Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Cotswold Way Century Race Report

The Cotswold Way just shouldn't be this hard. It's the Cotswolds for goodness' sake. The Cotswolds are tea and scones, sheep and honey-coloured villages - everyone knows that. These aren't the Alps or the Dolomites. But for some reason, which it seems nobody can quite pin down, the Cotswold Way is hard. I walked the route back in 2002 with a friend. It took 6 days and left me exhausted and with flayed feet. And if you'd asked me how that happened, I couldn't have told you - all I remembered afterwards was tea and sheep and honey-coloured villages. On paper, the route is strikingly similar to... let's say the South Downs Way. The Cotswold Way is 102 miles with 4,400 metres ascent and the South Downs Way is 100 miles with 4000 metres climbing. Yet the best runners crack off the South Downs race in 14 hours compared to 19 or 20 hours for the Cotswolds. How can two extra miles take five more hours? The answer is the ineffable and wholly unexpected badness of the Cotswold Way. Over one-third of the field would drop out of the race during the next 30 hours. People who have successfully run Leadville would be beaten by the Cotswolds. And this is what makes it so surprising that I got through this - my first ever race of over 50 miles, almost exactly one year to the day after I started running - without any serious trouble.
The finish line in front of Bath Abbey on the night before the race. On the way to my traditional curry and beer pre-race feast
My day started on the bus from Bath, chatting to John Sreeves (who would be the first off the starting line and the last over the finish line) and Daniel Hendrickson, whom I first met earlier this year when he beat me into third place at the Nomad 50. The worryingly long bus ride took us to the school in Chipping Campden, where Kurt Dusterhoff's race briefing memorably included a warning about the carparks of Gloucestershire being hotbeds of dogging activity at night. Half the checkpoints were to be in Gloucestershire carparks at night...

Suitably warned, we walked en masse up the road to the start line in the centre of the village, ready for the midday start. Immediately, things started to go wrong. My Suunto watch, which has performed flawlessly ever since I got it to replace my piece-of-shit Garmin Fenix, was refusing to lock onto satellites no matter how much I waved my wrist in the air. As I'd planned to use the watch to navigate as well as to monitor my progress, this threatened to throw me off my game. As a result, the first 4 or 5 kilometres were spent distracted and fiddling with the bloody thing, my heart rate getting way too high as I failed to attend to what I was doing and went too hard up the first big hill.

Eventually, Mr Suunto and I both calmed down, and I found myself running up grassy slopes to Broadway Tower, chatting with a runner called Craig and regularly leapfrogging a tall man with a ponytail. Craig and I blasted down the long slope to Broadway and I lost him as I jogged through the village, the milling tourists staring and smiling at the crowd of garishly dressed runners that had descended on their scone-shopping. The first few hours were great. The route ran up and down a lot of slopes, through woods and across fields. Never constant, and never boring, the path changes angle, camber and surface almost constantly. There were plenty of hands-on-knees power-hike uphills. I stuck to my plan of shovelling in lots of gels and Wagon Wheels (which are a superfood I discovered on the Oldham Way Ultra), and within 3 hours I was cruising past Hailes fruit farm, reflecting on how much things had changed - Hailes had been the end of a full day's walking when my friend and I hiked this route 12 years earlier! Up and down the slopes I ran, and somewhere around Cleeve Hill I found myself again near the man with the pony tail - who turned out to be called Jonathan - and another runner who was also called Ian.
Up the first big slope, just ahead of Jonathan
Jonathan, Ian and I ran together towards Checkpoint 3 at Birdlip, making a pretty good pace. At first, we hoped to get to the checkpoint before dark, but as the route disappeared under a leafy canopy we had to admit defeat and dig out our headtorches. At Birdlip we were served drinks and snacks by Rich Cranswick, a Piece of String survivor whom I know from Social Ultra runs. Rich had decided to honour Birdlip by dressing in a bright yellow chicken costume, and I was grateful he was here and not at a later checkpoint where I might have worried I was hallucinating...

Refreshed and with our water bottles refilled, we set off again into the night. The gaps between the aid stations were long - perhaps too long. The big intervals made breaking the race into manageable chunks difficult - and, of course, it's exactly this sort of technique that most runners use to handle the immensity of an ultra. Ian started to find the going a bit tough after checkpoint 3, and it was with relief that we eventually made it to Painswick Rugby Club. This was the 48-mile point, and the only indoor checkpoint. Ian and I both said we'd take a reasonable break to fully sort ourselves out - there was a nice unspoken agreement in the air that said we'd both leave this checkpoint together. I took my shoes off and immediately began to eat like a bear rising from hibernation. I ripped the tops off a family pack of rice puddings and inhaled the lot in seconds. I then opened my throat and dropped down a string of liquorice allsorts, Snickers, Eccles cakes, jelly babies and - just possibly, given that I later found its lone sibling under my chair - a stray Drymax sock.
Ian and Ian
In the hall around me, things were not looking happy. The woman in the next chair had just dropped out of the race and was disconsolately packing up her kit; Jonathan announced he was going to drop out too; Ian had been struggling to keep going for the past 10 miles; and me...? I felt fine. Better than that, I felt great. I was loving every moment of this. Even then, it seemed incredible that I could feel so good when so many others were struggling, and writing this three days later it seems all the more remarkable. But there you have it - I felt great and I was loving my first 100-mile experience. Those who doubted my pre-race curry and beer routine might like to take a good long look at themselves right about now.

Around 30 minutes after arriving, Ian and I left the club and headed down a dark field to a strand of trees. Almost immediately, as we debated which path to take, we met a cheerful copper-haired woman from Cornwall called Emily, and the three of us fell into step. We trotted along an undulating trail through a long wooded section and then down to scuttle across an eerily quiet dual carriageway, chatting happily away the whole time. Emily proved to be lively and great running company.

A few minutes later, heading up a bramble-lined slope from Kings Stanley, we ran into a group of male runners. One of them had a tinny speaker blasting Oasis tunes from his backpack pocket. Not really wanting the beautiful stillness of the evening broken like this, the three of us kept trying to fall back and let the music boys get ahead. Except they never did. They kept surging away, leaving us in silence, only to slow to a walk a few moments later, at which point we'd catch up again. This kept on happening. Surge-slow-catchup. Surge-slow-catchup. Repeat over and over until reaching the Frocester Hill checkpoint at 58.5 miles. Here, at last, we realised what was going on. As I filled up on more rice pudding (this time with a massive dollop of jam - thank you checkpoint man!) we could see that one of the music boys was collapsed in a chair, thoroughly exhausted from the effort. He hadn't been able to keep up a run for any length of time, which explained the surging and slowing. (We didn't see him again, and I'm sure he must have dropped. His companions later flew past us in a flustered panic next to the Tyndale Monument, having misunderstood a message about cut-off times.)

As we left the Frocester Hill checkpoint, Emily, Ian and I picked up a new companion. Wearing a Vegan Runners vest, this man's name was John. John was great company and it was lovely to have him with us. From hereon in were were a foursome.

