In a Flap

Spare a thought, if you will, for the newly born Guillemot. It begins its life high above the sea on a rocky cliff-face.  Just weeks after hatching on the cold, wind-swept ledge, the chicks are ushered to the edge… and pushed off.  

You can almost hear the mother Guillemot squawking “Fly, my pretties. Fly” as she pushes her offspring over precipice.

The narrow ledge, where the chicks have spent their entire lives, offers little space for flight-training. Or even to fully stretch their wings.  

Given that shove, the student bird must unfold their wings and at least make a passing attempt at flight. Or crash onto the rocks below. It’s the ultimate game of “fly or die trying”.

By contrast with the cruelties of Mother Nature, learning to fly a light aircraft should seem much less stressful.  On a blustery November morning, it doesn’t seem like that. 

A Jump

Most of us in comfortable, professional jobs have grown unaccustomed to being crap at anything.  Experience in childhood taught us what we’re bad at, and we find jobs that cater to our strengths. 

Depending on our personality we might choose to put ourselves in more challenging spots at work, knowing that we need the odd challenge or shot of adrenaline to avoid boredom.  But we do this within the confines of carefully calculated bounds. It’s rare that we intentionally put ourselves at risk of doing something where there’s a real chance of failing. 

And yet, I was about to start spending my weekends looking, and feeling quite incompetent.

Getting Schooled

I’d been thinking about taking flying lessons for some time.  I’d bought the text books, even a couple of aeronautical charts.

I think this was a way to kid myself that I had started the process of becoming a pilot. But I kept putting off finding a flight school.  Work got busier. The pandemic struck.  And it seemed more sensible to have a decent amount in a savings account than start spending it with reckless abandon. Or maybe I just thought I wouldn’t be very good at it.

Then summer rolled around. Work must have been a bit quieter. Training for whatever was my latest whim of an ultramarathon had finished and I suddenly had a little time on my hands.  Oh gosh, was I… bored? 

Learning to fly starts with booking a ‘trial lesson’ at a flight school. I imagine that flight schools do a lot of these trial lessons for people who really have little intention of properly starting – or at least completing – flight training. They just want the first experience.

The studious amongst us might book trial lessons at several flight schools.  You’d check out a few different instructors to see who you best got on with.  Maybe you’d try a couple of different aircraft types to see what you wanted to learn in.  You’re about to spend somewhere north of £10k. You’d like to think you’d done your homework first.  

And yet I went with the first flight school and first instructor I tried. But I don’t think this was just laziness or an over-reaction to dithering for so long.  

How many choices of planes are there? Most flight schools either use a Cessna 152 or a Piper PA28. And the Cessna is smaller, cheaper to fly, and probably a little easier to land. 

And really, you’re going to want to have a pretty good reason for choosing an airfield that’s further away. 

So maybe it comes down to the instructor. 

Teaching and Learning. 

Teaching and learning were always a big thing in my family.  I’d been exposed to more discussions about my education than was probably usual.  I never had a chance to be uninterested, or even disinterested, in my education. Not just what I learned but how I learned. 

I’d long known that I learned best not by being taught, but by asking questions.  I’d need an instructor who was sympathetic to my incessant questioning and constant analysis of my mistakes – rather than teaching by rote or just trying to repeat the course material when I failed to understand something. 

I guess I was looking for an instructor who might be up for changing things around when I failed to grasp something.

Trial Lesson 

I booked a trial lesson through Stapleford Flight Centre in north east London – just inside the M25. It was about 25 minutes drive from home.  On the phone I tried to make clear that this wasn’t just a whimsy, but I wanted to do my PPL and enquired as to what the availability was like for instructors. 

When I phoned reception at Stapleford I enquired what availability was like for instructors and whether they could pair me with someone who would be free for lessons at weekends. Most of the commercial students would be training during the week.  I like to think I used my office-phone-voice to persuade them to give me someone good.

It sounded like a lot of their teaching was done by younger pilots embarking on the first stage of their career into commercial aviation.

Reception booked me in with an instructor who had a couple of students just about to take their skills test, so might have some availability next week.  And If they did, that would be a good sign.

There’s the thing that people of a certain age are supposed to say about ‘policemen looking younger and younger’.  I remember being conscious of almost a generational difference between me and my instructor.  One not in my favour.  He was younger – perhaps in his early 20s.

Sure, I work with people younger than myself. But maybe sitting behind a desk with poor office lighting ages you.  Or maybe the younger people in my office aren’t paid to teach me.  Or maybe I just wasn’t used to feeling like I had to earn the respect of someone younger. 

I did briefly think, am I going to be ok with this? Hadn’t I been expecting a wisened old guy in a beaten up bomber jacket with decades of experience? 

There’s something almost akin to speed dating in your trial lesson. You’re trying to quickly suss out on a personal level if the instructor is someone you want to share the small confines of the aircraft cabin with for hours on end.  Are they going to patronise you when you get something wrong? Are they going to go easy on you when they should really be tightening the screws and giving you hell?

You’re also trying to make a snap judgement, without really much to go on apart from your gut instinct, whether you’re happy to put your life in their hands. 

An engine-failure-after-take-off – know as an EFATO – is one of the most risky things in light aircraft. In the unlikely event this happens in your first few lessons, you’re not going to be in much of a position to help.  How are they going to cope if the shit hits the fan – or, I suppose, the propeller.

And yet I was wondering – how much was he also assessing me? I vaguely had the notion that after COVID, flight training had suddenly become very busy again. 

During COVID it looked like the world of commercial aviation – and therefore aviation training – might be decimated for decades. But now things were starting to look up again. After months of pilots being furloughed, and flight training being paused, it looked like pilots might once again be in demand. 

Maybe the instructors got to pick their students rather than the other way around.

Airborne 

The day came around,  I looked at the weather in the morning. Blue-ish skies. Little did I know how much of the following year would be spent pouring over forecasts and weather reports – and sticking my head out the window with an upwards glance and a deep reflective intake of breath. 

After meeting my instructor we started with the walk-around of the plane.  You’re checking that everything looks right. That the control surfaces work, there are no leaks, dents or bits missing. 

You do this with a check-list in an orderly flow as you walk clockwise around the aircraft.  

Teaching the walk around must be a lesson in itself – not really a focus for the trial lesson.  My trial lesson was only an hour – but I felt like I wanted to couple of days to inspect the plane and understand how each bit worked.  I was already getting bogged down in the detail that should come later. 

One of the risks of light aircraft, or indeed any propeller driven plane, is of someone getting struck by a propeller unexpectedly whirring to life.   You quickly become accustomed to checking the area is clear before shouting ‘clear prop’ before cranking the engine. 

When the engine whirs to life it gets pretty noisy in the cabin until you slip on your headset. It’s perhaps the beginning of sensory overload.  Immediately instruments where whirring to life and I was already mentally questioning what each one did. Again more sensory overload. 

We took off and flew to what would soon become the regular practice area near Southend. 

We did some steep turns and a few dives where the g-force when from zero – where a pencil held in the centre of the cabin would stay there – to a gentle pull-up which felt like my weight had doubled.  

I hadn’t really expected to feel much in the way of g-forces in my training. But as I would later learn, training involves stall practices, spiral descents and steep turns where the force through the seat of your pants rapidly increases. I already weigh too much, so weighing twice-as-much-as-too-much was always going to be a shock.  Again the sensory overload continued.

In bigger commercial airliners you might feel a bit of turbulence, but not much in the way of g-forces. In a light aircraft you also get bumped and buffeted by the air in a way you don’t in a big plane.  It’s all a lot of new sensations. 

My instructor, I assumed, naturally wanted someone who would be good to teach.  Were the steep turns about giving me a bit of fun or about checking whether I was the sort of person who would… puke in a plane.  If you’re going to be teaching someone for a while, you’d better suss that out early.  

I hope I gave the impression that I would be a good student; that I was more likely to turn up when I said I would; wouldn’t piss about; and not turn up hung-over like I would have done when I was last a student. Or fail to turn in my homework on time. It turns out there would be a lot of homework.

When we got to the ground, I’d pretty much decided that 1) we would get on and have fun, 2) there wasn’t much of a difference in price between competing flight schools, and 3) the airfield felt safe, friendly and well run. The instructor guy was good. ”

Perhaps I was also a bit afraid of my instructor not choosing me. No one wants to go through speed-dating and not get chosen. Maybe I worried I’d get dumped by an instructor before we even started, and end up with the instructor no-one wants, whose students always fail.

“Ok, lets do this. When can you start” I said almost before the wheels at hit the ground. He had a couple of students about to do their final skills test the next week, so we could get going in a couple of weeks.

Instructing

What makes pilots interesting is that – like architects – they inhabit differing worlds. At its most basic, flying is physical, requiring quick wits and good instinctive judgement. Just like a racing driver. But it’s also a little academic, requiring knowledge of meteorology, biology, aerodynamics, electronics and mechanics. Isn’t it this intersection of the Venn diagram where things – or people – get interesting?

I’ve often noticed that many people who are seemingly gifted academically can’t drive a car. For whatever reason I come across non-drivers more and more. Many say they’ve just never learned. Maybe they grew up in a city and never needed a car. But even if you didn’t want your own car, it always seemed to me to be hugely limiting in life to not be able to use a car. ”

The ability to rent a car in some far flung place and head-out-on-the-highway-looking-for-adventure always seemed one of life’s great freedoms. Maybe they just knew they wouldn’t be very good at driving and decided – as we all do – not to risk doing something they wouldn’t be good at.

I was charmed by how my instructor took me at face value. He didn’t ask me about why I wanted to learn to fly or what I did for work. Did he think I was an arts graduate or a science graduate? Maybe he didn’t care. I suspect he had better things to think about.

I remember thinking that if I was teaching, I’d want to know about the person I was teaching. Did they have a PhD in Fluid Dynamics – in which case I might consider more deeply how I talked about a stalling aerofoil.

Perhaps this consideration of audience comes from half a career working outside my area of education, mainly with arts and politics graduates, where I’d regularly have to make snap judgements about professional people and adapt my message accordingly.

He didn’t ask, and I remember thinking I wouldn’t say – unless asked – that Bernoulli’s principle and that Newton’s Third weren’t going to be a problem.

“You don’t know this yet but we’re going to get this done in the minimum 45 hours.” I remember thinking to myself. How quickly I would disabuse myself of that view. ”

You don’t actually get a huge amount of time to talk to your instructor about anything other than the matter in hand. Lessons are short and there’s little room for small talk.

It was only during a lesson before my final test, that on a slightly longer return to the airfield, I had anything like the time or mental capacity to engage in just the slightest small talk. I remember being delighted that I could talk and fly at the same time. But we’re jumping way ahead.

Early Lessons

The introduction to flying starts with the basic handling of the aircraft: straight and level flight, climbing, descending and turning. You start – as commercial flights the world-over do – with a briefing.

Your instructor runs through the lesson on a white board whilst you’re safely on the ground. Then after the flight you debrief. Incidentally I found the debrief afterwards hugely helpful as it quickly became evident that during the flight I was often so mentally overloaded that I couldn’t take anything in.

After you’ve done the briefing, and your instructor has done the paper work, and you’ve done the walk-around, they take off.

They do this in a away that gives you the reassuring but entirely false impression that you have taken off. You then fly to the the training area where each concept is introduced slowly over a series of lessons

The aim is to ease you gently from the zone of ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious incompetence’ as you’re exposed to more and more of the work that goes in flying.

When I started flying I immediately bypassed this Dunning-Kruger effect. I was immediately conscious of my incompetence.

A misspent – or well-spent depending on your perspective – childhood as an aviation geek meant I knew a fair amount about what was going on. What each of the instruments were and what information they conveyed. Maybe I had read some of those textbooks I’d bought.

This might have been part of the problem, in that I was immediately subject to information overload. I should have been focusing on the tasks in hand – learning how to keep the plane straight and level. But my mind immediately kept trying to jump ahead. To work out where I was over the land, which direction we were heading; what they were saying on the radio, what frequency the radio was on, and everything else. All of this I could have ignored. It wasn’t important at the moment.

I was incensed that my mental map of where we were was totally gone. I’m normally good at spatial orientation. I don’t get lost. And here we were, somewhere over Essex, and I didn’t know which direction the airfield was in. I didn’t need to know. But it was hard to let go. Letting go meant acknowledging I couldn’t do everything just yet.

When there was a lot going on, in an effort to cope, I quickly realised that not only had I mentally tuned out the radio and air traffic control, but that I was also incapable of listening to my instructor.

We soon realised that I had to hand over the controls to the instructor to be able to listen to what he was saying. And even then I found it hard to properly take in what he was saying. The debrief whilst back on the ground made a big difference.

And then I realised I could stick my Go-Pro camera up in the cockpit and record the video as well as the audio from our headsets.

Watching back some of the early lessons was like watching someone else’s flying lesson. My ability to block out auditory distractions when I was concentrating on something difficult was epically good. Or bad.

But all this added to the homework after the lessons.

This basic handling took up the first few lessons.

Stalling and Alarming

Early on in training you’re introduced to the principle of a wing stall. A wing stall, as distinct from an engine stall, is where you disrupt the airflow over the wing so much that it no longer provides lift. It happens because you’re going too slowly or climbing too steeply. When the stall occurs the airflow over the wing catastrophically stops providing lift and the plane suddenly drops.

In normal flight you never want to stall. But you need to know how to get out of a stall if you accidentally enter one.

You start by practicing stalls both with the engine providing power and with the engine idling. In both cases you pull the yoke towards you – fairly hard – until the plane is at an ever steeper angle until the stall happens.

In the old Cessnas there’s a mechanical horn that sounds an audible alarm as the stall is starting to develop. If you keep pulling, you start to feel some buffeting on the plane. Keep going still and then the plane starts to sink, and, as often as not, one or other wing drops unpredictably away.

If left unchecked or unrecovered this can develop into a spin and a rapid reintroduction to the ground. Of course in training we don’t get that far. Hopefully.

It took me a while to be robust enough with the controls to bring on the stall. I kept limping half-heartedly and unassertively into a stall.

The training is designed to train out the natural inclination to either pull up or steer out of the roll with the yoke – both of which make the stall worse rather than better.

Getting out of a stall is supposed to be fairly easy and should become natural. You release the pressure you’ve applied on the yoke. You then apply full power until your speed picks up. Then you gently climb away from the stall. If a wing drops, you use the rudder pedals – not the yoke in your hands – to counteract the roll.

Only at one point in my training did I sense my instructor seem genuinely alarmed and piped up my controls as the ground rapidly filled a windshield that had only moments ago contained nothing but sky.

In trying to overcome my timidity with the controls as we went into a stall, I had overreacted on exiting it. Rather than simply relax the pressure on the yoke, I had thrust the yoke forward. This had the effect of exiting us from the stall, but also starting a rapid dive towards the ground.

Phew, I don’t know my own strength I joked as the instructor recovered to straight and level flight.

As in so much with flight training, you learn more through your mistakes than your successes.

We worked on stalls for a bit. It’s important to get the physical feel of the plane – so that if you accidentally get into a stall in normal flight, you’re quick to get out of it.

Bigger commercial planes even have what’s called a stick-shaker – literally shaking the yoke in your hands to alert you to in impending stall. And if you keep ignoring that, a ‘stick-puller’ so if, despite the warnings, you keep pulling, the plane will push the yoke forward itself.

This is one of the reasons that when you practice stalls, you make sure you’re somewhere safe and high enough to be able to recover.

There’s a formalised way to remember these checks with the mnemonic – HASELL.

Memorising Mnemonics 

The HASELL checks – Height, Airframe, Security, Engine, Location, Lookout – are about checking you’re not in any danger of crashing into another plane or built up area if anything goes wrong in the stall practice. These are supposed to be committed to memory rather than read from a checklist.

And when you’re considering the ‘location’ part of the HASELL checks – there’s also another mnemonic – ABCCD – to remind you that the location should be clear of Airports, Built up areas, Controlled airspace, Clouds, and Danger areas.

I’m pretty good at working out systems, but less so at just remembering things by rote.

As we went through the various stall practices, I found more than anything, I was struggling to remember the order of these memory lists.

Oh god, what does the second ‘c’ stand for? By which time the location in which we about the be practising the stall would now be miles behind us.

Right across your flight training there’s a lot to remember by rote. And trying to remember it all got in the way of actually flying.

