Sunday, 22 February 2015

Rather you than me mate...

When I was younger and newer to this whole outdoor game it was seemingly the done thing to be into everything.  Paddling horrendously polluted rivers in a playboat, awesome!  Scottish Winter hot aches, love it!  Scared shitless and freezing on a dark Alpine face, bring it on!  As I've matured (?!) I've realised that actually there's a huge variation in what's happening in 'the Outdoors' and in reality some of it I've little interest in doing.  Likewise, there are clearly massive differences in personality type, motivation and levels of devotion required for different activities.   Walking in the Mournes and then going for a coffee is a lot less involved than new routing on a secluded crag but I'm sure it's no less satisfying to the people that love their chosen activities.

For me, I've had extended periods of being obsessed with mountaineering, climbing and fell running with mountain biking being the constant love that still lasts after over 25 years.  Getting out running or on the bike is so second nature now that I often find myself in the forests or mountains before I'm really conscious of what I've chosen to do that day.  The thing is, my favourite pastimes invariably involve physical pain, suffering, getting cold and wet, occasional broken bones and lots of cleaning, maintenance and expenditure.  So the often asked question is why the hell do we do these things?

We've all heard the ultimate answer to this question, 'because it's there' supposedly provided by George Mallory when probed on why he wanted to scale Everest by a New York Times journalist.  It's a great answer, sufficiently reasoned for those of us who understand and suitably vague and infuriating to those who don't.

However much I appreciate that quote it is a bit grandiose when considering why it is that I, and my friends and peers do the things we do day to day.  I feel priveleged to be in contact with many inspirational people who are regularly pushing their limits, experiencing life despite discomfort and danger and yet I'm still not sure many people appreciate the reason why they pursue these goals.

We live in a world seemingly ever more removed from genuine experience where the rush to share (boast) via social networks often seems to be the actual goal of the activity in the first place (and the irony of me blogging about it isn't lost on me).  I'm not sure whether this is a new phenomenon.  The 'outdoors' seems to have always been full of blaggers, wannabes and bullshitters.  They just used to hang out in the pub/outdoor centre/shop telling anyone who'd listen about their latest supposed adventures.  The internet has given these folk the chance to instantly share their 'achievements' with infinitely more people and soak up the plaudits for their 'extremeness' from their Facebook friends.  These aren't the people I'm talking about because the answer to the question 'why' for them is simple.  They want recognition and they want to purvey a certain image and that's their prerogative.

I love looking through old pics to remind myself why!
The ones I really want to ask 'why?' are a little harder to track down largely because they're out there doing the very thing they love.  They to me are the true heroes but why the hell do they do these things?

Having thought about it a bit I've realised that I've already answered my question, it's because they love doing these things.  So I guess the correct question to ask is not why they do it but why do they love it?

Yesterday myself and big Seamy ran up the frozen face of Slieve Donard and over to Slieve Commedagh getting cut in half by a howling and freezing gale, crawling on hands and feet in places.  Seamus managed to leave his leg bruised and bloodied when the top layer of a frozen bog gave way and the ice sliced and smashed his leg, not that he noticed in temperatures that must have been around minus 15 with the wind chill.  I couldn't feel my face at all coming off the Commedagh summit and I wished I couldn't when the feeling returned and the burning began!  And did I enjoy it?  Yes absolutely.  I enjoyed it at the time and I really enjoyed it retrospectively.  Why do I love it?  The exercise, the fitness, the challenge, the camaraderie, the views, the fresh air etc etc.  I guess if I asked my mates why they love what they do I'd get a similar list.  Does that activity appeal to many people?  No it definitely doesn't.  I tend to get a 'fair play but rather you than me mate' response and that's from 'outdoorsy' people not to mention the 'normal' public out there.  Each to their own and many prefer a trip to the gym, an afternoon in the pub or even open boating!

Everyone's Everest is different and I guess I did run up Donard because it's there.  It would've been a lot harder running up there if it wasn't!

Keep chasing your Everests folks! 

Friday, 9 January 2015

The annoyance of mortality!

I'm not sure what age I was when it dawned on me that I wouldn't live forever.  Certainly now that I'm closer to forty than thirty it seems to be much closer to the forefront of my mind than ever before.  I remember years of smashing myself up on bikes, breaking numerous bones and simply being gutted that I'd be off the bike for a while.  Last year, when I damaged thumb ligaments and realised that I'd be out for a few months, for the first time I thought in terms of the likely percentage of my remaining lifespan that I'd be off the bike because of that injury.

Want to run the mountains more!
Now that's admittedly a pretty morbid way of thinking and I'd admit to being a chronic over analyser of life in general but I can't deny that increasingly my lifestyle behaviours are being considered but luckily so far not dictated by my new found awareness.  The good thing is that as I've just mentioned I'm not doing less as a result of a fear of getting damaged, in fact I'm a bit of an anomaly in terms of getting ballsier as I get older.  I'm certainly happier now hitting bigger gaps and drops than I ever was as a kid and the fear of getting hurt is definitely not more prevalent now than when I was younger.

So how is my new found appreciation of death affecting me?  Well, I just want to do so much in life that I'm starting to worry about cramming it all in.  Even worse, so many of the things that inspire me require me to be fit and healthy so I feel an overwhelming obligation to keep myself in good nick.  Even worse again is the fact that every year, more and more events, holiday destinations and ambitions appear, making my (hopefully) long term bucket list grow exponentially.

Take 2015 as an example.  My plan for this year was to race some Gravity Enduros and do a couple of the more prominent Irish fell races.  It's now the 9th Jan and already this is what my plans have expanded to;

- Run the three remaining Ulster XC races (my club have finally pressured me into trying to help them win the title).
- Join my mate Kev for the Irish leg of his round the world run (http://hardwayround.com/) and run from Shannon to Belfast.
- Do several Irish fell races including the longer NIMRA's, Slieve Donard and a couple of selected Hill and Dales.
- Qualify for the NI squad again for the Snowdon International Mountain Race.
- Run for NI at the Masters World Champs or Ireland at the World Champs.
- Do some Gravity Enduros.
- Do some First Tracks NI Enduros .
- 3 weeks with my family and friends at Lake Garda.
- At least two other family holidays.

I want to bike more!
 So before the year has really got going my diary is already getting packed.  Add to this the fact that much of my coaching and qualifications work is weekend based as well as wanting to see my wee family as much as possible and already it looks like something has to give.

I still haven't decided what to drop yet but the decision certainly isn't helped by my awareness that every year I'm a year older and sometime fairly soon I'll start to get a bit slower!
And holiday with the family more!

