Far from Folsom Prison, that’s where I want to stay

Allow me to set the scene.

My vision has been (slowly) improving and my anxiety has been starting to ease back.  It’s a sunny Monday and I’m heading to specialist eye clinic for a follow up appointment and to get the results of the CT scan and MRI of my head.  I’m looking forward to getting in and hearing something along the lines of, “Welp, everything checks out, things should continue to improve, see ya later!”  A palpable sense of relief floods over me and with every step I take that brings me closer to the clinic I feel happier.  I can start making plans again!  I can go back to my life!  I can let everyone in my spin classes listen to me breathe like a rapist and gasp for sweet, sweet oxygen as I struggle to get through a 45 minute session after weeks of sedentary gloom!

Things are looking up.  I’m Johnny Cash about to be freed from my cell at Folsom Prison; about to see sunshine again since I don’t know when; about to drive my mental train a bit farther from the prison created by my own panic.  Man – I feel Zen.  As.  Fuck.

So, you can imagine it was a bit of a sucker punch when, after explaining what had been going on to a new specialist’s face, he told me he wasn’t convinced it was the swollen optic nerve.  And it was equally gut-wrenching when, upon realising I had been for brain scans and was eager to hear the results, he went to his computer to pull up the file and then, discreetly, turned the monitor away from me.

What transpired from my appointment was that there were abnormalities in my brain scan.  I can’t fault the guy’s bedside manner, but you know it’s never a good sign when you can see someone’s brain ticking away while they try and choose the right phrasing for the occasion.  The topic of multiple sclerosis was brought up again, though he made it a point to make it clear that this is not what he was diagnosing me with.  He also talked me through a range of possibilities for what the brain scan results could be (discounting tumors, to my relief, fairly rapidly).

As optic neuritis is closely associated with the onset of MS, and as my symptoms weren’t “textbook”, then the first thing to do would be to try and confirm whether or not the optic nerve was swollen.  For this, I have to have some neurological tests, which I am choosing to imagine will be 2 hours of Clockwork Orange-esque rigmarole, but will likely be much less terrifying.  If these tests reveal I have had swelling in the optic nerve, then GOOD: I know what the issue is, but BAD: MS is more likely.  If I haven’t had swelling in the optic nerve then GOOD: MS less likely, but BAD: what’s wrong with my vision, but also, what’s going on with my brain?!

Well, as the scan remains (for now) the only head scan I’ve ever had, there’s no telling how long the irregularity has been there.  It could have happened years ago and been asymptomatic.  Because my blindness in my left eye (from birth) is thought to have been caused by toxoplasmosis, there is also the chance that something happened there which caused the abnormalities.  Or, as the doctor said, “it is not outwith the realms of possibility.”

There’s even the possibility that what turned up in the brain scan is completely unrelated to what has been happening with my vision.  A final idea is that the vision problems are just physical manifestations of stress.  Now I’d consider myself to be pretty laid back and adaptable, so initially I scoffed internally at this suggestion, but the reality is a few years back, feeling no more under pressure than normal, I started suffering from anxiety and having very real, very scary physical symptoms.  The specialist I was in with even told me about how he ran clinical trials on 30+ people with optic neuritis, but he had been forced to discount the results of two participants – who he had diagnosed himself – as it turned out their symptoms were a result of stress.

So what was his advice for me in the interim before tests and more results could shed some light on the situation?  Try to relax.  Well, at least that got a laugh out of me.  Dude, you have got to be kidding – relax?!  Does that mean treating myself to “stressbuster” massages and Indian head rubs?  Does it mean turning all the lights out in my classroom and listen to guided progressive muscle relaxation tutorials on YouTube while I lie on the floor?  Does it mean buying a Himalayan salt lamp to ‘neutralise electromagnetic radiation’ which can – allegedly – cause stress levels to rise, affect your immune system, and lead to chronic fatigue?  Does it mean sitting at home alone at night and cruising tinder to find a human being to talk to in an attempt to avoid panicking by myself?  Does it mean trying to rebalance my chakra (whatever that actually means) by busting out some yoga moves in my living room? Because I have done all of those things, and while they might alleviate anxiety in the moment (and definitely beat sitting at home crying), they are absolutely not going to bring about a sense of calm that definitive medical test results will be able to.

Frustratingly, the first batch of those tests was scheduled to be yesterday, but I got a phone call in the morning to tell me that the doctor had phoned in sick, and my appointment was cancelled, with no indication of when I could expect them to be rescheduled.

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So until those tests happen, I guess I’m still stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin’ on.

The most terrifying weeks of my life

As someone who regularly shrugs off laughter from my cycling friends for wearing sunglasses (I really should get proper cycling glasses) at all times when riding, even in dull, dreary conditions, my pride takes a backseat to the protection of my eyes.  Or eye, to be more specific.  You see, I’ve only really got the one functioning eye as since birth I have had a gnarly scar on the retina of my ‘bad eye’, which means it’s kind of like a window with a lace curtain over it: good for letting in light and seeing shapes move/colour, but not great for actually seeing things.  Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty cautious about my vision.  For example, I would never consider bungee jumping as I read there is a chance your retina could detach.  No thank you.

POP QUIZ! Which of the retina images below is of my faulty eye?  I bet you get it right.  Hint: it’s the one that looks a bit like it’s growing mould.

One Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I woke up and tried to read the time on my phone screen, but the glare made everything on the screen swim around, and I had to squint to make anything out.  I just assumed it was first-thing-in-the-morning blurriness, and put my phone down.  When I went outside, the bright sunshine made everything swim around.  I sent a message to a friend who is a GP-turned-optician casually seeking reassurance, because I am a raging hypochondriac, but after I described my symptoms got the reply “You should get it seen immediately.”  PANIC STATIONS ON!

I managed to get an emergency appointment at the optician, and went through a series of tests before being reassured that my eye looked perfectly healthy.  THEN WHY CAN’T I SEE PROPERLY?! They made me a follow up appointment for the following week to make sure everything was still fine, and with vision eventually starting to improve, I started feeling calmer.

The following day I went for a 50 mile cycle, and though vision seemed normal, under the strip lights in the supermarket that night, things seemed to be moving around a little.  Huh, must just be wearing off.  Be cool, Rachel – it’s all good. The following day, Monday, it was back to school after the two week October break, and vision seemed to be normal.  I brushed off the experience as a one off weird-body thing, and went about my day, breathing heavy sighs of relief and promising myself I would eat carrots more.  Because eyesight is great.

