Best of the Best 2017

Having rediscovered this blog in recent weeks I realised I left things on a bit of a downer after the Silverstone Half, which isn’t really a fair reflection of how the last few years’ Challenges have gone. As today is the start of a New Year (and I have a few spare hours to fill) I thought it was only right to round-up how the rest of 2017 went – the best of the best if you will – and for anyone still reading to give a bit of an insight into what is to come in 2018.

For someone who has always said my weakest area is running I seem to have spent much of my time last year on foot, so in true seasonal Top of the Pops style this is a countdown of my Top 10 runs of 2017, with a few bonus rounds thrown in for good measure:

10 – Bromsgrove Fun Run

The two main reasons I started this blog in the first place were firstly to help get fitter and achieve some personal success in races, and secondly to raise some money for charity from sponsors in my long distance challenges, so when a friend from the gym announced he would not only be organising a fun run on behalf of a local refugee charity, but it would be in my local park (my first race ever on home turf) it was a no-brainer. At just 3km I would of course have to break my own ‘not-getting-out-of-bed-for-less-than-5km’ rule, but on the basis I could add a couple of km each way by running to and from the race it made it more worthwhile.

Fun Run

A few seconds into what was a rainy run, I realised I had slightly misjudged the level of competition, as I sprinted off the line leaving behind a crowd comprised mainly of children and pensioners! Still, a result is a result, and I realised I had a rare chance of a podium as this rate. In the end it did not quite happen, and I had to settle for 5th place behind a kid about a third of my age (if only the race had been longer distance!) whilst top spot was apparently taken by a Team GB quadrathlete who had also obviously not got the memo about taking it slowly. Still, a fun day out, and maybe one I can return to try again in future.

9 – London Olympic Stadium

This one goes right back to the early weeks of January almost a full 12 months ago now. Just a nice early morning run around the East End, but with a pretty memorable centrepiece running around Olympic Park and the Stadium. Despite being pretty chilly, the lights looked great – except for the pitch black ‘Greenway’ section which my workmates casually told me was also known as ‘murder mile’ later that morning – but fortunately there were not too many others about at 6am and it ended up being just me and the stadium for much of the run.

Bonus 1 – Les Mills Live London

As our fourth One Live in two years, we felt like veterans by the time this rolled around in July, longer getting lost on the way to the venue or between classes, and managing to pace ourselves to not burn out around lunchtime. I have written loads on here before about One Live, and happy to say this one was more of the same, which was a good thing. We hit all the big classes – Combat, Attack, Pump & Step – bookended with some relaxing Body Balance and a bit of Sh’bam fun.

8 – Norwich City Runs

This was a big year for City runs, and at one point  had intended to try a different one each month – until I changed jobs and stopped living in hotels like Alan Partridge for a living – but I did manage to get in a good few in the first half of the year. Talking about living in cheap hotels, I had two weeks in Norwich during the late-June heatwave, which gave some good opportunities for exploring, although the runs needed to be either first thing in the morning or late at night to avoid the most of the heat.

It is a great running city with interesting streets, a castle, football stadium and plenty of riverside paths to explore / get lost in. The second week was spent out of town in a much nicer resort with its own golf course, which naturally I had to test out on another early morning run, trying to avoid the groundsmen in their giant lawnmowers who I had convinced myself would tell me off if I went near them for running near the course.

7 – Guernsey Seaside Runs

An even more exotic destination back in March was a fortnight on the Channel Island of Guernsey, which was also surprisingly warm for the time of year. Saint Peter Port is a charming capital of sorts, and another fantastic location for some long runs around the water’s edge. Highlights included fantastic early morning sunrises over the sea, two large castles with plenty of cannons, and generally great scenery all round.

 

Bonus 2 –  Cyprus Scuba

Whilst two weeks in Cyprus was not great for running (just descending the steps to the pool made you sweat in 40 degree heat) it was a lot better for diving, after I discovered a great scuba centre right next door to my hotel. After a couple of familiarisation shore dives I managed to notch up my 50th dive (as well as achieving Master Scuba Diver status) on none other than the Zenobia – rated as the top wreck dive in Europe. With warm waters and great visibility, the near-fully intact transport ship more than lived up to expectations as we managed to swim all around and inside the vessel, joined by copious amounts of tropical fish. A couple more sessions closer to our resort culminated in my first ever night dive, which ended up turning into more of an underwater rave complete with glowsticks!

