Amsterdamned marathon!

So far this year, I’ve been smashing personal bests (PBs) running. I am training hard, and it shows. One kilometre, five, ten, half marathon, all those distances have been crushed. But the Big One remained. The marathon. And so I signed up for Amsterdam marathon, knowing that it was flat and that I’d have a good chance of improving my PB of 3:46 from Barcelona

42k is a long distance tho. Anything can happen that will throw a spanner in the works. And it seemed everything that could, would. 

The railway decided this weekend would be a good time to do maintenance, meaning I wasn’t even sure I’d get to Amsterdam. In the end I managed to puzzle together a route that is best called scenic, as it took in most of the Low Lands, criss-crossing this corner of Europe the way Moses “led” his people through the desert – it shouldn’t be possible to take so long to cover such a short distance, but six hours later I finally stepped off a train in A’dam. 

As for lodgings, the Airbnb host I had picked out cancelled with less than a week to go, leaving me homeless. I had a couple of panicky days – even considering online dating to find a place to stay – but in the end a colleague came through for me; he had a friend who lives in A’dam who was likely going to run the marathon as well, and if I were willing to sleep on a mattress I’d probably be more than welcome. Yay!

I wrote the guy, Tobias, and he offered to take me on. It turns out we have another friend in common, namely my sister’s running coach, the reigning 100k world champion runner. This made me pause, and after a little digging it turns out my host-to-be was fresh back from having run his third spartathlon (that’s 268k under the Greek sun), so he “wasn’t expecting to win the Amsterdam marathon this year either”. Yeah, you and me both, brother…!

So when we finally met up for dinner the night before, it was a great dollop of humble pie for me with a side dish of sushi, but he was just as pleasant as can be, and we got on fine, with me trying to (politely) pick his brain on how on earth he manages to do those races. Another mate of Tobias was visiting from Spain, and it turned out Johan and I had a more similar level of ambition; I figured anything between 3:30 and 3:45 is possible, and he wanted to beat his wife, who had done 3:37, so we decided to go together. 

The race day starts out well enough: we bike through the deserted streets to the Olympic stadium, where the start and finish will be. A nice surprise is that Tobias works for TCS, the company sponsoring the marathon, so we get into the VIP tent in the middle of the stadium rather than having to stand in line for toilets and clothes storage with the hoi polloi. The weather is beautiful, too. Crisp autumnal air, not a cloud in sight, perfect temperature. 3:30 here I come! Or so I thought. 

And so at 0930 we set off, with me leading through the outskirts of the city centre, sticking to between 04:50 and 05:05 per k – easy as anything. Right? Wrong. It worked well enough for the first 26 kilometres, running along the canals and then out along the Amstel river and back for a tour of the affluent countryside, with barges being used as floating DJ booths, and hoverboarders cheering us on from on high above the water. I even knocked a minute off my PB on the half marathon distance. But by then it’s getting warm, and the decision not to bring any water doesn’t seem so great any more. 

Best made plans of mice, men and marathoners… Before long, calves and quads are protesting, and threatening to cramp up. By thirty k I can no longer keep my 5min/k speed up. Johan has long since disappeared. Around me, more and more people stop and grimace as muscles seize up. The only thing preventing me from suffering the same fate is the little baggie of salt my ultra marathon-running sister has taught me to bring along on longer runs. Dipping a finger tip in the bag and licking it off is all that’s required, and it works fine, but it’s not a miracle cure – it can’t do anything to prevent armpits and nipples and even more private parts from being rubbed raw against sodden, sweat-drenched clothes.

And so I trudge on. I try to do maths in my head, to see what it will take to get me to the finish in this or that time, but it’s no good. The kilometres take longer and longer, and it’s only bloody mindedness and sullen determination that enable me to continue. The crowds are good, quite supportive and enthusiastic, or at least I think they are; I hardly notice them beyond one point where the smell of ganja is particularly heavy in the air. 

It’s funny, though. When the stadium finally comes into view. I straighten up and find untapped resources, enough to overtake quite a few runners and finish strong. That’s how long it lasts though. I hobble into the VIP tent and get a massage – the only thing standing between me and a full body cramp – or so it feels. 

Tobias ran the marathon in 2:58 – two weeks after Spartathlon! – Johan fell prey to the heat (in spite of living in southern Spain!) and couldn’t beat his wife, and I, well, I didn’t get anywhere near 3:30, but I still improved upon my old PB with five minutes. It certainly felt good after the DNF at the X-trail! And of course, once reunited, we immediately said we’d do it all again next year. I’ll be Amsterdamned!


Autumn in Paris

I seem to have reached an age where my friends are turning fifty. This is why I found myself in Paris this weekend, to celebrate this momentous occasion in the life of my very good friend L

There’s no denying it is a milepost. A person is no longer young at fifty, the potential of the younger self has been squandered or put to good use, and the resulting life has evolved accordingly. One must face mortality, and consider how best to spend the remainder of this all-too-brief existence before all is irrevocably lost to death and decay. 

