the world. I did sometimes go scuba diving and I had a few nice holidays but I mostly did nothing that the older me would recognise as anything cool or worthwhile. Like many twenty somethings, a lot of lounging about watching telly, and not even ‘quality telly’ either. With as much time as I wanted and my whole life still ahead I, of course, did very little.

Now that I only have a few small windows of opportunity to do anything, I actually do a fair bit. How I do this mainly comes down to the idea of focusing on the things that I think are important and making them happen. When someone says that they have ‘no time’, it means that they are choosing to do something else. Could be television, socialising in the pub or extra sleep, but if those things are getting in the way of what you really want – cut them out.

I have a few things in my favour:

  • My job is fairly 9-5 and I more or less stick to my hours
  • I have a very supportive partner who encourages me
  • I don’t mind waking up early and can get out of bed when the alarm goes
  • I have relatively few other family commitments

So how do I do it?

  1. I don’t do any DIY. Spare time is not frittered on shelf-building or wall papering etc.
  2. I Block out time in the diary (preferably well in advance) and say ‘no’ to other stuff
  3. I get up early. Seriously, if you can stand this, you can do a LOT before work (plus sunrises are ace!)
  4. Kids at a party? Relatives taking them out? Time for a bike ride etc.

When i’m in my dotage and talking with the other folk in the care home, i’m keen not to confess that I watched every episode of Eastenders or that I had a lot of lay-ins as the main things I did with my life. I may have left it to my 40s but i’m finally seizing the day and getting on with the cool things.

Hyde park sunrise

Another level
The next trick, and one I’ve not solved yet, is how to fit in an expedition into a family holiday. The kids are now 5 and 7 which means that we can do some cool stuff (see my first microadventure) but big stuff is going to be a challenge.

I have a possible thought of cycling from Land’s end to home, approximately 350 miles. If I only did 50 miles a day, something I could do in 4-5 hours, that would leave afternoon’s for the family. Sounds slightly hair-brained but might work?

Feel free to suggest other ideas!

How do I have time for all this…stuff?

Post Marathon Plans

The Loch Ness Marathon was just a week ago, but I’ve not given myself almost any respite before launching into the next plans and activities.

What I have done, in the space of just a few days is almost forget how tough and painful it was. I know that it WAS really hard, but praps I can just DO those hard things now?

As you might expect though, I was very sore and walked like John Wayne on Monday and Tuesday following my 42km scenic outing. By Saturday though, i’d had enough of resting and I was champing at the bit to get back to some ‘proper’ exercise (in the form of a bit of BMF).

Monday though I decided to go for something a bit different. The alarm went off at 0520 so that I could be at the Globe Theatre on the South Bank for a session with the ‘Project Awesome‘ crew. ‘Captained’ by adventurer Anna McNuff and including Danny Bent (famous recently for being one tough hombre on ‘Special Forces – Ultimate Hell week’).

I was expecting a hard circuit-based exercise class, I was less expecting all of the hugs (although they were lovely). What a superb group of people with, as you might expect, a positive and awesome attitude. Highly recommend them! Just think of the smug points when you get into work.

Future plans
Next on the ‘adventure agenda’ is a Kayaking beginners course. I signed up for this a while ago without a lot of thought of what I’m going to do afterwards but thought I’d ‘suck it and see’. In my head are dreams of sea kayaking tours or a journey from Bristol to London on canal and river (i’m assuming this is possible?). Given that I’ve just come back from Inverness, the Caledonian canal would be a super canoe trip.


I have a camping trip to the Brecons lined up in a few weeks which should be fab. Crossing my fingers for the weather there!

I also intend to keep up the #microadventures going throughout the winter. I have slept out (in a bivvy) at least once per month since July and I have a semi-ambition to keep this rate up till at least next summer. I have a thought about building my own shelter praps?

All in all it looks as if I have an exciting couple of months ahead of me with loads more promise for next year. BRING IT ON!


Post Marathon Plans

Loch Ness Marathon – Part 5 – Race Day

Last October, having failed to make the lottery for London, I suggested to three of my friends, while drunk, that we should all pledge to run the Loch Ness Marathon. This we did and two of us, while sober, actually signed up.