Before you enter the runway you have the FATPL checks: Fuel, Altimeter, Transponder, Pitot Heat, Landing Light.

Immediately after takeoff its FELT checks: Flaps, Engine, Landing Light, Trim

As you’re getting ready for landing there’s what looks like someone sat on your keyboard BUMPFFLICHHC – Brakes, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Flaps, Fuel, Landing Light, Instruments, Carb Heat, Hatches, Harnesses, Clearance.

At school I struggled to recite poetry verbatim, and it took me an age to remember lines for plays I was in. That was all without the pressure of trying to navigate a one-tonne piece of metal through the sky whilst also trying to remember your lines. I remember thinking I could learn to fly a plane but at the expense of forgetting my own name.

Circuit Training

Flying just once a week on a Saturday or Sunday, the weeks quickly passed and we started to get into the cooler days of autumn.

Once you’ve started to master the basic principles of flight – climbing, descending, turning – you begin to bring these together in the circuit.

The circuit, or traffic pattern, is the standard rectangular route flown by light aircraft around the airfield. You always take off in the direction of the runway and into the prevailing wind. You climb on the same heading as the runway before turning left, so as to take you at 90 degrees away from the runway – this is known as Crosswind.

You turn left again so you’re now flying in the opposite direction to the runway – parallel to it and in the opposite direction to which you took off – this is called the downwind leg. Then you turn left again to bring you back towards the runway – the base leg. With one final left turn you are again lined up with the runway on final approach.

At airfields without full air traffic control you’ll often reference your position in the circuit over the radio to help other aircraft build up a picture of who’s doing what in the circuit.

Flying this circuit pattern means that all aircraft around the airfield are flying in a predictable way. When you return to or approach another airfield, you’ll slip in to this pattern around other aircraft. You’ll listen to the radio to gain situational awareness of where the other planes are.

Circuit training forms a big part of flight training. By repeatedly flying this circuit you can practice takeoff and landing again and again and again in what’s called a touch-and-go.

In a touch-and-go, you let the aircraft gently touch the ground as in a normal landing, but instead of applying the brakes and bringing the aircraft to a stop, you apply full power and transition from landing into a takeoff again. This is quicker than landing, stopping and taxing back to the start of the runway and taking off again.

Take off and landing are the biggies in flight training.

I once heard another student refer to his ‘slam-and-gos’. He was having the opposite problem to me. He had an overdeveloped urgency to get the plane on the ground. I was suffering a huge reluctance to get it down.

Ground Shy

At some stage in your flight training, you’re bound to hear an instructor offer the advice that take-offs are optional but landings aren’t. In bad weather, it’s one thing to be able to take off but quite another to land. You don’t have to go flying but if you do, then you do have to land.

The runway at Stapleford has two quirks about it. One is that when the winds are coming from the south or west, as they are most of the time, the runway you use slopes upwards at two degrees. This gives a feeling that the runway is coming up to meet you.

As you’re approaching the runway the plane should be in a nice gentle descent. The trick with landings is that you have to transition from descending to ‘not descending’ at just the right time. Do this too late and you’ll hit the ground too hard. Do it too early and you’ll float down the runway and run out of runway on which to land.

At the same time as arresting your descent, you have to flare the aircraft so the nose of the plane is slightly raised, so the main landing gear, at the back of the plane touch the ground before the more delicate single front wheel.

I’m not sure whether this was complicated by the upslope of the runway, but every time we got close to the ground some form of built in protection triggered deep within me.

Oh gosh that ground is coming up rather quickly. Better not slam into it and before we know it my hands, almost without control of my conscious brain, would pull back on the controls and we’ve be climbing again. Meanwhile the runway was rapidly running out below us. So I’d increase the power to full, slowly retract the flaps and we’d go around for another try.

Go-Arounds, as they’re called, are an important thing to practice. If you’re not happy with the landing, perhaps you’re coming in too fast, or too high, or the wind changes, or there’s something on the runway – then it’s best to go around. But eventually you do have to land. And I was developing something of a tendency to be ground-shy and wondering whether I would have to be airborne forevermore. I was becoming the ‘go-around king’

Immediately before the big focus on landings, we had numerous lessons on stalls. You are immediately aware that if you try to fly too slowly your plane will literally fall out of the sky. This caused something of a tendency in me to want to fly too fast on final approach.

Stalling just above the ground would not be good.

It took me a while to figure out that the second quirk of the Stapleford runway might also be contributing to my difficulty in getting the plane down.

The first half of the main runway is tarmac, the second half is grass. A decent pilot could easily land and stop on just the tarmac. Indeed, soon even I would be able to do so.

But you could perfectly well land on the first half and continue slowing down on the grass at the end. At a push you could even manage to land on just the grass, on the second half of the runway, and still have time to stop.

But as you’re approaching the runway from above, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s just the little bit of tarmac that forms the runway.

So rather than let the plane gradually transition from descent to level flight, settle, and then an easy flare, I was panicking on two counts.

Sensibly, the self-preservation part of my brain was seeing the end of a tarmac runway and deciding to go around. But of course it wasn’t the end of the runway. I had plenty of time.

It was almost like my hands had a mind of their own as we got closer to the ground I had to fight the urge for my hands to want to pull the yoke back towards me – sending the plane back up into the air.

“Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back” I’d mutter to myself as we got closer to the ground.

As we got closer still – fighting the urge to send us around for another go – I’d have to fight the urge to look away, as you might close your eyes before crashing.

I talked to my instructor after one lesson. I just couldn’t shake the fear of smashing the plane into the ground. “Something just isn’t working”.

He came up with the suggestion that instead of trying to land we’d break things down further. As we approach the runway, we’d arrest our descent and fly just above the runway. Then apply power and, towards the end of the runway, we’d go around. “

Somehow this convinced the vestigial part of my brain that as we weren’t actually going to intentionally smash into the ground – or even land – I could focus on the individual parts that make up the fine controls needed the landing.

Getting Crossed

I’d started my training in the summer when the weather was fine. Training just once a week, at the weekend, means that it can take a while to make progress.

It was late autumn or early winter before we got into proper circuit training. By this time the weather was frequently causing us problems. Some weekends we’d have to cancel the lesson as strong winds or a low cloud base would make flying impossible.

Just as I got over the ground-shy tendency, I was getting knocked sideways, often quite literally, by a cross wind.

What worked on a still summer day didn’t work when the winds picked up. With the wind roaring directly down the runway, you took off almost unnaturally slowly. But as soon as you’d turned left and left again for the downwind leg of the circuit, you’d find yourself getting blown quickly back towards the airfield.

All the things you normally had time to do were now suddenly rushed as your speed over the ground was now much quicker with a tailwind.

And then we had some lessons where the wind wasn’t straight down the runway – but seemingly diagonally across it. As soon as you took off you were been blown with alarming speed in the direction of France. And would soon be there if you didn’t take corrective action.

Until this point you are used to the plane travelling forward in the direction the plane is facing. But now the plane is facing one way and you’re moving forwards in another.

Taking off in a crosswind is one thing, and fairly easy to deal with. Landing, not so much.

You don’t want to land the plane sideways, so at some stage just before landing you have to make sure that the nose of the plane is facing directly down the runway with the plane staying just above it. ”

There are a couple of ways of dealing with crosswind landings. Whichever method you use, you have to get used to controlling the direction of the nose of the plane with your feet, using the rudder pedals. And control your movement parallel with the runway with the yoke. At the same time you’re controlling your descent with one hand on the throttle.”

It’s like a version of the coordination exercise where you have to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. Only its like doing this whilst tap dancing.

In fairness I was probably learning in about the most challenging weather. ”

“Nice and relaxed” my instructor would say as we were on final approach – seeing me hunch up as if I was preparing for a fight. Or impact.

“Nice and gentle on the yoke” he’d say.

But what he meant, seeing my white knuckles, was “for god’s sake Owen, you’re gripping the yoke like the plane is trying to rip the yoke out of your hands”

He suggested I try just using thumb and forefinger of my left hand on the yoke. Your right hand is resting (or I suppose gripping for dear life) on the throttle.

I really felt like I had no idea what my limbs were doing, It was hugely unsatisfying to keep getting it so wrong. It was like someone was pulling the runway out from under me like people do with a tablecloth on fully laid table. Only this time it felt like the planes were just about to crash to the floor.

Again the breakthrough came when we practiced flying directly above the runway at low level, so that I could practice the precise coordination of the rudder and yoke dealing with the gusty winds.

I’d end our circuit training lessons with sweaty palms, and aching forearms, feeling totally drained. Just happy to be back on the ground. But also hugely frustrated at my incompetence.

After coffee and breakfast in the clubhouse, I’d find that I’d struggle to drive home. The switch from controlling an object in three axis to just two was more than I could handle. I was totally mentally shattered. I’d drive home slowly and find that, like a baby, I needed an afternoon nap.

At about this stage I started to be aware of that nagging fleeing that I’d made no progress on studying for the nine written exams you need to pass.

Going Solo

Once you’ve shaken off the total incompetence of the circuit training, you progress to your first solo flight. Your instructor steps out of the plane and you do a circuit by yourself. Your first time flying by yourself. It’s almost a bigger step than passing your final test.

For me the first solo came reluctantly. It came first after a period of bad weather in October and November. At the end of one lesson of circuit training, and a few half decent landings, my instructor asked how I would feel about going up for another lap by myself.

But he didn’t quite ask that. He asked, in an almost hypothetical way. It was a conditional.

If I asked how you would feel about going up for another lap by yourself, how would you feel? He wasn’t asking. But he might have been. If I said no, then it wasn’t a question. He was sussing me out.

I was the Guillemot clinging to the ledge for dear life.

You’re not pushing me over the ledge just yet I thought.

I felt flustered and annoyed at myself for not nailing the cross-wind landings. Something still didn’t feel quite right.

I still didn’t feel totally at one with the plane. I hadn’t fully understood what my feet and arms were doing to counteract the cross wind. They were doing something, but it wasn’t under full control of my brain. I’d felt my few successful landings were still a fluke rather than baked in to my brain.

On this occasion the wind was right down the runway, so my instructor was presumably thinking it might be a few weeks before another weather window opened up. And I’d done a few half-decent landings. But I felt tired and liable to make a mistake.

“Not today” I said. It was an instinctive answer said without consideration. And I’m sure it was the right one. Normally I’m up for giving everything and anything a try. So I was surprised by my automatic answer.

Fortunately the spell of bad weather didn’t last too long. The opportunity came a couple of weeks later at the end of November, just before my birthday. After a couple of circuits with the instructor he asked if I felt ready and I had no hesitation.

“Yeah no problem”.

The solo itself was pretty uneventful.

After signing various bits of paperwork, the instructor jumped out. And with minimal drama I taxied back to the runway to fly the circuit, now prefixing my radio calls with the word “student” as all trainee pilots must do when flying by themselves.

The plane, now lighter than before, climbed quickly. It felt like a rocket. I landed to congratulations over the radio from the radio room and another plane in the circuit.

Talker

During my lessons I’d tended to talk quite a lot – talking through what I was doing – often asking questions out loud. Sometimes answering my own questions but at other times directly asking him questions.

As we progressed through the training, I’d often ask a question of the instructor, and my instructor would just keep quiet – letting me answer or problem solve the answer myself. He was clearly trying to get me ready for flying by myself without the comfort blanket of an instructor next to me making decision for me.

It made me smile. Years ago when I worked on an IT help desk, I’d get asked how to do something or other. I’d often reply with well how do you think you do it? And the person would work out their problem by themselves and feel satisfied they could do more than they thought.

Long Way Down

It was perhaps my second or third set of solo circuits, some time in late December, when I had my first surprise. The plane hit a few bumps of air. Presumably the airframe flexed a little, and the door next to me popped open as I was turning onto the downwind leg. It felt like there was suddenly a tornado sweeping through the cabin,

The air-flow around the plane means that the door doesn’t fully open but it does open a few inches. Suddenly there was quite a lot of cold air rushing about. I alost had the realisation that without your seatbelt there’s really not a lot to stop you falling out. These types of planes are used for parachute jumpers.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate is the mantra that’s drilled into you early on. The most important thing is to fly the plane and not get distracted by other stuff – even navigating or communicating. Plenty a pilot has come to harm by getting bogged down in the task of navigating whilst they’ve forgotten to keep the plane aloft.

I heard myself recounting this mantra to myself, after the first instinctive expletive. Methodically, if not quite calmly, I levelled out and got stable on the downwind leg, flying the plane in the right direction. I made the usual radio call on the downwind leg. I was aviating, navigating and communicating. I reached over pushed the door out and then pulled and gave it a big slam. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Don’t fall out.

I hadn’t got in a flap, or been mentally overloaded by an unexpected problem. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, but when I landed I felt more proud than I did after my first solo.

Emergency!

All being well, most pilots go through their entire flying career without ever suffering any kind of emergency. It’s hard though to make it through any lesson without considering an emergency.

The inescapable thing about a small, single engine plane is that it has just a small single engine. If that engine quits, you’re got to be able to land the plane safely. The old Lycoming or Continental piston engines are hugely reliable. If they fail it’s almost always down to pilot error: carburettor icing or fuel starvation.

Even over the most populated areas of south-east England, once you get airborne you’ll see there are literally hundreds of fields where you could put the plane down in an emergency.

And that’s what you begin to spend a lot of time practicing – what are called PFLs practice forced landing.

It becomes a studied exercise in getting everything done quickly but not panicking.

Your instructor pulls the throttle back to idle – so you essentially have no power. Then its over to you.

You pitch the plane so it’s has the best speed for gliding as long as possible. Pick a nearby field that’s

big and flat enough, ideally facing into the wind, try to restart the engine, put out a mayday call, brief your passengers and prepare the plane for a gentle off airport landing.

Often, as we began our navigation flights I’d be ready and waiting for the instructor to pull the engine back to idle and say ok, so your engine has failed, what you gonna do?

And you’d have to run through the whole exercise, again and again until it became indelibly fixed in your mind.

Initially I wasn’t very good at a picking field. Then as we looped around I’d loose my orientation and lose the field I said we’d be landing in.

At other times I’d struggle to describe the filed I’d chosen. That big green field with the grass didn’t really narrow things down much. Okay, no, maybe not that one with sheep in it

I often found myself coming up short – finding the plane didn’t glide as far as I thought. My instructor would wait until I got close enough to the group to be sure I’d be able to make a safe landing, before instructing me to ‘go-around’. Added:

Later on, back at the airfield, we’d practice PFFs (Practice Forced Landings) in the circuit, where I’d be given control of the throttle and told to idle the engine when I thought I could make the runway. Again and again you’d have to actually put the plane on the runway without power.

At altitude you’ve at least got the benefit of a bit of time if your engine fails. What’s more challenging is an engine failure just after take off.

During take off the plane is setup for a climb with the nose raised. If the power suddenly goes, you lose speed very quickly and would rapidly stall. So you have to get the nose of the plane down fast, by pushing hard forward on the yoke.

The temptation might be to try to return to the airfield. It’s a temptation you have to avoid – it’s called the impossible turn. At low altitude and airspeed you almost certainly won’t have the momentum to avoid stalling in the turn. Aircraft stall at higher speeds in a turn. So you must push forward on the yoke and pick a field ahead.

As we got further into the lessons my instructor would introduce other ‘problems’

Traffic 9 o’clock he would say, which would immediately get me looking out of the left window, scolding myself for not having spotted the other aircraft.

When I readjusted my view forwards again, having been unable to see the traffic, there would be a warning light on the dash. Or the plane was suddenly out of trim. Would I notice and what would I do to correct the issue.

He was brilliant at creating fake distractions to get me looking elsewhere. Or perhaps I was just easily distracted.

Get Lost

After you’ve gained something of the basic principles of flight in the circuit, its time to start navigation and learning to fly away from – and back to – your home airfield.

Most older aircraft don’t have the fancy computers built into the dash. You have to rely on the traditional ‘steam gages’. Once they’ve passed, most pilots chose to fly with a GPS-enabled iPad, which, much like a car satnav, helps your navigation and flight planning.

But during training and the exam you have to be able to use old-school paper charts, protractors, slide-rule calculators with your flight meticulously prepared flight plan that lists each leg of your journey. You also have to learn to navigate using old-school radio navigation beacons.