Perhaps fittingly then, we spend the first day in Paris visiting the dead. First the untold millions of mortal remains of millennia of Parisians bundled together in the catacombs: 

The medevial municipal graveyards were literally overflowing at the end of the 18th century. At the same time the limestone quarries that had once been well outside of city boundaries were being subjected to urbanisation, which resulted in several spectacular collapses; houses and entire streets were swallowed up by sinkholes as the poorly shored-up, long-forgotten mine shafts caved in under the weight of the expanding city. Such an exciting time to be a Parisian – your house might spontaneously drop thirty metres into the ground, or your basement might get flooded with partly decomposed bodies! 

Ingeniously, the authorities decided to solve both problems in one go: the mines were mapped and their walls reinforced, part of the many miles of underground corridors were consecrated, the churchyards dug up and their dead deposited in the mine shafts-turned-catacombs, instead. Anything between two and six million skeletons were transferred to the catacombs, and today they make for a gruesome reminder of our brief toil on this mortal coil: the narrow corridors are filled floor to ceiling with row upon row of skulls – nothing for the faint of heart. 

The Pantheon is a different proposition altogether: a Greek-Roman temple constructed “to house the great men of the Fatherland” (feminists might have a thing or two to say about that), it is the final resting place for the bodies of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Marie Curie – maybe she was granted a dispensation? – and others worthy of veneration. 

The building is famous for housing Foucault’s pendulum, which proves that the Earth moves – and I think we can agree THAT’s a relief to know! – but more importantly it moves the human spirit, because it is one of the most impressive buildings you will ever see, and the views from the roof of its dome is nothing short of spectacular.

Sticking with the theme of mortality, there is an adage that says that a person should plant a tree, sire an heir and write a book. All that speaks of a desire to leave behind something more lasting, and so the second day was devoted to visiting monuments:

The Louvre, the world’s greatest museum, filled to the brim with painting and sculptures, all wishing to immortalise their subjects and/or the artists behind them. It’s interesting to see, but also sobering to realise how little we know of even the most famous ones: Mona Lisa’s identity is uncertain, there is no proof Venus from Milo depicts Venus (or more accurately Aphrodite), and no one knows what Victory from Samotrace looked like. 

Another good example of the phallacy of immortality is the Arc du Triomph: ordered by Napoleon as a lasting monument over his soldiers’ bravery (and, one suspects, his own greatness), it wasn’t completed until long after the Emperor had been forced to abdicate and end his days on a forsaken island far, far away. It still makes for a good outlook point, however.

A better, living monument, still thriving in the age of e-publishing, situated right across from Notre Dame, is the wonderful bookshop Shakespeare & C:o. Today’s proprietor is the daughter of the founder, who ran it for fifty years, and it’s a wonderful shop, just the way bookstores should be but rarely are: books spill out of every nook and cranny (of which there are legion), and cover every available surface from floor to ceiling, so that you think you have alighted upon an Escher painting made up of books. If books have the ability to transport you through time and space, this bookstore is a wormhole of black star proportions, and I hope it will outlast all other monuments in Paris. 

So, death being inevitable and immortality (even by monumental works) being near impossible, what remains? Eating, drinking and making merry. And so we stroll the streets of Paris, taking in its many wonders – the galettes and cider from Normandy, the macaroons at Ladurée on Champs Elysée (where a Saudi prince and his wife are subjected to the worst service of their lives), the opulent pleasures of brasserie Chez Julien (where Edit Piaf would still feel at home), cheese platters straight from the fromagerie, gateaux from thriving patisseries and incredible breakfasts courtesy of Jozseph and Frédéric, who run the best bed and breakfast in the world. The champagne and absinthe flow, there is laughter and silliness, but a moment of poignant silence marks the end of the weekend, as we happen upon a mass in the monastery church of St Pierre, literally in the shadow of Sacrecoeur on Montmartre.

 There, before a congregation of believers, and in a moment of divine light, the Lord’s Prayer is read, and for the first time it strikes me: underneath the religion and ceremony lies a very simple message. Accept that you can’t control anything much, accept the finite nature of things, be accepting of others’ struggles and treat them kindly regardless, and be grateful for the little things. It’s not a bad credo. 


Bogged down by Belgium 

Home from the hills. Après les alps, le deluge. Or so it feels. Coming-home blues is a real thing, as hard a come-down as anything ever sung of in the Mississippi river delta. 

To alleviate my ills, I turn to friend Florian, a man so well-travelled he makes Magellan look like a kid playing with his toy boat in a tub. His journeys are so many and far-reaching it’s as if Marco Polo popped out for a quart of milk at the corner shop by comparison. He suggests the Haute Fagne, or High Moor, as a best place in Belgium for a day trip, and who am to disagree?

Located in the easternmost part of Belgium, straddling the border to Germany, it’s a peculiar highland, more akin to the Scottish peat bogs than anything else. A big bog to take my mind off things? Well, I’ll give it a try. Maybe seeking out the antithesis to what you miss is the way to go? And so off I, well, go. I don’t pack hiking gear, figuring I can run the 30k trail F suggests. Famous last words…

When I get there, looking out across the moor, the landscape looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopia: nothing but a few stunted shrubs and dead trees. The nuclear heat of the day does nothing to detract from this illusion. Once out there, running along the duckboards, it’s a different matter. The marshland is home to hundreds of plants, mainly grasses and flowers, and it’s quite pretty in a low key way. 

There isn’t much time to look out across the landscape, however. The duckboards prove to be quite difficult to run on, in spite of being perfectly dry. The bog swallows everything eventually, but since it isn’t happening equally fast everywhere, this means one part may be perfectly stable, and the next one might tip to the side as you step on it, bounce, or simply break. It makes for a rollercoaster run. 

