Since last year I had been looking forward to the epic Berghaus Dragons Back Race. It traverses over all the main Welsh mountain ranges starting in Conwy in the north of Wales to Llandeilo in the south. The course covers 315km, with 15500 metres of elevation gain over 5 days - and requires runners to navigate through to mostly unmanned checkpoints throughout the day. Billed as the toughest multi day mountain ultra marathon event - the approximate 50% attrition rate attests that it is a beast to be reckoned with.
The event was first held in the early 90’s and run in pairs. Very few finished and it was deemed too tough a course to hold the event again. The event was restarted in 2012, run again in 2015 and is now held every other year.
I went into the event realistic about my chances of success. I had met a great group of runners through an informal day 4 recce and an organised day 1 recce. Both weekendns had built my confidence, but also confirmed that navigation would be my weak point especially if visibility was low, and that each day would be a tough day out on the hills. I had GPX routes to fall back on, but the “recommended” route was not always the best line, and I wanted to be looking at the trails and mountains and not staring at my watch or phone every 5 minutes.
Leading up to the event I had been keeping a steady training load. Unfortunately not undertaking as many long mountain days as I would have prefered, with time limitations and logistics of travel in Peru often causing compromised efforts. Nevertheless, I had a few solid mountain runs at altitude and had no injuries as we headed into Conwy the day before the event.
Registration was hectic, but a fairly smooth process. The event logistics meant that the organisers would establish camp with 8-person shared tents and a kitchen too feed the mass of hungry runners each day. Each competitor would need their mandatory gear for the hills, a 5kg/20L support bag for the midway (and only) support point each day, and a 60L overnight bag with clothes, sleeping bag, thermarest, hill food and anything else you’d need to see you safetly through 5 days of Welsh mountain running. It took quite a knack to organise and fit everything in for the 5 days. During registration I started bumping into old acqaintances and made new ones. The anticipation for everyone was palpable.
Early on Monday morning I headed down the hill inside Conwy castle to start the adventure. Denise and Ron had come down to see me off and were up on castle ramparts looking down. The day started with a Welsh male choir before 400 runners set off slowly at 7am along the castle walls. Timing commenced as soon as we left the castle walls. The day had a number of dibbers that had to be found and tagged, mostly at the summits of moutains. There were also 3 main cut-off points: at the support point (2pm), at the YHA and Pen-Y-Pass (3pm) and then at the finish line at 11pm.
I took a measured pace for the first few hours, the cloud cover was low and the weather cool. Perfect running weather and visibility not too impaired for navigating. I was eager to not burn up the nervous energy at the expense of later hours and days running. I had a soft target of 12 hours on day 1 and expected around 5 hours to the support point followed by 7hours for the back half of the day. Somewhere up on the first hills a few hours into the run I started feeling a twinge in my right knee. An hour or so later my left knee did similar. I continued reasonably comfortably until around 10:30 or 11 in the morning when I started to be concerned about the increasing pain so early in the race. By this time the cloud had burnt off and we had our first views across the Snowdonia peaks we were traversing and down into the Ogwen valley and the mighty Tryfan.
I bagged the last checkpoint before the support point and was starting the steep descent to the Ogwen valley - by now was unable to run the downhills and was being overtaken by a number of other runners. I pressed on and ran the short section to the support point at around the 29k mark. Here I took about 10 or 15 minutes to eat some food, drink my coke and restock my hill food. I had my GPS tracker swapped out as it had conked out on the hill apparantly. I wanted to press on quickly and tagged myself at the dibber, handed my support bag in, and started the steep slog uphill to summit Tryfan.
The walk up was hot and hard. There came a point where the steps became a scramble, finding a route up and over boulders, and up to the summit. This was a peak that the winter conditions had denied me during the recce weekend. Fortunately with so many others, you could always observe those in front to find a good line. Coming down was much harder as my knees were more sore on the downhill, and the route down wasn’t clear, with some precipitous drops to avoid. No sooner were we down than we were climbing up a steep loose scree slope of the Glyders. This peak was in some ways harder than Tryfan as there were no steps and a decent incline. Once on this range there was a technical traverse, where at one point I made a daft nav error that cost me 5-10 minutes by following like a sheep someone else hunting for a summit checpoint up the wrong lump of rocks. Eventually I hit the right checkpoint and began the descent into the YHA. The day was now quite hot in the sun, and my knees - especially on the downhill quite painful. I again walked and ambled the downhill as fast as I could to the YHA. Here I bought a Tang soft drink which was delightul, and refilled my water bottle, and after 5 minutes set off to deal with the beast that overlooked the YHA that is Crib Goch.