 

6 – Newcastle Night Run

Going back even further to February I had a freezing fortnight on the Toon, staying so close to the Tyne that the fog was literally all mine, misting up my hotel room window every morning. The runs though were great, and I wrote about them on here in some detail in a previous post. As usual I alternated between late evening and early morning runs, meaning I had most of the streets to myself, got totally lost (at one point missing my lift to the office after an unintentional extra 30 minute detour one morning!). Still, the parks, bridges and waterfront all looked great lit up and this was a nice way to see much of a genuinely interesting city.

 

 

5 – Silverstone Half

My first event of 2017, and covered in much detail in my last post. Looking back I am still glad I managed this, the opportunity to emulate my F1 heroes and zoom around the famous circuit, albeit with eerily empty stands! If anything it made sure I got the year off to a start, making me train though winter and teaching me some valuable lessons on pacing yourself in a race.

Bonus 3 – Iceland Expedition

Ok this one is not strictly a sports event, but I was fortunate enough to spend this Christmas in Iceland, which I would be remiss not to talk about here. Whilst the snow made it pretty impractical to do any running, we did manage to conquer a few snowy peaks on top of the county’s longest glacier Langjökull, and even venture inside at one point (wearing crampons to ensure no ice-related injuries). A fascinating and beautiful country, especially at this time of year, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in the outdoors.

Iceland

4 – Valencia Run

Back to the running world, I did manage a warmer run in April whilst spending a few days in city of Valencia in Spain. Given the weather allows for great year-round running the locals have done a fantastic job of creating interesting run routes, most notably the Turia gardens, a dried river bed that once ran through the city, which is now acres of parkland which winds around the historic old town, past the city gates and the out-of-this-world City of Arts & Sciences which has to be seen to be believed!

3 – London Top Gun

Last year seemed to be a case of either being far too hot (Cyprus, Valencia, er Norwich) or freezing cold (Iceland, Newcastle, London in January), but I did manage to get in one more hot run in London whilst working there in early July. Although I stayed in my usual place and retraced a few of my classic routes, this one was a bit special as it was my first proper ‘Virtual’ race – the Top Gun run. The idea with this was I could complete any route I liked, in any time, and upload to a website to ‘compete’ against others. I received back a finishers certificate and a pretty cool Top Gun medal, which if anything is at least the largest one I now own, if not the best looking.

 

2 – Worcester Half

My other proper half marathon last year was in Worcester, near to where I live. This ended up going a lot more smoothly than the Silverstone race, although was perhaps slightly less memorable. Closed roads made it a lot friendlier, and it did have a good atmosphere with plenty of time to chat to other runners as we completed one large loop, and learning from past experience I relaxed properly into this one, giving me a slower finish time but plenty of opportunity to take in some of the countryside in spring.

Bonus 4 – Velo Birmingham

The last of the non-run events this year was also arguably my A-Race, a 100 mile bike sportive around the West Midlands, taking in parts of Birmingham, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. In the past I could have written pages about the great atmosphere, hair-raising corners, organised pit-stops and even attempted sabotage from local protesters (yes really!), but the main thing I remember from it was hills.. endless hills. As much as I had tried to train properly for this race I had other things on my mind (see next entry) and as such I had enough stamina to get around this, but it took over 8 hours (!) and was a real killer. That said, it was a huge achievement which I would stand alongside any of my half-Ironmen on time alone, and the less said about recovery time after an entire day in the saddle the better!

Velo

1. Birmingham Marathon

So the biggie, a full marathon in my adopted home city. And what a day is was! Having completed plenty of half’s over the years, I decided it was time to step up ad bite the bullet. The good news was there was a new route which started the race in the main athletic stadium in the North of the city, before winding through to the centre. From there it turned into two loops, some of which was on the old half marathon course, although interestingly doing it backwards (clockwise rather than anticlockwise, not actually backwards as that would be crazy). This had some benefits as it meant I knew where I was going (although with 10k+ runners it would have been hard to get lost), but as per the usual rules of multi-loop races meant the second lap was guaranteed to be a real test of mental toughness.

