Monday, September 22, 2014

Lakes full of Porage.

Porage has always been a mixed experience for me. First of all it was this mythical, uber-elite invitational event, shrouded in secrecy and wreathed in misinformation and rumour. Then in 2006 I got invited and I became part of its own little world of pain and oddness.

My Porage record is not a good one:
Dundee 2006: Rode with Lesley, awesome day out, big crash, timed out at pub, driven to finish.
Placing: Joint last.
Pennines 2008: Rode solo, physical hell across Bowes Moor, driven between feed stations 1 and 2, awesome descent of High Cup Nick to finish.
Placing: Last.
Strathaven 2010: Rode with Ross, awesome day out, snapped rear mech, driven to finish.
Placing: Last.

Usually, being recurrently last at an event would be a bad thing, but the calibre of riders invited to Porage pretty much means I will always be at or near the bottom of the results, and I've no problem with that - hell, I'm chuffed just to still be getting an invite - but you'll note in that little hat-trick that I'd never managed to cross the line without getting a lift somewhere. And that niggled me. I said at the end of my Strathaven Porage blog "I'll complete the next one", but that was 4 years ago and I'm not in the shape I was then. I'm a touch more 'padded', shall we say.

Being the South Lakes this year it was pretty obvious there were going to be some big old climbs and descents. I'd had a handful of longer rides over the past 6 months - the Jennings Rivers Ride at 38 miles, the Rhinog Raptor Adventure-X at 44, a ride up the Wharfe valley to Dent at 64 - so I was happy enough with another long, slow day in the saddle, and that's probably better prep than I'd had for any other Porage event. Ross and I had chatted about riding together again, since the company definitely helps on these kind of things, though his preparation was marred by his mountain bike wheels getting nicked from his garage a few days before the event. A spare set was donated, and we were back on.

My bike, not Ross's.

We started from Brathay Hall with the usual briefing and Porage Oath, and then a short Score-O leg to split the riders up. I navigated, Ross wrote down the CP answers, and we trotted round in a reasonable mid-pack time, before picking up the bikes and heading out onto the road. Looking at the first stage map it sufficed to say the climbs were going to be brutal and the descents superb, just as we expected. We lost a little time in a humanitarian effort on the first descent, when we came across Roger, Zoe and Ed patching up Beth after a really nasty crash. We helped check her over and then walked with her and Roger out to Skelwith Bridge for a pickup. Onwards through Elterwater on a modified route, to Cathedral Quarry and the first activity: Candle-lit caving. Ross, Roger and I bimbled our way through the tunnels, eventually emerging blinking into daylight, Helen had sorted our maps for us as we stumbled around in the dark, and we set off again, Roger soon dropping the two of us bimbling along at the back.

From there, via Hodge Close, Oxen Fell, Iron Keld into Hawkshead, grinding the climbs and Ross admitted he was suffering. We knew we were on a shortened route, having missed CPs on the first stage and being advised to skip more on this one - an extra loop round High Wray and Claife Heights - but he was talking of withdrawing once we made it to the next manned point at Grizedale, which was a bit disheartening. The climb out of Hawkshead into the woods was a bit of a shocker, and as we started the descent down the North Face trail we kept separating. I thought I'd carry on, ride at my own pace and wait for him at the cafe, at least if he withdrew at that point there was hot food and potentially a lift back to Ambleside. I arrived, grabbed some hot food from the cafe and a much needed cup of tea and waited... and waited... and walked back up the trail... and came back down... and turned on my phone to a text message telling me he'd continued following the TNF Trail arrows beyond the cafe and out further onto the loop. Realising his mistake, he'd started heading back but was running on fumes and going to retire. I didn't see him again from there until the finish, but I hoped he was alright. As it turned out, he eventually got back to the cafe, ate his fill and then limped back to Ambleside along the road.

