Hardrock Hundred

When I first applied for the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, the entry process was still somewhat convoluted. Not quite as preposterously convoluted as the still ‘secret’ entry process for the now famous Berkley Marathons but it was still somewhat of a faff.

In October each year you had to download and printout a paper form. This needed to be completed in black biro and returned by post to an address somewhere in New Mexico, along with, if memory serves, a cheque to enter the lottery.

For potential entrants outside the US, this meant a trip to the bank to get a US Dollar Cheque issued. Then a trip to the Post Office to get a stamp for the US. You’d probably have to pinch an envelope from work. Who writes letters these days.  Then you’d never be quite sure if the letter got through.

Clearly it wasn’t the most difficult thing I’d ever done, but it was enough of a faff in busy working week to put off the casual or speculative application.

On top of all of that, you had to have run one of a limited number of qualifying bad-ass hundred-mile mountain races in the two years before, just to be eligible to apply.

This wasn’t the process to get a place in the run, you understand, but just to get a place in a lottery for a place in the run.

My memory is now a little hazy, but I think I must have applied via the paper-and-post system for a couple of years. Then the application process moved slowly into the digital age and online applications were allowed – and payment for the lottery accepted by credit card.

I remember thinking at the time that the move to the convenience of digital would mean that anyone could apply – and it would make it harder to get a place.

I didn’t get through the lottery those first couple of years. Nor the subsequent two or three when I and thousands of others could apply online.

The Hardrock Hundred is not a big run with space for under than 150 people, its reputation far outstrips its capacity.

The lottery for those 148 places is split roughly in thirds – one third for people who’ve run the race more than ten times before – the veterans. About one third is for people who have never run the race before (that’s me). And a final third for everyone else. So in reality as someone who’d never run the race before, I was competing for one of just 45 places for the ‘never run’ lottery.

In recent years they’d started tweeting the lottery live as it was drawn – going full digital native after their very analogue start with paper forms.  Over the years I’d grown accustomed to either sitting down and obsessively refreshing the twitter app on my phone – or mindfully doing something else altogether then coming back for the reckoning once it was all over.

This year was a huddle over the phone year.

First they drew the lottery for the veterans, then the virgins.

Wainhouse is not too-common a surname. And after a bit of googling I’m fairly certain that nowhere else is it tied to the Welsh first name, Owen. By my reckoning I’m the world’s only Owen Wainhouse.

So when ‘Owen Wainhouse’ was the first name pulled from the proverbial hat, at least I was sure that it wasn’t my namesake that had been picked out.  Imagine the confusion of being James Smith – or indeed Owen Jones.

But there I was. First on the list. I was going to Hardrock.

The first thing they tell you about Hardrock is that this is a ‘graduate run’.  The sport of ultrarunning has grown massively since I did my first 100 miler.

According to Ultrarunning Magazine, between 2007 and 2016, the number of ultra-races in the US more than tripled. Many races have been established as entry level hundreds – where you might suffer (how can you not on a hundred) but there’s no real danger.

For most of the route on the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc for example, you’re within cellular phone coverage.  It’s tough and rugged but not quite remote and wild.

Hardrock is different.  It’s strap line is ‘Wild and Tough’.

“This is a dangerous course!” say the course notes.

“.. you will do some mild rock climbing, wade ice cold streams, struggle through snow…. cross cliffs where a fall could send you 300 feet straight down… use fixed ropes and handrails…”

“… feel free to include any specialised equipment such as ice axes, crampons, snowshoes… that you are willing to carry”

***

I arrived a couple of weeks before Hardrock after a flight to Chicago, a long Amtrak train ride to Grand Junction, then a rental car to Ouray.

Whether it was the gradual ascent of the train, or the time I’d spend in the attitude simulator at my gym, I can’t say, but I didn’t get the headaches I’d previously had when I’d flown straight into altitude.

Did I mention Hardrock was high? The race starts in Silverton at over 9,000ft. Over those 100 miles you go over 13,000ft eight times and summit 14,000ft once.

Given how popular Hardrock has now become, I’d figured that in all likelihood this was going to be my one chance to complete the race.  Who knows whether it will take another five or ten years to get in again. Throughout a decade of ultrarunning I’ve been – save one stress fracture – miraculously injury free. Who knows how long that will last. Even if you get in again, who knows if you’ll be healthy enough to start – let alone finish.

Even this year I feel lucky to be starting.  For several weeks leading up to my departure, it looked like the race might be cancelled due to a raging wild fire near Durango, just south of Silverton, named the 416 fire.  By all accounts it had been a dry year.

But then the week before I was due to leave for Chicago the seasonal monsoon rains arrived, helping – along with the work of over a thousand firefighters – to quench the fire.

The torrential rains though have caused their own problems, with a mud slide blocking the main, indeed only, route between Silverton and Ouray, two of the principal towns on the route.  Even now the road is only partially open, with one of the two lanes still closed whilst repairs continue.

Emergency notice on my cellphone

Later torrential rainstorms and flash flooding also partially destroyed the Bear Creek Trail, which the course usually follows out of Ouray, about half way around the course. The Bear Creek Trail is significant as it’s a tiny path cut into the rock with a 400 ft drop directly below. It’s not a place where you want to be unsure of your footing.

Rumours had been spreading that that route might be altered to avoid this section of course. But for the work of dozens of volunteers who moved heaven and earth – literally tons of earth – to put the trail back together again, it would have been a different route.  The National Park however gave the race special dispensation to use the Bear Creek Trail, which was still closed to the public.

So I felt really particularly privileged to be running. What’s that they say about with privilege come responsibility? I knew I had to finish.  This partially explained arriving in Colorado so early. I wanted to make sure I was properly acclimatised, or acclimated as the American say.

I also wanted to see as much of the course as possible to avoid any unfortunate incidents of getting lost on the course during the run.  There’s a hugely comprehensive document of course notes, but nothing beats seeing the route.

My plan was to split my time walking parts of the course without overtiring myself, and spend the rest of the time lying on a sun lounger by a pool.

Most of the towns in Colorado owe their existence to the mines that provided the bulk of employment in the area – until the mines closed in the closed in the 1970 and 80s.

Some towns, particularly Aspen, Vail and Telluride have been successful at transforming themselves from prosperous mining towns into prosperous ski resorts. In winter ski-season these town have some of the most outrageously expensive hotel accommodation in the US.

Silverton and to a lesser extent Ouray have somewhat missed out on the ski resort boom. But that’s part of the charm of these little towns, precisely because they’ve not become winter playgrounds of the rich.

Telluride though has some nice hotels – which in summer at least aren’t outrageously expensive.

The larger ski resort hotels however have been built in Mountain Village, just a short distance outside Telluride – and connected by a free cable car.

The Peaks Hotel and Resort

I spent a few days in the area. One day I hiked up to Krogers Canteen and then had a rather filling early dinner in Telluride before taking the cable car back to my hotel. It was from the gondola that I saw my first bear. Two of them.  Just outside town, they seemed to be rummaging for food. Even from the height of the cable car they looked big.  And hungry.

Most people I’d heard from in Colorado said that that you hardly ever see bears whilst out on the trail.  They didn’t seem to take my point that possibly you never heard from the people who had seen bears.

Indeed, whilst I was in Telluride the local paper was full of a story about a hiker who’d gone missing in the woods.

The Hardrock course notes make many references to bear-named landmarks – Grizzly Gulch, Ouray Bear Creek, Grizzly Bear Mine – which one assumes must be for a reason. Whilst bears can apparently run fast, it’s of some small comfort that one doesn’t haven’t to outrun a bear – just outrun the nearest other runner.

So what do you do if you see a bear, I wondered?

Don’t run, was the general advice. Make yourself big. Wave your arms around and shout. And throw stones.  The same goes for seeing Mountain Lions apparently.

I lead a fairly metropolitan life. There’s rarely much need for me to throw things. The last thing I threw was  probably a scrunched-up sheet of paper into the recycling bin in the office. And I missed.

Lobbing a rock towards an angry bear as a sedate underarm bowl might cause a bear to die of laughter, but certainly wouldn’t cause it to run off crying.

So during my next day’s hike I vowed to practice my rock throwing.  You may laugh, but I took this seriously. There’s many a dent on tree-stumps around Telluride to prove it. Though perhaps somewhat more dents in the ground nearby to tree stumps.

Animals aside, being struck by lightning was perhaps my next fear.

Perhaps my biggest fear.

Though if you give it some thought – which I clearly have – being struck by lightning would be a fairly quick and presumably painless way to go. I think it’s actually the thought of cowering in the foetal position (or quite possibly the faecal or, indeed, fatal) and cowering whilst lightning strikes all around me that I was perhaps most not looking forward to.  The Hardrock course notes are particularly unhelpful in this regard: “It is our general opinion that the first fatality we may have will be from lightning! Several runners in past years have had direct contact with lightning and there have been several more near misses

So I made a mental note: try to run with someone taller than me.

I’m fairly comfortable on tricky terrain but next on the list of notes-to-self was to not to slip/fall/slide over a cliff. I paid particular attention to the sections of course notes which said ‘exposure’ ‘acrophobia’ or ‘could be fatal’

With all these worries, I felt it important though to remember the most important thing about Hardrock – to have fun.

I’m convinced that this last point is important because it’s so easy to forget.  At various points through the pre-race briefing past runners reminded us of that saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.  To a huge degree your success, or otherwise, during an ultramarathon is down to your mental approach.

We were also reminded that we chose to do this. It’s entirely optional for us, whilst for millions – those undergoing Chemo tend to be front of my mind – this sort of prolonged pain and soul-crushing nausea are distinctly non-optional.

But I also try to think back to one of my first ultras when I remember sitting in an aid-station in a well of my own despair. I looked up from the wooden trestle table where I’d been resting my weeping eyes. As surveyed the other runners, it was a scene of carnage – almost everyone else looked as bad as I felt. I wouldn’t exactly describe this as schadenfreude – I wasn’t getting pleasure from the discomfort of others, but merely reassurance.

This is nothing personal. Yes, you can feel absolutely awful but so does everyone else. You can’t take anything personally if everyone is in the same position.

Somehow this mental leap has made every run much more enjoyable. And perhaps coincidently meant that I’ve not yet dropped out of a 100 miler. Hardrock wasn’t going to be my first DNF.

***

I was staying at the newly opened Avon Hotel the night before the race. My room strangely reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

I’d set my alarm for 4:30am – and had tried to get an early night, turning in around 9pm.  If there’s anyone cool enough to get themselves to sleep that early the night before a big race without a little help they’re a cooler cookie than me.

So I went the whole hog – glass of red, hot bath, eye mask, two Nightol tablets, ear plugs… the full works.

I slept well, in part due to the supremely comfortable bed, but also, probably helped by the two Nightol tablets.