After all the challenges of crosswind landings, I found the navigation remarkably easy.

Weekend Warrior

The absolute minimum number of training hours you need to have recorded in your log book is 45 hours before you can qualify as a pilot. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that if you’re restricted to one one-hour lesson a week you’re talking about the best part of a year to get your training done. Over the winter, some weekends – indeed some whole months are written off with bad weather.

When you’ve had a busy weekend at work, on a Friday evening you have to start thinking again about planning for the next day’s lesson.

Sensing my awareness at my slow progress, my instructor suggested I have two lessons a weekend – Saturday and Sundays. My excuse, that I was running on Sunday, must have initially sounded like a bit of a cop out.

But throughout the late summer and autumn, my training runs had escalated to the five or six hour-long variety. Add in driving to and from the hills, and virtually the whole day was written off. And I was as physically exhausted at the end of the day as I was mentally exhausted after flying.

But eventually, after the solo, I started to feel that I might have the mental capacity to be able to manage a double lesson on a Saturday, and when the weather allowed, we started making a bit more progress.

Some weeks I’d do a bit of solo circuit training, then we’d fly off on a navigation exercise.

More Time Please

When I first started training I was almost competitive in wanting to pass in as close to the minimum hours as possible. How childish that now seems.

When the autumn came and the weather got a bit worse, and I started struggling with cross-wind landings and getting over my ground-shyness, at least for a while, the idea of flying without an instructor sitting next to me didn’t seem like such a good idea.

For a few months we got into a routine that my flights would be from 8am to 10am on a Saturday morning.

We’d normally WhatsApp just before 7am to confer on the weather. Often the weather was outright too bad for flying and we’d cancel the lesson and I’d go back to bed.

Other times the weather might be marginal and we’d agree to come up to the airfield and take a proper look. Pilots and students spend a lot of time over winter standing around looking up at the sky in a pensive manner.

Perhaps it was because the rest of my life was so scheduled, that I came to quite enjoy these weather related delays and just hanging around the airfield waiting for the weather to clear.

As I got further into my training, I needed to start building up solo time – time in the plane without the instructor. You need at least 10 hours solo time before you can qualify.

When the weather was marginal I might have been able to fly with an instructor (who had instrument rating, so if necessary we could fly in cloud). But the weather was often too bad for my instructor to send me up by myself And solo time was what I needed.

Instructors don’t get paid if they don’t fly (or if their student doesn’t fly). You know you’ve got a good honest instructor when they suggest cancelling your lesson because they can’t send you up solo, and there’s not much point in you just doing more circuit training with them in the other seat. I think you’d just be wasting your money my instructor would say.

I could sense my instructor had a personal pride in getting his students through their training as close the to the minimum hours as possible. Good instructors are efficient instructors.

But I’d often push to fly anyway, thinking I’d welcome more opportunities to fly in marginal weather for the experience.

Suddenly 45 hours of lessons didn’t seem like much. In theory you could qualify having done all your training in the clear blue skies of summer.

We did a lot of bad-weather circuits, at a lower altitude and closer to the runway. We even practiced radar approaches on instruments – where he’d be looking out and I’d be following the circuit on instruments. We practiced circuits with one or other of the instruments covered up with a post-it. He found ways to keep things interesting. And I was happy to take the extra experience.

Written Exams

There are nine ‘written’ exams that you have to pass for your Private Pilots Licence – though really these are multiple choice tests of between 12 and 16 questions. You do these on a computer at your flight school.

The exams range in subjects from ‘human performance’ (like functioning of the heart, optical illusions in the eye and gas transfer across a membrane in the lungs) to meteorology, the functioning of a reciprocating ‘Otto cycle’ engine, to radio spectrum.

These exams can be staggered over your training. Only the first exam – Air Law – has to be taken before you’re allowed to do your first solo flight.

For me, Sir Law proved to be one of the most difficult. Maybe it was because I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The other exams were broadly drawn on physics or biology or mathematics.

I found with a bit of concentration and time I could normally work most things out from first principles. But ‘Air Law’ – has to be memorised. The 1944 Chicago Convention, the rules, aerodrome signs and symbols that you’re still fairly unfamiliar with just had to be stuffed into a brain that was already pre-occupied with work.

After passing Air Law, I let the other exams go for a while as I was too busy with work.

It was only in January 2023 that I started to think I should properly crack on with them. The last thing I wanted, if the weather cleared, was for ‘passing my exams’ to be the thing holding me back.

So for what seemed like most of the beginning of the year, I took Friday afternoons off work and drove up to the airfield for an exam. As the test was online, the results came back straight away. Once I had my results, I’d book the next exam for the following Friday. This focused the mind on studying. Work expands to fill the time available, I told myself. And truth be told, I didn’t really have any more time available to study if I wanted to get them done.

It meant that I broadly had a week for each exam – so the better part of two months of weekly exams.

I’d study a large part of the syllabus at the weekend, then during the week I’d come into the office for 7:00am each morning and squeeze in an hours’ study before work. And then try again after work if there was any brain capacity left.

I built up tons of revision cards which seemed to accompany me everywhere.

Lunch time? The cards would come out for a bit of study. Sat on the Tube on the way to work? Out came the cards. Unbelievable, I know – who manages to get a seat on the Tube?

Fortunately the six big text books I was studying from were PDF copies on my iPad, so at least I didn’t have to lug those around too. But it meant that almost every waking moment seemed to be staring at a screen.

Each Friday, I’d struggle to get work finished by lunch time, then drive up to the airfield. As I’d drive there I’d try and switch my brain from finance spreadsheets and tiresome emails, and back to the business of aviation.

I did pretty well on most of my exams – getting 100% on many of them, I’d probably spent too much time revising. But who wants to go flying with a pilot who just scrapes through their exams?

For a couple of exams, particularly the meteorology, I basically ran out of time to properly study and feel totally in command of the subject. So I went into the exam not quite sure I’d covered everything. I passed. This was about the only time in my flight training I thought I’d be winging it.

Hours in the Day. 

Work was particularly busy at the time. It was one of the reasons I’d delayed my exams for so long. I just couldn’t delay them any longer without putting qualifying off.

On top of all that I was starting to crave a weekend off. Perhaps a weekend in Chamonix with nothing but running in the hills and lounging by a swimming pool. But I couldn’t do that either without delaying things further.

Over these weekends in January and February I was still trying to fit in training for both the Thames Path 100 and the Western States Endurance Run – two big 100-mile ultra marathons. And I was still trying to fit in a flying lesson each week, which further exhausted by brain. Oh, and work.

After a five or six hour run on Sunday I found that my brain wasn’t particularly receptive to mental reasoning or revision, so I had to time anything that remotely taxed my brain to be done before the physical stuff. I could run after studying but not study after running. Even the running suffered though because when you’re mentally tired, it’s hard to force yourself to work hard physically or endure physical discomfort.

I was still finding I needed a restorative nap after my flying lessons. And I was now increasingly conscious of the need to make sure I got enough sleep in the week. Not only as recovery from physical training, but as a way to rest my brain. I often found that something I was failing to understand one evening, would suddenly be quite clear the next morning after a restorative sleep

For short periods of course, you can just burn the midnight oil. And I can scrape through on little sleep better than most. But I knew this wasn’t a long term solution. So even my sleep started to feel like it was scheduled.

I don’t want to over dramatise the amount I had going on, but it often felt like I was pushing at the boundaries of my intelligence. For a long time with ultramarathons I was used to pushing at the boundaries of what I was physically capable of. Not since my physics degree had I felt the same about the use of my brain.

Taking a month or two off work and studying would have been easier. But I didn’t really feel I should have to.

I’ve never really been one to skimp on my job. October, November and December had been particularly full-on at work – so much so that my training had suffered and I’d had to put virtually all study on hold. So I didn’t really feel too bad about giving ‘just’ 100% at work for a months or two.

By early March I’d noticed I my brain was struggling a bit. I think other people might have noticed. The first thing that happened was I’d get peoples names wrong at work,

In hindsight, I should probably have just slowed the pace of things.

Instead I found tricks to hide my overloaded brain. On video calls I’d often glance into the bottom left hand corner of the screen to see someone’s name before I used it in conversation.

I worried that these were the little tricks people used to cover dementia from their loved ones.

By March I couldn’t really face another exam. And the advantage of the weather delaying my training in the plane meant that completing all the exams didn’t quite have the same urgency. So I took the luxury of spreading out my last couple of exams over two weeks. Having two weeks to revise for an exam seemed delightful. I even took a weekend away to a spa hotel to study with a change of scene.

I woke up the next morning in the hotel and it took quite some time – whole minutes – to work out where I was.

Radio Check

After all your written exams, there’s a final practical exam for your radio licence – which allows you to legally broadcast on the aircraft radio.

I always found listening to air traffic control strangely poetic. The language is a strange mix of speed, functionality, the lyrical, exotic and very precise.

The CAA produce what’s effectively become the bible of aviation radio communication in the UK. It defines the prescribed and precise language you should use. It even advises the pilot to “avoid excessive use of courtesies”

There’s no room for ambiguity in air traffic control communication. And air traffic controllers won’t look kindly on pilots who dither and fluff their lines when they’ve got a queue of other planes to talk to.

Often, on a busy day, it can be hard to find a break in the radio traffic. You’ve got to be quick, precise and confident in getting your transmission in.

By all accounts its something people struggle with. Instructors are quick to get their students to use the radio in their first few lessons – perhaps trying to break their shyness. Perhaps its the same shyness that students, on entering the world of work, first find when using the phone in an open plan office.

By contrast I’d already made my peace with looking and feeling stupid in flying the plane. Feeling a bit self conscious in broadcasting over the radio wasn’t really a problem.

But remembering the order of transmissions was just another one of those things you had to remember. To force into your brain. Again there was a mnemonic for that. ADDPAA.

Aircraft, Departure, Destination, Position, Altitude, Additional info.

You have to know how to talk to different types of air traffic control, how to declare emergencies, relay radio messages, ask for clearance to cross controlled airspace, and much more.

The practical radio exam comes toward the end of your training, so you’ll have heard a lot of other people talking on the radio during your flight training. You’ll have heard lots of people using language that differs, often quite markedly, from the precise script the CAA prescribe. And there seems to be just the right amount of efficient courtesies in real life.

Again one Friday afternoon I drove up to the airfield for the exam. You’re given a route to plan on your chart. You have to work out which air traffic controllers you would need to speak to, just like on a regular flight.

Then for the exam, the examiner sits in another room and you’re given a device to mimic a radio. You press the ‘push-to-talk’ button and conduct your simulated flight.

To spice things up a bit, you have to make the radio calls that you’re lost and need a position fix, as well as a simulated emergency.

In hindsight I probably got a bit het up on the precise wording – as if I was learning another language.

If trying to speak french, I would have seen it as the utmost failure if I had to resort to plain English to make myself understood.

At least a couple of times in my training my instructor reminded me that if I couldn’t get the precise wording, I could… well, just speak English on the radio.

(Landing) light at the end of the tunnel

Come April it was the weather that was starting to become the thing holding me back. Where as previously the odd cancelled lesson provided a bit of rest and a welcome bit of spare time at a weekend, I was now starting to get itchy feet and ready to get passed. Every cloudy, windy or rainy weekend was just another delay to passing.

Another weekend was written off running the Thames Path 100 miler.

Memorably, it pissed down with rain that weekend too – so as I squelched through mud some 80 miles in, I remember thinking that at least I wasn’t missing a weekend of flying,

There were now just two hurdles to pass before becoming a a qualified pilot.

My ‘qualifying cross country flight’ (QXC) and my skills test. I’d been waiting a couple of weeks for the weather to be good enough to do by cross-country, but finally on 20th May 2023 the weather was looking ok.

Before you’re ready to do your qualifying cross country flight, you’ll have flown a fair bit by yourself. With my instructor we’d flown to Earls Colne, Lydd and Southend, getting experience with different types of air traffic control and different types of controlled air space.

I’d also flown to Earls Colne and back by myself.

The ‘qualifying’ bit just means that one of the cross country flights that you have to plan and execute must be a flight to two other airports, with a cross-country distance of at least 270km.

It seems like most training schools have their own recommended routes. I flew from Stapleford down to Hastings, on the south coast, before routing East along the coast to Lydd Airport in Kent.

Lydd has full air traffic control and a rather convoluted circuit that involves shaving a corner off the usual rectangular circuit to avoid flying too close to a – thankfully decommissioned – nuclear power station. Gulp. What could possibly go wrong.

Everyone at Lydd was friendly and welcoming – particularly as I told them it was my QXC. Sadly the cafe there was closed, and I was dying for a coffee.

After a quick stop to get my paperwork signed and pay my landing fees, I took off again, this time north for Ashford. I asked for clearance to cross Southend’s controlled airspace – flying over the mouth of the Thames then directly over Southend airport.

I landed at Earls Colne – a little air field with a really narrow tarmac runway and a wider grass runway. Given the wind was directly down the runway, I tried landing on the tarmac. With a hefty crosswind the student pilot might elect to land on the wider grass runway to avoid embarrassment,

The nice elderly couple running the burger shack outside the airfield chatted to me whilst they were cooking my fresh bacon sandwich and making my coffee. They must have been able to see my excitement as I was now almost ready for the home-stretch. As I was leaving they offered me a can of soda from the fridge as a little present for celebrating my cross-country. I took a chilled can of sprite, which I open on landing at Stapleford. It felt like a celebratory glass of fizz.

At Earls Colne I again checked my fuel and oil levels and decided it would be prudent to take on a bit more fuel. It’s a short flight back to Stapleford and I’d easily arrive with a legal minimum of 30 minutes of fuel in reserve. But the club requires a minimum of 1 hour reserve and I’d be a little bit close to that if I ended up with a few go-arounds. As I’m accustomed to doing.

In the end I make a nice comfortable landing at Stapleford. I was physically tired after my jaunt-across the country in a small cabin. And truth be told, whilst the Cessna is perfectly comfortable for a short one our lesson, after a whole afternoon it starts to become a bit like an easyJet seat. But without the distraction of a Gin and Tonic to ease the discomfort.

I was relieved though that whilst I was physically tied, I no longer felt mentally shattered as I once did after even just an hour’s lesson,

The next weekend I had another big weekend of flying with a mock test and a another cross-country solo flight to bump my solo hours up to the minimum of 10 hours solo time required before my exam,

My mock exam wasn’t a huge success, it must be said. But it gave me the basic structure on which the exam would take. That gave me something on which I could revise against.

If my mock exam had been a real exam I would have failed. I can’t remember all the things I got wrong – but it was a fairly long feedback session.

After the long list of of things which were sloppy or poorly executed, my instructor asked if I felt ready for the exam.

Um… did you just hear the feedback you just gave? I thought.

But yeah, sure, no problem is what I actually said.

My instructor found the local examiner and booked me in for the following Sunday – 4th June.

The examiner said he would phone me the following Friday to talk me through the exam structure – then he’d text me a route for me to plan just before the exam.

One of the bits of feedback my instructor gave was to just sound more confident. It was a valid and useful bit of feedback – not just for the examiner but for flying in general.

Over the course of my training, I’d developed a habit of verbalising my though processes – essentially thinking out loud. I suppose early on in my training I thought this ‘showing-what-was-going-on-in-my-brain’ would be helpful to the instructor. But by the end of training it must have just projected a lack of confidence.

Fake it till you make it

It’s hard to understand how you can revise for what is essentially a practical skills test. But actually there’s a lot you can do.

On Monday and Tuesday that week I studied before work and after work – going through my notes, trying to make mnemonics roll of the tongue and ensure the emergency drills could be performed with the grace of swan lake.

By Wednesday I was getting a bit concerned that, again, I didn’t have enough time to get through everything, so I reluctantly booked a precious day off work for Friday to give myself more time. I’d already used up a lot of holiday time for study.

I briefly considered postponing the test, but was reminded of the pep-talk a race director had once given before an ultramarathon.

You never feel you’ve done all the training you need. This is as good as you’re ever going to be. This is it.

 

And also a note of advice from one of Tony Blair’s special advisors that sometimes in order to perform at your best, you need to ramp up the pressure, not ramp it down.

To add to the pressure, I was due to fly to California in a couple of weeks to run a race that I’d been trying to get into for the best part of a decade. Epic amounts of snow had covered the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and I’d been reading various stories about mountain lions and bears being particularly hungry this year. My skills test might not even be the hardest thing I had to do in June.