I lobbed another tea down my neck as the marshals chatted with the organisers by phone and then advised myself, Ed and Zoe of a best-option short route. The main route ran west over to the shores of Coniston Water before looping back East to Newby Bridge and Fell Foot. Riders a bit ahead of us were taking a more direct route to Newby Bridge, but even then, at our pace we'd still be at the back once we got there. After a chat I headed off on the best 'get you back in amongst it' route, due East from Grizedale over a rocky, horrible push of a climb, onto forest road and then a sweet, technical descent to Esthwaite, then tarmac through Near and Far Sawrey and down to the Windermere ferry. A short wait, another cup of tea, followed by a bottle of water and the realisation that I'm craving tea because I'm really quite dehydrated. Ed and Zoe arrive behind me just as the ferry lands. Over the other side, we chaingang along the main road south and then a short sharp shock climb up to Ghyll Head and the next challenge: Archery! I managed to hit the board with 5 out of 6 arrows, and scored a faintly respectable score, troughed down some flapjack, and got on the go again. A few people came and went since we were back in the middle of the pack coming up from Fell Foot, and it was nice to have a chat as they arrived/passed me again, since I was now ostensibly solo again.

A lot of up and down

The next leg across to Staveley started well, a gentle climb up the road and then off across a grassy trail and gravel track  towards Crook, when the wheels (at least metaphorically) started to fall off. I was deliberately skipping one checkpoint to avoid a nasty descent and climb, but the gradual grind that replaced it, along the main road from Mitchelland to Crook itself, cooked me. I stopped in a driveway and ratched through my bag, marvelling at the amount of food I'd brought but not eaten, and set about eating a good chunk of it, contemplating an inglorious departure from the event at the next manned point. I always have these lows on events, and more often than not they're nutrition related, but riding on my own doesn't help. I ate a while longer, set off for more wobbly pottering, and then had a quick stop to take a photo of a llama, for humour value more than anything else. Some of my favourite adventures have featured llama in the cast list somewhere. I don't know why.

I eventually made it through to Staveley and was greeted at the CP with "Would you like water, soup, or a beer?" All of the above please, in that order. A couple of glasses of water first, a cup of lovely lentil soup, some more food out of my drop bag since it was there (cold pizza!), and then settled in to a bottle of Cumberland Ale. I was all set to withdraw from the event here, and pulled on my arm warmers and gilet to help keep warm while I was waiting, while others came and went on what turned out to be quite a long foot orienteering section.I realised that, because of the short cuts I'd taken, even suffering as I had been, I was still in the middle of the pack. I could set off on a short route home and could still make it back in a reasonable time and, hopefully, state. The last part of the ride was the bridleway descent through Skelghyll Woods and Jenkin Crag, which is a bit of a classic, and once I found that out it was sort of essential to keep going.

I won't say that the cloud lifted and I suddenly became a riding god again (as if i ever was in the first place), but I kitted up and headed out again, just wanting to get home and enjoy the finish. I aimed for what looked like the easiest straight line home, along the cycleway out of Staveley and then up the road through Mislet, over the Trout Beck and up to Town End, to the old Post Office, then West towards High Skelghyll and stopped to take a quick photo of the sunset over Windermere. Standing on the hill, looking down over the lake, glad I'd ridden on, eagerly anticipating the ride back - a million mental miles from how I'd felt at Crook. Just the way these things go.

Sunset over Windermere

I'd picked my headlight battery up at Staveley and was glad of it as the trail turned downwards and dropped into the woods. Past a couple of surprised walkers coming up the path, lights on and adjusted and trying to pick out a decent line through the multitude of cracked bedrock lumps. A crash at this point would have been painful, awkward and embarrassing, but wanting to rail the last descent as quickly as possible meant balancing speed and caution. I often went for the side of speed and just tried to spot lines that seemed less likely to end up with me being ejected over my own handlebars, and silently thanked whoever convinced me that 29” wheels were a good idea. Spat out onto tarmac at last, with a massive grin on my face, I trucked through the streets of Ambleside headed for Clappersgate and Brathay. Andy, the third place 'full course' finisher, appeared behind me as I got to Brathay's driveway so I tried to keep pace with him up to the bunkhouse and what turned out to be one final challenge: the Pamper Pole. Simply harness up, climb a ladder and then staples up a 20-odd foot telegraph pole, step up from the last staples onto the top of it - like that's a simple act of balancing when you've been riding for 10 hours and have a bad case of the disco legs -  turn round 180° and then jump off. Yes, that's right, jump off. Aim to touch the big inflatable ball that's hanging level with you, but 10 feet away.

Like the whole day, a bit of a leap of faith. I'm glad to say I made it, on both counts. I finished my first Porage with no external mechanical assistance. I'd short coursed a lot, I admit, but had still taken in a fairly epic 70km of riding, plus the orienteering, caving and archery. A lot of up and down, physically and mentally, but a great day out and one I’m really glad I managed to finish.