The early start at Hardrock is actually something of a blessing.  In most other races I’ve done, but particularly the UTMB, you don’t start till later in the evening.  There, if you can’t manage to get a nap during the day (and trust me, you can’t) then you’ll have been awake for pushing 60 hours by the time you finally get back to your hotel room after the race.  That sleep deprivation can be brutal.

***

In the morning I went to the Bent Elbow restaurant over the road on Blair Street for a coffee – two coffees – and a breakfast burrito.

Runners have to present themselves at the Silverton Highschool Gym for check-in before 5:45am on race morning or their place is given to someone on the waiting list. Whether someone bottled it, or simply had an unplanned lie-in, I don’t know, but apparently this has happened before – though everyone turned up this year.  I supposed it was cutting it a bit fine turning up at 5:30 but I’d needed to make sure I was fully caffeined up.

I would be lying if I said I was supremely confident as I waited at the start line, but as I tried to get myself in the zone, it didn’t really occur to me that my race would end in anything other than me trotting back into Silverton 46-odd hours later and kissing that rock.

It was only some 38 hours later – cowering behind a rock – that the realisation that I might not finish slowly dawned on me. But we’ll get to that.

I’ve known from previous races that I tend to forget things in a run, so I carried a little GoPro Session camera with me for the duration of the run. Partly as an aide memoire and partly because it was waterproof. When you get tiered you really can’t be bothered to take out your camera and remove it from a waterproof case just to take a photo. So you end up without any photos. I thought a waterproof and ultimately disposable GoPro might encourage me to take more photos.

The video I took during my race is here.

***

There was a brief countdown from Dale, then we were off at 6am sharp. It struck me how small the field of runners was.

A couple of miles out of Silverton you cross your first stream. It would be churlish at this point not to say that for the most part we were extremely lucky with the weather.  There was virtually no snow on the course and it had been particularly dry over the last few weeks – which meant the river levels were low throughout the course. Your feet still got repeatedly wet, but you weren’t having to wade torrential waist-deep, ice-cold water in the middle of the night. For which I was extremely grateful.

I made it through the first aid station at KT at 11.5 miles fairly comfortably ahead of cut-off.  I was sick for the first time on the run down to Chapman Gulch aid station at mile 18. Chapman Gulch aid station had the most amazing fried bacon which hit the spot perfectly. I followed this with some Ginger Ale with ice.  A friendly crew of another runner helped mend one of my running poles with some gaffer tape.

The descent from Grant Swamp Pass is the first somewhat technical descent. I can imagine in snow it would be pretty treacherous but this year the course was dry and the route was just a scree field. There’s no big drop at the bottom, so normally on my own I’d have been in favour of hammering down as quickly as possible. But the big risk is dislodging rocks which tumble onto those below you.  So you take things somewhat cautiously. It’s a funny thing about Hardrock that you’re often more worried about other people’s safety than you are of your own.

I fell once on the run down into Telluride. I managed instinctively to drop my running poles and grab onto a nearby bush, which had the effect of swinging me around, where I swung face-first towards a rock.  The brim of my cap hit the rock first and crumpled down in-front of my eyes and nose, whereby I came to a stop in almost total darkness, my black cap obscuring my eyes.

I got up, remarkably uninjured, apologised to the rock for our impromptu introduction, dusted myself off and headed on downhill to Telluride – paying slightly more attention to the trail.

Telluride, at mile 27 is one of the larger aid stations as it’s a decent size town and easily accessible by road for the crew.  The reception I received was amazing. You felt like a Formula One car coming into a pit stop. I had no crew of my own but suddenly I was surrounded by three or four people.

“Did I have a drop bag”,

”What can I fill your water bottles with?”

”Did I need someone to deal with any blisters”

“Can I help you change your shoes?”

I’d become a bit worried that my fingertips had gone a bit bluish and cool, indicating I might be somewhat dehydrated. So I had several glasses of iced Ginger Ale which went down a treat. I couldn’t manage to eat much more but took some supplies from my drop bag – including some orange juice and headed out through town to begin the climb up to Kroger’s Canteen. I figured the OJ and Ginger Ale had a fair few calories to power me forward.

Not far out of the aid station my stomach rebelled and I left a couple of pints of Ginger Ale beside a tree. I noted with alarm that what came up was still ice cold.  Oh, well, as least it’s helped to cool me down, I thought.

I knew the section out of Telluride well and enjoyed the climb without having to think about keeping on the course.  And fortunately I didn’t meet the bears I’d seen a few days earlier.

***

Kroger’s Canteen, at 13,100ft and 33 miles into the course, was everything it’s promised to be.

‘A tiny notch into the hidden world’ is what Roc Horton, the Aid Station Caption calls it in this beautiful video.  I arrived in the late afternoon which rendered everything with a warm glow that photographers call the Golden Hour.

It was indescribably beautiful.  As I scrambled up the last couple of hundred feet, I was amazed to see ultra-running legend Joe Grant cheering me on. Our supposed roles seemed to have been reversed. This really is a unique race.

I sat for a couple of minute savouring the atmosphere, but conscious that there wasn’t a lot of space up there, so it was really a case of when one runner arrives another has to leave. I drank a little bit of Ginger Ale but was rather conscious that everything I drank had had to be hauled up here in someone’s back pack.

As I got up to leave, Roc offered (perhaps rather insisted!) that I have a shot of Tequila, that’s become the tradition at Kroger’s.

‘In for a penny, in for a pound’, I thought.  But my stomach churned slightly at the thought – so much so that I momentarily had to find a tiny corner of the small rock pass where I could leave some Ginger Ale. A bit of a burp sorted things out – I managed to avoid being sick.

I knocked back the Tequila shot from a metal camping cup. And almost immediately felt hugely better.

From Kroger’s there a fixed rope to help you down the steep descent. I got stuck behind a guy who was particularly slow and a bit nervous going down. I didn’t mind the breaks – the view was fantastic and I kept hearing the sounds of joy from people arriving at Kroger’s wafting past on the warm breeze. Happy times.

Looking back up Krogers

It was fairly easy going downhill to Governor Aid Station, at mile 38, where I again drank too much and was promptly sick.

It was another easy downhill jog along Camp Bird Road to Ouray, along a route I’d previously recce’d. I pulled out my headlamp a few miles out of Ouray.

I arrived at Ouray sometime after dark. Ouray is another buzzing aid station just on the outskirts of town.  Again I was seized upon by a crew waiting for their runner.

Did I want hot drinks? Cold Drinks? Soup?

I drank a bit. Was promptly sick again. Then managed to hold down some soup.

In writing this, and in hindsight, I’m somewhat aware of how often I’d been sick. It was however never particularly remarkable or traumatic.

I’ve spent the better part of races before feeling nauseous – which is utterly soul destroying.  And I’ve been sick before in races with suck stomach-cramping violence that I’ve been worried about dying of a ruptured intestinal tract.

But this seemed oddly no more problematic than blowing my nose.

And my anecdotal view was that whilst it seems like I’m often in the minority in throwing up at races, at Hardrock it seems like most people puked at some stage – which I guess is due to the altitude.

“Puke and rally” someone said to me.

Apparently, this was a thing at Hardrock. After being sick you get a little jot of adrenalin which makes you feel temporarily better. It also means you can cram almost anything back down into your stomach without a problem.

So you drink a bit in an aid station. Puke. Then return to eating as if nothing had happened.

Not for the first time, it occurred to me how far we stretch from the bounds of normal life on the trails.  Though Ouray as it happens was the last time I puked in this run.

***

After Ouray there’s a brief stretch through town then a long climb up the Bear Creek Trail after which it was all fairly unremarkable, or at least unmemorable overnight.

I didn’t stop long at Engineer Aid station at mile 52. I ran with some people on the decent from Engineer Pass Road. I chatted with one guy for a while until I pointed out that I thought he’d dropped his pacer some way back. He looked around and realised he’d have to wait for them. Sorry!

Dawn broke as I arrived at Grouse Gulch Aid Station.

I slumped in a chair next to a runner who was talking to their pacer in grave tones about dropping out. They knew that the next climb out of the aid station was up and over Handies Peak, the high point on the course.

By now I was starting to feel a bit bullish.  I might have just taken a caffeine pill along with my coffee, for I fear I might have been a bit overly talkative, and might have intruded unbidden into their conversation. It’s all a bit of a blur.

“Look” I might have said, “you’ve got two hours before the cut off here.”

“At the very least wait an hour before deciding to drop out”

“But, quite frankly, I can’t see that any of your bones are broken, so I think dropping out is really quite unacceptable. Don’t you?”

Her pacer looked on in stunned silence.

“A little tear formed by her eye and she admitted that dropping out clearly wasn’t an option”

“Promise?” I asked. “Promise”, she said.

Now, in hindsight, I can’t guarantee that I was actually sat next to anyone in that aid station. But these words, or something like them, certainly left my mouth.

Whether they were directed at another runner, at the world in general, or indeed at myself, I’m still not entirely sure.

So I left Grouse Gulch in the freezing-cold early morning and began the slow climb up to American Grouse Pass and on up to Handies Peak at 14,048ft, the high point of the course.

My memory of climbing Handies was one not really of struggle but of being utterly bemused at the concept of putting such a high mountain in the middle of a hundred-mile run.

I arrived at Burrows Park Aid Station at mile 68 in the blazing heat of a summer afternoon.  From there it’s a fairly flat Jeep road to Sherman Aid Staiton at mile 72 where I had another change of shoes.

I was feeling pretty good at Sherman. I knew I had some time in hand over the cut-off.

So I spent a bit of time washing my face, changing my shoes and trying to get some liquid onboard.

By Pole Creek Aid station, at mile 81, I was starting to feel a little sleepy. It was late afternoon on Saturday by now and I’d been fantasising about having a short nap once I got there.

I hadn’t realised that this is another of the stations where supplies have to be backpacked in. The was only a sparse tent so I lay on the grass outside asked if they would wake me in 15 minutes. I  pulled my cap down over my eyes and willed my tired body to sleep.

Almost as soon as I lay still a swarm of insects somehow emerged from the ground and starting biting at my legs.

Within a few minutes it became quite clear that sleep wasn’t going to come naturally.  And Nightol wasn’t an option in a race.

The skies started to cloud over as I left Poke Creek on route to Maggie Gulch. Fairly quickly it started to rain, then there was the tell-tale rumble of thunder.

You cross a large meadow on the way to Maggie Pole Pass. It was still light and fairly humid in the mid-afternoon. I could see the lightening occasionally hitting the neighbouring peaks and ridges, but I wasn’t overly concerned: there were a few trees in the distance and the ground was fairly undulating. I certainly wasn’t the highest thing around.

But the weather was certainly blowing. I eventually came to a little depression by a stream where a couple of runners had decided to wait before pushing up and over Maggie Pole Pass. The depression meant you felt perfectly comfortable standing up and still being low enough.