Sure I could delay until after I’d come back from running the Western States Endurance Run. But in a month I’d have forgotten more than I’d learned.

I hadn’t really told anyone I had my test, so there was no external pressure. It was all coming from me and I was unusually and uncharacteristically nervous. Really, really nervous. For the whole week.

It was a feeling I’d probably not had for the best part of a decade, since I first toed the line for Ironman. I had to keep reminding myself to smile and enjoy the pressure. Pressure leads to performance.

The worst that would happen is I’d fail and have to resit. This wasn’t a ‘worse that can happen is you drown’ situation as the Ironman might have been. And yet the nerves were still there.

GO PAM

There was a bit of uncertainty as to whether the plane I was booked to take my test in, registration Golf Oscar Papa Alpha Mike – G-OPAM (GO PAM to its friends) had a working and reliable VOR receiver. I’d need to use this during the test to track my position to various radio navigation beacons.

I’d flown a lot of the flight school’s Cessna 152s during my training. Each were a little different and had their quirks. Some of the instruments in some planes worked better than others. Given the uncertainty on the VOR and the slight difference between equipment, I thought it would be prudent to go check for myself ”

On Thursday afternoon, after work, I drove up to the airfield and, when the plane was on the ground between other students, I took 15 minutes to sit in the plane. The VOR was fitted and looked like it worked. I ran through all the emergency drills with the engine off.

Back in the clubhouse I went through with plane’s tech-log and minimum equipment list so I could talk the examiner confidently through it. The plane was getting close to its 100 hour check – I made a mental note to point that out to the instructor.

On Friday I spent some time on the flight simulator on my computer, practising with the VOR – reminding myself how to track to it, from it, and take a position fix from two separate stations.

On Saturday morning I took a break from study to do Park Run. Still partly aware that my training for Western States had dropped off for the last couple of weeks and I’d hardly been running. I thought a good hard run on the Saturday would help me keep still in the plane during the exam on Sunday.

Structure of the Exam

Late on Saturday my instructor texted me a proposed routing he would want me to fly from Stapleford. The route would take us to the little town of Heathfield in East Sussex, and then on, in theory to the disused airfield at Manston in Kent. But you’ll never actually reach the second point because they will give you a diversion during this second leg.

In your skills test, the first leg of the route is intended to test your planning, navigation and direction holding skills.

You need to be able to plot and measure the route on your paper chart. Then calculate the bearing. With that, you calculate how the forecasted wind will affect you. Then calculate the angle you need to fly to take account of the wind – essentially how much you need to steer into the wind so the path you trace over the ground is the one you want to follow.

You then calculate your ground speed from your known airspeed. Finally, with that you know the time each leg will take. Once you’re airborne you can calculate your ETA.

So the test not only tests your ability to plan the route, but how accurately you can actually fly it.

When you start out on your first leg, you tell your examiner the compass bearing you’re going to hold and the time you expect to arrive at your turning point. They expect you to arrive there within 3 minutes of your calculated ETA.

If the forecast for winds aloft is accurate, it’s almost like magic that you set out in the plane in a certain direction and speed and – if you can hold a direction accurately – you end up where you planned.

As you’re flying you need to cross reference your predicted position with the chart and the view out the windows ensure to check you’re not drifting more than expected.

At the half way point, you’re expected to revise your ETA and if necessary correct your heading – and let the examiner know.

After receiving the text message I pulled out my chart and pen.

I was conscious that the examiner would want to give me a fairly long leg so as to be able to test my direction holding skills.

But the direct route he’d given me would take me pretty close to London City Airport’s airspace – less than the recommended 2 mile buffer.

But I certainly wouldn’t fly that close the controlled air space on my own.

I read and re-read the examiner’s text. Then I texted the examiner back:

A direct route from J28 [Junction 28, near stapleford] to Heathfield would take me a little closer than I’d normally be comfortable with to City’s airspace (1nm). I trust you’d be happy for me to route via grays or the tilbury docks then direct Heathfield? That would still leave a 30nm leg for the nav.

Clearly this was the response the examiner was hoping for.

He told me it was my choice. The examiner wants to check you’re being vocal and proactive.

Exam Day.

On Sunday I started revision again in the morning. I’d slept well. I downloaded a copy of the wind forecast chart from the Met Office, but knew I’d have to wait till later in the morning to get the most up-to-date forecast as close to my test as possible.

I copied out my weight and balance calculations in neat handwriting for the examiner. Then wrote out my fuel plan.

I went through my calculations a second and third time.

I drove up to the airfield, a little later than ideal.

Demonstrate confidence and professionalism I reminded myself.

When I arrived at the airfield, I reminded myself to smile and enjoy myself.

I met the examiner and I said confidently ‘let me take you through my calculations for today’s flight’. I walked him through the tech-log and pointed out that the aircraft was due it’s annual check in a few days and was fairly close to its 100 hour check

The examiner let me go and do my pre-flight checks of the aircraft get fuel.

For the test we could be airborne for up to three hours – particularly if I needed to repeat any sections of the test. And we needed a hours reserve.

When I calculated my weight and the examiner’s, and our bags, we could be easily over maximum take off weight for the little plane. I couldn’t quite fully fill the plane’s fuel tanks or we would be over max weight.

I gave the windscreen and windows a wash – not particularly so the examiner would see me paying care and attention, but because I hate dirty windows.

We were a little late getting airborne but we took off on runway 03, in a northeasterly direction with a right hand turnout towards Junction 28 of the M25.

Everything went as planned as we continued our climb. I weaved the plane to look for other traffic and changed frequency to Southend Radar.

At Junction 28, our starting point, I again took note of the time as we set a course south-ish for the docks at Tillbury and then on towards Heathfield.

I told him the heading I was holding and the time we would arrive at Heathfield.

Once the busy period after take off is over, there’s a tendency to relax and start chatting, but instead I went through my FREDA checks, and started cross referencing points on my chart with our current position.

We reached Heathfield exactly 18 minutes after crossing Tillbury, And much to my surprise exactly on ETA.

I noted this on my flight log, and turned the aircraft towards Manson.

After a few minutes the instructor told me there was bad weather ahead and he wanted me to divert to Rochester airport.

I looked at my chart then out the window. There was a huge lake to my left, Bewl Water. So I flew the plane there and proceeded to fly a rectangular shape around it as I started to plot out my next course to Rochester. Flying around a fixed position means you don’t inadvertently stray into controlled airspace or get lost whilst you’re doing your calculations and measurements on your chart.

As it took a few minutes to get to the lake. I did another FREDA check, checking the fuel, radio, engine and carb icing, direction indicator and altimeter.

I pulled out my paper chart and drew a line on it with a magic marker, read the distance with a ruler and measuring the angle of the line with a protractor. With that I calculated the wind effect on that track, all the while keeping a good look out of the window, turning the plane 90 degrees every so often, to keep us flying around the lake.

Just a few months ago the idea I would be able to do all this whilst making a stab at flying the plane, would have seemed crazy.

It’s a small cockpit and trying to juggle a map, note pad, protractor, ruler and pens around takes some organisation. I managed to make a big blue mark on my trousers with my indelible pen and I tried to fold the chart. Bugger

“Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” I reminded myself. Deal with stain removals later.

Later on, in the car after the exam, I realised I’d also managed to put a big blue pen mark on my left cheek.

Once I had an idea of direction, I set the plane on the right heading and said right, let’s go to Rochester. I calculated our ETA and told him what time we’d arrive.

I tuned the plane’s standby radio frequency to Rochester and asked Southend for a frequency change.

We arrived overhead Rochester. Success. I was starting to relax and feel comfortable.

Now the instructor said he would be responsible for navigation and tuning the radios – so I could demonstrate the rest of my flight handling skills.

Ok, if you’re sure I said somewhat cockily. But in truth it made things a lot easier.

Next I had to demonstrate steep turns – flying the plane first right and then left in a steep level turn at 45 degrees bank angle, keeping a good lookout and maintaining altitude.

He made notes on his pad as we did the turns. After the steep turns he said ok, fine. I felt like saying, no, it’s not ‘ok’ I can do better than that. But fortunately I didn’t.

Next up came the hood, which blocked my external vision. I managed to stop myself making a wholly inappropriate joke about it not ending well for the last people to be hooded in a plane, and them being headed for Guantanamo. Keep your mouth shut Owen.

In hindsight it was probably a good sign that I was feeling confident enough to at least think about making comments.

With the hood on I had to demonstrate what I would do if I inadvertently entered cloud – essentially turn the aircraft 180 degrees on instruments. The hood means you can’t see outside and can only fly on instruments.

By this time we were almost back to my usual practice area north of Southend.

Emergency drills were next. The examiner pulled the throttle back to idle and told me I’d had an engine failure.

I went through the drills I’d practiced – pitching the plane for a glide, picking a field in which to land into the wind, demonstrating the engine restart checks, simulating a mayday call, warming the engine, and positioning the plane to land in my nominated field.

As we got lower, I was closer than ideal to my field and higher than I would have liked, so it was a bit of a struggle to get the plane down. But this was a better position to be in than a field too far away.

There were some pylons in the next field so I didn’t really have too many options. I applied full flaps to increase the drag and entered the aircraft into a fairly aggressive slip. In a slip you angle the plane slightly sideways to increase your drag.

Clearly my examiner wasn’t quite convinced we were going to make it into the field and let me get lower and lower. I thought he might actually make us land. I felt I’d been assertive with the plane rather than it being assertive with me. I was handling it well.

It was then that the examiner was convinced we’d make a decent landing, and said I could go around. I applied full power and slowly retracted the flaps and started climbing as we would after a take off.

Then he pulled the engine to idle again to test my reactions for an engine-failure-after-take-off.

After that I had to demonstrate three stall recoveries, with and without power; straight a a stall with turns.

Finally he put the plane into a spiral dive and asked me to recover.

Eventually it was time to head back to Stapleford. I was asked to track a VOR radio beacon back to Stapleford – which was useful because after all the practice landings and stalls I’d totally lost my sense of direction. The Lambourne VOR is right next to Stapleford airport.

I set the plane on a track towards Lambourne and took another bearing off the Detling VOR to give the examiner a triangulation of our exact position on the chart. Fortunately I managed to avoid covering myself or him and any more indelible pen marks,

Now that I knew where we were, he asked me to rejoin the circuit at Stapleford. He said he had tuned the radio back to Stapleford for me – but as I made my radio call there was no answer from the radio room.

We were getting closer to Stapleford’s zone and I still hadn’t had an answer. I could see the examiner sit up in his seat which made me think this wasn’t him testing me.

Interesting, what you gonna do now? he said.

My first thought was that he’d mis-tuned the radio rather than the radio operator at Stapleford was busy. Legally, I thought I could enter the zone without permission form the radio operator, but given he hadn’t told me the runway in use, I thought this unwise.

I was barrelling towards the airport at speed, so had to make a snap decision.

I was just starting to turn away from the airfield with the intention to enter a hold a little distance away whilst I sorted myself out. It was then that the radio operator came on and gave me the airfield details. He’d been on the phone.

My first landing towards runway 03 was to be flapless. In hindsight I was coming in a bit fast and fluffed my first landing so went for a go-around. This was probably a good way to demonstrate I’d happily go around if things weren’t quite right,

After a flap-less touch-and-go – well-executed second time around, he asked me to do a practice-forced landing touch-and-go. With a PFL the student gets to decide when to idle the engine and land on the runway.

And then finally I made a final regular landing.

As we slowed and vacated the runway, he said that unless I crashed the plane into something he was pleased to tell me I’d passed.

But I was focusing on after-landing checks, so didn’t really take it in.

In truth, I think you know if you’ve passed. And I felt I’d given a good account of myself. But you don’t really want to celebrate until it’s all official.

I parked the plane – in a tiny gap between two other aircraft. The examiner when back into the offices whilst I tied the plane down and put it to bed.

I know you said, but, just checking, you did say I’d passed? I wasn’t imagining things.

I had passed.

Then we went through out debrief. Broadly I’d done well.

My instructor had been away on a flight somewhere else, so I texted him with the good news when I got home. The next week I left a bottle of champagne and a thank you card for him at reception. This was his pass as much as it was mine.

By the time I got home it was early Sunday evening. I was shattered and had a ton of work in the morning. I hadn’t really considered celebrating.

Oh gosh, I could have an early night. What hedonism.

The next week I caught up on work, and then almost immediately I started packing for California and the Western States Endurance Run.

I managed to complete all the paperwork and pay the £250 application fee for sending off my licence application to the CAA. Exercising the privileges of my licence would have to wait until I was back from California, when hopefully I’d have received my physical licence.

A few days later I was back at Heathrow, sitting in the lounge waiting for my flight. I think I might have instinctively reached for my revision cards, only to realise they could be consigned to the bin.

Where better to celebrate my pass, I thought, than a nice airport lounge. I ordered a first glass of Champagne. I didn’t have to fly this plane.

A lifetime of flying lay head. Endless and as yet unknown adventures in a plane, that I could captain myself were ahead.

But for now, until my licence arrived, I was more than happy to let the Captain of our Virgin Atlantic Airbus A350 pilot us across the ocean to Los Angeles.

As our Airbus climbed out West over the cold North Atlantic below, I thought how far I’d come in one short year, and thought of that cold wind-swept cliff edge below.

I pictured the Guillemot ushering its chicks to the edge and squawking “fly my pretties, fly”

I no longer felt I needed to hold on for dear life.

I was ready to spread my wings and fly. After another glass of Champagne.

 

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.

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. Its 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.

The Eastern Express

There is a certain style to the public announcements when you travel in Turkey. On Turkish airlines, as you taxi to the runway, the safety briefing intones that in the event of an emergency, before the assuming of the brace position, you should loosen your collar and tie. It’s said without satire. The undertone being that, emergency excepted, collar and tie are not only required, but expected to be tight and drawn. You don’t get that sort of class on easyJet.

Some days later, in Istanbul, when I boarded the new YHT high-speed train service to Ankara, the announcement – in Turkish and English – bade passengers to please use ‘indoor voices’ when talking to others.

The indoor voices translation stuck out as slightly dated but all the same, entirely current. Too many people on trains talk into their phones at a volume that gives the impression they are trying to convey themselves across the great outdoors.

The last time I threw my bags onto a train and set off in search of adventure, I was in China and taking the Huang Shan Express in a desperate search for nature. Then there were no English language announcements. And I couldn’t comment on whether the Chinese announcements were delivered in any kind of style.

Both China and Turkey have of late set their sights on a massive expansion of high-speed rail. Both nations see rapid expansion of their infrastructure as a symbol of national pride.

Imposing landscapes are there to be conquered by civil engineers. Both countries are also using the railways – as they used to be used – to tame and tie-in their rebellious frontier provinces.

Whilst China has built thousands of miles of high-speed rail, and even constructed pressurised railway carriages for the high altitude trip to Tibet, Turkish railway projects seem beset by delays.

China of course – with a population over a billion, has both the money and manpower to build quickly. It takes resources to move mountains and dig tunnels.

Turkey though is perhaps beset by its past. Its experiment with a vast expansion of its railways dates back to the 1930s when the route from Anakra to Kars was built. The line has seen scarce improvement since. The train trundles slowly across the Anatolian plateau, through tunnels and bridges that cover the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

My plan was to take the Eastern Express from Istanbul to Kars, a small town on the Turkish / Armenian border.

The Eastern Express used to run the length of the country, nearly 2000km from Istanbul in the West to Kars in the East. And I had signed up for the whole trip .

But the new high-speed service has now taken over the Istanbul – Anakara section, cutting the route shorter. Now all that remains of the old route is the section from Ankara East. Even so it’s still a 4 hour ride to Ankara, followed by a 25 hour-long train trip from there to Kars.

I had been looking forward to a day’s enforced relaxation. I had a small stack of books I was hoping to work my way through – but I also have a legendary ability to happily spend hours staring in wonder out of aeroplane, car, train or boat windows watching the scenery go by. When in motion, I’m never bored.

The day before setting off I had visited the beautiful Haydarpasar station on the Asian side of Istanbul, which has now sadly been mothballed pending the completion of the new high-speed line into the city centre.

