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.

May, me eat meat.

Urgh. Gruff. What is this M&M’s of which you speak?

Remember the bit in Pulp Fiction where Marcellus Wallace promised to get medieval on someone’s ass? Always sounded like a good threat to me. (I imagine it would involve building cathedrals and trading in relics…) 

However, the whole world seems to be hellbent on going much further back in time, with Trump wanting to bomb everyone into primordial soup (presumably to level with his intellectual discours). So in keeping with that spirit, I figured the month of May might be a good time to challenge myself in a new way: by getting Stone Age on my own ass. 

It’s not as mad as it seems. I’m not proposing to go live naked in a cave and hunt mastodons for breakfast (although that would be fun, too), no, what I will do is go on a Paleo diet for a month, to see what happens. Paleo is essentially about eating the way our earliest ancestors did, in an attempt to get away from starch, sugar and carbs – something which those early hunter-gatherers didn’t find much of on their menu.*

It will require quite the change to my eating habits: no more oatmeal and milk for breakfast, no pasta, beer or pizza post long runs, no sushi on Fridays, and certainly no sneaky Haegen-Daaz ice cream orgies late at night. 

I’m getting hungry just writing about these guilty pleasures, and chances are you are, too, which is due to the fact that our bodies are hard-wired to like this kind of food. The problem is it used to be a very rare treat back in the palaeolithic, whereas now there’s sugar everywhere, and our bodies cannot deal with such quantities of the stuff – hence diabetes, obesity, cardio-vascular diseases; the list goes on and on.

The physical effects of switching to paleo are interesting for another reason too, because after a while – anything from a few days to a few weeks – the body goes into a state where it stops craving carbs and starts using fat as its  prime source of fuel. This will supposedly make you much more efficient in long distance races, as the body’s supply of fat is vastly bigger than its stores of sugar (the difference between your muffin top and the muffin you just ate, if you will). 

Now, I experimented with this prior to running Ultravasan, but chickened out during the race. But my triathlon is coming up, and if I can do that without craving sugar then this diet must be the real McCoy. 

As always, there will be an update afterwards to account for how I did during the challenge – the practical aspects of it as well as any changes to my physique/performance. Now, what’s the best way to cook mastodon for breakfast?

*This sounds like an excellent idea to me, particularly since some studies show dementia to be caused by an accumulated inability to break down sugar, similar to diabetes, and I really don’t want to go down that path. 

Majestic Madeira

After Pemba and Mallorca, my island-hopping circumnavigation of Africa has taken me to Madeira, off the northwestern coast of the continent. Unlike no man, Madeira is an island, but also the name of the entire archipelago, somewhat confusingly. 

Known as the Isles of the Blessed to the Ancient Romans (although no one knows who the blessed in question were), Madeira has been part of Portugal for most of the last 500 years, but geographically speaking it is a part of Africa – and geographically this is probably the most dramatic landscape I’ve ever seen; the volcanic mountains rise up steeply everywhere, and verdantly lush jungle covers every square metre not claimed by man. This is Sardinia on steroids, a place where Kong might feel at home. 

Funchal, the main city, is my base. It rises up the mountainsides in a natural amphitheatre facing out towards the sea. This means the whole town is terraced, with houses literally being built on top of one another – a car parked on the roof of a house, or a house where the entrance is on the topmost floor because it’s perched on an outcrop far below; these are common sights – and traversing it is calf-killing business. 

On my first day I want to see the Monte palace gardens, which lie at the top of the town. There’s a funicular that takes people up there, but the asking price is staggeringly high (much like the gardens) so I make my way on foot from downtown. Three kilometres of hiking and over half a vertical kilometre later, I arrive at the gates, legs shaking and dripping with perspiration, questioning my sanity.

The gardens – first created by a British consul – were beautiful and well worth it, however, with bulbous clouds of bougainvilleas spilling out over the paths, palm trees and jacarandas and tulip trees and African lilies and Austin roses and bottlebrush flowers and endless arrays of other plants. Azaleas the size of trees, ferns taller than I am, and water features everywhere. It was a sight to behold, once my breathing and heartbeat were back to normal. 