 This feature of the bog landscape is of course the main reason it has been a borderland for as long as can be remembered. The oldest border markers found here date back to the 7th century, and several imposing stone markers still show where the borderline between Prussia and Belgium once ran. Much like marshlands elsewhere, they were simply too difficult to traverse, and of too little economic interest for countries to fight for. 

Unfortunately, Belgian budgetary authorities share this view. Many paths through the moors are being abandoned, and only a few kept open – the others are allowed to sink into the boggy ground and disappear. I run along the main route towards Germany, and after only four kilometres I am suddenly off the beaten path. No longer able to run, I walk along a brook. It’s hard going, but very pretty, reminiscent of Swedish forests, with ferns and firs growing high, and not a living soul around. Pieces of abandoned duckboards appear intermittently, but it’s clear that not many people come here any more. 

Like a Zorn painting. Only one thing missing…

I have long since left Florian’s suggested route behind, and decide to turn around before I walk back into Germany, and there, suddenly, I’m no longer alone. A photographer and his two nude models are hard at work under a tree! 

It’s difficult to know what to do in certain situations. Do you say “hi”? Stop and admire an artist’s work? I briefly consider asking if they need another model, but I figure this blog has seen enough of me in a state of undress recently, and besides, the couple are twenty years and twenty kilos each past attractive. I get back to running instead.

I run back through ferns and grasses and dead trees, the ground muddy and slippery and mostly hidden by the undergrowth. It’s a hard slog, the ground either sucking at my shoes or sliding away and a couple of times I come close to wiping out. After a painful misstep and a near face plant, I slow down to a walk again, but once back on the duckboards I force myself to run once more – mainly to get out of the sun. 

After two hours I’m back where I started, at the one inn on the one road leading across the moors. The Baraque Michel (or the Obama Inn, as I like to think of it) has been a beacon to weary wanderers for well over two hundred years, and it’s easy to see why the family-run establishment is doing brisk business: my feet are wet and hurt, my shins and calves will require at least two showers to just be dirty again, my clothes are soaked through with sweat – I can’t bring myself to leave. 

I’ve done about half the suggested route, but I’m quite done. Properly bogged down by Belgium. 

Alpine Adrenaline II

The Bavarian Alps. The most German setting imaginable. Marvellous mountains, nestling green valleys with villages taken straight out of Grimm fairy tales. Birthplace of the grimmest of ideologies. 

I’ve come here for a week of peaceful hiking with my friends Florian and Iris. It doesn’t quite turn out that way. 

We come by train from Munich (where a local beer hall made our layover as enjoyable as can be), through pleasant rolling hills, and arrive in Oberstdorf (lit. “The highest village”) in sunny, warm weather. That’s a nice surprise in itself, since the forecast is promising thunderstorms and rain for most of the week. 

Florian suggests a “light” hike for the first day, climbing the nearest alp, Rubihorn. Coming in at 1,950m high, it’s no more than a 500-metre climb from the first lift station, but the sun is out in force, and by the time I reach the summit I’m wobbly-legged and woozy from the effort. That’s nothing compared to F and I, however. They arrive wheezing and gasping for air. But once heart rates have come down to something resembling normal we have a splendid 360 degree view for our efforts. We are at the edge of the alps, so to one side are the lowlands, and on the other there are hundreds of peaks as far as the eye can see.

What draws the eye more than anything, however, is the incredibly blue waters of the lake hidden right underneath us, shimmering in the heat like a Fata Morgana. Declining the kind offer of summit schnapps from a friendly local, we begin to make our way down a slippery slope towards it. When we finally reach its shores I’m so hot that the lure of the cristalline water takes over, and I join the friendly local and his buddies going in for the coldest dip of my life. 

Afterwards I will read up on it and learn that the lake is source-fed from below and therefore maintains a steady – low – temperature all year around (never glazing over in winter), but getting out of the water Iris sums up the experience rather succinctly: “I see it was this cold”, she says, grinning, showing a most unflattering distance between thumb and index finger. Suffice to say when the offer was made anew, I gratefully accepted the (plummet) schnapps this time around. 

Playa del Rubihorn

The next day we make for Fellhorngrad and a ridge walk that would have been ideal as a first day introduction to the area. Straddling the border between Germany and Austria, it’s a pleasant enough hike, but too crowded and pedestrianised for my taste. The best that can be said for it is that it offers splendid views into the Austrian valley where we will be exploring next day. 

The vale is effectively an Austrian enclave in Germany, because there is only one real road into the valley and it arrives there from Bavaria, which must have made everyday life for the inhabitants rather cumbersome back in the day of border controls. More importantly (to us) it’s also home to one of the more impressive gorges in Europe, the Breitachklamm. And so our third day sees us going to Austria.

Getting off the bus well above the Klamm (“pinch”) itself, we follow the Breitach downriver in glorious sunshine along a very pretty road that would have been a joy to run. I say as much to my hiking friends, forgetting the adage that you should be careful what you wish for. You see, after an hour or so of hiking Florian discovers that he has left his outrageously expensive camera hanging on a bench where we took a break. It’s a good kilometre back up the road, so I offer to run and get it before someone else does. 

