The serialisation of Paul Comerford’s book Racing the Reaperman © Paul Comerford appears on a separate page – Racing the Reaperman : The Book
I am in my sixth decade. My inherited genes have been good to me, but there have been times when I have tested their resolve. With age comes pragmatism and looking back I realise now I must support my genetics with effort.
My reasoning is based on my own history. At 25 I was married with children living a traditional West Country life. House, home and family were all my contemporaries wanted, and I fitted in well. I was a little podgy by then and smoked too, as did most people, thinking health was something of a roll of the dice; longevity pure chance. Then I saw the London Marathon, I remembered my hero, Ron Hill, winning the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Marathon in 1970, and I became part of the running boom. I told my workmates I would run a marathon and my pride led me to become obsessed. I immediately gave up smoking and started running. I read every book on the subject and surprised myself. 13 marathons later I had a time of 2:49:15 to my name and weighed just below 11 stones. I thought this would be my constant theme in life, and it was to a point.
By 2008 I was still running, but had not competed since 1998. I ran for fitness, then out of pride, then out of obstinacy, but I had ballooned to 16 stones and had started smoking cigars. Thus, at the age of 52 I was in a bad place, though had easily parted with smoking again – with me it was a habit rather than an addiction. In 2009 I lived on my own in Sussex, was overweight, with high blood pressure, knackered and full of excuses.
My genes, however, gave me a stubborn streak. I pondered life and how we all reach the end. I am no believer in deities, nor anything else that takes personal responsibility away, but I do love metaphors and imagining life as a race with the Grim Reaper sat easily with me. Racing the Reaper Man became my way of quantifying the course of my life, and thus becomes the title of this section of my website, and of a future book. It is how I see life since I took responsibility for my own wellbeing.
We are born, and at that time, notwithstanding innate health problems, we have the same chances, ceteris paribus. The report of the starting pistol echoes across mixed metaphors and the Reaper Man begins his pursuit. Everything one does to one’s body can either make it a race or an ignominious, early capitulation. In my philosophy the Reaper Man is relentless, but single paced, so health and fitness together can keep him working to the end. The ‘end’ in my world is where I want to place it – as far away as possible. For me, my life is precious enough to preserve, so at 57 I became honest with myself. I took control and am a runner once more in all respects. Anyone can race the Reaper Man, but honesty is the prerequisite. The Reaper will catch us all, but I want him to be shattered when he gets me.
In Racing the Reaper Man I will share my journey back to full fitness and racing. I will be my own experiment and see just what an older person can do. Race the Reaper Man with me, or watch him catch me, but don’t be idle as you do it, for he may get you first… Onwards!
Imbolc to Spring 23rd March 2016
Now introductions are done I can start the blog proper. Over the months I shall describe my training and mention anything of note that drifts my way. I shall also explain my beginnings, my fall into being a blimp, and my simple system of regaining health and fitness. For this you only need three things: honesty; hard work; and a desire to live.
2016 has meant an adjustment in jobs and a lot of travel. Most weeks I am in a different city, or town and the impact on my training seemed fatal. Last year I ran 1300 miles. This year I aim to run further – I have to condition my body to endurance running. The trouble was I tend to be programmed to run my familiar routes, so lacked discipline to run away from my base. Honesty – I was self conscious of running from large hotels. Desire to live – feck it, let them laugh (no one does). Hard work – I now run whilst away. The best trick is to do a little research and take in the sights. I carry a map and forget the watch. In Plymouth I ran around Mount Wise and looked across Drake Island, then along the Tamar to the Torpoint Ferry. In Cardiff a long run around Cardiff Bay. Swansea 6 miles in the drizzle to Mumbles and back. Eccles – 7 miles through the new Media City, around Old Trafford and back. The next week a 5 taking in Bangor Pier – wonderful standing in the centre of the Menai Straights! Last week, on an extended stay in Liverpool, I did two runs. The first a loop along Penny Lane to Strawberry Field which gave me acute nostalgia, so I ordered The Magical Mystery Tour album and dreamed of T-bar sandals and hot summers. The next day a run along the waterfront – 8 miles dodging turnstones and dirty fidos. Thus my midweek mileage is up and my geographic knowledge growing.
Imbolc is an old festival between the winter solstice and Spring Equinox. The evenings draw out and running in the dark can be rewarding. Running through the quiet village of Chidham a few evenings ago, my headlamp beam picked up the marching form of a determined male toad. I stopped and picked him up. Roads and toads do not mix well. He struggled, the strength of him a surprise, but such is the desire to find a large female somewhere close. Into the grass he went. He briefly gazed at me, shuffled round and set off due north through the grass. A dozen paces later, another, and the same ritual. Next day, in the light, there were no signs of flat toads, so I felt good. Spring moves quicker than the Reaper Man, so my pace will increase and he’ll slip further behind once more.
The Rise and Fall to 60
In 1785 Robert Burns wrote To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough within which is the immortal verse:
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Such have been my plans for the year leading up to my 60th birthday. My initial intense work schedule from January to June entailed a great deal of travelling. Although observations of the natural world were unaffected, the quality of my running suffered. My training kit travelled with me and I developed a routine of planned runs around cities and towns in order to see significant landmarks and generally see more than a hotel and a restaurant.
In Liverpool I ran the length of the waterfront, taking in the Liver Building, and also did a circuit via Penny Lane and Strawberry Field. A canal run in Manchester to Old Trafford. Bristol saw me skirt the harbour, past the Matthew and SS Great Britain, up the Avon Gorge and over the Clifton Bridge. Middlesbrough a run along the Tees to the Riverside Stadium; Carlisle around the rivers to Brunton Park; Cardiff around the Bay. Many more too – all from 6 to 8 miles, but no speed work. I could never find time for core training either. Thus I found I could run for a long way, but never as fast as I needed for my marathon.
By July I was very weary and decided to run 60km on my birthday instead. Thus I would only need to run at a single pace. Once more work intensified, Southern Rail added to my woes and I reached September on my knees. I’d developed a small cancer on my shoulder (not life threatening.) I developed a virus, drove 2000 miles on a visit to Scotland, wobbled and saw my monthly miles drop from 130+ to 30. The wheels fell off and nature made me stop.
The advantage of turning 60 is the rise of pragmatism. I’m in good shape and slowly shifting a stubborn virus. The ‘rodent ulcer’ on my shoulder will be excised and I can plan once more. The Reaper Man has made a little ground, but now I’m shifting ahead again. Burns got it right as he added:
Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
My Blog will now catch up with with the year so far as I fill in some gaps. Thank you for your patience.
Starting at the 33,000th Mile
Racing the Reaper Man
In hallowed halls I stopped to think,
From windows Spring’s sun shone on me,
And there I sat amidst the wise,
Old heads looked down and made me see,
The Reaper Man is there to race,
And he is bearing down on me,
I have to Race the Reaper Man,
And every step will keep me free.
In ‘The fall and rise to 60’ I wrote with hopeful words in order to put a full stop to my demise. This normally works for me – a line in the sand from which to move forward. Unbeknownst to me I had only fallen halfway, and my ‘rise to 60’ was but a vision of the future. My workload accelerated me towards a world of pain, and the faster my mind worked, the slower my progress. By December 15th 2016 the Reaper Man touched my shadow. I had let him get too close, and everything bad happened.
Running has always been my barometer of how I am. The joy of this primal, primary forward movement is only possible if ones body and mind work together. Mind says it will make you fit; body moves to a brighter future in spite of the initial pain. Mind and body get well together. The fat burns away and confidence is repayment for the effort involved. Eventually, and I promise this is true, you will be so in tune with yourself that any glitch whilst trotting along is quickly detected. By the end of 2016 my running was sporadic and every step was forced from a broken machine. All in all I had a series of 5 viruses, the last a monster infection at Christmas. I had developed a first ever boil on my back, the cancer wound was healing slowly and my sense of smell had been lost in September. Physically everything had broken. My mind followed and extreme tiredness, dark moods and an ever ‘flat battery’ hung over me. Finally I had to see my doctor.
In a nutshell I had burnt out. I had worked myself into the ground and once my physical strength had given out, my mind could cope no more. Running was a forgotten friend I had ignored – I should have known what was happening, my running told me. After a series of precautionary tests, there was no hesitation of signing me off work with strict orders to recover.
I will give an in-depth account of what finally happened in my book, but suffice to say it took me two months to understand that recovery was not just a case of resting. I had to confront my own failure to do the things that mattered and of trusting those who saw me as expendable. In doing this I had sacrificed my happiness and was robbed of my smile.
Finally I formed a plan and set a goal for which forward progress was necessary. In March 2017 I reached my line-in-the-sand in good enough order to have a base of fitness. I started running properly in February and on 14th March ran my 11th 10 miler of the year breaking through the 33,000 mile barrier of miles completed since I started way back in 1982. I am not yet fully recovered, but physically this week marks my start to race again in 2018. I have changed. The baggage of career has been put down and I now spend time contemplating my new start. This new adventure. The best thing is I have had to start from the lowest point of my life, so it will make my training to race day an absolute journey from a blank slate to success or failure. Starting at 33,000 miles seems to be a daft idea, but burnout, as I have found, destroys everything. Yet the Reaper Man has lost some ground. It’s time to embrace my best friend and run…
Run west from the Devil by Chris Lashelle. From the DVD Unbreakable – Western States 100
The Devil he knows my name,
He says that he’s come for me,
I’ve tried hard to run away,
West through the mountains,
I can make it,
Then the doubt creeps in – deep inside,
But I’m still alive…I’m still alive.
The Devil keeps chasing me,
And I keep pushing through this pain,
He tempts me to lie down and die,
Putting an end to my struggling mind…
The Devil is chasing me,
Through allies of falling trees,
With rivers to cross too deep,
And faith now I’m finding that I can make it,
There’s no doubt inside,
And just in time – I have survived.
From Hades With Persephone
With all religious myths, there was the need to explain how the world worked and how mankind could be at the centre of everything, so in all cultures and societies stories were told to bring sense to our existence. That myths still prevail bears witness to the comfort of lazy thinking, something I have never been blessed with. However, myths have a familiarity and allows me to juxtapose my life with stories that are literarily rather fun and are analogous to what I wish to say. Hence, Racing the Reaper Man. Giving death a persona simplifies what I see as our inevitable end, but staying ahead of this metaphorical pursuer is possible, hence my blog.
