Saturday, 24 December 2011

It doesn't rain but it pours

In yesterday’s blog I opened by saying how distinctive Africa is, and how you are on the continent as soon as you land at the airport. Well scratch that. Flying into Johannesburg is just like flying into any other airport around the world. It doesn’t smell of Africa, it isn’t dusty, there are no crowds of people, and we didn’t even have to queue at emigration. Did I board the correct plane? Being white doesn’t make me stand out as a tourist, though I’m yet to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. One thing that’s the same though is that nobody knows when the buses leave, or in fact any are travelling today.

It turns out that the last bus from the airport to Potchefstroom (Potch) left at 1pm, and I need to take a taxi to the main station in Johannesburg and hopefully catch a bus from there. It turns out that I get the last available seat for 3 days! I joke that it’s the luck of the Irish – something that maybe I should learn to be less reliant on.

The trip to the bus station was something of a disappointment. Again, there is nothing of the sort of chaos that I would have associated with a major African city, especially not one as notorious as this. In fact, it seems quite a safe and inviting city. But perhaps there in lies the danger.

I can’t tell you much of my trip to Potch; I slept the whole way. And I arrived in a massive thunder storm. As with the rest of Africa; when it rains here, it sure knows how to rain. Familiarity at last!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Back in Africa

Just before 7am this morning (local time), I landed in Ethiopia. It’s strange how distinctive landing in Africa is. Airports the world over tend to have a similar feel and look to them, but somehow airports in this part of the world are different. Maybe it’s the mayhem, maybe it’s the people, but whatever it is you know that you have arrived on the Dark Continent.

It’s been just over a year since I was last in Addis, and I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. The sun rises early in Africa and even at that time in the morning the sun has already risen over the horizon, lighting the beautiful plateau to the south of the city, the hills on which the city is build, and the Mountain peaks which surround it. Although I’m curious to see if it has changed at all, and to see how much of what was countryside last time I was here has been developed. No time for that though, as I am on my way to Johannesburg.

I’ve just boarded the plane, and it would appear that after all these years of flying, I have finally got my first upgrade. Not that business class is any different to economy on Ethiopian Airlines, apart from the fact that both classes are separated by a set of toilets. It’s essentially the same as getting an upgrade on an AirLingus flight. You get to sit closer to the front of the plan, and can see into first class, and ‘what you could have won’. I won’t complain though, and either way there is more room than there was on the sardine tin in which we travelled from London.

The trip so far has been reasonably uneventful, though as usual I left most things until the last minute. I was almost at the station in Stratford when I realised I had left my passport in the office, and when I did get to Heathrow and make my way through security, it took me a while to work out that I was in fact sitting at the wrong gate. Apart from that, there’s been no major problems.

Actually, the longer I sit on this plane, the more I realise that this isn’t even business class – it’s economy class seats in the area of the plane where the business class seats would normally be. Maybe the flight upgrade gods will finally recognise my face and give me a seat with a bit more leg room for the flight from Ethiopia back to Heathrow.

But that’s a few weeks away still, and now I must put away the laptop so that we can fly to Johannesburg. South Africa here I come.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Brunei Stopover

Today, a very long stopover has allowed me to explore a small piece of Asia for the first time. Brunei is a small country which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia. In fact it previously owned the whole island, but gave away part of the land to its neighbours.

Today Brunei, or Negara Brunei Darassalam to give it its full name, is the last Malay Sultanate, and one of three monarchies ruled by dynasties claiming descent from Prophet Mohammad. Unsurprisingly, the country is 80% Muslim, though claims tolerance of other faiths. English is the second language and widely spoken. Its proud history is evident in some of the most beautiful mosques in South-East Asia. The country has rich sources of oil and natural gas, the residents pay no income tax, the crime rate is very low, and money collected for the poor went undistributed for years because they simply couldn’t find any poor to give it to.

Having it's own oil supply and no taxes, means that fuel prices in Brunei are low (1$ is worth less than 1€!)

The literal translation of the country’s name means Abode of Peace, and the residents definitely seem happy and proud of their country. The government is stable, residence have one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, and a life expectancy of 75 years. Despite its location, Brunei is free from tropical diseases, lies outside the typhoon belt, is not prone to earthquakes and does not have volcanoes, but best of all it is not at all crowded. The 5,765-square kilometre kingdom, three-quarters of which is virgin rainforest, is home to less than a half a million people, and many of them live in the largest water village in the world in the country’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

It is the capital and its surrounds, rather than the rainforest, which I had the opportunity to explore today, and here are some of the photos from my tour.

His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah is the 29th ruler of the world’s oldest continuously reigning dynasty. His official residence is the largest residential palace in the world. At 2000,000 square metres (compared with the 77,000 square metres of Buckingham Palace), it has 1,788 rooms, a 110-car garage, and a lot of gold!

Despite its size, however, it’s difficult to get a good view of the palace. This is the best shot that I managed.

The Royal Regalia Building is basically a museum to the Sultan and his Kingdom. There were numerous royal relics on display, presents he has received from foreign leaders, and chariots used in royal processions, including this one from the Coronation in 1968.

The Jame ‘Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque is the largest in Brunei, and has 29 golden domes, one to represent each of the kingdom’s sultans. It is just one of a number of fine mosques in the small city.

It is obvious from the mosques and that palaces that this is a very wealthy country, and that they are not afraid to spend a few bob on a bit of gold here and there. The best demonstration of the country’s wealth, however, I feel is the fact that Queen Elizabeth II has her own house here. The large villa was built especially for her visit here in 1972, and today is unoccupied apart from the maid, chef, cleaner and gardener who maintain the property in wait for when she may decide to make a return visit.

Despite no longer being a fishing people, many of the city’s population still choose to live in the water village. On the city side of the river there is a large parking area full of cars. This is where the water village people park the cars which they use to travel to and from work. They live in the stilted houses out of choice rather than necessity. From the outside the water village looks something of a shanty town, but that is far from the case. The tour gave me the opportunity to see inside one of the houses, and inside it is very comfortable indeed. All houses have running water and electricity, and many have satellite dishes too. This is far from a shanty town.