Unfortunately someone else already has, and so I continue running back to the last lodge we passed, yet another kilometre upriver. When I finally arrive I’m drenched in sweat, but the camera is there, handed in by the finder (hikers are nice people!), and so all that remains is for me to race back to my friends. By the time I get back after this unexpected detour I’m once more so over-heated that I just tear my clothes off and let the river cool me down, with unexpectedly homoerotic / rubberducky results, as captured by my gleeful friends. 

When I post a pic of me on FB/when I’m tagged in one.

The Klamm itself is gorge-eous. The valley narrows, steep walls looming above us, waterfalls forcing their way ever deeper into the rock beneath us, as we clamber along walkways hewn into the cliff-face or precariously hanging on to the outside of the bare rock. Like a cut into the flesh of Mother Earth, the gorge is so deep that some of it hasn’t seen the sun for two million years. The debris left behind by winter floods bear witness to the brute force of the water: entire trees are lodged between the walls in places, and markers show the water levels sometimes reached, metres above our heads. It’s awe-inspiring.

Since Florian is leaving in the afternoon to visit a friend, Iris and I decide to try something both of us have been itching to do for a long time: tandem paragliding. We’ve signed up to do their longest flight, using the thermals to stay up in the air for up to forty minutes. Unfortunately, the flight school is incredibly badly organised, with numerous reschedulings and one pilot not showing up until an hour and a half too late, by which time it’s so late in the afternoon that the thermals are gone. This in turn means our flight is less than half the length promised, but for all that it’s an incredible experience!

We run off the top of the Nebelhorn and take flight as easy as anything, then go down the valley close to the forest-clad sides, gliding effortlessly and smoothly through the air. It’s such a high I’m just grinning and laughing the whole time. Iris, meanwhile, is screaming at the top of her lungs – something she has forewarned both me and her pilot is a sign of joy. She soon has cause to scream for other reasons, though, because then they start showing off their skills, making us swing around our axes, spinning around in half loops in the best roller-coaster tradition. It’s fantastically good fun, if quite disorienting. 

Iris earning her new nickname, with me in the background.

Before we land I’m given the reigns and told to steer towards the village church, which I do as best I can, before finally we come down soft as can be on a field, grinning from ear to ear from the adrenaline high, and me at least more convinced than ever that this is something so want to learn for myself! The rest of the evening is spent in a Biergarten, mulling over the minutest of details, riding the air waves over and over again.

Next day Florian is back, but the worse for wear from last night’s birthday do, so Iris and I ride the Bergbahn to the top of the Nebelhorn on our own. We set out along the ridge together before parting ways, with me attempting the Entchenkopf alone. 

It’s sits across from the Rubihorn, but is 300 metres higher, and significantly more difficult going, with several passages being senkrecht climbing. I had been wanting to try the via ferrata, the climbing paths that you traverse with guides and equipment, but nae more. This is worse by far. With no back-up or climbing gear, the ground slippery from last night’s rain, and drops of anything between ten and fifty metres onto sheer rock, any mistake would be my last. It’s no coincidence Todesangst is a German word, I think. 

What do we say to Death? Not today.

When I finally reach the summit, my legs are shaking from fear-induced adrenaline, and I don’t dare stand up for quite some time. But fear is good. Fear – if harnessed – makes you more alive, more focused. As I sit there, taking in the never-ending views, the air as clean as can be, I feel like a million bucks. 

And then the moment is over, and I slide down the other side of the mountain towards the Hütte where Iris awaits my return, and the best Kaiserschmarren pancakes known to man.

That was Iris’s last day, so next day Florian and I set out on our own to do the Sonnenköpfe, three lower peaks that form the continuation of the Entchenkopf. They looked more like rolling hills from the summit the day before, but as we hike them they turn out to be quite formidable, too, and it’s only the knowledge that there will be even more of the same Kaiserschmarren that spurs us on til the end. 

Next we want to try the stony Gottesacker plateau (lit. “God’s plowing field”), but when we get there the lift is under repair, and faced with the prospect of an additional 1,000 vertical metres in full sun – the weather forecast having turned out to be quite wrong yet again – we opt for an alternative route through a Naturschutzgebiet up to another lodge, seated on the Austrian-German border, and down the other side. It turns out to be Florian’s favourite walk of the entire week, but I can’t help feeling a bit wistful about having missed the plateau, especially since it looks just like a sleeping dragon from below…

Climb every mountain!

The very last day the weather forecast is finally correct, and the rain is pouring down. F can’t be bothered to leave the Gasthaus, but I go for a quick run and then a solo hike in the southernmost valley in all of Germany. It’s wet and misty and moist and slippery, but I don’t mind. The low-hanging mist lends the nature here a mystical aura of veiled beauty, and besides it’s reminiscent of the hikes of my youth, when – as I remember it – the alps were always clad in clouds. 

And so my travels with Sonnenkopf and Nebelhorn (lit. “Sunny head” and “Fog horn”) are at an end. The lovely Martin and Andrea, who run the Gasthaus Birkenhof where we have been staying, hug and kiss us goodbye and drive us to the railway station, and then all that remains is one more visit to a beer hall in Munich (with succulent Schweinshaxe and Augustiner beer), before finally flying home. 

The alps, however, are already calling me back. 