I did my first marathon in Edinburgh in 2009 in a respectable time of 4:12. On the one hand I was quite happy just to have finished a marathon at all but on another I really felt that I had a sub-four hour race in me (somewhere).

Loch Ness marathon

Bill and I took an Easyjet flight up to Inverness, sadly missing all the lovely scenery that we would have spotted from the train. It did, though, mean that we could get into town with plenty of time to dump our stuff at the guesthouse and then get to the start and register for the event. Picking up our bib numbers and timing chips we had time for a quick photo with ‘nessie’ next to the finish line and the ‘Ness’ river that runs through the town and down to the Loch.

Ready for the Loch Ness marathon

Inverness is nice

The organisers had offered a ‘pasta party’ but looking in the tent this didn’t seem that fun so we decided to look for our own dinner. We controversially avoided a few italian types places and pasta all together and ‘carbo loaded’ on good old fish and chips at the classy sounding ‘Vegas Chip Ship’. They even had a ‘gourmet menu’ of things like scotch pie and white or red pudding.

Loch Ness marathon

With nothing much else to do, especially as drinking beer wasn’t on the cards we just went back to our guesthouse, prepared our things for an early start and were in bed well before 10 o’clock. Such good boys!

The Start
This will certainly count as one of the most interesting and bizarre starts to a running race that I’ve done. The general plan is that we meet at 7am at the ‘finish’ in Inverness and get bussed to the start out beyond the other end of Loch Ness and run all the way back.

Loch Ness marathon

It certainly did no harm to my morale that it was a glorious morning as we walked to the coaches at Bught Park. What did make us a bit nervous was that the driver stalled the coach a couple of times on steep rises when we neared the start. Would we even get there?

When we did arrive, we did the usual pre-race routine of a long queue for a portaloo (there is never enough), followed by hanging about in the chilly, pretty moorland for the race to start. It is, in fact tricky to think of a more picturesque start to a race than this.

Loch Ness marathon

Start to Halfway
This race felt very much like three distinct parts so i’ll break it down that way.

Loch Ness marathon

Going into the race and even up to the start i’d been very unsure what sort of plan I should go for. I didn’t think my training had been nearly good enough, so should I still aim for a sub-four hour pace? If I tried, would I blow out and not finish at all? I’d be more upset at not finishing than the time goal but it seemed wrong to not try. I was confused!

What I did know was that the race started with several miles of downhill and as the gun went off and we went over the line, I thought that at least I should make hay while gravity was on my side and go fast in the early stages.

The course undulated slightly but the general trend was down hill and the first few miles I did blisteringly fast (by my own standards). In fact they were literally blistering as I found to my extreme consternation that I had started developing a blister at about mile 7. This was not good and I don’t know why as I hardly ever had any blisters on my training runs? Same shoes and socks, a mystery?

Loch Ness marathon

The road soon joined the Loch and we got occasional stunning views, though most of the time it was behind a treeline.

When things (sort of) flattened out I found myself still keeping up a fastish pace but at the time it felt a bit unnatural to have to force myself to go slower. The miles ticked by, my foot was getting sorer and the views still good. As might be expected, the further along it went, the runners got increasingly spaced out. I never found myself alone but soon there were no problems overtaking slower runners.

Loch Ness marathon

I kept to my water and food strategy – accept all ‘normal’ water, pour some over my head and drink the rest. One energy gel each hour (I had three). I didn’t accept any of the energy drinks or other gels or shot blocs on offer.

When I saw the 13 mile marker hove into view, I was both glad and worried. Getting past half-way makes me feel it is metaphorically ‘downhill’ from then on. On the worrying side I was already feeling quite tired. Had my pace just exhausted me? Was I going to finish?

Thirteen to Eighteen miles
These five miles were very tough for me. I was feeling increasingly tired and to cap it all there was a short but stiff hill at the 18 mile mark. I knew I was technically ahead of a four hour pace so decided to just walk it and conserve my energy. I hate having runners stream past me and I had to remind myself that I was competing against myself and not them.