Alright, I'm just going to say this and get it over with: whoever planned the Cotswold Way is an evil bastard. There - I've said it. There is no other explanation for why the route goes over Cam Long Down when there's a perfectly good footpath that takes a much straighter AND FLATTER route towards Dursley. But oh no, we can't go that way because whoever it was decided to send us up the steepest, nastiest slope of the route so far. Ouch, is all I can say. And also: bollocks. My right IT band had started giving me intermittent pain - something I've never experienced before - and pointless and unnecessary slopes were not my favourite things right then. Incidentally, as I'm not going to mention it again, the IT band pain proved to be a weirdly temperamental and unpredictable thing for the rest of the run. I'd get sudden and terrible sharp pains on descents, forcing me to shout bad words and start running crablike. And then it would instantly clear up as though it was never there. At one point I went 40 km without feeling it, only for it to reappear out of the blue and leave me yelling "Fuckity fuck fuck!" into the night. Weird.

Anyway, the awfulness of Cam Long Down behind us, we trotted through Dursley after 2 AM. Late-night drinkers asked what we were doing and wished us well as we headed up the high street and thence up a desperately steep hill towards the golf course. Near the top, there was a rustling sound and a big hairy badger burst out of the undergrowth and stared at us, its eyes green in the reflected torchlight. Deciding we were no threat, it turned its back and trotted away up the slope. John and I were thrilled - I'd never seen one in the wild before.

As we took the long, awkward and dispiriting route around the golf course, listening to the screeches and hoots of owls all around as we ground up and down little slopes, Ian started suffering again. Over the next few hours he went from being cheery and talkative to a silent presence pounding out the miles at the back of the group. The rest of us all understood this. He was finding this run to be really hard and was just dealing with it in his own way, deep in his pain cave. Good for him for ploughing on like that. The guy's got guts.

I, on the other hand, was still - somehow - feeling brilliant. I genuinely didn't understand why I felt so good when the rest of the group were all showing signs of struggling, but there you have it. Firmly believing that the pendulum would soon swing the other way, I resolved to make the most of feeling good and tried my best to keep the others going through the night. I spent a lot of time running in the lead, pushing the pace slightly. I could have gone substantially quicker during this stretch - had I been alone, I would have run, or at least walk-ran, many of the stretches that we walked that night. The rest of the group picked up on this, and a few times people said I should run ahead if I wanted to. But I really didn't want to. I was enjoying their company. Moreover, I truly believed it would soon be my turn to have a bad spell. I'd never run this far before so didn't know what was going to happen. By keeping the group moving, and trying to be cheerful and encouraging for the others when they were low, I was doing my part now in order that somebody could do the same for me if I needed it later. We were now, as far as I was concerned, a team. We had become Team Badger.

I think a big part of the challenge of the Cotswold Way might be the way it refuses ever to let you get into a rhythm. It roller-coasters up and down slopes almost constantly. "I see you're almost getting comfortable hiking up that hill - time for some quad-busting downhill, boy! Just getting used to that cowfield with its painful camber, are you? Try this rocky slope. Oh you like the rocky slope do you? Too bad, it's just about to turn into a long woodland track that's not quite runnable and which makes you duck under a series of dangling thorns before landing you at the edge of a cornfield..." It was even worse at night, because then the Cotswold Way - which is obsessed with visiting viewpoints - finds more ways to taunt you. "Yes, you can see the next village a mile away, can't you? But not so fast! I'm going to make you run an 8-mile looping detour around a bunch of topographs and memorial benches from which you can't see anything because it's dark. Bwah-ha-ha!"

A pre-dawn snack at the Wotton-under-Edge checkpoint, where I was thrilled to see a helper wearing the woolly hat they gave us after the JW Ultra two weeks earlier. Then up, on stiffening legs, over lots more hills on narrow and rocky tracks. Finally, after 12 long long hours, the sun started to dawn on what proved to be a beautiful and surprisingly warm Sunday. As the sun rose, so did Ian, emerging from about six hours of silent focus to make a totally unexpected and funny joke. Naturally, the rest of us teased him mercilessly about needing six hours to come up with a punchline.
Me and Dave Gooding at the end of the JW Ultra two weeks earlier - thrown in here to explain my excitement at seeing the checkpoint helper's JW Ultra woolly hat. And as it happens, Dave here is the person with whom I walked the Cotswold Way back in 2002
On we pressed along country lanes, over cowfields and through woodlands, our conversations taking curious turns. Ian and I both proved to be oddly knowledgeable about the history of high fructose corn syrup; Emily's "guess each other's surnames" game nicely filled a long section of running. Eventually, as the hills finally began to flatten out and be replaced by lumpy and awkward fields, we reached Old Sodbury. This was a funny landmark for me. In a sense, it felt like the start of the home stretch. I ran from Bath to Old Sodbury and back on the first Social Ultra run; more recently I ran from here to Bath on a recce. So naturally I started thinking "Ah, Old Sodbury, we're nearly home", but this was a big mistake. On both previous occasions I had run from here, it took under 4 hours. So I found it really hard to accept the awful truth, which was that at this stage of such a long race, with Ian (and, increasingly, Emily) suffering, and all our legs getting heavy, there was easily 6 hours or more of running still to go. Six hours? No, come on! It's Old Sodbury... It's four hours from here... right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that, with eighty miles or more in our legs, those last miles were tough. We did manage to rally quite impressively between Tormarton and Cold Ashton, but then soon slowed down again. We walked a lot of what we'd have run on fresh legs. And there were stretches here where I started to feel like the slow one, trailing behind the rest of the group as we trotted across uneven fields.

The race had been, for a long time, extremely stretched out. Throughout this whole stage there was no feeling of chasing a runner in front, and nor did we feel chased down. With the exception of Carl Zalek, who appeared out of the blue near Tormarton and then blasted away towards Bath looking strong, we were in a bubble battling towards the end by ourselves and fighting nothing but the clock and our own inertia. I was, increasingly, finding it physically tough. My legs were heavy. But - and this might be the important thing - at no stage did my mind feel bad. I never once felt defeated or entertained the slightest thought of stopping. I take a lot of comfort from that even as I think back on how worn my body felt by the slow sapping attrition of the Cotswold hills.

And so, slowly and painfully, we approached Bath. John had his head down and was getting on with grinding out the miles like a champ. But Ian and Emily were both in a bit of a state at this point. Ian kept sitting down and saying he'd have to drop out at the last checkpoint; Emily was overheated and just couldn't cool down enough. Both were getting punch-drunk and not thinking straight, to the point I had to remind them to eat. I had a full bottle of water left and sprayed half of it over Emily's head. As a married man, I felt guilty making another woman moan in pleasure like that.

And so, together, we ground slowly to the final checkpoint, 99.5 miles in. Here, we found the beaming bundle of positivity that is Tim Lambert, who gave us great encouragement and made us feel like champions. He was able to tell Emily that she was definitely in line for the third woman place if we kept moving. Right, that was it - we had the longest, hardest 2.5 miles to go and couldn't wait around for somebody to steal Emily's podium spot. John and I bundled Ian out of the checkpoint before he could even think about dropping out and we got on with Phase 2 of "The Cotswold Way planner is a right bastard". The route crawled up and over a series of ridiculously steep slopes around Weston, and the only saving grace was that most of them had bannisters - Emily quickly showed us how much easier it was pulling ourselves up the slopes hand-over-hand, and we all followed her lead.

Knowing Bath well, I was able to offer some reassurance as we got closer. "That's the absolute last climb now", "From here it's less than a kilometre", "Turn right at the Circus and it's all downhill from there." As the final climbs disappeared behind us, Ian came awake again, once again emerging from 4 hours of almost total silence to make a really good joke. Now it had happened twice, we had to tease him all the more for it.