From what I’ve seen Brunei is a beautiful country; probably one of Asia’s best kept secrets. Next time I’ll hopefully get to do some monkey spotting. I hear they’ve got some orangutans around here!

Melbourne and more

Knowing that I had a day in Melbourne before I set out on my journey back to London, I had hoped to be able to bring you a photo-tour of Australia’s second city. Alas, it rained all day, and apart from a few grey photos, I have little photographic evidence of the city.  In fact, apart from fuzzy hair, a great Mexican meal, and some cheap and tacky souviners, I have little to show at all.

At least I made it this far though. When I got to the train station in Albury yesterday neither of my debit cards would work. I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the ticket, but when I phoned the bank they had no explanation other than that they though there was a link problem between the UK and Australia, something that only time would fix. Luckily I had got to the station early, and I had time to wait, but when, after 3 hours it still didn’t work, I wasn’t sure what to do. Luckily, when I explained the problem, the lovely people at the ticket office sold me a child’s fair. I didn’t mind pretending I was 14 for the day.

The weather was nice when we left Albury, but the skies were becoming greyer and greyer as we approached Melbourne. As we were steadily making our way towards the outskirts of the city, the heavens opened, and we could see quite a sever electrical storm in the distance. Unfortunately, soon after the lightening caused the signals ahead to fail and the train was stopped in the middle of nowhere. The train manager announced that there was a problem, and that they had no idea when it would be fixed; nothing to do but wait. All-in-all we were about two hours late arriving in Melbourne, and nobody died, but why did I get the crazy woman to sit beside?

Speaking of crazy, what is it with Australians walking around in public with no shoes on? On my first evening here, I noticed a girl in a shop in her bare-feet, and though I thought it was a bit odd, thought that there was a sensible reason behind it. The next week while I was staying at the AIS, I saw some teenagers walking from the pool with no shoes on; I guess after swimming and with not far to walk, there was little point in putting shoes on. But yesterday, in the heavy rainfall, I walked about a half a mile behind a guy, probably in his early twenties, with no shoes on his feet. Later I saw another man walking down the street with nothing on his feet. I guess when the alternative is a pair of flip-flops, what’s the point?

And, so like all other good things, the Australian leg of my travels has come to an end. I fell while running, had the obligatory airport hiccup, had money issues and spotted a native animal, none of which a trip would be complete without. There was excitement, relaxation, solitude, joy and a lot of training, and finally the itchy feet to be integrated back into society. And best of all there were no snakes. A good trip all round!

There never were any more kangaroo sightings for me to get a photo of. The moral of the story may be to ALWAYS have your camera with you, but I’d rather think that it is that it is greater to have appreciated for just one second the wonder of nature, than to have missed it just to get a photo to remind you for a lifetime that you didn’t fully acknowledge the moment. Of course, if you can have both it’s even better!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Some things you may not have known about Australia

Australia is a strange country. In many ways it is very American, so much so that it’s difficult sometimes to remember its distinctly British past, and continued (yet complicated) connection with the Monarchy and Commonwealth. Indeed, British and American ‘cultures’ collide in a seemingly bazaar way. The money has the queen’s head on it, and looks very British, but yet is called dollars. Everyone drives an SUV or four-wheel drive, the trucks look American, and the streets and avenues are distinctly American. The traffic lights and street signs are just like what you’d expect to find in America, but they drive on the left. The TV channels show infomercials to outrival the Americans themselves, but they also seems to have a distinct affinity with British programmes. The country is a mishmash of cultures all rolled into one, but their pronunciation of vowel sounds is distinctly their own. Nobody can take blame for that.

Being here has made me realise how little I know about this country/island/continent. Here I put forward some interesting facts about Australia that you probably didn’t know, or at least that I didn’t know, or at least fully comprehend, before I arrived here.

1. It is very, very, very big! I have often heard people say that Australia is a very big place and that the cities are very far apart. It’s only since I came here that I realise just how big it is. On the map Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney look very close together, just like Liverpool, Chester and Manchester. The reality is a whole lot different. If you had an afternoon to spare, cycling between these three English cities wouldn’t be completely out of the question. It would take more like a week just to cycle from Melbourne to Canberra. At over seven and a half million square kilometres, Australia is the 6th biggest country in the world (behind Russia, Canada, China, United States and Brazil). It is the largest borderless country in the world, and the largest country wholly in the Southern Hemisphere.

2. There are very few people here! Well, 22.8 million may not sound like very few, but that’s only about 3 people per square kilometre, and given the disproportionate number of people who live in the main cities in the south and east, there are large parts of the country with nobody at all…and beautiful towns like Falls Creek, which in November is practically isolated from civilisation.

3. It is the flattest continent. Only six percent of the Australian land mass rises above 600m. The highest point is Mt Kosciuszko in New South Wales at 2,228m. By contrast the average altitude of the whole of the North West of Kenya is more than 2,000m. Makes me wonder why I’ve bothered coming here for altitude training – oh yes, the beautiful, quite isolated town of Falls Creek perhaps!

4. Australians are very good at sport. Relative to their population, Australians are among the most successful sportspeople in sport. At the 1996 Olympics, for example, Australians won 3.78 medals per million of population, two and a half times better than Germany, the next best performer, and despite being only the 52nd largest country by population, finished 5th on the medals table. What makes this even more impressive is the fact that their top sports are listed as Footy (Australian Rules), Cricket, Rugby league, Horse Racing and Surfing, none of which are Olympic sports. They excel in almost every sport. There are even three dozen Australians playing baseball in the United States.