In Greek myth Demeter was the goddess of the harvest and fertility. Her daughter, Persephone, was tricked into living with Hades in the underworld and Demeter went into decline and the world began to die. Eventually Zeus intervened and Persephone was allowed back to the world, at which point Demeter readied the land by causing great fertility and spring and summer happened. The winter months coincided with Persephone’s return to Hades. This year my return to health and fitness corresponds with the burgeoning spring, so in my metaphorical world she accompanies me – my underworld was burnout, my walk with Persephone is my recovery and reconstruction as a stronger man, and an ultra runner. To be accompanied by a pretty, mythical woman at 60 is no bad thing, and luckily I have that in real life too, my Passepartout.
I am training again. From a dark winter of broken health, when walking a mile seemed like scaling a mountain, I rallied my befuddled mind and knew I needed to start training. I had let alien agendas define and control me, but those nightmares, born of others’ arrogance, gave way to dreams of my future self. I dreamt in winter sunshine and remembered Thomas Edward Lawrence’s words from The Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
‘All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.’
At my lowest point my daydreaming led me to find my perfect race. There is a race in Greece that has caught my eye. The Alonnisos Challenge 30km takes place in early summer on that beautiful island of the Northern Sporades. I now have a goal beyond career and duty, so I will gather myself and see what I am still capable of. Could running repair me? Would I be able to shrug off the Reaper Man in all his craven forms and be stronger? That was my turning point. Commitment was all it took. Now I had to get well. I wanted to race again, and why not under blue Aegean skies?
From nothing much in January I took on board the advice of various running magazines, books and my years of experience, in which the constant theme was start easily. My Irish DNA kicked in. Why skirt around a wall when I could run through it head first? I needed to test my broken spirit. I ran 10, followed the next day by another 10 – slow, but my heart and lungs were fine. Just to force the point I ran 5 more 10s and an 11 over the next couple weeks, then by the second week in February knocked out 60 miles including a 15 mile long run. By the second week in March I had ran 15 x 10 milers, some 11s and another 15. My base of fitness was set and I had not broken down.
So here I am set to examine my base fitness and figure out how to go from plodding to racing. I can toddle along at 10-minutes-a-mile and have no illusions that I need to improve my speed and trim down. Right now I am constructing a schedule to suit. This is my starting point and where I am now.
Training for the Alónnisos Challenge
Since my return to running fitness in 2014 I have concentrated on keeping my food intake down and mileage up. In the 1980s I would regularly run between 2000 and 2400 miles in a year, but dropped below 1000 in 1990. Living on banked fitness carried me through a decade, but ultimately there is a level beneath which a true runner should not dip. In my case 1000 miles keeps me at the stage of being a ‘runner.’
I reached most recent peak in 2015, topping 1300 miles and completing an experimental 28 miler at 10 minute mile pace. As I’ve written elsewhere, my intense focus on work started a gentle decline, ending in illness, but not a return to portliness. After my illness this year I was simply out of condition and fighting to recover too quickly. My initial idea of perhaps completing an ultramarathon was lost due to an inability to maintain the mileage. I would complete a 20 miler in a 50+ mile week only to become tired and sluggish. Finally my GP informed me that a full physical recovery from my illness was going to take quite a while. So, what to do?
Salvation and motivation came in the shape of a Greek island. Whilst spending two weeks on Alónnisos in May with my Passepartout, I met a lovely chap called Panagiotis Karamalis who helps organise the Alónnisos Challenge – a series of races held in late spring over the undulating roads and trails of that fine island. There is a 30km event – the big one – and the more we talked the more it appealed to me. 18.6 miles is well within my training scope. I love trails rather than roads. And finishing is considered to be the main goal. A seed was sown.
Back in England I still floundered with my running. Nothing was coming easily, and I became ill again for a week in September – work was getting on top of me again. An emergency rest was followed by a birthday break back on Alónnisos. I turned 61 and my Passepartout reached 50 with a youthfulness I will always appreciate. As the sun and peacefulness caused me to rest, I began to see things clearly. Where better to philosophise than Greece? I was doing the same thing and getting the same results. Thus I had to change things. Not quite a flash of inspiration, but rather something that was patently obvious once able to reflect.
An evening’s debate with Panagiotis led to my committing myself to run in the Alónnisos Challenge 30km (‘It’s really 31!!’ messaged my mentor later) on 27th May 2018. I felt rejuvenated and remotivated.
October has been a good month. I’m recovered again, but this time am starting to run gently. I have resumed my own version of the 5:2 diet and intend to reach year’s end lean and ready to start my 30km training from a high level of fitness. I’m adding Pilates to my training to give me more flexibility and core strength, and will be following a regime which is less brutal, but more refined.
I have discovered being kind to myself will bring consistency. This will even out the gap between me and the Reaper Man, but he’s still there so keeping on keeping on is the only option…
Running to Alónnisos
In the beginning I started Racing the Reaper Man with a plan. I would show my quick route to fitness and the ease with which a man drifting towards 60 would be able to run an ultramarathon. I had taken everything into account, never overestimated my willpower and set out on the road to success. At 61 the detritus of that plan is scattered all along the road to now, and the X factor of illness scuppered everything. 2016 saw my long slide into burn out; 2017 saw me learn many lessons, but ultimately led me to a belated recovery.
Reaching 2018 came as a relief for me. I am not one for New Year’s resolutions, but the first day of a new year is a natural starting point. As is my habit, I wrote my reflections of the year in my Running Log, then put that well used volume away. I have 7 complete logs now, the first dating from May 16th 1982, and this last one covering 2011 to 2017. When in a nostalgic mood I can read of my exploits as a young man and reflect, with some pride, that I was not bad at running. By 1990 I had broken the hour for 10 miles, posted a couple of 78-minute half marathons and crowned five Sub-3 hour marathons with a 2:49:15. Somewhere in these years I’d broken 2 hours for the 30k as well. Unfortunately, I can also see how my performances declined and how I drifted into plodding in the early 2000s. Yet the last log showed that I am on the way back, with all the experiments as to how to get the best out of an ageing body. The key to everything is mileage, strength, rest, diet and weight.
I have started 2018 free of the effects of the travails of the last two years. It is as if the Reaper Man was breathing down my neck and I came close to a fatal stumble. Yet the DNA supplied by my Irish ancestors has given me a resilience that often surprises me, so this year began with a run – my first pensive steps to competing in the Alónnisos Challenge 30km (actually 31.010km) in May. My commitment is fresh and total, to the point of already booking my trip to that lovely island. Running to Alónnisos has taken all of my accumulated knowledge to plan. My Passepartout cannot accompany this time, so discipline and focus will be solely on running, with no delightful distraction. It will be my first organized event since 1998!
How have I addressed my own key to everything? I shall tell you.
Mileage – this must remain manageable. Starting on 25 miles a week I intend to build my fitness gradually, and taper to the race properly. I’ve built in speed sessions, hill sessions and some time trials to gauge my progress. Up to now (17th January) I’m coping well with this with a long run of 11 miles being relatively comfortable.
Strength – being over 60 I have noticed that my body cannot cope with excessive weight training. So I will be focusing on core strength. Pilates has become a weekly event – this gives me stability and flexibility without the need to grunt under kilos of mass. I will add a second core session at home, based on body resistance exercises with the addition of 3kg dumbbells or a 4 and 6 kg exercise ball. Trail runs will add to that core strength.
Rest – the element I have often ignored. My older body needs proper rest which translates as recovery. This has been the hardest lesson I have had to learn.
Diet – this covers my diet in a literal sense. I have given up alcohol for January and have found it relatively easy. The process of changing habits has been exciting and the effects immediate. Sleep is much more natural. I no longer wake bleary and grumpy. My energy levels are raising by the day and my thoughts have greater clarity. In addition, and almost on a whim, I have been meat-free this year. I will not make this a crusade with proclamations about the purity of my chosen vegetarianism, because I am not a vegetarian. I am a selective omnivore who finds cult-like boundaries set by the assumed authority of the radical vegetable priests both annoying and valueless. I eat eggs and fish, but always consider how ethically they are sourced – the same for vegetable products. So far I am happy eating this way and the aim is to reduce meat in my diet by making selective omnivorousness my future way.
Weight – I’ve also resumed the 5:2 diet. I have found this easier than the first time, and I know it will trim me down. For the first time since the 1990s I want to reach race day lean and ready. I have long despaired over my lack of speed, and am sure carrying extra pounds is the biggest culprit. I have yet to weigh myself this year, but my aim is to be below 12st 6lbs come race day.
For now I can only keep the good work going. Finally I feel as if I am Racing the Reaper Man with all the right tools for the job. Ahead lies the dusty, hilly trails of lovely Alónnisos – ending my 20 year break from racing could not happen in a better place.
Of Hermes and a Golden King
As I dally with the thoughts of Alónnisos and Greece, I often skim over information on the old gods. Whilst pensively considering the stage of my training this week, I came across Hermes and he immediately became one of my favourites. He was the messenger of the gods (renamed Mercury by the Romans), a divine trickster who rather liked protecting people for the meddling proclivities of his realm and was also viewed as the protector and patron of roads and travellers.
In my own metaphor, the Reaper Man pursues me. To quote Chris Lashelle, “The Devil keeps chasing me, And I keep pushing through this pain, He tempts me to lie down and die, Putting an end to my struggling mind…” How apt that has seemed to me through these dark winter days. I need a guardian of my road to Alónnisos. Yet, as with most Greek mythology, Hermes could also be the conductor of souls to the afterlife! So, perhaps I will forego his assistance for the now.
Yet myth is most often begotten in wondrous reality, and such was my uplifting by of the King of Birds some eight miles into a 12 mile run last weekend. I had trotted happily along undulating roads over the South Downs on a cold, clear afternoon, but as a skimming of cloud turned the world a winter monochrome my spirit dropped. I plodded along the flatland lane, hemmed in by deep drainage ditches, looking across stripped, wet arable fields. Then, to my left, down in charcoal sketched blackthorn branches and dead reeds a tiny supernova of colour flashed. Golden – so yellow in the gloom, that my heart missed a beat. A goldcrest was seeking out enough mites and midges to keep its tiny life afire through the night. It looked well, even if need had pushed it to hunt in a stunted thorn over chilly water. The final miles were easy – if this green and gold kinglet could survive out here, I could run home.
This kinglet, the name of a small group of Old World Warblers, Regulidae in Latin, is our joint smallest bird along with the firecrest. There are several stories in folklore about the wren becoming King of the Birds as it hitched a ride on the eagle’s back, and once the eagle tired, flew a little higher to claim its crown by flying highest of all. However, back in the day, many of these little leaf warblers were known as ‘willow wrens’, so I have always thought the goldcrest to be the king, after all it has the golden crown. To support my case, its Latin name Regulus regulus is a diminutive of rex, a king.
