Pacing. Muleing. Crewing. These three simple words are the difference between European and American ultra racing.
In Europe, mountain ultra marathons are a solitary affair. You carry what you need. You run alone. You get lost. You struggle.
In America, ultra racing is akin to a team sport. Whole teams of friends and family come out to support their runner; supplying them with food and encouragement at aid stations; taking it in turns to run with, and pace them between aid stations; helping them find the route; keeping them awake; even carrying their backpacks.
They seem almost different sports. But they have one thing in common. With all the help, or without it – you still have to run 100 miles across the mountains. And that’s no mean feat.
My adventure in ultra racing began some five years ago in the little French Alpine town of Chamonix. It’s a relatively young sport in Europe and I got in at a good time, when it was still easy to get into the big races.
I’d had some five years of racing around Mt Blanc. There weren’t that many people wanting to run 100 mile races.
So the Ultra Trail du Mt Blanc – the brutal 100 mile race around Mt Blanc – became my race. Year in, year out I entered the race. But each year it was never the same. I had terrible luck with the weather. Some years it snowed, others it rained relentlessly. Over the years the races were cancelled or curtailed; rerouted or restarted.
It was with some pride that I finished every race I started, including that epic year where the race was lengthen mid-race and the runners informed by text message.
None of the races were simple. And none were the distance that was advertised. I grew tired of all the changes. I thought it was time to spread my wings and stretch my legs. I decided to call it a day with the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Finishing the UTMB last year, I vowed that my next 100 mile race, would be in America. But I would do it the European way – without crew or pacers.
I won’t pretend that Leadville was my first choice. I’d applied, unsuccessfully, for a place in both the Hardrock 100 and the Western States Endurance Run.
But Leadville doesn’t have a lottery for places. You just have to get up early to register. First come, first served.
So one quiet morning last January, in Melbourne, I sat in front of my computer waiting for registration to open. I paid my money and got my place. It was also rather simple given the lotteries, ballots and uncertainly that plague other races.
A few minutes later the confirmation email came through and my journey Colorado and the High Rockies was just beginning.
Leadville is famed for being the highest town in the United States. It sits a breathless 10,200 feet above sea level. The town grew rich on the spoils from its silver mine. It was once the second biggest city in Colorado. But like so many mining towns, in the 1980s the mine closed, leaving thousands out of work and the town falling on hard times. Leadville would probably have become a ghost town were it not for the start of a bizarre race.
The Leadville Trail 100 race began because the mine closed. An out of work miner called Ken Clouber dreamed up the race as a sort of homage to the back breaking work of the miners.
In 1983 when the race was first run, they weren’t sure anyone would be able to finish it. This was long before the huge popularity of marathons and triathlons. Running 100 miles non-stop was a big deal then. There were 45 brave souls who started that race, and just 10 who finished. They couldn’t possibly have known what they had started.
Thirty one years later, the race has spawned a number of spinoff races, including a mountain bike race that has outgrown the run. But the run now attracts nearly 1000 starters and amazingly almost half go on to finish.
So my journey to Leadville started in Melbourne in January ended, eight months later here in Leadville. Where a tougher journey began all over again. Here’s the video:
What do you regret? What did you do that you wish you hadn’t? Or didn’t do that you wish you had? Are you a cautious person who sits things out then wishes they’d been braver? Or the gun ho type who acts rashly and regrets at leisure?
On balance I’m not one for regrets. I like to say yes and hate being timid. Better to try – then fail, than not to try at all.
But there’s one big regret I have. For once in my life, what others would call ‘common sense’ prevailed over desire. Timidity triumphed over throwing caution to the wind. I fear it wasn’t common sense at all but an uncharacteristic conservatism.
In 2000 an Air France Concorde crashed whilst taking off from Paris. With that one crash, civil aviation was never quite the same again. The crash mark the turning point when civil aviation became less civil. It was the time when those ghastly Ryanair planes were becoming ubiquitous and flying becoming less glamorous.
Those graceful Concordes were quickly fixed and deemed skyworthy again, but a series of faults and unhelpful diversions to places like Bangor and Cardiff meant that the premium service was getting difficult to maintain as the jets started to show their age.
The ‘war on metal cutlery’ that began after the 9/11 attacks the following year didn’t help maintain a premium service. I can’t help but think Concorde was doomed after they were forced to service their meals – caviar and foie grass – with plastic cutlery.
Correlation is not necessarily causation, but it wasn’t long after plastic cutlery was introduced that it was announced that the whole Concord fleet – both Air France and British Airways’ aircraft – were to be retired and would no longer be plying the supersonic route across the Atlantic.
The end of supersonic aviation was suddenly in sight. We were no longer moving forward into a bold technological future. We were rapidly moving backwards. Getting slower. Never before had technology taken a leap backwards.