A big thank you to Paul, Helen, Sally and Ant for organising, and to all the helpers and marshals. I’m looking forward to next year now.

As a well done for reading this far, I’ll leave you all with a picture of a llama:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Remembering how to suffer.

It's an oft-used phrase in road riding, Tour de France commentary etc: "He knows how to suffer". The truth is, everyone knows how to suffer, but a big part of any endurance sport is knowing (or at least learning) how to suffer and yet keep moving; How to accept the suffering and still push forward in spite of it. A skill I think I've possessed at intervals, but perhaps forgotten in the last couple of years. A skill I need to re-learn.

This weekend was one of remembering how to suffer for me. I'm working on getting back in shape, getting some miles back in the legs before Porage in September, getting some weight off and doing myself a few favours. I've built my cyclocross bike up and have been trying to use it more, I've got comfortable with being juddered around on a set of Midge bars, braking from the drops and trying to hang on to my teeth on rough sections. I even took it out for a spin around Llandegla forest's 'True Blue' route on Saturday to shake the legs out and get used to typical man-made trails on it. But Sunday was the real challenge - the Rhinog Raptor Adventure-X event.

The Adventure-X events are a sort of cyclocross sportive, long haul mixed on-/off-road routes designed for 'cross bikes or hardtail MTBs. The Raptor was based out of Coed y Brenin trail centre and had two possible routes, a 62 mile 'Massif' route and a 44 mile 'Mini Massif'. I'd offered to help the organisers (Rather Be Cycling) out with Registration first thing and then have a ride round the 'Mini' as a sweep rider. I'd also seriously underestimated the amount of climbing on route, which, frankly, led nicely to some of the pain I experienced later on. This blog may possibly read like a catalogue of errors, to be honest.

A not-great night's sleep and a 5am start kicked the suffering off nicely. I was on site at the Coed y Brenin centre by half-past and sorting out remaindered signage by quarter-to, and a couple of cereal bars and a coffee served as breakfast (probably Mistake #1). Registration kicked off in a typically laid back fashion and we gradually got people through, sorted and ready for the off, while slowly kitting up and nibbling bits of food ourselves. Just after 9am, Kevin and I rolled down to the start line to get briefed by Chez and set off as the backmarks, he for the Long and I for the Short.

Mistake 2 was probably going out a bit too hard. The first section of the MinorTaur trail is nice, swoopy, Blue-grade singletrack, and easy to push hard and carry a lot of speed through, especially on a CX bike. We cracked along, probably a wee bit quicker than we really should have, out through the early berms and little whoops and drop-offs, enjoying the easy speed, something you don't quite get on 2-inch-plus MTB tyres. Having caught the last two riders, we tucked in behind and settles in for the relatively easy spin down to Dolgellau, chatting away as we bimbled along, punctuated only by one slow puncture on my front tyre (pumped it up and kept going) and one fast puncture for a rider (changed tube quickly and kept going). So far, so funky.

The gentle spinning continued, after I'd taken a couple of minutes at Dolgellau to chat to one of the event medics and change the tube in my front tyre - the slow puncture was getting quicker. A nice spin along the Mawddach Trail, down the river side, and caught up with Kevin and the previously punctured rider sat with yet another puncture. We wandered back to a nearby car park to RV with Gav in one of the support vans to grab a spare tyre, and while waiting and stripping the rear tyre in anticipation we found the issue, a small shard of glass embedded in the casing, which had pushed through as the rider crossed a cattle grid. We managed to scrat it out of the tyre, loaded the spare tyre and tube from Gav into my pack as a backup, tweaked the gents V-brakes for good measure as one was binding, and set off again along the old railway line, towards the sea and the wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool, across the bridge and a nice roll along to the main road crossing at Pen-y-Bryn.

From here, the pain began. The backroad up to Taicynhaeaf is steep and twisty, and the forestry road above it climbs pretty much endlessly. The next 7km climbed 365m, and my legs ran out of steam trying to wrench a 34-32 low gear up it. The only small mercy was that the track was dry and relatively smooth, so there was less technical thrutching and more sat-down grinding going on. Graham O'Hanlon, an acquaintance from way, way back, was waiting with the event medic at the top marshalling point and we shot the breeze while I stuffed Jelly Babies and electrolyte down my neck to try and recoup some of the energy and salt deficit from the climb. We then powered on, through a wee bit more climb, Graham waiting for me at the summit proper (this became a very much a theme for the day, he's in better shape than me and was on an MTB) and then straight into a fairly raucous 10km of descending.