The lesson for me is that metaphors, myths and metaphysics look fine in print – abstract, with little substance in the real world. Reality is my constant companion as I run towards my 34,000th mile. Every now and then, my train of thought gives way to a flash of gold in the undergrowth as the little kinglet shows his crown and my life is fuller for it.
With that in my minds eye, Sol sank in the west as I completed my run, painting the clouds golden. Two sleeping kings were out there as I got into my warm home. Both will warm my days as long as I keep on running. What more could a chap ask for?
Thanks to photographer Dorian Mason for the use of his work, more of which may be found here
‘Tis but a scratch…’ Ciprofloxacin at 34,000 miles
The Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail is a great advert for the never-say-die attitude taken to ridiculous limits. Apart from the fact that the scene is hilarious and brutal – British humour distilled into one scene – it juxtaposes bravery with stupidity in admirable fashion. Visual oxymoronic madness!
Black Knight:“Tis but a scratch.”
Arthur:“A scratch? Your arms off!”
Black Knight:“I’ve had worse.”
As with all Monty Python films, the simplicity of the scripts give rise to long discussions as to greater meanings, and they are manifold. The Life of Brian can be watched numerous times and the meanings become stronger and more pertinent. Terry Jones described it as ‘a celebration of religion’, which has its own meaning and adds to the mix. The Black Knight scene was described by John Cleese as a polemic against the assumption “if you never give up, you can’t possibly lose”, which is flawed, though initially attractive.
By the end of March, I had completed 34,000 miles since starting to run in 1982. Throughout the 36 years it has taken me to reach this distance I have been faced with the Black Knight scenario many times. A younger me would keep running through anything, until disability stopped me. Now, however, after showing signs of fine fitness in mid-March, the ‘kidney infection’ I suffered last October returned to cut me down.
A blood test followed – raised Prostate-Specific Antigens. Bugger! Off to the urologist department of my local hospital. I kept thinking ‘cancer’ and was told ‘Prostatitis…. probably’. A virulent bacterial infection of the selector valve (probably) and to test this theory I was prescribed 2 x 500mg of Ciprofloxacin. Remember that name – it makes me scared. I was to take these for 28 days. After that, IF my PSA had dropped, I would be cured. If not….
I continued running.
A week later I could not run. I looked grey as these antibiotics took effect and I was generally feeling like death. The Reaper Man has a sense of humour, it seems. The first indications I was in trouble was the return of a minor ache in my second toe, right foot, and my right shoulder. I went to a local sports physio and he eased my pain. But, the pain got worse and by Easter my toe was white-hot agony – then my back gave out…
20 days of Ciprofloxacin was the clue. One of the less common side effects is pain in the tendons – over 60s can rupture them if not careful! Ciprofloxacin had found all my old injuries and the inflammation cut me down to a non-running, limping wreck. A call to my urology nurse and she told me, with the support of a consultant, to stop taking the tablets.
A week later I’m back on my feet and a couple of physio sessions has allowed me to resume my run to Alónnisos. Friday 13th April and the pain is nearly gone, but my training will be very basic survival running. I find out if the drugs work by the end of the month… If the prostatitis is gone, brilliant. If my PSA remains high – well, that’s a whole new world for me.
The lessons this month are: always read the side effects of medication; get tested for prostate cancer regularly; always believe that a healthy lifestyle will get you through things easier.
‘Tis but a scratch…’ The Reaper Man now has to catch the Black Knight…
Odyssey to Alónnisos
I like Greek gods. The crushing banality of monotheism’s stultifying myths leave a trail of misery. Humans are but nothing and suffering is holy. Greek gods however suffer with their human subjects. Give me a Greek, Viking or Celtic myth any time. I can relate to them. These ancient peoples were not arrogant enough to think themselves special, and created myths with an immediacy to explain the hard lives they lived. Greek gods were just magnified people, flawed, marvellous and equally relevant as any other.
My journey to run the Alónnisos Challenge, on 27th May, began last September, when buoyed by a week on the island, warm sunshine and a little wine, I committed myself to run this year’s race. No 10km for me. Oh no, I committed to the 30km run – that it is 31.010km did nothing to change my mind. In my head I was 30 again, remembering 2:49 marathons, 78 minute half marathons and cruising along at 6:30 pace wondering what all the fuss was about. By December that 31km over hot trails and hills looked like a serious endeavour.
On 1st January I began what turned out to be quite an odyssey. I gave up meat. I gave up alcohol. I started training, using a schedule set out with the optimism of a man with his eye on a goal, though not seeing possible pitfalls befitting a Greek myth. Odysseus set sail to Ithaca the same way, but he did not see the possibilities of the gods’ interference. It took him 10 years to get home. I have written about the troubles I had to face, but like all good tales, somehow I may just reach Alónnisos ready to run.
I got the all clear two weeks ago. I do not have cancer and the Prostatitis has gone. My health is nearly back to normal, and only a dull ache in my right, second toe reminds me of those awful Ciprofloxacin tablets. Through all this I kept running, but at a lower level. To survive the Alónnisos Challenge I needed endurance, so that is what I concentrated on. I could not physically do speed work, and have had little time left to do extensive hill training – I lost too many weeks, and felt too ill.
In my odyssey, the lightning bolts of Prostatis and Ciprofloxacin cut me down just as I was feeling the best I had, running wise, for years. I will come ashore at Alónnisos, my Ithaca, older, wiser but capable of taking up the Challenge. Yet my Greek friends will see a plodder not a racing snake. In the last 4 weeks I have completed an 18, 20 and 22 miler to give me an indication that I can get through the distance. I aim to survive the heat, hills and trails without being bound to the clock. This will free me to run within myself.
Yet I may be overthinking things. This is no eyeballs-out competitive event. Alónnisos is a friendly, scattered isle, it’s people smiling encouragement whether one runs, staggers or walks. So, in a way the odyssey to get to my Ithaca may have been a trial, but I will view the run as a dance in the garden of the gods. No matter what happens, I know the evening will be full of smiles, laughter, good food and a break in my no-alcohol policy. The people on Alónnisos laugh more freely than most I’ve met, and that makes things easier. Alónnisos gave me this journey.
Oddly, this is reflected in a poem that my friend, Captain Pakis gave to me – Ithaca, by Constantine P. Cavafy. (I have subsequently bought a book of Cavafy’s work).
As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.
Constantine P. Cavafy
The Alónnisos Challenge 27th May 2018
The morning of the race dawned hot and red in the east. It had been a long night. A scops owl had decided to broadcast ownership of his territory by “chlanging” from the tree outside my room. He rhythmically goes “chlang”, or perhaps “pioo”, hard to write it down phonetically, every 4 seconds for hours. Now, I love these small owls, but even I was becoming stressed by 02:00. Just as I’d closed the glass doors behind the louvred shutters the swine stopped! Then somewhere a loose shutter went “kerrlump-bump” at irregular intervals. I was awake before my alarm.
This was my first race since 1998, so the nerves I felt were fresh but well-remembered. I kept busy, ate a blueberry and honey oat bar, then got ready. Nip-ease patches on; body glide on; number 3019 on; and at 07:20 walked in my yellow kit down to the rather deserted start.
I put my rucksack in the Alónnisos Café, ate an SiS caffeine gel, then bimbled about meeting other runners before the mayor gave us the countdown: “Tria dýo mía kínisi!” We were off and straight into a 1km climb from Patitiri harbour. I was near the back with a couple behind me and a couple just ahead; the rest were young, fast and gone! I was the only 60+ in the race. The hills were mad, and the heat was unrelenting. I wore my white Inov8 cap at my Passepartout’s suggestion, and it was the best advice I could have had. Finally the course turned down to Milia Beach and I caught up with a 34 year old Athenian chap called Krónos – he held the name of the god responsible for the length of the lives of mortals. He was the Reaper Man! Actually he was nice, steady, faster going up, but I was much quicker on the downs. We chatted for a bit then I left him as I dropped to the beach. Then came Killer Hill, a 1.5km climb. Here Krónos pulled ahead, both of us fast-walking on the insane trail and switchback road.
The drinks stations were every 2.5-3.0km, the people at these were truly lovely, encouraging and helpful. I loved them all and gave my biggest grin at each. As the road levelled I reached Cat Bin Junction (wheelie bins and cats always here) took a drink, asked the chap where the cats were, to which he replied, “In da foorest!” The undulating main road stretched away before me and I saw Krónos walking a steep bit ahead. I had to walk a bit here too, but it was something I had learned: fast walking is as quick as a shuffle run, and more efficient. The next drink station was at the 18km junction and the road I’d have to take later went straight up! On I plodded past 8km, 9km then down the Steni Vala road – another drink, then up a zig-zag just beyond Roller Junction (saw a European roller there last year on the wires). Over the top and finally I could relax. Steni Vala was below and I knew where the turning was. My shuffle changed to a proper fast descent, and I overhauled Krónos again. Right turn onto the rougher trail I had driven down last year, but this time I was running up. Drinks, Krónos was back and we speed walked and ran together through 12 and 13km. Eventually he pulled ahead though I could always see his relentlessly progressing figure. The dust, heat and never-ending climbs put me in a reverie and it was such a relief to reach the road again.
I knew I was covering ground evenly, effort wise, but Krónos was using a GPS watch and was keeping at a certain ‘power figure’, I thought my method was less draining. I ran up the long stretch in insane heat. The dreaded 18km turn loomed and I’d caught Krónos, but he was up the steep hill before I’d taken on water, and some isotonic drink, as I had a crampy left calf. This stretch was even more brutal – hot, dusty and stony. I was turning my water-wetted hat constantly so the peak would either cover my face or neck, depending on where I was in relation to the sun. It worked well, and even though it was manically hot on the still, tree-lined trail, I was not bothered by the temperature. I passed a chap around 20km where YOU ARE DOING GREAT was written on the road – a nice touch, and kept my steady plod going. 22km, 23km over the Tsoukalia Road, then up a rough, steep trail and I could see Krónos high above me.