There is a lovely little church next to the gardens, where the last Austro-Hungarian emperor rests (having lived the last few months of his life in exile here after he lost his empire), and his grave was filled with ribbons bearing greetings like “our last emperor” in German and Czech. Some people never learn.

The only other claim to fame for the church (beyond having the best views and the sweatiest congregation of all time) ought to be its altarpiece, which consisted of a printed picture of a painting of Jesus with the words “Jesus, eu confio em Vós” printed in Times New Roman (italics) on it. Why anyone thought this a good idea, I don’t know. It looked like the religious equivalent of the first Christmas card you ever DIY’d online. A far cry from the faux perspective cupola in Gozo, it was. 

Pro-empire statements to the left, pro-EU statements to the right…

Below the church are the famous wicker toboggans that tourists are ferried down the mountain in by surprisingly beer-bellied Portugeezers wearing white outfits and jaunty straw hats, nattering away while the tourists shriek with delight. The asphalt is worn silky smooth by their passage. It looks fun, but the prices are as steep as the roads, so having recovered somewhat, I walked back down again. 

This was a fitting overture to the main reason for my coming to Madeira. I want to hike the levadas. Levadas are ingenious works of engineering that the Portuguese set about creating immediately upon discovering the island (It was known to the Romans but subsequently lost to history, before Portuguese seafarers “rediscovered” it in 1419, and never mind that it was inhabited by runaway slaves and others when they did.). For five hundred years they have expanded this network of aqueducts hewn out of the cliff-face to channel fresh water from natural sources in the centre of the island out towards more habitable areas. 

Today, they make for perfect hiking trails, taking wanderers straight into the laurissilva forests that cover much of the centre of the island – it is literally a walk in prehistoric environs, as this type of laurel trees (many of them a thousand years old) covered large swathes of Europe tens of thousands of years ago, but only continue to exist here nowadays due to the island’s unique climate.

And so I find a company that takes small groups of people into the mountains to hike the most scenic routes. I had initially planned on bringing my tent and thru-hiking the island from one end to the other, but that didn’t seem possible, so here I am, doing the light version, coming home to a bed and breakfast every night instead of camping out.

First off is Levada do Rei, the king’s levada, or the king of levadas, I’m not sure which – my Portuguese being somewhat nonexistent. The hiking is easy as can be, but it’s not for the faint of heart. More often than not there is a ledge no more than fifty centimetres wide between the levadas and a drop-off of dizzying height. Fifty or even a hundred metres below, the roar of the river can be heard, and one false move will send you tumbling. It’s a puckering thought, and the last to go through the mind of many a slave (before the rest of them did) – as they were often forced to work on these projects (a fact that guidebooks find convenient to gloss over).

Trail with built-in shower.

 The levada goes six kilometres inland, through the most dramatically inhospitable terrain imaginable – once even inside a waterfall – to finally end in a gully where every leaf and frond is dripping water into the stream. Having left the group far, far behind, I explore the area, have my lunch in a spot that looks like it’s straight out of the Jurassic, and a bit of a rest before setting out again. I finally reencounter them ten minutes away from the gully. Possibly this group hiking thing isn’t for me…

On the way back, the guide drops me five hundred metres from my hotel. Whether it’s punishment for having strayed from the group, or just bad service, I don’t know. 

The next day, the pickup is fifty minutes late due to no-shows, and the guide (another one) is in an understandably foul mood. I try to not let it affect me, but he is frankly rude, repeating “I’m sorry but it’s not my fault”, when no one has claimed as much. The drive across the island is breathtaking, climbing up these alp-like jungle-clad mountains that dwarf everything humans can ever hope to create. 

We reach today’s levada, and I go on ahead again, leaving the group behind, enjoying the solitude and the different fauna of these higher altitudes. Here, it’s tree heathers and laurels forming a roof over the path, ferns are back to normal size, but blueberry bushes tower above me, and the odd wild geranium brightens the shade, while little trout swim in the levada by my side. It’s lovely.

I reach the halfway point of the “four hour” trail in under an hour, and spend a pleasant while by a beautiful waterfall and rock pool reminiscent of the ones I plunged into in Switzerland when canyoning, sharing my lunch with a chaffinch that happily takes pieces of cheese from my fingers. 