As I set off I was alongside Mark Z a lovely guy who had organised many recce weekends and both physically and virtually brought together a large group of legends all undertaking the Dragons Back. He had failed to complete the race in 2017 due to foot issues, but was tracking well, and had experience going over Crib Goch, so I stuck with him as we began the scramble up the rocks. There was also occassionaly theodd event staff, with mountain experience, at points to give runners guidance on the appropriate route up or off Crib Goch. Partway up, another racer started giving me tips on the better routes as Mark pressed on ahead. Soon enough I was up onto the knife-edge. The views were tremendous and the difficult part, that I quite enjoyed, was over. I was careful along the knife-edge and soon enough was limiping down to the saddle that joins Crig Goch with the Snowdon summit.
Once bagging the Snowdon summit I picked up another soft drink at the shop and set off on the Watkins path to traverse to the end of the Snowdon horse-shoe.
This section was a hard slow slog. I was regretting by now not using a more cushioned shoe. I pulled out my poles and immediately wished I had done so sooner as they were a great help with managing the knees. While there was another big kicker of a hill to scramble up the worse part was that the downhill sections were now very painful and I was “walking with purpose” to get the day done. I felt wrecked, but I suspect that was more from the continual pain and care I had to take with every step than the impact of the time on feet and climbing of the day. I was able to run-jog the more gentle gradients, especially when we hit the grass section at the end of the Snowdon horse-shoe. Eventually I descended for the final section down to the day 1 camp.
I crossed the line in 12hr and 1 minute (from leaving the castle wall) with 55k with 3600m elevation gain. Bang on target.
After I finished I organised my gear, fed myself and set off for a cold stream to clean myself and see if a good soak would help my knees recover for day 2. During the evening of walking around camp my knees felt mostly OK, with just mild discomfort. I remained optimistic it would be “one of those things” and heal with a good nights rest.
After a great nights rest - I woke up at 5am, hoping to set off by 6:30 for what would be a 14 hour day with 70km distance. Due to my finish time the previous day the organisers had a guidance start time of 7am.
Unfortantely I quickly recognised my knees were more stiff and sore than the previous evening. I pulled on the nicely cushioned La Sportiva Arkasha shoes for the day. I mentally re-set my expectation to that of a long slow day - aiming to just complete inside the cutoff.
I set off on the flat road section - I tried to jog and warm up the legs but each step was very painful and I found myself alternating between walking and jogging from the start. Soon enough we were off the roads and heading for the first summit of the day, Cnicht. The knees were less sore on the climbs so I pushed on the uphill, shuffled on the flat and gingerly walked on the downhill. I had started with my poles out today and they continued to help.
The sun was out from the early morning and the day continued to heat up. Each checkpoint I reached I was within the guidance time that indicated the pace for the slowest competitor to finish the day inside the 11pm cut-off. But only just. As I frustratingly moved slowly across the Welsh hills I recognised I might either miss the support point cut-off or if I made it decide it not wise to continue.
I descended the final steep hill into the support point. It was 2:20pm and I had painfully ticked off 32km through the morning. The cut-off was 3pm to leave the support point. I quickly sorted myself out as if I was going to leave - but had a different voice on each shoulder telling me I should push on regardless until I got timed out or whether I should be sensible, minimise the injury and live to fight another day. I knew the next section would be hard both in technicality, distance, and give me no options to bail out. The next section involved a long slog up and over the Rhinogs, but did have a final 10k easy road section to the Day 2 camp.
So the choice was a difficult one. I was ready to leave at 2:40pm. 20 minutes within the cut-off. I had some people at the support point advise against pushing on, others advise to crack on. I almost left, but with my better judgement decided to pull the pin. There was always the option to do a half day tomorrow. Even if I did finish by 11pm, I knew I would be in no fit state to backup with another 70k on Wednesday. My dragon was not to be.
I then sat at the support point as we watched runners come in just before, or just after the cut-off. Once back at camp, I ate up well, then decided to go and get some advice from the phsyio in the medical tent. The physio diagnosed an inflamed ITB, strapped me up, and suggested the issue wouldn’t heal overnight and would need R&R but that I could walk the back half of the course if I was OK with going slow and griting out the pain. I was hopeful I could continue tomorrow, non-competitively and enjoy the Welsh landscapes.
Unfortunately the next morning the knees were just as painful. I toyed with another long slow afternoon of walking 35k. But I decided I’d prefer to let my knees heal rather than risk a prolonged injury that may take many months to heal. Another difficult decision, but now made called Denise to come grab me from her AirBnB in Dollgelau and left the camp and the group of legends that were on this adventure. I was quite dissapointed and sad - but felt I’d made the right call. Cadair Idris, the impressive mountain that was the start of day 3, taunted me as I was driven away. I wanted to be in those mountains. A part of me thought I should have been more stubborn and grit it out regardless.