The great thing about all this though is that if you flip it on its head, this First World problem is actually just a world of endless possibilities.  Isn't it great to be living in a time when all these brilliant events are getting laid on, all these destinations are getting awakened to the possibilities of outdoor sports and we're able to consider that as long as we look after ourselves well then we can realistically hope to continue enjoying them way into our 80's and beyond.  Lifetime can't be unlimited but life itself doesn't need to be limited if we find the right balances.

I think I prefer that way of looking at it!

With that in mind I've just seen this  http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2016-trans-bc-6-day-enduro-2015.html
I wonder if a few weeks in Canada will appear in my 2016 diary?!!


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Oxygen Debt - The World Mountain Running Championships

August 1992 - 14,000 feet above sea level

I bent double over my ice axe and glanced upwards.  Mont Blanc's tin box Vallot Hut didn't appear to be any closer than at my last agonised look, hardly surprising given that in the ten minutes since then I'd barely managed twenty steps.  The afternoon sun warmed my neck as I gulped in air, desperate for that reassuring feeling of deep breath hitting the bottom of my lungs.  The headaches and nausea were a portent of the horrendous night I had in store and the impending storm wasn't the main reason that there would be no summit attempt that year.  Welcome to 14,000ft Mr Bailey, now get back to the valley where you belong...

August 2014 - 14,000 feet above sea level

Where the hell is the A-Frame?  We're above the treeline and moving well but there's been no sign of the structure which definitively marks the transition to the open mountain section, the section I'd been repeatedly warned about in the last 48 hours, the one that reduces World Class athletes to arthritic wrecks.  My world has diminished to just the few metres directly in front of me.  Scotland's Claire Gordon is pushing a solid pace, still running towards a superb category win for her.  I'm more than happy to tuck in and keep pace, I was told we wouldn't still be running at this point, I was told wrong...

The Pikes Peak ascent and marathon is world famous amongst endurance athletes and mountain runners.  The ascent section climbs a massive 7,815 feet over 13.32 miles of constant uphill over trail and open scree slopes.  This year it had been selected to host the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs adding even more prestige to one of the most coveted titles in running.
Pikes Peak in the background (from halfway down it)
Personally I'd spent the whole of last Winter telling anyone prepared to listen that I was done with competetive running and was returning to mountain bikes.  Damaged thumb ligaments in November and a call to arms from the Newcastle AC Cross Country squad had realigned my ambitions for 2014.  The possibility of representing NI at Pikes Peak and getting a trip to Colorado cemented them, I was destined to train harder and race better than ever before.  A mantlepiece full of trophies is testament to the success of the racing but the pure enjoyment and fitness gains from my longer runs in the Alps, Lake Garda and the Mournes also showed me that I could make the transition to longer distance racing from my usual five mile sprints over the peaks.  Final training efforts went brilliantly and it was with growing excitement that I realised that I'd be heading to the States not just injury free but also in superb form.

The 25 hour journey passed mostly without incident through Dublin to Colorado Springs via Chicago despite a desperate drive from the airport accidentally taking in the long stay car park and some tunnel visioned, sleep deprived Interstate terror.  On the way I'd met my NI team mates Justin Maxwell and Chris Stirling and waiting at the accommodation was Peter Bell.  The team was complete and full of excitement for the challenge ahead.  Despite the exhaustion of the journey the time difference played its tricks and I lay awake from 3am, struggling to relax but consoling myself that it'd make getting prepared at 4am on race day an easy prospect.
Where we stayed was none too shabby!
Having arrived a day earlier Peter had taken the brave move of walking the full Ascent course the day we arrived and so was full of useful information, the summation of which was that it was going to be seriously hard and that the lack of oxygen is a very real factor.  Having been out of breath on the stroll to the castle (yes castle!) for our breakfast I wasn't about to doubt how strenuous running would be at twice that altitude, however, we needed to experience it for ourselves.  We headed to Manitou Springs, parked up and ran a steady hour up the 'W's' to 'No Name Creek', about a quarter of the full ascent distance.  I have to admit that I was delighted how sprightly my legs felt, lacking the expected hangover from being cooped up on American Airlines flights for so long (basically it was like a long-haul Ryan Air!).  However, the thin air even below 8,000ft was alarming.  Any short increased effort put me in the red for way longer than it should've and I felt that I was only operating at about 60% of my lung capacity.  As such, I had mixed emotions as we enjoyed a brilliant jog down the switchbacks we'd just climbed.

Thursday evening we were joined by Dr William Elliott, renowned physiologist and seven times Pikes Peak veteran.  I'd been really looking forward to meeting him and gleaning as much information as possible about the challenge ahead.  I've never been faced with any event that has so many inherent uncertainties before and so soaked up his words of caution and inspiration intently.  After giving us a really detailed breakdown of the course and the efforts required, particularly for us sea level dwelling 'flatlanders' as we're known in mountainous Colorado he asked us for our predicted finish times.  I was caught in two minds, reveal my prior estimate (prior to the continuous warnings to go VERY easy for the first 7-8 miles since we'd arrived) or play safe and avoid risking looking like an idiot.  Being someone who is familiar with being driven by a risk of failure and not being overly averse to looking an idiot I stuck to my guns and gave a firm and confident sounding 'sub 3 hours'.  The reality in my head was that I had no clue whether I'd be much nearer the men's average time of 4:20.
Team NI psyched and ready to race
Race day started at 3:30am and for the first time ever I was praising the effects of jet lag as I took a night time warm up jog outside.  I felt awake, focused and really excited, any trepidation was hidden at the back of my conscience and I was delighted to finally be getting on with the thing that had been my focus for so long.  The World Mountain Running Association laid on transport to the start and it was quite amusing to see a queue of identical people carriers pulling up to the accommodation, the sort of thing you normally associate with FBI raids in crap detective films.  Arriving in Manitou Springs there was already a palpable buzz in the air, the sun was starting to appear in a beautifully clear sky and nearly 2,000 runners were trying to go through their warm up routines in the confines of the main street.  Team NI were all looking relaxed, posing for some souvenir pictures and laughing at the athletes who felt the need to add intense sprints to their warm up for a 13 mile uphill race, each to their own I guess.  I'd decided the day before to heed all the advice and set off extremely easy so as the countdown finished and the gun sounded I relaxed into the easiest race pace I've ever used and allowed a couple of hundred people to run past.  I'll continue from here with my stream of consciousness as it does allow you all to appreciate the inane thought processes that take place during these events!

