|Cobbie's Selected Race Results
Sep 6th - ÷ TILL ÷; 14:19; Report
March - Jurassic Coast Challenge; DNF after 13 miles on day 2...glute injury picked up due to excessive mud
Nov - Pembrokeshire Coast Challenge; 78.6 miles. Day 1 - 5th in 4:39. Day 2 - Retired with ITB injury after 15 miles
Oct 4th - Sandstone Trail 'A' Race; 17 miles, 1750ft 2:19:15; 29/156
Aug 8th - Norseman 14:57; 81=/230 Report No1 & Report No2
June 28th - A Day in the Lakes HIM 5:55:18; 68/309 Report
June 17th - Dee Mile, 2000m OW swim. 29:12; 13/100 Report
May 31st - Pontcysyllte Aqueduct Cyclosportif 107 miles, 3000+m ascent; 7:20:26
March 28th Cheshire Cat Cyclosportif 105 miles; 7:04 Report
March 21st - Chester Tri Runners vs Kayaks; Llangollen Canal 32.4 miles; 5:22 Report
The year I was a fat bast@rd
Atlantic Coast Challenge 78miles; About 18 hrs Report
Norseman 17:05 Report
Etape du Dales 110 miles; 8:40ish with puncture
Nov 17th - Penmaenmawr Fell Race (11 miles, 1500ft); 1:35:23; 50/220
Bala Olympic Tri 2:14:00; 217/773 (AG 61/203) Report
Hathersage Hilly - 1:22:34; 19/169 and AG 4/43 ; Report
July 11th - Dee Mile, 2000m OW swim. 23:16; 15/76
April 29th - Three Peaks Fell Race (24 miles, 4500ft); DNF
Feb 4th - Leg of Pennine Bridleway Relay Stages 4 & 5
Jan 29th - Tough Guy 1:25:02; 59/3800ish finishers AG 5th Vet ; Report
Jan 22nd - 4 Villages Half Marathon 86:52; 152/1570
Nov 18th - Penmaenmawr Fell Race (11 miles, 1500ft); 1:31:42; 24/237; Report
Oct 8th - Pentland Skyline (16.2 miles, 6,200ft); 3:30:54; 79/150; Report. Blisters
Oct 1st - Sandstone Trail ďAĒ Race (17 miles, 1750ft) 2:15:14; 14/135 3rd V40; Report
Sept 24th Ė South Shropshire Sprint 1:23; 28/234
August - Bob Graham Round Two unsuccessful unsupported attempts; got lost on the first and asthma on the second
July 23rd - TLD Bike Relay 5:52:38; Report
June 7th - Dee Mile, 2000m OW swim. 28:47; 24/97
June 4th - Bala Middle 4:47:39
May 7th - Fred Whitton Challenge 112 miles, 4,150m of ascent, 8:18:52; Report
March 19th - Edale Skyline Fell Race 21.3 miles, 4,620ft; 3:48:25, 100/260
Feb 5th - Leg of Pennine Bridleway Relay Stage 2 - 13.3 miles, 1560ft; 1:42:08
Jan 29th - Tough Guy 92:55; 52/3283 finishers AG 6/521; Report
Jan 22nd - 4 Villages Half Marathon 85:43; 152/1655
Oct 30th - Snowdonia Marathon 3:54:50; 265/961
Oct 2nd - Sandstone Trail ďAĒ Race (16.8 miles, 1750ft) 2:17:41; 29/111
Sep 18th - Bala Olympic Tri 2:20:31; 83/433 (AG 17/100)
Sep 10th - Helvellyn Tri 4:17:38; 43/331
July 24th - The Longest Day 11:00:25; 40/150
June 5th - Bala Middle 4:39:54; 92/318 (AG 25/87)
Mar 15th - Wuthering Hike [31 miles 4400 ft] 5:35
Jan 29th - Tough Guy 93:49; 161/3,500
Jan 22nd - 4 Villages half marathon 90:39; 256/1504
Survival of the Shawangunks - 5:29:45 35/120
Wolverhampton Oly 2:19:50
The year of illness and poor motivation
Powerman UK 3:47
HIM Llanberis 5:09:40
HIM Llanberis 5:38
|All about Cobbie
Joined: 02 Aug 2005
Interests: Red wine and cakes
How Fitbit helped me get fitter
Wed Nov 23, 2016 4:51 pm Cobbie
As I was getting heavier last year and feeling no motivation for exercise, I did wonder whether Iíd reached the end of my sporting life. I was getting up at 6 to get to work, spending time with Lynn and Henry when I got home, after which I was just too tired to train most of the time. The swimming I did and the occasional turbo were mostly out of duty and nowhere near enough. It was a worrying thought so I hunted around for something that might snap me out of my malaise.
Having been working with Bupa for over a year at this time, I was used to seeing people wearing Fitbits and I had a couple of marketing types prod me about getting one. As Christmas drew near, I had a look at the range and put one on the list, without any real sense of excitement. As it was, the Fitbit proved to be a catalyst to a great sporting 2016.
Iíve not looked around for reviews or articles like the one Iím going to write so I donít know if this is already common knowledge. The reason for writing is to put my own feelings and thoughts down on paper. In other words, this is for my benefit; if it helps anybody else then thatís great but this is largely an introspective blog.
What is a Fitbit
I suppose I had better assume that this requires a brief commentary. Fitbits are one of a growing group of sports watches which focus on step counting. This particular brand have a range from basic step counting, through to GPS enabled.
The one I was given was the Charge HR, which measures steps and heart rate, using a light to measure capillary expansion as heart rate increases. As with other devices, it uses this data to calculate calories burnt, steps climbed and length of sleep. It can track exercise in a rudimentary fashion and the software provides the ability to track calories taken in.
In terms of looks, itís a simple black band with one button which activates a display. Itís well designed and fits my wrist very snugly. Each time you press the button it scrolls through the 5 key data items; steps, heart rate, floors climbed, calories burnt and HR. It also displays time and date so you can wear it as a watch. Recharging takes under an hour every 4 or 5 days; I tend to do it in the car when Iím (obviously) sitting still.
Iíve been wearing mine on my right wrist. As Iím right handed and would normally wear a watch on my left hand, it has been knocked a lot. I may change over to my left wrist at some stage and wear instead of a watch but havenít done so as yet for consistency reasons. As you can see itís pretty banged up after less than a year of use; the screen is heavily scratched and the band has delaminated below the disply.
The first thing to say is that step counting is a pretty inaccurate measure and as far as I can see, all step counters are pretty poor at counting steps accurately. Doing the washing up, dancing, cycling; any activity where your arm moves suddenly in fact, adds steps to the total. Iíve heard of people using this to cheat which seems pretty pointless but thatís definitely possible. On the flip side, activities such as cycling on the turbo and gardening clock up very few steps as thereís infrequent acceleration or none at all. All my highest stepping days of 2016 have been century bike rides, each turn of the pedals counting as a step.
Floor counting is worse. Initially, I couldnít work out why a day at home gave me fewer floors climbed than a day at work. The answer was simple when I worked it out Ė at home I have a right handed flight of stairs and tend to put my hand on the bannister; this means no steady accelerations and hence little or no credit. At work, left hand stairs meant the fitbit worked as you would expect. I had a similar experience cycling. Hilly cycle routes clock up a lot of floors climbed but my day on the Tourmalet stands out as being much lower than other days of equivalent ascent; I put this down to the fact that my EIA meant that I took it very gently and hence the acceleration on each pedal stroke was too little to be recorded as ascent.