Bham Marathon

And with some inevitability, around mile 20 a particularly short but steep hill brought on a dose of cramp and put paid to any thoughts I had been harbouring of a sub-5 hour finish. In the past I might have let that get to me, but this year I had learned from my mistakes in Silverstone, and refused to let myself worry about times – after all this was my first ever full marathon, and was taking place around the corner from where I used to live, and right next to my current office – this was too good a chance to worry about small things. So with the help of some of the best support for any race I have ever taken part in I pushed through the final few miles and made it across the line for that indescribable feeling of euphoria you only get after going through the limit. Marathon complete!

Looking Ahead

So how could that list possibly be topped? What next for 2018? Well a few days ago I realised that this was looking like the first year in half a decade where I had no races in the diary, having had to enter most of my big triathlons and marathons over 12 months ahead in some cases just to be sure of a place. In something of a panic I have managed to spend New Year booking myself onto two big outdoor events:Wolf Run & Tough Mudder. These are both off-road, trail based runs which should involve plenty of rough terrain, obstacles, and of course mud. Both should be fun, and I am sure I will be adding a few more races to the list by the end of the summer, and who knows maybe I will be able to rack up as many events as 2017. I might even write a blog about them…!

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Rhodes Cave Diving

When I think of ‘extreme sports’ my mind conjures up images of skydiving, surfing, snowboarding and the like: basically the kind of adrenaline fueled adventures Johnny Utah has in Point Break, or maybe Xander Cage in xXx. The official definition of an extreme sport (according to Wikipedia) is one which is perceived as having a high level of inherent danger, often involving speed, height, high level of physical exertion and highly specialised gear.

johnny utah

For many people (including insurance companies!), scuba diving is also classed as an extreme sport, which interests me. Despite the fact I have over 40 scuba dives to my name, some of which have been to the maximum recreational depth of 40 metres, I have never really tend to put it in the same ballpark as it’s ethos tends to be the exact opposite of the above definition – ideally you participate as slowly as possible, controlling your breathing & heart rate and generally try to take it easy. Yes, it does have some unique and specialised gear, but does that make it extreme?

That is not to say diving is not exciting – far from it – as despite the fact most of my sub-aqua adventures have taken place in freezing quarries in the Midlands, I have been fortunate enough to see some amazing things, which certainly get the adrenaline pumping, including barracudas, lobsters, eels, octopus and even sharks, as well as some amazing tropical coral and interesting wrecks. But other than a slightly elevated heartbeat, these have all been on nice laid back dives, where (despite what you see in films) I was more at risk of cutting myself on a rock or getting cramp than being bitten by a crazed sea-monster or trapped inside the wreck.

Last week however, I finally did what I would class as an extreme scuba in Greece, when I was fortunate enough to do some cave diving in Rhodes.Although I had brought my kit on holiday, I had not been planning  a cave dive, and did not even realise that where I was staying was apparently one of the top cave dive sites in the whole country, but when I found out the opportunity was there I jumped at it, and booked on with a centre called Waterhoppers who seemed pretty decent.

waterhoppers

Under the Padi system they do offer a cavern diving course which I have not actually done (mainly as there are no caves to dive where I live!) but then again they have a course for pretty much everything – wrecks, ice, and even how to dive properly from a boat – which you don’t actually need to do, but can help out. Still, there was no way I was going to be turning this one down just because I had not been on a course, and I did have experience penetrating wrecks from that course (as well as my rescue diver course should anything not go to plan), which was good enough for me.

cave selfie more.JPG

Once of the other things I love about scuba diving on holiday is how multicultural it is, and when I arrived at the centre it became apparent this would be no different. Our dive leader was a tough looking Serbian called Gregor, who was ably assisted by the Greek boat captain Costas. My buddy was to be a Russian dude called Mikhail who had 80 odd dives to his name which I was happy enough with, and we also had a German guy and a Geordie lad doing an internship with the centre, who both had 150 dives each. This meant I was the least experienced, which was fine by me as I am happy enough in my abilities, and reduced the chances that I was going to have to worry about the others doing something too crazy. Fortunately English was also the mutual language, as it tends to be, so I could also understand the pre-dive brief properly.