I knew I would make it now but had no idea of the time and gave it little thought. I guessed 4 hour’s 30 minutes would be about right. Now came the mother of all climbs so far, up, ever up, then onto the main road above Gialia. I was wrecked at the drinks station, but turned down the new zig-zag towards the desalination plant and relaxed down the hill, running quickly. This was short lived as I turned off to the next trail which was even steeper! Dirt, dust stones, only relenting as I came out onto the road just below Chora. 25km had gone as I shuffled into the lofty town, running through the narrow streets and steps, then onto the descending tarmac road to Megalos Mourtias Beach with its steep zig-zag. Up ahead I could see Krónos was walking. I asked how he was, and he said his quads were numb. He waved me on with a smile and I was away.
27km and to the turn on the beach, took a big drink, left, along a path…stone steps! Up, up and I was dizzy with effort, pushed on and finally reached a drop, drinks, 28km and out onto the road to Patitiri. There was no let up as road is steeply undulating and my downhill speed had turned into a plod. 30km – that nasty 1010m was to come. From nowhere a chap in an orange cap caught me and eased ahead. He could run up the rises, but I could not, so I let him go. Alone I dropped into Patitiri, down past Archipelagos (a cheer from Vasilis in Archipelagos) and along the final straight, doffed my cap to the cheers and finished in 3:57:56! Wonderful. And 15th too – but I think there were not many behind me. Medal, certificate and waited for Krónos. The Reaper Man appeared, held his little daughter’s hand and jogged in to my applause some 4 minutes behind me.
And thus my first race in 20 years is over. I loved it! I realise that running for fitness is fun, but training for an event adds need. It all makes one healthier if all the elements are applied correctly, with thought. Yet, above all that there is Alónnisos. Ancient Ikos. A place to slow down, ponder life and, with open eyes, find a bounty of creatures and plants, birds, beasts and people. All sun drowsed and magical.
As I ran I had been captivated by swallowtails, brimstones and a new, large brown butterfly with orange edged wings, that turned out to be two-tailed pashas: lizards, hover-flies and the smells of sun warmed wild herbs. Now my legs were heavy and my body caked in dust. I went back to the lovely Paradise Hotel with rebelling thighs to wash my kit and myself. I was seized by a sudden desire for choccie ice cream, so went down and ate one at the Alónnisos Café. Back again to doze off unexpectedly.
Later I sat with my friend, Captain Pakis, at Archipelagos – we shared wine, fresh fish and conversations on Homer, Odysseus, Kazanzakis, Papadiomantis, and how the Greeks see us.
I smiled at my quest to Race the Reaper Man and how, today, I ran with a super Athenian named Krónos. The analogy was clear and in it I could see a firm link with the Greek gods and my own odyssey. So I wrote this:
Built by Hephaestus
Friendly island sitting in azure,
Colours brushed by golden Helios,
Watches as new hemerodromes,
Make shadows on the road.
Setting out with hearts,
Nervous as a bird,
Held in a giant hand,
Then the hills,
Slowly take hold,
And under the heat,
Hephaestus forges automatons,
Gone is fear,
Gone is weariness,
All that is left is heat,
Mind and the sound of being.
Road and trail passes,
Under dusty shoes,
And bodies shine,
Alónnisos soothes them,
Her Naiads quenches them,
And Her smiling children,
Watch as the magic takes hold,
These freshly forged creations,
Built by Hephaestus,
Carry their shadows into Patitiri,
They receive their laurels,
To become true Olympians.
Below is the results table for the 30k. It’s the kind of race where everyone is a winner.
Wrapping Up Summer
My last entry covered the completion of the Alónnisos Challenge. The race was over 19 miles of mountainous terrain in 30ºC+, from which it took several days to recover. After the race, whilst still on the island, I decided to test my new Anton Krupicka Ultimate Direction hydration pack and see how trail running solo would feel. I had a mind to explore dusty tracks to an overlook at Fringou. The ground shimmered in the heat at my starting point by the crossroads near Diaselo. It was just before midday – not very wise. I set off down the hot track, cap shielding me from the sun. The hydration bladder swished annoyingly, but after five minutes it matched my running rhythm and became part of the whole. I took a wrong turn up a nasty climb to a farm, adding 400m to my run, but otherwise I was alright, reaching the overlook at Fringou well hydrated, in good shape but radiantly hot. The view was great, only compromised by the Greek habit of sticking mobile masts in the most beautiful lofty places. On the return it was maddeningly hot and dust coated my legs. I had to speed-walk some climbs, arriving back at my rental Fiat to the strident cheer of a lone farmer who was filling up his goats’ troughs nearby. I changed my sweat-soaked kit quickly (bollock naked bar my shoes, by the road for 30 seconds) then set off for refreshments at Costas’s Kantina in Gerakas. I had loved the run and love this special Greek island.
This year had not panned out as I had hoped. By late summer, although I was free of medical issues, I had yet to regain my physical resilience and felt fragile. Even on my best runs I was monitoring everything, just in case illness or injury made themselves manifest once more. Thus, the summer became a continuation of my recovery. I had absolutely no speed at all and tended to plod along at a single pace. As September arrived I was running well again, but had started to think I would have to get used to 12 minutes a mile being my new racing speed. (Before 2016, 8 and 9-minute miles were normality). It felt like tiredness was a permanent ton weight I could not put down. The Reaper Man is much slower, luckily, so I pressed on regardless – one thing I had not lost was my stubborn streak.
As I approach my 62nd birthday (30th September) I panicked. I’d plodded through hilly 16, 18, 20 and 22 milers yet still had no confidence. I had recovered from everything, then picked up a bout of sciatica. It was two years since my constant string of illnesses and injuries had started. Did I need more rest? So, in a moment of madness, I decided to see if I could run 30 miles.
I mapped out a local course – a couple miles over the fields, a small loop, then 20 x 1.28-mile laps around quiet country lanes, with a return to complete 30.03 miles. Luckily the day I chose was hot! I had set up a hidden feed station early in the morning, with plenty of water, electrolyte drink and gels, so set out over the trails under blue skies with no excuses. Oddly enough the sciatica never affected running, only making sitting or lying down uncomfortable. How does one rest such an injury?
After the initial small loop, I started the 20, and due to failing memory counted them by adding a stone to a handy old plough frame on each circuit. I drank with a gel every second lap, (caffeine in every 4th one). I was single paced, but never faltered, slowed or walked. The biggest bother is not knowing where one’s limit may be. In my head the ‘hitting the wall at 18 miles in a marathon’ mantra is still hard wired, so ultra-running can be a mind-over-body issue. It is in me. Yet I never noticed the marathon distance, only stopping at 28.4 miles when 20 assorted stone counters sat in a row on the rusting plough frame. And, well, I felt fine. I also had loads of flies stuck to me! (In the picture I took I counted 30 flies – one for each mile.) Once home, with 30 miles done I’d proved to myself I’m not doddery quite yet.
With that, I took my sciatica and my Passepartout for a birthday break in the West Country.
The Eleventh Hour Ends
I find predicting a New Year’s goals a mixed art. In keeping a training diary since May 1982, upon review, I can safely say the end result rarely squares neatly with what was planned. My diaries are neatly drawn out by hand. Each month is preceded by a blank area in which I can write reflections of the previous month and how it squares up with my predictions. Correspondingly the end of each year has a page or two in which to reflect the year; each new year is prefaced with my aims, goals, distances, destinations etc., etc. It may sound tedious, but once in the habit it becomes quite an archive of one’s path through life. Of course, as one gets older, one’s goals have to be tempered and measured with a degree of common sense, for at 62 I could never achieve the same physical feats of a 30-year-old Me.
2018 was planned as being a constant triumph. I began with writing up a schedule to get me to my first race, The Alónnisos Challenge, with speed in my legs and the body of a hungry whippet. Earlier parts of this blog will show how I buckled under the rather nasty infection of Prostatitis, and the dreadful side-effects of Ciprofloxacin on my tendons. However, I did manage to recover enough to complete the race, albeit with no real aim but to survive. That I did, and enjoyed it, taught me a lot about what I may achieve and that I enjoy trail running – even in 33ºC of heat. Yet, by July I needed a rest as the Ciprofloxacin aftershocks on my tendons resurfaced. For the last few months of the year I was plagued with sciatica. I learned to manage the pain and ran a 6-hour 30 miler in training, but reached December a little flat. My goal of running 1000 miles for the year had been passed in November, so what next to get me to the end of 2018?
It came down to Elevenses. A long time ago messages between my Passepartout and me were often recorded at 11:11. We noticed that time cropping up regularly in our lives. The reason is no real mystery, but simply because it is around that time of day we seem naturally stop for a break, so 11:11 is not that unusual, but does have a binary simplicity and symmetry. Thus, once I passed the 1000-mile mark in my new goal was to line up those 1s in as neat a package as I could. On New Year’s Eve I set out at 11:11 to run 11 miles to end the year with a total mileage of 1111. I set out feeling fine and took it far too easy on the hilly part of my usual route. As I dropped down to more level ground I decided to push myself and see how close to 13:00 I could finish. I’m guessing I lallygagged for 6 miles, then upped my effort to sub-10s for the rest. Thus, I completed the run and was astounded that the clock read 13:02 – I had run 11 miles in 111 minutes! Symmetry was beautifully complete: at 11:11 I set out and completed 11 miles in 111 minutes to reach a total mileage of 1111 for the year. Oddly enough if you at the integers of 2018 together you have a total of 11.
It had been a good year. I have started to smile a lot more and feel as if the self-imposed pressure of pursuing greater career roles and gathering more stuff has finally been sloughed off. By-and-large my recovery from a series of illnesses is pretty much complete and I have emerged well ahead of the Reaper Man once more. There is no doubt in my mind that taking control of the person that is You is the primal driver towards a better way of life. I am sure I am the one responsible for what I want to be. If anything gets in the way of health, fitness and happiness – change things. For now, the Reaper Man has lost ground and 2019 could well be a wonderful year. The eleventh hour of my life could well be a long one.
A date with King Alfred
I have been running since 16th May 1982. At that time the Running Boom had just begun to gather momentum and big city marathons were starting to appear worldwide. At 25 years of age my body responded quickly to my new obsession. Gone were the fags, gone excessive drinking and in came a decade of training, adjusting and exploring my physical limits. Unbeknownst to me, it was those decades following, which would be the hardest to take.