I was but a poor university student at the time of Concorde’s demise. My student loan cheque had just come through and I through – ‘it’s now or never’.
I priced up the cost of supersonic ticket on flight BA001 to New York, and the cheapest economy ticket back. I phoned my bank and asked how much I could extend my credit card limit. I contemplated a semester or two of penury at university.
And then… and then I wimped out. I made the mistake I would forever regret. I decided it was too much money.
A few months later a British Airways Concorde – with the flight number BA001 and that famous callsign ‘Speedbird One’ – made the last trip to New York and back again as BA002.
The jet touched the edge of space for the last time, allowing its passengers a final glimpse of the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space before bringing a sad end to the supersonic jet age. And I never made it.
For years aviation lacked the excitement that Concorde used to bring. Even new planes didn’t help. No one gets excited at the prospect of flying on a whale-like A380 or fire-prone Boeing 787.
Of course I continued flying. But it was all rather routine.
Then, quietly, British Airways did something rather innovative. British Airways revived that famous call sign and flight number for another rather special flight.
Like Concorde, the new BA001 also whisks passengers across the Atlantic to New York. While Concorde packed 100 passengers into the plane, the new BA001 feels a little more exclusive. With a maximum of just 32 people on board, the new flights makes Concorde seem positively mass transport.
Six years after the final Concorde flight, British Airways procured two stubby little airbus A318 elite jets. Both were retrofitted with extra fuel tanks and just 32 flat bed seats. The planes were adapted to allow them to fly into London City Airport. Thus was born the Club World London City service.
And so some ten years after the last Concorde touched down, I finally booked myself on flights BA001 to New York and back on BA002. This time there was no indecision and no regrets. There are rumours the flight is not making money and might not last.
By far the best thing about flying out of City Airport, is that you can arrive just 20 minutes before the flight – 15 minutes if you’re travelling without luggage.
I’d broken my first rule of travelling – that only losers check in luggage – and arrived some 35 minutes before take off. I breezed through the security. City airport has no proper business lounge but BA have turned the tiny area around gate 24 into a makeshift lounge with a light breakfast on offer and a coffee machine.
There you’re welcomed by a ground crew who explain the details of the flight. They too seem genuinely excited by the flight, as do my fellow passengers. There were just 16 of us on the flight so boarding – just walking 30 or so metres across the tarmac – was rather relaxed.
Concorde used to engage the afterburners during takeoff which led to a powerful surge down the runway. The A318 does’t have the afterburners but it still leaves City like a rocket. The plane has the range to fly non-stop to New York, but the short runway at City Airport means the plane can’t take off fully fuelled. So when flying west-bound you make the short hop to Shannon where the plane takes on extra fuel. This means the plane is exceptionally light leaving City. You take to the sky like catapult. (Flying back from New York is non-stop.)
Landing at Shannon an hour or so later has an upside. As the plane refuels the passengers disembark and pass through US customs and immigration – or doing the ‘Shannon Shuffle’ as it’s affectionally called by regulars on the route. All this mean you arrive in New York as a domestic passenger and avoid all the queues.
Shannon is an altogether different experience to border control in the US mainland. You’re escorted off the plane straight to customs. With virtually no queues and border staff who actually smile, all make this a pleasant way to enter the country.
Back on the plane half an hour later we lumber back to the runway, somewhat heavier on fuel.
Inside the plane, the cabin, while technically like any short haul airbus, feels more like the upper deck of a 747 but with much more space. There are just eight rows of seats.
After takeoff the champagne begins flowing again. Ipads are handed out, stocked with movies. Lunch is served – complete with metal cutlery. The crew – who are all based out of Gatwick – seem genuinely happy to be on this unique flight. Most of the BA crew out of Heathrow seem jaded by an airline that’s lost it’s mojo. But on BA001 you get the impression that civil aviation can still be civil and anything but routine.
BA’s normal Club World seats apparently don’t fit easily into the A318, so they had to come up with a new design, which I actually found exceptionally comfortable.
After lunch I commandeered a few spare pillows, reclined the seat into bed mode and settled down for a nap.
Concorde may have been quick but it wasn’t half a comfy for a nap.
I didn’t get to see the curvature of the earth or the darkness of space. I didn’t get to go supersonic. But I did get to sleep very well. And to dream.
Flying may have become horribly routine and formulaic, but there are still little corners of the industry doing something a bit different.
I’m not crossing the Atlantic any other way.
‘Oh for a Landcruiser and a pair of snow chains’ I thought as I desperately dug snow out from under the wheels of my rental car. Ironically it was only when I decided to turn back that I got stuck.
Anyone who skies will know that it’s a fairly simple proposition that mountains get covered in snow over winter. I spend a lot of time in various mountain ranges, but invariably only in the snow-free summer months.