Geneva, Switzerland

I came to Geneva early one morning with the sole intention of leaving it as soon as possible, but a fatal error when booking my rental car (not changing 7 PM to 7 AM) combined with a healthy dose of inflexibility on the side of the car rental company left me unexpectedly with an entire day here.

Truth be told, I didn’t mind (much). I had only ever been once before when I was here to work for the UN (as you do), and hadn’t had the time to see any other part of this most quintessentially Swiss town. 

The first thing that struck me is how hushed it all was. Granted, as I had flown in on a red eye, the city was probably even quieter than normal as I made my way on foot towards the old town, but still… the famous water sprout on the lake seemed to be the only thing moving, sending cascades of water 140 metres in the air. It was already hot however, and being dressed top to toe in black didn’t help – it might make you look cool, but I was anything but.

And so I slunk through the alleys of the old town, lurching from shade to shade like Frankenstein’s monster, who was “born” here when Mary Shelley outdid her friends in a literary contest, Decameron-style.

Geneva is famously the birthplace of another monstrosity, too (in the eyes of the Catholic church, at least!). 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and having been at the centre of that revolution the city celebrates with numerous plaques and statues, none more impressive than the stalinesque monument at the foot of the old town, where the four founders stand in vigil, looking like a cross between dour dwarves from Tolkien and Usama Bin Ladin. Given that their ideas directly contributed to wars, civil wars, famine and the deaths of millions one has to wonder what great thinkers will be venerated five hundred years from now…

John Locke, Gimli, Grumpy, Usama

Back in the here and now, modern Geneva proves to be exactly as stereotypically Swiss as can be hoped for: banks line the streets (presumably with impressive vaults hidden underneath them), and luxury items are on sale everywhere – foremost amongst them watches, ranging in price from small car to McMansion – and the army’s favourite deterrent makes regular apparances. 

So far, so Swiss. Less famous is perhaps the fact that Swiss society is incredibly liberal – it’s here people can go to take their own lives in special death clinics, after all – and so it shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise that there are stores selling cannabis and prostitutes plying their services quite openly, as if it were nothing more special than, say, cheese fondue (I’m not saying cheese fondue can’t play a part, too, but you would probably have to pay extra…).

I have my sights on a different Swiss speciality, however, of a most particular kind: CERN.

The European Centre for Nuclear Research is arguably the most successful example of humankind coming together for the greater good and advancement of the race. It’s here, or rather one hundred metres below the ground, that the Large Hadron Collider is – well, at this point I admit defeat; there is no way I can explain how the particle accelerator is used. They crash particles into each other at near the speed of light and sift through the debris to infer the existence of various infinitesimally small building blocks of the universe. That’s the best I can do. 

But it’s here, all 27 kilometres of it, running circles around everything else in terms of coolness (quite literally, as the magnets used to speed the particles on their way are cooled to just a couple of degrees above absolute zero in order to create superconductivity), and I spend a couple of very happy hours taking in the exhibitions and enhancing my ignorance.  

And so it was that I left Switzerland with an even better impression than I had before. It’s easy to see how the combination of the lake and the surrounding mountains lures people here – unfortunately that is also why the market has seen fit to ensure that it that it’s out of reach of most mortals. As I left I tested this using the Big Mac index: roughly twice the price of all other European nations. Wanna live in Geneva? Win the lottery, or – at least – bring a packed lunch. 

Man vs. Mountain

So today I participated in Courchevel X-trail, a particularly cunning name for an extreme trail run in the Courchevel region (of the French alps). An orgie of gruelling ascents and descents – 54km, to be exact, and nary a flat surface in sight. 

It started at four in the morning, so in fairness there was no way to see the wall-like mountain towering immediately in front us either, but as soon as we were off you could tell just how murderously steep and long it was from the headlamps of runners ahead and behind you, like a string of pearls in the night. 

It took me two hours to reach the first aid station, 10k into the race. Normally I would have covered more than twice that distance in that time, so it wasn’t running so much as climbing. By this time the sun had climbed into the sky as well, and revealed that this first mountain wasn’t anywhere near done with us yet: we were only halfway up it, in fact.

And so on we climbed. The sun stayed resolutely hidden behind clouds and mist, but even so I was pouring with sweat, in spite of it being only six or so in the morning. When I finally crested the first mountain, realisation dawned: descending is almost as bad as ascending! The first descent of the day was relatively doable, but as the day wore on, gravel and treacherous stones in combination with deadened legs meant it was just a different kind if torture.

If I had seen a contour map of the route I dont think I would’ve ever signed up: the second mountain was even higher than the first, 600 metres straight up in the air (over something like four kilometres) to the second aid station, along its ridge for another handful of kilometres (where the fog thankfully hid the abysses we were tightroping along!) and then down impossibly steep roads into a rather wonderful valley. Here a number of fast flowing rivers with water the colour of blue clay, conspired with stone chalets and grazing cows straight out of a Milka commercial to make a rather enchanted place, the enclosing mountain ridges adding to the feeling of a lost paradise.

Unfortunately that paradise was quickly lost again, as a third ascent began at the valley’s end, this one leading up across alp meadows with incredible numbers of flowers and then into a seemingly never-ending field of boulders, where one false move would have meant instant reenactment of the pivotal scene from “128 hours”.