After reading that, you might wonder why have I found it helpful? I have two answers for this Ė firstly, if you consider steps as a proxy measurement for total activity, then itís not too bad. Secondly, the HR measurement gives a reasonably accurate measure of calories burnt.
The Charge HR optically senses capillary size, by measuring the relative amount of red and green on your skin. So as heart rate increases, higher blood flow is picked up by the sensor. I donít think itís great at picking up short term changes so I wouldnít recommend as a sports solution. However, Iíve had more problems with chest strap sensor accuracy than the fitbit and havenít used HR as a primary measure for sport for over 10 years as itís so unreliable. For use in calorie counting however, itís great. The only problem Iíve had is low HR on the turbo which turned out to be caused by the fan blowing cold air onto my wrist Ö doh!
Within a month, Iíd realised that calories burnt is the key metric to follow; this does pick up non accelerating activities (classed as Ďworkoutsí by the software).
I spent a little time correlating calories burnt against power meter data and was pleasantly surprised at how close they were. I deliberately didnít pursue further as there are so many other factors affecting calories burnt on the bike but thereís a clear correlation between the two.
The sleep measurement isnít something Iíve paid regular attention to, I guess it combines lack of steps and low heart rate to decide. Iíve certainly seen times where Iíve woken early and lain quietly in bed where the device has classed me as being asleep Ö however, given it has no intelligence, this is probably what youíd expect. Overall though, it does seem to be roughly correct and does pick up on Ďrestlessí sleep pretty well. I have used the data to identify that 7 hours seems like a good amount of sleep for me (simple qualitative review of feeling no better after much longer sleep and being more tired after a week of less sleep). Here the data helped by just being proper data. Realising that Iíd never been very disciplined about bedtimes, I have made an effort to ensure that I get 7 hours and I think thatís been worthwhile.
Calorie intake you have to enter yourself. I did this for a month in February and itís hard work; very easy to miss stuff and difficult to be accurate if you cook from fresh. Thereís a decent database of food items on the App but it leans towards processed food. For example, if I cook a chicken Balti, the only processed ingredient is the Balti paste; however, the database really only covers processed ready meals, meaning that I had to add each ingredient from scratch to work out total calories which is a pain and no doubt leads to other errors unless every item is meticulously weighed.
It was helpful to learn roughly how calorie dense various things are, not something Iíve ever done before and I have slightly modified my eating habits as a result. However, now that I know roughly how much I eat, I feel itís enough to judge this against calories burnt and actual weight.
So, given the number of issues, erroneous data etc., why have I found the Fitbit so helpful? Basically, itís made me aware of how active or inactive I am. In the days when I was clocking up 10-15 hours of exercise a week (if not more), this wasnít of any interest. Now that Iím a busy dad, with limited time to train, it means much more.
For the first time in my life, Iím able to judge whether Iím doing enough to keep weight on an even keel. I estimate that my normal day in 2015 burnt about 2300-2500 calories. This year, my average is above 3000 calories. Apart from being generally more motivated, the Fitbit nudges me towards being more active.
At first I started walking up stairs rather than using the lift, going for a walk at lunchtime and just generally being more active. Once we got into March I started cycling again and Iíve kept that up and enjoyed it all year. I think Henry getting older and more active has also helped.
In terms of weight, I started the year at 88kg (yuk!), was about 78-79kg after the Raid Pyrenean and have settled down at about 81kg since then. 80-81kg has been my Ďsteadyí weight since my peak exercise years so thatís fine and will no doubt drop as we move into next spring and I clock up more miles on the bike as things warm up.
One last thing to point out before a few graphs. The continuous nature of the Fitbit data is quite different to what Iíd consider to be coming from a sports watch. Itís very much about life in the round rather than just sporting activity. Basically, this is not a sports watch, itís a life watch.
First up letís look at resting heart rate. You can see your HR trend over every day and a breakdown of HR zones during that time which can be pretty helpful. For example, after the first day of the Raid Pyrenean I noticed that my HR had been higher when cycling than I wanted, up above 140 bpm for over 3 hours. I think this was down to me being well rested and also the very hot weather we had that day. I made a very clear decision to be more conservative Ė looking at the data, I spent the rest of the week working between 120-140 bpm. In this instance working to HR would have helped but given that I donít, the Fitbit gave me access to data which was actually pretty useful.
Iím not entirely sure about the science behind resting HR, my take is that itís a consistent number from day to day which gives me something to use as a comparative measure. The graph shows how this dropped from around about 57bpm until March, down to roughly 52-53 bpm until late September as I got fitter. Since then itís been a bit higher as Iíve had low level autumn lurgy of one form or another for a couple of months.
You can see two very obvious peaks around my two big cycling trips. This was somewhat unexpected and I think is simply over-reaching; the impact of multiple hard days without recovery.
Hereís the calories burnt graph. You can see how closely it correlates with bike rides; of course it would be much the same with other exercise. You can see clearly how my build-up in distance is reflected in energy usage and how this has dropped off as Iíve gone back to typically two weekly rides of 30-40 and 50-60 miles. My focus has moved to maintaining effort over flatter rides and this has also dropped the total calories compared to the spring where most rides were hilly. Itís also worth pointing at the difference between now and the start of the year. Iím still having plenty of 2500-2600 calorie days, but there are also lots of days above 3500 calories. This is where cycling works really well, the longer exercise time allows for more calories to be burnt, even if the cals/hour is lower than for running. So long as I can continue to find the time amongst other commitments, I think my weight and fitness should continue to improve.
The graph for steps is very similar in profile to the calories graph, as you might expect. However, the relationship between steps and calories burnt is not that great for all the reasons Iíve mentioned.
You can see that there are fewer low days and more high days since the start of the year but the overall profile basically shows when Iíve been cycling.
Finally, to remove the noise, Iíve graphed my weekly average calories burnt. This is now pretty much the only thing Iím tracking regularly, as I aim to maintain an average of 3000 calories burnt per day.
Since the start of April Iíve been above this every week apart from four; the weeks before and after my Raid, a week at the start of October where I was pretty active but didnít get time to exercise and last week when I was ill. Pretty happy with that.
I like my Fitbit, itís been a great addition to my life and Iíll certainly continue with it into 2017. I do wonder whether the battering itís taken will cause itís demise before 2017 is out but itís not showing signs of electronic wear, just physical bumps.
Things I would suggest you think about if considering getting one:
ē Calories burnt is the important number, a step counter without it is money wasted IMHO (i.e. get one which measures HR)
ē Great for recording life outside sport
ē Recording calorific intake is time consuming and inaccurate. However, worthwhile for a period of a month or so to learn how calorific different foods are and how to make sure your calorie consumption is sensible
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016
Mon Aug 08, 2016 4:02 pm Cobbie
Focussing on cycling over the spring meant no time for anything else, being a dad definitely limits things in that regard. However, in the back of my mind I knew that Iíd have a couple of weeks to do at least some swimming after the Raid Pyrenean.
In the end I managed to do a couple of sets of 1500m (3 steady sets of 500) in the pool on two separate occasions as I recovered from the cycling. By not pushing too hard and not worrying about speed I was surprised at how well I was swimming after pretty much zero pool time in 2016.
With a week to go I had a decent 2km swim in the river with full-on angler anger Ė why do these people think they own the river? Then crap weather meant I did another 2km two days before the race, nothing like a bit of last minute cramming.
The Dee Mile has grown massively over the years, over 300 people started the 2km race last weekend. When I first did it, back in 2001, it was basically 50 odd triathletes dodging rowers and that was a big improvement on the days when wetsuits werenít allowed. Itís a funny thing but allowing wetsuits has led to far more non wetsuit swimmers, even before the boom in open water swimming of the past couple of years. I even did it non wetsuit once myself back in 2004.
