“It is the great adventure in life: circulating, finding each other, meeting by accident on the road.”
-Gael Garcia Bernal
“It is the great adventure in life: circulating, finding each other, meeting by accident on the road.”
-Gael Garcia Bernal
Position: 395/560 (29/54 females)
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Result: 2016 Female World Gravy Wrestling Champion
Medal: Well, not exactly…
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.
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!
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.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
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.
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.
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…
Time: 7:58:52 (Third from last)
Let me take this opportunity to mention a few key details before I delve into a description of the actual event:
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.
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:
Exhbit B highlights the stark contrast between knowing your photo is being taken, and a candid shot capturing the reality of crushing apprehension:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
David Bowie has, as far back as I can recall, been the soundtrack to my life, though the setting unexpectedly, and seemingly indiscriminately varied, largely as a result of my dad’s work. From the sweltering heat of Houston, to perching on coral in the warm Indonesian waters at night looking out towards the ominous glow of the child of a volcano whose namesake wiped out thousands of people over a century before; from the lazy summer recesses playing tetherball on an Oklahoma schoolyard to checking for scorpions and tarantulas in warm places before submitting to sleep in Venezuela; from the London flat where the drummer from Motörhead lived (and frequently had parties) upstairs to the rugged, unpredictable, but beautiful, countryside of the Scottish Highlands. It would be wildly ungrateful to say I had anything but a privileged childhood (I mean, shit, we had maids).
But one of the enduring aspects I’ve taken away from my transient existence in some of the world’s most spectacular places is that I have always had the sense that I am an outsider looking in; observing the lives and cultures of other people whilst having nothing concrete or persisting or meaningful in my own life. Friendships were often fleeting, so I learned to be an open book, giving everything about myself away and voraciously discovering everything I could about the new strangers around me. Relationships with anyone felt like having a passionate love affair, knowing that your days were numbered until you had to leave them behind, ignoring the knowledge that gut-wrenching heartache was ultimately what there was to look forward to when, inevitably, the setting altered.
It was easy to become quite adept at shutting off my own emotions and cutting people out of my life. Especially in the days before technology became a catalyst for communication with lives lost over the years, itself falling into the trap of being unsure of its place in the world. The ability to interact with millions of people is both amazing and overwhelming; enabling and restrictive. In a world where people seek instant gratification, what point is there taking the time and effort to do something considered and thoughtful, like write a letter, when an e-mail or a text message will – ultimately – suffice? My enthusiasm for writing lengthy cards at Christmas has been noted (but not acted upon) by my friends, but my letter writing ultimately went to the grave with my grandmother, for whom technology bamboozled.
I’m often asked where ‘home’ is, and I usually struggle to answer. “Everywhere and Nowhere” is my stock reply, but I feel like it encapsulates my both my desire for acceptance and my need to be roam in order to feel in control of my life. Entering the dating world in your 30s and you’re faced with an overwhelming number of men who allude to wanting to ‘settle down’. There is no other single phrase that strikes more dread in my heart than this phrase; if anything, it’s a repellent. When you’re in a relationship you have someone other than yourself to consider, which in the past has translated to feeling trapped – harnessed to one place with one person. It might sound selfish, but when you have been dealt a single life to live, why accept something that doesn’t make you happy? I’ve learnt that I’d much rather face the thought of being alone for the rest of my life than resentful of someone – through no fault of their own – for not sharing my outlook on life and my sense of wanting to discover more.
Even the phrase ‘settling down’ has connotations of disappointment – a sense that you’re unwilling or incapable of striving for something you really want.
Ultimately, I think that the majority of people want to find someone to share their life with – a soulmate – and I’m not unrealistic enough to realise that nobody will be perfect, but it should be someone who shares your general view on life. In my case, someone who doesn’t want to be rooted to a single space until they turn to dust. Someone who I want to pounce on. Someone who becomes almost obnoxiously enthusiastic about trying new things, visiting new places, throwing caution to the back of their mind because the potential pay-off for trying something far outweighs the possibility of something going awry, or, worse yet, the regret of not trying in the first place.
Death is something that both terrifies and fascinates me, and throughout my life I have always felt a vivid sense of my own mortality. I would shoot bolt upright in bed with a suffocating knowledge that I won’t be around on this Earth forever, that life is a flash in the pan, and I’m not even ashamed to admit that sometimes I need to phone my mother or watch old repeats of Friends to quell any thoughts of my transitory existence that happen to be invading my thoughts. In Bowie’s Cygnet Committee he claws, repeatedly, urgently, “I want to live” in the chilling culmination that has an almost primal desperation to it, and that’s exactly how I feel right in this moment. I want drama that can’t be stolen. Memories to bank for my 100th birthday (glass half full).