So that was it. Despite only running for a day and a half I had a significant amount of fatigue and DOMS to recover from. The next few days I remained fairly despondent, but found my knees so painful just walking down stairs that I continued to feel I’d made the right call in not pushing through the pain and chewing up more miles.
On the Friday afternoon we arrived in Llandeilo where the race finished. I had continued watching the dots of Avril, Mark, Fiona, Alwyn, Megan, Simon, Craig and others as they continued their march to the end. Watching those guys and others arrive at the finish was bitter sweet, but I was glad I did.
So here I am a week later and my knees are still too sore to run on. The dragons back race had truly chewed me up and spat me out - but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a brilliantly organised race, in amazing mountains and landscapes of Wales, with a great group of runners. I’d love to return and complete it - but 2021 will be a really bad time. Perhaps 2023.
Mid March now. The days are getting longer in the UK and another month of our epic holiday has been well spent (literally and financially as it happens). We pick up where the last post left off - on the 11th of February with us now mobile in our hire car.
Week 1 (11th Feb - 18th Feb)
Of course being mobile doesn’t mean that moving around is altogether easy. What with the time it takes to negotiate immensely complicated roundabouts, traffic volumes, and the regular reduction in speed as you wend your way through village after village on narrow roads. The week was busy shuffling around and fitting in a lot:
Avebury - where we snuck in some walking on the ridgeway and wandered around the pretty impressive stone circle.
Winchester - to do some wallking and to see the old market town centre and Winchester Round table of King Arthur fame.
Reading - The Wednesday night Nicola joined us to try Readings French style fine dining restaurant, Ortolan, and their vegetarian degustacion. A nice night out - with some stunning wines - and consequently a tidy bill at the end.
Marlow - to catchup with Denises older sister. I droped Denise off at Henley-on-Thames where she walked to meet me, whilst I had a leisurely breakfast, followed by a short run up the Thames to meet her. The winter wheather was stunning - bright sunshine.
Rhayder in Wales via Wolverhampton - as further described below
I had joined an informal group on a weekend in south Wales to do a recce run of the Dragons Back race day 4 that I’m doing in May but split over the Saturday and Sunday. On the Friday I drove Denise up to Wolverhampton to stay with an old friend of hers - then headed west out to Rhyader and the bunkhouse a group of us were basing ourselves in. The day was glorious - so nice in fact that on the way up after a brief walk along the Thames path we sat outside in a t-shirt for a pub lunch at the nice and old Trout inn.
It was a long day driving - but after a good meal and pint in the local pub I found my accomodation and a growing number of friendly runners who arrived from their journeys. Mark who had organised the group had his two dogs that ran with us both days and another runner had his little dog, scout, which added to the fun. I had come down with a cold earlier in the week and felt wretched on the Saturday with a clogged head, a bad nights sleep and issues regulating my temperature. Regardless we did our car shuttle and set off up the hills checking maps and alternate route options. The running was good and at an easy pace - and it was good to meet folk doing the event and some who had tried previously but failed. Some good tips and recommendations.
The hills were great, we managed about 30k on the first day in some strong winds and only a few light showers. A few sketchy barbed wire fence hops, and some alternate route options that have now been ruled out due to an updated mandatory route on the course. On day 2 we did an out and back to avoid a horrendous car shuttle, had some lashing wind and rain but managed to all keep together and in good spirits. A tops couple of days out with a fun crew from all over the UK and Ireland.
Week 2 (18th - 24th Feb)
On the Tuesday I drove Denise family down to Portsmouth to visit her uncle Brian. He was a lot better than last year so we had a nice pub lunch out in the sun at a pub on the hill overlooking the harbour and the sea.
The next day we navigated our way to Heathrow and the flight across to Oslo to start the fortnight we had in Norway and Sweden. An album of photos from the trip is found here
Oslo had a biting cold and snow peperring the city. It wasn’t unusual to see people carrying skis around. We had booked in for two nights at a cheap and cheerful Scandic hotel. The prices of everthing in Norway are pretty eye-watering - but once your used to the fact that a standard good evening meal out is about $30 AUD and a pint out is over $15 AUD - then we could relax and enjoy our time here. The morning after our arrival I stretched the legs with a snow trail run following a river up out of Oslo to an ice covered lake. It was pretty beautiful, and whilst my feet were numbed with the slushy icy water, only occassionally did I flail aroun on the ice while running.
Later that morning we caught a bus out to the Viking museum where well presereved original viking ships were on display alongside artifacts they would use. This was a pretty impressive museum that focussed on one thing and was very interesting to us. Next stop was the equally impressive Vigeland park where a single artists life work and amazing sculptures are arranged. The cold was biting though so we kept moving back into Oslo central to another museum where we were mostly interested in the exhibition on Sami culture.