Anyway, these days swimmers walk from the finish to the two starts (thereís a 1km race as well), all very civilised. Once in the water thereís loads of canoe cover and red and yellow buoys to mark both sides of the course. I swam hard and must have paced it reasonably well as I was still going strong on the final sprint to the finish.
Great shot of the business end of the race - massively foreshortened
Overall, finished in 60th position, just in the top 20% - times are largely irrelevant as the amount of current varies from year to year. That compares to 25th in a slightly smaller field (top 9%) two years ago when I was swimming regularly. At least I now know the value of more training!
All in all, a lovely outing on a beautiful July afternoon. Top efforts from all the canoeists, volunteers and organisers. For me this is what swimming is all about.
A short film of the start
Some general photos here:
From the Dee Mile facebook page
Dee Mile artwork
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016
100 hour Raid Pyrenean - July 2016
Sun Jul 17, 2016 3:14 pm Cobbie
At the start of 2016 I was the heaviest Iíve ever been and totally down about sport. I needed a challenge and a 3 day Chester Tri club ride in Scotland at the end of May seemed to provide it. 300 miles in 3 days would be hard for me at the best of times, let alone now, with no cycling for 2 years and pretty much nothing but swimming in 2015.
In the first couple of months of the year I became more active; going to the gym a bit, doing a small amount of running, some turboing but mainly walking more. Several kg had dropped off by the time I started taking the bike out as spring approached. Then, by a series of unexpected conversations, the Raid Pyrenean raised itself as a possibility and I signed up at the start of April; the Scotland trip had become an appetizer for the main event!
For those not familiar, the aim is to cycle from the Atlantic Coast to the Mediterranean, over the Pyrenees in under 100 elapsed hours. Here's the map:
My training was limited to 2/3 rides a week but went really well. I had some longer rides in all weather conditions and the Scotland trip was incredibly successful; great riding in unbelievably good weather. A final century with nearly 3000m of ascent 10 days prior to the Raid, plus a fast, flat 70 mile club ride left me feeling I was in decent enough shape. I was weighing in at 80kg, higher than I wanted but still 8kg down on the start of 2016, had done 3 century rides and 4 more 70-90 milers. Given the time available, I couldnít really have hoped for better.
Getting to the start from the north of England isnít simple. Iíd picked Marmot Tours for support and have nothing but good words to say about the support I got prior to leaving and from the two guides, Graham and Gary, during the trip. They recommended flying out to Bilbao and back from Barcelona which worked out OK. From Bilbao airport you get a bus to San Sebastian and then a train to Hendaye. The ticket office wouldnít sell me a ticket to France (they even made out that the train didnít go there!) so I paid about Ä2 to get to Irun on the Spanish side of the border and stayed on the train Ö integrated border crossing this was not. Graham gave me a lift to the hotel and I had a relaxed afternoon building the bike and getting ready with a light spin over to the beach for a snack. My aero set-up drew several surprised comments from the other 7 riders in the group; I pointed out that this was the only bike Iíve got but Iím not sure that really registered with some, nor the fact that Iíve been up and down an awful lot of hills over the years. Such is life.
Day 1 Ė Hendaye to Lurbe St. Christau
101 miles, 2200m ascent
A generally uphill day with a couple of small cols. We pedalled gently over to the official start at the coast, with obligatory photos in the Atlantic before the official start at 9am.
Rolling out of Hendaye up the first hill, I found myself 5th of 8 but only Mark was pulling away from the rest; he basically did his own thing all week in a cheerful way, easily the strongest cyclist. After 40km we stopped for coffee and I teamed up with Neal who was just ahead of me for the bulk of the day. The scenery was unremarkable but we rode through many very pretty, small villages. It got very hot and humid by the afternoon and the ascent of the 500m Col DíOsquich I found tough Ė it was in the trees and full sun so I sweated my way up to land at the top in an undignified heap. Thankfully, this was forecast to be the hottest and most humid day of the week.
Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere but had a pool so I dipped my legs in as recovery and got an early night after a good evening meal.
Day 2 Ė Lurbe to Bagnerres
90 miles, 3600m ascent
This looked to be the biggest day of the Raid, with both Aubisque and Tourmalet to climb. It was cold and misty setting off, downhill at first, then gradually uphill to the foot of the Aubisque at 30km. Weíd been following brown ďRoute du FromageĒ signs up to now, from here on it would be much more up and down.
I realised very quickly that Iíd forgotten to take my asthma inhaler but the cool weather meant it wasnít a problem and I thought Iíd just grab it at the first stop after 30K; of course I forgot which had a big impact in the afternoon. I set off up the Aubisque, knowing Iíd be steady at best and I took regular stops whenever the view looked good enough for a photo. I met an Australian about half way who was cycling up after having had both knees replaced Ė chapeau Ė and after some while emerged without drama at the summit restaurant for my second omelette & frites in two days. I was second last at the top but it was clear that one of the team had been pretty freaked out; heíd been grumbling when passing me just before the summit and then complained of having reflux problems over lunch. I suspect the scale of challenge got to him as he pulled out at this point; hopefully some more training will give him the confidence to try again.
It was still very misty for the descent so it was on with the arm warmers and jacket (my old emergency fell running jacket in fact) for a short descent and climb to the subsidiary col du Soulor. I had to walk up a small rise to get my bike against the sign here which lodged some mud in my cleats so I did the main descent with my left shoe unclipped. I stopped at the first village and removed my jacket, whilst digging out mud from my cleat with the arm of my sunglasses. We were due to meet the van at 80km at an animal park but having arrived at the summit a little later than the others I didnít appreciate that I might need more detailed instructions. By the time I realised Iíd missed the stop, I was at the bottom of the Gorges de Luz so I pedalled up to Luz St Saveur where I met Graham and bought a cake and a coke.
By the time the rest of the team rolled in, I was nearly ready to go. My Symbicort was now on its way to the hotel so I made do with Ventolin which I only use for emergencies these days; its effect doesnít last long and tends to make me feel worse once it wears off. There was a certain sense of foreboding as I set off as it was now very hot and humid, the worst weather for my asthma symptoms as well as for sporting performance. I stopped every km or so depending on shade to drink, take a photo, squeeze sweat from my helmet and generally count down the kms to the climb being over! The Tourmalet might be famous but itís not a very nice climb, for me the least good of the big climbs on this trip. At least an occasional breeze sprang up as I got higher and near the top we moved once again into the mist. Support from Graham and Gary was great and I managed to keep smiling, at least until the last km which kicks up to 10% average. I was barely moving by the top but eventually I rounded the final bend to see the famous sculpture and get some very atmospheric photos. There was no point in hanging around, just get my carnet stamp, wrap up warm and set off carefully down.
With visibility down to about 50m it meant brakes on for a large part of the descent; at one point I stopped in order to put my Garmin onto map view so that I knew roughly when bends were coming up. Gradually visibility improved and I was able to speed up, until a left turn at St Marie de Campan where we headed away from the Raid route for 10km to reach a modern hotel. Iíd been on the go for about 11 hours, 8:45 riding time for 90 miles. A blast of Symbicort showed my lungs to be well down on normal capacity which was worrying but I was hopeful of an overnight recovery and decided to ride with the inhaler for the rest of the trip.