Trains from Istanbul currently depart from Pendik station, some 25km East of town in the Asian suburbs of Istanbul. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a trek to Pendik station.  The impression slightly reinforced by the metro line which goes there not yet having been completed. I took the metro to the end of the existing line then – after eyeing up the chaotic queue for the bus – jumped in a cab for the remaining 6km.

Pendik doesn’t have anything like the magisterial architecture of Haydarpasar.

I turned up just after 9am for my 9:30 departure.  In the bowels of the station – which has all the charm of a soviet-era shopping mall – you go through a ticket check and rather desultory security check.

The train is cheep. I paid just £25 for a business class seat, including a meal served at my seat. But the wide seats and carefully honed announcements made it feel more upmarket.

The first part of the trip is slow and winding, but agreeably so. First you trundle along the coast of the Aegean. Looking out to sea, there are a huge number of merchant ships. Turkey is still a big maritime trading nation.

After an hour or so the train starts the laborious climb through tunnels and valleys from sea level up some 600 meters on to the Anatolian plain. From here the views sweep out before you and the train quickly accelerates on a modern dead straight track.

The train is well connected, with free wifi. But it seems several of my fellow passengers had not heeded the announcement about indoor voices. I slipped on my Bose headphones and listened to music. It was all very agreeable.

Soon a Turkish breakfast is delivered to my seat. After eating and multiple rounds of coffee, you are in Ankara before you know it.   The four hours goes quickly.

I had taken the early morning train from Istanbul. I’d wanted a few hours to explore Ankara before my evening departure. I’d also had in mind that I would find a nice little shop and stock up on a bottle or two of red wine and various Turkish delights for the long train ride ahead.

In Ankara it was noticeably colder than Istanbul. I thought about dumping my small bag before trekking around the capital. But at the station there were only automatic left luggage lockers. Each time I pressed the English button on the computer screen the system appeared to crash. I didn’t hold out much hope that it would keep my bags safe so hoisted my duffle on my back and started to walk into the old town.

It’s a long old climb up to the old town and the citadel. Not long after leaving the station it started to rain, so the streets quickly became muddy and slippery. Ankara felt fairly soviet. And not in a good way.

The rain quickly cleared. I took in the view from the citadel, had a brief wander around the touristy shops around the old citadel walls. It was eerily quiet with a strange light that seemed to promise – or threaten – snow.

I grabbed a bite to eat in a restaurant that would at best be described as basic. But it was nice to take the weight off my shoulders.

I then trudged back to the station. Everyone else seemed to be trudging too. The cold air gave an impending feel of a harsh winter approaching.

I know it’s never a good idea to judge a city by a few short hours shuffling around one small part.  But with everyone dressed in sombre-looking clothes and seemingly trudging through the ennui of daily life, it felt a sharp contrast to the careless fun of Istanbul I’d experienced a few hours earlier.

It was getting dark by the time I got back to the station around 5pm.  I never did find that nice deli I’d been dreaming off.

So after an hours wait in the warm central waiting room I went off to board the train.

Across the platform the latter high-speed train from Istanbul was just pulling in. Assuming this is normally on time – and I can’t vouch for that – it would be an extremely easy transfer across the platform.

My ticket show I was in wagon 7, at the very back of the train. I’d booked a two-berth compartment that I’d have to myself.

The forward cars of the train were pullman seats which looked relatively full. But at the back of the train it was all quiet.

I found my carriage where a stocky smiling middle-aged conductor-cum-purser checked my ticket, helped me aboard and showed me to my little compartment. He spoke no English but was friendly and welcoming.  A more personal public announcement.  Just as stylish.

Just a few of the compartments seemed to be occupied – and as we slowly pulled out of the station, everyone stood in the corridor and watched, much as you go on deck when a ship is leaving port.

As we shunted off into the Ankara suburbs I thought there would be a mad dash for seats in the dining car. Unsure about security I had locked by bag to the compartment walls – but after a bit of signing I convinced the conductor to give me a key to the compartment. I locked up and went to explore.

Just a couple of carriages down I found the dining car all but deserted. This was probably positive as there only seemed to be one menu to share – helpfully with an English translation.

Throughout the trip it remained virtually deserted. Indeed it seemed to be primarily used for feeding the train staff, who when the car was empty – apart from me – drank coffee and smoked by the kitchen, all the while listening to tinny Turkish pop through a mobile phone speaker.   The chef, I noticed, smoked whilst he cooked.

I ordered a lamb kebab and was delighted to see that the menu featured a variety of Turkish red wine. Half the wine though seemed to be ‘off’ or ‘finished’ which were two of the limited English words the waiter knew. The others – I was asked this a lot – were ‘where are you from?’.

I settled down with a book and whiled away a few hours as we trundled away from Ankara’s suburbs and off in darkness of the Anatolia plateau. All the while doing my best to ensure the rest of the red was also ‘finished’.

 

Despite the narrow bed I slept well.

I woke early and raised the blind in the compartment to a view of exotic looking valleys, small streams and scrappy peaks. It’s from here that the Euphraties and Tigris rivers begin their long journeys into Syria and Iraq.

It was still early and I knew I had a lot of time to kill. After some desultory and ultimately unsuccessful dozing, I got up, washed and changed then went back to the dining car in search of coffee and breakfast.

Again I was alone in the carriage apart from the train staff. I felt like I was on a ghost train. With such cheap tickets and so few passengers I couldn’t work out how the whole operation made money. My guess is that it probably doesn’t – I flew back to Istanbul on a packed and much less enjoyable flight a few days later for about the same amount. The days of the slow train must be numbered.

 

The train trundles on slowly through tunnels and over bridges taking an excessive but enjoyably winding route. It stops frequently at remote village stations where there’s no platform. Occasionally I’d see a few people climbing off the train before, with a jerk we’d start off again.

And so I passed a lazy day. Eating, drinking and listlessly reading and taking in the view.

Later int he day, after a late lunch, leaving Erzurm it starts to get dark again. As dusk falls the train starts climbing up and over a 2300m pass. Through the dark the snow now looked more serious.

My carriage was was now entirely deserted apart from me and the conductor.

About half an hour before Kars the conductor signalled that he wanted to take the sheets of the bed.  He handed me back my ticket and – so I assumed – explained that we’d soon be arriving in Kars.

After bit of screeching and rocking the train pulled up beside a deserted and icy platform. I grabbed my bags, shook the conductor’s hand and headed off into the Kars night.  But not before adjusting my collar and tie.

 

Cloudy Memories

Fuji

They say we dream every night. Most mornings though, as we wake, our dreams are quickly cast aside as we re-enter the real world. To save our sanity, our brains quickly discard what couldn’t, shouldn’t – and indeed didn’t happen during the night.

Sometimes though, you wake from a deep sleep and for a few fleeting moments you are simultaneously in the dream and awake. As you wake, you try to clutch on to the memory of the dream. But try as you might, you can actually feel your mind forgetting; wiping the dream from your conscious memory.

As I sit here now, just a few days after my biggest race of the year – the Ultra Trail Mt Fuji – I’m struggling to make sense of quite what happened.

I can remember that it was awful. But somehow I can’t quite remember the pain and the desperation. My brain, perhaps struggling to comprehend what happened that night, has tried to consign the memory to the bin of bad dreams.

The memories are now a bit cloudy, but below I try to clutch on to the memory of the dream.

***

I arrived in Tokyo late on Saturday evening and spent a few days sleeping off several months of accumulated tiredness in a hotel room high over Shinjuku.

There’s nowhere better for this than the setting of a big international chain hotel, where the time of day ceases to become relevant. You can sleep, eat, read, swim and binge on boxsets – all completely separated from reality.

IMG_20150928_160934On the Wednesday before the race I travelled to Kawaguichiko. The express coach service seemed less hassle than the train.

As the coach started climbing into the mountains, Mount Fuji was only intermittently visible through the clouds. But it was bright and broadly sunny.

On the recommendation of a friend I’d booked into K’s House – a nice hostel on the south side of the lake. I ended up in a nine-berth mixed dorm. It was fairly quiet when I arrived, so I was able to select a lower bunk – thinking this might be easier after the race.

Kawaguchiko seems to lack the urban centre that makes other climbing towns – Chamonix for example – quite so attractive. But I found a nearby restaurant and spent the afternoon reading and eating.

Later, back at the hostel, I ended up sharing the dorm room with a group of friendly Singaporean and Malaysian runners. Some were back to right unfinished business from last year. Others were trying their first 100 miler.

It occurred to me that I was now the experienced one in the group. It’s funny how you go from being a nervous novice – to an old hat quite so imperceptibly.

I slept not particularly well that first night. And on Thursday woke to rain. Heavy, relentless rain.

It seems I’m cursed with bad weather in ultra races. Three of my four attempts at the sister race – the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – have been decimated by snow storms or weather bombs.

I suppose I hadn’t expected anything different. And I didn’t have that sense of foreboding that you sometimes get in the Alps when the thunder echoes down the valley like an omen from an unhappy god.

I went with a group from the hostel to register for the race and pick up our drop bags and running numbers. It all seemed rather low key and quiet for an international race. But I suppose nothing compares to the scale and drama of things in Chamonix.

In the expo I studied a section in one stall marked ‘bear bells’. I vaguely recalled reading something in the runners’ guide about bears being active in the area and that bear bells were strongly advised. But I hadn’t given it too much thought. I did now.

I wasn’t really convinced that a rabid bear, on hearing a tinkling little bell would scarper off into the woods to hide. Rather, wouldn’t a hungry bear, on hearing an odd sounding bell, come out of the woods to see what was making the noise? Then eat you.

I spent rather longer than I should have done weighing up the options. But the bells were cheap and could easily be silenced. I bought one and thought I could decide whether to use it later on.

In all my bear thought, my friends from the hostel had long gone.

I walked back and had another chuckle at my running number – 666 – the number of the devil. I left my stuff and went for a soak in a nearby Onsen. It was a nice relaxing day.

On Thursday evening information started filtering in about various course changes because of the state of the course in the rain.

IMG_20150924_141817On Friday morning we woke to more news about deviations to the course. Everyone looked anxious, all trying to redraw the route on their maps.

I announced to anyone who would listen that there was no point sitting around being nervous, and that I was going for another soak in the Onsen. Extreme relaxation being the order of the day. The UTMF starts at 1pm – I like races that don’t start too early.

IMG_20150925_092149

After a good scrub and soak I returned to the hostel to find everyone looking more nervous and still studying maps and revised cut off times.

And so I slipped into my running gear and trundled off to the start. It had dried up marginally.
Start

The start was low key – there was none of that magic Vangellis music that marks the start of the UTMB.

We ran along the shore of Lake Kawaguchiko, trying to settle into a rhythm. The path was fairly narrow and we kept bunching up on some of the narrower sections. Soon we reached a road where some volunteers stopped us.

My Japanese not being what it should be, I first though this was to let the traffic past. But after waiting a couple of minutes I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Runners were backing up behind me.

On closer inspection it looked like a huge backlog had accumulated at the base of the first climb – the path being too narrow to accommodate everyone at once.

I was probably held for about 15 minutes – which seems a lifetime when you’re in a race – but I later heard that some people further back had been delayed for about 40 minutes. They must have been pulling their hair out

Even once we were on the hill it was slow going. Frequently backing up to standstill. Everyone waited patiently in the line.

By the lake

No one spoke at all for the first few hours. I remember thinking that if this was the UTMB in France, the French would have been in uproar about the delay.

“Mais non! Putaine! Qu’est il se passé ici ? C’est fou!

Queue

After a fairly long road section we finally reached the first aid station. This had taken nearly three hours – longer than I’d anticipated. I’d eaten two chocolate bars already and drunk a fair bit of water such was the humidity. I began to think that perhaps I’d not packed enough food.

BridgeWith my heart rate still pushing 160 I arrived at the aid station. I suppose in hindsight I should have given my self a couple of seconds to catch my breath. But I guess I was caught up in the quick pace. I virtually inhaled a pack of Pringles, along with some hot Japanese soup – of contents unknown.

I was in and out of the first aid station in six minute flat, having probably taken on board 500 calories. It was flat after the first check point – this probably encouraged me to push on too hard. I should have eased back, giving myself time to digest.

Food

It was already dark when I arrived at Aid Station A2 just before 18:30 on Friday evening. I wasn’t feeling great and couldn’t really face eating or drinking too much. I realised I’d started that subconscious scanning the room for the ‘If I was going to be sick, where would I be sick?’ point.

I had drunk a fair bit before the aid station, but found with it being so humid and raining, it was really hard to judge how much water I was losing through sweat. I’d no idea if I was getting dehydrated or not.

The aid station was packed and smelled as you’d expect a room of several hundred muddy runners to smell. I was in and out in 15 minutes.

But just around the corner. I felt it coming – and was promptly sick in a bush by the side of the road. It was all fairly quick and painless – mostly the coke I’d just drunk. I remember thinking ‘glad that’s over with – I’m sure I’ll be fine for the rest of the race.’ How wrong I was.

It was three hours to the next Aid Station – W1. (I never did figure out why some aid stations were called A1, A2, etc and others W1, W2, etc… I thought it to do with the level of provisions provided but couldn’t make that fit.)

Aid Station 2

I was only sick once more before I arrived at that next aid station at W1 at around 9:30pm – after 8h30mins running. Though I was pleased to still be holding a decent running pace on the flat.

But as soon as I tried to drink some coffee I knew it was about to happen again. I quickly made my way to the corner of the shelter and puked again. This time my stomach seemed more painful. Not just retching harmlessly but going into spasm.

I then realised I was quickly getting cold. I rummaged in my bag and pulled out my long leggings. After battling to get my shoes off, leggings on and shoes back on again, I started to leave the shelter.

Then I realised the leggings were not only on back-to-front but also inside-out. I sighed. I wasn’t really bothered about my appearance – that went long ago. Inside-out I could live with – but their reverse sense was actually constricting my movement. So I went through the laborious process of re-dressing myself. It was going to be a long night.

I left the aid station and again had to kneel down to wretch – there wasn’t anything left in my stomach. This was becoming tiresome.

And that’s where the wheels really started to come off.

The seven-and-a-half hours between leaving Aid Station W1 at 10pm on Friday night and arriving at the next Aid Station, A3, at 5:34am on Saturday morning would have been seared into my memory – had they not been too awful to remember.

Writing this now in the comfort of warm surroundings, it seems embarrassingly melodramatic to recall. I can’t quite believe it was as bad as I thought.

It was just a modest 23km between those two aid stations. But my average speed over those seven-and-a-half hours was barely 3km/h – significantly less than 2 miles per hour.

That average speed belies a relatively long flat and runnable section. It hides the 100 minute mile pace that took me climbing that mountain. You could literally crawl faster.

Leaving W1 we immediately started climbing. It didn’t seem like a distinctive path – just a 45 degree brutal climb up a muddy hill to the highest point on the course.

In the dark it was hard to pick out a path through the trees. Very quickly it became less about walking and more crawling and scrabbling on all fours. Grabbing hold of tree trunks, branches, roots, anything that you could find to stop you slipping. Even just trying to grab on to the raw mud.

Running poles had been banned on the race this year – so you simply had to claw at the earth with your bare hands. It was almost impossibly steep. The rain over the previous few days had turned the soil into grease.

People were surprisingly helpful. As you let out a yelp as you started sliding uncontrollably a hand would shoot out to help pull you back to safety.

I was conscious now that I’d not now been able to keep anything down – neither food nor water – for the best part of three hours.

Normally when you know there are a thousand metres of vertical elevation gain ahead of you – you have to get the calories in to support your effort, to literally give you the energy. But nothing would stay down.

It was slow going and technical climbing for everyone. I had that to my advantage – even with more energy I wouldn’t have been able to go much faster.

For a while I managed to stick with the pace of the queue of people trying to climb. But every so often I’d have to pull over and dry heave. The crowd began to thin out. The altitude wasn’t extreme, but as my body starting burning fat, I’d keep finding myself panting and short of breath. It had been two hours of relentless climbing and still I was nowhere near the top.

The simple cathartic act of being sick had by now transformed into an all-encompassing spasm of my stomach and abdominal muscles. It began to occur to me that this was perhaps how a hernia started.

As my abdomen went into spasm each time it felt like someone was tightening a zippy tag around my internal organs. It started to occur to me that something might go pop and I’d bleed to death. I’d be the first person to literally puke myself to death. You might laugh. I didn’t.