From that day in 1982 I followed a philosophy of hurting more in training than I would in races. I did not have the frame of a distance runner, so had to find a way of getting closer to my limit than many of my contemporaries. In my local running club, there were several naturally gifted chaps who would flay me on training runs. An eyeballs-out 6 miler would see me stagger in a minute behind, even though I would recover quickly. Yet on our in-club competitions they would go to races eyeing me suspiciously. You see, I would usually beat any of them at a distance beyond 10 miles. Let me explain…
On club nights I would have already ran. Quite often 20 sprints up a motorway bridge in the middle of a six miler. They were thus running against a tired man. My only real goal was to achieve a sub 3-hour marathon, so club running with its in-house competitiveness was only important insofar as it taught me to work harder when already tired. It was a successful philosophy and I ran faster than I ever thought possible. 33 years have passed since I ran my quickest marathon. It took a long time to feel proud of that 2:49:15. You see, you never know when you’ve had your best race until after your peak. And ‘after your peak’ takes a while to sink in.
The hardest thing to get used to is slowing down. Beyond 60 I still have trouble accepting my best years were in the 80s. However, that is also a sign of a discontinuous mind. Life moves on and the past should be something to build on, not to break you. Life does not stop, and has not stopped, so now I search for things I did not achieve, then aim for them. I may not be quick, but I have found that I can still set new distance records. After pushing up to 28 and 30 mile record distances, I decided 2019 would be the year I entered my first organised ultramarathon.
On January 6th I entered the Race to the King – 53 miles over the South Downs from Arundel to Winchester Cathedral, where the statue of King Alfred stands, and a tall stone cross marks the finish. The following day I was struck down by a flu virus, my back and hip started to hurt and I could barely walk without severe pain. Yet there is another thing I have added to my philosophy – most illnesses, aches and pains are not permanent, so patience is all. The flu went. My brilliant physio saw off my sciatica and hip flexor pain. By the end of January my date with King Alfred was back on course. June 22nd, Race day, seems a long way off. Between now and then I know there will be adventures, the spring, and a few more aches and pains. But I know one thing – hurting now will help me cope with that long race. And the Reaper Man has to follow – I hope he likes pain.
From Marathon to the trails of Ikos
Spring is a great time to run. Training through the winter takes more effort, maximum clothes and, in my case, a well-used headlamp. Only weekends allow daylight running, and the occasional foray onto coastal trails are inevitably muddy, with a cutting wind, chilled by its journey over the waters of Chichester Harbour and the Channel. Gunmetal skies; gunmetal sea; frosted mud and steaming shoulders. I have always treated winter training as my base-level regime. A run of 10 or 11 miles is my longest during these dark days, taken at an easy pace to build up enough strength and stamina to cope with tuning for my summer targets.
My main aim this year was to run my first organized ultramarathon – the Race to the King. After recovering from a flu virus in the first half of January, running became easy once more. February proved I was back on track and long runs between 10 and 12 miles were almost pain free, if slightly slow. I continued to have a niggly lower back, but I now accept that when I run these aches go away (until later, when sitting down reveals where the aches are.) In March a bout of heavy gardening found my weak point again: my back seized up. This meant a return to Charles, my brilliant physio, to be repaired and unlocked. I was wondering why I kept breaking down – the muscles and tendons that were hurting were never obvious running-related injuries.
I put this to the back of my mind as March progressed and I started to gather and use new ultramarathon kit, testing it out for the big one in June. I took to the local trails and made a coastal run around Thorney Island my principle route – varied terrain consisting of mud, grass, shingle, sand, flint-knobbled hard bits and scrub. The main loop is 10 miles, but I could stretch it by running around Cobnor Point towards Bosham. Finally, my fitness was building and I felt no weariness on long runs. After a hard 16-mile coastal run on a warm, sunny day on 30th March I found a local race – the Goodwood Running Grand Prix Marathon. So, with no proper preparation, I entered and aimed to survive it during heavy training just to see where I was.
On 14th April I was at the start line on the Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit. It was sunny, but there was a freezing easterly wind blowing. I had no idea what sort of speed I would be running and would be happy with a 4:50:00 in comfort. This was my first organized marathon since Brussels 1990 where I ran 3:06:55. At the time I was a bit miffed at how slow I was! 29 years later that time looks incredible so now I had to see what the 62-year-old me could manage. The horn sounded and ahead lay 11 laps of a relatively flat circuit, with one gentle rise, but 11 slogs into that freezing wind. I ran with a chap called Joe, who was training for a 100 miler, and he got us into a steady rhythm which I was pleased to stay with. The first 20 miles went by at 10:00-10:10 pace. I was more than happy as this had recently become my best training speed. The last 6 miles were harder, so I let Joe go and eased up a little. My time was 4:30:47 – an average of 10:20s – I was more than happy with that.
Back along, after a marathon, even last year after the 31km Alónnisos Challenge, it was normal to hurt for a week – being in agony going down stairs, and generally surviving on sore power muscles. After Goodwood I had no pain and could train with little trouble. I was on the right track to complete an ultra.
8 days later I did a harder run – 20 miles of trails in the heat including a double lap of Thorney Island. I ran well, but at 15 miles tripped on a sticky-out piece of flint and hit the ground hard. I lay winded and for a moment thought I had cracked a rib. I had a brief vision of the Reaper Man standing over me, but he fled to the sound of the breeze in the grass and singing skylarks. My hand was bleeding and I’d cut my right knee. I set off again determined to finish the run whilst being more careful. At 17 miles I did the very same thing. I lay there in the grass bleeding and started to chuckle – what a plank! Nothing major hurt so I limped on and finished well enough. Subsequently I found I had bruised some intercostal muscles, yet it could have been much worse After a clean-up session and the application of a single plaster, I was fine. But the Reaper Man has allies…
On the next morning’s commute, the carriage was full of coughing, sneezing people. I eyed the culprits malevolently. That evening I was bone-weary. I could not train. The next day I was just plain wiped out. Then, in the space of 24 hours, I had a raging sore throat. I missed a whole week’s training.
Once I felt well I had a gentle 4-mile jog and was alright. The next morning my left knee was agony! I was astounded. I’ve never had a knee problem and this had come out-of-the-blue. Frantic icing and compression did nothing. I had five days before flying out to Greece for a holiday. It cleared up very quickly – then I slipped on the stairs and hurt my right patella tendon! No chance of running until I reached ancient Ikos, Alónnisos as it is now known. I only had one run on the trails whilst I was away. This showed me one thing – I had lost too many key training weeks, rapidly losing fitness and with it confidence.
Upon my return home I decided, with heavy heart and brutal logic, to defer my entry for the Race to the King until next year. That is life as an older runner. Grimly depressed I had a day of self-pity and determined to give up…. But something Churchill wrote became relevant:
“Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”
I couldn’t so I didn’t – there is a second Goodwood Grand Prix Marathon in September – I’m already planning, and back to running again. King Alfred can wait another year for me, I am sure. Thus, the Reaper Man remains a shadow, but as long as he is behind he will have to match me, stride for stride, to keep up.
As an afterthought I reread my training log for the last year. The tendon that hurt in my knee was the iliotibial band, I’m sure. But why would it flare up to agony, then just go? I believe I have my answer. Since taking Ciprofloxacin last spring, every time I get a virus a tendon becomes inflamed for no apparent reason. I started the year with flu, and my hip flexor flared along with my sciatic nerve. This time my IT band at its junction in the knee. Simultaneously my right foot aches – a residual effect of Ciprofloxacin that has never completely left. This rare, but all-to-painful after effect, seems to have remained with me – all I can hope is that it wears off with time. Most of the research I have read indicates it probably will.
I enjoyed my time on Ikos. Of that I will write in my next post. In the meantime, postponing the ultramarathon until next year seems wiser to me now. By 2020 the Ciprofloxacin effect on my system will be less of a bother, I hope, so all I can do now is enjoy the summer and test myself on my local trails. As Kostas Cavaffy shows in his lovely poem, Ithaka, it is the journey that is most important. And as I have shown keeping ahead of the Reaper Man ensures the journey continues.
Bothday? The first thing I must explain is that noun. My Passepartout and I have autumn birthdays but 4 days apart. Three years ago we eschewed separate birthday presents and made a convergence of both events to make a single, week-long celebration, our Bothday,…and went on holiday to Alónnisos. It worked so well it has become an annual event. It takes us away from unnecessary, formal attention, and gives us a chance to let the next digit be added to our totals, without too much fanfare. In 2018 we toured the West Country and our 2019 Bothday, the subject of this blog post, was a happy return to the far north of Scotland.
Having deposited Passepartout’s ageing feline in her luxury hotel and driven to the Midlands to spend a little time with parents, we dropped Passepartout Junior at University and continued up the M1 to begin our journey proper. Rather than write anew, I’ll use selected highlights from my diaries…
Day 1: Bedale
We reached Bedale at 15:45. The Manor House Hotel where we have the Chinese Room – super. A welcome in the form of a pot of tea and some cake was appreciated.
Down to the Main Street (Market Parade). Had a wander then 2 pints of beer for £4.80! So cheap. Ate a lovely meal at Panetti’s Café Bistro, shared a bottle of red, then toddled back to our room… we ordered breakfast for 08:45…
Day 2: Bedale to Dunphail
Awake by 06:30, made room-tea at 07:00. Showered and packed, then down to join the other residents for breakfast: tea, toast and scrambled egg with smoked salmon. Everyone was nice and we nattered a bit too long. Set off at 09:45…
Up the A1M – the roads were relatively quiet so we made good time. Very exciting to see Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, and then a slower drive in the heavier traffic as we passed Newcastle. By the time we went by Morpeth the road was clear again. A brief stop at a services, then on: saw the Farne Islands; skirted Berwick-upon-Tweed; then saw Bass Rock on the run in to Edinburgh. Skirting that fine city, we crossed the Firth of Forth on the beautiful new Queensferry Bridge. We saw the older road bridge, and the Victorian Forth Bridge too.
Made good time, passed Scone, then had a diversion before reaching the Cairnwell Pass. Here we stopped at the Glenshee Ski Centre for a coffee and cake in the drizzle. Onwards towards Tomintoul, a red squirrel ran across the road, then on to Grantown-on-Spey. From here it was a quiet final push to Dunphail where we were greeted by my brother and his delightful wife. 334 miles trouble free.
A quiet, funny night – veggie soup, the apple cake and ice cream… slept…
Day 3: Dunphail to Tongue
A light breakfast. A lot of laughter and we were sent on our way with some apple cake and a hug. Fuelled up in Forres, then on to Inverness, over the Kessock Bridge and into the Far North, through the Cromarty Firth, Dornoch Firth, Brora and Helmsdale, on through Wick and up the East Coast. Lots of swallows still migrating south.
We eventually stopped at a John O’Groats for a stretch, some pictures and a fruit scone and coffee. Lots of gannets flying offshore and many swallows feeding over the little harbour. Several red admirals were flying south.