I used to observe people and enjoy imagining what their lives were like – what made them tick, what they enjoyed, what their scars that can’t be seen are. I’m now making it a conscious decision to stop wondering (but keep wandering) and start knowing. Open myself up to embarrassment, to failure, but also to success, awe, and life.
And if I happen to meet someone who throws the same enthusiasm for learning back in my face, who has that intrinsic yearning to experience everything new, who wants to be my duprass (read Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cat’s Cradle’. Incidentally, ‘Cats in the Cradle’ by Harry Chapin is a haunting lyrical song – originally a poem by his wife – about life slipping by that tugs at my gut every time I listen to it) – then great! Hopefully one day I will meet somebody who doesn’t make me feel trapped: who is the David to my Iman.
And so I start my new life with eyes completely open, but nervous all the same. I want to make mistakes. I want to live.
This way, or no way/
You know, I’ll be free/
Just like that bluebird
Position: 16/79 (Gender position: 10/52)
Before open water swimming at Knockburn loch had opened for the season, long enough after the brief stint of swimming upstream for the Red Bull Neptune’s Steps, I entered the River Spey 10k. In the end, there were four of us reckless enough to have entered – Myself, Roz, Jennie, and Simon – and despite less than favourable training, we all turned up by Saturday evening at the hotel near the start, though 75% of us had decided to drop down to the 5k distance.
Discarding any semblance of dignity, we were all happy to walk about the room in our smalls with the nonchalant abandon of toddlers, though we very quickly established, upon realising the toilet door was a flimsy shower curtain, that anyone with a case of pre-race nervous bowels would have to make alternative arrangements. We all have our limits.
We chose to continue the well-established ritual of having a beer to aide sleep, and Simon had already scouted out a pub (in all likelihood the only pub within miles), which was essentially a shack with a jukebox and a pool table dominating half of the interior (to the point that when two men decided to play, we regularly had to duck to avoid being bludgeoned with a pool cue). We took our pick of beverages from the limited selection, and sat down to question why we had all decided this was a good idea. I decided to lift spirits by making some jukebox choices (and refusing to allow anyone to leave until they had all been played), and after a sensible amount of sense-numbing we trudged back to our bunkbeds, where I promptly fell into a slumber deep enough not to notice several late night trips to the toilet, situated approximately 3 feet from my face, separated only by a thin film of vinyl.
A cacophony of alarm tones heralded the morning of “The Big Fucking Swim”, and we all flopped out of bed in a manner that I would struggle to define as chirpy. We began the awkward dance of getting into our swimming costumes, and furiously rooting through our bags to ensure we all had the essentials: wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, towel, shampoo, gloves, lube… Feeding off the melange of pre-packaged, high calorie snacks, we attempted to use humour to mask our apprehension, before heading to the cars in a resigned silence.
Once parked up at registration we got our numbers, coloured swim cap, timing chip, and slightly unclear instructions about where and when we would be picked up by the bus for transport to the start. As the 10k swimmers were being taken first, we found ourselves with plenty of time to mill about. This moment was the day’s eye of the storm – I found myself in a surreal bubble of familiar faces from my running past who – similarly – had turned to swimming as a way to keep up fitness when injury plagued their running exploits. I found it bittersweet catching up with their lives (which I once did with alarming frequency) and hearing about their triumphant returns to a sport I once imagined I could never live without.
Eventually the scheduled time for the 5k swimmers’ pick-up arrived, and we were all herded onto the roadside to wait for the bus. Despite the intrinsic positive vibes of a tribe of people who willingly submit themselves to Scottish open water swimming, cracks were beginning to show as the minutes ticked by; We were all keen to be dropped off at the start. Or, more realistically (as we eventually discovered), an unmarked spot at the roadside that marked a lengthy march through farmland – even navigating some cows – towards to river bank where two support kayaks were waiting.
Once all the swimmers and the race director had arrived, we cheered on the first 10k swimmers to pass before gingerly submersing ourselves in the frigid river, acclimatising by letting water into our wetsuits with a gasp as we were able to stand in some of the shallower sections.
The start was a rather unceremonious countdown, and then the tumultuous regime of swimming over slippery bodies and avoiding being elbowed/kicked in the face ensued. Once the field had spread out, I found myself in the familiar rhythm: stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, stroke sight. I marvelled at just how clear the water was, and was soon mesmerised by the ripples of the sand on the river bed and the silky sway of the long tendrils of plant life pointing me in the direction of the current.