Who do you finch took the picture…?

By the time I’m done, the others have arrived, but trundling back the same way doesn’t appeal to me, and after some talking to the guide he grudgingly gives me leave to take a circular path. This is proper hiking – all roots and rocks, not strolling along a concrete sidewalk – and I nearly slip a couple of times, but in the end I’m back by the minibus well before the rest of the group. 

By this time the guide’s temperament and the false marketing combined have most of the hikers grumbling, so he takes us on an extra loop of a kilometre through an area destroyed by forest fire last year. It’s difficult to know how to react: on the one hand he is trying to make good on the company’s overblown promise, on the other hand it’s not like we’re just looking to walk any old where just for the sake of it. And he’s clearly pissed off, so that even if he is genuinely looking to do something for us, no one feels inclined to take him up on his offer. 

In the end we call it a day, and I say nothing, but a couple of exchanged e-mails later I’m looking at a third day at a third of the original asking price. Seems fair. 

Next day couldn’t have been more different: the pickup is on the dot, the guide Duarte is a real Mensch who has me pegged in seconds. “You go on your own, you fast”. And so I do. We go into the mountains proper, to hike between the two highest peaks on the island, Pico do Areeiro and Pico Ruivo, both over 1,800 metres. The path used to take in a third peak, but it’s been closed to hikers since a rockslide obliterated a stretch of it – a stark reminder that geological time is now. 

It’s an old path that locals on the north side of the island used to ferry their wares to the south side market place, however unlikely that sounds. Nowadays at least it’s paved, and a good thing too, as the ever-present tufa pebbles make for easy slipping. 

It’s hard going but incredibly beautiful: the path snakes its way up and down the sides of mountains, balancing on razor edge crests and burrowing through sheer rock. The fauna here consists of heather trees and broom, and the ground is covered by alpines such as indigenous orchids, buttercups, saxifrage and sedums, with oversized bumblebees brumming about. It’s overwhelming in its splendour. 

What’s more, it is all to be a part of the Madeira Island Ultra Trail tomorrow, so every so often there are waymarkers attached to the scant protective wires. I doff my sweaty cap in the direction of the runners: the race is 115 kilometres across the island, and I would not want to try to run many of the metres I cover here today…! (I did 15k today, with 1k elevation loss and 1k ditto gain. The X-trail is four times as much. Lord knows what the MIUT equivalent is!)

I predictably arrive long before the rest of our party, so when they do show, Duarte simply tells me to go on for another hour and then meet them back at the Pico. I happily do, taking in the utter isolation that is the Village of the Nuns way below in the next valley. It’s hard to imagine a more secluded place, and it looks quite magical, nested in between the mountains, but alas, the clouds come in and cover the nuns (and everything else) from my prying eyes, which I take as a signal to turn around and go find my posse, incredibly pleased with my day. 

I spoke more to Duarte on the way back, as he was understandably interested in the previous day’s debacle, but he also tipped me off about a longer trek that he recommended I do, even going so far as to find me the right bus to take, so my last day will be spent hiking properly on my own, just as I had originally envisaged. 

And so my last morning sees me boarding a local bus that will take me up the Ribeira Brava valley (the same one that blew me away two days ago). It takes its time getting there, but I enjoy every minute of the two hour drive, moving at a stately place down the coast, the driver navigating hairpin bends while I gaze in amazement at the landscape and all the gardens. 

The bus stops twice for ten-minute breaks – once to give passengers a chance to take a look at Cabo Girão, a glass-bottomed walkway over a cliff that drops 580m straight down into the ocean, and once, at eleven o’clock sharp, for coffee. My father would have approved – of the latter. 

When the driver drops me off, it’s in a place that almost defies description. At 1,500m, its high above the valley floor, offering breathtaking views, but unlike previous hikes, I move along this path in glorious solitude. For the first hour I encounter no one at all. Lizards rustling in the undergrowth, birdsong and the burbling brooks are the only sounds I hear as I walk through the dappled shade of a eucalyptus forest, the warm aroma of the trees’ esoteric oils filling my every breath. Truly, this is forest bathing at its finest. 

Jump in at the deep end!