Another mistake: Maybe the descents were something I hadn't factored into my energy levels. To keep my backside from getting hammered into next week by the saddle, I had to 'hover' over the bike and let it buck around underneath me on the rough sections. I underestimated in a few places how much doing that for a prolonged period takes out of your thighs. I tried to stay loose and not death-grip the bars either, but balancing the available speed with the desire to float over stuff and not pinch flat the 35mm tyres is a skill I'm going to have to get used to, 14+ stone of rider and 'floating' are not things that go together easily, so not only were the climbs beating me up, so were the descents. So much for a 'gentle spin'.

We rolled back into Coed y Brenin, through the underpass from where the old trail centre used to be, the roughest bit of the course so far and too narrow to carry any speed to 'float' over the sharp pointy cobbles. Back into the start/finish/feed station area for water, Jaffa Cakes and Flapjack, a quick natter with Chez to sort out some bits and we were off again. Again, probably a bit too fast along MinorTaur, enjoying the singletrack far too much, and then onto the tarmac and forest road drag up, and up, and up, and up...

If the first major climb was 'endless', I don't know how I'd categorise the second one. There were a few short downs, but the whole thing was mainly up: 8km of pretty much continual climb, average 3% gradient, steepest section at 11% gradient. I ground away on the pedals as much as I could, and occasionally admitted temporary defeat and walked. At which point a blister started developing on my right heel, so when that got too painful I got back on and tried to ride again. A brief stint on tarmac, even a little bit of downhill, and we met up with Gav and the support van, marshalling the point where the two routes crossed each other. I toddled in looking a bit punch-drunk, I suspect, and Gav delivered on his earlier promise of saving me a Breakaway biscuit. In fact, he saved me three. I guess he (rightly) assumed I needed the sugar. I'm not sure whether 'Breakaway' was a cycling-related pun or not.

I was hoping for a gentle cruise from here but it wasn't to be. There was another major climb to be conquered. From the crossing point we got a brief descent and a gentle meander along the upper reaches of the Afon Gain, then turned right and up again, towards the saddle between Foel Boeth and Moel y Feidiog, across the former Trawsfynydd Artillery Range. Signs still tell you to keep off the moors, the National Parks rushed through an exemption to the CROW Act to stop people getting their legs blown off by previously unexploded ordnance. I don't blame them. I fell into an almost military forced march as I trudged my way towards the high point of the ride, pushing more and more as my legs got worse and worse and the gradient cranked up and up. The last kilometre, a nasty little sting in the tail, nearly finished me off. I finally reached the top, Graham far, far ahead of me and waiting. I’d sucked down an energy gel on the way, and it hadn’t helped at all, I was running on fumes. The majority of the remainder was descent and flat, but there were a few climbs left to go, and they weren’t going to be pleasant.

Many, many sections of 'up'.

The descent down through the forestry road was great, again, giving my thighs a malleting, but good to get some distance in with gravity assist. Far too soon we got spat out at the re-join of the two routes and had a quick chat with the guys marshalling there. Down into the valley, over the Mawddach again, and one last major climb, one I’d probably despatch fairly easily if it came earlier in the ride, but yet again, one that had me grovelling. We eventually summited it, soft pedalling onto the forest road above Capel Hermon and into the final stretches. I started sucking down my emergency packets of Haribo to keep me rolling, and just tried to focus on getting to the line. One little descent finally proved my lack of ability to ‘float’ the bike when tired, and I pinch flatted the rear tyre. We stopped, I stripped the wheel off, sat down and could feel my thighs cramping. I was out of electrolyte so I’d just have to suck it up. New tube in the tyre, CO2 inflator applied, back in the frame and we were off again.

I can’t remember much of the last few kilometres. I soft pedalled, walked, plodded, sucked back Haribo and listened to Graham tell me about the history of Coed y Brenin and the stories behind some of the trail names. My responses were probably reduced to grunts. Eventually, the line hove into sight and I used the last bits of a failing reserve to put in a cheeky little burst past Graham. He swore loudly, kicked again and pulled level with me. We crossed the line side by side in formation. I just about fell off my bike, was presented with a finisher’s medal, and went in search of cake.