By this time I had given up running apart from a slow jog on the downhill sections, but the boulders provided the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was no way I could walk fast enough to make the next rope time, and running across them (either up- or downhill) wasn’t an option, so after seven hours and 30k I had to resign myself to the fact that today would earn me my first ever DNF (Did Not Finish). 

It’s obviously not an accolade I was hoping for, but at the same time I can’t be unhappy. A number of factors combined to make today a bad day: I slept atrociously bad the night before the race – two days of stressful travelling to get here plus sleeping in a tent after a day of 34 degrees heat and no shower saw to that – and I’m obviously not good enough at running in this kind of terrain (hardly surprising as I’ve never done it!). 

So my spirit wasn’t in it, and I stepped off while still feeling ok physically, rather than push myself to the absolute limit, knowing that this way I’d  be able to come back to enjoy the alps in a week’s time – this time for less strenuous hiking, hopefully – and that’s a choice I’m happy with. 


A final note on race organisation: while overall it was a very smooth operation, there are some points that might be of interest to potential runners. First of all, Courchevel isn’t one place. There are at least three villages called Courchevel, and having had more information about the actual location of the point of departure would have saved me an hour or so of admittedly scenic but very stressful driving as the closing time for registration drew ever neigher. 

The goodie bag deserves a special mention: apart from the usual array of vouchers and marketing material for other races it contained a plastic gobelet (useful?), a local beer (very drinkable, I’m happy to report), and a condom! That’s a first. Whether it was there to serve as a sort of talisman, to keep and preserve you in the mountains (condom in French is “preservatif”, after all), or whether its presence had anything to do with the imminent proximity of Pussy (a French hamlet nearby) I don’t know. 

There were no medals and t-shirts on offer for finishers. Instead you got a mug and a pin – full marks for novelty here as well, but I’m not sure I would have been very happy with that offering upon completion. 

Finally a word on safety. The race organisers had done what they could: the trail was well blazoned throughout, and there were even a handful of volounteers scattered about the mountains in the iffier spots, but there’s no denying that rescue operations would have been very difficult. In the darkness and the fog there was no way a helicopter could have got to the site of an accident, even if there was someone to report where it happened (and the potential for accidents was unlimited). In the same vein, I was incredulous to discover that the only way of getting down from the aid station where my race came to an end was to hike twelve kilometres unsupported “mostly downhill”. It was only luck that saw me being able to hitch a ride with a ranger, otherwise I’d still be out there now…

Half a lap around the sun…

…and it’s time to summarise what’s happened this far 2017. As has been the case these last couple of years, I set myself certain tasks in January, to be completed over the next twelve months, and at the halfway mark it makes sense to take stock, to see what has gone according to plan, and what hasn’t. 

Have I managed to go on an adventure/set myself a new challenge/have a new experience every month? Happily, yes. January I ran a marathon with a difference, February I went to see Alhambra, Grenada (the text about which seems to have been deleted, sadly!), March I dived the incredible reefs of Pemba, April saw me join a monastery of sorts in Mallorca, then came hiking in Madeira and in the troll-infested forests of Sweden (whilst also trying out the benefits of a paleo diet), before finally taking on my first triathlon last month. 

Looking back, it’s quite a lot crammed into six months, so I’m pleased with that. 

I’ve managed to work out quite a lot (unsurprisingly, what with the races) but not as much as I had set out to do in total – weeks of hiking and skiing and diving have prevented me from reaching the goal of a marathon run and biked every week, and I haven’t done much yoga either. But then there’s still six months left to remedy that. 

Have I developed my French, my piano and chess playing, and done more non-fiction reading? I certainly got off to a good start, doing thirty minutes per day of each, but a good friend giving me a Netflix password threw a big spanner in that particular structure. I haven’t completely derailed, but there have been leafs on the tracks, shall we say.

As for taking on new tasks at work, I have, happily. And not least because of this very blog, in fact. Turns out people at work read it and thought I might do good in Internal Communications, so from now on I will spend one day per week as a roving reporter, highlighting goings-on in my work place. Very happy about that. 

So what’s next? I will try to make up for lost time in those areas where I haven’t quite managed to reach my targets, obviously. 

I’ve still got the mountain ultra X-trail coming up in the beginning of August, and ten days of hiking the Bavarian alps hot on the heels of that. After those ten days I don’t really have any plans for the rest of the year. An acquaintance has invited me to Bilbao, and another to Nepal, so those things might happen. Or not. Readers should feel free to make suggestions. 

I still want to try and beat my marathon record before the end of the year – I’ve improved significantly on my personal best for shorter distances, but whether that will translate into a new marathon PB remains to be seen. Time to start looking for a fast race, in any event. 

At work I have made a promise to attempt to add Danish to my official language combination, so that should keep me busy for quite some time (maybe there are Danish movies on Netflix?!), and the new job will hopefully continue to present new challenges, as well. 

All in all I feel quietly confident that the second half of this journey will be as filled to the brim as the first half was. Come fly with me!

Becoming Ironman

My credo for the last couple of years has been to either go on an adventure or set myself a challenge every month. Now, in terms of physical challenges I had already run marathons and even a couple of ultras, so the question was what to do to take it to the next level in 2017?