On to Dunnet Head where we sat watching a heavy shower. Despite my insisting that to see a cetacean of any kind was unlikely, Passepartout confounded me by spotting a pod of 5-10 dolphins feeding some 800m away. Shows what I know! The rain stopped, so I whipped on some running gear and trotted half-a-mile down the road and back to record my northernmost possible run on the British mainland.
The final 64 miles to the Tongue Hotel took us along the North Coast, seeing the large site of Doonreay, and wilder, shower-soaked peat bogs, lochs and cnocks. The Tongue Hotel…Olde Worlde luxury. Through the window we can see Ben Loyal… lovely. Great shower and down for fantastic haddock and chips – light, crisp and perfect with a glass of Merlot. We are both tired, so an early night beckoned.
Day 4: Tongue – Penny Farthing – Pies – Culkein
Being the far north, the night was silent and it was peacefully dark, so, our sleep was wonderfully refreshing. Last night we had made a dent in the small decanter of sherry (complimentary) so it aided our drift into the arms of Morpheus.
I made tea at 07:00 and we ate our equally complimentary Tunnock’s choccie marshmallows. I showered – hot and of sandblasting ferocity – and then we toddled down the galleon-creaking stairway to the Dining Room. Veggie breakfasts, toast, tea and a coffee. Booting out time was 11:00, so we decided to make the most of the luxury. Passepartout had a bath and I caught up with emails and the news…the TV remained off.
The Tongue Hotel is worth every penny and we will use it in the future. We set off at 10:30 in fine rain and pressed on towards Durness. The rain stopped as we skirted Loch Eriboll, where we admired the pretty zigzag patterns around the base of Creag na Faoilinn – the scree has fallen in regular, triangular fans: each a crop of moss, or very green grass on them, which stops at the cliff face forming a dark margin. These zigzags are similar to the triangles around a Peruvian woollen hat.
Durness was rather busy, so we sped on through (slowly) and turned south. The Kyle of Durness was gunmetal grey and the drizzle had started again. As we climbed the long straight up the side of Farrmheall, discussing which hill on our left was Foinaven, a Victorian redcoat in pith helmet, riding a penny farthing came hurtling by heading north. To say I was stunned was an understatement! We were speechless, open-mouthed and delighted. Was it real? I drove on for a couple miles to find a safe place to turn, then set off in pursuit of the Rourke’s Drift apparition (though I’m not sure they had penny farthings at that particular battle.) We caught up and filmed him, relieved that it had not been a shared hallucination, and passed by to stop a mile or so ahead. By now he had donned a rain jacket over his red coat in deference to the rain, but the pith helmet remained. As he passed we huzzahed him mightily, and he thanked us as he sped by! Our day was made.
(We discovered that this worthy is one Joff Summerfield. He is an ex-Formula 1 engine designer. He sold up and built his own penny farthings to create a world-circling piece of both ancient and modern engineering. We were lucky enough to see him on his circumnavigation of the new NC500 route around Scotland… Wonderful!) Read about Joff here.
By 13:00 I was getting grumpily tired. Over the Kylesku Bridge the rain really hammered down again, so none of the lovely mountains were visible. Finally the turn by Loch Assynt and on into Lochinver. Straight to the Pie Shop for a late lunch. Revived we did a frantic, slightly mind-numbing shop in the local Spar, then headed off to Culkein.
Brisbane Chalet was clean, tidy and as delightful as we remembered… Settled in and drank wine with some pasta and pesto… Outside the light was fantastic, Quinag being the focal point from the hut. It glowers and shape-changes with the light and weather, is never dull and always lovely. Bed early, with the sunset, and a quick drift into penny farthing filled dreams….
Day 5: Culkein
A long, silent sleep. The autumn days are not the never-ending ones of high latitude summer any more. Sunrise is 07:20, and sundown just after 19:00. I was up with the dawn and made tea. Passepartout came out to join me. Outside it was bright and overcast, and the tide was reaching its height. The short stretch of sandy beach held some 40 oystercatchers, a few common gulls, and some ringed plovers. As we watched they all leaped into the air to circle, startled over the bay. This was a ‘dread’ and usually happens when a bird of prey is overhead. In from the sea came a huge juvenile white-tailed sea eagle! Massive ‘barn-door’ wings and huge bill making the head look ‘heavy’. It cruised by, wings beating slowly, eventually disappearing over the skyline towards Loch Cul Fraioch. The birds settled again. A grey seal poked its nose out of the water on the far side of the bay, and the roost was bolstered by some turnstones, rock pipits, and a couple of curlews. One curlew has a left foot missing, so we’ve called it Stumpy. ‘He’ looks fine, with good plumage, so it seems to be coping very well. A lone redshank joined the beach party as did a single grey heron.
All around starlings flew in small, feeding flocks, a pied wagtail hawked for insects in the grass and a stonechat busied itself around the hut. By the jetty a female red-breasted merganser ‘steamered’ through the water, chasing surface-feeding fish. This technique is fun to watch: head down, just under the surface; then a sudden surge of frantically paddling legs (like a paddle-steamer’s rotary paddles); once amongst the fish, zigzagging, dipping and full submersion, this way and that, before stopping to ruffle feathers back into place. A lone raven flapped over the whole busy scene.
At midday, in brighter weather, we wandered along the coast to the sea arch at Rubh’an Dùnain. Out on the ebbing sea shags fished constantly. We found lots of different fungi to look at and photograph, along with a large fox moth caterpillar (last found in the Blaven car park in 2017). I next spotted a large (dog?) otter in the kelp-strewn shallows. We watched him rise and dive a few times before he slipped away. Rock pipits scurried along the low tide line and meadow pipits flocked over the close-cropped sward. Down below a red-throated diver (juvenile turning to winter plumage) successfully fished for what looked like sand eels. We drifted back as the tide turned, walking to the piercing calls of squabbling, chattering oystercatchers. At the old croft ruins and sheep pens a small flock of twites fluttered around the gateway, dancing up and away upon our approach, twittering like baby Geiger counters as they left. Overhead two patrolling ravens croaked past, one after the other, glossy black, feathered throats moving with their calls, heads turning as they look for dead things to eat. Had they called ‘Nevermore!’ we may have stopped to stare, but, instead toddled to Brisbane for a cup-of-tea.
A gentle drift into evening with the tide filling the bay. Stumpy has been feeding, limping amongst the bladderwrack enveloped rocks, long bill inserted through the weed like a surgeon’s lancet, a jiggle and swallow, then on again – he flew off as the tide rose. As the sun dips, Quinag’s slopes turn apricot, as pied wagtails scurry after flies, or test apple cake crumbs sprinkled on the gate posts… the male seems to like it. Pasta, tomato sauce and wine. An early night beckons. Ben Stack tomorrow? It would be the perfect birthday activity…
Day 6: Old Men of Stoer
The temperature had dropped a few degrees. I woke up as a 63 year old, and there was a definite chill in the air. Up to make tea around 07:00 and Quinag and Ben Stack were all but invisible behind grey rain clouds. The tide had rolled up to the sandy beach in steel grey rollers, thundering into submission on the golden grains, cheered by common gulls in plaintive yells. The oystercatchers hunkered facing the wind, as around them meadow pipits tumbled and danced on unfamiliar ground, snapping up wrack riding flies. A single dunlin bimbled about, unselfconsciously disrobing from summer finery to winter-sensible plumage. Undeterred by the choppy water, our lone grey seal poked its nose out, where it bobbed like a slate-dark gourd. It occasionally slid effortlessly beneath the surface, only to reappear to resume its casual gaze at the world of sun and clouds.
We lingered in bed until the cold seeped in and clothes held the promise of greater warmth. Passepartout made more tea and then discovered my porridge oats were actually coarse milled oatmeal! Undeterred, she boiled and beat the confusing matrix of milled grains into a surprisingly palatable meal, flattered with honey and eaten cautiously, lest it set in one’s mouth. The weather looked out of sorts. Ben Stack was still hiding. Thus I made an executive decision and pronounced a circuit of Stoer was the best present a chap could wish for, reinforced by booking a table at Peet’s Restaurant in Lochinver for 18:30. Not enough time to fit a late visit to Ben Stack too.
By 11:00 the weather had decided to be sunny, and so were we. We left in walking kit to try a slight route variation on familiar terrain. Up through Culkein we marched, the view opening out into panoramas of ocean, rocky shores and the shadowy Torridonian nunataks looking altogether like pillars for the sky. Soon, we turned west along a track which skirts Loch Cùl Fraioch accompanied by a single meadow pipit that kept popping up, flitting a few metres, then dropping down in the tussocks ahead. The Loch was still, a natural mirror reflecting the blue sky. Every puddle, pool, lochan and loch was blue. The cnoc and lochan scenery formed a patchwork of green and blue, good enough to make into a print for rich fabrics.
Next to a water-filled boat, on the path, Passepartout found another nomadic fox moth caterpillar. We’ve subsequently read up on this fur-coated creature. The moths are mid-sized, relatively ordinary yellow-beige animals, but their caterpillars wear resplendent deep brown and orange-stripped mink coats. They grow large, up to 3.5”, munching their way through the landscape. Come autumn they do not pupate, but find a snug place to hibernate, warm in their furs. In April they emerge and sunbathe, no longer feeding. It is thought sunlight helps it adjust to the rigours of pupation, for once some days in the sun are completed, it does just that, and the cycle begins again.
After the loch I led us SW through boggy ground towards a mast-topped hillock. The going was tough, the thick mat of boggy plants forming a bouncy surface on the wetter bits. Some of the peat hags were topped by soft mossy shag-pile carpets, and looked for all the world like pillows. Squelching onwards we finally reached the top and dry ground. There before us were those sky-pillars made from the oldest rocks in Britain: Quinag, Canisp, Suilven, Cul Beag, Stac Pollaidh, and Ben Mor Coigach. Further north Foinaven, Arkle and Ben Stack were prominent, and to the south we could make out the Cuillins of Skye.
Down we plodded, ever gazing at the scenery changing in the light as we walked. At the lighthouse the snack hut was closed. Out at sea gannets circled and dove into the water fishing, deadly fish-seeking missiles flashing white in the sunshine. From here we set off north over the hilly ground beyond the Stoer Lighthouse. There is a deep gully down which we had to descend on uneven, rocky steps, and here we saw a late wheatear, big and colourful, flashing its ‘white arse’ from the far steps and rocky perches. (It may well have been on the way to Africa from Greenland!)