Everything remained normal until Tuesday midday.  I went for a coffee with my friend Claire at lunchtime, and on the way back to school the low sunlight hitting the autumn leaves was playing tricks on my eyes.

“Whoah, hey, Claire, is the sunlight doing weird things to those leaves?”

“Uhhh, nope.  They look normal to me.”

“Oh.  Shit.”

We went back to school and the strip lights in her classroom were making me squint, and everything on her desk was dancing.  I had one class left in the afternoon, but as it seemed to be getting worse quickly, she offered to cover if I could get another appointment at the optician, which I did.  Again, everything came back normal, but by this time everything was blurry and I was in mini-meltdown mode.  By dinner time, I had taken up my friend Roz’s offer to drive me to the hospital, and I was seen in A&E and given yet more tests.  They decided it was probably an eye-migraine (who knew such things existed?!), and offered a shot in the butt of some mega strong migraine drugs.  I also had the joy of peeing into a cup (not pregnant), and given a list of things that could potentially trigger an eye migraine (caffeine, hormones from contraceptive pill, stress, an infection, blah, blah, blah).  I decided to avoid all of these things in an effort to get my vision back ASAP.

Wednesday morning and things had deteriorated.  I could barely read anything and struggled to make out faces on the TV.  I called in sick for my spin class and work, and made a same-day GP appointment, where I was again told it was likely an eye migraine and prescribed more drugs, but told to phone back the next day if things hadn’t improved.  I had convinced myself I was going blind, and was near hysterical.

By Friday things hadn’t improved, and my GP said he’d get in touch with the Eye Clinic at the hospital to try and get me an emergency appointment.  By Friday afternoon I had developed a sizeable blind spot, and my boss and one of my colleagues were sitting with me at yet another emergency optician appointment.  The woman who took care of me was very nice, and told me to wait while she tried to get me into the Eye Clinic (I didn’t bother telling her my GP was doing that – I wanted these people to be hassled enough to see me IMMEDIATELY) as soon as possible.  An appointment for the following Monday – after an entire freaking weekend! – was made, and I was told if things didn’t improve to go back to A&E.  We decided to cut out the waiting and head straight there.

Behold a crappy MS Paint representation of what my vision was like compared to normal.  If you stare at the red cross, that’s kind of close to where I was at.  Kind of.  My Paint skills are somewhat lacking.

I guess sobbing uncontrollably and ugly crying made the lovely nurse take pity on me, and the fact that I have very limited vision in my other eye made him phone up the on-call eye doctor in the Eye Ward and practically force her to see me that night.  What followed was a bit of a journey through the hospital maze, a bit of a wait, and finally some more tests.

The lady who saw me was probably one of the most reassuring people I have ever met, and she told me it was one of two things: an eye migraine (which is basically what they diagnose if there’s nothing else wrong), or optic neuritis, which she explained was basically inflammation of the optic nerve behind the eye.  Symptoms include blurred vision (check), blind spots (check), flashing lights (check), and dulling of colour (check).  She told me not to worry, and to come in for my appointment after the weekend for an MOT.

She also mentioned that the condition usually got worse before it got better, but that improvements usually start after a couple of weeks, and normal vision after improvement could return after as much as 12 weeks.  Butt-cheeks unclench!  I’m not going blind!

One slightly more concerning fact she dropped on me is that it can be an early sign that someone is developing MS, but at that point I was only concerned about getting my vision back.

The following weeks were a blur of appointments, sobbing quietly to myself on my sofa, friends coming round to cook for me and keep me company, my dad flying over from the States to take care of me, MRI and CT scans, and avoiding looking up my condition on Google, because I would inevitably convince myself I was dying.  It has now been nearly a month since this whole thing started, and my vision is slowly improving.  I have to wait until the 28th of November before I get scan results and see yet another specialist, but the fact that I can leave my apartment and actually see cars as I try to cross the road has opened up a world of possibilities for me: I can walk to the local supermarket unaided, I can use a computer, and I can see that I need to vacuum my living room!

The fact that my anxiety levels regarding my vision have dropped would normally be great, but in this case it has simply allowed me to start dwelling on other possibilities, because my mind is a dick: what caused it in the first place; what if I’m developing MS; what if my vision never gets back to normal?  Basically, I’m a sad sack of panic, so I am very much looking forward to getting all of my results back and things getting back to normal.

I’m sure my mother, who has been on the receiving end of my distressed phone calls (usually about 4am Texas time), is keen for things to calm down as well. And my colleagues, who have been keeping things ticking over in my absence, and who will definitely be treated to something nice when I finally get back to work.

The Curse of the Chicken

“Fall seven times and stand up eight.” – Japanese proverb

 

After my shorter-than-expected NC500 attempt, I was keen to get back out on the bike.  The road bike.  And what better way to ease myself in than to join the Wheelers for a ball-busting club run?

Sunday morning at 8:45 I found myself, along with Roz, Pamela, Robbie, and a dirty Thistle interloper (joking, obviously), heavy breathing like never before simply trying to hold Robbie’s wheel on the ride out of town to Netherly Bridge – the start point. The route was a reasonably flat 50 miler with a hill in the middle, so there was a glimmer of hope that us ladies would manage to keep up with the menfolk, with limited turns on the front, in the “slow group”, advertised as a 14-16mph average pace cruise.  Sidenote: our average speed was upwards of 16mph.  Just saying.

While we managed to stick in with the boys, maintaining a heart-attack effort throughout and being overtaken by the fast group (who had set off 15 minutes behind us) just after 30 miles, the real drama came courtesy of a mf’ing chicken.  I was holding Roz’s wheel when this creature let out the most ridiculous sound imaginable, causing Roz to laugh and stop pedaling.  As someone who rides so close to someone’s wheel it should be considered vulgar, I peeled off to one side to avoid crashing into her, but then, in slow motion, I saw her back wheel swerving towards me.  Unable to do much at all, and thankfully at a speed that was unlikely to cause too much pain, I resigned myself to the fact that in a matter of moments I would be making sweet love to the road.*

I landed with a horrific sounding ‘crunch’, possibly peppered with a yelp on my part, and did that thing where you just remain as still as possible, mentally surveying the damage based on what areas hurt the most.  In this instance, my shoulder and wrist, which I landed pretty hard on, and my right thigh, which was burning in that way that foretold a stinging shower experience in the future.  Pamela and Roz helped me, shaking, off the road and onto the grassy verge where I realized, with mild concern, that I couldn’t feel my fingers on my right hand.  I also couldn’t stop them from shaking.