5. It’s a dangerous place. Three Quarters of the world’s most venomous snakes can be found in Australia. However, only a small number of people live in prime snake habitats, and India experience thousands more snake-related fatalities each year (remind me to scratch India off my list of places to visit). Australia is also home to many more of the world’s deadliest creatures, including crocodiles, at least two types of spider with potentially fatal bites, and the highly venomous box jellyfish which can paralyse heart muscle in an instant. On the upside (I think), however, you are apparently more likely to be killed by a bee sting, or drown while surfing, than be killed by shark attack in Australia. Still, take care out there boys and girls.

Barefoot Runner

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a bit of a bookaholic. Unfortunately, however, I seem to buy far more books than I ever get a chance to read. Travelling allows me the time to catch up. And so, after completing Bill Bryson’s Down Under, I tackled Barefoot Runner, the life of double Olympic Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila as told by Paul Rambali.

I like my book choice to reflect my travels, and when they’re not about travelling itself, they are usually about runners from some of the countries I’ve been to. In truth I had meant to read this book when I was in Ethiopia twelve months ago, but get round to it - better late than never.

Bikila was the first of the great African runners, and his efforts in winning the Rome marathon while running barefoot heralded the start of the golden age of African distance runners. The book is an interesting insight, not only to the life and times of Bikila and his coach, but also gives the reader some idea of the history and life of Ethiopia at that time. How Bikila came to be competing at an Olympic Games in the first place involves more than a couple of cases of good luck and being in the right place at the right time. Getting to a second Olympics was even more fortunate.

Bikila had more than a small part to play in changing the face of African distance running, and putting Ethiopia on the map. The story is highly recommended to anyone interested in the success of East Africa athletes. I just wish I’d read it before I visited Addis 12 months ago.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

I'm in Heaven

I’m not sure if it’s the clear blue sky, knowing that winter is setting in back home, the peace and the tranquillity of this hillside town, the fact that I’ve spent the last week on a career counselling course mostly contemplating my future, the novelty of my own company and the sheer and utter freedom that comes with being on the road again, but right now as I sit on a rock in the warm sunshine and light breeze on the edge of Rocky Valley Lake, I could be a thousand miles from the hustle and bustle of London. In fact I’m many thousand miles away, but I’m sure you know what I mean. I feel like I’m on a different planet. I know it’s only my first day in Falls Creek, and that two more weeks of my own company could well change my mood, but for now all that could break the euphoria is if a snake crawled from under this rock that I’m sitting on.

It would have been easy for me to skip Falls Creek and to justify omitting it from my travels because Australia is so far from anywhere else in the world and that the likely readers of my book either live a few too many time zones away, or already know of the magic of the place. As recently as Thursday, when sorting out a transfer from Albury was proving difficult, I almost gave up on getting here. In fact when I arrived in Albury yesterday and thought that I’d missed my connection, I was pondering what other ways I could fill two weeks in Australia. As we drove to the town yesterday evening, I was very much thinking that I was doing this to tick a box and ensure that Australia at least featured in the book. Arriving after 6pm I failed to find an open supermarket and struggled to find a restaurant open at this time of year. I sensed that this could be a very long two weeks.

But each dawn brings a new day, and after an incredibly enjoyable morning run, I had a relaxing breakfast and green tea in a restaurant around the corner, read some more of Bill Bryson’s excellent ‘Down Under’ and bought some groceries in one of the local supermarkets. Now I’m out on an afternoon walk to get some photographs and I find myself sitting and smiling at the beauty of this place. The true wonder of the world lies in the beauty of the unexpected.

Today, life is very good.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Skippy and Friends

I’ve been in Canberra a few days now, staying at the Australian Institute of Sport, and carrying out most of my training in the eucalyptus forests that adjoin the institute. So far all the wildlife that I’ve spotted was two common rabbits (yes they have them here too*), and a few colourful birds. At least that was until this morning.

I was about 25 minutes into my run around the mountain bike trails through the forest. Given the unevenness of the trail, my reputation for falling over, and the possible risk of stepping on a snake, I was paying close attention to the trail ahead, when suddenly something leapt up beside me, in much the same way a sheep would do if she noticed you only when you were right up close to her… and then bounced away. Yes, it was a kangaroo!

I’ve never seen a kangaroo outside of the zoo before, so it was pretty exciting to be this close to one. I paused a moment as it bounce off out of sight, and then continued with my run. I saw another one about two minutes later, standing about 20 metres away, observing its surroundings. I went back to the accommodation with a huge smile on my face, excited to tell everyone else what I’d seen. It transpired that this wasn’t such a rare sighting, and Marie, the only other non-Aussie in the group had spotted four of them when she was doing her session on the edge of the forest.

Later today when I was out for my afternoon run, I spotted a whole field of kangaroos and their joeys in a field basking in the sun. There must have been 20 or 30 of them. I quickly ran back to my room and picked up the camera. Alas when I returned they had all disappeared without a track. Oh well, if they’re that common, no doubt I’ll see plenty more of them!

Getting here wasn’t without its minor difficulty. After finally reaching Melbourne and making my way to the hotel in which I would hopefully set about overcoming jetlag, I learned that Qantas had grounded all flights for the foreseeable future. Great! I had a the last minute chosen Qantas over Virgin for the internal leg of my journey to Canberra. Luckily, rivalry between the two companies meant that Virgin had put on extra flights to cover the strikes and I would only be delayed by about an hour. I didn’t know that at the time, however, and there was a small bit of panic before I finally got to sleep. But then it would be a real adventure without a little bit of a hiccup here and there.

Canberra itself is a strange city. Specifically designed and built as the new seat of the federal parliament to end rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney shortly after the union of the six colonies, the majority of the central area is taken up by government buildings, museums, and a huge artificial lake named after the city designer Walter Burley Griffin. Griffin won an international competition to design the city, and with the help of his wife Marion, an architectural artist, designed a city for 75,000 in the early 1900s.

Approximately 900 square miles of land which surrounded the former farming community was ceded by New South Wales to form the Australian Capital Territory, a federal area similar to the USA’s District of Columbia. Today the city is home to just 400,000 people, definitely on of the least crowded cities I ever been to. Its airport is small, its only railway connection runs to Sydney, and it lies more than 40 miles from the main Sydney to Melbourne highway. Travel writer Bill Bryson (I’m reading his humorous and informative Down Under at the moment) describes Canberra as ‘not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it.’