By noon, just as the trail starts ascending, I come upon my first runner. He seems in good shape, considering he’s been running for twelve hours by now, but he’s only done some 50 kilometres, and yesterday’s trail is still ahead of him. We talk a little, and I encourage him in his efforts, offering a few choice tips – I am the author of Seven Tips for a Painful Marathon and a successful ultra marathon runner myself, after all! 😄

After that, I overtake more and more runners as I make my way up to Pico Grande, and then steeply down the next valley to the village of Curral das Freiras. 

See the people on the trail?

I make it to the village and down two cold beers in quick succession at the local bar (at the very fair price of 1€ per bottle), thankful that I haven’t traversed 65km, nor have 45 left to go. There’s only one problem: the only bus back to Funchal isn’t  leaving for another two hours. 

I arrived just before the halfway break-off point of the race – any runner who hasn’t made it there by 15:30 isn’t allowed to continue – and this proves to be a stroke of luck for me, as the volunteers begin to pack up and get ready to leave. I start talking to a group of five women all in MIUT sweaters, and they offer me a lift back to Funchal. 

 I would have been super happy with any ride, but the women turn out to be sweet, chatty and very interesting (children of emigrants to South Africa and Venezuela who have returned to their “homeland”). I simply couldn’t have asked for a better end to my holiday here. 

Now if only I could go to S:ta Helena next week…

Monastic Mallorca

I’m in a cloister on the east coast of Mallorca, having taken vows and joined an order. At least that’s what it feels like. 

Joining the Celestial Order of the Brethren and Sistren of the All Inclusive Resort is a strange experience. Much like its religious counterparts, life for the inhabitants of this enclave is strictly regulated, and therein lies its attractiveness to the many seekers of enlightenment who come knocking on its doors. Pilgrims looking to lay down their worldly worries and lead a life of contemplation find their way here, much like real monks and nuns joining monasteries and nunneries, albeit for rather different reasons. 

The grounds of this cloister are littered with cold water pools, where the penitent are encouraged to immerse themselves as much as possible, to purge their carnal sins from their earthly vessels. To ease our way, there is a plethora of contraptions aimed at luring us to stay in longer than is strictly good for you – the favourites being a bouncy hill and a slide of quite breathtaking steepness and height. The kids love it, and only give up their watery self-flagellation when their lips are blue and their bodies shaking. Then we retreat to loungers and allow the sun’s rays to beat us into submission until the cycle is repeated anew.


Of course there are certain differences from a normal cloister. Our cells are more adorned than I’m led to understand is usually the case, and the refectory where we take our two daily meals isn’t exactly an oasis of silence, nor does it feature divine choirs whose hymns allow the spirit to soar – it’s more like a high school cafeteria into which has been let loose a battery of beastly bairns of all sizes. It’s the main attraction for families with bawling baboo– small children, after all, the fact that in this microcosm no normal chores have to be carried out. No cooking, no cleaning, no leaving the premises for any reason at all unless you really want to. Add to that the anestesia provided in liquid form at all meals, and you begin to understand the appeal.

Watching this antropological experiment unfold is certainly an eye opener. The tired look on the faces of so many parents, the way they barely grunt at each other beyond what is necessary to ensure their offspring is fed and dressed and slathered in sun lotion, makes me feel alot better about my own parenting (and previous marital) efforts. The singles I encounter here are universally in agreement that ours is the happier solution.

Overall it makes for a radically different holiday from my last experience of Mallorca, when it was just my brother and I, and we stayed in a hermit’s quarters, walked in the mountains all day, often not encountering another soul for hours – but to my surprise I find this existence does offer me a kind of solace. In spite of the abundance of obese, tattooed and over-cooked humanity surrounding us, and the constant sound of squealing kids, it’s summertime (at a time when my family in Sweden is dealing with seven inches of snow) and the living here is easy. It’s not the kind of holiday I would choose, but it is the holiday the children wanted – bathing, sun and ice cream being their top criteria for what constitutes a good trip – and so I’m happy to enjoy this for what it is, a brief break from my mortal toil, knowing as I do – much like a real monk – that the end is neigh.

Who knows, I might even resort to resorts again in the future.