Finally, as we came down Quiet Street, I was able to say "We're just a hundred metres from the finish - let's really run from here!" And we did. Down Milsom street then left into the Abbey courtyard. We ran in side by side through the tourist crowds, claiming a four-way joint finishing position at 26 hours and 11 minutes. Since the night, it had been clear that we were running as a team - one for all and all for one. There was no way that race could have finished in any way other than the four of us crossing that line together. It hadn't always been pretty, and there had been some low moments, but we'd worked together and pulled one another through the bad times. My wife Sarah was waiting for us outside the Abbey doors and I fell into her arms with an enormous smile on my face and teary eyes. Emily was handed her third place woman award. Photos, medals, laughs.
Team Badger at the finish. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff

Afterthoughts

So there it was - my first 100 mile run! Honestly, even now, three days later, I can't believe how easy I had it. Okay, so "easy" is a monstrous lie, because there's nothing easy about running 100 miles and there never will be. Perhaps it would be better to say it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, or as bad as I had feared it might be having experienced some deeply low moments in earlier races. I never once, even for a second, doubted I could finish this one. I felt mentally strong - hell, I was actively enjoying myself - the whole time. My body was seriously weakening in the last 20 miles or so, and I now see how true is that saying that a 100-mile race has its half-way point at 75 miles. But it really wasn't that bad. The problem is, I now don't know if this was a freak event or I just did things right. And if I did things right, which things? Perhaps if I had left the group and gone ahead when I was feeling like I wanted to go faster in the night, I'd have blown up and ended up in a mess? Who knows? Clearly the only way to find out will be to run more Hundreds. I signed up for the 2015 South Downs Way the very next day.

And what about the event? To get the negative out of the way, I do think it could do with one or two more checkpoints. At times, they felt very spaced out - 13 miles, 14 miles, 12 miles, 9 miles, 11 miles, 12 miles, 10 miles... a person could feasibly be looking at 4 hours or more of plodding through the dark on tough terrain from one checkpoint to the next. The long gaps were hard on the spirit. But, in fairness, when you got to those checkpoints the helpers were superb and couldn't do enough to get you feeling better and on your way. And putting that one issue aside, the event is pretty amazing. I think it should be on every serious runner's list. It's such a challenge. Seriously. Don't do what I did and think "Cotswolds? How hard can that be?" because I'll tell you: bloody hard. A third of the field dropped out of this race or were timed out. A third. From a field of extremely serious and experienced ultrarunners. That should tell you what you need to know. Yes, you think of the Cotswolds and you think of honey-coloured villages and scones and sheep. But I'll tell you, my friend: it's a wolf in that sheep's clothing. And that wolf wants to bite you. 
Checking Sarah's pictures at the end. Photo: Nicola Dusterhoff

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Walker Anti-Social Parking Scale (WASPS)

Accurate measurement: it's the basis of all science. With this in mind, I present the Walker Anti-Social Parking Scale, or WASPS. How big a nobber is that person who's parked outside your house? Are the drivers of Peterborough worse than the drivers of Manchester? At last we can find out!

WASPS is designed to be simple, so it can easily be employed in the field.

The base WASPS score is one point for each wheel on the pavement or sidewalk.

This base score is then modified based on the following markers:
  • Hazard lights are on +1 point
  • There are yellow or zigzag no-parking lines on the road and the driver thinks parking on the pavement is a genius loophole that avoids these restrictions +1 point
  • More than half the vehicle's width is on the footpath +1 point
  • A no parking sign is flagrantly ignored +1 point
  • The vehicle is in a cyclelane +1 point
  • The driver has folded in the roadside mirror but left the pavement-side mirror sticking out +1 point
  • The pavement is left too narrow for a wheelchair, mobility scooter or pushchair to get past +3 points
  • There is a driveway or other parking space into which the vehicle could and should have been parked +5 points
  • The vehicle belongs to the emergency services and is literally dousing a fire or otherwise saving somebody's life: -10 points

Wow - that's a WASPS score of 14 points, given there was an empty driveway at this house. Beat that 
I hope you find the scale useful - I'll be at home waiting for my Nobel Prize. One day I hope for a government with the balls to crush into a tiny cube any car found to be scoring more than, say, five points.

A handful of calibration images follow so you can practice.
Two wheels plus half-width and wheelchair modifiers - 6 points

Two wheels, cycle lane, double yellows, half-width - 5 points. If there were any justice there would be additional points for terrible taste in cars

Two wheels, double-yellow lines, perfectly legal place to park A WHOLE FUCKING METRE AWAY - 8 points

Two wheels, half-width rule - 3 points

Two wheels, half-width rule, wheelchair modifier and total disregard for no parking sign - 7 points


Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Swissalpine K78 Race Report

The Swissalpine K78 bills itself as the "world's biggest ultramarathon and an ultimate challenge". At 78 km and 2660 metres of climbing, the race quickly grabbed my attention when I looked around for an ultra within reach of the French town I would be staying in for my summer holiday. The event also came highly recommended by a nice chap called Richard from Leeds, with whom I ran most of the Oldham Way Ultra back in March. Richard had run the K78 four times after getting interested in ultrarunning and couldn't speak highly enough of the event. This was quite a relief, as I'd already paid the entry fee by the time I met him. Speaking of which, I'll say up front that I thought the Swissalpine wass really good value for money, particularly as the entry fee includes not only a huge number of aid stations but also a return train ticket from anywhere in Switzerland to the race start in Davos. This encouragement to use public transport both to and during the race is a great move by the organizers, and must dramatically reduce the number of car trips involved.

Early morning, at the start
The K78 was not the only event held on the day - it's actually just the longest race in a series which also included the K10 (10km), K21 (half-marathon), K30 (30km), C42 (very hilly marathon), and K42 (even more hilly marathon!), as well as a series of walks and children's races - the weekend is very inclusive and caters for all abilities. The K21, K30, C42, K42 and K78 all use the same route and just start and stop at different points. The K78, as the longest race, does a full loop out from Davos and back again; the K30 starts in the same place and stops at a town called Filisur; The C42 ends at the next town along, Bergün, which is also where the K42 begins. Again, the rail system is used really sensibly, and those starting and ending part-way round the K78 course are shuttled up and down the valleys by Rhaetian Railways, all included in the entry price.

But there was to be no shuttling for me, since I was doing the full K78 from Davos back to Davos (thereby, technically, meaning I would run at zero kph no matter how well I performed). I was joined at the start line by my friend Vince, who a few weeks earlier decided he would come along and have a go at the C42 marathon, despite never having run more than 5 miles before. He's not one to shy away from a challange is our Vince.

Vince at the start line. He'd later regret carrying those sunglasses

At the start line

After our glorious ride across Switzerland the day before, the weather had dawned wet and grey on race day, and it would go on to rain almost all day. As we stood on the starting line, the announcer told us that it was forecast to get to no more than 7 Celsius on the Sertig Pass that day. I was glad of my arm-warmers. A guy with about 15 race medals jangling round his neck bounced past us waving a South African flag.

"I'm looking for South Africans!" he shouted.

"I'm married to one," I said. "Does that count?"

"We're hard work, aren't we? Have a great race!" He bounced off again like Tigger.

View from the start line
The race began right on time, with around 1500 runners bursting out of the sports stadium and onto Davos's streets. There was plenty of room to find your own pace, and Vince and I quickly settled into 5 minute kilometres as the route took a long loop through the town, the streets lined with cheering people who were undeterred by the rain. The staff of all the local bakeries were out waving and shouting.