The simple and beautiful design for the city was formulated by Griffiths and his wife purely from topographical maps of the area (the Griffiths had never been to Australia), and when they travelled there in 1913 to put the plan into action, they were met with difficulties surrounding the First World War, and a lack of enthusiasm and funds. Griffiths died in 1937, and never saw the completion of his greatest plans, though the remainder of Canberra was built on his ‘floor plan’ of avenues, roundabouts and imposing lake.

Today, staying at the Institute of Sport just ten minutes drive from Canberra’s centre, it’s difficult to believe that I’m on the edge of the capital city of one of the largest countries in the world. It’s a very long way from the overcrowded, sprawling mass that is London.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Adventures Recommence

Greetings from Brunei! After a far-too-long break from my travels, the training kit, camera, laptop and a rather optimistic pile of reading have been bundled into a suitcase, and here I am two thirds of the way to Australia. I’m not quite as unorganised as I was for my trip to Mexico 18 months ago, but I’m not far off. It turns out that working full time and organising travels at the same time is a skill that’s I haven’t fully developed yet, but at least I know where I’m staying the first night this time around (but only since Thursday).

First I have a residential in Canberra to do as part of the world’s longest-running graduate certificate (a reflection on me, and my inability to complete the requirements rather than the actual structure of the course), and then it’s off to Falls Creek for two weeks of altitude training.

Prior to the course and the book, Australia was never really on my hit-list of places to visit. Not because I don’t want to see the country, or meet the people, but rather the thought of sitting on my bum in a confined space for 24 hours just to get there is a long way from my idea of fun. Some of my colleagues asked me earlier this week if I smoke – the most logically reason they could come up with why I am always so keen to take the post to the post room. The real reason is, of course, a lot more logical. I don’t like to sit down for long periods of time! Not a great trait for someone that likes travelling so much (of course when we say we like travelling, we actually mean we like being in different places and seeing new parts of the world rather than actually enjoying the process of being transported through the sky from one country to another). Anyway, I’m two 8 hour flights into getting there, and I’m not going to give up now. Just another 7 hours to go and I’m there. Easy! Or at least it is to do it once. Getting back on the plane to do it all in the opposite direction will be the real challenge.

In the meantime, I will hopefully have interesting things to write about again. Not that living in East London is not interesting - in fact there is barely a dull moment - but it’s more about living life on the edge rather than living the life. My life is in the lap of the gods each time I leave the house, and if I don’t nearly collide with a car, a pedestrian crossing the road with his back to the traffic, or another cyclist who thinks that the rules of the road don’t apply to him, then it’s been a successful day. Brushes with death on the roads of London don’t make for the most interesting of reading, so hopefully in the coming weeks I’ll have interesting things to write about without my life being endangered.

But before I get to the interesting stuff it’s time for an update on my running – boring I know, but it keeps everything in context. In one of my last posts I mentioned that I would be doing a half marathon again soon. The safe target was to break 90 minutes; but in the back of my mind I knew that I wouldn’t be happy unless I broke 85. And so I lined up alongside (well ok, slightly behind) Haile Gebreslase at last weekend’s Great Birmingham Run. Just being in the same race as my running idol really motivated me – perhaps a little too much – and I was lucky not to pay badly for my over exuberance in the first mile. Unfortunately my watch didn’t start so I wasn’t completely sure what time I was on for until I had just 400 meters left to run. With a huge smile – which probably looked more like a grimace that that stage – I crossed the line in 1 hour 24 minutes and 4 seconds. Mission accomplished! This followed a 61 second personal best over 5km in September, and a time that was just 1 second outside my best at the National Road Relays two weeks ago. I’m not quite back to my best yet, but not far off now. Any it feels very good.

Anyway, time to go and sit on my bum so more. Australia here I come!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Hannah England Caption Competition Special

I remember in 2006 looking at the GB athletics team that had just been slected for the Olympics and being absolutely gutted for Hannah England that she was not on her way to Beijing.  Twelve months later she appeared to have done everything she could have to gain selection for the World Championships in Berlin, but again she was overlooked.  Today as she won silver at the World Championships in Daegu, those selection disappointments seemed like a lifetime ago.  The apparent effortlessness with which the world's best athletes stride to victory hides numerous hurdles and setbacks that they have encountered and endured.  Hannah is no different.

I had the pleasure of working with Hannah during my four years at Birmingham and of training at altitude with her in Mammoth Lakes last spring.  Not that I can take any credit for Hannah's success today.   She rarely needed my help during her time as a student, and she dropped me on all but one of the runs that we did in Mammoth.

But what I can say is that I knew her before she was famous.  And because you all seem to like the caption competitions, I thought that I'd do a little Hannah England special.  The photo was taken when we were altitude training in Mammoth.

My attempt is an adaptation of my favourite 'fat mama' joke: 'this girl is so fast she has to wear two for each time zone', but I'm sure we can do better than that.  Add your suggestions as a comment below, or e-mail them to me.  I'll post the best ones in a few weeks time.

Congratulations Hannah!  And for those of you that are faced with obstacles and setbacks, keep fighting!

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Successful Season draws to a Close

I'm just 3 days into my annual week-long end-of-season break, and already I'm itching to get back into training. 

The season ended with another season best at the Alexander Stadium on Saturday evening, as I  ran under 11 minutes for the 3,000m steeplechase for the first time since June 2004.  At the time it didn't seem like a very big deal. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed not to run a personal best.  I didn't feel particularly sharp, and I know that my hurdling wasn't as fluid as it's been all season.  Some hours later though I realised what I've achieved this season.  I'm not world class by any stretch of the imagination, but after seven years of struggling to get back to fitness, I'm finally running the sort of times that I did when I was 25.  The only bad race I ran all season was the 400m hurdles race that I tried to squeeze between two steeplechases two weekends ago.  I feel like I belong on the starting line now, and I'm really enjoying racing.  And I've managed it despite the anemia, dog bite, and other little injuries, and the moving home and job.  My 91st place finish at the Northern Cross Country Championships in January seems like a lifetime ago.  In fact it feels like a different person.  I'm glad I didn't quit that day.