A triathlon seemed the logical step – and a half length Ironman seemed about right. Combining swimming and biking and running in a course covering 113 kilometres, an Ironman 70.3 is something that could challenge anyone, but to me it was a daunting proposition for a couple of specific reasons: I’ve never learnt how to crawl properly, and I didn’t have any experience with road bikes – both fairly essential skill sets to triathletes…! 

But then it wouldn’t be a challenge if it weren’t slightly intimidating, would it? And so I signed up for the Luxembourg Ironman 70.3 Remich-Moselle triathlon, happy in the knowledge that I had five months in which to prepare. Well, fast forward five months and I still haven’t learnt how to crawl, and I’ve used my new bike a grand total of three times… and yesterday was the day. 

Here’s what happened:

First impression when I arrive at Remich? These are some seriously athletic people. They look like they eat marathoners for breakfast. It’s hard not to descend into homoerotica when describing these men (and even the women look like men!) – suffice to say even oldtimers look like gray-haired terminators. Or possibly these grizzled fellows are still young, and this is what too much triathloning does to you?

Second impression? These are people who take their kit seriously. Most bikes look like something Batman would be happy to cycle around Gotham on, if Bats was into eco-friendly neighbourhood policing. They might have heat-seeking missiles on them, for all I know, and a bat fax hidden underneath the saddle. 

Overall, the level of logistics involved is slightly bewildering to a simple runner like myself. There are bikes to be checked in, red bags for running kit, blue ones for biking (I’m not sure if it’s purposely done to be (R)ed for running and (B)lue for biking, but it would explain the (W)hite bag for afterwards, when all that’s left to do is whimpering…). 

Queuing up for the start, I look out across the Mosel river and a sea of neoprene-clad racers, nearly all of them in black, and already sweltering, because it’s proving to be a very warm day. Thankfully, in spite of the heatwave that makes this quiet village in Luxembourg feel like an outpost of the Serengeti, the organisers have dispensed with the traditional wildebeest-start for this event (where everyone stampedes into the water at the same time, turning it into a churning cauldron of thrashing limbs). This means I’m able to get in line at the very end – in the 50-60 minute bracket – where my breaststroke won’t upset anyone. 

Even so, once we get in the water there are other athletes who are clearly not too good at crawling, but who don’t let that fact stop them from zig-zagging back and forth along the river. I’m quite happy to actually see where I’m going, as in the end that proves rather useful, allowing me to take the shortest route from buoy to buoy, and avoiding detours into Germany. 

I think I did quite well considering this was my first attempt at competitive open water swimming, but I have no way of knowing, because when I stumble out of the water and jog into the transition area I realise my Garmin hasn’t recorded anything. Drat. 

Pulling off my wetsuit and grabbing all my biking kit I laugh a little at a piece of advice I got off the Internet. I piously took a picture of my bike when I had parked it and memorised the surroundings to be able to find it today, but since I’m one of the last to enter the T zone I can easily spot it from a hundred metres away. 

And so I hop on my bike and set off. The biking part is the great unknown for me. I haven’t done more than 18k in one go on this bike; I’ve only owned it for two weeks – and ten days out of those it was in repair back at the factory, since it fell apart on my third outing and nearly killed me, due to an assembly mistake – so there is no way of knowing how this will go. 

As it turns out, I’m in for a pleasant surprise. The first 35-40k are along the Mosel river, first upriver all the way to the French border, then down again – and I average 30kph, which is considerably faster than I had thought possible. Then it’s inland and hilly, ridiculously pretty countryside, but even the longest, steepest uphill stretches feel eminently doable, and I pass quite a few athletes, in spite of my being unable to get at the energy bars and gels I have brought along. (Note to self: flip belts do not work well when biking!) 

Before long, I’ve done more than half, and then suddenly it’s the last 20k, which are either downhill or flat, and I’m flying back into Remich for the last transit. 

As I get off the bike, my legs object loudly to doing anything but pedal, but that was expected, and once I get out of the T zone, they know what’s expected of them. Running, at least, I know how to do. Ironically, that almost proves my downfall. 

Muscle memory dictates what speed I’m going, and that means I am going fast. Way too fast. The first kilometre flies by at 5:05, the second at 5:15. I have to make a conscious decision to reign myself in before I bonk. Quite beside the fact that I’ve been exercising for four hours plus already, its gruellingly hot, 28C in the shade, and precious little shade on offer. 

But once I’ve made my peace with this, and don’t treat the running as if it were a normal half marathon, it becomes surprisingly easy. The run is made up of four laps, each one taking you tantalisingly close to the finish before throwing you out of Remich and down along the river once more to collect another bracelet (one per lap), downhill on the way out, uphill on the way back. 

Around me, people are suffering, throwing up, groaning as they attain to keep running. I take a different approach: I walk when it feels hard, stop to help a couple of people with cramps (salted raisins – work like a charm), and run with an easy gait for as long as it feels good. It won’t be my fastest half marathon, and I won’t meet my goal of making the run in under two hours, but I feel great. I even have enough energy left to show off a little on the finish line (which sadly, since it was only a live feed, you will never see!) before collecting my first triathlon medal. 

My main ambition was to finish the race at all, and my hope of coming in under seven hours I managed with quite some margin, at 6:22:59. Can I improve upon that? Sure. Give me a year of actually training with a bike and some lessons in crawling and I will knock another 23 minutes off that time. More importantly, am I happy about having become (half an) Ironman? Affirmative, Jarvis. 