We ran under the railway lines and then were out into the countryside - roads then tracks across rolling green fields hemmed in by dramatic mountains. Up through villages full of clanging cowbells and people shouting "Hopp! Hopp! Hopp!" to encourage us on. I was particularly impressed with one village where they had an automated cowbell-ringing machine - perhaps the most specialised labour-saving device I've ever encountered.

Between about 10 and 20 km, the route ran up into woodland on the lower slopes of some mountains, much of the way on singletrack full of tangled tree roots that required much vigilance. I pulled slightly ahead of Vince here, and last saw him still looking strong as I switchbacked downhill off a road just after Monstein.

Through Monstein
From Monstein we dropped steeply down through the scented and dripping pine forests, the rain drumming on our heads, to the Landwasser river valley. Leaving the woodland, the next 10 km saw the route hug the valley-side on a track high above the river. I ran through dramatic dark tunnels bored through the rock, unable to see what I was stepping on.

This valley was dominated by the river and by the railway hacked into the hillsides above it, occasionally crossing from one side to another on astonishing viaducts. I kept hearing the distant mournful sound of the train whistle echoing from the rock walls. The route took us on a narrow walkway over the Wiesener Viadukt, where the runner in front of me was so stunned by the sight of the river crashing below that he just stopped and muttered "WOW!". From there we dropped down and down to pass at river-level under the towering arches of the famous Landwasser Viadukt, which graces almost every tourist poster for Davos and the surrounding area.

On Wiesener Viadukt

That's the foot of the Landwasser Viadukt behind
From the viaduct it was a short run into Filisur, where the 30k race ended. Filisur, like most of the towns, had a flock of enthusiastic Swedish supporters waving a huge national flag. The Swedish supporters were easily the most vocal of the event, and would give a massive cheer if you even looked at them. They were great for morale! Sweden seemed to have the greatest number of entrants after Switzerland, most notably Jonas Buud, who had won the K78 every year since 2007. He would go on to win again today, with an astonishing time of six and a half hours.

Although nominally the difference between the K30 and the K42 was just 12 kilometers, in reality the two events were far more different than that. The next stretch, to Bergün, dropped right down to river level before firing up a long long twisting slope that climbed nonstop about 500 metres. I couldn't help but feel for Vince, who would soon be climbing all this on his first ever marathon.

I ran this leg in increasing distress. I had tried to kickstart the old digestive system that morning with two big coffees and a can of Red Bull. None of these had been enough to get the chew-chew train moving out of the station, but as I'd run into Filisur I had felt the terrible downward force of the Bowel Express working up to full steam. "Is there a toilet here?" I'd asked a woman at the Filisur aid station. "Just keep going," she replied with a gesture down the route - cruely failing to add "for another hour and a half" to the end of her sentence. All through the pre-Bergün climb I was eyeing up bushes for suitable hiding places but just about managed to hold disaster at bay. I burst into Bergün at high velocity, clocking a marathon time of 4:31:57 - fast enough that I would have come in 30th place if I'd been doing the C42! It just shows what alimentary distress and desperation can do for a runner. (If 4.5 hours sounds slow for a marathon time, you have to remember that this is with about 1200m of climbing on trails.)

Manfully masking my distress on the final descent to Bergün
Refreshed courtesy of a portaloo and nibbling on a bread roll, I started out of Bergün on the more difficult part of the day - into the high mountains towards the Sertig Pass. The route followed a sloping track of about 10% gradient alongside a mighty glacial river that crashed down its wide rocky bed. For about 6 kilometres the road sloped unremittingly up the river, and I made good progress up the ranks using a walk-run strategy whilst almost everybody else around me walked the entire way. With the C42 people gone, the overall pace felt far less frantic until the K42 runners started to appear later on. Everyone around me here was in it for the long haul.

Eventually the route left the river and started to climb even more severely - firing up a ridiculously steep and muddy track that seemed to go on forever. I counted my paces backwards from 100 to distract myself. The chill increased as the rain strengthened, and I slipped my arm-warmers back on. My watch was reporting gradients of over 30% (later confirmed by Strava) and my pace fell as low as 18 min/km up some of these paths - and I was going at least as fast as most of the runners around me. The long climb to Bergün now seemed like a happy memory!

At some point, without quite knowing how, I realised I had emerged above the tree line and was up in the alien world of the high Alps. Knots of tiny alpine flowers scattered the sodden grasslands; the ground was filled with streams and rivers over which we had to hop on makeshift stepping stones. Wet feet were inevitable. Everywhere there was the roaring sound of glacial meltwaters crashing down towards the valley below. The altitude was over 2600 metres and I was actually starting to feel some shortness of breath from the thinning air as a final steep and rocky ascent took the race to the Ketschhütte refuge.

At the Keschhütte
The temperature was cold up here, especially with the constant rain and drizzle, and the race organizers were handing out plastic ponchos. "Are you okay?" one of the helpers asked every runner, in very serious tones as she stared into their faces. Clearly she was tasked with looking out for any signs of hypothermia. Who'd have thought that we'd be worried about this in late July?!

Two thrilling kilometres of technical descent saw us begin to climb again to the highest point of the day - the remote Sertig Pass at over 2700m. Still fording streams and hopping rocks, the slope went up, and then up even more steeply, until finally, breathless and surrounded by the clanging cowbells of tiny grey Alpine cattle, I stumbled up to an organizer at the crest of the pass and called "Es gibt kein Luft hier!". "All downhill now!" he shouted back with a big smile.

At the Sertig Pass
I had a quick cup of warming soup from the aid station and then began the challenging descent to the valley. The path was steep and rocky, at times crossing ankle-snapping boulder fields and even a couple of patches of snow. I tried to focus on "flowing like water downhill", and really found myself in the zone, shooting past more cautious runners on the occasional points where the narrow track allowed passing. This whole section was enormously exciting as runners slid, stumbled and glided down 25+% slopes in a rolling mass of bodies.

Eventually we were on lower ground, with about 12 km to go to the finish line. Although at this point I was happy to start admitting to myself that I would finish, my legs really started to feel heavy. As the route took us on long rolling singletrack along forested hillsides, I felt myself bonking and was reduced to walking some sections until I could get more fuel in - clearly I'd not been hitting the gels enough. To force myself to run more I kept reminding myself of the most fundamental rule of ultrarunning: if you're wearing more than one piece of Salomon Exo clothing you look like a prat if you're not trying hard! Luckily the sugar replacement finally started to kick in around Sertig-Dörfli, as you can see from the photo below...

Sertig-Dörfli
By the time we were 2 or 3 km from the finish I really started to feel that second wind, and actually knocked off one of the fastest splits of the day as the track sloped down through the woods above Davos, crossing ski slopes and cable car routes. A final little uphill slope through the town and there was the sports centre ahead of me! I ploughed through the entrance, the crowds cheering all around. As a victorious Vince burst from the trackside to run in with me, the announcer called my name and I crossed the line in 10:19:01, punching the air with a massive smile on my face. Today had been about having fun. And although I secretly would have liked to have got back in under 10 hours, and my failure to eat enough had scuppered that, I didn't much care. It wasn't a serious ambition, and being fast really wasn't the point of the day.

Approaching the finish line - That's Vince with his medal in the background
So overall, the K78 was a fantastic run. The organization of the race was superb. The entire route was marked with flags and tape and there was no danger of getting lost at any point. There were aid stations about every 5 km or even closer, meaning you could happily get away without carrying water if you wanted. Each had a different selection of drinks, many had snacks, and towards they end they even started stocking flat Coke (for which I'm eternally grateful).