Before I get too carried away, I realise that my PB in the steeplechase is quite a weak one and was ran in a race where I ran the first half way too fast.  I am by no means world class.  But I know that I am getting into the sort of shape that I can do myself and my talent justice, and hopefully next season I can set a personal best that is a true reflection of my ability.  Right now I feel that nothing would give me greater pleasure.

This blog was never intended to be about my training.  But part of the reason for me quitting work last year was to get back into my running, and hopefully those who have been following my blogs for the past year and a half (how can it be that long?), will appreciate what this means to me.  I like to refer to it as 'sharing the joy'; you may have your own opinion.

So where to from here?  Well I have a week off work next week, so I will be updating the website, adding some blogs for those interested in running, and making plans for the months ahead.  Then I will hopefully getting my annual leave request for next year signed off, every minute of which will involve altitude training, with a view to getting the research for the book done and dusted.  And that means that soon Egan's Adventures will be all about my travels again, just as it was born to be.

And best of all, I get back into training next week.  First up for the new season will be a half marathon.  I can't wait!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Two Chases, Two Days, Two Season's Bests

A promising start to the season, as reported in my last post, was followed by a Division 3 record for the 2,000m steeplechase at the first UK Women's League Match. I then ran some training PBs around Metchley during a session in Birmingham. I couldn't have been more optimistic about what the season ahead would hold.

Nothing ever goes to plan though, and since then I have missed some training through adjusting to life in London, pulled stomach muscles, a dead leg from running into a bollard, and a bruised knee cap from walking into the shower door. Additionally, blood tests revealed that while my haemoglobin levels have returned to normal, my ferritin levels (iron stores) are still very low. It was with considerable apprehension, therefore, that I went into one of the most challenging racing weekends of my life. I'm not averse to doing a few events in the same day, nor am I scared of racing two days in a row, but normally I can't walk for two days after doing a steeplechase. Last weekend I was attempting to do two in two days!

I left my house in East London at 5:30 on Saturday morning to fly to Dublin for the Irish Championships. There was four of us entered in the 3,000m steeplechase, and I was determined not to be the first person to do this race at the Irish Championships and not win a medal. I won bronze in 2008 and 2010, but on both occasions I was also last in the race.

I went out conservatively, and was sitting at the back of the field for the first few laps. At about halfway I realised that the gap between second and myself wasn't getting any bigger, and I soon realised that silver could be mine. I felt really strong for the last kilometre, and had a massive smile on my face as I raced down the home straight, knowing that this time round I actually deserved my national medal.

Last year as I stood on the podium I was close to tears. I knew that that I'd thrown away a national title. This time round I couldn't have been happier with my silver medal. It wasn't just atonement for last year, it made up for all the frustrations that I've experienced over the last seven years. I've had lots of highs and lows around Morton Stadium, but I don't think I've ever felt so satisfied on a warm down at this venue.

And then I saw the time! I knew that I'd ran faster than last year, but I couldn't believe that I'd ran 11:02.39. Not only is that the fastest time I've ran since 26th June 2004, but it's the 4th quickest time I'd ever done. My seven year old PB is now only 12 seconds away.

I quickly gathered my belongings, and made for the airport, and a short time later I was on my way to Liverpool. Sunday was going to be a whole new day, and two more races lay ahead of me.

With a pair of very heavy legs, I laboured around the 400m hurdles, and gratefully gathered the 3 points on offer. This was going to be a very long day!

At the previous two matches I had easily won the 2,000m steeplechase, and my current league record stood at 7:22.3, which, as I calculated at 7am that morning, isn't even as fast as 2k of my 3k chase from yesterday. If my legs would only just hold up, I could be on for something special here. Just before the race, I really got up for it, and though a little scared that my legs may let me down, was ready to try and break the record again.

I quickly got a bit of a lead, but 2 laps in realised that it wasn't getting any bigger. With just over two laps to go, somebody came past. Though I knew we were both well on schedule to smash the record, I knew that I would have to win the race to take the record into 2012. I tried as hard as I could to hold on, and did some of the best waterjumps that I've ever done, but alas it was not to be. My time of 7:14.3 would have knocked eight seconds from the record, and again it was the fastest time I've ran for the distance in seven years, but unfortunately on the day it just wasn't good enough. Cathy Ansell ran 7:12.1, to add to the 1500m, and 3000m wins that she had collected earlier in the day.

Despite the slightly bittersweet end to the weekend, I can't but be happy. For seven years I've struggled to find any sort of form, or get any sort of consistency in training. At times, I felt a little self conscious calling myself an athlete. But those times are behind me now, and someday soon I'm sure that I'll be able to say that I am faster in my thirties than I was in my twenties.

Now I just need the muscle sorness to die down a bit, so that I can crack on with training for the next challenge.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Belgrade Bliss

My most recent posts have been somewhat disappointing from a running perspective, so it is with some considerable relief that I am able to report something positive on that front.

Seven weeks ago I was contacted by Ferrybank AC in Waterford to guest in the steeplechase for them at the European Champion Clubs Cup.  As Irish League champions they would be representing Ireland in the B tier of the competition in Belgrade.  At that stage I was just recovering from my 'bought' of anemia, and I happily said I would, knowing that a competition abroad was exactly the motivation that I needed. 

Little did I know then that I would be completely sidelined for 2 weeks due to a dog bite and subsequent infection.  Anyone that does sport knows that two weeks off, just five weeks before the start of the season is disastrous preparation.  There were times, when the infection didn't look to be clearing up and I wasn't managing to get any track sessions in, that I thought I wouldn't be able to travel at all.