I’d picked up the car at Tbilisi airport. I knew the road north would be bad but it came as something of a surprise to find the High Caucasus covered in feet of snow.
I had planned to drive North from Tbilisi along the Georgian Military Highway to the little hamlet of Kazbegi, now known as Stepantsminda, just a stone’s throw from the Russian and Ossetian border. I had wanted to fit in a bit of mountain running as early spring training.
Looking forward to warm spring weather, I pictured that I’d be able to dump my car in the village and disappear for a run across beautiful mountain meadows, with snow capped peaks in the distance. What presented me were virtual blizzard conditions. Not at all the training weather I’d hoped for.
It was after the village of Gudauri – altitude 7,200 ft – that the road really got bad. I could feel the car squirming as I moved slowly over the snow, sliding gently every now and again as I veered across the road to avoid huge potholes. Even at my slow speed the car’s anti-lock brakes kept firing and unpleasant noises were coming from the suspension struts. Several times I had to reverse then accelerate hard to get up particularly slippery climbs.
There wasn’t much traffic on the road. A few tough looking military trucks emerged from the gloom every now and then, with wheels bigger than my car and snow chains to match. I slowly began to realise that this wasn’t the place for a Toyota Yaris. I’d have to try reaching Kazbegi another day.
I drove on a little further considering my options but quickly the wind picked up and the visibility dropped to virtually zero. I could hardly see past the bonnet. I was getting hungry and was increasingly conscious that getting stuck in the snow would not be a particularly enjoyable situation.
So I made a snap decision to turn the car around and head back. I touched the brakes, the ABS fired and the car slid gracefully into a six-foot high wall of snow on the side of the road.
I quickly popped the automatic transmission into reverse but outside the front wheels just spun worthlessly. I turned the steering wheel and tried again. Still nothing. I was stuck.
Through the gloom and snow I couldn’t see more than a dozen or so meters. I looked out of the side window and along the road. Suddenly I felt extremely vulnerable. If another truck came along it surely wouldn’t see me until it came crashing into my side door.
I turned the steering wheel full lock and fiddled with the gearbox to engage a higher gear, but however gently I was with the accelerator, the wheels just kept spinning.
Exasperated, I climbed out of the car, listening carefully for the sound of trucks above the howl of the wind. I started scraping snow out from under the front wheels with my bare hands. I tried reversing again. Nothing.
I got back out of the car and rummaged around in the snow for rocks that I could move to provide extra traction. Only then did I start to think what else I had in the car that I might be able to shove under the wheels to give more traction and how much I might risk letting the tyres down.
Back in the car I gave the accelerator the lightest of touches. The car dithered for a moment then shot back into the snow on the other side of the road. I engaged forward gear and set off a little too fast back down the road, deliriously happy to be free.
I found a hotel in Gudauri and set about trying to find something decent to eat. Even the simplest of food tasted great after a long day in the car. I went to bed promising myself that I’d make it to Kazbegi the next day.
In the morning the weather had cleared, but the roads had frozen over, making them even more treacherous than before. The views were stunning but so too were the drops into the valley.
Retracing the route of the previous day was even more taxing. I was driving at little more than walking pace. With just the most basic maps on my GPS, I worked out it would talk the best part of the day to make Kazbegi, if I made it at all. I cursed myself for not splashing out on a bigger car.
But Landcruisers and big 4x4s can get you into more trouble. As you drive into a small town they draw more attention than you might wish to have. They encourage you to take more risks. And digging a Landcruiser out of snow is a much bigger job.
And besides, it’s always good to have the car wimp out before you do.
The British Midland flight to Tbilisi does something rather odd. It flies right over Tbilisi, as if the pilot has forgotten to disengage the autopilot. It carries on for another hour or so across the Caucasus before landing in Baku.
After landing in Azerbaijan, the crew twiddle their thumbs for 40 minutes whilst refuelling and offloading passengers – overfed oil executives mostly. The aircraft then trundles back to the runway and flies half empty – back the way it’s come – to Tbilisi. On the return trip, the A321 does the same thing in reverse – first flying away from London to Baku, before doubling back on itself to London. It doesn’t seem the most sensible route planning.
But then British Midland was never the most sensible airline. It had been haemorrhaging money for years. Even its current German owners, Lufthansa, failed to stem the slide.
For years British Midland was my airline of choice. It always seemed rather random. That was part of its charm, with its eclectic collection of destinations, aircraft and business lounges. Often I would fly on tiny but full-to-bursting Embraer aircraft. Other times I’d be virtually the only passenger on a large Airbus. Then there were the times when I’d have the whole business lounge to myself.
So I flew a lot with British Midland. Whilst not quite an airmiles millionaire, over the years I had accumulated a hefty six-figure sum from rattling around Europe and the Levant.