The boat ride to the dive site was an eye opener, with Costas really opening the throttle on the rib along the way, and the tourists amongst us clinging onto the edge of the boat for our lives: I know powerboating is an extreme sport, and this definitely fitted the description from my opening paragraph! At least we made it in one piece, and soon enough the anchor was dropped and we were backrolling in to the beautiful warm Mediterranean.

lindos

The beautiful acropolis at night (picture from Google)

The cave was on the side of a steep cliff near the Acropolis of Lindos, directly underneath the tomb of Clepbulus, who was apparently one of the seven sages of ancient Greece, so a very important guy. I was pleased to see we were following proper scuba protocol, in doing our deepest dive first (it helps with underwater time, which I will come back to later)

Visibility was fantastic, well over 20 metres, so it did not take me long to notice my first problem, in that my Russian buddy who was with me a few seconds earlier as we started to descent, had disappeared – never a good thing underwater! I soon realised he had only descended a few metres and was hanging about the surface, which is usually a sign of having problems, but when both myself and our dive lead signalled him he gave us the ok sign. Given he had nearly 100 dives and he seemed to know what he was doing, we swam on, albeit slightly uncomfortably, whilst he followed on the surface looking down on us like a snorkeler. Weirdly once we reached the cave a few minutes later he dropped right down and carried on next to me as if nothing had happened.

When we questioned him after the dive he acted like it was fine, and said ‘oh yeah, when I dive I always take a while to descend’… one bollocking later from both myself and our lead for the fact he had omitted to mention this, and nearly messed up the whole dive in the process, and hopefully it will be the last time it happens. Anyway, I digress…

As we got to the opening of the cave at around 25 metres I was pleased to see it as pretty massive. Having had a few concerns it would be a tight opening, which would be awkward in hired kit we were not used to, it was a huge gap the size of a two storey house. Pulling out the torches the centre had thoughtfully lent us we drifted in, and spent a few minutes exploring the opening, which was even bigger inside.

Cave Dive 1.JPG

The reason this sort of diving is considered more extreme and dangerous, is that whereas on a normal dive if you have a problem, you can head directly back to the surface, even if you have to take your time to minimise decompression issues. But on a cave dive, you have an overhead, so to get out you have to swim across (and possibly even down first) to find your way out and then up again, which is why it is strictly for more experienced divers. Obviously the further into the cave you penetrate, the more experience and extra equipment you would need. In my case, I made sure I kept my sneaky Russian buddy in my eye-line at all times, in case I needed to make a grab for his alternate air source to keep me going, although fortunately the hire kit was decent enough not to let me down!

 

Whilst it was interesting looking in, what was really special about it was actually looking back out of the cave, as you had an amazing light blue view from the sea outside the cave. I can’t think of a good way of explaining it, so fortunately I had my camera and for a change the pictures have actually come out well, so you can see it for yourselves.

Cave Dive 3.JPG

The cool thing about this dive that really sold it to me though, was that you could swim inside the cave, and actually go further into it to surface in an underwater freshwater cavern, that could only be reached with scuba gear. The lighting was crazy, with out torches piercing the water like lightsabers, and giving a strange green glow to the cavern. For me this was real hardcore cave diving, and was a fantastic experience, surfacing in the middle of a cave which few people had ever set eyes on, and having a brief chat with the others before going back down. Seriously, an experience I will probably always remember as a diver.

Cave Dive 2.JPG

Inside the cavern

 

We descended back down a slightly different (and tighter) way that really tested our buoyancy skills, but pleased to say we all smashed it and found our way back to the main cave – although I found myself counting everyone about 5 times just to be sure no one had been lost!