You can imagine my delight then when race day finally arrived on Saturday, that I was able to put in a half decent performance. The time I ran (11:28), is not going to get Ireland's top chasers worried, and the chances of me achieving the qualifying time for next year's Olympics haven't increased any, but I am very happy with my fastest season opener in seven years.  Given the far from ideal buildup, this for me is a very positive result.  My hurdling and waterjumping was the best I've ever done, and given that I've only managed 1.3 track sessions so far this year, I'm pretty optimistic that come August my personal best, which stretches back to 2004, stands danger.

The team finished second overall and have earned promotion for Ireland to the top tier of the competition next year.  Most of the athletes are in their late teens and early twenties (I was the oldest by almost 9 years), and they show great promise for the future.  It was really nice to be part of such a great team performance.

We didn't get to see much of Belgrade, though we did endure the long straight road between Budapest and Belgrade twice in the past few days.  The hotel, and the food they provided, didn't give us the best impression of the city, but even if all that the Serbian capital gave me was a reminder of the sheer joy of racing over barriers then that's enough for me.  Finding a bakery that serves the nicest pastries in the world was merely the 'icing on the cake'.

The weekend also reminded me of the challenges that face the travelling athlete.  Long journeys, far from ideal food and dealing with hot weather, are just some of the challenges that athletes face as they travel the world in search of that perfect performance.  Good planning, and taking control of situations as they arise can help overcome these minor barriers, and at the end of the day, spending a few hours at border control is a small price to pay for getting to do what we love on a daily basis. 

Five weeks ago I had 3 holes in my right calf.  There was nothing that I could have done to prevent that dog from biting me.  I can't help but think that I was lucky though, and that it could have been so much worse.  Had that dog actually liked the taste of my calf, I might have had a lot more that a few holes to worry about.  The pure pleasure of running could have been taken away from me in an instant.  Most people don't realise what they've got until it's gone.  I was lucky.  I got that wake-up call before it was too late.

In other news, I've recently landed myself a job in London.  While that means the altitude adventures will be put on hold for a while, it also means that some day I'll actually have enough money to continue with the research for the book.  The thought of living and working in London has always scared me, but now it's just another little challenge that I have to face.  From Monday next, I will be working as High Performance Sport Manager at the University of East London.  With it will come a number of challenges, but it's up to me to make the most of the situation.  The chance to live close to the Olympic Stadium in the build up to, and during, the Games will be a once in a lifetime experience.  Once I have found somewhere to live, I will be taking bids for floor space for the last week of July, and the first week of August 2012.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Some Facts about 1968 Mexico City Olympics

Now that the website is fully up-and-running, and given that I’m not training at the moment, I’m using the opportunity to catch up with writing on the book.  I’m doing a bit of background reading about the Mexico City Games, as the high altitude at which the Games were held (2,400m) resulted in the emergence of Kenya as the distance-running superpower that it is today. 

The 1968 Games were, however, memorable and significant for a number of other reasons:
  • Bob Beamon added 55 centimetres to the Long Jump world record; a record which was only eventually broken in 1991.
  • During the 200 metre medal ceremony Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze respectively, raised their black-gloved fists as a symbol of ‘Black Power’.  They were later banned from the Games for life as punishment.
  • Dick Fosbury won gold in the high jump utilising a technique which became known as the Fosbury flop, and quickly became the dominant technique utilised in the event.
  • John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, infamously finished the marathon, in last place, despite a dislocated knee.
  • The 1968 Games was the first to use fully automatic timing, and the first to use a Tartan track.  Drug testing also made its first appearance at these Olympics, though these initial searches were primarily for narcotics and stimulants.  Having drunk several beers just prior to competition Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljunwall became the first Olympian to be disqualified because of doping.

Dog Bite Update

All the optimism in the world hasn’t helped to heal my leg as quickly as I had hoped.  After almost a week of not being able to put any weight on my right leg, I was overjoyed just to be able to walk again.  The joy was short-lived however, as I realised that three of the four wounds had become infected.  I’m currently on my last day of antibiotics, and though there is no discomfort in the leg and I can run on it, a small bit of the infection remains.  With the track season kicking into action, and my season opener less than 4 weeks away, I wouldn’t mind being able to train again sometime soon! 

I don’t mean to disgust anybody out there, but this photo is purely a reminder to dog owners to keep their beasts under control.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A tattoo that I just didn't ask for

I had hoped that my next blog would be a happy one, and that I could report on some positive progress on the running front.  I guess there has been much progress, and as the iron levels return to normal, I'm definitely feeling stronger.  Alas, however, a split-second encounter with a big stupid dog yesterday evening brought all that progress to a grinding halt.

As always in these situations I was running along, minding my own business, deciding which session I was about to do.  I was thinking about how strong I was feeling, and how well things were going.  I was calculating that despite the haemoglobin setback, I could actually run quite fast on the track this season - thoughts which were solely based on 3x300m efforts that I did on the track two weeks ago, and a few good gym sessions - and thoughts of personal bests even crept into my mind.  And then, from the corner of my eye I saw the beast sprinting towards me.  I suspected I may get some hassle, but before I could react she had sunk her teeth deep into my calf.  That knocked the smug look right off my face.

I stood there half screaming, half crying, and not quite believing what had just happened.  Without having provoked the dog in the slightest, and without having time to think about what to do, my lovely calf muscle was torn to bits.  Three massive gashes right through to the muscle, and one smaller gash, all in the middle of my right calf, will surely lead to a life-long reminder of the incident.

When the doctor told me last night that I would have to take a week off from training, it didn't come as too much of a blow - I thought, 'ya right, that's what you think, I'll be back running in a few days'.  It was only this morning, as I hobbled out of my bed, that I realised she may be right.  I can't walk right now, so running may well be out of the question for a bit.

In fairness to the dog-owner, he was quite apologetic about the whole thing, and I think a bit embarrassed.  He has even offered to cover any medical expenses.  But unfortunately all the money in the world doesn't give me back the training that I'll miss, and won't take away the scars that I'll have permanently tattooed on my leg.