As it looked increasingly like British Midland might go bust, I grew alarmed that I might lose all those miles, so I set about spending them as quickly as possible. Use them or lose them, I thought.
With perfect timing, my flights to Tbilisi virtually exhausted the remaining miles – right before the airline was taken over by British Airways. I thought it fitting that this should be my last hurrah with the airline I’d spent so much time with. A flight as random as all the others had been.
It’s sad that soon the planes will be repainted and will become just another part of British Airways. To me the British Midland crew looked like they worked harder than those over at BA and the seats were always a little bigger. British Airways always seems more corporate and more efficiently run. And yet more ordinary.
Efficiency might be good for the bottom line. But it’s not as fun as flying to Tbilisi the long way round.
I’d booked flights to LA some time ago – at least in part to try Air New Zealand’s new Club seat – but then totally forgot to plan anything else for the long weekend.
Time was short but you can pack a lot into four days. I briefly considered whether it might be possible to drive across the States – Gumball Rally style. Or whether I should try my luck getting to the summit of Mount Whitney in winter. Or even run a section of the Badwater Ultramarathon (somewhat easier in December than July)
But after a rather high-octane few months, I thought it better that I re-learn the skill of lounging by a pool. I had an uncharacteristic urge to sit quietly and read a good book by day, before gorging on high-calorie American food by night. If that’s what you want, there’s no better place to do it than at the Parker in Palm Springs.
Famous as the late-1950s hangout for the Rat Pack, Palms Springs is very much cool again. Nestled at the bottom of the Coachella Valley, it’s dwarfed by the San Jacinto Mountains to one side and the San Bernardino Mountains to the other.
Two hours East from LA, Palm Springs and its Mid-Century Modern architecture, felt like the appropriate destination to celebrate what I was trying to pretend wasn’t a significant birthday. Still a little sore from a race earlier in the year, I figured this would be the first step in my rehab. So I flew to LA, picked up a rental car – a little two-seater cabriolet since you ask – and headed East on Interstate 10.
Today Palm Springs is a retro-chic resort town. With wide main streets and an easily walkable centre, it’s got the best of American motorcar culture, without all the downsides. There’s something charming about resort towns just outside peak season (it’s why I love Chamonix in May). The restaurants, shops and hotels are still open, but you virtually have the place to yourself. It’s like the whole town has a moment of breathing space.
And what air to breath. On the edge of the desert, Palm Springs has that crisp dry desert air, somehow every breath feels restorative.
And so to the Parker. A quirky 1950’s motel that’s been tastefully restored into a full-service resort hotel. It feels like a Conde Nast photo-shoot. Yet out of peak-season, you don’t have to put up with the celeb hangers on.
So I took on the Parker’s manifesto, raided the minibar and spent the next two days having a good steam and a nice soak in the hot tub, and generally pampering myself in the whimsically named Palm Springs Yacht Club. The grounds of the hotel are perfectly setup for doing very little – the hammocks were my favourite. I had the odd gentle run up into the mountains – I couldn’t resist. Sea level to 3000ft in one hard slog.
Palm Springs might fail my ‘Provincial Test’ – it’s impossible to buy a copy of the FT, or any international paper for that matter – but it feels more open than many American towns of its size. It reminded me of the Short North in Columbus – artsy, interesting buildings and good food. Throw in a nice pool and good room service, and you’ve got a perfect lond-haul weekend getaway.
“Please return to your seats, fasten your seat belts, put your seat into the upright position and stow your tray tables for landing”
You know the drill: the familiar sound of the flaps descending; the whoosh of air as the undercarriage deployes. The end markers of the runway come into sight, then – hopefully – the gentle thud of the gear making contact with the ground.
That’s how it’s supposed to be. But Los Angeles International airport – LAX to its friends – was having a bad day last Wednesday. The worst windstorm in 10 years so they said.
We spent a while circling, not particularly uncommon at peak times. Not that I was complaining. Watching the nighttime urban sprawl of LA never gets tiring.
But we were getting bashed about by the wind. Not since I flew into Munich the day this was filmed have I had such a rough approach.
Yet the flaps came down, the gear deployed and the runway markers came into view. The problem was they were only in view out of one window as the pilot struggled to keep the plane level. Out one side was nothing but runways out the other nothing but sky. Not a good way to land.
Seconds later the two massive General Electric engines whirred to life and the plane, now all but empty of fuel after a long flight across the Atlantic, and much lighter, soared skyward like a rocket.
A flustered-sounding pilot quickly came over the intercom to say something about wind sheer and how we’d be coming around for another try. We circled bumpily over the pacific again, me happy to have more time taking in the view.