Normally when you’re sick in an ultra marathon there are at least a few minutes afterwards when you regain your energy. A little shot of post-puke adrenaline that propels you forward.

But now all I wanted to do afterwards was to lie down and sleep. I took to the habit of turning off my headlamp each time I knelt down to be sick. Somehow not able to face seeing what was – or wasn’t coming up. I’d lost count of whether it was seven or eight times I’d been sick. In the dark and alone kneeling on the mud, all I wanted to do was sleep.

As I tried in vain to push and pull myself up that hill, it started to dawn on me that my race was rapidly coming to its conclusion.

***

Before an ultramarathon you spend a lot of time visualising your race. As if thinking over the possibilities to mentally prepare yourself for the physical reality.

You imagine yourself at the finish. It’s a strong image that helps you prepare for the worst. Perhaps you imagine yourself heroically hobbling to the finish on a broken leg. Or carrying an arm that has been severed from its socket in an ungainly fall.

Maybe you have an image of crawling over the finish line just seconds before the race cut off. You try to imagine everything and how you’ll pull through and conquer all.

In truth you also imagine yourself not finishing or DNF-ing – those awful words Did Not Finish.

You imagine this in equally heroic terms. Perhaps being airlifted off a mountain in the back of a search and rescue helicopter. Or hunkering down in cave to escape a lightening storm and missing a cut off. Or fighting off a bear.

What you’ve never prepared for is your race finishes as a pathetic whimper.

You feel like a shit – a stain on humanity.

You are curled up on the side of a steep slope. You are soaked through with a combination of sweat and rain. You are caked in mud. It’s on your hands and face. In your ears. Between your teeth.

You’ve lost count of how many times you’ve been sick. You smell of sick and stale sweat.

After being sick again I turned off my headlamp for a moment. For a moment totally alone in the woods.

Now might be a good time to mention the bears.

In the race briefing, it notes that it was strongly recommended to not wear headphones so you can keep alert for bears. They reiterated this warning – again and again – at the start with the warning that bears had been spotted in the area.

Bears in the popular imagination are teddies. Cute and harmless. But ask anyone who has been attacked by a bear and you’ll be told they’re actually several hundred kilograms of violent hungry aggressive killing machine.

Earlier in the year on a brief holiday in Langkawi I’d been enjoying an early morning run through town when I came face to face with two angry and possibly rabid guard dogs. Only by virtually throwing myself off a harbour wall and into the sea did I escape a mauling.

The feeling of abject terror sticks with me today. And those dogs were small compared to a bear.

I was under no illusion that an encounter with a bear would be a fight to the death. The bear would fight and I would be death.

I’m not sure whether it was that niggling fear at the back of my mind. But as I lay there in the mud, I thought that if I were a bear, now would be the time I’d strike.

The severity of my situation began to dawn on me.

I knew my race was over. I couldn’t drink or eat. I had not even enough energy to stand. But I also knew that I had to at least try to get myself to the next aid station – that however much sleep or death seemed preferable I couldn’t leave myself like this on the side of a mountain.

Slowly though as I trudged on my mental attitude went downhill. I was losing the battle to stay positive. And this was possibly the biggest threat to my well-being.

In a bid to stay alert to my surroundings I didn’t want to listen to music. So I was trapped with my own spiralling negative thoughts.

The will to give in to sleep was becoming overwhelming.

Eventually I judged that the negative thoughts were becoming more dangerous than the lack of awareness.

So I tried the music. Full blast. Songs that normally would help me up my pace and help with motivation. Somehow though now they just were amplifying the negative feelings and making me worse.

I switched to podcasts in the hope they’d be a distraction. Flicking through I came across Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. He had a collection of guests talking about perpetual motion. In my increasing delirium it seemed more than appropriate, it seemed destined. They might have even mentioned Sisyphus which seemed particularly apt.  But soon too the melodic tones of Melvyn proved too soporific. So I switched them off.

As we climbed higher there were increasing numbers of others lying by the side of the path. Some sitting with head bowed. Others flat out asleep. All looking like they’d given in to death. Through the murk of the woods you could hear countless others chucking up. The sound made me feel worse.

It’s hard to know what to do when others are like this. Do you stop to check they’re ok? If they just want to rest they’d not appreciated the constant questions. Should you let them sleep? What can you do?

Eventually – the word doesn’t do it justice – we reached the summit of at Yukimidake at 1605 metres – the highest point on the course. A couple of marshals were stationed there and welcomed us. Many of us slumped to the ground overwhelmed by the cheers and at the prospect of going down hill.

It was a false hope. As soon as we started down hill we realised how slippery the track had become. It became an exercise in trying to control yourself between grabbing one tree and the next. Everyone fell at some stage, legs going flying from under you and body falling like a sack of potatoes – only with less life in them.

It was even slower going. It required more concentration than my addled mind could muster. It can only have been a decent of a couple of hundred vertical metres before the next climb to up Kumamoriyama but it took an age.

As I reached the next climb I decided I had to try something different. I took out an energy gel from my backpack. Gagging at even the thought of it, I ripped off the top and squirted its thick contents into my mouth where I held the gloopy mess, trying to breathe through my nose for a long as possible. I hoped at least some of the energy would be absorbed through my mouth.

Then I swallowed. About five second later it all came back up again. I sighed. I just wanted everything to be over, to be free from the negative thoughts, from the pain and from the mud.

Each of my breaks were now taking longer and longer. I eventually rose and laboriously started the next climb.

But the desire to pull out my space blanket, leave the trail and pass out under a tree was now overwhelming. I had come to terms with the risks of bears, or hypothermia, or choking on my own vomit. I just wanted sleep. There was still something though knowing I had to continue. These thoughts fought against each other in my head.

Then after about another hour of battling these thoughts, from somewhere deep within something clicked.

“Oh fuck off, Owen” it bellowed. As if I’d got tired of myself and my bitching.

I can’t be sure if it was just within my head or whether I shouted out loud.

But either way its vehemence came as something as a shock.

“Really, Fuck You”

There followed a tirade of personal abuse that was so personal, so foul-mouth and so sustained that it really shocked me.

I wasn’t used to being spoken to like that. Not least by myself.

For perhaps the only time in the race it brought a tear to my eye.

It wasn’t about finishing the race – I still knew my race was over. But it was more about telling my self to “shut the fuck up”.

I was now more awake. It was still slow going. Countless hours going downhill, sliding and falling. That aid station seemed impossibly far away.

After a few more hours I started sipping water. I’d often still be sick but started to get the impression that perhaps less was coming up than I’d managed to take in.

If I couldn’t drink the water, I realised I could now start using it to wash off my face and hands. That at least made me feel slightly better.

More hours passed and we eventually emerged from the muddy hell of the Tenshi mountains onto a relatively flat path just as dawn was breaking. I managed – I don’t know how – to start running. Thinking, perhaps, that it would bring the inevitable end closer.

Eventually, after several false hopes, we rounded a corner and reached the aid station. It was 5:34 on Saturday morning. There was a huge crowd. With no idea of the cut off times, I’d expected to be pulled from the race having missed the cut off time.

But the other runners still seemed industrious rather than dejected. I asked – more screamed out – what was the cut off time? And was told it had been extend from 5am to 6am.

I’d had about 2.5 litres of water in my backpack at the previous aid station. A lot still remained. Others had taken far less and had been without water for ages. We were all dehydrated.

There was chaos in the aid station with so many people trying to get water at the same time. There was one hosepipe, which couldn’t keep up demand. People were pushing and shoving to try and get water.

Given I’d not been able to drink I amazingly still had some water left in my backpack, even after 7-plus hours. I queued for some coke, which I sipped and used to fill one of my drinking bottles.

During the night I’d promised myself a sleep at the next aid station. But I clearly didn’t have time.

By now I knew I had to give it a shot to try and finish. I left the aid station at 5:45am – with just a 15 minute buffer before the cut off time. It was going to be tight.

I later discovered that some 600 people had bailed out of the race at that aid station. That’s testament to the carnage that happened overnight. Stuck in your own private hell, you forget that everyone else is suffering too.

I left the aid station knowing I had to get a move on if I had any chance of finishing. I also knew that I had to try and re-hydrate.

By degrees I must have started to feel better. I tipped some energy powder into one of my water bottles. It wasn’t a lot of calories, but I figured if I could keep it down it would help.

The most technical part of the race comes at the beginning. I knew there was a longer flatter section ahead of me.

Forest

There was a fairly ugly path tracking along a straight section beneath some power lines. I was now motoring at nearly 6km/hour. The memory of that night was already disappearing. Determination replacing desperation.

It was more open and less wooded by now and I figured that music would be helpful. Matthew Herbert’s Strong found it’s way onto my ipod. I picked up the pace. Perhaps mustering a smile.

It took just an hour and a half to the next aid station at W2. I didn’t stop there for more than a few minutes.

Half Way

It was still grey and overcast. Intermittently drizzling. I was being driven forward by the prospect of my dropbag at aid station A4 at 90km along with the mental boost of reaching half way.

It was another 2 hours and 20 minutes to the next aid station. I arrived just before 9:30am. At A4 I changed my shoes and socks. Spending longer than necessary tending to my feet. I was deliriously happy to be in new, clean, dry trainers.

The heals of the trainers I’d been wearing had been destroyed by a lazy heal-strike as my running gate had deteriorated on the down hills. The shoes were wet and filthy.

Shoes

As I considered putting the old shoes back in the dropbag to take home – I thought ‘I’m really too old to be washing out worn out trainers’. I picked them up as if they were radioactive and carried them to the bin. The act of throwing away the trainers was hugely cathartic. As if they carried all the bad memories of that night.

I managed to sip some warm miso soup and miraculously it stayed down. I had a disposable toothbrush in my dropbag and before I left I brushed my teeth – and tongue. I washed my face and felt utterly transformed.

I was now well ahead of the cut off. Confidence comes from building up a barrier on the cutoff. I stopped a couple of times to change socks and apply anti-blister cream to my feet.

I ploughed on eventlessly. It was still cloudy. Not once did I have a view of the fabled Mt Fuji for which the race is famed.

As I approached aid station A7 I knew I had a couple of hours in hand and decided that I was going to try and get 15 minutes sleep. I knew this was risky. I’d never tried sleeping during a race before.   I knew there was a chance I’d wake in a different frame of mind – not willing to keep running. Or that I’d not wake and miss the cut off.

But I was conscious that I needed to find out if I could sleep – I knew this could be useful in other races. I’d also made my peace with not finishing the race. If it all went wrong I knew I wouldn’t be devastated.

At the next aid station at A7 at 120km it was starting to get toward dusk. I topped up my water bottles and found the room where they were letting people sleep. I left my shoes at the door.

There was a room full of blankets and just one other guy in there – seemingly dead to the world.   I wondered how I was going to wake myself up. I set an alarm on my phone and another on my watch for 15 minutes. Then thought that I needed a backup. Just outside the room I found two people who were obviously waiting for another runner and who were speaking English to each other.

I asked if they could wake me in 15 minutes. Their first inclination was clearly to demure – not wanting to take responsibility for me. But I begged and they agreed.

I went back into the room and lay on my back. It now occurred to me that actually falling asleep might be a problem. I wish I’d asked the people outside to give me longer.

I tried belly breathing with my hands on my stomach – to calm my mind. The next thing I knew I was being aggressively shaken.

“Mr Owen, Mr Owen, time to get up.” I opened my eyes, annoyed that I’d been woken before I’d fallen asleep.

But I had slept. Very, very deeply by the sounds of things. Slept through my alarms too.  The guy had had trouble rousing me. He’d been alarmed, briefly, that I might have descended into the deepest form of sleep. The form that needs no rousing.

As I quickly came around and thanked him, I immediately felt better. Utterly renewed by my bout of 10 minutes sleep.

I went to the loo – pleased that my gut had started functioning again and that I was now passing water so wasn’t too dehydrated.

I left A7 with my headlamp on, prepared for the second night in the woods.

Again it all seemed eventless. I chatted with a few people. With a nice Australian woman doing her first 100 miler. With some Japanese guys, with a French woman living in Seoul and a Hong Konger. All helped pass the time as we ran. And I was delighted to be holding a decent running pace.

Later that second night we started climbing again. Quite technical climbing, for which they had laid a rope. But you needed all fours to scramble up the rocks.

Again this caused us to bunch up and there was a fair amount of queuing. Which probably didn’t help my time, but I was beyond caring now.

At Aid Station A9 they held a kit check. They first weighed my bag – a whopping 5kg. They checked I had waterproof trousers, maps and a few other items of mandatory kit. A number of people, it latter transpired, had been disqualified for missing items.

I managed some hot food at the aid station – Udon noodles which I ate cautiously. But it stated down.

Over the next climb I felt the sleep demons coming – I was wandering all over the trail. I had to stop to force down a caffeine energy gel.

At the final aid station A10, I saw they had a crew of physios working on peoples sore legs.

Window

But it was my shoulders and upper back that were sore. I tore off my shoes, backpack and goretex and climbed onto the massage table.

After a brief discussion of what was wrong he spent 10 minutes manipulating my spine and shoulders. It hurt like hell but I emerged re-energised.

I’d had a niggling pain in my upper back from a climbing injury a few weeks ago. Even this seemed to have gone. I almost felt better than when I started.

The final 15 or so km passed quickly. I knew there was just a final 1300m peak to summit then it was downhill to Kawaguichiko.

On the decent I bumped into the Australian woman I’d spoken to earlier. It was great to see a familiar face. She was bright and bubbly. We spoke about finishing strong – and how much it meant to us. How if you weren’t sick when you crossed the finish line, you’d clearly not tried hard enough.

On the final decent as we reached the lake there was a solitary individual playing the saxophone. It was a haunting sound.

And so that was it. We ran around the side of the lake. Across the bridge and back into town having circumnavigated Mt Fuji without once having caught sight of it. Hidden all the while in the clouds.

I kept upping the pace, testing my body if I could hold the speed, then slowly upping it some more.

My feet felt good. My quads – which normally feel like they’re being attacked with daggers at the end of a 100 miler – felt equally strong.

There was a fair crowd as I came into finish at just after 6am on Sunday morning.

Finish

It felt strangely anticlimactic. I felt I could carry on. I almost wanted to carry on. Having suffered and survived the first night, finishing now felt like cheating.

Finishing in just over 41 hours meant I had eked out a good four hours over the cut off time from those measly 15 minutes after the first night.

I can’t say I felt a lot of emotion at finishing. All the emotion had been sucked out of me during that first night.

I hung around for a while to watch a few more racers come in.

I’d wanted to watch the final racers come in just before the cut off – those are the special moments in an ultra.

But it was too long to wait and I was growing cold.

I trundled back to the hostel where I found virtually all my new friends up and milling around – many had pulled out the previous night. It turned out that upwards of 60% wouldn’t finish that year.

I had a long shower and put virtually everything into the washing machine.

After a change of clothes and a coffee I had another brief sleep and didn’t then know what to do with myself. It was still early. I went out for lunch then came back to the hostel.

I saw another runner slumped on the porch. He’d finished in 45 hours and had just made it back to the hostel. He was caked in mud and looked shell shocked – unable to comprehend what had happened. Smiling but still utterly dazed.

I shook his hand and helped him to his feet – offering him my heartfelt congratulations. Oddly I was more proud for him than myself.

Him bemused, tired, dirty, hungry and hobbling. And me clean, rested, full and walking well, it occurred to me that the memories of the race had already started fading.

I can’t say I felt pride or achievement. Just quiet contentment and confidence.

And a little unsure whether I had ever really run.

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Old Continents and New Neighbourhoods

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The years seem to have flown by. I first touched down in Tokyo a little over a decade ago. Back then, having spent relatively little time in the Far-East, everything seemed new and delightfully foreign. I was wowed by the towering heights, bright lights and narrow alleys of Shinjuku and nishi-Shinjuku.

But on returning to Tokyo this week – my third trip to the city – I found the buzz oddly missing.

That first trip, all those years ago, must have had an impact. It willed me on to spend more time travelling around Asia.   In doing so, it meant that now Seoul, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Bangkok all seemed to offer more buzz and a more impressive urban skyline.

But still I enjoyed gently strolling around Tokyo in the warm autumn sunshine. It felt civilised and refined. And then somewhere south of Shibuya I found my way into the bijou neighbourhood of Daikanyama.