For dinner we headed for a vegan restaurant - with some hearty food. Not as cheap as our takeaway felaffel on the first night - but definately worth it. We had booked a combination of Norway in a Nutshell and direct Norwegian rail tickets to travel around. Our plans had us on a public train to Myrdal Station, followed by the tourist train down that negotiates impressive mountains into the valley and into Flåm. After a night in Flåm, we were on the Fjords to Gudvagen, then by bus to xx, then by connecting train into Bergen. We had an airBNB for two nights in Bergen, followed by a train back into Oslo for a one night stopover. We then took the train straight up to Trondheim, where we stayed for a night, before an afternoon flight up into the arctic circle at Tromso where we stayed for four nights. From Tromso our plans had us flying via Oslo to visit our friends in Stockholm.
The train through the winter landscapes and high country of Norway to Myrdal station was stunning. The train ducked in and out of tunnels and skirted frozen lakes and steep mountain ridges. Train travel is always so relaxing - and we and other tourists alighted at the basic and empty stop at Myrdal where we crossed over to the Flåm railway which affords amazing views as it wends its way through difficult terrain and into the very pretty town.
To beat darkness I quickly laced up and took off back up the valley to the old town and then followed a zig-zagging road up one of the enclosing mountains. The road turned to gravel, then slushy snow, then snow. Eventually I reached the end of the graded road and decided not to slug it out any further as the sun set over mountains.
For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town - the viking themed rustic brewpub that had the Flåm brewery beers. The food was excellent, and suprisingly for being in a small and remote town - food and drink cost the same as in Oslo.
We had lined up a rib boat tour of the fjords, before departing by boat up the fjords in the afternoon. Unfortunately due to thick fog it was both pointless and unsafe to head out. This left us with a few hours to kill in a sleepy town. In the early afternoon we boarded the amazing new all electric fjord explorer boat. This was a big passenger ferry that was well designed for accessability and amazingly quiet for the trip up the fjords. Fortunately whilst some fog lingered - it waxed and waned and towards the end afforded us the most amazing views.
From boat, to bus, to train, we connected seamlessly and arrived in the evening into Bergen. I had booked an airBNB which was a short walk out of town. The apartment was a large, sparse Ikea strewn place that we could stretch out in. The idea was that we may need a kitchen to both save money and ensure we could cook good healthy veggie food. In the end we didn’t need to use it - but having a place bigger than your standard hotel room was a nice change.
The next day I took off early for a mountain run up above Bergen. I did my normal thing of finding an appropriately long route someone else has run, and hoping it’s both sensible and practical to follow. I climbed up out of Bergen up single track trails, the cold morning mist and clouds were out such that the summit view when I made it was non-existant. I then followed my watch along a snowy and icy alpine trail. The trail would occassionall dissapear or fork off - but after a while I was following regular mountain cairns in blustery wild conditions. So nice. There were a few other walkers and one or two runners up on the high country, and the landscape was wild and beautiful. I finished up at the visitors center where the funicular runs up from the center of Bergen to meet Denise for a walk. It seemed half of Bergen was out to do the same as the area was very busy with people out for a walk or exercise.
Afterwards we strolled back down through the UNESCO listed old town and later that evening chanced on a terrific Ethiopian place for dinner.
Our plans then had us returning to Oslo by train, spending a night in Oslo, before jumping another train up to Trondheim. On the train up to Trondheim I attempted to use the train wifi to take part in an EC meeting for our body corporate. It mostly retained a connection but the audio and video was patchy at best.
We only had one evening booked in Trondheim. Our arrival was in the mid afternoon - so after a couple of days on trains I quickly turned around to head up Trondheims nearest mountain. The run up here was fun - although pretty treacherous in very icy conditions underfoot. I had intended to do a loop - but as the conditions were slow going, it was cold, and the day was fast dissapearing I opted to turn around and retrace my steps.
Trondheim itself seemed very relaxed. It’s Norways third largest city - and had some lovely colourful houses and buidings that faced directly onto the river. That evening Denise and I visited the Habitat bar. Here they served the local Monkey brews beer, and had a great range of beers. I had two beers in particular that are worthy of note - the Steinbier and particularly the local style, a superb peaty Stolt Røyklagt.
We were pleased to be changing to air travel to head much further north into the arctic circle and the town of Tromsø. We arrived into Tromso after dark where it was immediately noticeably much colder. Once we arrived into the town centre we had a 15 minute walk up the hill to our airBNB. Easier said than done - the streets were like a skating rink. There had been an unseasonably warm “heat wave” the previous week that had raised temperatures above freezing, only to drop again leaving a nice ice layer below snow and on the pavements. Despite being very careful Denise unfortunately found some black ice and went down badly onto both her knees. After an uncertain triage we decided avoid a trip to A&E that night and instead eat dinner and assess the damage in the morning. Denise was particularly concerned that something was broken and this would ruin our planned hiking in Peru.