So much of that story reads like I didn’t enjoy the day; that would be wrong, I had a fantastic day out. The ride route, while brutally hard for me, was as beautiful as it was painful. I’d ridden at Coed y Brenin before, but only ever on the waymarked trails in the forest itself. To escape that, to see amazing sights like the Penmaenpool toll bridge, to climb out of the forest onto the wild moorland of the Artillery Range, to learn a bit about the area history, to catch up on gossip and reminisce with an old acquaintance; all superb moments of a superb day. Yes, I re-learned what suffering on a bike is like, and I feel like I’m still paying for it 3 days later. But I did it in a beautiful place, on a fantastic event, with a lovely group of people. Definitely worth the pain, definitely worth the somewhat arduous drive home, even worth the huge quantity of coffee and junk food I had to shovel down my neck at a motorway services to get me through that drive home. Another relatively big adventure, and a cracking weekend.

Many, many thanks to all of the event crew, especially Chez and Gav for inviting me over and Graham for looking after me!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jennings Rivers Ride 2014

I've never done a 'sportive' before. I'm not really a road rider, to be honest. I own a road bike - well, a cyclocross bike with slick tyres - and ride it occasionally for commuting and pottering around, but aside from road stages in multisport races I don't really ride on the road. Same reason as not running on the road a lot, I think: I find it dull. I like the technical challenge of mountain biking, the variance in surface and skill level required keeps it interesting. Road biking doesn't really have that, for me.

So, there was a bit of trepidation in getting ready for the Jennings Rivers Ride. I'm not particularly fit at the moment - I'm a couple of stone heavier than I should be, and while I'm still kayaking a fair amount I'm not getting out to run or bike as much as I should do. I'd been entered to ride with my Dad, but hip and leg problems meant he was out, and I'd not managed to find anyone to take his place. The route I was booked onto was a 38 miler (map below) from Keswick, out to Cockermouth, over Whinlatter and then round the top of Derwentwater, which gives some lovely back roads to ride but one sod of a climb in the middle. I've had my road/CX bike - the Cotic X frame I bought from Wayne at EDS Bikes a while back - built up for a while but not done any longer rdes on it, just the odd bit of commuting. I'm running a compact double cyclocross chainset, but knowing the problems with gearing I had on the road stage of the Scottish C2C (not having a low enough climbing gear), I was hoping the 11-32 MTB cassette would be enough for me. Not that there would be much sense blaming the gearing, the simpler solution would just have been to be fitter...

I dropped in to Keswick on my way up from Leeds on Saturday to register and pick up my number and timing chip, had a quick chat with Chez (the organiser) and got myself sorted out. I was staying at home for the weekend and Mum was away up in Glasgow so Dad and I adjourned to the local for dinner and a couple of pints. After a bit of kit faff, a decent night's sleep (and a slight over-sleep in fact. I'd set my alarm for 6:30 and actually woke up about 7... oops), a light breakfast and a bit more kit faff, I was off towards Keswick to to set up and get going.

The weather forecast was good for the morning but set to deteriorate badly after lunch, so most of the kit faff was around what I needed to both wear and to be carrying. I set off just before 8:30 with bib shorts, jersey, arm warmers, windproof gilet and a Buff on, and with a waterproof jacket shoved in my jersey pocket. The run through to Castle Inn was smooth enough, undulating rather than hilly, and a road I know well enough, having been along it pretty much every day of my secondary school life. The few short climbs on that stretch and along the back of Setmurthy towards Cockermouth were hurting my thighs a touch, so it seemed like I'd dropped my seat a bit low when I was tweaking the bike. The descent towards Cockermouth Hospital was a welcome break and we soon turned up towards the school and the first feed station - 16 miles out of the way in about 1:10, not too bad.

I opted not to hang around too long at the feed stations, Adventure Racer mentality I guess. A lot of people seemed to be spending a chunk of time there, whereas I think I was in and out in under 5 minutes at both stops. Cockermouth was a case of refill my water bottle, strip the gilet, Buff and arm warmers off since the day had warmed up, chuck a couple of chunks of flapjack down my neck and tweak by saddle height, then head off. The next stage was the daunting part, the meandering roll out of Cockermouth to Lorton then onto Whinlatter itself. I've ridden up the pass this way before, on the Solstice Triangle route many years ago, but that was on an MTB. I stuck a gel down my neck at the base and toiled up the first bit of the climb, but was forced to get off and push 50yds of the steepest section. A quick water fill/empty stop when the gradient eased off a bit and I was back on a trogging away towards the top. I managed to ride the rest, which surprised me a bit. A pleasant surprise though!