Roz offered husband assist, but I decided to try to get to Floras coffee shop, about a 20 minute ride away, and reassess the damage.  Thankfully, Robbie managed to bend my rear mech hanger back into a usable position so my gears stopped jumping and, with some discomfort, we made it to Floras, by which point I was starting to feel a little more put-together, bar the excruciating pain of putting weight on my right hand.  Still – with no bruising or swelling, so nothing broken, I opted to just cycle the remaining ten miles or so home, because TENACITY, where I got that bastarding shower with some pretty impressive road rash down the right side of my body.

I hobbled to the shop afterwards, picking up some vegetables and chicken for a stir-fry.  I hope this is your mother, you degenerate, I whispered to the two chicken breasts as I dropped them into my basket.  The stir fry was delicious.

This morning I awoke to what I have previously experienced as whiplash.  Like a geriatric, I stumbled about some chores in the morning, before deciding to check out what’s on in the city online.  Apparently there was an art exhibition called ‘Northern Lights’ on today from 10-4 at Drum Castle.  With no solid plans, I decided to cycle the ten miles out – on the touring bike, because the road bike needs fixed – only to discover that the castle was closed.  The curse of the chicken continues!  I had a quick walk around the grounds, but in slightly sweaty lycra I was soon pretty cold, and cycled home.

Last winter was my first experience as a non-fair-weather cyclist, at times finding myself on the open road with actual goddamn snow lying on my thigh as I had serious concerns about losing appendages to hypothermia.  I saw huge improvements in my speed and endurance, and I don’t want to let that go into hibernation along with my flip flops.  Armed with some more appropriate cold weather cycling gear, I’m hoping for some decent winter rides with some equally enthusiastic (read: unhinged) people.

The change has happened you guys:  Cycling > Running.

 

*Roz, it wasn’t your fault.  Stop saying ‘sorry’.

A Steep Learning Curve -The NC500 (ish)

“I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful.  Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won’t destroy you.”  -Willem Dafoe

A couple of months ago, my friend Eilidh – who shall herein be referred to as ‘the deserter’ – suggested we both tackle the North Coast 500 route on our bikes, and we loosely planned to do so during my October break, allowing us plenty of time to get round the North coast of Scotland.  The more I read about it, the more enthused I became, and so when, more recently, she decided to pull out (citing ‘cold weather’, ‘tough climbs’, and ‘applying for jobs’ as excuses), the seed had already taken root, and I remained undeterred.  I began making solo preparations – I was going on an adventure!

Day 1 – 65.1 miles, 1893ft elevation

I booked myself and my touring bike onto the earliest train to Inverness on Tuesday morning, and, as is tradition, I packed about 20 minutes before I had to leave the apartment.  Error number one.  Upon my return I realised my panniers, tent, and rucksack amounted to roughly 18kg of predominantly unnecessary weight (and that’s after ditching a tub of butter, a pack of dry pasta, and a bottle of shampoo at my final accommodation).

I awoke in Inverness with a crick in my neck and the sun shining.  Not wanting to allow myself to get too complacent in the warm morning sun, I allowed myself the luxury of a quick coffee (which is a habit I have only recently acquired), before loading my panniers, setting up my Garmin, and clipping in.

I couldn’t have asked for more perfect conditions: tufts of white cotton candy mist hung lazily above farmland, suspended in the morning lull, and as I turned to take in the view of the Firth of Beauly on my right I noticed my frozen breath puffing out like the clouds of a steam engine.

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As the sun continued to sluggishly rise – we’re getting into the darker winter months where it struggles to reach the top, instead arcing across the sky throughout the day – I realised I was in the final gasp of summer.  It was also here that I realised I had made a few more mistakes:

  • I had no first aid kit (thankfully not an issue)
  • I had left my rear light on my road bike back home
  • I had accidentally booked my first night’s accommodation 20 miles short of where I had originally intended to stop,  meaning the following day, which would take in the infamous Bealach na ba, would consist of 80+ miles

14725223_10157457012430234_108355989_oMotivated by fresh legs, unseasonably favourable weather conditions, and a sense of adventure, I initially decided to use this  as an opportunity to ‘warm up’ for the journey.  I soon found myself cruising through the villages of Beauly and Muird of Ord, noticing that the Gaelic spelling of place names had taken priority over English spellings on road signs – a sure sign that I was leaving the familiar comforts of supermarkets and reliable phone signal.  I stopped briefly at the Contin store, panic buying a banana and some juice after reading their signs claiming ‘LAST SHOP UNTIL ULLAPOOL’, and enjoyed a rest on the bench in the sunshine, listening to birdsong and the occasional rumble of passing traffic.  Out of the city, folk seem to meander, a trait which both charms and infuriates me depending on my mood.

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I continued on to Achnasheen, where my lodgings were for the evening, but it was still early afternoon and the skies were still blue so – with invaluable text assistance from Roz, who was at work in the vicinity of a computer and internet connection, found a single room in Lochcarran which was just over 20 miles further along the road.  As soon as the room was confirmed, and I’d had a sandwich for lunch, I set off, glad to be chipping away at tomorrow’s planned journey length.

To add to my delight the road to Lochcarran, bar a slight bump at the start, seemed to be entirely downhill, and before I knew it I was skirting the loch looking for a statue of a Buddha that would mark my home for the evening.

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After unloading the bike I wolfed down dinner and a couple of beers at the Lochcarran Hotel before indulging in a ‘healing’ massage.  My host happened to be a trained masseuse who worked until 10pm.

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I didn’t struggle to get to sleep after 65 miles of cycle, and went to bed eager to face the next day’s challenges.  If only I knew what was in store.  Mistake number 5: not studying the route profile.

 

Day 2 – 64.5 miles, 5967ft elevation

After a restful sleep, I woke  up before my alarm when the loch was calm and still glimmering in moonlight.  Nature beckoned me to the toilet, which is when mistake number 6 occurred: leaving my key on the bed as I closed the self locking door behind me.  Unhappy at the thought of having to wake my host, I was relieved to find her and her lodger already up, and the master key allowed me to get packed and ready.  Spirits remained high.

My panniers seemed to feel a bit heavier than they did yesterday, and the fact that my morning was to take in the UK’s highest mountain pass (and arguably the UK’s toughest climb) did nothing to quell my mounting trepidation.  I even momentarily flirted with the idea of taking the coastal route – reserved for lorries and the like – but a Mia Farrow quote was stuck in my mind: “I’m going to take the high road because the low road is so crowded.”  I decided to coin my own interpretation of this.  “Ain’t no mountain gonna make me its bitch.”  And so off I went, full of gusto, full of life, full of a sub-standard sausage roll.