The next morning Denise could barely walk on the one particularly bad knee - so we arranged a taxi to the A&E at their university hospital. Here they very effeciently took Denise in and amongst all the other slips and trips they were handling. I then left to take part in our planned snow-shoeing trip whilst Denise got x-rayed and eventually the all clear. The snow shoe trip was excellent, travelling with a small group and Karolinas our guide we drove out of Tromso and slowly walked our way up a mountainside. The day was calm and sunny and we were afforded the most stunning views.
We had booked 3 tours with a small company called Wandering Owl: Walk on the wild-side (snow shoe walk), arctic landscapes (tour for views and photographs) and an aurora hunt. We had also booked with a separate company a dog sledding experience. In less sunny conditions the next day Denise hobbled down to join me for the arctic landscapes trip. This was a relaxed opportunity to be driven around some locations and hear a bit more about local habits and culture. The day before we had seen a reindeer (all reindeers belong to the local Sami people who move them around during the year) and during this drive we saw a massive moose.
After returning I dissappeared for a run and stumbled across the local skiing and walking trails. These were much nicer than the icy pavement and ran across the spine of the island on which Tromsø is situated, they even had lighting so that as dusk gave way to night I was still safe to crunch away on the snow.
On our final day we got driven out to meet the dogs who would haul us along in a sled. Unlike many operators in the area, we opted for one where the professionals operate the sled and we come along for the ride. The dogs were lovely - super excited and boisterous. The owners advised that half of their pack were involved in a race next week across 560k of Norwegian trails. So they were taking it easy on the dogs. The site we arrived at was stunning - with luxury tents where folk stay overnight to view the aurora - along with a central cabin for cooking, eating and socialising. It was a fun day out - and I was completely thrown when a guy I was chatting to, turned out to be Norwegian. His accent was so perfectly ocker Australian I couldn’t believe he was a non-native speaker!
For our final adventure in Norway we met up for our Aurora hunt. The night before we had seen glimmers of the lights from our apartment balcony. The tour guys took us towards the Finish border and away from the coast where clouds were forming. There was a lot of activity throughout the night and we stopped a number of times to see some pretty spectacular displays. Eventually we reached out destination, away from light polution and the clouds on the coast. Here, in the -18 degree temperature we rugged up and stood with our cameras and tripods as the northern lights came and went through the evening. Just as we were leaving at midnight a final display occured so we all got one final staged photo.
Some final observations of Norway:
yes it’s expensive but not prohibitively so if you plan or save
Oslo is a relaxed capital but compared to other Scandinavian cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm) it’s not somewhere you should spend a long time
All Norwegian drivers appeared very considerate and polite
Week 3 (5th - 11 th March)
Leaving Tromsø we flew to Stockholm via Oslo. Here we were met by our friend Roger and his son Fergus - who drove us to their place where we would spend a few days with Erica and their daughter Freja. They had a lovely big house and it was nice to be out of the city and hotels. We wandered around in the snow enjoying Stockholm - funnily enough I even bumped into a friend from Hobart in Fotographiska museum. The highlight, museum wise, was probably the Vasa museum which was devoted to the amazing historic ship that was recovered after it sunk just hours after it’s launch. After a lovely couple of days we joined Erika on her commute to work to then catch the onward airport bus. We said our goodbyes until June when she is staging a fun 50th in Manchester with Norman Jay as DJ!
Back into Heathrow and we picked up a hire car for a few days so Denise could drive me up to Conwy for a weekend recce of the Dragonsback day 1 course. We visited Ludlow on the way up - then stayed in Llandudno at a grand seaside hotel for the night. On the Saturday I joined a crew of about 35 to be guided over the hills of Snowdonia with day 1 including Tryfan and day 2 a much shorter day but including Crib Goch. The weather was wild - with gale force wind and a wind chill bringing the temperature on the hills down below minus 10. After the first couple of hours the leaders hatched a plan for the faster group to push on at pace to try to make our accomodation at Pen-y-Pass. The remainder were to attempt to make it as far as the Ogwen valley. I was layered up more than I have ever been before as we moved up into the clouds and snow. At times we were slowed to a brisk walk by the fierce wind - but overall we had a good group that pushed on. Unfortunately we got to the Ogwen valley too late in the day to risk pushing past Tryfan and into Pen-y-Pass. After all dinner was being served at half six and nobody fancied missing out after a hard day on the hills.
On the Sunday with additional snow falling overnight and gale force winds still in effect, we attempted to head up onto the ridge and down via the miners track to the Nantgwynant campsite where everyones cars were parked. The scrambling was fun in the tricky weather - and whilst occassionally wild up top - it was mostly just stunning views in the windswept snow. So whilst I didn’t get the experience of picking the lines up Crig Goch, I did meet another great crew who will join me in the Dragons Back race in May - and gained some confidence on the easy navigation for the first stretch of day 1.