Lightning, they said, had just hit the pass so they thought it best to wait a few minutes.  As we waited another couple of runners caught us up. We probably waited for about 10 minutes, watching and noting the direction of the strikes and their distance before deciding the focus had passed.

Someone suggested we keep 20ft apart as we pushed on?

Why? I wondered, to myself

So if one person is struck, we don’t all get struck, came my own answer.

Some people had done this before I realised. Best not to ask too many quesitons I thought.

One guy asked if everyone was comfortable pushing on.

You’re taller than me, I replied. I’m perfectly happy.

The pass was uneventful, though I made sure to be up-and-over as quickly as possible. I soon arrived at Maggie Creek Aid Station at 85 miles. This was the penultimate aid station, which gave me a real boost.  Just two big climbs. Just 15 miles left. Nothing!

I started the climb up Buffalo Boy Ridge (13060ft). It was starting to get cooler now as we eased into the early evening.

As I started to summit – what turned out to be a false summit – I could see a fairly ugly looking cloud over the ridge; dark and heavy.

There must have been some deeper grumbling of thunder going on as once over the first small ridge I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable. I’d worked out the lightning was about a mile away which felt comfortable enough. But somehow I was being to feel rather uncomfortable.  Maybe a mile isn’t that far?

At the ridge I couldn’t quite make the course notes fit.  I thought I should be going down, but it appeared there was another little section along an exposed ridge before the peak.

I was conscious that I was faffing about on the top of a ridge, which was a particularly bad place with lightening around.

I lay down in a small dip about 20ft off the ridge whilst I tried to get myself together and work out where I was supposed to be going.  I hadn’t recced any of the second half of the course.

I worked out that there was another peak a couple of hundred feet above (13,214ft) that I needed to summit before dropping, I thought, into a valley below for Cunningham Aid Station.

I dithered again, trying to work out which way the storm was blowing. From watching the clouds I thought that the storm was coming toward me, so I thought I was best to try and get up and over this little peak quickly otherwise I’d have to head back down the way I’d come if the lightning got too close.

So I ran in an odd crouching position, with every crash of thunder causing me to quickening my pace.  Up and over the little peak, I felt much better going downhill.  I caught up with another runner and we ran down together.

But by now the lightning was closing in and it was raining heavily.  The path contoured along the side the hill for a while rather than going straight down to a Jeep road that we could see below. We discussed breaking off the path and head straight down the hill to the road. But I was convinced it was too rocky and the path went down a little way ahead.

***

Before the race I’d diligently narrated and recorded every word of the ten pages of course notes onto 14 playlists on my ipod – each playlist corresponding to a section of the course between two aid stations.

Each playlist contained a number of tracks each corresponding to a paragraph or section of the course notes. The old iPod shuffle I’d used has no screen but allows you to navigate playlists and track names with an electronic voiceover. This way I could navigate the whole course notes without having to take my eyes of the trail. It was all beautifully recorded on my finest microphones and recording equipment that I used for my podcast.  It was, I thought, a work of art.

I’d even packed a spare ipod shuffle and spare headphones in case the first broke – both weighed almost nothing, This was a fool proof plan, which I’d tested in other races. Or so I thought

When you’re on the side of a mountain in an electrical storm, you become acutely aware of the two pieces of electrical wire dangling from your ears.

In a panic I shoved the ipod and headphones into my bag.

Whilst this was going on another lightning strike hit nearby. We both almost threw ourselves into another slight dip by the side of the pass.

I was really worried about being trapped here. As we got our breath back, I fiddled with the scale of the map on my watch and thought it could only be a short distance till the path dropped.

I said ‘you’ve got to make your own choice whether to go or stay’, but I think the course makes a sharp right about 200 meters ahead and then drops down to the road. And I’m going to make a run for it.  He followed – us both in a crouching running position.

Oddly I think I might have been more worried about being with someone else who got struck by lightning than being struck myself.

Around the next bend the path did an abrupt 90 degree right turn and took us sharply  down a couple of hundred feet down to the Jeep road.  I had assumed the path continued past the road and down towards the next aid station in the valley at Cunningham at Mile 91.

But as I looked around for the course another runner came running back in the opposite direction. He swore blind that the path went up hill after the road and there was no way he was following anyone up there. The lightning storm had become pretty intense.

He was entirely right – the course continues to climb another few hundred feet up Green Mountain before the drop to Cunningham.  And quite frankly there was no way any of us were going uphill any time soon.

But in my confused state I couldn’t make any of this fit with what I thought the course looked like.

We looked around and there was absolutely nowhere to hide. It was a barren wasteland. Not a tree in sight. (I know, I know – you don’t hide under a lone tree!)

The only thing we could see was a slightly larger rock a little way back from the road. Which we huddled again. Another runner and his pacer soon joined us.

I started to question whether we should be quite so close to a rock. What if lightning struck the rock? Wouldn’t it shatter into a million pieces, impaling us with fragments of granite?

Fairly quickly though another more pressing thought entered my mind: I was uncomfortably cold. The sky had gone from an overcast dull to virtually midnight black. Dusk had come almost at once.

The torrential rain had turned to hail. I pulled off my Goretex Jacket and put on my spare top as well as my woolly hat, which I placed on top of my cap. I then zipped up the Goretex again over everything and curled up into a ball.

I thought I should use the time to check out the route, but my hands had got so cold that I’d lost the manual dexterity control the iPod.

So I pulled out my phone, which was thoughtfully enclosed in a fully waterproof cover. Before the run I had downloaded high resolution maps of the area as well as the GPS track (using the ViewRanger App).

Such was the intensity of the hail though that I couldn’t operate the screen through the waterproof cladding. Each smash of hail would register as another set of fingers on the screen.  My now club like hands weren’t much use either.  Another runner’s watch battery had died. I’d been keeping my Garmin topped up during the run with s spare USB battery. This was about the only bit of technology still working.

In these situations, basic trumps anything complicated.

I soon started shivering. Get some calories in to keep warm, I thought.

What started as a bit of chattering teeth, quickly took over my body, where the big muscles in my thighs started shivering almost uncontrollably.

A couple of the others said how cold they were and perhaps we should get going. Almost as soon as anyone mentioned moving, with almost comic timing another fork of lightning would strike the other side of the road, as if some cosmic force was imprisoning us in our rock hideout.

It was then that I remembered that I had an emergency space blanket in my pack.  I pulled this out of its pack, its shiny metallic coating blindingly reflecting the light of my headlamp.

Hmm.. was this a good idea, I wondered? Shouldn’t you distance yourself from anything metallic in a lightning storm for fear of attracting a strike? It occurred to me that this might be one of life’s decisions that had real consequences: freeze to death or fry to death.

If there was any logic left in my brain at this stage, I decided that freezing was a near certainty whilst being electrocuted at least was only a possibility.

I looked around and the other four were doing the same.  One guy has climbed into a mini bivvi bag – only his face now visible.

Every time the lighting struck we were blinded once by the strike and once by the reflection off a fleet of space blankets.

The rain turned to hail.  The lightning frequency increased and its distance from us decreased.  By now it was almost totally dark. Looking back up the mountain which we’d just come down, I couldn’t see any headlamps from other runners.  If we were pinned down, at least everyone else was too.

***

Sound travels at 330 meters per second in dry air, or so I remembered from my high school physics lessons. Perhaps the only thing I remember from my high school physics lessons.  Light is almost instant. So if the delay between the flash of light and the crash of thunder is 3 seconds, the strike is about a 1000 meters away.  Five seconds is a mile. To pass the time I counted

Zero. One. Two. CRASH.  – 600ish meters away

Zero. One. Tw… CRASH – About 500 meters

Ze… CRASH – Yikes. Hold on tight

The whole sky lit up like it was daylight

So there the five of us were, at mile 87 at Stony Pass, altitude 12580ft; huddled beside a rock waiting for it to all be over – either for the storm to pass or something to hit us and put us out of our misery.

This was then that it occurred to me that there was now a fairly realistic chance of not finishing the race.  I knew I didn’t have much more than an hour in hand at the last aid station.  I’d already lost a fair amount of time faffing around on the decent. And at least another half hour huddling by this rock.

I think then I remembered that line “Try to enjoy yourself”.

This was one hell of an experience, I thought. And if we were unlucky enough to get hit, at least I’d died doing something I loved. It’s hard to describe but it was somehow rather peaceful.

It’s rather strange that I don’t remember being particularly scared despite knowing we were in a fairly precarious situation. Many a time I’ve known the fear that death was rather too close for comfort (sliding various cars down ice-covered mountain roads towards precarious drops, being chased by rabid guard dogs…) but somehow there wasn’t that clarity of fear here as there was there.

Another five minutes passed.

Zero, One, Two… CRASH.

Maybe, just maybe the delay was getting longer. I tentatively peered up to the sky and thought maybe I could see some clearer sky. I thought the eye of the storm had passed.

After about another 5 minutes I pronounced that I was going to make a run for it.

“Thanks guys, that was fun”

Still somewhat cold, I wrapped my space blanket around me like skirt and began to follow the GPS track on my watch up and over Green Mountain.

At Cunningham Aid Station we learned that runners had been held at aid stations whilst the storm blew over.

The final climb out of Cunningham was almost a vertical kilometre into the sky. Even in the valley at Cunningham it had by all accounts been a pretty spectacular light show.

I knew I had to move quickly to make up for lost time.  Somehow my race had a renewed sense of focus. I kept a close eye on the sky for further storms.

It was a fairly steep descent the other side of Green Mountain in the pitch black of the early hours of the morning.

The decent turned into a runnable Jeep road. But this went on for what seemed like ages.  I passed a couple of runners, who both asked if I was sure this was the right route.

My overwhelming memory of this final decent was not so much any pain in my legs or feet, but the discomfort I felt swallowing – I had an extremely sore throat. I tried to take a Panadol to take the edge off, but my throat must have been so swollen I couldn’t even swallow the tablets, so they just disintegrated in my mouth. Yuck.

I knew the route on the final stretch into Silverton. I’d also seen a warning sign here whilst I’d been reccying the course a few days before – warning that a mother moose was active in the area – and that moose can kill. The irony I thought, of surviving a lightning storm but being mauled by a moose just a couple of miles from the finish. I’d die of shame.

It was about 3am when I finally emerged from the woods at the Kendal mountain hut on the far side of town. I upped my pace through town. Aside from a sore throat I felt pretty good.  I upped the pace again, keen to put some time between me and the people I’d passed. I wanted to finish by myself. To have my own time at the rock.

A few people cheered me on as I made the left then right turns through the sleeping town towards the finishers shoot leading up to the rock.

Some people burst into tears on the finish line. I don’t remember feeling particularly emotional as I slowed to a walk final few feet to the rock.

