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. 

Braving Bergslagsleden

Death and beauty in Tiveden.

For the last two years I have gone on an annual hiking holiday with my brother, but this year we hadn’t really made any plans, so when an old friend suggested Bergslagsleden I was all ears. 

Bergslagsleden is a trail that goes straight through the heart of Sweden. It also happens to pass through one of the last areas of true wilderness in the southern half of the country, Tiveden forest, making it a worthy candidate to follow in the footsteps of the wonders of Slovenia and Mallorca.

On those occasions we rented places to stay and made day tours, but this would be something else: we would start at the southern-most end of the trail and hike northward, bringing all the kit and food we needed along on our backs. Quite another challenge, and one – it would soon become apparent – we had very different ideas about what it would take to tackle. 

I arrived in Sweden on Monday, and met up with my brother at my parents’ place. I felt well prepared, having collected gear for this kind of expedition for almost a year, finding the right equipment one item at a time. My brother on the other hand had seen a cobbler that morning, seeking advice on how best to glue the soles back on his walking boots(!).

In the car to the trailhead he was in the back, performing the equivalent of an appendicitis operation on his shoes. To say that I was stressed out about this would be an understatement; if he couldn’t get them in working order, the trip would be over before it had begun. 

He also hadn’t brought a tent, so the first night we shared Big Agnes between us. It was cold, considerably more so than the forecast had said, and I was lying there fully clothed in my sleeping bag, unable to sleep – you see, my brother snores. A lot. If snoring had been an appreciated art form, like, say, opera, my brother would have drawn crowds like Pavarotti. As it was, I was the only one to hear what sounded like a buffalo mating with a seal.

At one in the morning it started to rain. The weather forecast had specifically said there would be no rain! My brother roused himself long enough to ask me to bring his freshly glued shoes inside the tent. And so, with the rain competing with the snoring over who can assault my ears the most, the fumes from the glue finally had me drifting off to sleep. 

The next morning brought glorious sun and clear blue skies, however, and Anders’s shoes looked well enough, so we broke camp and set off, eager to start our journey into Tiveden.

Tiveden, literally the Wood of Tyr*, god of war, or the wood of “Tiva”, the gods, in Old Norse, is a forbidding place. The inland ice that covered Scandinavia 10,000 years ago deposited so many erratic boulders here as to create a landscape that was difficult to traverse and impossible to tame, and thus it has remained a wilderness, a forest untouched by modern forestry, and a refuge for wildlife. 

Now it’s a national park and a national treasure, but it used to be place people feared to go; wild animals were a real threat, and stigmän (literally “path men”) robbers would ambush any merchants and pilgrims foolhardy enough to travel without sufficient guard, only to melt back into the dark woods again on hidden trails. On top of that, local lore has always populated the area with a plethora of trolls, giants and other scary critters, so it’s small wonder the area was shunned as far as possible. 

We made it through the park unscathed, however, touched only by its natural beauty. We stopped to have lunch on top of Trollkyrka, a fortress-like accumulation of boulders deep in the heart of Tiveden, where Norse gods were allegedly worshipped for centuries after Sweden was officially christened. It’s easy to imagine blood sacrifices taking place here at night, the ancient trees standing sentinel in the dark around the bare rocks under a starry sky, flickering torches lighting the scene as the old gods are given their due. There were a few American tourists around, and it’s tempting, but we restrained ourselves…

At the end of the day we make our camp at a tärn, a forest lake, that is as picture perfect as is imaginable. The camp sites along the trail are all equally well placed, and kept in beautiful repair: timber bivouacs with ample firewood for the campfire, a clean outdoor loo and almost always overlooking a lake. 

Feeling hot and sweaty we brave the cold, black water, and here things could have taken a turn for the worse. The plankway leading across the moss that encroaches the waters is slippery, and Anders loses his balance and sinks waist deep into the bog quagmire. Luckily he can pull himself up, but he’s hurt his knee, which means our expedition is threatened yet again. 

The author doing his best John Bauer-troll impression.

He spends the night groaning and swearing (and snoring), but once we get going the next day the stiffness subsides and he can continue walking. 