Second time around was only marginally less bumpy than the first. I wasn’t particularly confident that the pilot wouldn’t fluff it again. But in a rather assertive move, he forced the undercarriage onto the tarmac with a thwack and we eventually came to a rather shaky stop on the taxiway. Even at standstill, the wind buffeted the plane like a child’s toy.
As the tow truck lugged us to the gate, a couple of bright flashes lit up the sky. With a cloudless sky, it wasn’t lightening but, it turned out, an electrical substation blowing.
Immediately the floodlights on the airport apron fell dark, then a few seconds later so did the lights in the terminal. The huge LAX airport was plunged into darkness, including, rather alarmingly, the control tower.
The pilot came back over the intercom to say that it might be worth making ourselves comfortable whilst the ground crew came up with a plan to get us off the plane. Clearly the jetways wouldn’t budge without power and with a terminal in darkness, it was probably better for us to wait on the plane. Besides, the ground crew had other priorities, like fetching stray baggage containers that were being blown about the airfield.
The cabin crew, who must have been tired after a long flight, quickly got to work raiding the galley and handing out water, crisps, coffee, newspapers, magazines – whatever they could find, they put to use.
The contrast with last week’s debacle at Heathrow couldn’t have been starker.
After about 45 minutes, power was restored and LAX flickered back to life. The doors were opened and I made a dash for immigration.
But not before I thanked the crew and asked – to myself – if they could provide training for British Airways.
To fly. To Serve. This is British Airways’ new advertising slogan. Sadly they weren’t doing much of either last Sunday when I was due to fly back from Brussels.
Fog had yet again crippled Heathrow, whose resilience to bad weather is comically poor.
My first flight was cancelled. And the second delayed by nearly five hours. Hungry and mildly irritated, I breathed a sigh of relief as we touched down around 23:30 on Sunday evening. With no luggage I thought I’d be out and onto the Heathrow Express in time to catch the last tube home. Or so I thought.
After parking, the pilot announced that there were no steps for the plane because “lots of planes have arrived at the same time”. Isn’t that the sort of thing that usually happens at airports? Then there were “not enough staff to bring the steps to the plane.” So we waited and waited.
Once we were finally off the plane and into the terminal, we met a huge mass of people – at least a thousand deep – waiting at the border for passport control. I counted just three officials slowly processing passports. Perhaps they too were surprised by passengers arriving at an airport.
Welcome to Britain.
I’ve written long ago about queues at immigration and the problems with new biometric passports. But this wasn’t so much a queue, as a crowd.
Half an hour passed. Then an hour. We had hardly moved. And hadn’t seen a single member of staff – not from BA, Heathrow or the UK Border Agency.
Having been delayed for hours we were all tired, hungry and thirsty. I’m sure we had passed hoping for a bit of hospitality from British Airways. A bit of humanity would have sufficed. Just handing out bottles of water would have been nice. Even if only to families with crying babies.
There was no one to organise the queue. Some people started pushing to the front, others started complaining. I’m surprised no fights broke out.
Eventually some people further back started shouting “there’s three of them and three thousand of us. Let’s just all walk through together.” The crowd started cheering. Others started shouting.
It wasn’t long after this that things started moving. My guess is that one of the border officers must have pushed a panic button and decided to fasttrack things to avoid a riot. Ultimately if several thousand passengers had decided they were fed up of waiting to enter their own country, the few staff on duty would have been powerless to stop them.
Few staff on duty – that is the problem. That is always the problem. Every time I’ve been stuck at Heathrow, the problems could have been solved by ramping up the number of staff available to help.
When things go wrong, the customer service phone lines get jammed and websites crash. People get angry because there is never any official representation to explain what’s going on.
When I finally got through immigration, a little after 1am, the tube and Heathrow Express had closed for the night – leading to more queues for taxis and more fuming.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Paradoxically it’s when things go wrong that airlines can actually pick up good will amongst passengers. All it takes is a simple emergency action plan and a few more staff.
When things go wrong it’s time for everyone to muck in. Couldn’t BA cabin crew be asked to stay a bit longer after work during bad weather to hand out bottles of water to soothe waiting crowds. Couldn’t BA management start shovelling snow when the weather turns? Rather than shovelling blame.
Couldn’t a few staff stick around to advise passengers how to get into town after the public transport had shutdown. Couldn’t someone have thought to ask passport officers and baggage handlers to stay on a bit late when delayed flights were expected. Even train some staff to help out with other jobs when needed.
Of course it’s always the same answer – ‘it’s not my job’. And with shoddy management who can blame them.
We don’t need new airports or new runways. We just need someone in charge to show a bit of initiative, to treat their staff like they’re the most important part of the business. And then perhaps they’ in turn will treat passengers like the slogan suggests.
Here that? Well, not for much longer.
At the end of this month, the BBC World Service will stop broadcasts to much of Europe. For years the World Service has formed part of a daily routine for millions of listeners across the continent, providing an open and trustworthy source of news.