I just remember a feeling of confident satisfaction. I’d taken the decision not to run with a pacer and not to have any crew.  This was my race. I’d finish or I’d fail. But I’d do it by myself. And now it was done.

I’d dreamed of this moment for more than five years. I’d gone into the race with a degree of confidence

Perhaps I’ve not mentioned the rock. There’s a tradition at Hardrock – actually it’s written into the rule book – that you have to kiss the rock when you finish

I handed someone my phone to take a couple of photos. I bent down and kissed the rock – full on the mouth of the bighorn sheep.  I chatted with Dale, the race director, for a few minutes.

Afterwards I hung around by the finish waiting for a few more runners to finish. There was something extremely peaceful about the finishers line with no one there – just the flags flapping in the wind and the warm glow of the flood lights. Peace briefly truncated between bouts of noise as each runner finished their race.

I sat for a while in the highschool gym and made a few phone calls as best I could – my voice had almost entirely given up.

Someone bought me a burger with avocado and cheese. Then another. It was a wonderful if somewhat unorthodox breakfast. I chatted to a few runners as they came in – all looking a little shell shocked.

I wasn’t overly tired but all I really wanted was a shower.

I walked back to the hotel. Had a wonderful shower, brushed my teeth and slept for a couple of hours. I woke to a bright and sunny morning, feeling wonderfully refreshed.

I’d wanted to make it back to the finish line to see the final runners come in before the 48 hour cutoff. It’s called the golden hour – when the tension mounts as to whether the last people out on the course will make it home again before they’re timed out.  Unfortunately I was a few minutes late getting myself organised so only managed to see the last runner miss the cutoff.

Like me, I suspect they will want to be back next year.

 

Nationalise This

These are difficult days for the Labour Party. For the wing of the party who aren’t natural Corbynisters, they’re doubly difficult.

Difficult firstly because we’re heading into an election with a leader and set of policies which we think are stuck in the past. We see a floundering government and a Labour leadership failing to provide a credible alternative.

Doubly difficult because this wing of the party had Message Discipline drummed into them from the days of New Labour.

We think our leader is failing and yet we know we must bite our collective tongue in public.

To avoid highlighting policy divisions, the nicest thing we say about Corbyn is that he has a communications problem.

If you’re going to resurrect a range of old labour policies, at least have the decency to do a good spin job on them.   Old policies and old communications make us doubly mad.

***

Take the railways, where Corbyn talks about renationalisation. I’m sure his advisors have told him that this is a clever technique called ‘virtue signalling’.

Corbyn may not be about to immediately renationalise all railway franchises but talking about renationalisation sends a signal.

In much the same way that Trump’s ‘build a wall’ rhetoric or Boris Johnson’s ‘£350 million for the NHS’ – were both about sending a message rather than actual truth or practicability, ‘virtue signalling’ is supposedly a way to tell the public that Corbyn ‘gets’ that trains are too expensive

Unfortunately though Corbyn’s advisors are both right and wrong.

They’re right that they are signalling – signalling that Corbyn is still wedded to the past. It’s a gift to the Tories.

Trains are more expensive than they were. But they’re also immeasurably more reliable, safer and more comfortable. And have you been on commuter or rural trains in state owned France? They’re awful.

***

British railways were originally nationalised in the late 1940s when the railway system was disjointed and dysfunctional – a collection of private fiefdoms that didn’t work together and hobbled the system.

For all its problems now – the system at least broadly works, with the possible exception of at Southern Trains, the vast commuter service into London.

Here, an ongoing dispute between staff and management has hobbled the service for what seams like years. The government has been unwilling or unable to fix the problem. There is at least an argument for the state taking over the franchise. But could Corbyn not think of a better way? A third way.

***

Britain’s creative industries in film, radio and television – and our rampant free press – are vastly better because there is a huge intervention in the market in the form of the BBC.

Private television channels have to work significantly harder to compete with a free-at-the-point-of-use BBC. Our press have to compete with the free-at-the-point-of-use BBC website. And yet we still have a larger and broadly better press than many other countries. Not despite the BBC, but because of it.

This market intervention keeps competition rampant. It drives up quality, helping our creative industries better compete in a global market.

The current model of railway franchises doesn’t favour competition. Each franchise is a virtual monopoly. Competition only comes when franchises are renegotiated.

The system could work better with a small but significant market intervention.

If, as proponents of privatisation argue, the profit motive makes private companies more efficient and competitive than state owned operators, then there should be more competition.

Under the Cameron administration, in 2009 the East Coast Mainline franchise was abandoned by National Express because they couldn’t make enough profit on the line. The franchise was brought back under public control and proved highly profitable and more reliable. But it was then needlessly re-privatised.

Having at least one not-for-profit or employee-owned franchise operating trains in the UK – competing against private operators – would be a market intervention.

At the time of other franchises coming to an end, this new public-interest company would be free to compete with the private ones to take over additional franchises.

This would be a sensible way of Corbyn using modern methods to achieve cheaper and more efficient railways. It would be a New Labour way. Which is why Corbyn would be against it. He’s wedded to principal rather than outcome.

***

This brings us back to the point of nationalisation – fixing a broken system.

And here there is an opportunity to use nationalisation to actually solve a major problem. But also an opportunity for Corbyn to send a signal – that he’s modern and not stuck in the past

Many of our cities are blighted with illegal levels of pollution. Thousands of lives end prematurely because of toxic particulates, mostly emitted from our cars, busses and trucks. The current government has done virtually nothing to discourage the use of dirty diesels and encourage the adoption of cleaner electric cars.

The problem with electric cars is not so much the range anxiety they are said to elicit in their drivers – but charger anxiety.

***

Over the last few months I’ve been using a variety of electric cars through a local car-sharing service – the electric version of Zip Car.

The cars are fun to drive around town and have a decent enough range for moderate trips.

But the problem comes when you try and charge the car. The system is essentially broken.

Firstly there is an absurd situation where there are, by my count, three or four different types of charger plug. You first have to find a charging point that fits your type of electric car.  Can you imagine different and incompatible types of petrol pump nozzles?

Even if you get the right plug, and manage to plug in your car, you find many charger providers are not compatible with each other.

Source London, Charge Your Car, Chargepoint and Ecotricity are just some of the providers operating near me.

But to use most of these you need a specific subscription and a special membership card with the specific provider.

It’s the equivalent of driving a petrol car and only being able to fill up at a petrol station where you have a subscription.

At some electric chargers you pay by the minute, others by the amount of electricity delivered, and others on a monthly flat rate.

Imagine the feeling of delight when you arrive, with a virtually empty battery at a charging point, only to find, as your delight turns to dismay, that the proprietary subscription card in your car won’t operate the charger – almost none except credit cards.

If you own or use an electric car, you can’t go out for a long drive without a bit of technical knowledge, forward planning and a dose of luck. It’s a huge hurdle – but one that’s easy to overcome.

What’s holding back the mass adoption of electric cars is not really the range of the batteries but the complexity and lack of charging infrastructure.

It seems to me to be a system crying out for nationalisation. For only when chargers are ubiquitous and utterly simple can there be mass adoption.

The government should mandate standards and roll out chargers the length and breadth of the country.

This would end the last major hurdle to the adoption of electric vehicles in the UK. Only when you know you can charge anywhere, anytime will electric cars be worry free and truly mainstream.

Tesla have started to realise this an build their own proprietary system – but this further fragments the market.

For the last thirty years Corbyn has been desperate to nationalise something.

When he finally gets the chance, he picks the wrong thing.

And electric cars – more than the railways – would signal he was looking to the future, rather than the past; that he recognised our cities were polluted and that people aspired to their own method of transport.

He doesn’t.

You might say he’s stuck with a signal failure.

Or at least a flat battery.

 

A Plea to Step Forward and be Unreasonable

There’s a quote that’s been doing the rounds a lot recently.  It’s generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw. But in this newfound world of fake news, it’s a bad idea to believe anything you hear attributed to anyone.

But fake attribution aside, all that really matters is that it was said by someone.  And I repeat it here:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

We are now some six months on from that ill-conceived referendum on Britain leaving the European Union.  And two-and-a-bit years on from the Scottish Independence Referendum.

Each referendum was championed by an unreasonable man. The then leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond made Scottish independence his life’s work.  Whatever you think of the economic folly of Scotland going it alone, you have to admire his dedication to trying to adapt the world to himself.

The Scottish independence movement lost the referendum by 45% to 55%.  But that hasn’t stopped Salmond and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, from starting to talk up the prospect of another referendum. One that they hope will give them the result they’ve always wanted.

Unreasonable men – and women – don’t suddenly stop believing what they believe and bow to reason; don’t suddenly let a referendum result get in the way.

Nigel Farage too has form as an unreasonable man.

A different referendum but the same economic folly. The Brexit isolationists won their referendum by a narrower 52% to 48%.

But imagine for a minute that Nigel Farage had lost by a similarly thin margin. Does anyone really think that an unreasonable man – who has spent his life trying to bend the world to his way of thinking – would now bend to reason and accept that Britain’s place was in Europe.

Those are, to quote Kellyanne Conway, ‘alternative facts’.

Farage would have started campaigning for another referendum, just like Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have done.

People with principle don’t immediately change their minds. And we should admire them for that.

***

Our new Prime Minister was in favour of staying in the EU. Until she wasn’t. Principle isn’t a big thing for her.

Almost immediately after taking control, she launched an audacious attempt to wrestle power away from parliament. She wanted to avoid debate on triggering Article 50, whilst giving herself sole power to decide what the country’s exit from the EU looked like. This wasn’t so much unreasonable as unjust. And illegal.

The Prime Minister was only stopped by a private individual, Gina Miller. Miller took the government to court to insist that the rule of law was followed. That Parliament was sovereign, not an unelected Prime Minister.

Miller provided more opposition than all the benches of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition put together. Miller used her money to sue and force the government to adapt to her way of thinking.

So why is Miller so alone. Why are there so few progressive people willing to step forward and be unreasonable and oppose leaving the EU?

***

There are two obvious possibilities. Labour MPs are afraid of losing their constituencies. And perhaps afraid of losing their lives.

On the second possibility, it bears repeating that a brave young Labour MP was brutally murdered – assassinated – by a far right extremist during the referendum campaign.

Those of us on the remain side were stunned into silence. Those on the leave campaign metaphorically stepped around the corpse and carried on campaigning.

The level of hate in this country has reached unprecedented levels. Many other MPs face vile abuse and death threats on a regular basis. You can forgive their fear.

But on the first point of Labour MPs losing their seats? Don’t they see that they have already lost?

With an unelectable and largely incompetent leader, upcoming boundary changes and problems communicating with what’s patronizingly called the white working class – Labour has never looked further from power.  Unless they do something bold these MPs have already lost their seats, just like they have already done in Scotland.