Cave dive 4.JPG

Once we exited the cave again the remainder of the dive was spent swimming along the cliff wall, looking at the marine life and for me at least, soaking up the rush of being in a real cave. I can barely remember the rest of the dive, other than deciding to try some selfies on my action cam given how clear the water was, which in hindsight probably looked a bit strange to the others.

Cave Selfie.JPG

After surfacing onto the boat we drove (a bit slower this time thankfully) over to our second site, an island right off the back of Lindos bay. The plan was another smaller cave penetration, this time though a small crack of the sort I imagined before, although at less of a depth. We were into the dive pretty quickly, with just an hour surface interval in all. To explain, this is the time between reaching the surface in the first dive, and descending in the next one. Back home we usually have a pretty long surface interval of up to two hours, as this lets you ‘off gas’ which means clear more of the nitrogen from your body. But for a tourist centre like this, they understandably want to get through the dives at a reasonable pace to get in four per day, so an hour it was.

 

This was another pretty good dive, with some different coral and rock formations as we were a little further out to sea, and also a lot more fish to see. It also turned out to be a drift dive, which means you basically let the current take you and push you along underwater – a great experience, kind of like a scuba version of a lazy river in a water park, although in this case you have to be a bit more careful not to let it take you away out to sea. Along the way I was really pleased to see a red starfish which was a new one for me, although unfortunately in my excitement the photo did not really come out.

cave starfish.JPG

Red Starfish (honest!)

This was a more traditional dive than the other, so compare the two I have included the profiles from my dive computer above. On the left is the cave dive, where we went to the max depth quickly, then worked our way into the cave and surfaced in the cavern in the middle (a sort of W-shape), before basically re-tracing our steps out. On the right is the drift dive, where we descended more slowly and drifted along the bottom before working our way back in more of a U-shape.

When you are diving there are two things that limit how long you can spend underwater. The first is obviously your air, as once you get low on that it is of course going to be time to finish up. Whilst recreational diving should never be competitive, there is always a bit of competition as to who can consume the least air on a dive, and generally the better you get, the less you will use as you relax into the dive.

The second restrainer will be less well known to non-divers, but I alluded to it earlier, in that when you dive your body begins to absorb nitrogen, and the deeper & longer you go for, the more it will absorb, which risks you getting ‘the bends’. This will vary a lot between divers, not least because you will never be at exactly the same depth as each other throughout the dive, so experienced divers (well anyone even semi-serious) wear dive computers, that help calculate how deep you have been at all times, and how much nitrogen you have. I hope I am not losing too many people by now…

Anyway, long story short, I had noticed I was getting close to my own limit (not last because of the shorter surface interval) so began to rise up a lot towards the end – it is amazing that being a few minutes higher can add ages to a dive – but our Geordie lad had clearly had other things on his mind, and managed to bust his NDL – No Decompression Limit. Whilst not the end of the world, it is a bit of an embarrassing thing to do by mistake, and resulted in him having to spend an extra 10 minutes underwater on his own decompressing, whilst the rest of us sunbathed on the boat. Interestingly his German buddy (with over 150 dives!) had not brought his computer (as it was too expensive / big!) but did not do any deco, which staggered me, as to be honest there was no way he would not have exceeded his time too, but I guess he was comfortable enough, so there you go.

zoop

My dive computer: NDL is 23 minutes in this one.

Sadly my story did not end there, as after finishing the dives and heading back to my hotel, I started to get an increasingly worse pain in my left ear. At first I thought it was just trapped water, but it refused to clear with all the normal methods, and eventually I had to take two each ibuprofen and paracetamol, which is pretty much unheard of for me as I usually avoid things like that unless I have had heavy dental work (sadly all to often).