Mile 1, relax, steady, don't chase.  People are streaming past and I could easily keep up with them.  This is contrary to all my usual race tactics but I'll see many of these people again when they're dying higher up.  Ignore the cheering crowd, ignore the pride, focus on the pace, find a rhythm.

Miles 2-4, this is too slow.  I feel far too relaxed.  I'm practically jogging and not even breathing hard, I warn people passing me to take it steady but most ignore me.  Some are wheezing and breathing really hard, I laugh internally.  Get passed by someone with a Go-Pro strapped to their head, a f***ing Go-Pro!!  This isn't a serious runner.  Have to fight the urge to pass him, bury him, teach him to respect the race and the mountain but relax, back to the rhythm.  Pass No Name Creek, into unknown territory.  Start passing the victims already including a South African I've been chatting to a bit, I tell him to relax, he tells me he's already in survival mode.  He's in for a very long tough ordeal and I'm still not even breathing hard.  I think the advice may have been right!

Miles 5-7.5, finally off the leash.  The course has flattened and I'm kicking on.  Ding Dong battle with a Polish runner, he's faster on the flats, I pass when it steepens.  Lost in personal competition we pass a dozen others.  Drink, measure effort and get a real sense of enjoyment.  Push on towards the half way mark and 'Barr Camp'.  I know I want a gel just before the aid station but how will I know where it is?  I hear it hundreds of metres before I see it, this is the USA, enthusiastic crowd support is practically a National passtime.  I really appreciate the shouts, almost as much as the Gatorade but what the hell does 'yeeeehhhhh represent real good' actually mean?  Check my watch, bang on 3hr pace, satisfaction.

Miles 8-10, I've read the course notes, I know that mentally these are the toughest miles.  Over half way but not yet on the open mountain, like a no-man's land of extreme effort.  Steeper narrower trails, uneven steps, legs rapidly deteriorating but I'm still passing people, still pushing on.  Cramping, out of the blue, really didn't expect that.  Been chugging the Gatorade but must've sweated much more than I thought.  Stuff in a salt capsule, unbelievably disgusting, instant relief.  Push on, enjoy the pain.

Miles 10-13, the open mountain.  I've read and been told so much about this section.  'It's unrunnable', 'it'll destroy runners', 'people lying and puking everywhere'.  Like anything built up that much it's an anticlimax.  Contouring trails are 90% runnable, don't walk, I haven't come all this way to walk.  Stick to Claire, she's going well and we're still passing athletes.  The body feels OK but the head is all over the shop, overwhelming dizziness, vision looks like it's through a filter, fuzzy peripheries.  I fall on to boulders deliberately to avoid falling on them accidentally.  No summit, does this mountain have a summit?  Why the hell does this fella keep sprinting past and then stop in the middle of the track?  Dickhead!

Miles 13-13.32, 'go on, you can make sub 3' shout the wellwishers.  I know this already, my pacing has been perfect.  I will make sub 3.  Just a few more short switchbacks, the finish, kick out a sprint, I always kick out a sprint.  2:56:50.  Medal round my neck.  Medics ask 'are you OK?'  Yes I'm OK thanks, but the dude who kept sprinting past isn't, he's collapsed at the finish.  I've done it, a rush of emotion, surrounded by smiles, I think I enjoyed that!

The next half hour...
I'm a firm believer that you have to grab your finish line emotion and hold on to it hard.  Like a snapshot, how do I feel right at this very moment?  If you wait even five minutes til the heart rate is down and the head is clear then you can forever be left with the unanswerable question, 'was that my best'?

As I crossed the line I felt great.  Even sitting here long after, even despite the drunken fuzziness of altitude I can still recall a deep satisfaction.  I wandered through the other international runners, chatting away.  Some were already displaying that post-race malaise, could've, should've, if only.  Pretty soon my thoughts will go the same way but that finish line sense of pride, completion, discipline, effort, pain and realised ambition has been banked and I'm all the better for that.

Summit smiles, just after the finish
Justin arrived shortly after and Chris soon after that.  The cameraderie of Team NI felt very real as we captured the obligatory post race pics, smiling faces with an astounding background vista.  I barely know these lads but I'm extremely proud to be associated with them, shared experiences that will last a lifetime.

The next ten hours...
Amongst the best of my life!  So many highs, enhanced by the mass euphoria of a town overflowing with endorphins.  Free pizza and beer (thanks WMRA), massages (thanks Billy) and easy conversation with some genuine running legends, normal people with abnormal abilities.  On the hour long drive down from the summit we got chatting to 3rd place finisher Andy Wacker, a phenomenal athlete and really nice guy.  He insisted on driving us to the team USA post-race pool party where we relaxed and drank amazing local beers with many of our fellow Internationals.  The chat was engaging and fun, I love being surrounded by people who do, not just dream of doing.  Next challenges were discussed, I'd better think of one myself.  The party wound down before midnight, virtually everyone there would train the next day.

Top of the infamous 'Incline'
The next few days...
Everything looked a bit different.  The subconscious weight of nerves had disappeared and I enjoyed everything massively, even the mundane tasks of shopping and driving around.  We ran the day after the race, a steady 13 miler with the hellish 'Incline' ascent at the end, a 3/4 mile long, 2000ft elevation gain climb which hits 68 degrees at its steepest point.  The following two days I did some of the best biking of my life, brilliantly guided by Kip, an ex-pro racer who showed me just a few of the incredible local trails including a 41km descent back off Pikes Peak.  It's no easier on the way down!  We ate lots, ran more and soaked up as much of the stunning scenery and effortless hospitality of the American people as we could.  As ever my mixed emotions of missing Anna and the boys began to tip the balance towards feeling ready to leave and so a perfect trip ended at the perfect time.
About to descend Pikes Peak.  Worth the trip just for this 36km of singletrack!
Postscript, what did I learn?

1) I'm not a World Class athlete.
Sage Canaday (Team USA) won the race in 2:10:03, nearly 47 minutes faster than me!  He is World Champion, I never will be.  No real surprises there!  I finished 81st of 1,760 starters and 14th in my age category, not bad for a flatlander!