***

There is a third possibility though: that sensible progressive people; those who like to engage in debate on facts and reason – have an overdeveloped sense of fairness and reason.

They actually think they lost. And that fairness dictates we should agree to leaving – with all the damage that will cause.

I don’t buy it.

A 52-48 referendum is a narrow win. The country is essentially divided.   And the people who stand to be hit worst by Brexit are Labour’s natural constituency.

If, before the referendum, you believed the economic problems of leaving were vast and complex?

If you believed that one country trying to negotiate a divorce from 27 others, would only ever result in a victory for the many?

If you believed that Britain’s safety and economic prosperity were best secured through interdependence and collaboration rather than isolationism and aggression?

Then why cave in now?

Clearly you must believe that this unelected and unprincipled Prime Minister will fail to deliver a successful exit from the European Union.

And what will Labour say then?

When prices start to rise and jobs become scarcer; when human rights legislation starts to be repealed and environmental protections start to be scrapped; when the health service starts to crumble and Britons start to look abroad for jobs – what will we say then? That we went along with it?

We ought to be less reasonable.

We ought be saying that the referendum was a con. Introduced by a weak Prime Minister who cared more about appeasing his backbenchers than settling a point of principle.

We ought to say that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ doesn’t mean anything and that the new Prime Minister is out of her depth.

Most of all we ought to say that we support referenda when the battle is fair.

But – by God – this was a referendum fought on lies and deceit.

Not equal lies and deceit on both sides. But principally lies by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage.

It was a referendum skewed massively by an over-powerful and racist Daily Mail and their campaign of alternative facts and hate.

This referendum is as legitimate as Donald Trump’s ‘election win’.

We ought to be saying these things. We support a fair fight. And this was not it.

***

And when this house of cards comes crashing down. When Farage and Boris and May and Trump are gradually exposed, we’ll be there to say we have a better way.

The real worry is that when Theresa May’s Brexit plan starts to spectacularly unravel, Labour will have just been lame accomplices.

And when people then start to look for an alternative, they’ll only be able to find something more menacing and much worse. That’s when fascism really takes hold.

Those who based their political beliefs on evidence and facts and reason have been cowed into silence by an over developed sense of fairness.

It’s time we learned from the unreasonable men and women and started fighting for what we believe in.

It’s time we started to behave unreasonably. Just like Farage and Sturgeon.

The Long Way Home

Have you ever woken from a deep sleep on a flight to be momentarily disorientated?  Briefly unsure where you’re going to or where you’re coming from? You try to narrow things down, but your surroundings don’t give away any clue as to which airline on you’re on. Even the crew fail to give the game away.

It can’t just be me that finds airlines have lost so much of their individuality and sense of provenance as to be virtually indistinguishable. Once a symbol of internationalism and national pride, it now seems that great lengths have been taken to strip airlines of their character and identity.

I still remember – as a relatively young child – arriving back at Heathrow aboard a long haul British Airways jet. As the roar of the aircraft’s reverse thrust subsided and the airliner quietly turned 90 degrees and departed the runway, a calm, measured voice came over the intercom. In short, clipped tones and an upper-middle class Home Counties accent, the Chief Purser welcomed us to Heathrow. The announcement seemed almost choreographed and perfectly contrasted against the roar and drama of the engines.

Even then, aged all of nine or ten, I remember thinking this was classy; a lesson in how an intercom announcement should be made. It gave flying a sense of occasion and feeling that British Airways was in a different league. Airline cabins were different then and crew had a sense of identity. It was perhaps the last time I felt genuinely proud to fly on the national airline.

Now most of the intercom announcements are recorded. So routine you can almost quote them verbatim. The Chief Pursers are long gone too. Replaced by younger, cheaper, less experienced crew. Underpaid and undervalued staff are no more interested in looking after customers than the airline is in looking after them.

That sense of occasion is now all but missing when you fly anywhere. It’s probably why I love flying through turbulence, or landing during a storm; anything to lend the flight a bit of drama and a break from tightly prescribed routine. Give me a mid-flight lightening strike or engine failure and I’m all smiles.

Despite my love of flying, as it has become so routine, I’ve found myself increasingly looking for other ways to travel.

So now I started a rule inspired by the Tom Waits song Long Way Home.

Whether travelling for business or pleasure I’ve started taking the boring option and flying direct to where I need to go. But now, I always take the long – and more interesting way home.

***

I’d flown from Mumbai to Goa’s Dabolim airport on a flight so uneventful I can’t even remember the airline. Perhaps it was Beige Airways or Bland Airlines, I honestly couldn’t say.

After an uplifting week in Goa – wine, wedding, beach, sun lounger – I was looking forward to the more interesting long way home.

I took a cab from the hotel to the nearest station at Madgaon junction, just outside the small town of Margo. There, later that evening, I boarded the aged Konkan Kanya Express for the 12 hour ride back to Mumbai.

The train’s crew weren’t some homogenised mix of nationalities, they were Indian, and proudly so. And so was the food.  It wasn’t bland.

As I drifted off to sleep on the top bunk of my sleeping compartment, somewhere deep in the backcountry of Maharashtra, the words of that Tom Waits song came back to me with a smile.

I put food on the table

And roof overhead

But I’d trade it all tomorrow

For the highway instead

Or, the railway in this case.

The video below is my trip on the overnight Konkan Kanya Express from Madgaon Junction in Goa to Mumbai CST station.

Bad Dream(liners)

It’s been a long day. You’ve rushed through the overheated airport and found your way to the gate, where your flight is already boarding. You hurry down the jetway and squeeze your bags into the overhead locker; plonk your weary self into your seat and wonder if the seat has got narrower or you’ve got wider.  As you relax, feeling rather chuffed that you’ve made your flight, you feel waves of tiredness pass over you.

Opting not to doze off, you reach for the nearest piece of reading material – that strange journalistic genre of the inflight magazine, where the airline’s view of itself seems strangely at odds with your current view of it.

A couple of pages in you find that letter from the airline CEO explaining how they’re constantly striving to enhance their product and offer a world class service.

There then follows a long list of enhancements that the airline – indeed the whole airline industry – is making to improve their service to you.

In this strange world of marketing speak the word ‘enhancement’ has taken on a rather bizarre, quite contrary and very unwelcome meaning.

***

We start with that Dreamliner you’re sitting in.  And first the good news – you’ve not gotten fatter, the seats really are narrower.

In the late 1990s there was a multibillion pound battle taking shape between the two behemoths of the aviation industry. Airbus invested heavily in its A380, reckoning that huge aircraft would be necessary to manage capacity between the world’s capacity-constrained mega hubs.

Boeing meanwhile invested in a replacement for their smaller ageing 767. Boeing dubbed its new aircraft the Dreamliner. The new 787 Dreamliner was intended to save airlines a fortune and allow them to open up direct routes to new destinations. The use of modern materials and new fuel-efficient jets would slash fuel costs. We weren’t so much told about the cost saving – only how much better the aircraft would be for passengers.

The Dreamliner was both hyped beyond belief and massively late in being delivered.  Those bigger windows, lower cabin pressure, better in-flight entertainment and increased fuel efficiency were, according to both the manufacturer and airlines, supposed to revolutionise air travel.

For the first time since Concorde entered service, an airliner was being marketed with a name rather than a number (Boeing’s 747 ‘jumbo’ jet was a moniker applied by the press rather than Boeing themselves.)

Yet when you squeeze into your economy seat you can’t help but think things might just be going backwards.

Boeing’s original mock-up of the Dreamliner cabin foresaw eight seats across the economy cabin – two seats by each window and a bank of four in the middle between the isles – for a total of eight across.

Yet virtually every airline – save Japan Air Lines – has now installed nine seats across the cabin. It’s a tight squeeze.  Particularly because in the years since the Dreamliner programme was launched by Boeing in the early 2000s, waistlines have grown bigger.

For most passengers the Dreamliner has turned into something of a bad dream.  It’s cramped and uncomfortable compared with what they were used to.

Indeed, by contrast, when you now fly on an aging 777 the economy cabin feels pleasantly spacious with just nine seats across.   Sure the cabin might look a bit tatty and the video screens a bit blurry, but you can settle down with a good book and a bit of space to call your own. It hasn’t been hyped or enhanced. It’s just comfortable.

***

Maybe, though, you read in the airline magazine about how the airline is planning to “enhance” and “upgrade” their older 777s.  When you read their spin, you should be worried.

Sure they’ll fit new inflight entertainment, possibly with power plugs for your laptop and ipad.  And maybe even in-flight wifi.  But they’ll also take the opportunity to slim down the seats and squeeze in ten seats across the cabin when previously there were just nine.

You might be able to power your laptop but you’ll be too squashed in to use it. There’s new a global trend in retrofitting 777s to cram in more seats.

Yet airline PR departments will go wild with their ‘refreshed’, ‘new’ and ‘upgraded’ cabins.  But increasing most airlines are making the 777 an equally unpleasant experience – all masked in gloriously positive PR.

***

Meanwhile on shorter flights around Europe, British Airways recently trumpeted the cabin ‘revamp’ on their short haul fleet of Airbus A319s and A320s.

The press release gushed that they were “taking your comfort to new heights” with “contemporary LED lighting that adjusts throughout the flight to help you relax” and “bespoke leather seats innovatively designed to maximise your personal space”.

All this means, you guessed it, that they’ve slashed the legroom – by up to four inches – to squeeze in an extra 11 seats per plan. Less room and an more people all fighting for space in the overhead lockers doesn’t exactly make for a relaxing flight.

BA’s legroom is now on par with Ryanair.  None of that makes it into the press release.

***

And so for many passengers it comes as a surprise when they take a flight and the marketing spin is so wildly out of kilter with reality.

I don’t particularly object to such cost savings. Flying is cheaper and more accessible than it’s ever been. And legacy carriers have to adapt to stay competitive.

But I really object to airline PR departments spinning lies to their customers.

Just this week a BA press release enthused:

“From 11 January, we’re upgrading our food offering in our short haul economy cabins (Euro Traveller and UK Domestic) on flights to and from London Heathrow and London Gatwick.”

“Offering you more choice and a wide selection of the flavours you love from the ‘M&S on board’ menu.”

It’s the adjective ‘upgrading’ that really gets me.

You’ve surely read enough to realise this isn’t an upgrade. It means they’re stopping free food and drink.

Rather than just telling us the truth – that they need to make ends meet amongst fierce competition – they insist on wrapping changes up in positive spin.

What’s worse is that airline PR departments seem intent on blaming you for the change.

According to BA’s CEO, the demand for change is coming from passengers:

“[the passengers] told us we are experts in flying and service, but when it comes to catering on short-haul flights, they want to choose from a wider range of premium products.