I still had eight miles to go and at this point I really wondered how I was going to do it. My legs felt like they had very little left. Very definitely my lowest point of the race.

I told myself to keep plodding, one foot in front of the other. It also occurred to me that this was just another hour and a half of my life and I could put up with some discomfort for that long. The idea of being able to put up with pain if I give a time limit seemed to work. Somehow I was able to continue.

Nineteen miles to the finish
Both my feet hurt but one was excruciating. I listened to music for the whole of the event and for periods this may have helped distract me from the pain.

I plodded along for a few more miles until another climb around the 20 mile marker. Again I walked the steepest bit but did get running again near the top. The good news from this point was that there were no more hills, just slightly down or level. It also cheered me up to know it was ‘just’ a 10k to go. This distance feels very achievable!

The other morale booster was that despite a couple of very slow 1km split times on the hills I was still on for the sub-four hours. My addled brain kept trying to do the maths on my slowing pace against the distance to go and I convinced myself that it was still possible. All I had to do was keep going. No stopping or walking any more.

My legs could have easily and at any point now have just given up and stopped. My head was the only thing keeping me going. Each time a mile marker went past, I tried to re-calculate my projected time. It was going to be close, but I was still on for my projected time.

When I went through 23 miles I think I just knew I could do it. My legs were on total autopilot, in fact I could barely feel them anymore. The soles of my feet were agony. Despite this, I knew that if I kept going for just 30 more minutes I could stop.

The last few mile markers came and went and we entered the outskirts of Inverness and finally with 1 mile to go, the riverbank. The route cruelly makes you pass the finish on the other side of the river before crossing the bridge and coming back. I realised now that I could walk that last mile and still make it but this was not the time for walking.

I did find that a lot of other runners still had the energy for a sprint finish and dashed past me over the last few hundred meters. I was content just to run over the finish line at all!

I had done it. Not just finished, not just beaten my personal best but also smashed through the four hour time I’d set myself last year. I was delighted, relieved, happy and incredibly proud of myself.

Loch Ness marathon

Position: 700 of 2414 finishers
Half-Marathon: 1:49:47
Marathon: 3:54:43

For some fun, this is my pace against elevation:

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.28.45

Post Race
I stumbled through the finish line, got my medal, t-shirt and goody bag and accepted any other items offered such as bananas or energy bars. I was done for and could barely stand. I did manage to take the selfie with my medal and send it to facebook with the message ‘Fucking smashed it. Sub Four hour time’. As you can see, I was a bit emotional!

I phoned Deborah to tell her the good news and reassure her that I was (just about) alive.

Loch Ness marathon

I picked up my bag and went to have a bite to eat in the Baxters tent. The food was pretty average but I was extremely grateful for it. A band started up as I was eating, giving a very good rendition of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling good’. This almost made me burst into tears, I WAS feeling good.

I took the seemingly vast walk (of a few hundred meters) to the showers and got myself cleaned up. I even showered wearing my medal! It was here I discovered that one foot was mostly unscathed, the other, however, had an enormous blood blister. If you are curious and not squeamish, here it is.

Loch Ness marathon

I then went back to the finish, just missing my friend Bill cross the line. He also beat his goal of getting a sub-five hour time. We are both heroes!

He went for a shower while I had a coffee and monitored all the likes and comments following my sweary Facebook post. If you were one of these people – thank you, it means a lot!

Loch Ness marathon

All that remained was to find something ‘proper’ to eat (burger for me), drink several pints of water and finally a beer. Bill and I just sighed and groaned almost constantly throughout the evening.

Just for fun, we had booked the sleeper train back to London. What you need after a tough physical day is a tiny cabin with no room to swing a mouse (let alone a cat). Actually I was pretty happy to lie down for a few hours and go to sleep at 9pm.

Loch Ness marathon

Thanks Loch Ness marathon it has been amazing and emotional! I can now retire from marathon running (for a few years at least) and do some new things!

Kayaking course starts next week….

Loch Ness Marathon – Part 5 – Race Day