Perhaps the only negative point of the whole day was that there was far less conversation than I'm used to. Having mostly run ultras in Britain so far, I'm used to spending long stretches chatting to my fellow runners. Here, I hardly spoke to anybody all day. I don't think this was just me either. I tried starting conversation a few times and got little more than polite single-sentence replies; I didn't hear many other runners talking along the way either. Perhaps it was a feature of the international field (there were over 60 nations represented) or just a cultural difference, but the effect was that, without the usual distraction one can find from conversation, I spent 10 hours in my own head with little to think of except running and which bits of my body ached. Thank goodness the views were so extraordinary.

But that's a minor thing, and was really the only downside to the whole day. Otherwise the race was superb and I would happily recommend a running trip to Davos to anybody next July. And to emphasize what value for money the race is, I don't need to point to the inclusive train ticket, the lovely medal or the stylish finisher shirt - I just need to tell you how, now I've checked my GPS track, I see that the 78 km route with 2660 m of climbing actually gets you 79.5 km and a full 3192 m of climbing. Honestly, those Swiss race directors are so modest about how much they provide!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

NoMad 50 Ultramarathon Race Report

It is quickly becoming clear that one of the best things about ultrarunning is the people who do it. For me, the bulk of the 2014 NoMad 50 fell into two slices of time, each of which I'll remember chiefly because of the people I ran with.


It began early when, slightly anxious at the thought of my first 50-mile race, I arrived at the back of The Navigation pub to find the smell of frying bacon and a quiet start line under a grey sky. Most of the runners had opted for the 0600 start and were already gone - there were just a handful of organizers making themselves breakfast while they waited for the 0700 start. A local club runner, whom I later learned was called Eddie Mathieson, checked in just ahead of me and opted to head straight out at about 0630 rather than wait. I hung around to see if I could pick up any tips about the route from the organizers or other competitors. What I learnt was that I was going to get lost a lot. I thought about asking whether I could start a mile ahead of everyone else in recognition of the frantic extra mile I'd already run that morning after forgetting my drop bag and having to sprint back to my hotel.
A low-key sendoff at exactly 0700 saw a small pack of us set off along a flat offroad cycleway, heading fast after the runners who had already left. I found myself up near the front of the group with Janson Heath, Sal Chaffey - who was last year's First Lady - and Daniel Hendriksen. From the flinty grey eyes to the craggy features, Janson looked like Figure 1 from "The Big Book of Fellrunning Hard-Men". As we ran, he told us how he had recently completed the Bob Graham Round in some unfeasibly short time.
"You aren't carrying any food or water," Daniel said to Janson. In response, Janson gestured to two tiny pockets on his shorts. "I've got some stuff to eat in here." Presumably the pockets contained rusty nails and gravel.
Daniel himself proved to be something of a dark horse. At first glance he looked dressed more for a day at the beach than an endurance event, in baggy shorts and a loose T-shirt. I initially pegged him as an enthusiastic newcomer trying to keep up with the front-runner - an idea whose arrogant wrong-headedness became apparent when he casually mentioned his excellent performance at the Spine Challenger race back in January. Shows what I know.
The route dropped off the cyclepath and fired across crop fields towards Draycott. Past a hulking abandoned brick-built factory capped with an ornate clocktower, down a narrow alleyway and back out of town, I continued with Janson and Daniel as the route climbed onto a grassy bank and headed southeast before swinging around, over the river and down to Shardlow where we joined the canal for a few miles of easy running, the three of us men slowly easing away from Sal.
My training has been based around paying attention to my heart rate, which I find great for knowing I'm not pushing myself unsustainably when doing long distances. Unfortunately, everything was out of kilter that morning. At the start line, my watch was reporting 80 beats per minute - at least 20 higher than I'd normally expect when standing around doing nothing. I'd hoped to keep it down around 145 for most of the run, but as soon as we left the start line it went up into the 150s and seemed to want to go even higher. Clearly it was adreneline doing its thing [edit: I think it was actually the early signs of a cold, which hit me hard the next couple of days]. Along the canal my heart and I reached a compromise that, like all compromises, left neither of us happy, and I found a pace that kept things at a high but steady 155 BPM. As you can see from the screenshot below, I was able to run extremely steadily at this level of effort, going at an almost metronomic 5:08 pace. But it soon became clear from his frequent watch-checks and the almost imperceptibly widening gap between us that Janson was religiously sticking to 5 minute kilometres. As we continued to follow the canal, those few extra seconds per kilometre meant I slowly but steadily dropped back. Daniel stayed glued to Janson's heels and eventually, as I choked noisily on a hastily gobbled dried date, the two frontrunners disappeared around a bend and I didn't see them again.