Ask the right questions and you can get a survey to tell you whatever you want.

You can bet, when asked, no one told BA they’d like to pay for a gin and tonic that was previously free.

They’ve clearly run a survey to give them the results they wanted.

***

Businesses frequently get in trouble when senior managers start to believe their own PR departments, or search only for evidence which backs up their own thinking.

Politicians get in trouble when they start to believe their own PR too.

Indeed, I’d argue that the popular rebellion against mainstream politicians – witness Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, UKIP, and the rest – is a result principally of the public being sold too often one version of reality which is so at odds with their own perception of reality.

***

So when you read in your inflight magazine that the service your airline is providing has been enhanced, you too might think ‘no it hasn’t’  – and I’ll vote for – or buy from – someone else next time I’m booking my flights.

Trading Time

How many times have you sat through a meeting that’s overrun? Worse still a meeting that has overrun but which still hasn’t reached any conclusions?

The problem is often blamed on bad chairing. To be sure, too many meetings are badly chaired. But the real problem is that people speak without anything to say.  So meetings roll on without getting anywhere.

Meetings are not the only fixture of modern business life that needed fixing. The dreary PowerPoint presentation has long needed an overhaul. And various people have proposed just that. Like the PechaKucha format where each speaker gets to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each – making for a maximum presentation length of just under seven minutes.

The rapid rotation means people tend not to over complicate their slides. That the slides automatically advance keeps people focused on the rapidly diminishing time and dissuades dithering. And even if it all goes horribly wrong and they turn out not to have thought anything through, at least each presentation is mercifully short. It’s virtually fool proof.

***

The problem with meetings is that speaking at length so rarely correlates with saying something new or insightful.  In fact I’ve come to believe that the two are actually inversely correlated.  The longer someone speaks in a meeting the less they actually have to say. They’re using waffle to mask their lack of thought. Meetings don’t incentivise brevity or being concise.

To be sure, there are times when taking through a problem with someone can help.  Freedom to speak without direction or purpose can help to solve problems, uncover new ideas or reach conclusions. But this works best with just two or three people. And generally over a meal or glass of wine when you can defend an idea that you don’t particularly agree with, just to see where the arguments take you.

But this absolutely doesn’t work in larger business meetings, where speaking without a direction or purpose should be – vigorously – discouraged.

***

So how about a modern foolproof fix for meetings? A talking stick for the age of apps?

All meetings have just two things in common: they have a fixed number of participants and a fixed number of minutes available. Everything else – from whether decisions are made, to whether you start bashing your head on the table in frustration – is entirely optional.

So here’s my idea for a new meeting format – complete with accompanying app.

The first requirement to ensure a meeting doesn’t overrun, is that you simply divide the number of minutes available by the number of participants.

When you join a meeting – whether you’re on a teleconference or around a table, each participant logs-in on their phone. Your available speaking time appears on the screen of your phone – and on the chair’s.

For example if your meeting is an hour long and you have ten participants, the app allocates everyone six minutes. That’s entirely fair and democratic.

When you speak your time decreases. When your time is up, it’s up. If you start waffling at the beginning of a meeting, you are punished by having to sit in silence for the rest of the meeting. You have an incentive to be concise and only speak when you have something important to say.

You tap your screen when you start taking and your time would start to tick away.  When someone else starts talking or interrupts they tap their phone.  Your time stops descending and theirs starts.   This is not too dissimilar to how meetings with translation operate. Then you have to press a button to activate your microphone before speaking.

The chair – with a special app – could moderate and punish anyone who starts taking without starting their time.

The app would also lock everyone’s phone during the meeting so you’re forced to be mentally present in the meeting – there would be no more passive-aggressive checking of emails.

But meetings aren’t just about talking. They are – or should be – about listening.

I often find myself wanting to hear more of someone who’s making an interesting point, only for them to be interrupted by a big mouth before they’ve made their point.

A good meeting chair should be able to stop this sort of interruption. But often office politics comes into play. Even a good chair might be loathed to, or simply unable to interrupt their boss.  The app could negate this.

Anyone supporting another speaker would be able give away a little of their own speaking time to allow someone else to continue developing an argument or idea. They could wirelessly – and anonymously – trade them a few minutes of their time.

There would be nothing to stop someone being interrupted. But over the course of the meeting they would be guaranteed time to make their point.

People making good concise arguments would be rewarded with more time.  People who are dull or wafflers wouldn’t.

This way the meeting becomes more democratic. Everyone is allocated the same amount of time but they can choose how it’s used and which voices get to be heard. Serial interrupters wouldn’t get to hog a meeting.  People who like the sound of their own voice wouldn’t get to keep everyone late. People who might be shy but know a good idea when they hear it, could make sure those ideas are heard.

This way of trading time would take some getting use to. People would have to learn to make points more concisely. Learn to listen and decide what’s important.

Those who don’t like the format might storm off in a huff. The app would ensure they took their minutes with them when they left.

You might quickly reach a point where meetings routinely finish before are they due. That way by trading time, you’d actually have made time.

And no one would leave a meeting having felt they’ve not had a fair hearing.

Time very well spent.

The Liberal Cab Company

As I potter about London on my bike, I often find myself worrying that being a cab driver in the capital can’t be much fun. Stuck behind the wheel of a stuffy London black cab; stuck breathing in the fumes from the cab in front; stuck in traffic and with hundreds of cyclists scooting just inches away from your stationary vehicle can’t be that enjoyable.

I say I find myself worrying – mainly because I’m one of those liberal-progressive-lefties who find themselves worrying about the lives, hopes and ambitions of others. Worrying more than is perhaps advisable.

Truth be told, I don’t particularly find being sat in the back of a black cab that enjoyable either. Partly because they’re hot and slow – when I could be zipping past on a bike, enjoying the cool breeze.

There is another reason though. I always feel the need to engage the person providing me with a service in conversation. How rude it would be – I always think –  just to slump in the back and ignore the driver in silence, or worse still chatter away on the phone with them forced to listen in.

So I make polite conversation. Then immediately regret it.

***

When I was late back from Gatwick a few weeks ago, the tube had already shut for the night so I grabbed a taxi from Victoria station. As we queued along the Embankment the driver started to complain about the roadworks taking place to build a new cycle lane.

“Terrible” he said.

“Bloody cyclists should have insurance. Should pay tax.” he continued.

Now I was tired, and not particularly in the mood to get into a debate.

‘It keeps cyclists out of your way’ I thought.

‘Why wouldn’t drivers be most in favour of it?’ I pondered and shifted forward in my seat getting ready to argue my point.

Then thought, ‘No, I’m not getting into this’. But the rest of the journey resulted in me biting my tongue.  I didn’t pay a tip

***

A few weeks later I was in a rush and carrying some boxes back from a meeting – it was the week before the referendum.  With some precarious balancing, I stuck out my hand and hailed a passing cab.

Cab2

But as it pulled in, just past me, I noticed a big ‘VOTE LEAVE’ sticker in the rear window.

And I thought ‘I’m not in the mood to have to make the liberal case for immigration’.

So I made profuse apologies and the cab driver screeched off, f’ing and blinding. I pulled out my phone and called an Uber.

***

The third and final straw came when, coming back late from an event, the cab driver who picked me up raised his suspicious that climate change was a myth.

I looked around me suspiciously for hidden cameras, fearing I might have become the subject of a new reality television series where a cab driver tries to see how quickly he can make his passenger flip.

***

Now I realise that it’s not a particularly progressive thing to tar a whole profession based on three small examples, but it got me thinking.

Cab Drivers do have a reputation for being right-wing populists, not least as satirised by Private Eye’s ‘A Taxi Driver Writes’ column – “String ’em up, I say. It’s the only language they understand.”

Now that Uber is now starting to decimate the cabbie’s business, there must be a better way – a way for the humble black cab to fight back.

So I offer you The Liberal Cab Company – a cab company for a liberal, progressive, openminded metropolis like London.  If the London Taxi Drivers Association wants to take my idea they can have it for free.

For The Liberal Cab Co. those old, clunky, smoky diesel cabs would be phased out. In their stead a fleet of electric or hydrogen powered vehicles would be introduced to ease your guilt at C02 and particulate emissions.

The cabin would be nicely airconditioned – perhaps through a particulate filter – to protect the driver’s health as much as yours.

Inside, as you settle into your seat, the driver would be playing Radio 4 – perhaps Woman’s Hour – or Africa Today on the BBC’s World Service,  rather than shock-jock reactionary nonsence from Talk Radio or LBC.

As the driver pulls away – carefully avoiding passing cyclists – they’d enquire how the temperature was in the back of the car.  Perhaps eluding to their fears that global temperature rises were having a disproportionate effect on the poorest in society.

After an appropriate period of reflective silence, they might say how proud there were to work in the first major western city to have a Muslim mayor. And how amazed they were at the blistering pace of work Sadiq managed during Ramadan.

‘Not a drop of water passed his lips all day!’ they might say with genuine respect.

“That EU referendum! Don’t even get me started guvnor…  What an awful job the broadcasters did of interpreting their statutory impartiality duty.”

As you neared your destination, you’d pull out your credit card and you’d be able to pay using a contactless payment reader.  The attached screen would show how much tax had been paid to the exchequer as a result of your ride.

‘Thanks for paying your tax – you’ve helped pay the salaries of nurses and doctors in our NHS’ – contrasting nicely to how little Uber was generating to help society.

Each time you hailed a Cab from the Liberal Cab Company, you’d be assured of a comfy ride with a liberal progressive driver.

As you winded your way through the bustling city, as you looked out the window you’ve have and an amazing outlook on one of the greatest cities in the world.  And at the same time an assuridely progressive outlook on the world from your liberal cab driver.

On Blame and Fear

Britain has now had its ill-advised referendum.  And guess what, the pollsters got it wrong again.

There is shock, anger and incomprehension amongst those of us who voted rationally for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union.

It seems our desire to live in a tolerant, liberal and open country has been ripped away from us against our will.  With our anger comes a natural desire for blame.  But blame is hugely dangerous. We must, I believe, think calmly and fairly before dishing out blame.   We are a divided enough country as it is.

Those of us who are angry now must remember that there is clearly much anger too amongst those who voted to leave. And they are right to be angry.

There is huge anger that the current system seems to benefit just a few. Anger that jobs have become harder to find and harder to hold on to.

There’s anger that you can’t get a doctors appointment when you need one. Or a hospital appointment when you’re sick.

Anger that there’s a battle to get your kids into the good school rather than the failing one.

Anger too that housing costs have spiralled and are out of reach of the vast majority.

Anger that graduates are now starting to see the massive repayment bills for their student loans and can’t find the well paid jobs they were promised would repay them.

Anger that too many town centres have become shitty places to spend time.  And real bloody anger that no one in charge seems to understand.