I've always thought that the people that get bitten by dogs were the ones that show fear.  The ones that curl up in a ball when they see a dog.  The ones that almost say, 'come on bite me so that I can hate dogs a little bit more'.  It seems that's not actually the case.  I've had several dogs snap at my heels before, but none that actually bit me.  I guess I had just been lucky, and yesterday that luck ran out.

And so, this is a plea to all dog-owners everywhere.  Please, please, please keep your dog secured.  All dogs have the potential to bite, even if they have never done so before.  My calf will recover (hopefully), but if I had been a two year old child, I could have been severely damaged for life.  Please, for the sake of runners everywhere, and for your own conscience, keep your dogs under control.

The next dog-owner that laughs when her scraggy little terrier chases me down the beach snapping at my heels may well get a piece of my mind.  Be sure that it's not you!

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Haemoglobin is our Friend

As I sit here with a slightly sore bum, I feel I owe it to those whom I have been cranky with over the past months, to explain my behaviour, and to warn all the runners out there of the perils of low iron levels.

The reason for my tender gluteus is that I’ve just received the third of a course of 10 iron injections. After some shocking race results, including my worst ever finish at the Northern Cross Country Championships in January, I had a feeling something wasn’t quite right.   Apart from slightly heavy breathing every time I ran up a hill, and a general lack of progression in training, there was nothing at that stage to suggest that I was ill. Oh there was the extreme coldness all the time, but I had just put that down to loosing weight and not being acclimatised to sub-zero temperatures. Things got worse from there on though, and slowly, one-by-one, most of the common symptoms of anaemia started to rear their ugly heads – general malice (ok, so I’m not sure what exactly malice means, but it’s one of those words you see in the medical text books relating to just about every medical condition known to man), slow recovery from training, muscle soreness and heaviness, mild chest pains, paleness, viral-like symptoms, severe headaches, crying, a mildly depressed mood, crankiness, oh and some more crying. The one symptom that I didn’t really experience was tiredness.

A blood test revealed a haemoglobin level of 10.0, and a haemotcrit level of 30%. Add to that serum ferritin levels of just 7, and it’s a wonder that I could run at all. Altitude training is supposed to increase red blood cells, but after spending 5 of the past 11 months at altitude, I’m in a worse position that I was to begin with. Not only have I wasted all that training, but the pale complexion is ruining the tan that I worked so hard to get!!!

Almost 6 years ago my progression as an athlete was completely ruined by the same problem. I went from the shape of my life, to the shape of a Joe-jogger in the space of 12 months. Now, just as I was finally getting fit again, the cycle repeats itself. I knew I had to be careful, and I knew what to look out for, and so, I have to ask myself what went so badly wrong.

I had been getting my haemoglobin levels checked every time I was ‘back-in-town’, but these failed to highlight that my ferritin levels were dangerously low. I suspect that two weeks in Ethiopia, on a diet practically devoid of any animal products, may have been the cause of the decreased iron stores. Almost 1 month, equivalent to the life-cycle of a red blood cell, after returning from Ethiopia, things started to go pear-shaped. If I had gotten a full blood screen at that point, I may have avoided the situation.

Now that things are starting to return to normal, I realise just how much my low iron levels were affecting me. I was experiencing severe muscle soreness for 4 to 5 days after each weights session that I did; now I’m back to the more normal 2 days of soreness. I don’t feel so cold all the time. And when I look in the mirror, I’m starting to see myself looking back, not some ghost-like caricature of myself.

Six years ago, my anaemia was accompanied by burnout, and because of the symptoms I was experiencing I was convinced that I had a virus which three separate doctors couldn’t diagnose. I took a month off training completely, wallowed in my own self pity, and never returned to the shape I had been in the previous year. This time round I’m far more in control of the situation. I’m running most days. While that was just 15 to 20 minutes to begin with, now I’m managing an enjoyable 40 minutes regularly. Sometimes I don’t even wear a watch, and am learning (after 16 years) to ‘run how I feel’. While I know I can’t push things, I’m determined to maintain as much fitness as I can, and, unlike before, am motivated to return to my very best.

Normal red blood cell levels are vital, not just for endurance, but for life in general. Be sure that you get your levels checked at least twice per year, and have them even more closely monitored if you are training at altitude. Beware of the symptoms, but don’t expect them to be the same in all cases. Don’t necessarily expect to feel tired.

If you want to find out more, a factsheet on iron, haemoglobin and red blood cells will be uploaded onto the website in the next few days.

If haemoglobin is our friend, mine has deserted me.  But, hopefully, not for long.

One Year a Nomad

This time twelve months ago, I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean aboard a rather cramped Continental Airlines flight to Newark, on route to St Louis Potosi in Mexico.  I'd had 20 minutes sleep (as I just finished work, and had my leaving do the previous night), had packed my bag in a massive hurry, and had not yet worked out where I was going to spend the next night.  Looking back on it all now, I can only conclude that I am indeed mad, and setting out on this adventure, as unprepared as I was, is probably the maddest thing that I have ever done.

Twelve months on, however, I realise that setting out to follow my dreams, even if I have not fully achieved them yet, is the best thing I could ever have done.  And what a twelve months they've been!  I've learned a lot about myself, though I'm not quite sure I could say that I've 'found' myself; that was never my intention.  I had hoped to have finished my travels by now, and to have the book in it's final stages, but nothing ever goes according to plan!  The fact that I'm only about 6 months behind schedule, must surely be seen as progress?  Well either way, I've had a ball so far, and just wanted to share some of the highlights:

5. That moment, about 2 minutes after finishing the Great Ethiopian Run, when I wished I could do it all over again.
4. Spotting a bear in Mammoth Lakes.
3. Surviving Mexico.  I couldn't possibly have been more unprepared!  Anything that could have gone wrong, did, and I had to put up with pretty much my own company for 2 weeks...and survived!
2. The best week of training I've had in 7 years, in Flagstaff.  It had been a long time since I last just couldn't get enough of running.  The Grand Canyon was an added bonus.
1. Though nothing to do with the Altitude Training, the 48 hours that I spent in Russia at my brother's wedding are probably the best of my life, not just of the year!  It reminded me of how lucky I am to have the family I do.