We are now laying plans to fill in the final 5 weeks of our trip from late May until we depart at the end of June. This now includes a fun party in Manchester, visiting a friend in Belfast, another week in Amsterdam to see our friends there, and camping and walking the South West track in Devon. Busy times with little true rest - but a true privilege to be able to traipse around so freely for so long.
And with that - today (18th of March) we are off to Heathrow, for our early flight to Peru tomorrow. I may struggle to write a new post as I’m leaving my laptop behind. The next month will see us visiting Lima, Arequipa, Colca canyon and Cusco, along with some trekking in the Andes.
So - that’s it - a month away on holidays already! Damn that went quick. The trip has been equal parts mooching at the in-laws whilst leisurely filling in the days and equal parts travelling around the UK and continental Europe.
Week 1 (14-20 Jan)
We bused up to Sydney airport on the Monday afternoon, and stayed in the airport hotel for a 6:30am flight out to Dubai. With much more gear than we ever travel with - enough to cater for all 4 seasons, camping, running missions, pack rafts and presents - we felt like we were off for an adventure.
Arriving into the UK on a Tuesday night - the jetlag was gentle (thanks to Business class R&R) and I was quickly into the early to bed, early to rise routine. The first few days were relatively mild - and a nice escape from the Australian heatwave that had been accosting us in Canberra. I settled into further exploring and running the trails in the forests directly behind Denises parents. A loop of the “backyard forest” is about 10k, and there are many neighbouring forests, trails, bridleways and public footpaths that can take you in most directions. Unlike last year, without too much rain, the dirt trails were relatively free of shoe sucking bogs.
On the Thursday night we hung at Nicolas place in Reading, and on Friday Denise and I did a long walk up on chalk on the Ridgeway trail. The day was freezing - but the walk was nice and as the terrain was so easy our pace was fairly brisk all day. We finished at about the 20k mark early - and got back to Nicolas via Newbury by early afternoon.
I took the quick train from Reading into London on Saturday to catchup with a good friend Will. I had a few hours exploring a couple of areas of London on my own which was nice. Will and I then caught up in a classic boozer in the heart of posh London with an eclectic jukebox that would bounce between dueling customers sense of taste and patience. After a few pints and a meal, we finally settled to hustle out to a mate of Wills who was having a poker night. We walked in mid-game, and it was a nicely wild affair. Friendly people, cranking music, smoke-filled and an over-flow darts board for those not in the game!
Denise headed down to London on Sunday to catch up with a friend of hers, so I met up with her for a nice early lunch at Ethos, before I headed back to Reading. From Reading I snuck in a wonderful run along the canal bathed in winters sun, and streaming good music.
Week 2 (21-27 Jan)
On the Monday Denise and I made plans to meet up at the Cunning man pub on the Kennet canal. She had acquired the loan of her sisters mountain bike, and I would make it there on foot. It turned into a 16k one-way haul; and what felt like a longer 16k return after a meal and a pint. Vegan has become a trend - so a lot of places had a “Veganuary” menu throughout January - a bonus for us as more nice options opened up.
On the Wednesday I got a good longish-run in and explored Banyans enclosure. This had some lovely trails and trees to run through. On the Thursday we picked up the bikes and rolled through back roads to Longmills for a guiness or a cup-of-tea, depending on your cup of tea.
We escaped the quiet of Pamber Heath for Nicola’s place Thursday night - so we could escape on Friday afternoon for a road trip to Manchester and the CAMRA beer festival. We stayed in a lovely airBNB in the old perfume factory and walked into the event Friday evening for a few hours for our entree of drinking. The next day, after breakfast in town we re-entered the cavernous hall for 7 hours of sampling cask ales. This was again an awesome event, and hangovers were avoided which is a double win!
On Monday night we returned to Reading so that we could easily get a coach on the Tuesday morning to Heathrow for our flight to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam we were staying with our good friends Martin and Sonja. As Martin is a teacher he was away on a school camp, so we met Sonja after she finished work and took her out to the Volkshotel restaurant on the top floor near their house. This was a delightful start to our time in Amsterdam, with a dj playing relaxed music, lovely food and a cracker of a view out across Amsterdam.
I laced up on Wednesday morning for a run up the Amstel, and then took the liberty to pop into Tweed Kamer to enjoy the Dutch tolerance. Hopefully the ACT will progress this issue in the next month when it votes on liberalising possession and growing. The afternoon we spent in the Amsterdam museum followed by the fascinating Church in the Attic.
On Thursday Denise and I travelled down to Delft to see Mishka for dinner. It was another freezing day - so we combined walking with visits to shops and cafes for warmth. We had a lovely but unofortunately too brief dinner (parental duties beckoned) at a local eet-huis.