Before the big climb begins, there is an initial bastard of a hill, and it was quickly off with the jacket, on with the sweat.  Once that was summited, there was a woefully long descent before the mighty Bealach loomed into view.  Holy.  Fuckin’.  Shit.

 

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Thankfully, despite the weight of my bike and luggage, I had easier gears than on my road bike, so it was a case of spin-spin-spin on the initial slog, lulling me into a false sense of security.  Although a few markedly steep sections, this didn’t seem all that bad.  The kicker with this climb, however, is it saves the punishingly steep sections until the hairpin bends at the very top.  Add to this the fact that you’re on a single track road, regularly having to tuck into passing places to allow traffic by, and the heartbeat rapidly rises.

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My goal had been not to push the bike, but when I reached the hairpin bends I was again forced to peel into a passing place and dismount to allow cars past, and the gradient was so steep I couldn’t get enough momentum to clip in and stay upright on the bike.  I tried – and failed – a few times before deciding this was not an ideal place to fall and break my leg.  And so I pushed my tank up and around two of the hairpins, regularly pulling myself to the side of the road as a courtesy to caravans, before finally finding a plateau suitable for re-mounting, and chugging my way to the false summit.

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Thankfully, there was only one more milder climb after that until I could see the cairn and a sign for a parking place up ahead.  I had conquered the Bealach!  On a touring bike!  With 18kg of my worldly possessions! I felt immortal!

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With the stunning weather came stunning views across to the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye, which I took in along with a snack until the breeze chilled my sweat and I decided to begin the white-knuckle descent towards Applecross, for some of the best scallops smothered in garlic butter I could ever hope to have served to me on a bed of rice.

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Well, I thought to myself, that’s the tough bit over with.  Just 45 miles of nice, flat coastal road to go!  And for the first 15 minutes out of Applecross, that cheerful notion remained unchallenged.  With Skye on the left, and clusters of postcard houses on the shore, I was living a dream.

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And then it all went to hell.  It turns out ‘coastal road’ does not necessarily equate to ‘flat road’, a misconception that was to punish my legs and spirit for the remainder of the day.  Although beautiful, my smile settled firmly into a grimace, my humming into grunts.

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It was around this time a different quote was at the forefront of my mind, courtesy of Helena Bonham Carter: “There comes a point where you just go, ultimately, I don’t give a fuck anymore.”  Word, sister.  My jacket, which I was too tired to remove, was a few shades darker than it should have been due to being drenched in my sweat, and my face was a few shades redder than I’d liked it to have been.  It seemed after every twist in the road I was facing another short, steep climb, and I was growing weary.  To downplay another rising situation wildly, and to avoid over sharing graphic details, 100+ miles on an unfamiliar saddle on grueling terrain was wreaking havoc on parts of my anatomy.

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I checked my map and realised that after about 20 miles of coastal, single track road I would re-join the ‘main’ road, a thought that gave me hope, and when I finally came across Shieldaig, the immediate ascent on the main road and the sign for a coffee shop in Shieldaig saw me steer abruptly left for some respite in the form of a seat, a cappuccino, and a scone.

By this point it was nearing 4pm, and aware of limited daylight, I forced myself not to stop for too long, despite the aggressive desire to lie down and die.  I had 18 miles left until Kinlochewe, and my reservation in the bunkhouse.  Imagining how good it would feel to be warm, freshly showered, and sinking a beer kept me going through the valley from Torridon to Kinlochewe, barren as my soul.  The sun was setting, the wind was picking up, the temperature was dropping, and I could no longer feel my feet.  It was at precisely my lowest moment, roughly a mile from Kinlochewe, when I encountered the single asshole driver of my trip, honking at me despite a passing place being less than 100 feet ahead, prompting me to instinctively exhale my entire vocabulary of derogatory terms at her passing open window, spit and venom shooting from my mouth.  I was a broken woman.  I wanted to throw my bike under a bus.

Arriving, half-dead, in Kinlochewe, I quickly found the Hotel and checked in, having a shower and spending 20 minutes lying alone on my bunk, completely still, wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea.  And then I did either the smartest or dumbest thing I could possibly do at that point: for the first time ever, I decided to study the elevation for my upcoming ride.  And that’s when I knew I was done.

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I was so tired I couldn’t even finish my dinner, despite the lack of food I’d taken in during the day, and even the thought of a cold pint turned my stomach.  Instead of looking for things to do in Ullapool, I tried to find out if there was a train station in Kinlochewe (there wasn’t) and examined various routes back to Inverness.  I cancelled all of my hotel bookings for the remainder of the week, and went to bed overcome with a sense of immense relief.  It was over.  Well, nearly…

Day 3 – 26.5 miles, 1220ft elevation

Again, having gone to bed hours earlier than I normally would, I was up before my alarm, but instead of leaping out of bed I just lay there in the darkness,  contemplating what decisions in life brought me to this place.  I don’t consider myself someone who quits, but I fully concede that on this occasion I had bitten off more than I could chew.  Though I wanted nothing more than to be in my own bed, I had no choice but to get back on the bike if I ever wanted to get there, so I packed up and got dressed.

14689293_10157457004645234_1498513926_oUnfortunately, the hotel doesn’t do breakfast, the shop doesn’t open until 9, and I had no food.  It was just under 10 miles to get back to Achnasheen where I knew there was nothing but a hotel, and I just sucked it up and decided to try for breakfast there.  I.  Was.  Pumped.

Before I set off I knew I had a few options.  The first was to cycle the 50 miles back to Inverness; the second was to wait a couple of hours at the ghost-town station at Achnasheen; and the third was to continue on to Garve (25 miles away), and hope there was a little more life there to help while away the hours before catching a train to Inverness from their station.

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The road to Achnasheen wasted no time before taking me uphill, climbing over 200m in less than 4 miles.  In fact, it was very similar to the first section of the Bealach, gradient-wise.  Thankfully, from the summit it was basically all downhill to Garve, which did little to lift my spirits with the bitching headwind making downhill cycling a real chore.  Eventually, however, I reached Achnasheen, and the kind man on reception rustled me up a bacon roll and some coffee as I sat, the sole customer, in the drawing room with several stuffed stag heads as my only company. A bit warmer, and with some food in my belly, I decided to press on to Garve and see how I felt.14699616_10157457005150234_117212706_o

After 15 more miles of unrelenting headwinds, and with frozen toes, I reached Garve with my decision made.  I’d wait for the train.  However, with two hours to kill in a hotel that doesn’t serve food, I had little option but to get comfy and warm up with another coffee. Thankfully I was alone – again – so took liberties that I maybe wouldn’t have in polite company.  There is, however, nothing quite like warm, dry socks on cold feet.