Yet on the 27th March, the BBC will switch off their mighty Medium Wave transmitters – which broadcast to much of France, Benelux, Germany and Denmark – and thousands of radios across Europe will fall silent.
Whilst our English language service is being axed, other entire language services are facing the chop too. Egypt alone will lose broadcasts that serve nearly half a million listeners. All in the name of government costs savings. There could not be a worse time to cut broadcasts to North Africa – nor a more short sighted decision.
It’s true that most of Western Europe now has access to a free and independent media (though Berlusconi and Murdoch give one some pause for thought) thus reducing one of the arguments for the World Service. But for many – me included – the BBC World Service still plays an important role in delivering impartial fact-based journalism without fear or favour.
More importantly though, the World Service provides its listeners with an international outlook that is so often missing in domestic media. And that is why Europe still needs the World Service.
Much of Europe’s domestic news services have become more parochial. The main television and radio bulletins now cover little international news, and any international news they do cover has to have a domestic angle.
Take the latest events in Libya for example: domestic media in the UK struggled to report the story until they stumbled on a UK angle – that British citizens were finding it hard to get home. This became the story at the expense of the wider upheaval in the country. It replaced analysis of the situation on almost all domestic outlets. A domestic angle to an international story was what was important to UK editors.
The World Service somehow remained a bastion of quality and internationalism in a media world which is forever looking inwards. It was unashamedly outward looking. It challenged and educated its listeners. Complexity wasn’t a vice or a reason not to report a story.
The World Service made me think, and on more than one occasion, reach for a map. If it did that for other listeners in other countries it was money well spent; for who doesn’t think it’s in the UK’s direct interest for other citizens in other countries to be well informed of the international world?
In a difficult and turbulent world, that international outlook is vital to help citizens understand and engage with the world around them. And understanding leads to trust. Yet listen to domestic news and you’d be hard pressed to realise there were other countries out there. The small amount of money spent on the World Service pays for itself many times over – anything that makes it more difficult to receive is a false economy.
Yes, I know the press release blithely reassures listeners in Europe that they can listen online, but I find it enough of a challenge to make coffee in the morning, let alone fiddle with my computer. Analogue radio is about the only thing I can operate whilst I’m still in bed. So that’s why I’m so sad to be losing my ear on the world.
Come the end of March I’ll be waking up and going to bed in an awkward silence.
I’d been so busy the week before Beirut that I’d quite forgotten to book anywhere to stay. A couple of days before I was due to leave, I fired off a quick email to the marathon organising team to see if it was still possible to get a place in the official marathon hotel. Quick as a flash, the reply comes to say they’d be able to sort something out, and they’d send someone to meet me at the airport.
I wasn’t entirely convinced, and was pretty much expecting to have to sort somewhere out when I arrived.
Customs and immigration were a breeze. They’re more interested in searching your passport for an Israeli stamp than anything else. I get the impression one could walk through customs with a haul of AK47s just as long as your passport is clean
To my surprise there’s a friendly guy from the Marathon Association holding a card with my name on it.
He’s also waiting for a Zimbabwean guy coming off the same London flight who’s doing the handcycle marathon. His kit looks pretty advanced. He says his personal best is something like 1h06. I’m no expert in the handcycle race, but that seems pretty fast (only later do I see him on the podium taking second place)
The flight arrived the wrong side of midnight. Yet it was still warm, but pouring with rain. Outside, with the chaotic traffic and honking of horns, the place had an almost tropical feel. The route into town takes us over flooded dual carriageways. And there were more hills than I was expecting. In the dark and driving rain, it feels a little like arriving into Hong Kong late at night.
Beirut by night initially strikes me as a mix of provincial Turkish city, with a bit of Bangkok, and a little Hong Kong thrown in for good measure. Despite the late hour, the city is still buzzing.
When I check in to the hotel, the desk clerk excitedly tells me he’s running too. He looks like he’ll be fast.
The Le Commodore hotel has a faded old world charm about it. The staff are quite incompetent but the sympathetically restored bar and dated, but solid feeling rooms make this a change from flash-in-the-pan “design” hotels that are springing up everywhere.
The Commodore was the place where Western journalists hunkered down and made their home during the civil war. Now it hosts press conferences for the Beirut Marathon Association. That seems a fitting tribute to how far Lebanon has come since the war.
Now that the Commodore is the official marathon hotel, it’s full with an eclectic mix of international athletes, and me. A lot of wheelchair and handcycle racers are staying at the hotel. Their kit fills the lobby and corridors. Then there are runners from Ethiopia, Kenya and Iraq, all wearing national colours.
