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.

E6 6a/b
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!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The POG! Roadside new routing in the Mournes???

For years now I have looked up at Pog Precipice (located just up and right from the main cliff at Pigeon Rock, Mournes) and thought there must be some new lines to go.  When chatting with folk you get the usual crap, rock is bad, no gear blah blah blah. I have only climbed on the cliff once and that was with Hillerberg a few years back.  The routes that we climbed that day were Ian Rea's E3s.  The quality of climbing was exceptional and at the time the routes were spotless.  I would say on that day Hillerberg and I did the second ascents and they probably have not been touched since.

So last week I took a dander up with Kahlua and abbed the steep face left of Honeybunch. I remember spotting a few pegs on the wall when look at it years ago.  It turns out they were put in by Ian Rea years ago but he didn't fancy the line so it remained unclimbed. When I abbed it there was some bold looking sections but with a bit of cleaning it looked like it just might go!  I also spotted a line just to the right. Once I removed a bit of suspect rock, it was good to go as well.

On Friday 11th April I headed up with Kev Kilroy to see if the routes would go.  I was pretty chuffed when I managed to climb them both and they were both excellent.  The style of the routes are unlike anything that I have ever climbed in the Mournes. overhang by about 6 feet, have good protection with positive climbing on largely sound rock.  With its close proximity to the road there is no reason why these routes should not see huge amount of traffic.  They might even suit all the really strong Awesome Walls climbers as well!!! Get on them and let us know what they are like.

Route descriptions below.

The One That Got A-Rea, pic Eamon Quinn

The one that got A-Rea E4 6a *** 25m
P. Swail & K. Kilroy   11/04/2014

Low in the grade. Start on the left side of Pog Precipice below 2 old pegs.  Climb the v-groove and make hard moves past the 2nd peg. Climb boldly up and left to hold above a square block. From here climb the wall slightly right via a thin crack (hard) until a small pedestal is reached. Finish delicately up and right to join 'Just like Poetry'.

Just like Poetry. pic K. Kilroy

Just like Poetry E3 5c *** 25m
P. Swail, K. Kilroy & E. Quinn   11/04/2014

Pumpy, steep, well protected climbing and destined to become a classic.  Start 2m right of 'The One That Got A-Rea' below a right trending undercut crack. Climb this and continue direct passing a wonder pocket until a small roof is reached.  Make some technical moves left to join a finger crack and continue direct until easy ground is reached via an easy step left. Brilliant from start to finish!

NB - please don't climb the 2 lines to the right I have cleaned!
Happy dog and climber!

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Sponsored post...Cotswold Outdoor and some words about climbing skiing and work!!

The last few weeks have been pretty mental with lots of work, a bit of play and friends coming and going.  Things have just settled down to give me a bit of time to relax and get prepared for the youth climbing trip I have organised to Spain next week.

Gynocrat in the rain!
March saw little change in the weather. It was pretty minging, wet and windy for most of it!  The occasional days that we were greeted with sunshine were few and far between. I guess to try and get trad climbing this time of the year you need to hit up the sunny sheltered sports.  Lower Cove is about the only cliff we have that ticks all the boxes, shame about the good hour walk-in! I had 2 very different days there back to back; the first one with my good pal Doc Crawley who was home for a few days just before Paddy's day, when I managed to drag myself up Pressure Point (E6) in near perfect conditions. The second I was in with Quinn Snr & Jnr climbing a few of the Mournes' classics.  It was pretty awesome to see Quinn Snr at nearly 70 years old climbing Gynocrat in the rain!  Them old skool dudes sure are hard as nails.

The simple life - we could get very used to it!

Having had a very busy last while with BMG training and work Ellie and I booked a wee trip over to Austria to see Stevie and Dik.  The plan was to ski but with the relative low altitude of the Tirol region and the lack of snow this season and super high temps we ending up doing as much climbing as we did skiing and not to mention eating lots of Lindt chocolate!  Do you think there would be a market for guiding in Austria? I sure do hope so!

Wall games to look at stable clipping positions
The last week of March was very busy running climbing training both site-specific and NGB (National Governing Body) qualifications through BOS - the Irish Training Board.  All of this work was based in Dublin so it gave me the chance to hit up Awesome Walls, Dublin for some training - they even gave me a couch to sleep on one night!

I also ran the first Climbing Wall Leading Award in Ireland.  Folk have been waiting for years for the CWLA to be introduced in Ireland.  It is a bolt on qualification for people who already hold the SPA or CWA and want to teach lead climbing indoors. Between myself and Rob Davis from Vertigo Outdoors we had 8 people on the course and ran it jointly.  This worked very well with both Rob and myself bouncing ideas off each other throughout the day. I think everyone on the course got a lot from the day. I will have some more CWLA dates on the site in the next few weeks.

Back on the climbing front (for myself) I managed to have an amazing day last week repeating one of the finest lines in the Mournes. We're All Learning (E7 6c) a steep slab with a crack that runs out at 3/4 height to give a tenuous, thoughtful sequence and interesting climbing - thankfully above some bomber gear that I picked up at Cotswold Outdoors (as the video will show you).  I originally tried the route in the winter but it was totally baltic and kinda gave up not being able to feel my fingers and with a freezing belayer (cheers Quinn). This time I was feeling more optimistic with blue skies, no wind and temperatures hovering at about 8 degrees.  After a play on a wee toppy and drying out the shady side of the crack I was keen to get onto the sharp end.  As you can see in the video this try didn't go so well.  I just didn't find my balance point, rushed it a bit and like in slow motion I was off!  Unfortunately the cold temps killed the battery on my phone so I wasn't able to get the ascent on video. Bit of a shame as I let out a massive 'psych whoop' when I got the finishing jug!