A pleasant spell of running alone alongside the colourful narrowboats was disturbed when I glanced back and saw a runner in a white cap who, it quickly became apparent, was steadily reeling me in from behind. This was Matthew Ma, who soon overhauled me and trotted away up the towpath after a brief chat. Somehow I caught up with him again just before Checkpoint 1 where, remembering James Young's advice to look strong at aid stations so as to demoralise your opponents, I grabbed a handful of jelly babies, shouted something about how amazing I felt and then ran off, leaving Matthew behind. Weirdly, this tactic didn't actually stop Matthew from running faster than me. A few minutes later he caught me up and passed me as we climbed over the A50 and back to the canal.
Several more miles of narrowboats, then back over the A50 a second time, skirting Findern and over some fields of corn, I must have been closing in on Matthew as I arrived at a scruffy farm just in time to call him back from heading down a lane in the wrong direction. We ran together for a while, over fields, around the edge of a housing estate and up to Checkpoint 2 in a pub car park. Here I grabbed a handful of flapjack pieces (which sat like fatty cannonballs in my stomach for the next hour - when will I learn not to eat these?!) and was off up the road whilst Matthew was still sorting out his bag.
The route led out of town, following yellow arrows helpfully painted on the ground by the organizers. These took us up to a dead-straight stretch of cycle track, and I ran bursts of faster and slower pace to avoid my legs doing exactly the same thing over and over. I got a nice morale boost as I passed three of the 0600 starters.
Matthew was a steady 150 metres behind me along much of the cycle track, but as I left that part of the route by climbing up some steps and heading north I somehow lost him and didn't see him again for the rest of the race. The route went across a long string of difficult and slow fields here. The ground had been mangled into ankle-turning badness by those twin environmental scourges: cows and tractors. Crossing from one lumpy and pock-holed field to another was made even more difficult thanks to the local farmers fighting to win the coveted East Midlands Most Preposterously Narrow Stile Award.
Here was the lengthy stretch of running alone that separated the two parts of my day. Eventually I hit Checkpoint 3 in another pub car park and passed a big crowd of 0600 starters, including a woman whose back was being flayed horribly by her rucksack. A few hundred metres on I called to a group of 0600s who were heading in the wrong direction up a hill and then, as the poor buggers lost the altitude they'd just painfully gained, I headed off over more fields of wheat and hairy barley, feeling the first signs of fatigue start to appear as I approached the half-way point. Over a road, and the land became more rolling. Dropping down a rough grassy slope I looked back to see a woman dressed in black come flying down behind me at an astonishing pace - indeed, she was going so fast I at first assumed she must be one of the relay runners (who each run just a fifth of the route). This turned out to be Helen Pickford from Sheffield, who later explained she only ever trains on hills and so is happier firing up and down slopes than running on level ground (I challenge you to a cross-Netherlands race, Helen!). She took up a position just in front of me and soon, as the route led us along a field-edge past Kedleston Park, we were joined by a lovely chap called Justin and, shortly afterwards, the three of us caught up with Eddie, whom I had last seen at the start. I'd started later than these three, and presumably they had steadily maintained right from the beginning a pace similar to what we were all now doing; the faster speed I had held up easily for the first leg no longer felt quite so feasible, and I happily slipped into the pace of this group.
Passing through a strand of trees with Justin a few minutes later, we hit the 42.2 km point. It's relevant to note here that I only started running 9 months earlier, and ran a marathon for the first time last December. As I ducked under a branch and looked at my watch, I was delighted to see that my 42.2 km time today, for what was just the first half of a race where I was having to hold plenty in reserve, was slightly faster than had been that death-or-glory lung-shredder in Portsmouth 6 months ago. A highly satisfying sign of my progress as a runner (or perhaps just testimony to the curry-and-beer pre-race ritual I've adopted since then).
Justin and I lost Helen and Eddie for a short while just before Duffield, a town in which the race organizers went above and beyond the call of duty - or perhaps anticipated the runners' mental collapse - by providing a marshall to press the pelican-crossing button for us as we crossed the main road. Leaving the town after Checkpoint 4 ("Only a half-marathon to go!"), we climbed some steep steps and headed back out into the countryside, thrashing painfully through shoulder-high nettles and scraping our flesh through more leprechaun-sized squeeze-stiles. Rejoining Helen and Eddie, the four of us nervously clapped and shouted our way through fields of inquisitive, drooling bullocks. Somehow, despite the presence of three new potential victims, I missed this opportunity to attempt the flock of cows joke*.
(*"Look, a flock of cows!"
"
Herd of cows"
"
Of course I have, there's a flock of them over there")
We ran through woods on a muddy track, Helen and Eddie slightly ahead, Justin and I trotting along together as he told me about running the fearsome-sounding Ring of Fire race. At one point he sealed his place as Best Person in the World by looking over at me and saying "I'd kill for a running style like yours". Helen, Justin and Eddie were all great company and I was grateful to have them pull me along and make sure I didn't get lazy at this point, as I fear I easily could have done. We passed more fields, then a lane, a track, and a dog barking on a wall. When the dog barked we turned left, because that's what the race directions told us to do. (Reading the directions the week before, I'd thought this sounded like something out of Father Ted - "Turn left where you see a barking dog on a wall" - and yet the directions were all correct and the barking dog was indeed on the wall telling us where to turn.)
Still we ate up the miles. As we ran up a gravelled drive I quaffed a gel and then stopped to spray a nettle patch with disturbingly cola-coloured piss. But my looming dehydration was forgotten as we passed through the last checkpoint and set off on tracks that were now increasingly familiar to local boy Eddie. Through a kissing gate and up an alley, back into fields full of green wheat and swelling rapeseed pods that swished around our thighs and tried to trip us with their roots.
And so into the final stretch. We ran across the fairways of a golf course under the revolted stares of the players; at this point Eddie and Helen scented the finish line and showed their class by digging deep and pulling ahead. But that's not to say Justin and I were out of it. As we realised we could respectively break 9:30 and 8:30 finishing times, we also found the reserves to up the pace considerably for the last few kilometres. Off the road, down a narrow and overgrown footpath, and then we powered through the final few fields, my watch counting down the distance to the finish line - 800m, 600m... (Incidentally, I'd like to nominate the last field for a special award in the East Midlands Shit Stiles Contest. Not content with the traditional barriers of barbed wire or laughable narrowness, this farmer had somehow contrived to wedge a pony into the gap we were meant to pass through.)
A narrow stretch of ground by some railings and then suddenly the path opened out and there was the inflatable arch and I was finished! Eight hours and 28 minutes after starting. Janson and Daniel were already standing there, having finished in 7:41 and 8:10 respectively - thoroughly deserving gold and silver medalists. I thought that might mean I had come third, but I didn't know for sure - I had no way of knowing whether any of the 0600 starters had run a fast race.
The placing was resolved after a slightly awkard moment when the third-place medal was handed to Helen along with her Fastest Lady trophy. Helen quickly handed it over to me, and after some checking of paperwork, the organizers agreed that I had indeed started later than the other finishers who had just crossed the line and so had run the course in less time, meaning I was officially in third place. Phew!
I hung around the finish for an hour or so, cheering in some more runners (including Matthew, who had lost time by getting off-route) and Jonathan, who had kindly given me a lift that morning after deducing that the person walking up the road in shorts, calf-guards and clown shoes might be a fellow ultrarunner. I would have stayed longer but there was a brown dog scratching at the back door begging to be let out, so I had to head back up the road to do awful things to my hotel toilet.
Walking up through the outskirts of Long Eaton, the brightly coloured Buff hanging off my head, the embarrasingly tiny shorts, the weird rolling plantar fasciitis limp... things that had looked totally normal back in the ultra world I had just left were glaring oddities back in the real world. A woman walking her dogs glared suspiciously at me, clearly wishing for a small child so she could have pulled it to safety. I didn't care. I'd just put up a better performance than I could ever have hoped for in my first 50-mile race, particularly as a 40 year old who has been running for only 9 months. That would do me just fine. Balls to the suspicious dog-walkers of Derbyshire!
And the NoMad 50 itself? Well frankly it was a great event. The organizers were enthusiastic and helpful, the event was low-key, fun and surprisingly cheap. And there was even a well-stocked goody bag. It is, when all said and done, mostly around and across fields, and so isn't the place to come if stunning mountain trails are the only thing that move you, or if you're terrified of nettles and cows. But with the great organization, friendly atmosphere and lack of climbing (less than 800m in total), I would definitely recommend the 2015 event to anybody who wants a great day out and to go for a good time on a relatively flat 50.

Lessons Learnt

  • Going out fast and then slowing down a bit was totally fine. I started doing almost 5-minute kilometres and towards the end was mostly running at between 6 and 7 minutes (partly because I started to get tired and partly because the terrain became more difficult). I'm pretty sure that if I'd held back at the beginning and gone out at 6 minutes/km then the only difference in outcome would have been that I'd have finished the race slower! Of course, the staggered start times of this event made my inevitable slowing down almost a pleasure - as I came off the gas near the half-way point I was able to fall in with a group of runners who were good company and who were going at just the right pace; if everybody had started the race at the same time then this wouldn't have happened and I would not have had company to keep me moving, particularly in the 60-70 km zone where I felt at my most sluggish.
  • I could have gone faster! Yes, I had a few kilometres of feeling slightly leaden and allowing myself to be pulled along by companions, but that's always going to happen for some part of a long race. The fact is that, apart from exacerbating some plantar fasciitis that had already been developing over the past few days, the race didn't leave me feeling too bad physically, and the next day I could definitely have run if I'd wanted to (I didn't want to). I now see I could definitely have gone at it considerably harder and faster if I'd had to.
  • I ate less then I thought I would. I'd told myself that I would alternate between a Mule Bar and a gel every 30 minutes, but in the end only ate about 3 bars and 4 gels, plus a handful of jelly babies and the like from aid stations (and that dried date that tried to kill me by the canal). In the end I was still carrying a lot of the food in my race vest and didn't touch the extra food I'd put into a drop bag. Interesting. Perhaps I can carry less weight on my back next time?
  • Following the GPS route on my watch was superb. I had downloaded the track from the event website and spent a couple of hours cleaning it up to make sure that it stuck as closely as possible to the actual paths visible on aerial imagery. I was able to navigate the course almost without problem just by keeping the arrow on the line. There was only one point where I had to backtrack more than a few metres, and even then it was because we were just on the wrong side of a hedge.
  • Calf compression: oh my god! I've only tried calf guards for the first time recently and they're amazing. My calves are usually the first part of my body to feel the strain and yet here we are, 50 miles of running and they feel totally fine. Even the next day as I write this, they feel perfect. They should be compulsory. I might never take them off again. 