2) I'm nowhere near as far off as this result would suggest.
The defining factor in this race was, as predicted the altitude.  I have no doubt at all that had it started at sea level I'd have been way up the field.  My 'Triple Donard' final training session ascent times were a combined 2:10:05 and that comprised over 200m MORE ascent than Pikes Peak as well as being steeper and on looser ground.  You could argue that I had the recovery time on the downhills inbetween but anyone familiar with running hard down steep ground will tell you that the opposite is true.  Team USA dominated Pikes Peak and they all live and train at altitude.  Likewise, it's safe to assume that all the athletes from the Alpine countries have been brought up in or moved to the mountains to train and race.  One of the Germans lived on Pikes Peak for the 17 days preceding the event, the others used oxygen tents and masks.  Team England had to commit to being in the States at least two weeks before the race etc etc, moan, excuses!  Team NI would've loved to have been out there long enough to acclimatise but we're part-timers with jobs, young families and very limited funding.  I'm happy I did the very best I could in terms of prep but was defeated by the unique attributes of the race.  

3) Could I have pushed harder?
This question is one I've pondered hard.  I definitely heavily heeded the advice to go easy for the first half and felt more comfortable than ever before in a race.  As a result, despite being a sea level dweller I actually picked up ten places in the real high altitude section above 10,000ft.  I wasn't going any faster but others were dying on their feet after clearly going out too hard.  I could definitely have gone 15 minutes quicker to No Name Creek and probably another 10-15 quicker up to Barr Camp, the question is would that have killed me in the second half of the race?  In truth, unless I do it again I'll never know.  If I did get the chance to do the race again I'd definitely run it in a completely different manner, going off with the leaders before settling into my own rhythm further up the mountain when they kicked on.  I'd love to go back for the marathon at some point but pushing hard in the first five miles of twenty six would be even more ill advised so I'll probably have to accept that I'll never truly know the answer to this one.

4) Colorado was amazing.
I love the USA!  As a natural cynic I always thought the over the top friendliness of Americans would feel insincere, an act put on for the tourists.  I couldn't be further from the truth.  The overwhelming openness and enthusiasm of people I met, from professional runners to garage attendants was completely infectious.  I felt like a different person out there, talking to total strangers felt so natural.  I met some truly interesting, interested and engaging people from all ages and walks of life.  Couple this with beautiful accommodation, great weather, stunning mountains, top drawer running and biking, cheap and good food and it was obviously going to be a truly memorable trip.  I'd love to get back there again.
This sums up Colorado Springs.  The Jack Quinns Tuesday night 5k sometimes gets 2,000 participants!
Being a part of the World Champs and Pikes Peak race was an incredible opportunity and experience which I earned through hard training, solid domestic race results and being prepared to stump up a large proportion of the cash required myself!  Massive thanks to Anna who is always so supportive of my 'holiday' plans and who I'm sure had a hard time looking after the boys and also working all hours whilst I was away.  To my fellow NI team mates Justin, Chris and Peter, you were brilliant and easy company as well as being great athletes and training partners.  Big mention to Dr Billy Elliott for the top advice, endless support and friendliness and for being the best possible advocate for the race and Colorado in general.  The WMRA looked after us very well and the runners from all over the world made the event truly special along with the Colorado locals who were all so accommodating.  Thanks also to Feetures Socks, 2Pure, NIMRA and Newcastle AC who all contributed in different ways.

To any runners looking for a challenge it's pretty clear from the tone of this blog that I enjoyed the Pikes Peak ascent.  I'd really highly recommend you do all you can to meet the entry requirements and get signed up.  It truly is an experience that'll stay with you for a lifetime.



Saturday, 2 August 2014

Achieving ambition. The Donard hat trick revisited

Back in 2012 I was looking for a new challenge.  I was enjoying a new lease of life in a new sport and realising that I had a bit of potential in mountain running.  I wanted something that was achievable but seriously challenging and so the Donard Hat Trick was born, boasting three full ascents and descents of Northern Ireland's highest mountain and giving a 15 mile route with 2550m of climbing and obviously the same amount of descending.  Tough in itself, but the real killer was that to complete the challenge I decided on a maximum 3.5 hours to do it!  If you read the link there you'll realise that not only did I never achieve it, I never even got round to attempting it!  I also failed spectacularly to convince any of the elite mountain runners I asked to give it a go either.  Consensus was that it was a bit too ambitious/mind numbing!

Don't get me wrong, I had a good stab at it but limited myself to double ascents culminating in a 2:19:26 (the 1:19 in the old blog is a typo!).  That theoretically put me on target but the reality was that I was almost unable to walk after the two times round and the thought of putting in a 1hr 10m third lap was laughable.  Two pretty successful years of running and racing later, quite unexpectedly the Donard hat trick sailed back into my consciousness.

Slieve Donard in the distance on a much nicer day.  Funnily enough I didn't take any pics today! 

I'm heading off to the famous Pikes Peak race in Colorado in two weeks, representing NI in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  The route for that race is an all uphill 13.3 miles gaining around 2500m of elevation.  To make matters much worse, the finish is above 14,000 feet, a height where the limited oxygen can leave you gasping for air when you're just standing still!  Extensive research has sadly taught me that for us sea levellers there's nothing we can do when competing at altitude except turn up a month in advance and acclimatise.  Also sadly, sport's funding bodies don't value us mountain runners very highly and so there's no chance of our team being given that opportunity despite physiology tests proving that top mountain runners are at least on a par with top Olympians.  If it's not Olympic or Commonwealth, there's no cash available (not that I'm bitter!).  Anyway, I'm digressing.  Realising that I couldn't simulate high altitude I decided that at least I could try to recreate the difficulty of the Pikes Peak route.  I was fortunate enough to spend an amazing month with the family in Chamonix and Lake Garda during June and July where I was able to put in some big runs with big ascents, adding a new level of endurance to the fitness gained from a great season of competing in Ireland.  Upon returning home I was looking for a breakthrough session that would test me to the degree that the Worlds will, whilst also demonstrating to myself the pacing and nutrition approaches I'll need in order to perform my best in Colorado.  With a bit of thinking the answer was staring me in the face, it was time to resurrect the Hat Trick.

I planned to put the attempt at the end of a heavy training week which included a fast, hilly 18 mile trail run on Monday and a double Donard on Wednesday along with two shorter recovery runs.  In the end I only ran a single Donard on the Wed as I thought my legs were a feeling a bit heavy.  In actuality I ended up feeling great and knocked out a sub 1hr lap which felt so easy that a couple of hours later I'd forgotten that I'd actually trained that day.  A rest day on Friday and I was all prepped and psyched, and then I saw the weather forecast!  Torrential rain and a weather warning for County Down wasn't part of the plan and I felt an initial pang of annoyance but then I saw that the wind was coming from the North giving me potentially a rare tailwind for much of the climb and I perked up a lot.  I don't care about getting soaking but pushing into a headwind repeatedly gets boring very quickly.  The other great motivator was that the Seven Sevens race was taking place in the Mournes that day, a race I was originally going to enter but wimped out when I got injured scoping the course out.  The winner of that race is always aiming to go sub 4hrs and I knew that the winner was likely to be my occasional training partner Seamy Lynch.  A quick text to Seamy and a bet was made, whoever finished their race first was promised a free lunch!