Day 3 Ė Bagnerres to Massat
108 miles, 3200m ascent
As hoped, I felt much better in the morning, although my legs were a little tired, to be expected of course. I gave the bike a quick hose down following the wet roads of the day before and set off a little before 8, ahead of the others who I knew would catch me. There were 3 big climbs to do, the Aspin & Peyresourde back to back in the morning, followed by the steep Col du Portet díAspet after 70 miles.
It was grey all the way up the Aspin, which was a lovely steady climb. My breathing was back to normal so I was a very happy Cobbie and the team descended in a loose group.
At the bottom, I pushed on up the lower slopes of the Peyresourde where the sun broke through to give me my best photos to date. This was another lovely climb, busy with other cyclists and with a great view to the col in the last 2km. We reached the top to find the Tour setting up for the finish that Froome won 2 days later and I had yet another Omlette / Frites for lunch in lovely sunshine.
Then the best descent of the trip, fast and open to an excellent road at the bottom with lovely views to mountains ahead. We had to negotiate the small Col díAres (800m) which was memorable because of roadworks which we had to dismount for, the hot tarmac sticking to my tyres. At the top there was a cafť where it was ice cream and coke all round. By now the weather was warm but not too humid, as good as I could hope for. I found out here that Doug had abandoned Ė heíd crashed badly on the Peyresourde in 2015 and having descended successfully today and banished his demons, decided to stop. This meant I was likely to be lantern rouge on the climbs, not that I minded.
10km of riding from the descent of the Ares and we reached the Portet díAspet which Iíd been psyching up for all day as it contains sections of 14%. The average gradient was 10%; basically the ramps round the bends are very steep with the straight sections around 8%. I passed the monument to Casartelli low down Ė Iím sorry to say I was so focussed on cycling that it barely registered. Then it was just a case of pedalling steadily, out of the saddle on the steep ramps and with the occasional stop to take on water and squeeze sweat from my helmet. In the end it wasnít as hard as I expected and with only 5 steep km, nowhere near as tough as the Tourmalet and I wasnít even last as Michael dropped behind me. Thereís a sheltered horse trough at the top which I guess must be famous in these parts; some of the guys dunked themselves but I was fine so just had some fruit and a drink.
The climbing was now done for the day but we still had 60km to go. The first 30km was downhill and Michael surprised me by coming past after the descent, going like a train and way too fast for me to keep up. I wondered about the sense in that but presumed he knew his body well enough. Anyway, I was going fast enough for little effort so just settled down on the bars and enjoyed the views.
With 30km to go (145km) we stopped at a cafť in St. Girons to get our carnets stamped and a bottle of coke. We were all knackered and a couple of the team had a beer. I was feeling very frazzled and not looking forward to 30km more, gently uphill. It was really tough, I was too tired to keep up so had to plough on alone along what would have been an easy road at the start of the day. Most was along a wooded gorge, quite pretty probably! Finally I reached Massat and nearly had to stop on a tiny incline into the village. Our hotel was beautifully situated with a large veranda for beers and later a huge beef bourginon. One more hard day to go I thought as I drifted off to sleep.
Day 4 Ė Massat to Prades
90 miles, 3400m ascent
For all the accumulated weariness, I felt better again today. The weather looked set fair and once again I set off a bit before the others, through the village and straight onto the Col du Port. This is a lovely climb, averaging 5-6% for 10km, then dropping off for the last 2-3km. It was misty low down, then I broke through above the cloud and near the top had views of distant mountains.
After a quick stop at the van, I headed off as the others were arriving. After the descent, itís gradually uphill on a busy road to Ax-les-Thermes where we stopped at a cafť for a bite and to buy a sandwich & drink for a picnic atop the upcoming Col du Pailheres. We were joined by Gary the guideís wife in a camper van (they run a B&B in Ax) and she provided added support on what I think was the toughest climb of the Raid. Thereís a few steepish bits low down but lots of shade, followed by a couple of easier km. After that however, itís 10km of mostly 9-10% and very open; thankfully it wasnít humid. As previously, I took it nice and steady, stopping for a drink regularly and gradually whittling down the miles. After passing a small lake and ski station, thereís a series of hairpins before a long drag up to the col which seemed to be doubling as a horse sanctury. I was still smiling at the top, some way behind the front 4 whoíd already polished off their lunch under the camper van awning. Michael was still climbing so his friend Richard rode back down for company, a nice move.
One sandwich later and I was raring to go again; the descent is long and very twisty, hairpin after hairpin before some intricate route finding and then straight into the final 3 cols of the trip. I had these to myself for the most part and they were very pretty, with more flowers and a different feel to the air. Crossing the watershed at the Pailheres had brought a Mediterranean feel to the Raid and at mostly 5-6%, the next two cols were very enjoyable.
The Col des Moulis is actually a subsidiary of the higher Col du Garavel but at 1100m still worthy of the name. Itís only a short descent before the higher climb which has a lovely summit and tricky descent through a gorge. Then itís a straight into the Col du Jau, the final major col and at 600+m of climbing, no pushover. There are sections of 8-9% but it never felt that hard, which probably means I was getting used to it. Itís mostly in the trees, which was helpful in the heat of the afternoon and it was very noticeable how much tougher things got on the few occasions when the road moved out of the shade. I had a real sense of achievement at the summit, this was easily my toughest cycling challenge and barring accidents, it was in the bag.
We still had a very long descent to get to the hotel, however, so concentration was needed, especially as there was fresh gravel on some of the bends. It was narrow and technical for the most part and quite bumpy, not what I needed after another long day. The views were fantastic though, we passed through a beautiful village and then a fortified one which I should have captured on film but the road was very steep and twisty which meant I just took it in as I passed.
After that I was practically down, just some intricate route finding on the outskirts of Prades before reaching the hotel where the proprietor handed me a glass of sangria on arrival. That evening was very relaxed, we knew all the really hard work was over.
Day 5 Ė Prades to Cerbere
59 miles, 600m ascent
It was a wet start and for me, some disappointment as Michael decided he wanted to ďsmash itĒ to the coast, meaning that the vague agreement to stay as a group today failed before it began; such is life. I pedalled off but only made it 1 mile before stopping to get my rainproof off, Pyrenean rain is a lot warmer than Welsh rain! The riding was gently downhill, first on the main road to Perpignan, then back to quieter, more scenic countryside. I passed the Col du Ternere (233m! but someone was proud enough to put up a sign) and was going strongly before disaster struck in the form of a puncture going through a small village. You have to ride the final 95km before 1pm to complete the Raid in under 100 hours so the margin for error is small. I used all my Andy Wilkinson knowhow and got the tyre off without levers for the first time ever, at the same time calling Gary in the van whoíd only just passed me Ė I had a CO2 canister but a track pump is much more reliable. I couldnít find anything on the tyre so forced myself to carefully check again, still nothing so back on with the new tube, again no levers needed and Gary returned just in time to use the pump. He then stayed behind me for a couple of miles to check all was OK which I was grateful for and once again I started to relax. I was maintaining 30kmh and even with my most pessimistic projections I had 3Ĺ hours to do 60km, under 20km per hour.
The route follows a couple of ring roads round small towns and the sun came out as I approached the coast. I was confident enough now to stop for a couple of minutes to eat a cereal bar in a lay-by where there was a lovely view over fields to distant mountains before hitting the first coastal town and mad traffic / pedestrians. It was still pretty fast to the resort town of Argeles where the traffic was snarled up behind a furniture van; I ended up on the cycle path dodging beach balls for a bit here! The next section got a bit complicated and saw the only real error with the Garmin route, both Mark and I heading separately up a steep little hill instead of skirting round through a port road. I remember thinking I could almost certainly carry on to re-join the route but bottled it and went back, there might be no immediate time pressure but it wouldnít take much to change that.