Pic courtesy of Sport Sunday
One of Sport Sunday's photographers was lurking at the top, just to get you when you're at your slowest and sweatiest, and just beyond him a big bunch of people were stopped, eating, drinking and celebrating conquering the climb... Which they hadn't finished. The road dips just after their meeting point, then climbs steeply up to the main road, and continues a gradual grind up to the Whinlatter visitor centre itself. I decided not to stop, just pushed on while I was warm. The short jab to the junction was a sod, but I was soon cranking steadily on towards the true summit.

At the visitor centre I decided it was a good time to have a quick break. A couple of mouthfuls of a Mule Bar and some water, a minute's breather to take in the fact that I'd done the hardest bit of the ride, and I was off again. The descent was fast and furious, and it's testament to the bike build that I was confident enough to get down into the drops and crank it all the way down the steepest bits of the pass. Descending it on the Solstice ride, on a slick-tyred MTB, I'd been hesitant to get the bike leaned over in the corners, but the Cotic felt awesome. I wish I'd had my bike computer on to see my speed stats, but I'd forgotten to pick it up when I left Leeds. I was certainly going fast enough that the disc brakes on the Cotic were getting a good workout, even more so when a very hesitant Volvo driver appeared as we hit Braithwaite and held myself and a couple of other riders up through the narrow section before the second feed stop.

Dad had come out to give me a bit of support, and having missed me at Castle Inn he'd driven to Braithwaite and was waiting at the turnoff to the feed stop. We had a quick natter while I was refilling my bottle and stuffing a flapjack down my neck, but again, I'd decided not to stand still too long. The weather was looking good, though it was clouding over a touch, so I left my waterproof with him and rolled out for the last 10 miles. There was one short sharp shock climb, up the hairpins by Hawes End onto the end of Catbells, but that out of the way, the roll along the hillside towards Manesty was beautiful, sun out and a fantastic view across Derwent Water. Soon, I was at Grange and, just over the bridge, the sign said "Keswick 4 miles": A sight for sore eyes.

I'd been riding fairly close to two guys wearing Iggesund jerseys, Iggesund being the paperboard factory I worked at over summers when I was a student. I hooked into a group with them and a lady who'd been ahead of us and we picked up the pace back down the valley, past Lodore and Shepherds Cafe, having a quick chat about the factory and a couple of characters I'd worked with. Just beyond the Great Wood car park they gapped me on a short climb and I dropped off, looking behind to realise we'd dropped the lady as well, I kep the pace I was at, passing a small group as we came towards the Lake Road roundabout and swept round the corner by Booths onto the main street. The last stretch was in sight, stopped at the traffic lights first, but soon round onto Bank Street for the final short pull up to County Corner, onto Station Street and down to the finish by the Fitz Park gates.

I walked down over the timing mats, stopping the clock at 3:16:47, much quicker than the 4hrs I'd estimated. I'm not saying I'm fitter than I thought I was, but it's nice to know I've still got the legs to get round a ride like that in a respectable time. Dad was waiting at the finish, so I handed my chip in, picked my time ticket up, and we wandered over to get my complimentary tea and cake first, then a quick change and into town itself for a well needed lunch. The weather had held off, and while it had clouded over, the much-feared rain had never hit, although the road back to Torpenhow was showing signs of some heavy showers as we drove back home.

All in all a cracking day. The route was fantastic, well waymarked and planned. All the marshals were great, happy and helpful, whether signposting a split, managing traffic and rider flow or manning a feed stop, and there was a great atmosphere in amongst the riders. We were also very lucky with the weather, which always helps! It's definitely an event I'd happily ride again, not to try and beat a time or go for a longer course on necessarily, but just for a hard-but-enjoyable day's riding. I don't think it'll tempt me to go full Roadie, but I should really get more miles in for my own good, and maybe the road bikes a good way to do that occasionally... Hmmm...

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Progress

'Progress' is a bit of a funny one. Business can talk about 'SMART' aims (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-linked), but in the world of the Outdoors, we don't really do those. We don't normally set aims, we don't really closely monitor our progress, we don't have personal development plans, we don't do increments. So what do we do when we recognise a problem and want a long-term, hardwired, resilient solution to that issue?