With less buzz and a much smaller scale, I found myself in love all over again with the city and the small intricate feel of the neighbourhood.

With relatively little traffic, modernist architecture and lots of space for bikes, it felt quiet and relaxed; dare I say it – a little European. And that felt refreshingly foreign too.

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A Return to Winging It

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It’s late. And you’re lost. You’ve been driving for the best part of 10 hours. So you’re quite tired. It’s dark but you think you might recognise this part of the motorway from about 20 minutes ago. You scrunch up the map and throw it onto the back seat. You need a hotel. And a shower. Your standards are now pretty low.

Freed from the map you figure that the next slip road looks promising. You exit the motorway. Do a lap of the roundabout, skirt through a mean looking industrial estate and come face to face with a Novotel. Its blue neon lights glistening in the dark.

Normally you’d be hard pressed to get excited at the prospect of a Novotel. But now you’re delighted. It’s your most pressing needs – food and shelter. You’ve conquered a long drive and found your way around a strange city. You’ve driven by the seat of your pants.

Yes they have a room. And yes they can knock you up something to eat.

You’ve winged it. And won.

This vignette used to play itself out semi regularly for me after I passed my driving test some 15 years ago. I quickly learned how easy it was to pick up a rental car and – to quote Springsteen – head out on the highway looking for adventure.

Over the years I got better at holding a map with one hand and the steering wheel in the other. Sometimes in my trusty old Saab, and further afield, renting an automatic (I discovered this made multitasking much easier) I developed a knack for seeking out adventure behind the wheel.

But then about eight years ago something happened which made the whole thing both much easier and much less unpredictable. Nokia released a smartphone with built in (almost) worldwide satellite navigation. At the end of a long day, a long flight or a long drive, you could fire up the app and be guided to a hotel, restaurant or city of your choice.

Suddenly that thrill of hurtling down an autoroute and having just seconds to decide whether or not to come off at the next junction; or whether you’d run out of fuel before you found a garage; or of not knowing where you’d finish the day – those thrills were all gone.  In large parts of the world you no longer needed to wing it.

***

I thought of this as I passed through Haneda immigration this week.  I’d flown late at night after a busy week at work and hadn’t had time to plan anything. It was a miracle I’d packed anything. I’d rushed to the airport then slept on the plane. And woken to a realisation I had no idea where I was heading or what I was doing.

It was midnight on a Saturday night / Sunday morning. I’d been to Tokyo twice before, but each time arriving at Narita.

I’d arrived with no cash and no maps (Nokia’s maps don’t work in Japan). And no Japanese sim card. And with no hotel booked.

The airport information desk said the last train to town was at 10-past-midnight.

I found an ATM and tried to remember the exchange rate. Did I need 3 thousand Yen or 3 million Yen?

Then I hurriedly tried to make sense of the ticket machine for the monorail. I threw some money into the slot and pressed randomly for a ticket to anywhere downtown.

I hauled my luggage up the stairs and onto the platform where a train was just pulling in.

Was this the right train? Which way was it going?  Downtown or end-of-the-line suburbia? No time to decide. Jump on or miss the last train.

No maps. No guidebook. No wifi. No idea where I was going. My heart still pounding from a rush up the stairs. I jumped on.

Despite being in one of the most wired cities on the planned, I had virtually no technology to help.

As I surveyed the carriage for a map, a big grin crossed my face.

I’d forgotten the fun to be had in not making plans and just flying by the seat of you pants.

The doors closed and the train sped off into the night and a city full of possibilities.

 

The Little Railway Bazaar

The first experience many people have of China’s rapidly expanding railway network is ironically not on the railway itself but hovering some three inches above it.

The Maglev – or magnetic levitation train – whisks you the 30kms from Pudong International airport to a metro station a stones throw from the city in just eight minutes flat. As the train breathlessly accelerates to 430kms per hour you feel like you are being propelled headlong into the future. People stand and take photos of the speedometer.

This short test track – currently the worlds only commercial Maglev – is impressively fast, but after a few return trips you can’t help but think it’s rather bumpy for a train that supposed to float on magnets.

And truth be told, after you’ve ridden it a few times the novelty of its vast speed and rapid acceleration begins to wear off. The cramped interiors and lime green seat covers do nothing for the eye if you’re jetlagged (as you are when you arrive) or hung-over (as you so often are when you leave).

The maglev was launched in time for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo as something of a boost to national pride. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, the top speed is only reached during the peak morning and evening rush hours.   At other times it reaches a relatively sedate 300kph – a speed often surpassed on the rails rather than hovering above them.

And pulling into Longyang station the slightly squalid housing around the station is surrounded by rubbish. This slightly ruins the impression of the sleek modern city.

As so often is the case, the future often disappoints.

***

Over the last few years I’ve gradually started to explore more of China’s railway network.

Flying up and down China’s Eastern seaboard is a frustratingly slow experience with frequent delays and cancellations. Much of the vast airspace is controlled by the military, leaving precious few airways for commercial aviation – leading to delays.  Smog also frequently slows down airport operations.

As you leave Shanghai behind and venture out across China you realise that whilst China’s sleek new conventional high speed trains might not match the Maglev for outright speed, they’re light years ahead when it comes to comfort. The huge new railways stations in Shanghai and Beijing feel more like airports than railway stations and have an ambitious architecture to match.

But you don’t have to stray far from the new lines and gleaming white trains to find a much slower and more basic form of travel. Which strangely is somewhat more charming.

***

Truth be told, I’ve never really appreciated the joys of train travel in the UK. I think it’s all the stopping and starting, and the inherent fear – probably unfounded – that if I nod off, I’ll wake to find that someone has run off with my luggage. Or that you’ll end up without a seat. Or you’ll find your seat is covered in a mess from the previous passenger. Or your seat mate will end up barking away on a mobile phone. You’l be crammed in uncomfortably. It does’t make for a relaxing journey.

For this reason I started looking at booking internal flights around China. But domestic flying here is not the simple business it is in Europe or the US. For foreigners at least online booking, ticketing, checking in and the like always seems a bit overly complicated.

It’s probably for the same reason that they don’t let foreigners rent a car in China – they don’t want you to have too much freedom to travel your own way.

So over various trips I let the train take the strain.

***

On boarding the high-speed G trains from Beijing to Shanghai all my fears about train travel elsewhere are dispelled. Train number G1 makes the 1,200km trip in a breathless 4 hours 48 minutes. Non stop. No worries about dozing off and missing your station.

When you buy a ticket you’re automatically reserved a seat. There are no tickets sold without seats. What a nice concept.

During the trip, staff come through the train mopping the floors, cleaning the loos and collecting rubbish. And there’s none of that stained carpet that Eurostar are so fond of.

If first class isn’t enough, up front in business class – which, strangely, is more luxurious than first – you can have an airline style flat bed on which to nap.

The only thing I was left wanting was a decent coffee service.

***

On some of the more basic night trains – like the train from Shanghai to Huangshan there are more flat beds than you can shake a stick at. But I’d not recommend the ‘hard sleeper class’ which is pretty much as described. And according to the guidebook, getting your luggage pilfered is one of the inclusive extras.

This soft southerner took the ‘soft sleeper class’ – a bed in a four-birth cabin which I had to myself as we pulled out of Shanghai, initially north, then west.

At Nanjing I was already asleep when someone else took another bunk in the cabin. But I quickly fell back asleep. The white sheets were clean and soft. The bed was comfortable – certainly more comfortable than the Caledonian Sleeper service I took some years earlier to Fort William.

I woke as we trundled through the countryside somewhere west of Hangzhou in the early light of morning. My fellow traveller had left during the night but helpfully my luggage remained chained to the bunk below me. I peered out of the window to discover a new scenery for me in China – greenery.

And so around 7am we pulled into the little town of Tunxi, the end of the line for this service. It felt more than a nights train ride from Shanghai. It felt like a different country. I appeared to be the only whitey getting of the train.

***

Some days later,  I took the bus to Hangzhou (there is no direct train). As we trundled through the driving rain I saw the construction of various concrete viaduct struts and I wondered how long it would be until the high speed trains came tearing across this corner of China and changed its ways forever. I pondered on how the railroad had spread across the wilds of America, taming new frontiers and connecting the country.

***

Back at Hongqiao station in Shanghai – conveniently connected to the airport above – I marvelled at the huge queues for tickets. Whenever possible I’d asked the concierge in the hotels I’d stayed at to book tickets for me. And almost without fail the tickets came back later the same day.

But now I needed a ticket myself. I joined the back of a very long queue. As I waited I prepared to use the wonders of google translate to make myself understood. But once I reached the ticket window it actually turned out to be remarkably simple to get the tickets I needed.

Given how wired the young generation of Chinese are, I was amazed that everyone wasn’t booking online. But it wasn’t just the foreigners and elderly in the queue. There didn’t even seem to be enough – or any – electronic ticket booking machines. It seemed a relatively easy thing to fix and a huge flaw making the system massively less efficient. I had plenty of time to consider this problem as I waited. I guessed most people with money just paid someone else – perhaps an agency – to queue for them.

I again realised how easy the convenience and speed of modern China can belie what lies beneath. The government still want some degree of control of movement of people. And perhaps the ticket system – where you have to show a passport, as you do at every hotel, reflects this keeping tabs on people.

So what the excuse is for the huge queues of people at Victoria station in London all waiting to buy tickets, is beyond me.

***

I had wanted to explore more, taking the train further west to Xian and the impossibly exotic sounding Urumqi.

But these are huge distances. And that’s more of a Great Railway bazaar than a little one.

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Huang Shan and the Big Yellow Taxi


During my last few trips to Shanghai, something strange always starts happening around day three. I start to crave greenery. By day four or five, I’m starting to feel rather uncomfortable.

When I’m whisking my way back to the airport – gazing out from the elevated highway or from the maglev on the urban sprawl – I realise what I’ve been missing. Nature.

Sure there are little parks, and even some rather charming tree-lined boulevards in the old French concession. But these patches of greenery are so manicured, so small and controlled, that it reinforces the urban feel rather than bringing nature into the city.

If you want to run outside – and there is only so much I can take running on a hotel treadmill – there are scant few options.

Century Park, in Pudong, is the only moderately large patch of greenery. But I’ve never been a fan of having to take the metro to go for a run. But one morning I rose early and felt my legs twitching. So I slipped out the hotel and – not quite being able to face the metro all lyrcaed up – slipped into the back of a cab to Pudong.

As we pulled up to the park, I noticed the stream of cyclist doing laps of the park in the cycle lane. Not commuter cyclists, but recreational cyclists, with expensive looking racing bikes – going as quick as they do around Regents Park in London. For a country where once cycling was so ubiquitous, it’s yet to go full circle and become cool again.

When I jogged over to enter the park, I was met with a surprise. A ticket gate and a charge to get in.

It was only 10 RMB – about a $1.50 – but I was pushed for time and didn’t  want to break a note and end up with a handful of change on my run. So I made do with a couple of laps around the perimeter. Just me and the cyclists.

But as I ran, that old Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi, popped into my head.

They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / Then they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em

***

So on my latest trip to Shanghai, I vowed that after the working week I would leave the city and find some mountains nearby for a spot of trail running in the wilds of China.

As usual, I’d not had time to properly think this through by the time the plane touched down in Pudong. But I had a few days of work to sort myself out.

A few brief moments scouring a map and a flick through a guidebook over breakfast the next day – and I settled on Huang Shan. The Yellow Mountains. a few hundred kilometres south west of Shanghai.

Staggeringly scenic, said the guidebook. Ancient bamboo forest with contorted pine trees disappearing into the mist. I was set.

The concierge helpfully booked me onto the sleeper train departing late one evening at the end of the week. The tickets arrived the next day, but had been booked into a ‘hard sleeper’. Another trip to the concierge to explain this soft southerner would really rather a ‘soft sleeper’. The new tickets arrived the next day. A bargain at $40 one way.

The night train departs from the colossal Shanghai Station and takes a winding route through the night, initially going north through Suzhou and Nanjing. I settled down in the little sleeping car. Glad not to be suffering a hard sleeper.

The next morning the night train terminates in the smallish town of Tunxi before disgorging its passengers into an animated square outside the station.

I’d slept well. I’d washed and cleaned up on the train, but was by now in desperate need of coffee, with the beginnings of a thumping headache from caffeine withdrawal.

Tucked away in Tuxi old town – my Rough Guide on my kindle informed me – was a charming coffee shop serving real imported coffee.  So I hiked into town.

Restored after perhaps the best coffee this side of Milan I headed back to the station to take a tatty old minibus up to the foothills and the small town of Tangkou, which serves as the basecamp for the mountains.

I arrived late afternoon in beautiful autumnal sunshine. Even in the sun, Tangkou’s new town is pretty brutal – with charmless concrete buildings lining the main drag. The old town, a little further up the road is more rustic and somewhat more basic.

I checked into a cheap hotel and bedded down for the night.

The next morning the weather had changed. The rustic old town that was, in sunshine, mildly interesting was now cold, muddy, rural and basic.

Again, I set out to find coffee. In China, the smaller the town the harder the task. Starbucks might be ubiquitous in Shanghai, but Shanghai felt a long way away from Tangkou old town.

To the best of my knowledge the only place serving coffee in Tangkou was ‘Mr Cheng’s restaurant’ on the main road. I know this because – with the help of Google translate – I asked a lot of people in my search for caffeine.

It was only marginally warmer inside the little restaurant than out. The rain poured down.  I pulled out my maps and guidebook and wondered how long I could wait-out the weather sipping, by now slightly more mediocre coffee.

A man I took to be Mr Cheng was friendly and spoke good English. Perhaps the only one in the town. He thought the weather had drawn in for the week.

I was pushed for time and had to be back in Shanghai later in a few days, so made a snap decision that I’d have to run the mountains that day – rain or no rain. I didn’t to come this far not the summit the mountains.

For a handful of yuan Mr Cheng offered to drive me to the trailhead. I sprinted back to my hotel, changed in record time, grabbed a wad of cash, a bottle of water and my Goretex. Fifteen minutes later I was being driven through the driving rain the start of the trail.

***

I had only briefly read further down the guidebook – past the section on the mystical beauty of Huang Shan.

So beautiful are the mountains, the guidebook went on, that it is the ambition of every Chinese to conquer it…. don’t expect to climb alone, it said…. depressingly like visiting an amusement park.

I was arriving in late November, well outside the peak season so the paths were at least quiet, but the entrance fees were still steep.

They took all the trees / And put them in a tree museum / Then they charged the people / A dollar and a half just to see ’em

I’d have been happy to have just paid a dollar and a half. In all I must have paid around $50 just to run on those paths.

I understand it costs for the upkeep of the park, but it still grates to have to pay to experience nature.

***

And so I ran. The first couple of hours took me through the bamboo forest to Yungu temple. With my head down and hood up in the driving rain, I’d perhaps not been paying enough attention to my surroundings. So it clearly came as a surprise both to me and the troop of baboons who were sat eating in the middle of the path.

As I ran around the corner I almost charged straight into them. In a storm of shrieking – from both them and me – they scuttled off in every direction and I backtracked, looking for something with which to defend myself. Being rather alarmed that I’d somehow gotten in-between the baby baboons and their mother, I thought I was going to get a beating.

As calm descended, I realised I’d not had any rabies jabs and that given any closer encounter I might have struggled to get quick enough access to decent medical care.

So I paid more attention to what was around me. Peering through the forest, through the clouds and driving rain. I wasn’t expecting to get much of the famous views.

The paths in the park are impressive. Stone steps lead all the way up to the summits. Running up them was tough. Laying the stone slabs all the way up to an altitude 1800 meters must have been a herculean task.

I was running without a backpack so stopped at the little stores that lined the paths to buy water and coke. And once an ingenious self-heating boil-in-the-bag rice meal.

It had been cloudy and wet all day. And then, as I worried it was getting late and would soon be getting dark I decided to find the path home. There was then, for a brief second, a gap in the clouds.

The peaks in the distance came into view. I was suddenly alone on the mountain and gobsmacked by the view. For a few brief moments I was in awe.

They may have put all the trees in a museum. It may have been an outrageously expensive way to experience nature. They may have built an extraordinary ugly town at basecamp. But they hadn’t yet paved paradise.