By this stage impromptu plans were firming up to have a road-trip to the Beligan Ardennes with Martin and Sonja on Friday for the weekend. We booked an airBNB in Stavelot - a simple few hours drive from Amsterstdam. When we arrived we were in thick snow, and staying on a road out of town that was part of the old Belgian F1 race track. The town was quaint - and that night we strolled around and had a nice mix of pizza’s at the local Italian restaurant, with a night-cap at the local bar.
The next morning I got out early to explore the rail trail above our accomodation for a morning run. The snow up off the road was probably 20+ cm deep, deep enough to slow me down, but not so deep it wasn’t fun or practical without snowshoes. Later that day we all setoff on a mission to visit the local brewery Brasserie de Belevaux. It turned into a longer than anticipated 3 hour walk.
Once we finally arrived we grabbed a beer and a bite to eat, then improvised with our patchy French to see if a taxi could collect us and return us back to Stavelot. One was found after a few tries, and despite a steep 40 Euro price, it was worth it to ferry us and our takeaways home.
We returned to Amsterdam early on Sunday so we could meet up with Wendy and Roland. We had a lovely walk around a large park outside of Amsterdam and returned via Veesp, a town older than Amsterdam, where we snuck in a sneaky beer in the local bar.
We visited, briefly, the Rijks museum on Monday and spent the remainder of our time walking the city and exploring Denise’ old haunts and memories of Amsterdam. On the Wednesday morning we said our goodbyes and caught our train to Cologne. The trip only took a couple of hours and we arrived at lunchtime to check-in. I explored a bit through a loop run - down and then up - the Rheine. In the late afternoon we both headed out to explore the city including the impressive Dom. We tucked into some Canadian streetfood (poutine and a salad bowl) and walked over the main rail bridge to the viewing tower on the other side of the river.
Denise then retired to catchup on sleep and I went to find Papa Joe’s Jazz bar (the venue I had been to when last in Cologne almost 20 years ago). After a quick and disapointing drink here I sniffed out a local craft beer venue and settled into a few of their lovely beers.
The next morning I snuck in a quick run exploring another part of the river before we lined up for our next train up to Berlin. This train flew along at up to 250kph, and the 5 hour journey passed easily in our comfortable first class seats. We had 3 nights booked in Berlin - staying at the Hotel Hackersmarkt. We easily bought tickets on our smartphone to jump a S-bahn train to our station and the short walk to our hotel. We had an upgrade too into an attic room with a large lounge.
We had a date for a vegetarian degustacion at the well awareded Kopps restaurant soon after we arrived. So we promptly spruced ourselves up and strolled through the neighbourhood to the restaurant. We ordered the 7 course option and I took up the paired drinks. The restaurant was stifflingly hot, but the food was delightful. The smoked lentils was the highlight as was the yuzu drink.
The following day we made our way by the U-bahn to find the Berlin underground tours. We joined a tour of the air raid shelter that was not destroyed after the war as it sat above the U-bahn line. From here we walked into the park to walk up a flokturm (a hill that has enveloped a pile of rubble amassed from all the destroyed buildings in WWII) for a good view out across the city. Based on a conveniently found walking map we headed to the Brandenburg gates, before walking our way back through museum island and through the shops of the Mitte district we were staying in. We discovered through this map ecoalf - a nice concept including the pretty cool collapsable helmet.
The evening we opted for a mexican place we had waked past the previous night. Very prompt service, large servings and good food. To wind up a wild Friday night in Berlin I made a bee-line for the Mikkeler bar. A very relaxed and contemporary bar - with 20 beers on tap, mostly from Mikkeler but with a couple of NZ guest beers. After tasting a couple of their sour beers (spontaneous sour, and cherry sour) I moved onto some brown and scotch ale. Yum.
On Saturday we visited the “best Melbourne breakfast in Berlin” - and funnily enough got served by an Ozzy too. Our plan for the day was to hire a bike and go exploring. We opted for the on-street bikes by Donkey Republic to hoon around on. Our travels took us out to the impressively large Tempelhoff - an old airport that was given over to open space for the community. Despite the blustery cold wind - a lot of walkers, cyclists, runners and everything in-between enjoying the space. Following this we headed to the Espionage museum, the Großer Tiergarten, the Siegessäule (Victory Column), and back via the Berlin Wall memorial. Dinner was easy burgers at the Vegan Kitchen, followed by a return to Mikkeler for a few nice beers as a nightcap.
Sunday I took the opportunity to sneak in a final run - and headed to Volkspark Friedrichshain park to find a couple more flokturms to run up for a hint of vertical gain. A nice run, and finished just as the rain set in. We checked out and grabbed a quick coffee and breakfast and headed off to the airport for our mid-day flight back to Heathrow. After landing we picked up our “compact” hire car for the next week and a half; although it seems we got an upgrade as we have a “compact” SUV instead. Nice to be mobile and have the option of where and when we head places.