The final section along the coast involved a couple of stiff little climbs and was lovely in a very different way to all that had gone before; twisty roads contouring the coastline. Mark overtook me with about 5 miles to go, still pedalling effortlessly and I upped my own power to keep him in sight round a couple of headlands and then onto the final descent into CerbŤre and the finish line at our hotel at about 12:20. The Marmot crew had set up a finish line banner and we got our photo taken before getting the final stamp and official recognition that weíd joined the 100 hour club. Graham poured us a glass of champagne and I sat down feeling very content. Neal and Alex rolled in at about 12:30 and Richard and Michael with about 15 minutes left, with Michael clearly exhausted Ė theyíd stopped for coffee which allowed me to overtake without realising.
I had a steak for lunch and a couple of grande pressions before packing up the bike and watching Froome win over the Peyresourde, more special having pedalled over it myself. We had a final group meal, a huge paella and Michael told me that when he saw my bike before we started, he thought there was no way Iíd finish. I suppose it was a backhanded compliment of sorts but given itís a high quality road bike, just with different handlebars, I was left bemused as to why heíd think that. Rather than get annoyed, I bought him a beer.
Next morning, I had a very early start at 6am to start the journey home. Gary gave me a life across the border to Portbou to avoid the challenge of crossing the Ďopení border on a train. It turned out to be a relatively easy trip, just a change of train in Barcelona to get to the airport and a flight back to Manchester.
Overall, the trip distance is 450 miles / 720km with 13,000m of climbing in 4.5 days. A week later Iím still buzzing about it so it looks like this type of thing might be my sporting future for a while, letís see.
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016
Mon Jun 06, 2016 12:42 pm Cobbie
Last weekend I did a 3 day cycling trip to the west coast & islands of Scotland. It was the best cycling trip Iíve ever been on so I thought Iíd write a blog and post a few photos.
The trip was organised by Chester Triís Andy White and owes everything to his foresight and organisational ability.
Hereís the itinerary:
Day 0 Ė Park up at Wemyss Bay and cycle 18 miles to Ardrossan. Ferry to Campbeltown
Day 1 Ė North from Campeltown via east coast road to Lochgilpead and then minor roads up the west side of Loch Awe to Oban. 101 hilly miles
Day 2 Ė Start & finish in Oban. 35 miles north to Corran ferry; then 45 miles west along the north side of Loch Sunart to Kilchoan ferry to Tobermory on Mull. 20 miles east brings you to the Craignure ferry back to Oban. 100 miles, less hilly than day 1
Day 3 Ė Oban to Bute via Inverarray. An easier day but still 89 miles. Ferry back to Wemyss Bay from Rothesay to finish.
Itís a flat, fast road, under an hourís cycling for 19 miles. Then buy a ticket and get on the ferry for 3 hours to Campeltown. We stayed in the backpackers which was great; the town itself is underwhelming.
View towards Campbeltown from the ferry
After the obligatory team photo, I set off with the faster cyclists. The road up the east coast of the peninsula is single track from the start and follows the contours of the land Ė in other words itís lumpy all the way. Lots of short, steep climbs were followed by nasty, steep descents; my carbon rims were squealing under braking a fair bit on tight hairpins and sharp bends to cross streams. After 10 or 15 miles, I decided to back off and joined up with the steadier cyclists; after all, there were still 85 miles to go. There were 16 of us I think and all of a decent standard; the slower group was just less testosterone fuelled.
We eventually joined the main road and much faster cycling to Tarbert at 38 miles, where we found an excellent cafť for lunch with view over the harbour. The weather was already great and set fair for the whole weekend.
Soon after Tarbert, we had team disaster No1 when Cara suffered a broken gear cable. Thankfully, there was a bike shop in the next town (Lochgilphead) and they replaced the cable in under 15 minutes, result! Back on the road with little delay. Soon after, we once again launched into single track territory up the west side of Loch Awe and more steep, lumpy cycling. On the longer, steeper climbs I was finding the going tough but recovering quickly Ė still too heavy but getting fitter and stronger. On the longest climb we could see a tough section and I heard a terrible crack as Markís bike came to a grinding halt on a hairpin above me. Team disaster No2 was much more serious, a broken hanger. We flagged down a car which happened to be going to Oban and they agreed to give Mark a lift (he managed to hire a bike on Sunday and borrow one on Monday so it worked out OK); result No2! Luckily, team disaster No3 never happened.
After a cafť stop at 70 miles where there was a festival going on, the ride continued in the same lumpy fashion up to the A85. If anything, the road surface deteriorated and there were more worrying gravelly descents. Still, we all remained upright and avoided the increasing traffic. The view towards the A85 had been stunning and we now turned away from some lovely looking hills for a mile on the main road before joining another remote single track, with a long climb up to moorland and a photographic encounter with a herd of hairy cows with big horns.
View north over the A85
After that, a big swoop down into Oban and we were done for the day. 101 miles with our detour to the bike shop and a solid 2400m of ascent, about 7.5 hours on the bike for me. When you consider that the high point was just 200m above sea level, you get an idea of just how up and down it was.
Sunset over Oban
Today was less hilly but required a higher pace to make some tight ferry times; miss the first ferry at Corran and it would be tough to make the second over to Mull. That in turn would mean not getting back to Oban on the third ferry until nearly 8pm.
Not surprisingly after that tough first day about half the team decided on an easier ride. That wasnít really an option for me with the need for Raid Pyrenean prep so I determined to set out as soon as possible after breakfast to ensure making that key first ferry without stress. Oban youth hostel doesnít start serving breakfast until 7:30 so I wolfed it down and was out of the door at 7:50. 35 miles to do in a little under 2.5 hours isnít that challenging but I had to be careful not to go too hard too early, hence my plan to keep away from the faster people! After the initial climb out of Oban, this was a great ride, pretty flat, good road surface in general and increasing lovely views out west across Loch Linnie. I remembered the old trick of walking up the steps to the Ballachulish bridge and took a few seconds to take in the amazing view.
View over Loch Linnie from Ballachulish bridge
Then it was just a few miles to the Corran ferry which I reached at 9:50, giving me a decent opportunity to rest and eat Ė there were no cafes on this route until Tobermory at 80 miles. The rest of the crew rolled up soon after 10 and Steve and Ali, who Iíd travelled up with, agreed to cycle with me to the next ferry. The crossing was only 10 minutes so we were cycling by 10:25, giving us 3hrs 20 mins for 45 miles. Given that the first section was pretty flat, I was expecting this to be tougher.
On the Corran ferry
Initially, it was very fast but soon enough there was a stiff climb before we reached the village of Stontian where Steve screeched to a halt at an unexpected shop. We bought an ice cream and relaxed for a few minutes by the loch; the weather was great and the scenery superb. I pondered on whether there were originally 90 houses which had decayed to 88 over the past 29 years and soon enough was itching to be off. As the weakest rider, I wanted as little stress as possible and we were now on a straightforward 15mph schedule.