The pain eventually went away, but my ear never cleared, so two visits to the doctor later back in the UK, and  it turns out I managed to perforate my eardrum. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when it happened as the dives were comfortable enough, so have to assume it was just the repeated changes of pressure of the two dives. I will spare you the Google images here as it is pretty horrific, but it did not actually hurt past the first day, and my deafness does not seem to be much worse than normal (according to my wife anyway…) Unfortunately it does mean that my diving for this summer is now over, although I do have my eye on a night diver course over the winter for my next challenge…

cave selfie easy.JPG

Taking it a bit too easy by the end…

So that was it, two amazing and pretty unforgettable dives, and one finish that I will probably also take a while to push out of my memory. Still a valuable lesson learned, and as sporting injuries go it is certainly a new one for me. And the next time someone suggests to me that scuba diving is not an extreme sport, I will have plenty of stories to tell them!

And Now For Something Completely Different (ish)

Usually I write on here about triathlons and fitness training, but for now something a little different. The last month has seen two of my most regular events – the Dorney Triathlon & Great Birmingham Run, which I have completed 7 times in the past between them – have come and gone without me. I do enjoy both events, but last year discovered that part of the fun of competing is to find new races around the country to experience different courses, crowds and competitors.

My plans for this September & October had initially revolved around the Rugby World Cup, but after England’s dismal performances that ended rather earlier than expected… so I have been keeping busy doing a few other things.

First up was football. Now those of you who are avid readers (Hi Mum) will know I tend to play twice per year against my colleagues from our Manchester office, but we managed a bit more this time in persuading some other teams to take part in a mini tournament. The venue was the lovely Power League, in the shadow of Spaghetti Junction in Brum.

power league 2

Despite the extra teams, we were only actually five actual players for the team, meaning we had just enough to play, but also it was gong to be an absolute killer! Using a round robin format we were able to play 4 x 20 minute matches each, alternating in each position, with the keeper usually reserved for whoever was most exhausted. Fortunately our opponents were also light on subs, but on the downside most had around ten years age difference on their side, and these were the sort of games where youth won over experience.

To be fair we did start well, going ahead in the first game, but we probably started a bit too hard, and over time ran out of steam. The ‘kids’ managed to pull back to a draw, and to be honest it was a bit downhill from there… Still it was a good laugh, and certainly good for fitness. There is a massive difference between team sports and individuals, where the stop start nature of running around the pitch is hugely important, and any opportunity to take a breather and recover a bit of energy is worth its weight. Even so, the team aspect really spurs you on, to the point that where at times where you would otherwise want to just stop and rest, you are able to keep yourself going in the same way the crowd can spur you on towards the end of a triathlon or marathon.

A few weeks later we managed a second match, up in Manchester against our old enemies. The team was exactly the same, so arguably we now had some decent experience playing together, however we were once again up against a fairly sizeable age gap. It is funny that in triathlon the peak age for longer distance racing is in your 30’s. Well believe me, in five aside football it is definitely in your 20’s! This was a full hour match with just a 5 minute break in the middle, so by the end of it our team looked a bit like the walking dead, with one literally needing to check back into hospital soon after. Still we had a pretty close game at something like 14:12 and it was for charity, so technically everyone was a winner.

The other way I managed to district myself during the weekends was scuba diving – something most people enjoy a lot in warmer waters – but which needs a certain type of lunacy to get into in a British quarry in October! Funnily enough, this has actually been a slightly warmer time of year for these parts recently, and inland waters tend to be warmer in Autumn than Spring after having all Summer to get the temperature up.

padi rescue

But this was no laid back diving experience, but a two weekend Padi Rescue Diver course. As a brief explanation, this is a diving qualification based around safety, providing training to be able to help both yourself and other divers who are having problems. After a fairly intense first few days learning first aid, CPR and various rescue methods in the classroom and pool, we hit the lake for the second weekend.

As mentioned, most scuba experiences tend to be very relaxed, in fact deliberately so, but this was about as full on as you can get, From the first minute it was clear we were being assessed, getting immediate bollockings for taking too long to kit up and any minor issues with our set up such as lose air hoses, etc. The fact is, that in a water emergency, every second literally counts, so you need to be both quick and accurate.

From then on, myself and my four colleagues were well and truly put through our paces, going through numerous rescue scenarios, both at the surface and underwater. One aspect of this was needing a decent level of fitness, as there were a number of times where we had to tow our instructors across the lake (nearly 10 minutes swim in parts) whilst simultaneously providing rescue breathing.