North of Tiveden national park Tiveden forest still continues unabated, if slightly less wild. We pass Tivedstorp and Ykullen, picturesque old villages deep in the forests, still intact, still remote. Legend has it that the area was first populated when famine threatened the local kingdom and the king ordered every tenth family to be executed to save the others. His queen – who was apparently a little less brutal, or just more cunning – convinced him to send the unfortunate families to settle on the outskirts of Tiveden instead. Apparently doing so was seen as tantamount to a commuted death sentence; gives you an idea how hard life must have been here back in the day…

The third day we enter the borderlands between the ancient kingdoms of the Svea and Göta tribes. Here, the inland ice sheet has left a shingle ridge that rises sharply above marshlands, forming at once a natural bulwark and a road across the boggy surroundings. This natural feature meant that any attempt to invade your neighbours this way was almost certainly doomed, but that didn’t stop either tribe from trying, again and again. In more peaceful times the ridge was part of a well established path for monks and pilgrims and other travellers, particularly appreciated since it offered a natural vantage point from which to spy dangers from afar. I read this on an information signpost before climbing the ridge, and I hadn’t gone ten metres on it before I almost stepped on a snake. So much for that theory!

After the bog lands we enter an area of commercial forestry, which is considerably less pretty, but we have a lot of fun anyway, sharing woodsman tips. I’ve been reading the excellent Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, so we test various tricks to tell directions using trees (it seems the trees haven’t read the book though, because they are rubbish at it!), and my brother – who knows a lot about plants – points out various edible things along the way; so many that I begin to feel there is nothing in the forest that can’t be brewed as a tea. 

Thankfully we don’t have to put that theory to the test, because when we reach the end of the day, my old classmate Jessica – whom I haven’t seen in 25 years but who tipped me off about the trail (hooray for social media!) is there with her husband Per, waiting to take us in their car past this uninteresting stretch and into more pristine forests 20 kilometres to the north. 

We stop at another campsite that looks as if it belongs in a fairytale, and – glory be! – they bring out a cooler full of marvellous brioche, Brie and beer! It was a feast and an evening not soon to be forgotten; the years fall away, and it’s as if a month has past since last we saw each other, not a quarter of a century.

If it’s all the food we ate or the fact that the bivouac faces due east I don’t know, but the next morning I wake at four and watch the sun rise. It’s a lovely experience, but my timing is crap, because this is the day when we need to hike the longest by far – 32 kilometres. 

We set out by eight and it takes us ten hours, but then we do stop to explore the caves in Fasaskogen (literally the forest of horror) where local lore has it the giant Diger lives, and have lunch in an abandoned mine, where centuries old graffiti tell of miners – real-life troglodytes – long gone. 

By the end of the day I’m very, very tired and the soles of my feet are hurting to the point where all I want is to cool them down in a lake. Two kilometres before we reach our campsite we pass a moss, and the plank-ways we balance on sink into the ice cold waters, utterly submerging my feet. I try to tell myself that if I want to see the glass (and my shoes!) as half full rather than half empty I had been wishing for a way to cool my feet – I just didn’t imagine them to be in my shoes as I did so! Another woodsman’s trick – this one from Ronja the Robber’s daughter – sees me picking dry white moss that I stuff into my shoes. They dry up very quickly. 

And so we near the end of our hike. One last glorious sunset, one last meal cooked on the Primus – Anders goes all out with linseed patties, minced meat and grilled vegetables, and a family of four earns its place in the hikers’ pantheon of unsung heroes by offering us a beer each – and one last night spent playing hide and seek with the midges, before we make our way to the end of the trail. For now. You see, we did 105km but Bergslagsleden in its entirety is 280km, and finishes near the part of Sweden where we grew up. We’ll be back, braving Bergslagsleden again.
*Of Tyr’s Day fame – or Tuesday, as it is more commonly known.

Gear of Wanders 

I said at the beginning of the year that I hoped 2017 would be a year of wanders. Well, I’ve already done one walking holiday, in Madeira, but next week my brother and I are thru-hiking part of Bergslagsleden in Sweden, and fending for yourself 24/7 is a different proposition altogether. To put it differently: for extended hiking you really only need one thing. Gear. Lots of it. 

So I figured I would put together a list of all the gear that I’m bringing with me on Bergslagsleden next week. It’s my first attempt at this, meaning chances are there will be things that are superfluous, or that I should have thought to bring but didn’t. We’ll see. 