When the time came for the train to arrive, I wrapped up and wheeled my bike to the station.  I was soon joined by two more cyclists who had come from Ullapool that morning.  And then another two cyclists materialised on the platform.  Considering it was a small station, things were starting to look bad for at least some of us, as there are limited places for bikes on the train.  We were all exhausted, and began vying for a prime position to launch ourselves at the open doors, but the two men I had been chatting two delivered a killer blow: not only did they have train tickets (I was told I had to just buy them on the train), they had bike reservations as well.  My heart sank.

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When the train arrived, the conductress’s exasperated face and shaking head at the sight of us and our bikes was a bad sign.  The doors hissed open, and she immediately said, “There’s no room for five bikes.”  The two guys with reservations hopped on smugly, waving their tickets, and she asked if any of the rest of us had a reservation.  We all shook our heads, and she said that she was sorry, but there was simply no more space.  Desperate and feral, the details of the next few minutes are hazy, but 5 minutes later I was sitting on a train to Inverness with  my bike precariously strapped in near me, and the remaining two cyclists were left on the platform to wait for the next train.  I was genuinely too exhausted to feel sorry for them.

Back in Inverness, I booked a ticket (and bike reservation) for a train back to Aberdeen, and spent the majority of the journey asleep.  By the time I woke up, we were just passing Inverurie and it was dark outside.  I became very aware of how much I smelled, but didn’t care.  Roz picked me up from the train station, drove me home, and handed me a bag with some juice, a pastry, some bananas, and an oven pizza.  It was over.

I’m definitely not done with the NC500, but next attempt will be on a road bike.  In the summer.  With hotels booked along the way. And a single pannier.  I might start from Kinlochewe as well…

 

To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do.” -Nick Cave

Etape Royale 100

Time: 7:49:41

Position: 395/560 (29/54 females)

Medal: Yes

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Running for the second time, the Etape Royale 100 mile sportive was an event I hesitated to enter for a few reasons, chiefly the hefty £70 entry fee (though considering the cost of having a closed road event, and seeing just how well organized the day was, it was clear to see where much of the money had gone), and the fact that it was mighty in both length and elevation, advertising a quad-searing 9829 feet of total ascent, and giving cyclists the opportunity to tackle the Queen’s View, the Suie, the Cabrach, the Lecht, and – finally – Gairnsheil with command of the entire road.

A third reason was the unpredictability of Scotland’s weather, so it was with great relief that I awoke at the AirBnB I had been staying at with Roz in Tarland at 04:00 on Sunday morning to step outside and witness a serene, shadowy view of farmland bathed in the pale glow of the harvest moon, the world caught in the eerie windless, stillness of an eclipse under the barely flickering stars.  I was, for a brief moment, under the spell of the moonlight, immune to the morning chill.

‘Why the fuck are you making me do this?’ – Roz

‘It’ll be fun – casual cycle, sunshine.’ – Me

Penetrating glare – Roz

Wading through overgrown grass in the parking area as the sun threatened to peek over the horizon, Roz and I went through the familiar routine of preparing our bikes and ourselves for the day’s task before mustering at the portaloos (though not glamorous, a convenient meeting point) to wait for Sarah, Natalie, and Emma, as we planned to start off as a group and ride together until the third food stop at Rhynie.

With some trepidation, we pushed through the throngs of lycra clad shapes towards the starting gantry, beginning in Wave C, and quickly tucked in behind a small, quick group of men.  The course was reasonably flat for the opening 12 or so miles, and we clung onto wheels in front of us until the first climb at the Queen’s View, a not-too-severe wake-up call for the legs, but a very early indication that once the course hit the bigger hills our plan of riding together might unravel.

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Etape Royale elevation profile

Roz and Emma were both having bad days on the bike, while Sarah and Natalie were feeling great.  We regrouped at the Rhynie feed station about 60km into the course having summited the ‘warm-up’ hills, and spirits were still reasonably high.

The next stage involved climbing the Cabrach, which again felt a bit underwhelming, before the descent into Dufftown and the next feed station.  I knew that what was to follow was an 18 mile uphill slog to Tomintoul, having experienced it a few weeks prior during the Audax, so I had some homebakes and energy drink, preparing myself for a particularly draining stint in the saddle.  It was here that Sarah and Natalie flew ahead (eventually finishing 12th and 13th female), and while my cruise control saw me cycling alone slightly ahead of Roz and Emma, I made it a point to wait for them at feed stations and summits, as Roz will confirm that it is entirely my fault that she “entered and turned up to the fucking disgusting thing.”  I may be paraphrasing, slightly.

After what seemed like hours, I had reached Tomintoul, and once Roz and Emma had enjoyed a feed we set off for the daunting climb up the Lecht.  It’s one of those climbs where you can look all the way to the top, and watch as those ahead weave on the road next to others who had dismounted and were pushing their bikes uphill.  Apart from one particular steep section near the start, where the gradient exceeded 20%, the climb was manageable, and the thought of soup and a pie at the top proved worthy motivation.  As did the knowledge that what goes up must come down.

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Roz and Emma starting the descent on the Lecht

By this point the wind had picked up, and the enjoyment of the descent was marred slightly by the unnervingly strong crosswinds, but I still managed a smile at the postcard panoramic view of the stunning Cairngorms – through gritted teeth and squinting eyes.  At the bottom of the Lecht you pass Corgarff Castle and Cock Bridge, before facing the final climb of Gairnsheil.

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Roz + Cock Bridge

As the road grew steeper I remember asking cyclists around me if we had started the final climb.  The stock reply was, without fail, “I fuckin’ hope so!”  After about 5 minutes of steady climbing, I decided that it must be, and roughly 7 seconds later I hit a false summit and saw the behemoth still to come.  This is where my language turned blue, but what followed, despite warnings that the final climb was the worst, was little more than a steady chug.

At the summit I was soon joined by Emma, and then Roz, whose face told us she just wanted to get to the end, immediately, and then slaughter me by the side of the road on the way back to Aberdeen.  Emma and I clipped in, and started the predominantly fast, downhill stretch to the finish, picking off riders along the way.

One day I hope Roz decides to speak to me again.  Our friendship was a thing of seemingly-unbreakable beauty.