If the Le Commodore is one of Beirut’s iconic hotels, the other is perhaps the Holiday Inn. Finished shortly before the war, its prominent location and elevation quickly made it a perfect hideout for snipers. Consequently the hotel building attracted huge return firepower, blasting and pot marking the concrete. It remains derelict in its bullet-ridden state. Even so it’s still significantly nicer than some Holiday Inns I’ve stayed in before. Maybe those snipers had nothing to do with the civil war, I thought, perhaps they were just tourists driven to take up arms by the Holiday Inn’s lurid colour scheme and poor room service.
The remains of the Holiday Inn stand right next to the recently renovated InterContinetial Phoenicia, which was itself blown to bits in 2005 by the bomb that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Harri. Hotels in Beirut have had a tough time. Most of the larger properties are now surrounded some of the most pointless security I’ve ever seen (and folks, I’ve dealt with the jobsworth security guys at Manchester Airport). Concrete blocks keep cars at bay until they’ve been “screened” for explosives.
As best I can tell, this involves a hapless security guard walking around the car with a metal aerial attached to a bit of plastic. If you’ve paid attention during airport screening you’ll know that a mass spectrometer, or trained sniffer dogs, are the only way of detecting explosives. Yet these guards are using the equivalent of divining sticks and homeothopathy for protection. It’s worse than useless. It makes me pleased I’m staying somewhere a bit lower key.
The other big hotel news in Beirut is the opening of the new Four Seasons Hotel on the Corniche – it opens in January 2010. Without the concrete blocks it looks like a particularly vulnerable target. If the troubles break out again, it’s certainly somewhere to avoid staying.
I spend the few days before the race exploring some of the more interesting parts of the city. The ruins of downtown have been revived in a Dubai-esque shopping mall. Around the Place d’Etoile the gorgeous stone buildings have been tastefully restored and look resplendent in the evening sun, but the shops are all bland luxury chain stores. Wherever I go I find the prevalence of H&M and Zara deeply depressing. I’m drawn to the backstreets of Gemmayzeh, Ashrafieh and Hamra, poking around down small alleyways and side streets. Two full days hoofing it around town are probably not the best way to prepare for a race, but my desire to explore trumps my desire for a decent time.
On Saturday evening there’s another torrential downpour that reminds me of the best the tropics can deliver. Thunder and lightening pound the hills surrounding the city.
I wake about 4:45 on Sunday and can hear the first call to prayer echoing from a nearby mosque. Cosy in my bed, my prayer is that it’s not raining.
Runners start gathering in the hotel lobby about 5:15. A few rickety minibuses have been rounded up to take us to the start, a little way out of town. I end up on a bus with the some of the elite Ethiopian athletes. There’s no better way to make yourself feel slothful and frumpy than to share a small bus with top-flight marathon runners.
It’s a relatively small field – 545 registered for the full 42km. There are more “men with guns” than I’ve seen at any other marathon start. I later find out that a good portion of the runners are UNIFIL – United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon – troops.
The marathon starts late. We run through a real mix of areas. The route first takes us south though the outskirts of Dahieh, one of the pro-Hezbollah shia suburbs.
This is pretty noticeable because all the lampposts have rather dodgy looking photos of “martyred” soldiers on them. Like the rest of the city, soldiers stand on each street corner, but out here they look more humourless. In fact they just look wet and cold. The housing stock is pretty grim too. It’s a real contrast to Ashrafieh. It doesn’t look like a fun place to live.
It’s cold, wet and everything gets covered in mud from all the building work. Maybe it looks better in the sun but it’s not an area I’d particularly like to walk through alone. Keep running, I think to myself, keep running.
Perhaps it’s just the contrast with the runners, but the solders who stand idly around didn’t look particularly athletic, and the tanks look considerably less able than the Hummers parked around the flash hotels in downtown. I briefly wonder about mounting my own coup. I could take these soldiers, me and a few runners….
The support crowds are thin, more morose soldiers than anyone else. There are a few kids about, hanging off balconies and whooping, and they give a good response when you wave back. And rather more Red Cross personnel than would seem strictly necessary for such a small field.
In a couple of places the scouts were out in force – or maybe they were just rookie soldiers – and a noticeable number of very welcome German supporters, complete with flags and balloons.
After about 15 minutes, the heavens open and it starts to rain, and rain, and rain. The uneven road quickly fills with muddy puddles and my shoes become waterlogged.
After leaving some of the Shia areas, the route gets less interesting, particularly from about halfway when the course heads north out of the city. The route follows along the side of a busy six-lane road, though an oil refinery and several building sites. And still it rains. Some of the organisers ride quad bikes and keep buzzing past the runners. The quad bikes belch out a noxious choking mix of exhaust fumes. By this stage the runners are moderately spread out, but I find two French guys going about my pace, and manage to use them as a bit of shelter from the wind and rain.