View from our ice cream stop
The next 90 minutes along the loch were lumpy, continuously up and down with a couple of stiffer climbs thrown in. Steve stopped regularly for photos, Ali sometimes, while I just rode. Timing was looking good but I knew there was a long climb before the ferry and soon enough we were heading steadily up and inland. After looking out at the loch for so long, this was totally different, bleaker moorland scenery and a steadier, more continental gradient than weíd experienced so far. Steve and Ali pulled ahead whilst I kept up as good a tempo as I could, more and more certain that we were just going to miss the boat. I went over the high point with no sign of the others and pushed as hard as I could down to a plateau and then Ö aarrgh Ö another climb. I cursed the ice cream stop, certain now that I wouldnít be quite quick enough. But then the descent began in earnest and the miles fell away before a small ferry sign at a left turn where the others were waiting. A mile later and we were on the ramp, 7 or 8 minutes early; high fives all round but no sign of the faster group. They still werenít there when we boarded and we thought they wouldnít make it. But then, just as the doors were about to go up, Pete arrived after time trialling the final 20 miles Ė the fast group had found a cafť off the main road and stopped for too long! He thought the others were 5-10 minutes back and after a bit of pleading, the ferry operators agreed to wait a few minutes. The doors had been raised when Andy arrived but to their credit the crew dropped them again and 2 minutes later the whole team were aboard.
The ferry to Tobermory
30 minutes later we were in Tobermory with its colourful sea front. It was heaving and the queue for ice cream was so long that I gave up and got a sandwich from the co-op. The final stage was 20 miles so I set off just after 2:45, giving myself 80 minutes to catch the 4:10 ferry back to Oban. Thereís a stiff climb out of the town and at the top a road sign told me I had 21 miles to go Ė oops, suddenly I needed to pedal at 18mph. To my surprise, the road carried on going uphill across some moorland where Andy and Pete came past. Not long after that, I passed them at the bottom of a steep descent as Andy had a mechanical problem (turned out to be a chain issue). Finally it was flat again and I pushed on, briefly drafting Steve and Ali but not strong enough to keep that up. Still, after 190 miles in 2 days I was going strongly enough, 20 mph for the most part and as with the previous section, it suddenly looked like the ferry was in reach; in fact I made it without drama, although we then discovered that it didnít leave for an hour so we could have taken it easy after all!
My Garmin came up with 99 miles (most others had just over 100), 1700m ascent and 6 hours 15 minutes cycling time. Not bad after only 2 months back in the saddle and actually my first ever back to back century rides.
Helmet hair on the ferry back to Oban
I didnít sleep well, coughing during the night with what I took to be EIA and somewhat wheezy in the morning. What with that and the hassle of packing up, I was one of the last to leave on another beautiful morning.
We had to reverse the final 10 miles from day 1 which meant a long initial climb back past the hairy cows. I was soon on my own and feeling drained so took care to manage my effort. We had 89 miles to do and the profile was fairly flat with about 4 set piece climbs, the one out of Oban being the first. It was already hot by the time I reached the A85 and much easier riding round the north end of Loch Awe. Lots of signposts reminded me of the West Highland way nearby, now 9 years since Lynn and I trekked that.
I was feeling tired and a bit saddle sore so the views didnít inspire me in the same way as on the first 2 days, this was a case of just getting through the day safely. Soon enough I turned onto the A819 to Inverarray where we were stopping for lunch and surprised myself by catching some of the team. It didnít last long though as we hit the next climb but I got into a nice steady rhythm, much to my surprise. After that it was a long swoop into Inverarray which I remembered from the Chester to John OíGroats trip in 2011. The castle was a grand place for lunch; as I was feeling a bit delicate, I just had a cake and bottle of coke before setting off again on the final section, 40 miles to the Bute ferry, then another 8 to the final ferry back to the mainland.
Some of the team soon caught me and I surprised myself by keeping up, the stop had obviously helped. We had some lovely cycling around the head of the loch, then a long, steady climb of 2 or 3 miles in hot sun as we turned away from the ĎStop and be Thankfulí pass towards the ferry at Colintraive. We were aiming for 3pm but were a long way ahead of schedule; as it turned out, the whole team made the 2pm boat. It was another 10 minute ferry and now we just had 8 miles to cycle. I tagged on the back of a group and we were steaming along until Ali punctured but that was quickly fixed with a team effort and we were soon all on the 3pm ferry, some final views out over the Forth of Clyde and a sunny drive back home to Chester.
On the final ferry
In all, this was some of the best cycling Iíve ever done and a great weekend away after not seeing most of my club mates much for several years. Andy White once again organised an amazing trip, weíre lucky to have someone of his capability to do that.
In all I pedalled just under 310 miles with some 5500m of climbing. It turned out that my final day of EIA was actually caused by a throat infection which has stopped me doing much this past week; the coughing got so bad that I was evicted to the back bedroom for a couple of nights! Now Iím feeling good again and planning a solid 4 weeks leading up to my Raid Pyrenees at the start of July.
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016
Shock horror - a blog post from Cobbie
Mon May 16, 2016 2:22 pm Cobbie
Despite blogland being deader than the proverbial dodo, I have decided that I might write a few blog pieces this year. After a couple of years of doing very little, I have this year started to get fit again and am doing a reasonable amount of cycling.
Why did I stop training? Those in touch with me on Facebook will know that my life revolves around family, Henry is 3Ĺ and a lively little boy and Lynn and I are slowly coming out of the sleep deprived years. Also, I had an ankle operation to remove a large bone spur on my bad ankle in September 2014, since when any attempts to return to running seriously have been stopped by pain. I can run about 3-4 miles but that seems to be it. Given the state of my ankle joint, itís not surprising and Iím currently looking into whether having it fused might be better than what I currently have. However, Iíve been unable to get any information on running with a fused ankle so I donít really know of any examples. The two orthopaedic specialists Iíve seen have both said they donít see why I shouldnít be able to run but thatís about the sum of it (they both say the joints in the foot will flex more to compensate).
Last year I did a fair bit of swimming, culminating in the Scilly Swim Challenge which was fun in a low key way Ė I got to spend time in the Scilly Isles which are amazing and will head back with Henry when heís a bit older and can appreciate it more. Report is the previous blog entry if anyone reads this and wants to read about the swim.
This year, Iíve got back on my bike. I have a nice pair of carbon clinchers which I got in a trade-in deal for my old powertap that had stopped working; very helpful for my lower level of fitness and higher level of chubbiness. Iíve also finally bitten the bullet and gone for a compact chainset, along with an upgrade to 11 speed. Early indications are positive in a ďwhy didnít I do this years agoĒ kind of way. Since I donít really do flat cycling, losing the larger gears doesnít seem to have any negative impact and Iím able to spin much better on the hills.
Iím off up to Scotland with the tri club over the Whit bank holiday to do 300 miles in 3 days around the west coast, including a trip to Mull. Then, at the start of July, Iím doing a 100 hour Raid Pyrenean which has been on my bucket list for some years.
So, this entry is here just to tee up a couple of pieces that Iím going to write, one about how Fitbit has helped me get fitter and a second on my love of running. After that there will be a Raid Pyrenean report and then weíll see whether any inspiration remains.
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016
Cobbie's very Scilly Swim
Sun Sep 13, 2015 1:45 pm Cobbie
Itís 7am, itís just getting light and Iím walking along country lanes on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; definitely the oddest and most low key of starts to an endurance event that Iíve experienced. Thereís a smattering of chat but most of us donít really know each other yet.
The event is the Scilly Swim Challenge, a series of 6 swims, circumnavigating the main ring of islands anti-clockwise, with walks between the swims. The total swim distance is somewhere between 10 and 12 miles, depending on where you get your information. For a run or bike event, this discrepancy would be odd but Iíve long learnt that swim distances are anything but specific. Whatever the distance, it will beat my previous maximum of about 6 miles / 10km, clocked up during ÷till÷.