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RIP friendship

World Gravy Wrestling Championship 2016

“Some people never go crazy.  What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

-Charles Bukowski

Result: 2016 Female World Gravy Wrestling Champion

Medal: Well, not exactly…

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Much like the time I ran Loch Ness marathon pulling a husky-laden sled, this was one of those ideas that seems like a good, nay – GREAT idea when filling out entry forms a couple of months before, but which seems like the dumbest idea on the planet the actual day before.  Having just cycled 200km, my legs were feeling remarkably fresh (though not entirely un-weary), and my last minute volunteer to drive me down to Lancashire and back was at my door, shaking his head and laughing as I frantically stuffed items of clothing and costume into a bag and kicked them out of the door towards our chariot.

Although I had originally made plans to go down with a friend, yet again I was unceremoniously abandoned, but as I’m not one to eschew commitment, I found myself talking bikes and cycle holidays with my companion on the road all the way to our AirBnB a few miles from the event.  We had food on the road, so we went for a couple of good luck pints in the evening before hitting the sack.

With a rather leisurely start time of 1pm, we had time to drive around the town and grab breakfast and a coffee before heading to the venue: The Rose n Bowl pub in Stacksteads.  They had opened early for the spectators, and instantly I scouted some of the other contenders – not difficult when fancy dress is mandatory.  To settle my nerves (and enjoy the unseasonably warm sunshine), I grabbed a beer once I was in my get-up.

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Soon, all competitors were being ushered into a marquee by the wrestling area for a briefing.  Essentially we were told to entertain, and there was definitely an element of pre-planning moves with who we were facing.  We would be in for 2 minute bouts, with the winner advancing to the next round.

My first opponent was a pirate.  We huddled in the marquee watching all those who were up before us, until eventually, we were introduced to the crowd.  I felt absolutely ridiculous, but equally I was having the most fun.  I believe the commentator called us the two smiliest competitors, and though comedy was part of it, there was some serious manhandling as well:

After the judges had voted me through, we both headed for the firemen to get the gravy hosed off.  We were assured the water would be warm, but it didn’t take long to realise this was a slight untruth.  Despite the sunshine and warmth, I couldn’t appreciate it in my damp attire, and spent much of the afternoon shivering in the marquee awaiting my next fight.  Eventually the time came for me to face my second pirate, again with a bit of playing about, and a bit of actual wrestling.

Before I knew it, I was in the final – my rival being a previous Gravy Wrestling World Champion!  It was at this point the competitive part of me took hold, and despite my smiles, I was pretty serious when I was throwing her down in the gravy.  The two minutes flew by, and then to a cheering crowd I was chosen as the victor!

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Though not necessarily the outcome I was expecting, it also didn’t come as a complete surprise.  My repertoire of wrestling is rather sparse, but my enthusiasm is never lacking.

Audax 200k: Rothes Recce

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn.  Climb that goddamn mountain.”

-Jack Kerouac

There had been clumsy chatter over the course of the past couple of months amongst the group of female cyclists I cavort with about entering our first Audax event, sparked by one of the ladies: Sarah.  I didn’t go to the trouble of doing any research in order to find out what I’d potentially be letting myself in for, instead allowing myself to be gently coaxed into entering on the coattails of Sarah’s enthusiasm.  With no established idea of how I was going to get there, or what the sleeping arrangements were, or exactly what the ride entailed, or what the forecast would be like, I blindly made an agreement with myself that I would do it.  These are often how great experiences start.

And often, I find it’s best to go in blind.

audax rothes recce

After a whirlwind second week back at work, I haphazardly threw some cycling kit and essentials into a duffel bag after work before Sarah and her partner Iain were at my doorstep, loading my bike onto their rack and jolting me into the present.  We were off to a chalet about 12 miles from the start in Newtonmore to annihilate carbs and rest our legs for the following day, keeping company with Ginny and Emma, and planning to meet a fifth female companion, Anne, in the morning.  Sarah is a strong rider, and Emma is built like an Olympic road cyclist, and once I’d heard how Ginny had ridden 389 miles in a 24 hour time trial, doubts about my ability to keep up with the group started circling my thoughts like a buzzard.  Sarah dismissed these, insisting it was a social event, not a death wish, but there they remained until all thoughts drifted off and sleep took hold.

We  were all up with the sunrise, and dressed optimistically in shorts.  As it unfolded, the weather was ideal for hours in the saddle, meandering between overcast and patches of sunshine throughout the day with the very real advantage of little wind and no rain.  It was even, once we got going, somewhat warm at times.  Even the fact that we set off from the cafe in Newtonmore with less than 40 starters in a group maintaining a pace upwards of 20mph didn’t ring any alarm bells.  At least not any loud, enduring ones.  The pace felt comfortable, everyone was friendly and chatty, and the first (relatively flat) 50km were over in a few blinks.  Trepidation evaporated, layers were removed, coffee was consumed.

The second 50k also felt relaxed, though there were a handful of climbs which would serve as a warm-up for what was to come.  Over a bowl of lentil soup and bread heavy with butter, spirits remained high – though it was at this point we were at our lowest elevation over the course of the ride.  Which meant only one thing: we had to go up.

The third 50k section was an uphill slog towards Tomintoul.  With respectable miles already in the legs, this is the section where I started to feel weary.  Anne and I eased off, and the other three went ahead, telling us we’d regroup at the next feed stop.  Approaching my longest ever ride, I was acutely aware of how much distance we still had to cover and didn’t want to blow up needlessly.  And even though I didn’t have a look at the course map before setting off, having been in the area countless times meant that I knew it would be a good idea to save something for the monster of  a climb we were going to have to face later in the day, though I kept reminding myself it was a short, sharp sting.

Tomintoul arrived, and the rest of our group were just sitting down to a snack.  Anne and I joined the queue and continued to boost the local economy with our calorie requirements, before joining some of the other riders to share stories of cancer, surgery, cycling, and overcoming life’s challenges.  It was a unique moment during which there were no boundaries as to what was spoken about, and the warm sunlight allowed us to bathe in warmth as we rested up for our final miles.  When it was time to return to the saddle, there was a calm resignation about what this final stretch had to offer, and we set off.

The Bridge of Brown was no less of a challenge on weary legs than I was expecting, and the five of us grunted up it at our own pace, regrouping at the top for the largely downhill and flat return to Newtonmore.

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Champions

It was just before the climb that I registered our total distance, and realised I was now into the unknown, relying on my legs to keep on truckin’ all the way to the end.  Just after our white-knuckle descent I found my second wind and clung to Ginny’s wheel, with Sarah beside me and Anne and Emma started to fall back.  We kept out group together, however, and spat out blue language as we were forced to cycle past the entrance to our campsite, 12 miles from the finish.