The root of my paddling issues I've covered at length on here, so you know the problem. Obviously I needed to improve my technical skills and my confidence, so I started keeping a live log of my river days and making notes: What went well, what went not so well, how I felt on the river, what I think I need to work on. That's coupled with one of my 3 aims from a while back, to pass my 4*, and I have a 4* profiling sheet, so I can look at my progress against the things I need to do. I've still got Kelvin, the coach's, notes from my training, back in December '12, and they're a useful guide of what someone else thought of my paddling, at a time when I was probably beating myself up about it a lot.

My log is into it's fourth year of boating now. What's noticeable? Progression, physically and mentally. It's kind of heartening to see it spread out the way it is, and to look at the issues I had back in 2011. Going from notes like "Generally okay, silly swim on Dog Leg (weight balance wrong, stuck on boil line)" to "Great fun. Chilled out run, nice surfing and steady work on eddies and ferries." The root of it was the club's Wales weekend back in 2011, that seemed to be the time I first sort of pushed myself back into boating and maybe realised how much I'd dropped away. And, perhaps, how much I wanted to get back into it.

One of the interesting things is the number of days paddling I have done over the past few years. 2011, when this all started, I only got 12 sections of river in 11 days paddling over a year. I was training for the Grand Raid des Pyrenees and, while I still did a lot of pool sessions and polo, my river boating days were utterly minimal. 2012 was better, 22 sections over 21 days. Still not exactly a royal flush, but a massively better hand than the year before, but it did include my 4* training which started the next phase of recovery. After that, 2013 was kind of my breakthrough year, 37 sections over 30 days paddling, and probably the biggest single progression impact, the Alps trip. As I said at the time, you can almost *feel* the progression when you can run similar sections day-on-day for a fortnight. The three sections that we ran twice, Upper Guisane, Gyronde and the Briancon Gorge, I felt noticeably better and happier on on our second run even though the two runs were only 5 days apart at most. Partially because of that, I'm going back to the Alps this year and I'll be interested to see what my log says for this time round.

The general gist of the whole thing, if I were to plot 'how things went' on a graph, is a nice upwards trend. Things have been gradually getting better, and that's awesome. It's interesting, though, to look at the outliers and blips too, the days when I've felt bad, when I've not bothered, when I've paddled badly. In some cases, like the Tyne Tour and at least one day on the Washburn, it's been beer-related - paddling with a hangover was never my forte in the past, and it continues not to be. In a couple of cases bad days have been kit-related - forgetting the hip wedges for my boat, having a bust drysuit zip. But mentally my worst days have been when I've felt I was the weakest paddler in a group, and when I was paddling new sections. The days, like Sunday just gone on the Lune, when I'm coaching or leading on a section I know well, I'm invincible (well, not quite, but you get the idea). New sections where I'm following, like the Gloy over New year, I struggle. Everything about that river put the shakies up me, even though it was the kind of low-ish volume, fast, micro-eddied technical beck paddling that I quite like. I paddled with Mike and Duncan as a trio, two people I haven't paddled with regularly, if that makes any difference. I paddled at the back, worried, fretted and inevitably made a couple of cockups - nothing major, no swims, no rolls - and generally felt a bit out of my depth. I got down the river but there was nothing stylish or smooth about it, I felt like a complete numpty.

Those are the type of days I said I wanted to avoid, so what could I have done: Not got on the river? I did enough no-boat days over the New Year trip, the levels were ridiculously high and I wasn't happy in my own abilities on flows like that, that's something to work on though. Paddled at the front more? That's a possibility, forcing myself to up my game and lead more might have helped. Paddled with a different group? That shouldn't matter, I shouldn't be deriving my own worth from my perception of others. I've said this for a while, other people's skill levels might define the order we paddle but shouldn't define *how* we paddle.

Why a river within my skill level should affect me so much based on the company I've kept I'm really not sure. I've no definitive answer for that one yet, and I'm not really sure there is one. I'll keep logging my days, looking at my data and, judging by the progress I've made in the past 3 years, I'm sure I'll work it out sometime.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Response & Responsibility

It's been a while since I posted up on here, but some stuff from the past few weeks got me thinking.