There’s fear too that in an unstable world the next terrorist shooting or bombing might be just around the corner, all too close to home.

Anger is a dangerous thing. And fear even more so. People who are angry and scared can be encouraged to do strange things.

It’s no accident that immigration became the defining aspect of this referendum campaign. The leave campaign made it so in an aggressively cynical way.  There is much evidence – not that hard evidence counts for much these days – that perception of immigration is out of all step with reality.

Asked to estimate the number of non-UK born EU citizens living in the country most people – but Leave voters in particular – wildly overestimate the figures.

And fear of terrorism is wildly out of proportion to the risks. In the UK some 1700 people died brutally in carnage on the roads of Britain in 2013 – the last year for which figures were available. But traffic accidents don’t lead in the media or scare us quite like terrorism.  Fear of terrorism does. UK deaths from terrorism that year? One.

Yet somehow a small minority of politicians – egged on by a divisive media – have managed to persuade angry and scared voters that the cause of their troubles is immigrants, not an aggressive programme of cuts to public services.

These siren voices exist in all countries, but they’re normally kept in check by an active and vocal campaign of opposition from progressive and liberal voices.

The system should be self balancing.  But progressives all too often fail to make their case convincingly in a popular way. When we fail the system get skewed to the right.

In truth although I’m hugely sad that the freedoms afforded me by the European Union – principally the ability to live, work and travel freely across this great continent are about to be wrenched from me, I will eventually get over it.

What I will never get over though is that I now live in a country where a large swathe of the population has been so easily turned to fear and hate others. That always seems to so very un British. But something scary has been unleashed. And I fear it’ll be difficult to rein it in.

Once the vicious anti-immigrant campaign have moved on from attacking European immigrants, where will they go next?

If the situation of those who voted leave doesn’t improve quickly – and it won’t at the hands of a hard right clique intent on more cuts and social devision – where will the ire be turned next?

That makes me scared.

With an opposition Labour party in turmoil – with a nice but incompetent leader, I don’t know where to turn to effect change.

I feel strangely powerless.  Much like, I suspect, all those who voted leave.

The Long Cold Drive

Travel sickness occurs when your eyes and inner ear tell a different story to your brain. If you’re being bounced up and down on an ocean wave or thrown side-to-side on a hairpin road, your brain can’t make sense of the world. It’s normally a quite unpleasant experience.

Relaxing, and keeping your eyes on the horizon, is the well-established solution. Indeed a good solution for most problems in life.

Relaxed though I was, I had quite enjoyable experience of conflicting messages being received when I took to the road for a few days in Turkey’s far East.
I’d hired a car from the small town of Kars in Turkey’s North East. Hiring wasn’t a particularly simple process. Kars doesn’t have the usual international complement of Hertz, Avis or Europcar.

After a bit of research I’d found what looked like a moderately reputable national Turkish chain. I booked a mid-sized car online, selected the snow-chains option and left it at that.

When I arrived in town late the night before I was due to pick up the car, I realised I hadn’t been sent the address for the rental agency. Google couldn’t help and nor could the hotel staff.

After a few emails and phone calls I soon established that even they didn’t have an agency in town but had palmed my booking off to a local firm.

Kars is a pretty small town. It didn’t take long by process of elimination to track down the agency.

It was a beaten up, old, diesel fiat. It had 150,000 km on the clock. I scraped the snow of the roof and we looked around the car. There were far too many dents and scratches to note on the official-looking rental form. It wasn’t exactly as if I was spoilt for choice. And I was anxious to hit the road.

I took a few photos of the car’s dilapidated state and hoped that would do.

The guy showing me the car spent considerable time pointing out the spare wheel in the boot. The spare had clearly been well used and was partially flat. I couldn’t quite work out why he was so insistent on pointing it out.

“If you get a flat tyre, you’re fucked” I imagined him saying as I helpfully translated.

It had taken us whole minutes – even with the help of google translate on his iPhone – to agree that the fuel tank was half-full and I’d bring it back half-full. I couldn’t face another ten minutes of google-translating to work out what he was going on about.

I set my phone in Sat-Nav mode and chucked it on the dash. I took the keys, swung my bag on the back seat and, after a bit of coaxing, managed to get the car to start up and I drove off.

Central Kars is made up of a small grid system of roads. There had been a dusting of snow over the previous few weeks, which had suffered that horrible freeze-thaw effect of turning beautiful snow into treacherous ice.

I tried pulling away in second gear to save spinning the wheels and noticed that the clutch was pretty worn.

Driving around town was less than pleasant, but I was soon out onto the dual carriageways, which were well surfaced, clear of snow and ice and discomfortingly quiet.

High on the Anatolian plateau and with the snow-capped mountains forming backdrop it was hauntingly beautiful. And quiet.

I’d wanted to visit the ancient Armenian ghost town of Ani some 40-odd km southeast of the Kars.   It was about 40 minutes drive to Ani. I don’t think I saw another car on the way.

 

 

There aren’t many tourist attractions in this far-flung corner of Turkey. And I’m always a little suspicious when any guidebook tells me that something is a ‘must see’. So many ‘must see’ tourist attractions are always a disappointment.

As arrived at Ani there was only one other car parked outside the gates. I paid the few Lira entrance fee at the little ticket window – waking the clerk up in the process. He hadn’t had much business all day.

I was conscious that I didn’t have too much time. This far East darkness came early in the afternoon. It was cold enough as it was, and I hadn’t much fancied driving in the dark in case the car packed up. According to the weather forecast, minus 14 was predicted overnight.

So I was conscious that time was short, which is perhaps the best way to enjoy an experience as it encourages you to live in the moment.

Ani is described in my Bradt travel guide as ‘haunting’ and I can find no better word to describe it. The remains of the town overlook a deep ravine. The emerald coloured river at the bottom marked the border with Armenia. There were a few desultory looking military checkpoints dotted around, but the boder looked porous at best. The fences on the Turkish side of the border were topped with barbed wire, but cut through with holes.   Hundreds of years ago Ani would have been the centre of a great metropolis. Now it gave the impression of a lonely and isolated frontier.

The town, my guidebook told me ‘grew up on a major east-west caravan route, amazing great wealth which its Armenia rulers later used to endow the city with sumptuous churches… its size and magnificence in the mid 10th century, nothing in Europe could touch Ani, and only Constantinople, Cairo and Baghdad were its rivals.’

The remains, were vast and made all the more imposing with the backdrop of snow capped mountains.

Being quite so alone in a the ruins of what was once a city of such magnitude was, to use that word again.. haunting.

But time was pressing, and after about 40 minutes I knew I had to get going. It was now late morning and darkness wouldn’t be too far off. I jogged back to the car and set off.

 

I drove back towards Kars, where I took the opportunity to fill up the car with diesel. Such was the isolation in these parts, I thought it was prudent to have a full tank.

The pump attendant filled up the car whilst I nipped into the shop in search of a loo. Despite it being a big petrol station, geared up for passing lorry traffic, the place was deserted.

The pump attendant – despite speaking no English – seemed insistent on offering me Nescafe. My immediate thought was that this was either a money making scam or a bid for a tip. It’s the one thing I hate about travelling off the beaten track – you keep your wits about you to avoid being scammed – but it does mean thinking the worst of everyone.

But it turned out to be genuine. I hadn’t eaten all-day, let alone sat down for a coffee. I paid for my fuel and stood in the desolate forecourt with the sugary Nescafe and felt instantly recharged.

 

After Ani I initially had no real plans. I’d not booked that night’s hotel and had been anticipating the freedom of a car and a load of options.

I had vaguely decided to drive to Doğubayazıt as the major town at the foot of Mt Ararat – the highest mountain in Turkey and the fabled home of Noah’s Ark. I knew I couldn’t climb Ararat – you need to wangle a permit, and that takes months.

But there’s northing I love more than hanging around mountain towns and I was keen to see the Persian influence this far east. Doğubayazıt sits just 10 miles form the Iranian border.

And so with a full tank of fuel I started the long drive south to Mr Ararat.

The car stereo wasn’t advanced enough to allow me to plug in my music, so I scanned the airwaves repeatedly for something – anything –  to listen to. There’s wasn’t so much as any decent Persian pop. Just a lot of Arabic and Persian wailing. I’m all for soaking up a bit of ethnic music, but there are limits.

I drove for what seemed hours over clear wide roads. The road would climb from time to time to pass over a gentile mountain pass. Only the signs on the road reminded me quite how high I was. The road frequently crested 2200 metres, which would be a serious mountain pass in the Alps. Only on some of the higher passes did the clear tarmac give way to a light covering of snow and ice, but it was nothing too troubling.

As the road crested the next set of mountain passes I passed close to the Armenian border, I started flicking through the radio stations again.

Somewhat bizarrely I came across RFI – Radio France International, which seemed to be broadcasting out of Armenian capital Yerevan. It was vastly more listenable than anything else I could find.

Slowly the dark and heavy overcast clouds began to part and the sun intermittently came out. It was strikingly beautiful against the golden landscape. I passed a delightful few hours with the generally easy driving. It was amazing how quickly I tuned into the French. With no one else to talk to in the car, I quickly found myself starting to think in French too.

The road began to wander and get thinner as it tracked the side of a valley. The odd switchback began to feature.

It was an oddly surreal experience – my ears telling me I was in France – but the view screaming Central Asian Steppe.

 

Igdir was the first major town I came too. It’s main drag was a bustling thoroughfare. I half contemplated finding somewhere to stay and calling it a day, but the evening light was so beautiful I decided to push on.

I stopped a little outside Doğubayazıt as I had no idea where I was going to stay.

I peered down into my phone to look at the map. It was starting to get dark. I was tired and in need of a shower and a good meal.

I tapped away on my phone. Within a few minutes on Booking.com I found the Tehran Boutique Hotel. A new build hotel, which at about £20 a night look clean and decent and one of the better offerings in Bogubeyazit.

After hours of such piece and quiet on the open road the arrival into town came as something as a shock.

I reach a junction with the main drag through town. It was heaving with lorries, and cars, and donkeys pulling carts. This was the main route from Turkey to Iran. By now it was starting to get dark. I realised I’d have to change my driving from relaxed to assertive if I wanted to get anywhere. I forced the nose of the car out into the traffic, weaved around the cars and joined the throng going left.

In its reassuring calm voice my satnav soon suggested a right turn to my hotel. But the alleyway looked narrower than the car so I borked and carried on.

After a few hundred meters I came across a slightly more substantial road and slipped off the main road. The road was heaving.

I eased the car further into the town as the road got thinner. Cars coming the other way were just inches from my door. I turned left and right getting deeper into the rabbit warren of the city.   Parked cars and market stalls would occasionally require me to mount the pavement and come perilously close to brick walls of neighbouring buildings. Never before have I quite had to squeeze a foreign car through such small gaps.