With that the clouds closed in, the rain started up and I turned to run the 15km back down hill to the entrance.

And then ran another 5km back into town to avoid the need for the Big Yellow Taxi.

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Culture Wars

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Every sport has its own set of rules and traditions. Some are formally written down. Others simply passed on as a sort of etiquette, refined over the years.

Take Golf for example. We’ll leave aside that it’s technically a game and not a sport. Much like tiddlywinks. Though clearly less physically demanding.

Golfers, seemingly without fail, wear those ugly Argyle patterned jumpers. To the best of my knowledge there’s no written rule that says you must dress in this silly way. It’s just what people do it fit in. Traditions passed on over hundreds of years, without anyone stopping to think how comical they look.

Surrounded by other players doing the same, the absurd attire becomes sane. A badge of identity. It presumably takes an outsider to point this out.   You might have guessed: I’m an outsider.

***

Which brings me to another absurdity: the world of extreme endurance sports.  For this, I’m very much on the inside.

Whilst the Ironman Triathlon might be pushing 30, the sport of ultra-running is still relatively new, at least in Europe.

You might think this wouldn’t leave enough time for strange traditions to develop. Though we’re not doing anything as daft as Argyle, endurance sports do have their own oddities and ways of behaving.

***

The strange thing though is that two of the biggest endurance sports – Ironman and Ultra-Running – which are similar in so many ways, actually attract very different people. And there’s surprisingly little crossover in participants. Each have their own set of rules.

Nowhere is this difference more evident than when you’re waiting nervously before the start.

At the Ironman, as the athletes prepare their £4000 bikes in the transition zone, you’ll hear a lot of brash talk and boasting personalities. Amongst the shaved legs (this is to Ironman what the Argle is to Golf) you can practically smell the testosterone.  Casual boasting is the done thing.

Some few thousand feet higher, at the start line of the Ultra-Trail, it’s a very different feeling. Brash boasting is definitely out. There is no one-upmanship to be had on the cost and sophistication of your bike.  It’s just you and the mountains.

At the start it’s the done thing to look miserable and terrified. And perhaps slightly tearful. To talk down your chances rather than talk them up. There’s no written rule that says this. It’s just what everyone does.

***

I’d run the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc on three separate occasions, and spent the last five summers in Chamonix for one run or another, but skipped last year to run in Leadville.

Coming back to Chamonix after a year out – and on the back of an Ironman just two months earlier – I’d somehow lost track of the unwritten rules.

As the 2300 runners gathered in the Place Du Triangle De L’amitié for the UTMB, I’d forgotten the fear I’d had in previous years. Forgotten that with a 50% dropout rate, for most of us the race was going to end in pain, misery and failure.

Yet somehow I felt bullish and confident. I wasn’t hollering this at the top of my voice. But I was breaking the rules.

Well you know what they say comes before a fall…

***

The heavens opened just before the start at 6pm.  And it rained all night. Great torrents of rain came through my Goretex jacket. Like someone had stuck a hose down both the sleeves.

The nausea started about 2am. Great waves of nausea. I managed to hold-off being sick at Les Chapieux aid station and after nibbling on a bit of food jogged pitifully on.

Cold, wet and holding back the vomit, my mind kept wandering back to the fluffy white bed that was waiting for me back at the hotel.

Why really was I bothering with this race? I had nothing left to prove, I’d run it three times already. Through the rain and snow. Through a stress fracture and horrible knee injury. I’d done it already. Why not call it a day? It was the first time I’d seriously considered quitting a race.

Just before dawn I trundled unhappily into the aid station at Lac Combal, only 64km in, where upon taking up the foetal position I was immediately sick. Two doctors came over and tried to entice me into the medical tent. They had caught me at my lowest ebb.

Strangely it was probably their offer of help that drove me on. Through my heaves and retching I told them to leave me alone. They were really quite persistent. Again I told them to bugger off.

I knew that if I went into the warm embrace of the medical tent I wouldn’t leave. I think I was about to tell them to ‘fuck off’ but instead was just sick again. They stayed, hovering over me.

So I finally had something to prove. I pulled myself up from a pile of my own filth and despair and told them, with a smile, that I’d had a bit much to drink last night.

Sometimes a bit of bravado and a bit of brash is what’s needed.

The dawn slowly broke. My stomach settled. The crippling visions of a white fluffy duvet slowly subsided and the rest of the race became much easier. Through the second day and through the second night I began to enjoy myself.

My confidence had been well founded. I finished in a little over 40 hours 30 minutes.

Through all four times I’ve run the race, I’ve learned one thing: It doesn’t always get worse. And sometimes you need a bit of bullshit to get you through.

But you need to know the rules before you can break them.

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Hotel Tyrol

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Save for a few miles on the shores of the Baltic, the Germanophone world is sadly lacking much in the way of coastline.  What they lack in beaches, both Germany and Austria more than make up for with a thriving network of big resort hotels nestled in the mountains.

Hotel culture in France has been largely ruined by the rise of now ubiquitous Accor Hotels. Ibis, Mercure, Novotel and Sofitel have sucked any individuality out of the sector.  Each brand carefully graded so as not to encroach into the next price bracket.  You never experience any unexpected charm. You are guaranteed uniformity – which is generally uniformly bad.  Britain’s hotel sector was similarly saddled by kitsch bed-and-breakfasts and latterly by the rise of Holiday Inn and Premier Inn.

But in the foothills of the Alps, both Germany – in the Berchtesgaden National Park and Austria, in the Tyrol – have a vast array of charming resort hotels tucked away in mountain valleys. Designed for the ski season – but perfect too in the summer.

I flew into Innsbruck in a creaking Bombardier turboprop.  The creaking probably had more to do with the updrafts and assertive weather sweeping through the valleys than it did the ageing aircraft.  The approach to Innsbruck’s delightful airport (recalling the best of Berlin’s now defunct Templehof) requires proper old-school flying by the pilots as you sweep along the valleys, making sharp turns left and right to avoid mountains which obstruct the flightpath.

Moments after stepping onto the tarmac I was at the wheel of my hire car and heading south towards Italy. Fifteen minutes later – and just before the border – I’d turned off the Autobahn and trundled along a valley to find my hotel.

The hotel, despite being similar to the countless other spread along the valley – felt individual and built to its surroundings rather than a template.  It had solid-feeling wooden doors a vast Greco-Romanesque health spa.  Germans and Austrians do good health spas.

At check-in I was instructed that “I will” come for coffee and cake at 3pm – the linguistic false friends of English and German, mistranslating Will and Want.

Of course the hotel staff meant that coffee and cake is served at 3pm and I would be welcome to join.  But I very much liked the ‘will’ instruction. In fact this carried on for much of the stay.

I was tired and in need of rest. I wanted to have my choice limited and my decisions made for me.

Choice once was the luxury above all others. But now choice has become a chore rather than a desire. We are now surrounded by so many inane choices – often of such little consequence – that not having to chose is wonderfully refreshing.

At dinner that evening I was handed a five course menu in such flowery German, that rather than reach for the dictionary, I handed the menu back and told them to chose for me.  The food was wonderful. And each course a surprise.

Tucked away in a mountain valley, the television channels were strictly limited. I left the television switched off. Have you every found anything good to watch on a hotel television anyway? And how much time have you wasted flicking through the plethora of national propaganda channels. Russia Today anyone?  It was one less choice.

So I slept like a log. In the morning I descended to the breakfast room to be faced with a huge buffet breakfast. The choice was overwhelming.

What I would have given for a simple coffee and a croissant in the sun.

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Tumbleweed Towns

Town

The horror film 28 Days Later depicts a (fictional) post apocalyptic UK in which our protagonists struggle for survival following the release of a deadly virus and the collapse of society.  When the protagonists reach London they find a ghost city – the empty streets around well-known landmarks looking eerie without people.

The scenes were laboriously filmed early on Sunday mornings during the long days of summer – when the sun was up but Londoners were still in bed.  The early morning light adding a gritty cinematic feel to the vacant streets.

The film would have been much easier to shoot – though less cinematically arresting – if it had been filmed in any provincial town in Britain where shops routinely shut up shop at 5:30pm – and town centres soon after take on that empty abandoned quality in the film.  

The photo above was taken at just after 6pm on a Saturday afternoon – a time when town centres should be buzzing.  The photo was taken in Eastbourne – but it doesn’t really matter where it was taken as the scene is played out across the country.

I was looking for nothing more than a coffee and newspaper. But the streets were so barren I began to fear the zombies were coming and the break down of society had already begun. And we wonder why we have a problem with the decline of highstreets in this country.

When the shops close there’s no reason to come into town. And the problem is that there’s no incentive for one shop to extend their hours as no one bothers to go into town after work, or on a late weekend afternoon because they know everything’s closing. 

But imagine if provincial town centres were routinely open for business untill 9pm. Cafes and restaurants could spill out onto the pavements. People could pop into their local shops for the odd last minute dinner ingredients and wind down with a drink –  rather than face the hassle of a vast soulless hypermarket and sprawling car park. 

As businesses close so early, what remains for local youths to do? Bored youngsters are a recipe for trouble. Empty streets encourage crime and antisocial behaviour as the moderating oversight of others vanishes.  The zombies really do come alive when the streets are empty.  

What’s required is for one brave town centre to take a punt. Perhaps to cut business rates for shops that are prepared to help add some life to town centres after hours.  Shops that only open whilst most people are at work have never struck me as a recipe for retail success. 

In 28 Days Later it was a virus that wiped out the population and laid the capital low.  London’s now buzzing late(r) into the evenings with shops and cafes routinely open till 10pm.  And the economy is doing better for it. 

It’s a simple cure. But there’s no one left to hear it.

The Do Over


By their nature all sports are physical. Few sports though are quite so physical as the Ironman. Sustaining the body’s power output over a 3.8km swim, 180km bike race and 42.2km marathon is nothing if not brutally physical.

But the Ironman is also a sport that, if not exactly cerebral, is at least equally mentally demanding.

The decisions you make before the race play a large part in your performance. What heart rate can you realistically maintain on the run? How many calories should you consume on the bike? And what will your rate of fluid loss be? How much do you need to drink? What gear ratio should you use on the bike? Are you a climber or better on the flat? Should you attack on the hills or conserve energy? Do you go with faster tyres or heavier more puncture resistant ones?

And then there’s the mental process of dealing with the pain. Of compartmentalising it and working through it.

These decisions and mental processes can make the difference between a personal best and that awful abbreviation – DNF. Did. Not. Finish.

***

Everyone goes into a race with their own plan – whether they plan to win or just to finish.  Failing to plan is planning to fail – so that awful cliched slogan goes.

Perhaps you plan to go out fast and hard, then try and hold on later in the race when it gets tough – or you start out gingerly to conserve energy and finish strong?

But how long will your plan survive? It’s said that no military plan survives first contact with the enemy.   And the Ironman is a battle. The history of the Ironman is littered with broken plans and discarded hopes.

Often in the heated adrenaline-fueled start, you go too fast; burn too much energy; and you pay for it later. Then somewhere after the swim and the bike, things start to go wrong.

Your pace starts to slip, or you’re gripped by nausea, or cramp, or a pain that emanates from nowhere and everywhere – and you’re forced to watch that target time slip out of reach. And your plan goes belly up.

Or you curse that you started too slow and can never make up the lost time and distance you’d planned on banking early in the race.

***

For my first Ironman my plan was simply to finish the swim. If pushed – really pushed – I might have coyly admitted to wanting to finish in under 13-hours. And perhaps pride would dictate a sub-four-hour marathon.

The joy I experienced after dragging myself out of the water during that first Ironman, relatively unscathed,  an hour and 17 minutes after starting, almost made me forget I had a cycle race and marathon to complete.

Six-and-a-half hours later, I’d finished on the bike and set out on the marathon. Starting out I held a decent pace.

But each lap of the course saw my pace gradually slip and that target time went with it.

My first Ironman time stood at 12 hours 12 minutes. As I slumped over the line I was both delighted with my performance and relieved that it was all over. But I also knew that it wasn’t all over. It was only just beginning.

***

As the aches and pains wore off in the intervening weeks, a thought began to crystalise: I could do better. 11 hours 59 minutes would be possible. I deserved an 11-hour-something Ironman. I would have to go back and do it again.

So I entered the same race again the following year. I fitted Aerobars on the bike. I did more sprint training. I trained at altitude. Improved my swim.

One year later I went back to Nice with one plan, one goal – 11 hours 59 minutes – or bust.

And then, in the race, something quite unexpected happened. The swim went well. Then I slashed 30 minutes off my previous year’s bike time.

As I set out on the run, I worried that the extra speed on the bike would take its toll on my legs. But somehow I was running comfortably. It began to dawn on me that I wouldn’t just comfortably beat my target time – I would obliterate it. My plan had gone haywire. So I had to mentally scrabble around and change my plan on the fly.

The heat in Nice that day was stifling. The nausea set in during the second half of the marathon. I was sick. Twice. But still the marathon pace kept strong. I endured – there is no other word for it – a 3 hour 54 marathon, going on to finish my second ironman in 11 hours 34 minutes.

As I finished I was genuinely shocked and surprised at my time.  I had taken over 40 minutes off my previous time. I revelled in the finish. I knew that such a stark improvement would never happen again. I had more than achieved my plan. I thought that would be my last Ironman.

***

I sat the next year out. Ironman training is, after all, quite disruptive to a normal social life.   Perhaps I thought my time was a fluke. I didn’t want to go through all that training again only to get a worse time. And I couldn’t figure out how I could possibly beat it.

But gradually I became less and less satisfied with my new time. I met more and more people with faster times. I began to want a time that was nearer 11 hours than 12. That would be more respectable..

During that year out I realised there were faster and flatter bike courses. Why was I punishing myself in the mountains above Nice?  There were also were swim courses that were in pancake-flat lakes rather than choppy-jellyfish-infested seas. If I didn’t fancy my chances at going quicker in Nice I’d have to go elsewhere.

The fastest Ironman course in Europe is reckoned to be Klagenfurt in eastern Austria. But it sells out almost immediately after entries open – a whole year in advance of the race. This would take some planning.

And so at midnight on 1st July 2013 I waited in front of my computer for online registration to open. So did some 3,000 other athletes.  Just a few hours later the race was full. And I was in.

So over the intervening year plans were made. And revised. And made again

Which brings me to now in Klagenfurt –  some four years after I first dreamed of doing my first Ironman.  I’ve got a plan finish in 11 hours 29 minutes. A plan that has been honed and refined over years. All that stands between me and it is some 140.8 miles of racing.

Once the starting gun goes off, how long with that plan survive?  That’s the real test of the Ironman – how you change your plans on the fly. For better. Or worse.

P.S. Again

PS Again 009

Palm Springs, you may have noticed, has started to make a regular appearance on these pages, with something approaching an annual visit.

Whether it’s the guaranteed winter sun in the gloomy depths of December or proper desert heat in the scorching summer months – Palm Springs always offers a welcome change of climate.

PS is known as a Mecca of mid-Century modern design, tucked away in the desert. And from the desert floor it offers awesome trail climbing up to 8,000ft-plus peaks in the San Jacinto Mountains.  For me this affords perfect mornings full of training runs and lazy afternoons by a pool.

The town itself feels effortless. Big wide roads. Easy parking. Surprisingly good food for provincial America.

A perfect candidate then, you might think for a direct flight from London.  This, I fear, would be a mistake.

Palm Springs deserves to be approached properly. That requires a flight into LAX – followed by a roof-down, wind-in-your hair dash along Interstate 10 in a Mustang Cabriolet. It’s a sure fire way to reset your jet lag.  And incidentally am I the only one who finds that despite the extra time zones,  the longer West Coast flights to and from Europe are much easier on the system than the punishingly shortly red-eyes back from New York, Boston and Philly?

Everyone has their favorite hotel in their favorite town. Perhaps it’s a quiet, undiscovered place you’d rather not tell anyone about for fear of it being discovered.

For me, dear reader, it’s the Parker in Palm Springs. Confidently and yet understatedly cool, it used to feel both undiscovered and underpriced. It’s the only hotel I know with a tongue-in-cheek manifesto.

I can tell you this now because it is alas, no longer under- anything.

When I went to book the Parker this Easter it had become both over-priced and over-discovered. It was fully booked.

So we moved down the road to the Ace Hotel.  And it was… well, you get the picture.

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