Accompanied by the booming Atlantic rollers and a croaking, hopeful raven, we finally dropped down towards the Point of Stoer, where this 63 year old man could admire that other venerable fellow, the equally Old Man of Stoer. As these two Old Men of Stoer looked across the years at each other, Passepartout tugged my sleeve as she drifted into a condition known in my native Somerset as ‘arse collapse’, a point of debilitating fear…it was very steep. We turned for home, over the ridge to the cliffs at Geodha an Leth-roinn, skirting them back on tired legs. We had brought no food, so I was starting to sag a bit. Water was all we could sip, but we could see Culkein and it lent wings to our wet and weary boots. A skein of greylag geese honked over, the waves were blasting spume and spray into the air above the arch, and we quickly covered the ground to the raddled sheep pens, where a swirl of tea leaves stirred above us, twites chittering away into the blue beyond.
Tea and biscuits. Then I had a quick dribblesome shower and dressed to leave for Lochinver. Peet’s had put a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner up by our table: special me, an Older Man of Stoer. Bread and olives, scallops, then a fish platter – all fresh and sweet, all cooked in light batter… very Scottish.
Home under starry, darkling sky, headlights showing our winding way, a single tawny owl flapping into some dense stunted woods, and a fading dusk light moving towards America. Home for a glass of red, and the sudden chill of winter’s coming filled the hut. Bed to snuggle for warmth, shrieking like children at chilled sheets and loving the wild sounds of night rollers on the beach. A perfect birthday…
Day 7: Knot much, and a Pie.
We both slept like logs. So warm under duvets, but up making tea I soon chilled to the bone again. Outside, big rollers were pushing the tide up the beach, the full wash of breaking water reaching the highest strand line. In the surf the big grey seal, surely a male, poked its nose skywards. A trimmer, neater female swam near the hut, fishing and making light of the surfer-grade waves. Passepartout photographed a rainbow behind the hut. Back to bed to read and drink tea.
Once up we looked out on the day. The rollers smashed against rocks all around the bay, foam painting the whole coastline with jagged borders, as if splattered by a mad artist overwhelmed with a white-on-dark impressionist fervour. Heavy showers tore across the seascape, whipped across mountains, roared up valleys and paradiddled against the glass through which we watched. We sat and watched and found we were both tired. Passepartout was still gripped with an irritating, post viral cough and I was weary from driving, yesterday’s plod and celebrations.
The weather is set fair after today, so I pronounced a rest which was well received by my coughing Passepartout, so we drank tea, ate orange Club biscuits and Tunnock’s wafers. Yet, even this is not wasteful here. Outside the driven tide was trying to ebb, the moon and storm surge at tumultuous odds, tossing kelp, weed and flotsam high into the air. Yet the moon had to win, and the sand emerged to coax the waders back to feed. Oystercatchers and ringed plovers eyed the surf as they fed, and the dancing meadow pipits returned to find storm-damaged flies. The waves edged ever backwards and Stumpy the curlew appeared to probe and prod amongst the weedy rocks, surprising us by finding, and eating in a gulp, hiding peeler crabs – soft bodied after shedding their exoskeletons. I think Stumpy is a female, as she is large, with a very long beak.
As the morning drew on, a lone juvenile black-headed gull blew in to rest, as shags fished in the waves and a lone robin sang to us from atop the mobile home opposite. Robins are forest birds by inclination, but their adaptability is well shown here as the nearest woodland is miles away. Down on the beach a couple of new waders appeared to feed busily amongst the oystercatchers. Silvery plumaged, with light superciliums, one with a slightly rosy chest. These were a couple of knot, fresh from a journey from the high Arctic, often found in flocks of thousands, but here happy enough to feed together, my first of this species for years. Turnstones appeared to turn stones and weed, as the farmer, with the aid of his collies, hunted a small flock of dopey sheep towards the pens.
As the showers eased we decided to drive to Lochinver for a late lunch. Along the winding road through Clachtoll, through cnoc and lochan strewn ancient, boggy land, thickets of hazel woodland, ice-rasped gneiss outcrops and steep-sided banks. A quick dash to the Spar for teabags and biscuits then into the Lochinver Larder. Passepartout ate stewed steak and porter, with mash and gravy. I settled for a Stilton, broccoli and cauliflower pie with salad. The pie shop is full of pies! Hundreds, in piles and scatterings, all lovely, each a single meal.
It poured with rain as we left, a rain shower of industrial strength. Back towards Culkein and the sun came out again, blue sky and more rainbows in a day then is normally see in a year. And so we drifted to evening… Passepartout cooking a chilli sauce for tomorrow, whilst watching Quinag change by the minute – bright and sunlit, then rain hazed, then the source of a vertical rainbow… ever changing. The hut is a wood block of nothingness, but it is the best place in the world to be, to see, to watch and to rest. And what of tomorrow? Ben Stack calls us and the weather looks kinder. So, we’ll rest and watch the colours change through the evening, and then go to bed with the sun…
Day 8: Ullapool for An Teallach
Another mixed weather morning. The tide rolls in a little later each day, and at 08:00 the rollers were crashing higher than ever. Oystercatchers were probing the grass outside the windows as the beach was too turbulent to use. We’re a bit unsure what to do: the mountains are invisible under black clouds and our urge to roam by foot is being thwarted. October is always a difficult month to yomp. I am tired, but in a nice way. Just relaxing into the natural sounds and enjoying the ever changing view. Rain lashed the windows and I suggested a drive down to Ullapool.
Out on the sea white horses bucked and reared over the waves. The sun shone, then disappeared behind clouds, the rollers roared and a form of lazy acceptance came over me. I want to walk and climb and see; not stagger through rain to see nothing. Suilven will have to wait and our targets need to be dynamically chosen. It’s all we can do. By the time we are ready to leave, the two knot, oystercatchers and ringed plovers are huddled, waiting for the tide to recede. As I watch the sun is out and it’s raining. Another rainbow. Rain fizzes over the sea and it changes from grey, to green, to blue, flecks white, pulses and seethes. Gone behind rain, lit by sun…everything is a pictorial rendition of anachronistic non sequiturs. Oxymoronic vistas. That mad painter trying to fit every type of weather into one illustration. A beautiful insanity. There is a minute where we are surrounded by meadow pipits. They are raiding the hut, searching gutters and windows, nooks and crannies, splits and knot holes, for cowering spiders or sleepy flies. Then gone, dancing in the wind, shouting ‘peep-peep-peep!’ at each other in avine boasts of arachnid feasting. I’ve waxed too lyrical…off to Ullapool before the mad painter returns….
The rain came in spasms. Lochinver was damp as we headed the wiggly woggly way, over the River Kirkaig, with views of the base of Suilven through the low rain clouds. At the T-junction by Loch Bad á Ghaill we turned left and skirted Stac Pollaidh then down, through the rain to Ullapool. At the Seaforth Hotel we settled, but was rattled by the news that there was no An Teallach ale! The brewery had closed (owners retiring) and their outlet shop on the high road was closing…today!! We drank a Belhaven IPA with our Haddock, chips and mushy peas: that’s three times we’ve eaten this in a week! Happily full, we toddled over to the Ullapool Book Shop to browse and buy. Here Passepartout announced her Mummy had supplied funds for a book-prezzy – heaven! The Forager’s Calendar, by the lovely John Wright, and the updated Corbett book…perfect. Thank you bothly!
Up to the closing An Teallach outlet. 6 beers, several bags, beer mats and glasses for £12 – a bargain, but a bit sad. The young chap in there was the brewer, had kept the recipes, and was off to work in Paris. Good man says I.
We took the easier route back. By now the weather was better, but none of the mountains were clear to see. The Knocken Crag looked formidable, the huge Moine Thrust sitting solidly over the ancient fault line. Inchnadamph was good to see, with the crumbling Ardvreck Castle – some quick pictures and on to Lochinver. Parked up and there walking to the car park was Steve McClaren and his wife…I’d wondered who owned the Aston Martin… couldn’t help thinking ‘Wally With The Brolly’… he seemed nice enough. Spar shop for a few bits, then off to Culkein.
The bay was roaring with rollers again. The headland arch was a maelstrom of foam and the tide was surging in again. We wandered to the slipway to take some photographs then retreated for the evening. Curlews called and the waves filled the bay as darkness fell. I penned a poem in remembrance of the An Teallach brewery:
Ode to An Teallach Ale
All the way to Ullapool,
To drink An Teallach ale,
Just the job with fish and chips,
A meal that cannot fail.
But ‘No!’, the brewery has closed down,
It’s gone, that mighty beer,
It’s shop was shutting up today,
So quickly there we steered.
This ode is to my favourite brew,
I’ll miss An Teallach beer,
The mountain’s there, the booze has gone,
Such things doth beer fans fear.
Day 9: Very Oldshoremore
A gentle morning watching the weather. The wind was still strong, so over tea we planned our day. We decided on an afternoon trip to Oldshoremore, left at 13:00 and drove through sunny landscapes north. Kylesku, Scourie, then off the main road to Kinlochbervie and down a narrow road to Oldshoremore beach.
Up the footpath and over the top and there it was. Golden sand, green sea, and lots of rocks. Last time here (2014 I think) we found a minke whale carcass. Today the beach was swept clean. A gentle stroll to a flat, rocky outcrop and the day changed. I was looking at a huge area of beautifully presented Torridonian sandstone. Smooth pebbles set in a sandy matrix: a conglomerate rock that is between 800 million and one billion years old! It is made of water eroded mountain rock from a long-gone ancient continent. This had washed into a huge valley, been crushed into new sedimentary sandstone and lifted up to form another set of mountains. These are now nubs of what they were. Suilven, Canisp, Quinag, An Teallach and many others are made wholly or partly from Torridonian sandstone. This sandstone formed atop weather worn Lewesian gneiss bedrock. Thus beneath you have 3 – 3.5 billion year old rock, with a topping of 800 million year old sandstone!
The cliffs were just as fantastic. The weathered faces showed many of the Moine Thrust Belt features. Igneous rock intruded with metamorphic rock and fissures full of quartzite. I was, and am, blown away. I found a big lump of sandstone to take home – the only other bits I have are small from the tops of An Teallach, Liathach and Slioch.
We left and had a look at Ben Stack. The wind was tremendous, so whether we try this tomorrow is in the balance. Saw a little weasel dash across the road as we dropped to Loch Assynt. Back to The Hut to end a quieter day. At 21:40 the wind is moving the whole structure and whistling through cracks. The windows bulge and it is like being at sea in a 18th Century Man o’War! We battened down the hatches…
Day 10: 52+8+3 and the Lochinver Larder
Eyes open and the sky was blue, but the clouds were scudding. Rolled over and wished my Passepartout a ‘Happy Birthday’. I delivered tea and biscuits in bed. She was so happy. Her Mummy’s card made her happy. The day made her happy. Passepartout is a happy 52!