So to this morning.  I prepared as I always do for a race, eating well 2.5 hrs before and then getting as much fluid in as possible.  I planned to start at 9:58, just before the 10am start time for the Sevens so I wouldn't be interfering in the race at all.  You get a lot of thinking time when running so I think the best way to describe my attempt is by sharing my own internal dialogue.

Lap 1
Start easy, find a place to stash a water bottle for later.  11 mins at the ice house is about right but I feel bloated, I clearly ate too much.  I'm sick in my mouth a bit but swallow it knowing I'll need those calories later.  The flatter mid section feels great, I've found a good pace and rhythm and it feels totally effortless.  There's a slight tailwind which feels brilliant, I lose count of the amount of times I've battered into a headwind up here.  On to the really steep steps and the wind is picking up.  Through the col and onto the summit ridge and it's blowing a gale, the icy rain is battering me and it can't be much above zero degrees with the wind chill.  My jacket goes on, I can't see it coming off again today.  Hit the top in 43:20, about perfect.  My legs feel great, no strain at all, time for a steady descent.  Eat three jelly babies, one makes a bid for freedom and jumps back out of my mouth.  Good measured descent, I hit the bottom at 1:10:45, close enough to 3hr 30 pace and feeling totally relaxed.

Lap 2
How the hell are you meant to take on a gel when running up a 25% hill?  I can't even open the stupid thing.  Finally bite the top off and extract the remains that haven't squirted all over my hands.  Grab the stashed bottle and have a quick swig.  Legs feel fantastic, still really easy and totally different to my old double Donards.  Loving the confused looks on the faces of people who have seen me ascending twice now.  Not even out of breath so saying a cheery hello to everyone I meet.  There are some miserable bastards on the hill today, can you really not muster a reply?!  Kudos to the Dub fella who asks if I've forgotten my wallet!  I tell him I left my fags at the top.  Meet Jim Patterson, local running legend walking down.  He tells me he knows I'm in training but today is the wrong weather.  I respect Jim's opinion and his observation worries me.  Five minutes later I meet Anne Sandford, NI team selector and she asks whether this is my second or third ascent and gives me some support, I feel instantly much better.  The track is now a stream higher up on the mountain and the wind smashes me again on the summit ridge.  43:35 up, delighted to see that my pacing is near perfect so far.  All three jelly babies make it to my stomach this time, now for the descent.  I get a strange sensation of enjoyment, real enjoyment!  The descent feels fast and smooth, feet precise, plenty of grip.  So busy waxing lyrical about my new Inov8 X Talon shoes that I catch an edge and go over on my damaged ankle.  No amount of taping would stop that.  Familiar feelings of nausea but I know I can run this one off, concentrate, concentrate.  Hit the bottom in 2:19:53.  I've clawed time back and I still feel strong.  Last time I was in this position I was virtually crawling across the car park!

Lap 3
Better effort on the gel this time, learned behaviours!  The legs feel a bit heavier, calves stiffening for the first time and the quads know they've been busy.  Still hit 11 mins to the ice house so the pacing is still good but it feels harder this time.  I feel a bit fuzzy around the edges, slight hallucinations in my peripheral vision, other runners.  I'm convinced I've slowed but want to give myself a chance at 3:30 with a good descent.  Grind out the final section of the summit ridge, hit the top and touch the tower, glance at the watch, 3:03:03!  Incredible, my fastest ascent of the three at 43:10.  Amazing effort at constant pacing too.  Realise that I've still got plenty in the tank and with a decent descent should complete the challenge within the time.  Feet aren't so precise now but I'm attacking hard.  No need to hold back.  Loving the temperature rise as I descend.  Grab the stashed bottle, no way I'm going to come back up for it.  Out of the trees and sprint, a genuine smooth, relaxed sprint for the finish in the car park.  3:25:13.  Incredible.  I let out an involuntary whoop which gets me chatting to the walkers who hit the bottom at the same time as me.  The time has blown me away but more than that, I still feel strong.  I keep running back to the van, reckon I've got another ascent in me.  Pretty sure I've never felt this fit in my life, delighted and really excited.

So there it is.  A challenge completed and a really gratifying demonstration of how fitness can change and evolve.  I thought I was fit in 2012 but clearly now I'm on a different plane altogether.  The longer runs I've been doing have obviously contributed massively but the ease of it all, particularly in really trying conditions has astounded me.  With three ascents all within 25 seconds of eachother and progressively faster laps culminating in a 1:05:20 for the last one it's safe to say that I got my pacing pretty spot on.  The nutrition went well despite Fort Knox gel packets and freedom seeking jelly babies.  All in all I genuinely couldn't be more satisfied.  I just hope that I can somehow pull off a similar performance at altitude!

As a postscript, I let Seamy off the bet.  He won the Sevens in a very respectable 4:02 despite some questionable navigation and frankly it's a lot harder than my triple Donard.  I think the only fair thing to do is for him to do the Hat Trick and see who's time is faster.  I'll have my steak medium rare thanks Seamy!



Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Summer Loving, Loving Summer!

As an Outdoor Sports instructor, Summer is traditionally the feast time.  I remember years of hungrily gathering sessions, working 40 day stints with no breaks fuelled by the primeval fear of the Winter time famine to come.  Luckily for me, my work situation is now a bit more guaranteed and so many months ago we booked a ferry for a loosely planned month long Summer holiday.  As the months went by, the plan evolved into a definite week of camping in the Chamonix valley followed by two weeks of luxury apartment living at Lake Garda finished off with an unplanned week that we could decide on at the time.  Although it was definitely a family holiday and the chance to show my boys some real mountains and hopefully sew the seeds of future inspiration, it was obviously no coincidence that we were heading to two of the World's best biking spots!