Had the water been warm enough to avoid wearing my neoprene gloves I could have chugged away like this for hours, lost in my own thoughts, gliding through the water. I was even, momentarily, hit with a pang of regret for not having stuck with the longer distance swim, but this thought was quickly interrupted by the river water enveloping my hands and filling the gloves with so much water that it became a chore to lug through each stroke. I lost count of the amount of times I was forced to tread water and let the water pour out to regain some sort of efficient form, but it was clear that without them I would be reliving the Loch Lomond horror of having my digits rendered useless so I accepted this as a mild inconvenience. I wasn’t here to set a punishing pace, but to experience swimming somewhere new.
Eventually I happened upon the aid station, 3km along the route. I don’t know if the other swimmers didn’t see it (it was around a tight bend) or if they were willing to forego it in order to knock a few minutes off their final time, but I was more than happy to stop for a chat and some pretzels before setting off for the final push.
The first kilometre or so continued along the river, and then there was a brief section where swimmers were essentially forced to run over a shallow section before entering Loch Insh with the finish gantry a speck in the distance. Without the assistance of the current, this final section seemed interminably long, quite possibly, in part, due to my lousy sighting ability, but I locked onto a swimmer with blue and white stripes on the arm of his wetsuit up ahead and made it my goal to overtake him – a task I only achieved within the final 20 meters of the swim. With the end in sight, I even ripped off my gloves and stuffed them down the back of my wetsuit to get more purchase on the water with my hands. The fact that they were numb as I crossed the timing mat at the end only confirmed that I had made the right decision in wearing them in the first place.
I quickly stumbled upon Jennie (who had won her age/gender category), and we stealthily retreated to the heated registration building where we were served a hot bowl of rice and chilli as we waited for Roz to come in. Once we were all accounted for, we wrestled our way into the changing rooms, eagerly awaiting a hot shower but being confronted with showers that spat out viciously cold water. As I was heading straight to a dinner party upon my return to Aberdeen, I had little choice but to wince as I washed my hair and rinsed my wetsuit.
Gilded with frost, encumbered with heavy, damp bags, Roz and I made our way to her car and began the drive home, a little underwhelmed by the entire experience, but glad we had done it. If I can survive 5km in water that leads to symptoms of mild hypothermia, I should yet manage the 14km swim this weekend in Henley, where the water will feel practically tropical in comparison.
It has been over a decade since I visited Texas in the summertime, and although I thought I knew what to expect, the oppressive combination of heat and humidity ensured that any resemblance of comfort became a distant memory during my stay. I had entered the Katy Flatlands 100km arrogantly assuming the early start (and, consequently, relatively cooler temperatures) would make it a pleasant outing with friends (an old school friend, Zareen, and her boyfriend, Cameron). I had not accounted for the following:
My alarm screech pierced my dreams at 05:25. I went to sleep at about 03:04. My eyes were glued shut, my mouth was dry, and the room seemed to rock when I tried to stand up. I’ll spare you the fiasco of getting everyone roused (and angry at me for being “that person that likes doing active things”), swinging past mine to grab something more appropriate to wear than last night’s outfit, and the drive. Long story short: we arrived with about 15 minutes to spare before packet pick up closed, and eventually set off amongst fellow latecomers.
The original plan was to cycle with Zareen and Cameron as part of a social ride, but we all cycle at vastly different cruising speeds, so after about ten minutes, Cameron and I had pulled ahead. I remember, naively, thinking the temperature wasn’t too bad, omitting from my calculations that it wasn’t even 08:30. The two of us slowly picked off riders until the first aid stop, roughly 15 miles into the course, where we waited for Zareen.
The first aid stop is where cracks began to appear after a night of debauchery. Zareen decided she would be scaling down to the 36 mile route, and although Cameron wanted to stick to the 62 miles, he eventually also eschewed the full whack, taking the 55 mile turn-off later in the day. But this is the last I saw of either of them until the end.
Thus began my pennance – hungover, heart rate rising with my average speed (and the unforgiving heat), the burn of an unfamiliar saddle. And I relished it. Despite my largely unrooted existence in life, something about the suffering gave me the rare, fleeting feeling that I was never more at home anywhere but in this moment. The lazy rise of fall of the hiss of the cicadas, hidden but comfortingly present, fell in sync with my breathing and the vibrations of the handlebars wrapped in the death grip of my sweat-soaked hands.
Largely alone, I felt alive. It didn’t matter that the world was crumbling around me: that my eight and a half year relationship had come to an end, that my brother – a heroin addict – was waiting for a jail bed to open so he could begin a lengthy stint, that my parents were struggling to raise his child when they should be enjoying their retirement years, that there appears to be an increasing probability that Donald Fucking Trump might actually have a realistic shot at ruling a nation, that David Bowie, the one man on this Earth I have been in love with forever, was dead. I. Was. Alive. I changed into a heavier gear; Changed direction into an oven-breath headwind; Hissed along with the chorus of cicadas, like some kind of visceral hymn.