What to do? Ben Stack was out… it felt wrong. Outside the bay was still stormy, but there was a less frantic edge to the waves. We watched a shag in the shallows fighting with an enormous flatfish. Several times it tried to swallow the poor thing, but each time it spread it’s edged fins and the bird was defeated. A hungry great black-backed gullwatched from nearby. To our delight the shag eventually let the fish loose once too often and it must have made an escape.
We made a decision. Passepartout wanted a birthday meal at the Lochinver Larder. In the meantime I wanted to run.
I put on my hydration belt with a bottle of water, and wrapped my phone in a clean bread bag, placing it in the second water bottle holster. I ran for a mile or so uphill and turned down towards the Stoer Lighthouse. This is an undulating route which is hard on the legs, but I ran easily, taking a few pictures in the way. Just after the Clashmore junction I saw about 5 redwings take to the air from a clump of dwarf firs. They called shreee! and dashed off. These are winter visitors, so my first of the season. However, a few pairs do breed up here and I saw a male singing in July 2007 by Ben Hope. On around the headland and eventually to the Lighthouse, up the steep, short zigzag to the gate. A nice chap took my photo and I set off back feeling fine. Took the iPhone out for a photo and tucked it back.
After 6 miles I was climbing for to the highest point and felt relieved to reach the top, decided on a last photo and discovered my phone was gone! Bugger! What to do? I had to retrace my steps, so started jogging back… past the Clashmore turning, past the Balchladich junction… worried now. Would Passepartout be frantic? Up ahead two cars were passing at a farm entrance… I gestured the driver of a black 4×4. He told me a bag was in the road some 200 yards further on! He’d driven around it as he thought it was odd. A quick dash and there it was – bread bag wrapped around phone and mini-stand… gently opened it and it was intact, undamaged and worked! At least 5 vehicles had been this way and all must have steered around it…it was right in the wheel track bit! Phoned Passepartout and explained…she said it was still well inside my predicted time, so was not worried. A wren skittered along the wall next to me and a dunnock flipped into the shrubs. I figured out I had tucked my vest into the holster with the phone when I took that last photo. I recall pulling my vest here as it felt a bit ‘caught’ and that was the moment it popped the package containing my phone out, silently hitting the road in its soft wrapping.
Back up the long climb. I set my Strava app to record the extra bit of running. Knackered by the time I got to the point I’d turned back, 1.5 miles from where I found the phone! Thus I’d ran 3 extra, very hilly miles. By the time I dropped down into Culkein I had covered 11 miles and I was tired. No time to tarry, a quick shower, on with togs and off we set for Lochinver.
We ate at the Lochinver Larder. Outside I saw the same black 4×4 and chatted to the chap about my phone. He, and his two female passengers knew me as the ‘phone man’ and were glad all worked out well. Langoustines starter; Passepartout then ate haddock, piri piri and lime fish cakes, I had cauliflower, broccoli & Stilton pie again, with mash, peas and onion gravy; a creamy lemon tart for Passepartout to finish. We drank a jug of water. Passepartout was very happy!
By now I was pooped, but we drove the winding way back, taking in Balchladich and the Stoer Lighthouse. Back to Brisbane. Out over the bay a flock of some 300 kittiwakes had blown in to settle on the calmer sea. I had to lie down for a bit, whilst Ange went to the beach to explore and take photos. I really was knackered.
A quiet evening. Tomorrow we leave, but this time there is no rush. We are due at my brother’s around 17:00, so we can pack in the morning and coddiwomple rather than dash. All in all it was a lovely day. Each of our birthdays were blessed with the best weather, and each with good food. I will sleep well tonight…
(…and the formula in today’s title? 52 Ange’s age + 8 planned run + 3 extra miles = 63 my age.)
Day 11: Culkein to Dunphail
Up with a glorious sunrise. The scattered clouds over Quinag glowed golden as Sol climbed up to greet our last Sutherland morning. A few biscuits in bed and then up to start the job of packing, loading and cleaning.
Outside, the oystercatchers piped, Stumpy the curlew limped amongst the rocks by the slipway and ringed plovers tore around the lower beach on clockwork legs. Then I noticed two silver visitors feeding along the advancing tideline. A pair of beautiful bar-tailed godwits had dropped in to refuel on their way south. These super, mid-sized waders are more silvery, compact and neater than their larger black-tailed cousins, and have a tightly barred tail, rather than the latter’s thick black margin, set off against a white rump.
Collapsing the telescope was a final birding act in the Hut, but the two godwits flew up and over my head piping as I finished packing the Mazda. All tidied, we set off towards Ullapool. We dropped the glass recycling at the Clachtoll camp site, then set off south in earnest.
Assynt, Ardvrek, Elphin, Ardmair and into Ullapool where we stopped for a breakfast at a The Tea Store café. We pressed on and I decided to do the big detour past Gruinard Island and Gairloch. We goggled at the mighty An Teallach, gazed at the Fisherfields, and enjoyed the extended tour of the West Coast. Down along Loch Maree and the lofty Slioch.
From here we took the quickest route possible down to Inverness, passing Ben Wyvis on the way. A brief stop to fill the tank, then on past Culloden, to Dunphail for 17:10. I’d covered 200 miles and was tired. A lovely meal (chilli and prawn fish cakes and rice with salads) a few beers and an early night…
Day 12: Dunphail
I slept poorly for some reason. Dreams and a period of wakefulness from 02:00 to 04:00. Driving seems to wear me out lately. Up at 07:30 – tea for Passepartout and a breakfast of muffins. A lovely jay hopped around the lawn, as coal, blue and great tits, chaffinches and collared doves fed at the bird tables.
Later in the morning we walked up the road and did a recce of the new wind farm, marvelling at the huge turbines whooshing around above our heads. On the way back we were luck enough to see a red squirrel.
Sunday dinner of cauliflower cheese, peas, carrots and golden roast potatoes, followed by apple crumble and custard. I was stuffed and incredibly tired. We watched a couple of movies, chilled until an early bedtime for me. Tomorrow we start the long journey home…
Equinox to Solstice
It has come to pass in recent years that the autumn equinox and winter solstice each mark a holiday for me. In 2019 the equinox occurred as I was about to set off with my Passepartout on a Bothday journey to the north of Scotland. The winter solstice came by as the Yule festivities began. Between those two events, the world’s tilt pushes the Northern Hemisphere into ever longer nights and shorter days and nature adjusts. In this respect, nature includes me – I’ve never thought of me being anything but a mammal, so the effects of the seasons should, and do effect me personally.
Our northern journey gave me a clear view of the autumn passage. In spring, migratory birds move north to breed, but by August, our summer residents start to drift south in every increasing numbers. Swallows were very noticeable, even as far as John o’Groats, as they flew down from their most northerly breeding grounds. That they were joined over the Pentland Firth by red admiral butterflies was quite an eye opener. Yet, what the layman may not consider is the continuity of migration. Even further north, high in the tundra and coasts of Greenland, Iceland, Arctic islands and Siberia, other migrants moves south to Britain, where the weather is balmy, for them. Indeed, the Vikings settled our northern isles, then declared the Land to the South as rich and worth taking, hence Ben Hope (Beinn Hòb in Gaelic) – the “mountain of the bay”, become their navigation marker for Suðrland, our Sutherland – literally, “southern land”.
As we settled into our hut at Culkein Bay, we watched summer migrants moving south, including a late wheatear, whilst winter wanderers came through – bar-tailed godwits, knots, dunlin and a handful of redwings. Many of these were still wearing the vestiges of their breeding plumage, but once on the wintering grounds full winter raiment would be donned. Many geese, waders and passerines would stop near my home in West Sussex, but more would remain in Scotland and others continue south. Arctic terns fly to the Southern Hemisphere and have even been recorded in Australia!
Once home the winter creeps up. My commute goes from twilight to dark, the autumn passage grinds to a halt and the wintering dark-bellied brent geese settle into Chichester Harbour whilst their breeding grounds are covered in snow and cloaked in permanent darkness. A few hardy summer visitors have always clung on in the south of England where, if they survive, they have a head start on territorial migratory rivals. This winter I had a blackcap and chiffchaff in my garden – global warming will increase these numbers, no doubt.
My own journey to the solstice continued on foot. A late start to the year through illness meant my initial target of 1200 miles was improbable. Even though I managed a marathon in April, any aspirations to compete in the Race to the King 53 miler in June disappeared with further tendon injuries… So I was on catch up, revised my target to 1000 and ground out the miles. On December 7th I happily ran a 12 miler leaving me 81 miles to go. I was right on target. The following day my chest was sore and once more I was brought low. A debilitating virus knocked me off my feet, followed, just as Yule gave me time to run the remaining miles, by my first ever bout of shingles.
Denial gave way to acceptance, then to worry as I felt dreadful. So I ended the year on 919 miles with an ongoing life total of 37,737. As I left the solstice behind and 2020 started, I had recovered enough to jog 4 miles. This year I’m aiming for 1100 miles and I’m ahead of 2019 already. On 22nd January a minor virus tries to bring me down, but I think this is winter’s last hurrah. Imbolc beckons and the migration north will gently start. I will soon hear spring’s visitors in the hedgerows as I trot past and will watch the brents murmuring in their ever decreasing groups as they make final plans to fly back to the ice-free tundra.
My final nod to the retreating equinox was to remove all my nest boxes for a clean and paint, ably helped by my Passepartout. As we worked The Chaps, my delightful clan of marauding long-tailed tits, drifted through to grab a swift meal from my hanging fat log. They call “shri-shri-shri” to each other, a little cry of reassurance – “I’m here – I’m here – So am I!” is a rough translation.
Notwithstanding The Chaps, cleaning continued, with old horsehair-and-grass woven nests and slumbering parasites removed to give the birds a clean start. Refining and rearranging came next and, with a final flourish of a hammer, everything was done. However, one never-used box had been moved from a soon-to-be-replaced fence post. Every evening since a little blue tit has arrived at twilight, circling the place where his roosting box once was. That it is now on a nearby tree has not registered, but there are plenty of other places, so I admire its persistence, if not it’s bird-brain, and, feeling a little guilty, watch each eve as, after a few minutes the little waif finds lodgings elsewhere.
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