… and that’s it… a month away - stay tuned as soon another month will have gone and in that time I will have been to Wales (twice), Norway and Sweden.
The year started with me drunkenly crumpled on the bitumen after spectacularly missing any cognition of a crossbar in a carpark and sumersaulting myself off my bike. Fortunately the rest of the year was less incompetent and bruising, and 2019 started with no hangover and an early run. Winning!
Our major improvement to our home this year was to finally act on having our bathroom replaced. We had the plans drawn up years ago - but had defered doing anything about it for a number of years. When work kicked of in mid August we expected we would be without our only bathroom for a few weeks. It turned into a couple of months; so we got well acquanted with our local public toilets. Despite everything the company doing the work did a quality job despite being shit communicators - and the layout, fitings and light filled room is now much betteror. That’s also the last major thing we had to do to our house - so we can get back to squirelling money away for a rainy day (or a holiday home).
I spent my second year on the Wybalena Grove Executive Committee. It’s been mosty fun - except for the bits involving a dispute with an owner and the protracted use of engineers and lawyers. One of the most succesful parts of the year was seeing the Grove finally getting a community garden. The garden beds have only been in for a couple of months but are already brimming with vegetables, fruit and brassica. Our tiny 1mx1m plot has already given us a fair swag of lettuce - and aside from some garlic bulbs tucked in there will lie dormant for the first half of 2019.
I set myself a goal of increasing my yearly mileage by another 500k this year to 3000km. That was going to require a pretty consistant 60+ km / week. As you can see below I’ve hit my target with a very consistant year, which I was pleased with.
I’ve only had one injury - a badly rolled ankle 12 days out from Ultra Trail Australia. That injury, along with my headspace caused my first DNF. A good learning experience - and a step on the path to completing my first 100k race later in the year - at the Hume and Hovell ultra.
I took part in three main races this year - plus a 3rd in the mixed team Sri Chinmoy Canberra 105 relay event.
I bought 3 pairs of shoes this year (*), my current stock on rotation is looking pretty good:
Inov-8 Trailroc 285 (1173 km)
Inov-8 Trailroc 245 #2 (1215 km)
La Sportiva Arkasha (784 km)
La Sportiva Mutant (340 km)
New Balance Vazee Summit * (313)
La Sportiva Lycan * (169)
Altra Lone Peak 4.0 * (13k)
Next year I should have plenty of time to lace up and explore new places on the trails (or roads where I have to). This should build up to the 5 day Dragons Back Race along the length of Wales, taking in all the mountains in late May. 315k, 15000m of climbing, and an unmarked course - should be epic and a real challenge.
Early in 2018 Dense and I took a few weeks to see her family, and our friends in Europe. The trip was excellent - despite Denise picking up a nasty flu that kept her in bed for a chunk of our time at the parents. A full write-up of our trip is here. We did realise during the trip that we should try to spend some more time closer to Denise’ parents for a while. This spurred on our always planned, but never enacted Australian privilege of taking Long Service Leave. We both locked in a mix of Long Service Leave and annual leave - at half pay - and locked in 6 months of travel in early 2019!
The trip is coming up fast now - with everything important booked for the first couple of months, with arrangements to visit Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Norway, Stockholm planned. We then in mid March head to Peru for two full months of treking and touring around the whole country! On our return to the UK (post Brexit?!) in mid-May I then have my Dragons Back race. That just leaves June, and some milder weather where we will play it by ear. Should be grand. Expect more updates on here as I go.
Denise and I just got back from a long overdue trip down to Tassie over xmas. It was a terrific trip - we got in a lot of walking, relaxing, catching up, and obligitory food and drink. Of particular note we managed a couple of excellent walks out to Cape Huay and Cape Raoul.
A lot less reading this year for some reason. I’m sure I’ll rectify that with a lot of long bus rides, air travel and lounging at the in-laws. The virtual bookshelf this year consisted of the following (although I swear I’ve forgotten a book or two!)
Not many adventurous beers brewed this year - but my method is simple and the results are reliably good. I’ll need a new brew bag next year when I return - as my long standing one is now a bit clogged and slow to drain.
Very few tech purchases this year :( but the one I did acquire I am very pleased I did - the Garmin inReach mini. This tiny satellite based GPS and Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) also supports two way SMS/email communication with friends and family. Super useful when out on very long and remote missions - where a simple checkin can make a huge difference. If your interested - this is a great write up of it’s features.
Here’s some other awesome things I discovered in 2018:
CAMRA real ale festivals in the UK are brilliant. I should get to go back to the Manchester one again this year link
Dan Whitehead is worth following on youtube - brilliant quality videos, and takes in the best of good food, good trails and good coffee.
Dan put me onto Ciele hats - and I confess they are really good