Though relatively flat, those final miles seemed everlasting, and if there was beautiful scenery to take in, I missed it all.  My gaze was firmly fixed on the rear wheel inches in front of me, and only wavered once, at which point I tumbled over some bad potholes at the side of the road and let out a primal howl to allow the others to appreciate the pain that had just been bestowed to my undercarriage after 9 hours in the saddle.  I was gifted with sympathetic grunts, and then silence, bar the crescendo of gasps every time we faced a short ascent.

Finally, the cafe appeared as a welcome speck on the horizon, and we all softened as we coasted towards our approaching rest.  We were the first women back, and we validated our cards before treating ourselves to a quick drink, loading up the bikes, and heading back to the chalet.  After a quick shower (and an even quicker bottle of beer), Anne and I – before the day virtual strangers – began our journey back to Aberdeen with enough energy to fill the homeward journey with stories and laughter.  Her offer of a lift home that night was much appreciated, as it gave me the chance to sleep in my own bed before the next adventure was upon me…

 

 

 

Aberfeldy Middle Distance Triathlon 2016

Time: 7:58:52 (Third from last)

Medal: Yes

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Let me take this opportunity to mention a few key details before I delve into a description of the actual event:

  1. I had signed up as part of a relay team, my job being to swim the 1900m open water section very rapidly, before drinking beer and cheering on the others;
  2. Despite seeing a specialist knee surgeon in Houston and having a cortisone injection in my knee in July, my running has not improved, and a 3k jog as part of a family-fun triathlon saw me crippled for two days;
  3. The runner in our relay (Eilidh) decided to just do the full event;
  4. The cyclist in our relay decided to get knocked up;
  5. I found out three weeks ago that the entry had been updated to a solo entry in my name;
  6. The event was a Scottish Championship event, and the people who had entered seemed to be taking shit seriously.

With zero half ironman specific training, I did some calculations and realised I could probably cross the line before what I thought was the 8.5 hour cut-off, knowing I would likely have to walk the entirety of the half marathon.  As it turns out, there is no official cut-off for Aberfeldy, and they wait until every finisher crosses the line, which put my mind (marginally) at ease.  The forecast of little wind, blue skies, and uncharacteristically warm weather also lifted my spirits, ever so slightly.  But the reality was, I was not pumped about slogging it out on a course I knew I’d get a crappy time at.  However, quitting, as they say, is for losers.

Van overstuffed, bodies belted up, we set off for Aberfeldy on Saturday afternoon, arriving in time to register, watch the Olympic women’s triathlon, and endure the 45 minute briefing.  Then came a Fleet Feet dinner in the apartment we’d booked, before I snuck out in the dying light to walk to the nearest town, Kenmore, for a pint of Schiehallion and a slightly unsteady jaunt back to the apartment in the dark to collapse into bed.

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Swim

After coercing each other out of bed at 05:00, Roz, Eilidh and I readied our kit bags and walked our bikes over to T1 in our pyjamas.  What followed is now a haze of forcing food down our throats, mild panic about where we put our race numbers/goggles/swim caps/etc., and moments of regret when we allowed ourselves to reflect on what exactly we had signed up for (or, in my case, been forced into by deserters).  We mustered at the swim start at 6:45 for our wave start, and a few group photos.  Exhibit A shows smiling, eager faces, ready to tackle the challenge ahead:

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Exhbit B highlights the stark contrast between knowing your photo is being taken, and a candid shot capturing the reality of crushing apprehension:

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The voice over the tannoy announced a water temperature of 14 degrees, but as we edged ourselves into the calm loch as we approached our wave start, it become acutely apparent that this was a new level of bullshittery.  My hands burned with intensity as they were plunged into the icy loch, and I wondered how easy it would be to get by in life without toes.  A growing fury brewed as we impatiently waited for the man in the kayak to sound the horn, furiously slapping at the water with numb digits as soon as it sounded.  So.  I guess this is actually happening, was the less-than-enthusiastic thought that invaded my quickly-dulling mind.  Thus began my now traditional countdown of ’99 bottles of beer’ (Ultimately reaching 6 before the end of the swim).

The water was ferociously cold, and by the time I hit the first buoy I was struggling to keep my fingers together.  My face had started to acclimatise, though I knew it was only a matter of time until my lips went numb and breathing would become arduous.  This happened by the time I reached the second buoy, which I only noticed when I was practically upon it, such was the intensity of the fog inside my goggles.  The final stretch is where delirium set in, and the water became choppier.  I remember looking forward to seeing my squiggly red line of a path when I uploaded my swim to Garmin Connect, but what I didn’t remember to do was actually start my Garmin.  C’est la vie.

Finally, the finishing floats were in sight, and I had to be helped to steady myself out of the water by one of the marshals.  The world was lilting, and I couldn’t feel my face, but I soon realised I was still wholly capable of spitting out expletives, as witnessed by Katherine on support duty (and some young, impressionable spectators – apologies).

The fact that T1 took me over 7 minutes bears witness to the state I was in after the arctic plunge.  I was overtaken by around 50 people there alone, at one point struggling to free my hands from my wetsuit and standing there confused and helpless.  I saw Roz enter transition and grunted some kind of recognition, before finally finding myself organised, and setting off, expecting her to catch me fairly quickly.

Bike

Having not looked at the elevation profile for the bike course in more detail than a passing glance, I thought we’d have a fair amount of reasonably flat cycling before beginning our first ascent of Schiehallion.  This was a mistaken assumption, as the gradual climb began almost immediately, and after much huffing and puffing I found myself looking around me – and down – at the scenery below, realising I’d just finished the majority of the climb.  After a few more undulations I was flying down the steeper side, trying to ignore the fact that I’d later be hauling myself out of the saddle – and my comfort zone – to climb back up.

aberfeldy bike elevation profile

What followed was a section of the Etape Caledonia, circumnavigating Loch Rannoch, during which point Roz caught me, handed over a Werther’s original, and anticipated from my primal grunts that I was not up for keeping pace.  I challenge anyone to go back to work for a week after 6 weeks off and not feel like you’ve been hit by a bus come the weekend – I was done.  And Roz was a speck in the distance.

By the time the second ascent on Schiehallion arrived, I actually contemplated pushing my bike up the hill, but I stuck to my easiest gear and entered that mental place where you just accept suffering and keep going.