I got tantalisingly closer to my intended hotel, but a maze of one way streets – armed with vicious looking one-way enforcing spikes buried into the tarmac – soon carried me off in the opposite direction.

It was now all but dark and the town was immensely busy. It occurred that I might be better off on foot.

I was conscious that I was now tired and cranky and this would be prime time for mistakes to happen – the kind of mistakes that involve the grawnching sound of metal being scrapped across concrete.

As if my magic I saw what might possibly do as a parking space. In the couple of seconds it took me to assess whether the space was any longer than my car, the traffic behind me started, almost in unison, a cacophony of horn blasts.

It took more seconds of arguing with the clutch to engage reverse. More horn blasts.

It was a narrow road so even swinging the car around to do a parallel park was difficult, but somehow I managed to fit the car in the space in one smooth reverse move. ‘One take Wainhouse, I congratulated myself’

I scraped up anything valuable looking from the cabin and set off to see if the hotel had rooms.

It did. And it had a car park too.

 

The next day I woke with a strange knot in my stomach. I looked out the window. It was snowing. Hard.

I’d been planning a leisurely wander around town including a visit to Isak Pasa’s pleasure palace just outside of town before leaving after lunch for the drive back to Kars. I had a flight booked the next day from Kars back to Istanbul.

I checked the weather forecast which showed more snow all day and a low of minus 18 overnight. Whatever happened I knew it would be a pretty serious deal if I got stuck overnight in that with a crummy broken-down car.

I went up for breakfast on the top floor of the hotel to mull over my options. The views were supposed to be stunning over Mt Ararat, but all I could see was a swirling snowstorm. I hadn’t slept particularly well and all I wanted now was a lazy day reading and watching the world go by in this slightly remote town. I knew it was going to be a tough day.

There were three roads out of Doğubayazıt. One led to Iran, about 15km to the East. I had no visa.

The other was back over the switchbacks and mountains the way I’d come the previous day. I really didn’t fancy that. As in really, really didn’t fancy that.

And the other route was West via Agri and Horasan, which added about 150km to the route I’d taken the day before.

I knew that if I was going to try, I’d have to leave early to get as much from the limited daylight as possible.

But I had another coffee, then another breakfast. All trying to put off the inevitable moment. Perhaps somehow hoping another option would reveal itself to me.

I thought about trying to buy some snowchains. But I figured that would take a couple of hours and would make it even more likely that I’d end up driving in the dark by mid afternoon. I’ll risk it during the day I thought. But I’m not driving in the dark.

I looked up the longer route on Google maps, trying to see if there were any tell-tale switchbacks. All in it looked like it was about 320km to Kars. That’s a long trudge through heavy snow.

I asked at the hotel reception what the roads were like, but the helpful guy who’d checked me in the night before wasn’t there – and now no one spoke any English.

I paid up and walked out the back of the hotel, where the car was parked. There was already a thick covering of snow on the steps down to the car park. The fresh snow covered an expanse of marble, which it turned out was extremely slippery. Almost immediately my feet went flying and I landed heavily on by back, slightly knocking the wind out of me. Scrabbling around for something to hold on to I then slid down the steps. This didn’t bode well.

Slightly freaked, I climbed up. I was uninjured but felt a huge wave of adrenaline suddenly start to pump into my system. I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive.   Hello fear.

I felt strangely and uncharacteristically apprehensive. My last folly with a car and snow was when I managed to get a Toyota Yaris stuck in a blizzard on the Georgian Military Highway somewhere south of the Russian border. It was probably this rather hairy experience that led to my nervousness now.

 

I drove slowly back towards the main road and turned right before doubling back on myself. The road was disconcertingly empty.

As I left town a saw a few cars pull in, their drivers fitting snow chains. I gulped and pushed on.

It was a decent dual carriageway.   But with the snow it was hard to tell where the edge of the road lay. I drove down what I took to be the middle of the two lanes. There wasn’t enough traffic for this to be a problem. There was a bit of traffic on the other side of the road. I took this to be a good sign that the road must be open. Feeling slightly more comfortable I pushed up to 60kph.

It can’t have been much longer before I came across the steaming wreck of another car which had spun off the carriageway across the central reservation, its front end smashed in. Another car going the other direction has stopped to help.

I gulped and involuntarily eased back on the throttle to get a better look. I didn’t speed up again for a good while. After about an hour I reached a major junction. I pulled over to check the car over – there had been a disconcerting graunching noise from somewhere below the car every time I went over a bump. I had tried to ignore it, hoping – wishing – it would go away. But now there was somewhere convenient to stop.

I flung open the door and stepped out. My feet sunk through the snow which settled around the bottom of my calves. I immediately saw the problem. All four wheel arches were snarled up with solid snow and ice. So much so that if I tried to turn the front wheels – normally quite necessary in the process of steering – they would grind against the ice. And if I went over a bump the ice would hit against the tyres.  I tried as best I could to break off the ice.

In the ten minutes or so that I spent trying to re-habilitate my car, only another two vehicles passed. None came other way.

When I climbed back into the warm cabin – I’d left the engine running and heater blowing – I realised quite how cold and numb my fingers had become.

I pulled away again slowly but almost immediately saw two cars coming back down my side of the road with their hazard lights on.

I wound down my window and stuck my head out. Without stopping, the first car crossed over into the other lane and drove back the way I’d come.

The second driver, seeing my wild gesticulating also wound down his window and in response to my arm waving and bellowing, just shouted “closed”. It was the only English I had heard all day.

‘That’s it’ I thought. I would be stuck in Doğubayazıt for God knows how long. Whilst I was mulling over my options (Did they ever plough these roads? Would I be trapped till summer? Would I have to buy a house, settle down and start a life here?) the driver crossed the carridgeway and started driving – the wrong way – down the other side of the road.

This seemed mighty dangerous. And if the road was closed at a mountain pass surely it would be closed in both ways. I had to make a split decision. At least if I was driving the wrong way down a dual carriageway there would be one car in front of me.

So as quickly as I could I crossed lanes, turned on my hazard lights and made off in quick pursuit. I didn’t want to lose the car in front.

The road rose quickly and after about ten minutes the problem became apparent. There was a queue of stationary lorries for about 400 meters and, at the front, a series of jack-knifed lorries and one huge juggernaut which appeared to have slid sideway off the road. Gulp.

I dared not slow down for fear that I wouldn’t get going again up the hill. I could feel myself hunched over the steering wheel. Gripping tightly. Another bucket load of adrenaline released itself into my system. I tried to relax. To breathe slowly. Let my shoulders relax.

As the snow closed in I eventually lost contact with the car in front. And it was what seemed like hours before I came across any other cars coming the other way.

Eventually at another junction I crossed back onto my side of the road and felt only slightly better.

In parts I could only barely make out the sides of the road. I worried if I misjudged things I’d go sliding off into the ditch.

Over some more mountain passes I came across more stuck lorries – just spinning their wheels.

Eventually I came to a town – Taslicay. It was barely more than a one road town. A few snowploughs were starting to make a desultory effort at clearing the main drag. A few people were hitching. I’d never even considered picking up a hitcher. But now I thought – just a small thought – of how comforting it would be to have someone else in the car. Even if that person didn’t speak a word of English. But I didn’t stop.

By now the snow had either eased or I was feeling gung-ho enough to carry on. I drove on through the slightly bigger town of Agri, then on to Eleskirt

I came across a few snowploughs as the morning wore on. Again this reassured me, that if the worst happened I could – I would – abandon the car and hitch a ride to safety. I followed a snowplough for what seemed like ages. Then – in an act of mighty folly – decided it was going too slowly and decided to overtake it.

As morning turned to afternoon the roads gradually got better. Gritters had started to have an impact and I could, in patches, begin to see tarmac again.

I reached Horasan – one of the larger towns on the Anakara – Kars – Armenia route about four hours after starting setting out. The main road seemed to have had more attention from the gritters and snow ploughs.

I drove on to Karakurt when I realised that apart from being shattered by the concentration, I had a caffeine withdrawal headache. By now I was increasingly confident I’d make it to Kars before dark. I’d not wanted to stop before as I couldn’t be sure I could spare the time.

As I came up to a junction where the road split for Kagizman and Kars there was a collection of market stalls. I pulled in amongst the minibuses that ply the route. Attracting a little more attention than I’d planned I sized up the stall and found what looked to be a small travellers café.

Inside was a small cast iron wood-burning stove and a scene that could have been from anytime over the last thousand years. Elderly men and women sat round the stove, all dressed in conservative black. The walls looks like they contained about a thousand years dirt.

It was one of those places where taking a photo would have been distinctly not appropriate. So I tried my best to mentally imprint the image on my mind for later.

In the corner a young guy manned a gas stove. ‘Coffee? Café?’ I asked tentatively

With a little shake of the head ‘Chai’ was the answer. For such a simple job he seemed to take such pride.

So I took a sweet Turkish tea. There was nowhere inside to sit so I stood outside happy to take in the fresh air and stretch my legs.

Another guy about my age was standing there smoking, who I took to be the driver of one of the minibuses. ‘Kagizman?’ he asked pointing down the road. ‘Kars’ I replied pointing the other way. ‘English?’ he asked. ‘English’ I replied.  We stood there in reflective silence.

He had reached the limit of his English and I the limits of my Turkish.

Feeling restored I set off again for the hour-and-half’s drive to Kars which despite re-freezing snow passed off uneventfully.

***

Arriving in Kars again came as a shock to the system. It was just starting to get dark.  After doing my best to make progress on the dual carriageways, I had to consciously slowdown when I reached the smaller roads in town. I kept braking too heavily on the small town road and firing the ABS.  It would be ironic if I crashed now, in town, I thought.

Again the wheel arches had become blocked with ice to that each time I turned more than a few degrees there was an awful grinding noise.

I had planned to keep the car until the next morning when I’d drop it off at the airport. But suddenly I wanted to be shot of it. I found my way through town, where the guys in the hire company seemed surprised to see me.

I tossed them the keys and gave the car a once over, checking I’d picked up everything.  I had a rummage around the boot, beneath my bags, where I came across I large red bag that wasn’t mine.  I peeked inside. It contained snow chains! I laughed to myself. They seemed puzzled why the snow chains remained obviously unused.

***

I’d not booked a hotel for that night in Kars – I had’t been sure I’d make it this far – but the Grand Ani Hotel was just a few steps from where I’d left the car.  Despite its name it wasn’t particularly grand.

Delighted to be shot of the car, I checked in and climbed the stairs to my room.  I fell on bed with a big grin on my face.

For the first time in hours everything was still and calm. My eyes and brain knew I was stationary.  But my inner ear seem to still be bouncing along those bumpy roads.

Despite the sensory overload and conflicting messages, my brain knew I was safe.  Travel sickness is great when it stops.