Rescue Divers

After an exhausting first day, things did not let up on the second. This was our ‘live’ scenarios, which were sprung upon us in increasingly devious ways. Without going into too much detail, and example was that after a fairly intense practice session we all got out, de-kitted, and settled in for a hot drink at the cafe. A few minutes in and a random stranger approached us to say they had lost their dive buddy and was getting worried. We twigged on of course, but had to rush into action like some sort of Baywatch rejects, rushing to get on our kit whilst asking questions to work out what had happened. We then had to swim the lake in pairs, descend and search the bottom until we could find our ‘body’, bring them to the surface, tow them back whilst providing breathing, get their scuba gear off, lift them out of the water and then provide further CPR and emergency oxygen. About 5 minutes after we finally finished and dragged ourself to the cafe, someone else appeared and we had to go through it all over again!

Still, it was all worth it, and I am proud to have passed the course and can now call myself a Rescue Diver. My next step may well be Divemaster, but I need to see how I can balance that against the triathlon season. Still I certainly feel more confident, and whilst it is one of those things that you hope you will never actually have to use, at least if I do I will be that bit more capable.

Underwater Adventures

After the intensity of completing an 8 hour triathlon, the last few Saturdays have involved something  much more relaxed: Diving.

It is not really a surprise I enjoy scuba. Ever since I was younger I have loves all water based sports, spending my summers swimming in the sea, kayaking at a local lake and surfing on holiday down in Cornwall. I got back into swimming in my second year at uni, partly out of boredom to vary my days, and also to stay in shape after retiring from rugby and spending the subsequent months drinking too much beer and playing too much Halo with my best mate Stewart. I ended up really enjoying it, and I remember one particular lunchtime running into a lady-friend of mine who seemed quite impressed I was working out regularly. Ange is now my wife, and I am not sure how pleased she is I still spend most of my free time training, but there you go!

My first proper job while at school and uni was as a part-time lifeguard (funnily enough with Stewart as well) which admittedly meant spending time out of the water. I did manage to save one person once – the other lifeguard I was working with –  but that is a story for another day! This was also the first time I probably came across scuba divers, who would come in on a Thursday evening from a local club to practice. To be honest they were a pain in the arse from a lifeguard point of view, as you could not really do much to help them, and swimmers would often crash into them as they distractedly wondered what was going on.

Scuba

Fast forward about 5 or 6 years, and my Mum got my wife & I a try dive session as a birthday present. It was only in a tiny, but 3m deep, pool near where we lived, and I loved it, and managed to go again when in holiday in Greece. Unfortunately after growing up by the coast, and going to school with the nearest beach literally around the corner, I now live in Birmingham, which is about as far from the beach as you can get in the UK . So when I finally got around to completing my open water course, it was in the exotic location of Dostill, just north of the city.

For those who have never experienced UK inland diving, it could not be more different to exotic locations such as the Caribbean or Red Sea. For starters it is cold, so you are likely to be in a dry suit, something of an oxymoron of a name as I always seem to end up with half the river in my undersuit. Then there is the visibility, which on a good day can be around somewhere between 5-10 metres, but often less if the bottom has been kicked up by your fellow adventurers. In terms of things to see, it is not exactly the great barrier reef, but it is not all shopping trolleys either, there can be some interesting bits, but more on that later.

Because of these conditions, this means there is a huge similarity between scuba diving and triathlon: the amount of kit you need. That’s right, I seem to have managed to pick what may well be the two hobbies that involve more equipment than any others. I have already blogged on some of my tri stuff, and the main thing with that is that whilst there are a few essentials – swimsuit, bike, helmet, trainers – the other bits are basically all there to make you go faster and / or look good. With diving however, the kit is there for a more important reason: to keep you alive! Whilst you can hire bits from your local centre, it is of course best to own and get to know your own, to ensure it fits well and most importantly works for you.