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Are you a nanokiller?

I have been intrigued for some time with Ronald A. Howard's idea of micromorts: a way of putting the risks we take in our lives on a human scale. The idea is that one micromort is a 1-in-a-million chance of dying. So, for example, if we say doing a skydive has a risk of 7 micromorts (as that Wikipedia page that I've linked to claims), that means 7 jumps out of each million lead to somebody dying. Or, in other words, if you jump from a plane there's a 7/1,000,000 chance you'll die (assuming you've used a parachute - without the parachute I suspect the chances are far worse). As we'll all die one day, of course, just being alive carries a background risk level of more than 30 micromorts, as the article also explains.


Anyway, I wondered if we might apply a similar principle to road deaths, as a way of making salient a very important point: each time you drive a motor vehicle, there's a small chance someone will die. I've long thought about how, each time I drive, I am effectively killing a tiny fraction of a person because I'm complicit in the overall number of deaths that take place. Today I realised that something analogous to the micromort concept provides a useful way of quantifying this.


So let's find some statistics! The Department for Transport statistics web page reveals that in the United Kingdom in 2012, motor traffic travelled 302.6 bn miles and led to 1754 deaths. Let's do the maths:


  • 302.6 bn / 1754 = 172,519,954.39 miles for each death
  • 1 billion / 172,519,954.39 = 5.8

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the nanokilling. Every mile you drive, you commit 5.8 nanokillings. Drive 12,000 miles in a year and you've committed 69,600 nanokillings, or 0.0000696 killings.


So clearly, the typical individual is fairly unlikely to kill over the course of their driving career. Let's say someone drives 10,000 miles per year for 50 years. 50 * 10000 * 5.8 = 2,900,000 nanokillings, or 0.0029 killings. This means you'd need to get together with about 344 other people before you could be reasonably sure that, collectively, you've managed to kill somebody.


But that's the thing, isn't it? 345 people isn't really that many. There's probably that many within a few streets of you. And there are a lot of streets in the country, aren't there?


Obviously the nanokilling would need to be recalibrated from time to time as new statistics on numbers of deaths and the amount of travelling that took place to cause them emerge, but of course that's also kind of beside the point. The point is that as long as there is motorized travel and deaths on our roads, the number of nanokillings will never be zero, which means the fundamental point of this article will endure - when we use a motor vehicle, we commit nanokillings. Unless you foreswear motoring (and the products of motoring, and do nothing to push for alternatives) you're to some extent complicit in causing little bits of a death. I know I am, even if I'm not happy about it.

Monday, 12 November 2012

A thought on SMIDSYs

As I was out cycling yesterday, I found myself thinking about SMIDSYs (Sorry, Mate, I didn't see you - the seemingly standard response to users of two-wheeled vehicles from inattentive motorists; I have heard, word for word, this very phrase myself). I was riding in a predominantly black outfit on a black bicycle and I found myself thinking about what might happen if the worst came to the worst and some distracted or inattentive driver failed to see me and there was a collision.

Now, let's be clear: it was a bright, sunny day, and I was perfectly visible for anybody who cared to look, but I knew from years of observing these things that, should a driver pull a SMIDSY, there was every chance that they, any police who got involved, and any media who might report on it, would automatically and unthinkingly shift the blame to me, saying or implying that it was my fault that the driver didn't see me because I didn't take sufficiently extreme steps to attract that person's attention (and, of course, no actions could ever be extreme enough to overcome the societal inertia on this point...!).

But then, I realized this: if there were a SMIDSY event that day, there were actually hard data to which I could point to show that my appearance wasn't in fact the issue. This idea could potentially be very useful! Specifically, I had been out cycling at that point for about 2 hours; hundreds of motorists had successfully seen me and dealt appropriately with me in a range of streets, junctions and country lanes. Given that hundreds of other motorists had had no problem with my appearance, if somebody did hit me, the data demonstrably show that my appearance wasn't the problem. My appearance had been tested and had passed the proving in hundreds of separate events. If somebody overlooked me that day, clearly the first thing we should be looking at to explain the event is them, and not my appearance, even if only for reasons of Occam's Razor.

So my thought for today is that this issue, of "Why did this particular driver and none of the others have a problem seeing me?" should perhaps be raised more often in SMIDSY discussions.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Thinking out loud: Are cyclists the new weather?

You find yourself standing next to a stranger, perhaps in a pub or a Post Office queue whilst waiting an unbelievable time for a simple stamp. You decide to strike up a conversation with this person to pass the time. But what do you talk about? The list of topics one can raise with a stranger is quite slim. You can hardly start out with "Isn't the current Prime Minister an incompetent buffoon?" as you risk upsetting their political sensitivities. Sport is also risky - they might support a team you do not. So what's safe? What can you be sure they'll not get offended by? Two topics that never fail are weather and traffic.

"Traffic's bad today, isn't it?" is as safe a conversation opener as you can find. The traffic might be light, but don't worry: this won't go challenged. What else is a safe opening line with a stranger? How about "It's hard to find a parking space, isn't it?" or "Cyclists are a nuisance aren't they? Always riding through red lights and on pavements?" Nod nod nod. Safe. Nobody's going to be offended here. We all agree, just as we all agree that winters aren't what they used to be.

These statements about cyclists, of course, raise the hackles of cyclists a great deal. One only needs to look at yesterday's drama about a survey of red-light jumping behaviour and how it was reported. The old saw about cyclists and red lights is one of a family of statements that are so often repeated I recently suggested somebody should make a bullshit bingo card: red lights, pavements, no tax, no insurance, license plates, helmets, lycra...

And this got me thinking. Yes, these statements are repeated an AWFUL lot, aren't they? I've been hearing them regularly for at least 8 years. They crop up in the comments on almost every article about cycling that gets published online (they'll appear below this, no doubt). Yes, they recur suspiciously often. Hmm...

The thing is, what should we take from these statements? Should we take them as evidence for endemic anti-cyclist feeling? I'm starting to doubt that. It's the fact these statements are repeated SO OFTEN and practically verbatim from a hundred thousand different mouths and keyboards that got me thinking. Because they appear almost as a reflex, and because so many people who don't know one another repeat exactly the same phrases, I suspect that these aren't true opinions; I reckon they are merely memes. They are cultural conventions that have grown up over the past years.

I'd like therefore tentatively to suggest that all these statements such as "Cyclists? They all ride through red lights, don't they?" are fundamentally NOT ABOUT CYCLISTS and should not really be taken as such. I believe they are really a set of social conventions that serve the same role as conversations about the weather: They allow a socially acceptable and safe way to find common ground with strangers. They are (in many people's minds) as uncontroversial as statements about how gravity still seems to be working fine, or how politicians can't really be trusted. They are not intended to challenge or provoke; they are intended to provide comfort through the repetition of a familiar and long-standing ritual, not unlike a religious service.