Yesterday I took a bit of a punt with the Hawk and Eamon and headed to the 'head'.  It was a cracking day - a tad on the chilly side but the banter made up for it!  Nice to get back up to Fair Head getting a bit of mileage in.  I did Jolly Roger in a oner and the Hawk ran up Toby jug - we then all ran away and drank some tea!

Eamon, Eddie and plenty of down on Toby Jug, Fair Head
Hope everyone is getting out and about. I will put some CWLA and CWA dates up for May and June in the next few weeks.  For now here is a little video of me taking some air time on my first attempt of We're All Learning!

Friday, 7 March 2014

Tranny love and the mystery of the missing gears

You know those shit bumper stickers you see on the back of a clapped out Fiesta saying 'my other one's a Ferrari'?  Well I thought this bike would make me want one that says 'my other one's a normal bike'!

But I guess 'normal' is a subjective thing, some people think 29'ers are cool and fair play to them but I'm a fully paid up member of the 160/140mm sub 30lb smash it around the forest at top speed 'enduro' bikes that everyone is loving these days.  My bike riding has never changed that much, always fast up and down hills, sometimes ballsy, other times total wimp, depends which way the wind is blowing on a particular day, and my bikes have always reflected this approach!

So what the hell possessed me to get a stunning 3lb carbon hardtail frame and then build it up with just one gear?  I'm no hipster, I don't have a beard or drink coffee and this thing definitely has a freehub so no fashion fixieness happening here.  Still, something inside me decided that singlespeed was the way to go.

The Tranny in all its glory.  120mm Forks, Reverb Dropper and Super Tacky DH  front tyre.
I guess the root of it was my mate John at university who built up the first singlespeed I'd ever seen.  The purity of it really caught my eye, no unsightly mechs or cassette and most importantly just brake levers adorning the bars.  Back then handlebar room was at a premium, even super skinny 500mm bars were considered a bit excessive and weight saving was everything, so having no shifters just made the bike seem so sleek.  Seeing the veins bulging out of John's neck on even the slightest inclines didn't look so cool though, his bike was light and attractive but just not very functional.

Fast forward 15 years (where the hell did they go?) and I found myself with a Chris King 16 tooth cog and a load of spacers in my hand ready to put the finishing touches to my own singlespeed project.  First impressions were good, very good!  The thing was so light it felt like cheating, even with 120mm forks and a dropper post (because EVERY bike should have one!).  I hit the trails and second impressions were even better.  In fact it was so easy to accelerate and throw around, like a really capable off-road bmx, that I could barely keep the front wheel on the singletrack.  And then I hit the uphill.....

I'm not stupid, obviously I knew that one gear only would mean a bit of grunt but this was a slap in the face.  I quickly discovered there were two approaches to climbing, either accelerate like mad and try to turn over the gear at top speed (worked great for about 50 metres) or stand up and gurn and turn over the gear at 4 revs per minute whilst nearly ripping the cleats out of my shoes.  I'd done my research and opted for a 32-16 ratio, I'm more Chris Froome than Chris Hoy so smaller gears were definitely the required approach, especially as it's so damn hilly around here.  I'd also applied the bullshit filter to the numerous comments on the forums along the lines of 'dude, I EASILY turn over a 42-11 and I only ride on obscene gradients...' when deciding what would work for me.  Turns out I was a touch wrong.

The new 30-16 set up.  Perfect for the hills?
Maybe I was missing the point?  Perhaps my mindset of never ever getting off and pushing ever ever is wrong for singlespeed.  On the rare occasions when I was actually on the right gradient for the gear it was incredible fun but I kept being reminded of the quote I'd read saying 'riding singlespeed is just like riding in the wrong gear all the time' or words to that effect.  I battered on for a few weeks but then decided it just wasn't enough fun and then relented and went 1x9.

At this point it's all going to get a bit advert and I won't apologise for that.  2Pure, the UK Ibis importers do support Rock and Ride but I can honestly say with complete impartiality that the following is true.  This is the best bike I've ever owned, and I've had some beauties.  It just makes everything so fun and can take on all but the most high speed techy trails (where it was ultimately my ankles that gave out before the bike did).  I had to put a Super Tacky High Roller on the front just to tame it a bit (which must've nearly doubled the overall weight!).  It really is the perfect bike for most situations.

So why return to singlespeed?!  It's all the fault of Rick and Davy at NIMBA, better known as the Trailbadgers, who somehow managed to secure the European Singlespeed Champs for Castlewellan this year!  They love having no gears and take on some pretty silly challenges so I felt obliged to give it another go.  I'm scoping out some routes for all the participants to ride on the days before and after the race so it'd be pretty poor form if I turned up with the 1x9.  This time I've gone for a 30-16, anticipating a hilly course and a heavy hangover and I'm about to go and test it out, wish me luck...

The Singlespeed European Champs are taking place on April 25th-27th in Castlewellan, County Down, Northern Ireland.  It's more of a festival than a serious race, more beers, less gears!  Check out this link for more details and I'll see you there.

Oh and the title makes more sense if you visit the Ibis website,  I love the sensationalist titles!