Fortunately my local club (Aquasport International) is great, and has some really good equipment and instructors, but I have still ended up collecting loads over the years. My typical kit list for a day’s diving includes: Mask & snorkel, fins, undersuit, gloves, hood, Suunto dive computer, weight belt, torch, knife, reel & SMB. On top of that I hire the bigger and more expensive bits from the club: Dry suit, BCD, regs & cylinder, but I have no doubt that I will end up being persuaded to invest in these in years to come as it is rare that I manage to visit the shop without parting with any money I have left on me.

After completing my first qualification I have ended up doing various other Padi specialisms and now have the following:

  • Open Water Diver
  • Advanced Open Water
  • Peak Performance Buoyancy
  • Enriched Air (Nitrox) Diver
  • Equipment Specialist
  • National Geographic Diver
  • Search & Recovery Diver
  • Deep Diver

I had been supposed to do a nice, laid back Underwater Photography course this weekend, but it was cancelled at the last minute, so I ended up switching to the last on this list – Deep Diver. To be fair it was one I had been planning on doing this at some point anyway after a taste of going that bit deeper in my advanced course which qualified me to 30 metres. This course certified me to 40 metres, the maximum depth for ‘recreational’ divers before entering into the crazy (and even more expensive) world of technical diving, involving even more equipment and air-mixes.

Stoney Cove

The better thing about the course though, was it took place at Stoney Cove, something of a legend and possibly the most famous inland dive site in the UK. One of the Divemasters today mentioned they used to go there back in the 1960s! It is about twice the size of our usual haunt of Dostill, and there is a lot more to see underwater, ranging from boats, to cars, to flying machines.

Deep diving is of course fairly dangerous, as the further you descent, the more the pressure is, and we were about twice as deep as you would go on a normal open water dive. This means it is very cold, dark, and you breathe through your air twice as fast too. Most of this course was therefore around the safety implications and how to deal with potential problems associated ranging from as decompression sickness (aka the bends) to freeflows (where your regulator packs in due to the cold & depth). Fortunately none of these happened to any of us, but of course it is good to know what to do if you need.

For divers though, one of the big things about going deep, is what is known as getting ‘narked’. Now this has nothing to do with some kind of underwater anti-drug squad, but refers to nitrogen narcosis, which is something you experience when breathing air at depths which are typically below 30 metres. Without boring the pants of people with the science, it is basically a feeling you get, which you could best describe as like being drunk. This affects people differently, and I did notice it a bit on our last dive down to 36 m, in that for me I felt a lot more confident and did not pay as much attention to my timers as I normally would. Time also flew by, and the activity we had to do at the bottom involving putting toy shapes into a box took us all over twice as long down there as at the surface.

Of course we had a great instructor keeping an eye on us and I had enough control for it not to be dangerous, but clearly it is one to be careful of. The divemaster I was buddying with told me he still has a photo of him at one dive where he took his regulator out to pose for it but he has no memory of doing it at all. There are even rumors of people hallucinating and seeing mermaids… The strange about being narked is that as soon as you ascent a bit it wears off, and you can get on with the rest of your dive with only some hazy memories of what happened: a bit like sobering up from a big night out in fast forward.

Stoney NautilusStoney Cove stan

 

The rest of the dives were great, and we explored a number of artificial wrecks on the quarry bed ranging from a helicopter with no rotors, to a 10 m submarine with a massive propeller, to the mighty Stanegarth, an 18 m tug boat in great condition to examine. Whilst these are of course purpose sunk to practice on, they are the most exciting thing I have seen yet underwater, and it is amazing how much more interesting something as simple as a cockpit becomes in this situation compared to wandering around on land. There was also a fair bit of marine life, and whilst you could not describe it as tropical, even our instructor looked really excited at the sight of a crayfish, beckoning us to look whilst doing the pincer hand sign to explain what it was!

For those of you wondering I have managed to count this towards my training. Although the dives have only been 30-45 mins each, there is a lot of intensity in the build up (just lugging around 40 kg of kit to the water’s edge in the sun is a serious effort!). So each dive has counted as a 5 km swim, making a total of 20 km in the swim column for two days work, which sounds reasonable to me. Hopefully I will get back in again later this year, and if I manage to do the underwater photography then I will include some of my own pictures on here next time. Until then, stay safe!