(Oh, and all the links are to in case you want to find out more about a given product. If you were to buy anything using those links I get a percentage (without it costing you more) but I’d recommend snooping around for better prices. 😄) Here goes:

Backpack. Osprey Atmos 65. A wonder of comfortableness, even when filled to the brim. And it will be.

Tent. Big Agnes. Interesting name. She is surprisingly light considering her volume, and easy to get up, down, into and out of. ‘Nuf said. 

Sleeping bag. Marmot Trestles 30. A bit of a conundrum, this. I can’t sleep in tight sleeping bags, but this one is huge. Will bring it if I can figure out how to get it to fit into the backpack, otherwise I will have to make do with one of the kidlets’.  

Sleeping mat. Therm-A-Rest. Comfortable and light, but squeaky and takes a bit of time to inflate orally. Had I known I might have sprung for another model. 

Clothes. Arcteryx shell jacket. Two pairs of running socks, two t-shirts (one with long sleeves), one pair of shorts, one pair of Arcteryx trousers – yes, I love Arcteryx, and no, I’m not bringing any underwear. I’m going commando. Seems fitting, no?

Shoes. My trusty Saucony Xodus. If they could carry me 90 kilometres in a day for Ultravasan, they will do here, too. 

Water kit. Camelbak 1.5l bladder (for filtered water) and LifeStraw, which proved its salt in Sardinia (to filter water). 

Kitchen. PrimusLite+. Gas canister. Spork.

Food. Mountain House ready-made freeze-dried bags of assorted meals, 12 portions. Brother is bringing home-made versions of the same. Figured we’d get by on this if we bring a sausage or two, plus stop at a couple of hostels on the way to have real food. Home-made energy bars. Oh, and instant coffee – gotta have a start engine!

Electronics. IPhone 6 with downloaded maps and information about the trail. Garmin Fenix 2.0 for recording our passage. Doubles as compass. Spare battery. Cables. 

Small essentials. Matches, two boxes. Toilet paper, one roll. Ecological soap, 100ml. Sunglasses (cheap ones bought in Mallorca – if they sufficed there, they will do in Sweden). Contact lenses, five pairs. Ibuprofen. Anti-chafing bandaids. Small super-absorbant towel. Anti-bear pellets. 

And that’s about it. I worry that I might have forgotten something trivial yet fantastically necessary. We will soon see, I guess. Until then, happy trails!

Diary of a cave man (1/2)

The usual suspects. I'm somewhere in the middle, I guess.So for the month of May I challenged myself to go on a paleo diet, in order to see how this might affect my well-being and physical performance. Here are some of the highlights of what happened:

Day -1: Panic. I’m supposed to not have any sugar for a month!?  

The healthy thing to do would have been to research recipes and prepare. What do I do? I run out to the local night shop and get an overpriced bucket of Haagen-Daez ice cream and down it all in one sitting, then – predictably – feel horrible about it. At least I didn’t have a beer as well.

Day 1: Breakfast is made up of bullet-proof coffee (black coffee with a dollop of coconut oil in it) and left-over oven-baked chicken with mozzarella; how’s that for high fat, low carb? It feels a little weird, eating chicken first thing in the morning, but hey, embrace change, right? Only I have the same thing for lunch AND dinner, and now I do feel a real need for change.

In terms of training I don’t do anything more strenuous than a short run, which a post-workout banana covers just fine. It remains to be seen how longer bouts of exercise affect me…

Day 2: Reading up more on paleo, I discover  all legumes are banned. No beans. I literally had cans and cans lined up on the kitchen counter to make a big batch of chili con carne! No sweat, old bean.

Also, no dairy is allowed, so my buffala mozzarella yesterday wasn’t caveman kosher either, in spite of the fact that trying to milk a buffalo is a pretty Neanderthal thing to do. Crud. Two days in and I’m failing. There’s a learning curve to this, clearly. 

I buy a spiralizer to make zucchini “pasta” for dinner and find it surprisingly edible. The kids threaten to go on hunger strike, then devour almost an entire cheesecake with raspberry coulis for dessert while I watch. 

Day 3: Weight-lifting after an English breakfast goes well. A banana, a date and some walnuts plus lemon water with a shot of flax seed oil replaces my usual (milk-based) protein shake. So far so good. 

In the afternoon the kids have an hour each of breakdance (L) and hiphop (R) with an hour in between, so the plan is to run while they dance. First hour is no problem, the second one I struggle, but more because I’m tired from this morning than anything else. And three workouts in a day is a fair amount, caveman or no. 