On the return into town around 36km, we cross into the central reservation of a busy road, much to the annoyance of a long line of traffic that’s built up. I pass a couple of wheelchair racers who seem to be having difficulty with the uneven surface. To say it’s unpleasant running with lanes of cars on either side of you would be an understatement. These cars are not sleek catalytic-converter-fitted machines, they’re old, smog-belching wrecks. I could taste the smoke at the back of my throat. This is quite different from my last race through the pure Alpine air, I remember thinking.
My ability to do any maths in my head always start fade as I get tired towards the end of a long run. At one point though I start to think I’m on for a personal best, until I realise that my watch is actually on dual time and showing the time in Brussels rather than Beirut. It requires counting on my fingers to work out my timing. I’m not going to get personal best, or a degree in mental arithmetic.
I didn’t exactly hit the wall but did fade a bit over the last few kilometres. About 500 metres from the finish I was passed by a woman putting on a particularly strong finish, whom I later discover is the British Ambassador the Lebanon. And I though Her Majesty’s Ambassadors were all elderly, overweight men. How the Foreign Office is changing!
I receive my medal, have my chip removed, and take shelter under one of those foil blankets.
It takes me a few minutes to realise that I’ve no idea of my finishing time. With the help of my fingers again, I work out that it’s something like 3 hours 37 minutes – a good 11 minutes slower than my best time.
I tracked down my kit bag, which much to my surprise hadn’t gone missing, and once I’d changed into some warm clothes, I felt much better.
I walk back slowly through town to the Commodore, watching the 10km race as I go. The 10km is more of a carnival than a run but it does have impressive participation. The full marathon, and the associated 10km and 5km fun runs, takeover and involve the whole town. With somewhere over 30,000 participants for all the races, it’s an event that brings together the city.
With participants from all of Beirut’s mixed backgrounds, and runners from countries in a far worse state then Lebanon, this is one run that really unites a once divided city.
When does travelling feel more like commuting? Travelling should be fun, but commuting evokes thoughts of tedium. Perhaps I’m becoming a little jaded but recently all my flights have felt like commuting rather than travelling. Or maybe it’s just flying in and out of Brussels where the flights are always full of boring men in suits.
The silence in the cabin is marked only by the gentle tap on blackberry keys or the quiet rustle of pages of The Economist. No one talks to each other. Everyone keeps themselves to themselves. Everyone’s done this a hundred time before. Even flights back and forward across the Atlantic are now much the same predictable affair. And because there’s never any decent wine in the galley, no one drinks to liven things up.
Things felt a little different then at Heathrow the other week as I waited to board BD997 to Khartoum via Beirut. The Khartoum flight was packed, loud and buzzing, and a real contrast to the Lufthansa flight that was boarding at the next gate.
The rickety Airbus A321 was showing its age. The flight felt like more of an adventure than a chore; like flying in the 1990s, before everything got ruined by the low-cost revolution; when the wine flowed freely and the crew were attractive. Or maybe I’m wearing my rose-tinted glasses again.
There wasn’t a boring businessman in sight. Quite who was going to Khartoum I wondered. And why? And were there any marathon runners on the flight, en route to Beirut?
Despite the interesting mix of people on the flight, it’s becoming clear that I’m destined to spend my life on flights sitting next to boring or ugly people – or people who drool in their sleep. I’m convinced there’s a module in the online check-in system that always puts me next to the least interesting person on the flight.
As the flight climbed out over the North Sea, the cabin’s single isle became a hive of activity as people moved about the aircraft. Maybe it was the thought of weeks without alcohol in the Sudan that got everyone drinking and talking and sharing stories and visiting friends a few rows forward.
Some five hours later the plane swept low along the cost of Beirut, the lights of downtown twinkling just outside the window. Apart from the approach into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, it’s rare that you get such a good view of the city, as you do on the approach into Beirut.
The wheels hit the ground and the surge of reverse thrust kicked in. I couldn’t help but think that this very same runway had two huge holes blown in it by Israeli fighter jets just two years ago. That’s not something you get on the Brussels commute.
Those of us getting out at Beirut started to gather our stuff together. The crew were getting off too. For safely reasons, bmi don’t let their crew stay over in Khartoum, but fly them in and out of Beirut in one rotation, before they return to London on the next days flight.
I noticed that the more interesting-looking people were staying on the plane and hunkering down for the night flight to Sudan. I was suddenly in two minds. I wanted to explore Beirut but I felt sad not to be going to whole way to Khartoum for a bit of adventure. Would they take a stowaway, I wondered?
As we taxied off the runway, music started to fill the cabin from the public address system. The retro beat of “Sweet Harmony” by The Beloved, somehow energised the cabin, and gave my swift dash for the jetway a very 1990s feel. Khartoum would have to wait.