The length of the swims varies, with the event saving its hardest efforts for the final 2 channels. All the walking is done before the 4th swim, save for about 100m over a sand bar between the 4th and 5th. To put it in terms that make sense to my triathlon oriented mind it breaks down something like this:
St Maryís to St Martins - Shortish ironman distance swim
St Martins to Tresco - Longish half ironman distance swim
Tresco to Bryher - Sprint distance swim
Bryher to Samson to St Agnes - Double ironman swim (with a short walk)
St Agnes to St Marys - Ironman distance swim
The first swim is north from the largest island
We arrive at Bar Point at 7:45 and are told weíre 45 minutes too early to start swimming which feels a bit strange. Everyone that I talk to is nervous and it quickly becomes obvious that our backgrounds vary considerably, from triathletes to ultra-runners to recreational swimmers to serious cold water sea swimmers. For me this was one of the great strengths of the event, a chance to meet and listen to very different perspectives and attitudes, something we can miss in our normal sporting bubbles.
We are split into 3 pods Ė the cut-off between the fast and medium is 28 minutes for a mile, right where I think I am just now; some way below my best but hey, Iím a dad and priorities are different to times past. At the registration and acclimatisation swim the evening before I chose the middle group but I feel a little more bullish this morning. I decide to start with the fast group, ready to drop back if I donít feel strong enough. In truth, weíve been told that the fastest swimmers will be held back to keep the Ďpodsí together and Iíd rather go at my own pace, even that means being on my own to an extent.
The reason weíve been held is (I think) to allow the tide to change and weíre finally given the go ahead to get ready. Itís drizzling slightly but the forecast is for an improving day. The beach is wide and sandy; I get my picture taken, go and register with my new pod leader (ďyouíre my special 83Ē she says as she adds me to her list). Then, finally, weíre off into a very choppy sea. Now, I am not a sea swimmer and have clocked up only 1 really salty swim in my life (Norseman 2009) and I still remember how horrible that was 6 years later. I hate the taste of salt water and itís been one of the things that has preyed on my mind during training. I never actually did a sea swim for preparation, probably a good thing given that the reality is worse than I recall.
We are thrown around in the water from the off, the sea choppy and unpredictable. I do my best to get into a rhythmical stroke but find it impossible. Every stroke I worry about swallowing and of course, itís impossible to avoid in these conditions. Keeping in a straight line is also a challenge as itís very difficult to sight. I get into contact with other swimmers but itís hard to stay with them as weíre all pushed in slightly different directions by the waves and current. One minute Iím next to someone, the next weíre someway apart so at first I think itís me being erratic. As the swim go on I find myself well over to the right of the group and can see the canoeist marking the right hand side of the pod Ė I realise that swimming parallel to him will be about right and that solves the direction problem. I canít solve the salt problem though and having one fewer thing to think about takes me back to that; every stroke Iím effectively going Ďyukí.
Eventually, I lose my mojo a bit and my stroke tightens but Iím close to the other side so has little impact. Soon enough a concrete pier comes into view and Iím able to walk up some steps and onto St Martinís. My mouth tastes like an old sock.
The crew at the swim exit are already working well and all the bags are laid out neatly. In a field behind the swim exit thereís a big pile of food and I find myself tucking into a burger of all things. A couple of cups of coffee later and my mouth almost feels normal. I start to meet a few more people, thereís a great atmosphere amongst the swimmers already. A spectator tells me that the front group were quite close together which makes me feel better; I decide to have a cake. After that Iím ready to head off but itís clear weíre a long way from that. The sun has come out so I sit down on the grass and chat, itís very pleasant.
Time passes Ö a lot of time passes. Eventually the call comes to move off and we stroll gently across the island for 20 minutes. St Martinís is long and thin from west to east. Weíve landed on the south-east corner and will swim over to Tresco from the south west corner.
View of the second swim from half way across St Martins
The first channel; the pole is on the right, the short walk between the rock & the island
The swim is a bit of a zig-zag through rocky outcrops and itís clear that weíre going to do a bit of walking across a sand bar after the first narrow channel. Thereís quite a flow through it and the poor old slow group are sent off like lambs to the slaughter. Only about half head for the pole weíre to sight on, the remainder drift off towards the spectator boat and a large rocky outcrop. Thereís a terrible sense of inevitability about it all, with swimmers banging into boats, canoes and the outcrop before, finally, theyíre all walking over the small sandbank and off into the main channel. Sorry to all of them, it was hard not to smile at the scene.
Unsurprisingly, the middle group all head directly towards the pole and then itís our turn. This swim is much nicer Ė calmer and shallower so we can see the bottom for most of the way. Thereís little to say about it since itís so much more pleasant. We have to work our way round a couple of rocks and in the second half Iím overtaking slower swimmers all the time. Sighting is easy as itís much calmer and Iím back to my longer, more relaxed stroke. If it wasnít for the salt, I would actually be really enjoying it!
Tresco swim exit
It feels almost as long as the first swim but much easier with calm water. Soon enough Iím on the beach and drying off. Amazingly thereís yet more food in a community centre behind the beach and we end up having another long stop. Even now, after only 2 swims, the canoeists are saying that thereís no chance of finishing today.
Finally we head off on a short walk across the island. Iím on familiar ground as I took a day trip here yesterday; a great day out with a good boat trip, followed by a circumnavigation of the islandís old forts, wild moorland in the northern third and sub-tropical lower half, all surrounded by magnificent beaches. I met a lovely lady called Sue on the boat who had spent several holidays here and after some solo swimming round some of the islands, was also doing the event. We turned out to be at a similar level so were already talking about buddying up for the long swim which wasnít now far away.
The next swim, to Bryher is the shortest, just 600m or so and it was dead calm. We all go off together and not long after weíre on the other side with my mouth back to tasting like an old sock.
The swim exit is next to a small jetty which was apparently built by Anneka Rice on ĎChallenge Annekaí Ė unsurprisingly itís called ĎAnnaquayí which makes me giggle. And guess what Ė yes, thereís yet more food, in the islandís church which is quite surreal Ė cakes laid out on the alter. This leads to another long stop where my general lack of patience has me pacing about, wanting to get on with it.
Bryher swim exit with added 'annaquay'
Eventually, we walk off towards the southern end of the island where we have a great view from dunes on the edge of the beach across to Samson and the open sea beyond.
Bryher beach - you can see a field of seaweed in the centre of the picture and the sandbar we walked across in the distance
Apart from a sand bar, weíve done all the walking and our biggest challenge is waiting. Sue and I agree to swim together as know weíll be towards the back of the front group and soon enough weíre off on a slightly zigzag path round some small rocks. Thereís a lot more seaweed and in places itís like a field that we more or less have to push ourselves across. Swimming thorough it reminds me of the scene with the mermaids in ďHarry Potter and the Goblet of FireĒ Ė good to see my brainís thinking leftfield thoughts rather than worrying about whatís ahead.
I would be right to be worried too. It will be the longest swim in my life after what can only be described as sporadic training, none of which has been in the sea. I could offer excuses about how all 3 of my local pools have been closed for extended periods, leaving the house at 6:30 for work and having a 2 year old child but the reality is that I could and should have done more. The first swim has been a taste of ocean swimming but whatís coming up is a proper, deep ocean channel.
First, of course, I have to get there. Sue and I are at the back of the pack, as expected but weíve been told that weíll re-group on the sand bank. Thereís more of a sense of urgency ahead and Iím having to swim harder than before but with the rocks and seaweed, itís probably the nicest of them all. We also have a lovely sun on our right which is hopefully here to stay.