Packing for such a journey is a fine art, especially for someone as pedantic as me and it was a very pleasant four hours of squeezing in all our kit, bikes and enough entertainment to keep a 4 and 1 year old amused for an outward journey that would take over two days!  The journey itself wasn't too painful, the 17 hour ferry crossing passed easily and the epic drive was split by a night in a non-descript hotel somewhere.  Finally we rolled into the familiar but always spectacular Chamonix valley ready for the boys first camping experience.
Running and glissading up to Brevent
I'll not lie, a week of changeable weather and a one year old in a tent made for a bit of a challenge but I got in some great running up to Brevent, Flegere and Montenvers, loving the steep climbs and smells of sap that always evoke memories of many previous visits to those trails.  The biking was as techy as ever and I felt fast despite a spate of punctures which were made much less annoying by the views I was enjoying as I fixed them.  I was amused to recognise many trails that I'd hit and successfully navigated over 18 years ago when 3 inches of fork travel and 2.1 inch tyres were the order of the day.  I think my kit obsessed 18 year old self would've imploded if a crystal ball had shown me the swoopy carbon 160mm travel beast I'd be piloting in the future!  I wish my skills had advanced as far as the technology!
Rowan's first cable car!
After 5 days of changeable weather we were rewarded by a beautiful last day allowing us to hire a double bike trailer and head off to the idyllic Paradis des Praz to splash in the icy glacial river.  Highly recommended if you've got kids or you want to relax away from the bustle of Chamonix town.  The next morning another four hour packathon preceded a five hour journey in ever increasing heat and excitement as we headed for Lake Garda.  The road doesn't actually reveal the lake until you've driven the full length of it and curved around into the mountainous North shore.  I've been in many beautiful places before but I don't think I've had my breath taken away by a view like the one that greeted us coming into Torbole since I first laid eyes on the Yosemite valley.
Incredible views, amazing place!

I'll sum up the next 17 days with a sentence that lacks in punctuation but hopefully conveys how much I loved the place.  World class biking unbelievable pizza new friends stunning apartments great value warm breeze relaxed atmosphere bikes bikes and more bikes huge climbs killer descents loving the Lidl bike shop bling ice cream and more ice cream one euro peroni 20 mile run before breakfast 4 hour ride after dinner swimming pool chilling World U18 Mountain Running Champs rocks like marbles and rocks like babies heads loose and fast scary and lairy 601 descent 222 descent Skull descent dropping roadies beautiful people sunshine warmth style over substance and substance over style smiles for miles we'll be back.....
The 601 trail.  You have to ride this!

We'd only been there five minutes before we decided to stay on for the last week of our holiday and in all honesty I'd have easily stayed longer.  One word of warning though, we left at the start of July, seemingly at the same time as the German and Italian holidays began and Torbole had doubled in population overnight.  If you go there, I'd really recommend June.  Another word of warning, on my very last ride of the holiday three police stopped me at the end of a trail and fined me 60 Euros for riding on a walking track.  I spent 20 minutes arguing my case based on the clear fact that the trail I was on is marked on the map as a biking trail but they did the classic shrug in reply.  I did the classic give a false name and address before dismissing them with a wave of the hand and burning off.  I had pointed out that seeing as there were three of them, one could be busy putting up signs advising of the legal status of the trails whilst another was addressing the issue of a map that will always catch out bikers and they'd still have one free to rip off tourists.  It's a revenue gatherer pure and simple, although I can't see who would actually pay up unless they start confiscating bikes or arresting people.
I fought the law, and I won!

That brush with the law did nothing to dampen my love of the region and we left the next morning knowing we'll be back very soon.  A three day return journey went without trouble, split by a very relaxing couple of days in Normandy and we returned to Ireland in the middle of a heatwave!

So after a month off it was time to settle back into a routine of work.  Except four days later I was off to the Snowdon International Mountain Race with the NI squad!  We had an amazing and very successful weekend with some tough racing and hard drinking (some harder than others, I didn't see anyone else from the team on the summit of Snowdon the next morning!).  It was great to be competing with and against some of the real names of the sport and although I was disappointed to lose my record of never being outside the top 10 in a fell race I was well up with the International elites and I got on TV loads including getting a mention for an amazing (and fruitless) sprint finish.

Back again and four TCL assessments, a TCL training and plenty of fun coaching later I've now got my eyes on the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs at Pikes Peak in Colorado where I'll again be flying the flag for team Northern Ireland.  I'm in final training now, a week that involves a fast 18 mile hilly trail run, a fast double Slieve Donard, a measured triple Slieve Donard and a couple of recovery runs.  Deep down though I know that whatever I do won't prepare me for the infamous Pikes Peak course, an all uphill 13.3 miles that begins at 6,500 feet and ends at over 14,000!  There aren't many half marathons where the average men's time is over 4hrs 20mins, can't wait to see how I get on.





Saturday, 5 July 2014

New Routes, Repeats and Rab Sponsorship!

Some of the delights of Owey Island pic - Ronnie Smith

(Paul) It has been pretty hectic over the last few months. Settled weather and keeping a clear diary has resulted in lots of climbing trips to places like Fair Head, the Mournes, Spain and some Donegal islands - well, Owey in particular.  The (slight) downside to this is no time in front of the computer to write up these little adventures - just a few Bookface updates here and there!
Climbed a few 7Cs in Margalef!

What I did hear this week is that Rab are going to start sponsoring me with some gear! It's pretty cool to now be associated with one of the biggest manufactures of outdoor clothing in the UK and Ireland. They have promised some bright colours so the pictures should be good - I'm just going to have to work on doing some cool stuff while I'm wearing it now!



Back to climbing and what has been going on. Going back a few months I organised a 10 day youth climbing trip to Siurana and Margalef in Spain for 10 youth climbers from all over Ireland.  10 days, 10 youth and some of the best sport climbing in the world = being totally knackered! Youth climbing in Ireland is in a great place at the minute, lots of coaches putting the effort in and plenty of opportunities to put their climbing wall skills to practice on real rock as well! The Spanish trip was brilliant and it marked my last trip as Mountaineering Ireland youth development officer - although saying that, I am taking 18 kids away to the Burren next week but freelance this time. Many thanks to Ricky Bell, Michelle O'Loughlin and everyone at MI.



Climbing on Raven Crag, Langdale on the BMG Rock 1 training.  pic Adrian Nelhams


The start of May saw the first of my official British Mountain Guide training courses - Rock 1.  It took place in the Lake District and was headed up by Adrian Nelhams and Stu McAlesse. I, like the other trainee guides, really enjoyed it and are definitely psyched for what's to come! Here is a link to a write up I did about the Rock 1 course.

Cow shed lecture, FH Meet 2014


May seemed to fly by with a mixture of teaching and guided climbing work, at venues such as Fair Head, Dalkey, The Mournes and Donegal.  I worked on some Mountain Skills assessments along with Vertigo Outdoors and a bit of route setting when the weather wasn't playing ball.  This also left me plenty of time to get out cragging and organise the Fair Head Meet 2014. Here is the little video Ricky Bell put together from the FH Meet 2013; I think (hope!) most folk get the humour at the start of the video!