'Responsibility' is a bit of a funny word in the world at the moment. There's so many situations where it's both a good word and a bad word, a blessing or a curse. It would be too broad-brush to say that people don't like responsibility, but you do seem to see so many stories in the gutter press where 'responsibility' equals 'liability', equals 'fault', equals 'blame'. Unfortunate things happen, and people look for someone else to shoulder their burden for them, financially at least. Teams of no-win-no-fee lawyers wrangle and twist people's testimony to wring out every last penny, scrying for that tiny chink in the armour/crack in the pavement/missed paragraph in the training document to prod and jemmy until coins fall out. Okay, that's an over-the-top view, and I'd like to believe that the world isn't as full of rabid ambulance chasing lawyers as TV and the papers seem to say, but sometimes it's hard to hold on to that belief.

These thoughts all spring to mind because I'm often in a position where I am, effectively, taking some responsibility for other people. Whether that's as one of the Safety team organisers for the National Student Rodeo, as a coach and river leader with the Leeds Uni Canoe Club, or as a safety and sweep marshal for Rat Race, in some capacity I take some responsibility for other people's wellbeing, as well as my own. Frankly, that responsibility isn't something that crosses my mind very often, because 95% of the time that assumed responsibility never rears it's head. People I come into contact with in the world of outdoor sports are usually very cogniscent of their own responsibilities, they prepare properly, they have the right kit, they are aware of their fitness to take part in whatever event or sport. So my responsibility only arises when something goes wrong, and when that person is, in some capacity, less able to take sole responsibility for their own wellbeing. When zemblanity occurs. When, as they say, shit happens.

So why do I do it?

Frankly, I put myself in that position willingly because, like almost everyone else in the world, I am capable of assessing and judging the risks around me and making a personal judgement on whether I'm happy to accept those risks or not. Because, like most other people again, I'm capable of either mitigating those risks or simply removing myself from the situation if I'm not happy to accept them. Not necessarily because of qualifications or certificates I have (though they have helped), but because of knowledge I have and because of the confidence I have in my own skills and the kit I'm carrying, whether I'm carrying that kit for my benefit or someone else's. It's only a small step up from assessing those risks for myself to assessing those risks on behalf of myself and someone else, assuming that I'm there for a reason and that they're no longer in a position to mitigate those risks entirely on their own.

I don't do it for the buzz, for any kind of power trip or acclaim, though a 'thank you' and a 'well done' at the end of the day is always gratefully received. I sometimes sit at my post on these events and feel genuinely worried for some of the participants. I can manage my own fears and be confident I've mitigated and managed any risks to myself, I can hope they've done the same - contrary to some evidence, in a few cases - and I can hope they get a day of fun, either Type 1 or Type 2*, and feel happy and satisfied afterwards without ever needing my input. If I've spent a day bored, that's kind of fine.

If you're ever a participant in an event and you see the marshals and safety team around, give them a smile, and remember that for them it's often managed boredom. They are sitting doing nothing knowing that if they have to get up and do something, it's because some poor sod's in trouble. If they have to work, it's because bad things have happened, and if bad things have happened to a participant there, bad things could happen to the safety team there as well. They want to be busy, but wouldn't ever want to wish ill on anyone so they can actually do something, because that means maybe putting themselves at the same risk as the first person did. The second mouse isn't always after the cheese, sometimes it's trying to extricate the first one.

And they often do have to extricate that mouse, because a big part of adventure is taking risks. Doing something that scares you is often down to doing something where you're not sure whether you can mitigate every hazard out there, where there is a real fear that shit might, quite possibly, happen. Without the chance of shit happening there is no danger, there is no adrenaline response, there is no excitement. And that is, quite honestly, what a lot of us do these particular sports for. The feeling and the knowledge that we've pushed ourselves, because we've felt that adrenaline response, is what we're after, whether that's at the summit of a mountain, the bottom of a deep gorge, the landing of a jump.

But this isn't a treatise on risk management, irrational fear and adrenaline junkie-ism. It isn't comparing what we do in the outdoors to crossing the road in a 'safe' urban area. It isn't a lecture on kit choice and backups. It certainly isn't trying to convice people to turn to me when the excrement hits the air conditioning. It's just a rambling way of saying that, if you see me in the hills or on the river, I don't want to have to take responsibility on your behalf.

But I will do if I have to.

*Type 1 fun - fun. Type 2 fun - fun in hindsight. Type 3 fun - not really fun at all.