Until I betrayed myself.
A new, heavier, almost engine-like hiss emerged to my left as I started to be overtaken by the peleton of the 100 mile riders. I was 25 miles from the finish, and this train was the chink in the armour of my new identity as the lone rider of the Lone Star State. The end of the group whipped past, and – instinctively – I was horrified with myself as I found myself leaving my saddle to push my way into their slipstream, and fresh atonement at a punishing pace.
In fact, for the last hour and a half of my ride, I held a pace upwards of 20mph. And a heart rate upwards of 177bpm. Granted, it was not the undulating roads of North East Scotland, but the relentless heat brought its own challenge. The scenery changed from hay bales to rear wheels and weathered calves, cicadas to snot rockets and squirts from water bottles directed onto the backs of necks.
We ate up the road as one amorphous being, slowly shedding men off the back who couldn’t keep pace until, 5 miles from home, second rider from the front, I looked back to see only three others from what started as a 35 strong group. After passing the final aide station, the rest peeled off and I was back to riding alone for the final gasp, ultimately collapsing onto my handlebars as I freewheeled across the finish.
A volunteer handed me a towel from a cooler filled with ice and gently wrapped it around my neck, as another handed me a cup of flavoured ice (probably something like “summer berry splash!” or “grape explosion!”) which I promptly inhaled, and which – equally promptly – gave me the worst case of brainfreeze I have experienced for years. I wheeled my bike inside, and into the school cafeteria (the event was held at a local high school) where I found Zareen and sank into a chair beside her, unable to communicate properly for the time being, instead using the now-thawed towel to wipe the accumulated sweat salt off of my body.
Cameron, looking equally drained of life, staggered in about half an hour later, and once we had each satisfied our craving for salty food by turning ferral at the pizza spread, we piled back into the car for a largely silent homeward journey, save for some of Houston’s finest hip-hop radio stations.
The rest of the week went by in a blur. I tired my best to regain that feeling of belonging in what is technically my hometown, but felt, as always, like an imposter who happens to have “Houston, TX” listed as their place of birth in their passport, and who happens to be asked, upon meeting anyone new, where “that accent” is from.
Instead of indulging myself any more by reflecting on what I can only assume is a quarter-life crisis (hey, I’m ever an optimist), I’ll close with a few snapshots of my first Texas Summer as a real adult, and my new motto in life: ‘Make mistakes.’
After 2 flat 10 mile TTs – and, more importantly, 2 clear losses against friends – we were back for round 3. The original ‘undulating’ course planned for the night was apparently covered in chuckies, so Bob made the decision to swap to a ‘hilly’ 12 mile route instead. What he should have told us is that after being lulled into a false sense of security on the first section of the route, the remainder was practically vertical, but he neglected that particular detail.
Roz, Ny, and I arrived (in regular cycling clothes this time) and were given the choice of starting off first, second, or fifth. Roz was straight in claiming first, and Ny took second, which meant I had to start with the big boys. At least it meant, in theory, that I would have someone to follow. If I could keep up. The three of us were feeling confident…
As we hit 7pm, I watched Roz set off, chased a minute later by Ny, and then a couple of the Wheeler guys before I parked my front wheel at the line and clipped in for my countdown. 3-2-1-go!
Straight into a headwind. Amazing. Motivation to keep going was provided by the fact that I could see the guy who set off fourth up ahead, and I made it my goal to keep him in my sights. I managed to make it almost to the left hand turnoff at Crathes before I was overtaken, and then there was a quick descent before the beginning of the hills.
Number 4 was still up ahead, but slowing on the hill, and I caught him about 2/3 to the top. My new mission was obviously to keep him behind me, and it was about here I was firmly in the heart-attack zone. There was a welcome descent before the rest of the climb began, and I avoided looking at my speed or heart rate, and focused on getting up faster than what felt comfortable.
By the time I reached the final climb, I still hadn’t looked at my watch. I was too worried I’d look down and discover I still had miles to go, and I’d rather remain oblivious, but I was starting to struggle. I was overtaken by one of the faster guys, and had a (minimal) burst of speed trying to keep up, but as I saw him fly up into the distance I also noticed the finish! With a final “sprint”, I rolled over the line, joining the group of finishers and taking alarmingly long to re-catch my breath and await results.
We didn’t have to wait too long, and the times were music to my ears: 40:22 and my first ‘win’ (against friends) in a TT! Don’t let the photo fool you. I definitely won. I was just too busy feeling like I was going to throw up to celebrate.