First pitch and first ascent of
un jour, peut-etre, Fair Head
pic John McCune
Me on Death or Glory, probably freaking out at this point
pic John McCune




The run up to this year's meet gave a good spell of sunshine making for some great climbing conditions at Fair Head. Due to its mostly north facing aspect, high temperatures and little wind, climbing in the shade was very enjoyable - I do enough suffering in Scotland and the Alps! Climbing mostly with the ever-psyched John McCune and others, we ticked off a few first ascents, second ascents and repeats of seldomly travelled classics.  Most notable were the first ascents of the 4 pitch Un jour, peut-etre (E6) - John lead the 2 crux pitches and Full of Energy, Ready 2 Party (E5) - where I was belayed by John Orr.  With John McCune we also made the second ascent of Stop Making Sense (E5) and we also climbed London Calling (E5) and Death or Glory (E4 - but bit of a chop route at the grade).  The Meet was well attended and the Weather Gods again helped - you can read the UKC article here.

Still hanging with the youth. Taking Saul up Salango - his first route at Fair Head!

The start of June was the second of the Rock training course titled Rock 2! This time it took place at Plas Y Brenin and was headed up by Martin Chester.  North Wales really is a hub for Guides and Mountain Instructors and over the 4 days I was introduced to more guides who hopefully I will be working with in the near future!  Tamsin, a trainee guide on the course, put together a nice little summary here.  Thanks to Gore for the subsidy for the course.

Teaching climbing on the Rock 2 training, N. Wales. pic Steve Long


June involved a bit more work including a Climbing Wall Leading Award (CWLA), Climbing Wall Award (CWA) training and assessment, some site specific training and assessment at a few little climbing walls and some more guided rock climbing!  With regards to the CWA I have put a few more dates up for courses starting in the Autumn. Check out the CWA page on the Rock and Ride website for the dates.

Back on Mad Dogs after being rescued 8 years before! This time it went well. Thanks Craig Hiller - the pics and video to come!


Climbing in June didn't take a back seat either. I managed to lay Mad Dogs (E5) at Spellack in the Mournes to rest after being rescued on it 8 years ago.  The same day I held Mr Bell's ropes on his new line aptly called the Peace Donkey - if you have a look at the route beside it you'll get a chuckle out of the name! A good day for both of us and good to hang out with friends.  Craigy was on hand with his camera so some good video footage should materialise once he gets a chance to look through it.  After that quick Mournes hit I got my first taste of Owey Island - which blew me away! I'm hooked!  The place is so amazing that it deserves its own write up, I just couldn't do it justice here, so I am settling for putting together a few topos and getting pictures. New routes and pristine granite pretty much sum Owey up!

2nd ascent of Part of the Friction. Destined to become a wonder-classic!  My new lines takes the pocked wall on the left. pic Eamon Quinn


So that brief summary takes me up to the start of this week. I headed out with young Quinn and on Monday we hit up Blue lough Buttress. I haven't been there in ages and Quinn had just climbed a new lin, so I was keen to repeat it. His route was amazing - probably E4/5 6a as it is quite go-ey at the start and the gear is small and fiddly. The climbing is really Mournes-esk, relying on a lot of friction and it is also quite techy, so the name 'Part of the Friction' describes it well.  I also knew there was a wee line left of it but word is that it had less gear and the climbing was harder.  Equipped with cleaning gear we abbed down the line to have a look, little gear was confirmed and the holds were pretty awful, but at least it was a slab!  A bit of psyche was required, I tied in, took my time and arrived at the crux (just above the sideways blue DMM offset wire). I must have spent 20 mins trying to work out how I could get the reach for a sloppy pock hold thing. With no other way than to jump I sent for it - probably scaring Quinn just as much as me!  I managed to hold the next few moves together as falling was not an option and topped out FOMO, E6 6a/b.  Description below.

FOMO***
E6 6a/b
20m
Paul Swail & Eamon Quinn 30/06/2014.

Excellent technical slab climbing up the line of pocks 3m left of Part of the Friction.

Climbing boldly but easily up to a downward point peg. Make moves past the peg using a mono hold until you get established on a sloppy foothold on the left wall.  Place a blue DMM offset wire horizontally and hope it cams (gets stuck). Make a dynamic move left to a pocket and continue up the wall until a large flared groove is reached. Finish easily to the top.

So in summary, it has been a great few months for finding the perfect balance of climbing, training and working!  Psyche in general has been high this summer with folk having wee adventures in cool places, on our doorstep.  We often take this life of play hard/work little for granted and every now and then something happens to put it into perspective, keep us humble and make us realise how lucky we are.

Hanging, chillin and enjoying these wonderful places climbing takes us.
pic Pat Nolan



Sunday, 11 May 2014

Blood, Sweat and One Gear, The European Singlespeed Champs

Blood, Sweat and Over Here

It seems like a lifetime ago that Rick and Davy from NIMBA (also known under many other pseudonyms!) gave me a call to meet up and see if I'd help out with some guiding at SSEC 2014.  Needless to say I was flattered to be asked and delighted to get involved.  I was still in a state of disbelief about a major Europe-wide MTB event being hosted in Castlewellan, just 4 miles from my house.  Little did I know at the time about what the lads had to go through to secure the event or about how heavily it would influence my future biking.

My shift to being a dedicated singlespeeder (most of the time) has been documented in previous blogs.  I've gradually realised the joy of the simplicity, light weight and pure aesthetics of singlespeed bikes and beyond that I've thoroughly embraced the flowy riding style they promote.  Easy on the brakes, heavy on the pumping and huge on smiles as you accelerate faster than you thought was possible on an MTB.

A bit of research into the history of SSEC led me to the realisation that for some folk it goes much deeper.  Singlespeed is almost a religion to many with a huge range of eclectic bikes and their riders all interlinked by their disposal of the derailleur.  As the event approached I began to piece together what to expect from the weekend, part bike race, part Glastonbury, total anarchy!  I must admit I felt a slight sense of apprehension as well as confusion.  Do I treat it the way I treat my running with hard training, perfect diet and total focus or do I just hit the beers and ride for fun, soaking in and completely embracing the atmosphere?  In the end I did a mix of both and in the process had one of the most fun experiences of my life!