And because I haven't put any photos on here in a while, here are my 5 favourite shots from the travels so far.

To celebrate the first year of Egan's Altitude Adventures, the sister website: has just been launched.  It will contain additional information, news and advice about altitude and the forthcoming book.  Please save the link to your favourites, check back regularly, and circulate to all your running crazy friends.

I had a dream, and I followed it.  I have no regrets. 

If you have a dream, follow it today!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Da Feckers

Unless you've recently rocketed in from another planet, you'll be aware of the current state of financial and economic crisis in which Ireland finds itself. For the past two years all we've heard is 'credit crunch this', 'credit crunch that'. Then there was the whole banking crisis, the government stepping in to guarantee depositors, and the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. Back in November the Irish bailout was the hot topic across the world (it seemed to be all that I heard about in Ethiopia), and the EU/IMF deal is still making news headlines. With taxes and unemployment on the rise, everyone's complaining about having to emigrate to find employment (last I checked going to Oz to work was the cool thing to do). Then, the government fell, and for the past 4 weeks all we've heard about is the election, and how Fine Gael are going to put things right again. As if Ireland isn't enough of an international laughing stock, Jedward have been selected to represent us at the Eurovision. But today, as Fine Gael and Labour are deep in coalition talks, the main headlines drastically changed. News from Bangalore of a certain shock sporting result has got the nation talking, in only a way that Ireland's participation in a World Cup can.

I'm too young to remember Ireland's qualification for Euro'88, but I do know that their defeat of England at those championships was one of the great moments in Irish History. And I do remember learning shortly before Italia'90 that soccer was played with a round ball, which the players couldn't handle. The following year, during the 1991 Rugby World Cup I was finally able to distinguish it from rugby, the game that was played with the oval ball. Over the course of the Italian World Cup I, like the vast majority of Ireland, learned about throw-ins, corners, penalty shoot-outs, and the sheer heart-racing excitement of following a national team.

In a book entitled Feckers: 50 People who Fecked up Ireland, John Waters examines 50 influiental Irish people and details how they have each contributed to Ireland's perceived downfall. From DeVelara, to Bono and from Charles J Haughey to Louis Walsh, the rich and famous are each tried for their part in Ireland's demise. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen are implicated in the dying stages, and the final culprit is not an Irish man, but a French one. As the Hand of God II ended Ireland's hopes of another World Cup trip, so too it killed any sense of moral and pride left in this country of 'jump on the Ireland-success-at-a-world-cup bandwaggon' sportsfans.

While understanding the off-side rule in football gives me a great headstart over most females in a football conversation, any knowledge of cricket whatsoever marks me as a near expert among the Irish. And so, while everyone is excited about Ireland's dramatic and historic win over England in the Cricket World Cup today, it is the fact that we got one over on the old enemy, rather than the greatness of the achievement itself, that has the nation talking. Wickets, overs and innings mean very little, not only to the general Irish population, but to most of the sporting media too. In turth, had I not been living in England during the last World Cup, I would be as lost as the rest of them. Latith Malinga's historic 4 wickets from 4 balls in the West Indies made me want to understand this game, and 2,000 questions later I think Chris, my former landlord and housemate, has just about thought me the basics. In sport, knowledge truly does feel like power. In her excellent book, Get Her off the Pitch, Lynne Truss talks about the joy she felt when she was first able to decipher Match of the Day chat and determine who was playing who and where from club nicknames, grounds and managers. Today I got that same buzz from being one of the few to understand what 'Ireland 329-7 (49.1) bt England 327-8 (50 ovs) by three wickets' actually means!

Not only is the win over England a significant result, but the manner in which it was achieved and the never-say-die attitude of the Irish suggests that, while Thierry Henry put the final nail in Ireland's coffin, this beast may well have been burried alive. After the wicket of captain Will Porterfield was taken on the very first ball of the innings, and given that nobody has ever successfully chased a target of 328, an Irish win didn't look bleak; it looked impossible. During play, bookies were offering 400:1* for Ireland to win (of course, Ireland being the betting nation that it is, someone had €25 on at that rate), but with Ireland's Kevin O'Brien achieving the quickest century in World Cup history (50 balls), and a determined display by the rest of the team, Ireland were in with a shout. With 5 balls remaining, Ireland achieved their target, and sent Irish sports journalists, news reporters and radio deejays running straight to wikipedia to try and workout what it all means. Thank goodness Duckworth-Lewis didn't have to come into play! 

When asked, many have proposed Stuttgart, June 12th 1988, as the birth date of the Celtic Tiger. If that be so, mark Bangalore, today, March 2nd 2011, as the day that the ageing feline gave birth to cubs. I have no idea whether or not they should burn the bondholders, or even what that means, but I do know that today the Irish public found a new bandwaggon to jump on!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

The 6p Challenge

As everyone knows, I'm a little strapped for cash at the moment. But I have been gifted with some great friends. And one of those friends gifted me with 6p on Monday last. Now 6p doesn't sound like much, but it has come with a challenge. And there's nothing I like better than a good old challenge!

The condition of receiving the 6p, was that, in a 'One Red Paperclip' fashion, I would try to turn it into something of considerable value. The idea is to go through a series of swaps, whereby I always come off with a slightly better deal, until I have earned myself something valuable. The original suggestion was to gamble the money, but I'm not quite sure I would even get much of a kick out of 6p, so I'm going for the slightly less risky option.

If you have something that you want to get rid of and which you would be willing to accept 6p for, or indeed if you are in dire need of 6p and have something that I might want, then don't be shy. Drop me an e-mail, post a comment on here, or message me on twitter, and we'll see if we can do a deal. All suggestions are welcome.

You can follow my progress on here, and who knows, maybe someday I'll be a rich woman!