Thereís no slowing down at the sand bar and no instructions on sighting which is surprising. Iím having to hurry to keep up with those ahead, stumbling in the soft sand. Then weíre in the water again and swimming across a shallow lagoon on Samsonís east coast, which is full of seaweed. Finally, at the edge of the open channel we see the swimmers ahead are stopped but as soon as we get close, theyíre off again so we get no respite. Itís not long before Sue and I are on our own, both swimming purposefully side-by-side. We have a canoeist but it doesnít really occur to me that this might make us safer Ė instead itís helpful for keeping on line. We stop briefly when we veer too far to the right & we agree with our canoeist exactly where to head, basically at the most obvious landmark which is a lighthouse protruding from the centre of the island. Looking behind, I can see a couple of swimmers and a canoe, looking ahead there are a couple of canoes and some swimmers spread out ahead and to the right.
Sue has a bright pink hat on so on every stroke I check itís there out of the corner of my eye, then breathe to my right and check the direction of the canoe. We swim on for a long time and the sea becomes increasingly rough. At times Sue and I are pushed together, then suddenly separated by yards, itís unsettling and clearly getting tougher. My internal clock tells me that we must be half way or more and indeed, I can make out more features on St Agnes ahead on the very few occasions when Iím able to sight above the waves.
Iím not sure if the next change in the water is sudden or gradual but Iím increasingly aware that the waves have got much bigger. As the dayís gone on Iíve got much better at working with the water, delaying my stroke if thereís no water to pull, rotating more to breathe when necessary and missing breaths altogether at times; the sea is much more variable than waves on a lake. Now itís suddenly much harder and weíre going up and down more obviously. The canoeist stops us and tells us heís worried about the conditions. Weíre some way from any other swimmers and I realise later heís probably a bit out of his depth. He thinks we should abandon but Sue and I are a long way from such thoughts. I estimate that weíre about two thirds of the way across, maybe a mile or so from St Agnes with a bit further to swim along the coast to the finish. We carry on swimming but itís not long before one of the race organisers, Bryony, reaches us in a Zodiac and tells us we really do have to get out. She will take us up to the next group where we can get back in.
Sue gets out first and I bob up and down in what is now a pretty big sea. I have a sudden thought about the number of sailors washed overboard in times gone by, for whom this would be very much the end. What a difference a wetsuit makes Ė and confidence in oneís endurance and swimming ability.
By the time Iíve heaved my way in, I can see that Sueís pretty cold. I feel very determined to finish the swim but thatís before I look at the waves from above. Itís quite scary and the vastness of the ocean is very apparent to me. I know instinctively that, whilst this swim is within my capabilities, the whole environment is alien to me. Iím not at home in any way, quite unlike running or hiking in the wilderness where I feel very much part of the landscape. The zodiac sets off, only 400m or so but the bouncing of the boat on the waves makes me feel quite sick and I realise that I donít really want to get back in after all. Thereís no sense of disappointment, more relief really.
We stay in the boat with Bryony and get to watch the event safety in action; itís impressive. I realise that whilst we were at the back of the group and a lot of swimmers were well ahead, the real problem is the lateral distance between us. The swimmers that weíd expect to have in sight are spread out across the course, separated over half a mile, maybe even more. Sue and I had actually been holding a very direct line, some swimmers are swimming a big loop out west and then back in. We see a few more boats and more swimmers who, like us have had to stop. Iím very impressed by Bryonyís ability to even spot some of the groups, the boat zig-zagging across the waves, from kayaker to kayaker, checking that all is well.
After a while, things are stable enough for Bryony to drop us on the quay on St Agnes. I feel pretty wretched and very happy to have solid ground under my feet. My mouth feels less like an old sock, more like Iíve been licking the inside of a trampís shoe. I get a hot drink down me but it doesnít really help. Itís nearly 6pm and weíre clearly not going to do any more this evening so I get out of all my swim gear for the first time since the start. Then a boat turns up heading back to Hugh Town and itís an easy decision to get back now rather than wait for the next group to come in.
Back at my B&B, I take stock. I have almost no chafing around my neck (thank you Snugg) but sore patches around the elbows and knees. My occasionally troublesome left shoulder has stiffened but I know itíll be OK. So, actually, I feel pretty good physically. Mentally, Iím starting to feel more disappointed. I hope that the last channel will go ahead tomorrow and by 9pm thereís a message on facebook saying exactly that; weíre to be at the dock for a 9am boat back to St Agnes.
I go out for food which tastes somewhat salty Ė I canít get rid of the taste, although a glass of red wine helps a bit. My attempt to get an early night also fails as I canít sleep, everything is going up and down as though Iím still in the sea.
Next morning the weather is noticeably better. I realise how random it was yesterday with bright sunshine as we set out on the long swim but squally conditions in the channel itself. If weíd done the swim today, there would have been no problems but thatís life. I also find out that most of the middle group made it across, their pod remained more coherent which made safety management that much easier. I donít think any of the slower group were allowed to finish but I never saw anything official so that might not be quite right. Talking to one of the kayakers, I was reassured that yesterdayís conditions really were bad; only very experienced sea swimmers would have been comfortable in that sea, he told me.
The view back to Samson ... calm <sighs>
Soon enough weíre all in the boat and across the channel in St Agnes where weíre asked to get ready as quickly as possible. The group has shrunk somewhat, Sueís not there so I canít check that sheís OK after our experience yesterday Ė her family were staying on one of the smaller islands so getting here would have been difficult I suspect.
It really is a quick turnaround, thereís just time to check out how flat the sea is compared to yesterday (ho hum, itís really flat!) and weíre off. Last year, this was the problematic swim, with a strong current preventing many swimmers from rounding the last point into the finish in Porthcressa Bay.
Itís a diagonal swim but first we have to get out of the natural harbour that weíre starting from. Thereís a big swell as we transition into the channel but weíre all used to this by now. This swim looks on paper very similar to the first but itís much more of an open channel so the swell is bigger, though maybe less choppy. Once Iíve settled down, itís much the same as yesterday, towards the back of the group & hating the taste of salt water. Itís a much nicer day though and the sea is very blue. I find myself over to the right again, using the kayaker as a direction aid Ė twice I get lost in my thoughts and get waved at for wandering too far to the right which risks missing the entrance to the bay. Soon enough I can see the pole in the channel that I read about in a couple of reports last year; having seen it from the shore on a walk I know Iím close to St Maryís and sure enough we all naturally curve to the right as the rocks get closer.
The swim in to the finish
The final swimmers arrive
Itís just a short way now to the point that guards the bay and soon enough Iím into the long finishing strait (sic!). The beach ahead looks very welcoming but itís actually still a fair way off, with more seaweed to negotiate and a surprisingly cold patch near the end, easily the coldest water of the circumnavigation. Then Iím at the beach, checking out for the final time and feeling very satisfied, even if somebody has now sandpapered my tongue as well as stuffing that old sock into my mouth. I watch the last few swimmers in my pod arrive and amble off to the cake station (the ladies waited yesterday to no avail but came back today, for which we were all very grateful). After getting changed, I head back to the beach to watch the final swimmers coming in. The atmosphere is very happy and relaxed and supportive. This is a great event and we all know it.
Thereís not much else to say apart from a massive thank you to the organisers, kayakers and food providers; all first class throughout. We all congregate for a barbeque on Sunday evening which finishes off the proceedings nicely. I can barely swallow as my tongue has swollen up (apparently quite normal). As the sun goes down weíre treated to an amazing sunset to bring an end to what has, for me, been a very different type of endurance experience. I recommend it completely, but I donít think itís for me Ė instead I think Iíll be back to lakes and rivers and fresh water.
The Scillies though have left their mark on me as one of the loveliest places Iíve ever been; I will be back to go exploring with Henry in the near future.
Almost back to being an athlete in 2016