In Castlewellan!
Blood, Sweat and Fear

My first involvement was leading the guided ride on Friday.  A small matter of taking around 150 bikers around the trails and back roads of County Down in Davy's attempt to show them a bit of the 'real Ireland'.  It should've been easy but a combination of factors made it a bit more stressful than anticipated.  Huge disparities in ability, people desperate to sprint an epic journey out of their legs and some poor folk who'd been thrust from their 30 degree homelands to a blustery 15 degree hillside who therefore froze every time we stopped meant that keeping the group in the same postcode area proved quite challenging!  Obviously we'll not mention Rick's map reading at this point!  I had the fear of leaving some very confused foreigners trying to get directions from even more confused local farmers weighing on me but ultimately it all came good and we all got back safely.


Blood, Sweat and Beers

Davy handed me a bottle of the finest Clotworthy Dobbin and I marvelled at the array of tents, decorated caravans and campervans sprawled over the campsite, but more than that I marvelled at the sheer range of booze on display!  It seems that plenty of people were there largely to kick the crap out of their livers and fair play to them.  As the weekend unfurled rumours circulated about all sorts of potions and concoctions being consumed and the Slovenian contingent were usually mentioned in the same breath.  For my part I was very sensible, I'm no drinker and having two young kids and a love of not being hungover served me well.  I love to sample some real ales but more like a connoiseur and less like a meths swilling tramp so the odd bottle here and there was more than enough.  An added bonus of this was that I woke on Saturday morning feeling fresh and ready to do battle!

Blood, Sweat and Gear(s)

The main event itself was a four lap, 20 mile sprint around an incredible mix of man made and semi-natural singletrack punctuated by a soul destroying fire road climb.  The lads had done an amazing job with the course and the Castlewellan ground had responded positively, soaking up the heavy rain from Friday night leaving the course dry and fast.  I genuinely didn't know what to expect.  Half of me thought I'd be the only one not dressed up as a transvestite leprechaun but then given the legs I'd seen on display on the Friday ride out I also knew there were some very serious riders present.  How serious can an event be when it begins with members of the public being invited to hide all the competitors bikes?!  The answer is, actually pretty damn serious, but at the same time totally lighthearted.  I've never seen so many smiles on the start line, lapped so many people who were so gracious and yet at the same time seen people pushing themselves to their limits.  It was a race for non-racers, at the business end it had the pace of an NPS race but still retained the atmosphere of the back end of a local Sportive!  For me it was summed up by the dude who passed me and moved into 3rd place giving me a drink and then insisting I go ahead into the next singletrack as I was faster on the tech.  I repaid him by putting a hand on his back and giving him the biggest push I could to allow him to speed off up the next fire road climb.  I finished 4th in the end apparently but even then I'm not entirely sure as it's a race with no timing chips.  For me it was the perfect event, I rode myself into the ground but loved every minute of it, carried by the atmosphere, the weather and my incredible fellow competitors.  I'd like to give a big shout out to my fellow NI boys who embraced the singlespeed ethic by also only ever being in one gear, just a different gear at different parts of the course!  You know who you are!!

Unlucky for some, but not me!
Blood, Sweat and Next Year

A huge part of the responsibility of hosting the SSEC is that the organisers have sole control over who hosts the following year's event.  Chatting to Rick and Davy beforehand they talked of a succession of fun challenges that would end in smiles all round and an easy conclusion.  If only...
The Sicilians had driven an incredible caravan all the way up from below Italy and the Slovenians had brought enough booze to make you wonder how the hell they cleared customs.  Both squads were dead set on securing the hosting for 2015 and so proceedings became a bit more serious.  I was away for the main games but returned to talk of pump track ringers, pickled egg horsing and a slightly niggly atmosphere.  The NIMBA boys were looking stressed for the first time all weekend and it seemed that the weight of the decision was a heavy one to bear.  If you were there you know that it all ended amicably with the Slovenians very graciously offering the decision to Sicily despite Slovenia winning the final and decisive challenge.  The upper floor of Maginns visibly breathed a unified sigh of relief and Rick and Davy displayed the manic look of men who'd dodged a bullet!  After all you don't mess with the Sicilians!  They were the right winners having been beaten out by the NI bid in 2013 and I'm sure they'll repay the favour by awarding it to Slovenia for 2016.

Victorious Sicilians
Blood, Sweat and Cheers

So we all headed to Maginns for a big Saturday night feed of stew and booze.  The prizegiving was yet another highlight with the most animated crowd ever stirred up into a cauldron of shouting, cheering and stomping by Davy and his intermittent microphone.  I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of any couples who'd popped in downstairs for a quiet romantic meal being drowned out by what was probably the decibel equivalent of standing between a Boeing 747 and an AC/DC concert.  Prizes were thrown, dodgy quizzes hosted and the gifting of the much admired Surly Krampus fat bike to the winner of the bike throwing comp, a man who'd only just said to me that we were stood in the wrong place to win anything!  Again I ducked out before it got too out of control as I'm old and boring but the pics doing the rounds and the walking wounded on the site allowed me to feel real smug on Sunday morning.

The beautiful Tollymore Forest and beautiful Singlespeeders
Blood, Sweat and 'See Ya's'

I only expected about five people to show up for the Sunday ride out with the crushing hangovers and huge journeys faced by many, so was delighted when nearly 100 turned out for the spin.  We had a superb time hitting Tollymore Forest and I got to relax and chat to some incredibly chilled people on incredibly cool bikes.  As we basked in the post-ride sun having some really engaging conversations whilst various people plied us with cheeses, beers and biscuits it dawned on me just how good a time I'd had all weekend.  It had flown by in a kaleidoscope of images and emotions, all of them really positive.  I'm not one for cheesy cliches but as I mentioned how good it all felt and was met by the reply that 'well, life's not a f***ing dummy run' it seemed really apt.  If I can spend just one weekend a year having that much fun then my life will definitely be fuller for it, and now I know exactly how and where to make that happen.  As we said our goodbyes I couldn't help feel that Castlewellan may never quite feel the same again, something pretty special happened here, that's the power of SSEC!

There's a long list of people who made SSEC 2014 such a massive success and I was proud that me and Rock and Ride could play a small part along with the marshals, helpers and of course the competitors from all corners of Europe.  In reality though it was all thanks to the determination and vision of Rick, Davy and the ORNI crew.  They did an incredible job and deserve all the gifts and accolades they receive.  However, if you lads can't decide who gets those beautiful carbon forks then I've got a project build that would suit perfectly!  You know you want to.....

Keep an eye on Google for SSEC Sicily 2015, they've got some big shoes to fill!