At last I was on top, and fully aware that everything left on bike was beneath me all the way to Aberfeldy for T2.  For the final 7 or 8 miles I just cruised on autopilot trying to brace myself for the tedium of my 13.1 mile walk, and the frustration that I would ultimately be overtaken by everyone still behind me over the course of the remaining few hours.  I dismounted, handing my bike over to marshals, and was handed my transition bag.  I changed into fresh socks and trainers, threw a travel bottle of sunblock in my back pocket along with my mobile phone and bank card, and tucked a tin of Jack Daniels and coke into my spi-belt, much to the amusement of the man next to me.  As it was a championship event, I didn’t want to risk it being taken off me by one of the official Triathlon Scotland dragons marshals.  And I needed every ounce of motivation I could muster, including the 12 fluid ounces in that can.

Run

I set off of the half marathon at a steady walk, unmoved by shouts of encouragement to press on and ‘just jog slowly!’.  Once out of Aberfeldy – and the beady eyes of the majority of marshals, I cracked the tab and started drinking.  After about 5 minutes I heard Eilidh’s voice call my name from the rear, and she stopped for a few minutes to walk with me and check I was alright.  I told her I was fine, but may be some time.  After about ten minutes I was drunk.  Having just exercised for the past 4+ hours, and only taken in 2 gels and one bottle of water, I was on cloud nine.

After about 5k I passed a feed station and the marshals offered water, bananas, or rubbish collection.  I gave the universal sign for ‘gimme a minute’, tanked the remainder of my can, and handed it over to her as her expression reflected the horror she obviously felt.  I said, “cheers!” and sauntered onwards with a shit-eating grin plastered across my face.

14114125_10157210530930234_1599404071_oThe remainder of the run is one long country road in the sunshine on and out-and-back course, enthusiastically cheering on people I knew on their way to the finish, and then beginning my lonesome journey beyond the halfway point, only meeting a handful of people left on the course.  I texted ahead letting everyone else know how many miles I had left, telling them they had plenty of time to shower, eat, catch a movie, before I was to be expected across the finish line.  They responded in the fading miles that there were only 4 people left on the course.

Less than half a kilometre from the end, one of those people overtook me.  I finished third from last, and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ started playing at a point where I have never felt less heroic.

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Henley Bridge to Bridge 2016

Time: 4:21:16

Medal: Yes

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There was something about the sheer enormity of swimming for as long as it used to take me to run a marathon that appealed to me back in 2015 when this lingering, frustrating knee issue had already made itself a perpetual partner in my life.  Although my training wasn’t perfect, I built up a strong swimming base throughout the year, and was confident as I dipped my toes into the less-flowing-than-I-would-have-liked Thames amongst other be-capped swimmers.  Having entered the 2016 event without too much thought, however, swimming soon took a backseat as my love affair with my bike blossomed.  The stark reality, as I tucked my hair into my cap during the safety briefing, was that – apart from the River Spey 5k – I had been in the water approximately twice in the 2 months preceding the event.  Not optimal.  Ever confident of my mental strength, however, I resigned myself to the fact that it was going to be a long slog, but I had nobody to blame but myself.

Not one to break a beautiful tradition, I met up with my old friend Lisa for what should have been a riotous Friday night on the tiles.  She most inconveniently fell ill – and had to be briefly hospitalised – in the days before my arrival, and so while she was housebound, I met an old Aberdeen acquaintance for some beers in Camden, before staggering to the tube.  We did get the chance to spend some time together on the Saturday when she was feeling a little more human, and we grabbed lunch before spending some time sunbathing in the park.

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Rather foolishly, I overlooked sunblock application to my neck and shoulders.  If you plan on spending hours in a wetsuit the following day, don’t get sunburned: it sucks hard.

After a leisurely day in London, I dragged my luggage to Paddington station for a train to Twyford, then ultimately Henley.  I arrived at my AirBnB, had a beer and chat with my friendly host, and then, armed with a good book, went in search of something calorific (and something else alcoholic) to fit the nutritional bill for a pre-race meal before staggering (again) back to my room to sleep.

Sunday morning saw cloud cover and chilly air as I approached registration.  Having entered the slow wave again, I was slightly disappointed to realise the organisers had shuffled the start so that I would be going in the final wave, but I chatted to some of the other competitors to while away the time pleasantly.  Just like last year, there was a great atmosphere as people shared their training (or lack of) and nervously awaited the race briefing.

As tow-floats were compulsory, it was not necessary to swim in groups, so from the offset I focused on steady exhalations and smooth, relaxed arms as the ghosts of reeds whispered at my face in the murky water.  As the clouds arced across the sky, the sun broke through casting shards of light through the river, flickering through each stroke and revealing more of the plant life below.  My lack of training was a minor but constant niggle at the back of my mind, but I hadn’t set off too quickly, and was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by other swimmers.  I began humming ’99 bottles of beer on the wall’, deciding that – for the first time in my life – I would legitimately finish the song.  Keeping to the beat of my stroke, I entered a trance, counting down to zero, hoping that I would reach the first checkpoint before I lost myself to delirium.  I made it with 68 bottles to go.  During the second run through of the song that was to plague the remainder of my swim, despite conscious efforts to sing any other song in the universe.

After the first feed station we had a 6k slog until the 10k mark, and the next feed stop.  I settled back into my rythm, and back into the countdown, running through the song a further four times, and stopping only to marvel briefly at the tree I had crashed into last year.  All I have to say for myself is that my sighting, though lousy, must have been utterly shit last year, as it climbed above the surface of the river and was painfully easy to avoid if you took more than half a breath to look where you were going.  Progress.

The penultimate section was a short 1.5k along moored boats, and at times you could taste the gasoline as you breathed.  The water during this section was also markedly choppier as there was quite a bit of traffic along here.  I only made it once through the song.

Finally I found myself launching myself into the water for the last stretch.  It seemed a shame to break with tradition, so I nearly made it through the song twice before the giant orange buoy appeared on the horizon, and the kayakers instructed us to keep right, and head for the riverbank after we had circumnavigated the buoy.  By this point my shoulders were aching, but I gave a final burst of speed in a desperate final gasp to finish, cutting over ten minutes off of last year’s time, despite the lack of swimming.  Critics could note that the average finishers’ time was substantially quicker than last year, and attribute that to a stronger current, but I’ll choose to remain ignorant of any such facts.

After counting down bottles of beer on the wall for nearly four and a half hours, it was only fitting after I dropped off my belongings in Brixton (after a train back from Henley) to find a suitable place to enjoy one or two.  As luck would have it, the beer garden I chose also had a stall that sold Venezuelan street food, so I was able to indulge in one of my teenage favourites: arepas!

I told all my friends “Never again!”, especially after suffering from some ill-effect of swallowing Thames river water, but now that the shoulders have had over a week to recover, I’m forgetting the pain and considering round three.