Day 4: Brought carrots, strawberries, dates and walnuts to work to tidy me over until lunch. Worked well. 

Dinner I’m invited to an Italian friend whom I’ve completely forgotten to inform about my new habits. Shit! In my mind’s eye I see a mountain of Parmesan-powdered pasta looming, followed by troughs of tiramisu, but my gracious host is very understanding, and beyond the guilty pleasure of a smallish plate of spaghetti vongole I don’t stray from the path. 

Day 7: I want to test myself (and the diet), to see if no carbs for a week will mean bonking when keeping up a sustained effort. So I do an hour of swimming (2k) followed by a three hour walk (13k), stop for lunch, then go biking one hour and a bit (25k). Admittedly this isn’t anywhere near as much as a marathon or triathlon, but I do it all without getting particularly tired or feeling any need for carbs. Yay!

Day 9: 16k run. No problem. 

Day 10: Becoming accustomed to eating “nuts and roots”, as my sister put it. Breakfast is dates and cashew nuts, carrots and hummus, plus a couple of eggs. Apart from the coffee, it feels like something the first guy to climb down from the trees might have eaten. He probably didn’t read his New York Times daily briefing while doing so, but so what?

Day 12 I run equal parts nuts (pecan, walnuts and cashew) and medjoul dates in a blender to create the simplest and best “cake” ever (1 cup of each; calories: approximately 1 gazillion). Who said troglodytes didn’t know how to party?

Ate it all in one sitting, and a good thing too, because Day 13 I swim 3,000m for the first time since I was 18. And then do an hour of weights.   

Day 14: Brunch with a friend. Half of what they serve is bread, or sugar, or both. I try a teaspoon of tiramisu (which I normally adore) and it’s so sweet I can hardly bring myself to swollow. Luckily the other half is made up of yummy veggie dishes, so emerge quite sated.

In the afternoon I run a half marathon on nothing but water. 1:52:50. Good time, given previous day’s workouts. Still don’t feel the need to refuel during the run. Scales show I’ve lost three kilos in two weeks.  Not a bad first half! 


(A friend objected that people get paleo wrong, in that they eat meat a lot more often than our palaeolithic forefathers and -mothers did; this is an objection I would say is probably correct. Even so, I’m buying a lot more veg than usual, and I feel good: slimmer, lighter, never quite as ravenous nor as zonked out before or after meals as I normally get.)

Great, gravity-defying tits 

I’m so sorry. You came here hoping for mammaries, didn’t you? 

No can do, I’m afraid. But despair not. Today was a day of wonders greater than surgically enhanced bosoms. Today was the day when the hatchlings from the nest of great tits in my hedge took the great leap into the void, and I was there to watch it. 

Think about it for a second. Your whole life you’ve been confined to a cosy bed, your parents bringing you yummy, wormy treats all day long, and then suddenly this urge strikes you: I must throw myself into the air and soar. It’s a crazy notion, but it might just work, right?

Wrong. There’s a steep learning curve to flying even if you’re born to do it, it seems. The three chicks are emphatically not good at it. They crash into things, miscalculate distances and generally make, well, tits of themselves in the process. It’s painful to watch, really. 

They call to one another and their parents, but there’s nothing the elder generation can do but watch as their offspring fail Aviation 101. One particularly unlucky fellow smacks into the trunk of the crab apple tree where the rest have managed to congregate, and gets irrevocably trapped in the undergrowth. 

I watch it struggle for a long time, reluctant to intervene, but in the end there’s nothing I can do but pick it up. It’s the tiniest little thing, short wings and scruffy head, but it’s plucky and perky, and stays on my hand without a worry in the world, seemingly sunning itself and calling to the rest of the family as if to say “Check ME out!” (Tits do that).

I have to nudge it to finally convince it to hop onto a branch of the tree, but once reunited – and having received a restorative maggot from mom or dad – it seems content to continue its aviary adventures. 

Me, I spend the rest of the morning at a respectful distance, listening to their calls from afar, a big, big smile on my face, thankful that my garden gives me such moments of unadulterated pleasure. If you can’t fly yourself, then surely the next best thing is to watch the next generation do it?

Three great tits. Not a caption you’d normally want to see.