Tri as I might…

Three shades of tri…

…there’s no denying that – with less than three weeks to go before Luxembourg, my first Ironman 70.3 – this whole triathlon idea is starting to feel quite intimidating!

I mean, I can swim my “granny crawl” (you know that stately progression through the water ladies of a certain age who’ve just come from the hairdresser specialise in) well enough, and I can run – if not fast, then at least for a long time – but I have yet to go more than 30k on the bike in one session (In my defense, I only got my race bike less than a week ago, but still…) And then of course there’s the small matter of putting it all together, all three disciplines one after the other. Who in their right mind does that??

Like all participants I got the email containing race rules and regulations this week. You get penalties for everything, it seems. Some of them things I didn’t even know existed! Like drafting. Apparently you can’t stay close behind someone when biking, because that way you benefit from them pushing the air out of your way. I would have thought that was a bit superfluous as a rule. No one objects to that when swimming or running (in the first case because you’d get your teeth kicked out if you tried, and stumble in the latter), so is it really necessary to have a rule like that? 

There’s also the “no indecent exposure” rule… in my experience, people participating in a race don’t give a damn (mass peeing before a marathon, anyone?), and if someone were to actually expose themselves “with intent” I reckon he would have to answer to every other participant present, rule or no rule, but better safe than sorry, I suppose. 

You even get a penalty if you hang a balloon or similar from your bike so as to find it easily after the swim. That’s a bit stingy, isn’t it? It was one of the best tips I picked up reading about triathlons, and I was looking forward to seeing a sea of bright balloons, scarves, and what have you in the transit area, but that’s not to be, it seems. 

Anyway, those are just minor details. For now, the main challenge – beyond the ever-present question of whether you’ve trained enough – lies in the logistics of the thing; How do you transport your bike safely? How do I organise all the kit so as not to forget something vital? What do I bring to eat/drink? Will I be able to drive back after the race or will I be stranded from sheer exhaustion? 

I guess freaking out a little is normal at this stage. I try to tell myself, One step at a time. Before long, that principle will apply to the race day itself. 


Diary of a cave man (2/2)

Howling at the moon…

The second half of my month of eating paleo looked like it might be considerably harder than the first. Eating nothing but what our most distant ancestors might have eaten works fine when not exerting oneself utterly, but as my triathlon draws closer that’s not an option. Plus I would be going hiking for five days with my brother, and goodness knows how my body would react to that, paleo or no. This is what happened:

Day 16: 10k bike / 2k swim brick-session (i.e. one follows immediately upon the other). No problem.

Day 17: 18k bike, 8k run, 6k run, all with hour-long pauses in between, and 28C temperatures. By the end of the day I’m exhausted, but somehow I don’t think the diet is to blame. I cheat a little afterwards, drinking half a litre of pure apple juice – it tastes like the nectar of gods!

Day 19: I discover that smoked trout and boiled eggs make a good breakfast, but leaves your mouth smelling like fart. Learn something new every day. 

Day 20: New PB on 5k. Wonky reading on the Garmin tho, so won’t count it, but still: clearly paleo isn’t hurting more explosive efforts either. 

Day 21: Prepared massive batch of protein cakes to bring on next week’s hike. Tweaked the recipe to include maple syrup and chocolate. All caveman kosher. Biggest problem will be not eating them before actually on the trail…!

Day 23: Hiking all day. 18k in hard terrain in Tiveden. Protein cakes yummy. Freeze-dried food better than expected. Energy levels stable and high.

Day 24: Hiked 20k. Ate big plate of macaroni and cheese in the evening and literally passed out for half an hour afterwards. Just laid down on the ground and fell asleep. Felt hung over on carbs the rest of the evening. Disgusted.

Day 25: Hiked 23k. In the evening an old friend met up with us, and served us cold beers and Brie sandwiches. Couldn’t say no out of politeness. Didn’t want to, either. Paleo regime officially toppled, then. Will mount a counterattack. Tomorrow.

Day 26: Got up at 0400. Hiked 32k over ten hours. Gratefully accepted a beer in the evening from kind strangers, but otherwise toed the line.

Day 27: Last day of hiking. Family reunion. Lots and lots of food. Decided to forgo paleo for the evening.

Day 28: Back in Belgium. Rest day.

Day 29: Rest day.

Day 30: Went running for the first time in over a week; shaved another sec off my PB on 5k. Celebrated daughter’s birthday with huge, distinctly non-paleo cake. 

Day 31: 10k bike (PB), 8k run, 7k run. Weighed in: 77.2kg. 

So, strictly speaking I stuck with the diet 100% for three weeks. After that circumstances conspired to make things more difficult, as I had predicted. That’s never an excuse tho; I chose to give it up for the sake of convenience. 

But that doesn’t change the fact that I was able to work out as hard as I ever have in my life during those three weeks, and it felt great. I lost five kilos during May, without losing any muscle, so it seems the theory holds water – your body will switch to burning body fat if carb intake is significantly reduced, and do so without lowering your performance levels, over either short or long distances. 

It will be interesting to see what happens at the Ironman triathlon in three weeks – that will be the real litmus test. I will be writing about that experience too, of course. One thing’s for sure: I’ll be continuing on this prehistoric path.