So perhaps we should not make the mistake of thinking that such statements are the product of considered thought, or really represent people's true opinions. People have not looked into these matters deeply enough to really have deep-seated opinions. If people really studied the weather and climate data they'd stop saying that winters aren't what they used to be. If they studied the traffic behaviour and accident data, they'd stop pointing fingers at cyclists.

Because these beliefs aren't really being examined in depth, people take evidence as it comes rather than going and looking for it, and when this happens one usually sees confirmation bias: the tendency to pay attention to information that confirms what we already believe and ignore information that challenges it. So a person doesn't really notice 25 cyclists stopping at a red light and 50 riding on the road, but spots the one who cuts the light and the one who rides on the pavement because these are what they expect to see.

Of course, the notion that a subgroup of society is a menace could not have taken hold were that subgroup not relatively small and perceived as outsiders. The context in which these social norms arose is fascinating and something I've also thought about, but would be a digression here. The main point I want to explore is that perhaps these statements we see so often are merely conventions that are repeated as part of the social glue that holds society together, and do not necessarily reflect people's true opinions about cyclists.

At first glance, the idea that these incorrect views about cyclists are not deeply examined convictions might suggest they will be easy to change. But if I'm correct in what I'm thinking here, we'd have to suggest the opposite: these views will be difficult to change - they came to hold the position they do in our society because they seemed so self-evident and obvious. Perhaps to challenge the idea that cyclists are all law-breakers is like challenging the idea that winters aren't what they used to be.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why I hate pedestrians

You know what I hate? Pedestrians. That self-satisfied, striding, boot-bedecked bunch of scum. Is it just me, or does the country suddenly seem to be full of them? I've never tried walking anywhere myself -- why would I? I'm a successful adult -- but it seems I can hardly travel down the street these days without one of them stepping off the pavement in front of me without looking, their face set in a holier-than-thou expression as they jump out of the way of my car in a burst of expletives. Something clearly needs to be done, and it's good that the government are starting to realise this.

The thing is, it's not just that pedestrians are all smug and annoying when they bang on about "health" and "pollution". That's sickening enough, but if their smugness was the only problem I could just ignore them - after all, they and their silly 'shoes' flash past quick enough when I get going, and their smugness can't penetrate my car's tinted windows. But the thing is there's more to it than that, because have you noticed that even though pedestrians walk millions of miles on our road system every single day, they contribute nothing at all to the cost of that road system? They have thousands and thousands of miles of dedicated pedestrian-only travel routes -- pavements, they're called, or sidewalks if you're that way inclined -- which they don't pay a penny for! Whilst honest motorists are taxed left, right and centre, they don't pay anything at all for all these facilities they enjoy. It beggars belief.

And recently, of course, it's got worse. As I'm driving up the street I constantly come across pedestrians walking across my part of the road to get from one of these pavements to another. I mean, what the hell...? Do they want the shirt off my back as well? They've been given vast tracts of pedestrian-only routes, where I'm certainly not allowed to drive, but apparently this isn't enough for them. Oh no, they want to keep encroaching into my space as well. Sure, we've all heard these walking zealots who say that it's because the 'pavements' don't form a joined-up network, meaning they can't walk to where they want to go without having to step onto the road from time to time. Aw, bless their little hearts. To pedestrians I say this: get off my part of the road. If you walk there when I'm coming along then I'll happily run you down, that's all.

In the long term there's clearly only one solution to all this. If pedestrians want to walk on our streets, which we pay for with all our driving taxes, then they need to pay their share and take their part of the responsibility. Anybody who walks anywhere should undergo training, should have to pay an annual tax towards the facilities they enjoy, should display a license plate so they can be identified, and should each be made to carry insurance in case they are ever involved in any accidents. Until then, they can sod off back to Shoeville or wherever it is they go when they aren't freeloading off the rest of us.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Open source, open razors and how I learnt to love Microsoft (sort of)


Photograph by Andrew Dyer.

I've made two little lifestyle changes in the past few months. The first was that I started using Linux as my main operating system. I've long been a Mac user, and used Windows at work, but decided out of pure curiosity to see how Linux had advanced since I last used it, during my first job, about 10 years ago. Well, all I could say was 'wow'. I tried a few different Linux flavours - Ubuntu, Linux Mint (best choice for newcomers, I'd say), Crunchbang (not for newbies!), and, above all, Kubuntu, where I have found a happy home. When I saw there was so much excellent software out there - for free! - I saw that I couldn't really justify continuing to pay for software as I had been doing, and practically overnight made the switch to running Kubuntu as my main operating system.

The second big change was that I started shaving with an open razor. A friend had made this switch some time ago and pointed out all the advantages: it gives you a better shave than even the most expensive Gillette-type blades and is a one-off purchase, with no ongoing costs. The two of us were at a meeting in Hanover and spotted a shop which specialized in razors. I snapped one up and spent many happy hours chopping my face to ribbons, whilst basking in the warm glow that comes from knowing I'll never again spend money on razor blades.

Whilst mopping up the blood one day, I realized there was actually quite an interesting parallel between open source software and open razors. Now that might sound a bit weird, but bear with me. Both these changes - the new razor and the new OS - involved a lifelong shift to no longer paying for products, and no longer supporting large and cynical corporations (look up the origins of Gillette if you want to know why I use the word 'cynical'). Moreover, both these changes involved learning new skills, and both were initially a little bit difficult. But most interestingly - and this is the point I'm working towards - both gave me a new respect for the mass-producers of razors and software. It was only when I started using the open razor that I saw just how amazing my previous razor was: I could carelessly flick it around my face in moments, without worrying about cuts, in a way I never could with the open razor. Yes, it didn't shave quite so close, but it did a really quite impressive job, all things considered. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them when they're pretty well served with the standard fare?

And it was just the same with the operating system. It was only after switching to Linux, and seeing just how difficult it is for the people who write an operating system to make it work with the thousands of different computers that exist, that I realized just what a clever job the folks at Apple and - particularly - Microsoft have done. Windows isn't perfect. It doesn't shave as close as Linux, to push the metaphor too far, but it does a really quite impressive job, considering. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them?

So in summary: learning to shave with an open razor stopped me being a Microsoft basher. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Public advice: we need more information

I keep finding myself pondering government advice, and how we really need more information if the genuine aim of this advice is to change people's behaviour for the better. Take the UK government's advice on drinking alcohol safely, where men are advised to drink no more than 4 units of alcohol a day (so 28 per week, 21 for women). Now, I don't believe for a second that this particular figure is based on anything more than guesswork and the perceived need to provide some (any) figure, but it is useful for illustrating my wider point, which is that with any advice like this, how exactly are the public supposed to translate the number into action? You see, I can think of at least 4 completely plausible interpretations of this 28-units-per-week advice:

  • If I drink 28 units per week then I will definitely come to no harm
  • If I drink 28 units per week then there is a 95% chance I will come to no harm
  • If I drink 28 units per week then there is a 50% chance I will come to no harm
  • If I drink any more than 28 units per week I will definitely come to harm

So which is it? This really matters, because each interpretation would lead me to respond in a totally different way. This is something I keep finding myself thinking about with any sort of official advice on behaviour: we need more facts about how the advice is arrived at if we are to make sensible decisions about whether and how to change our behaviour. Or at least I do: others might be happy to follow dogma ;o)

Finally, big cheers to Google. When I searched for "five a day" its top result was "five a day = 5.78703704 × 10-5 hertz". Superb!