A Muppet Chile Challenge

It’s that time of year again where, just like Michael Caine in the Muppet Christmas Carol, we can look back over the past, present and future of the Chile Challenge. Ok ok, I realise revisiting 2016 is probably fairly low down man people’s lists of priorities with the year we all had, and that talking about Christmas in January is about as welcome as turning up at an Ironman with a bike as cheap as mine, but I have been meaning to get around to writing an update for a while now, so please bear with me for a bit…

The Ghost of Chile Challenge Past

muppet-carol

It is almost 3 years to the day since I started the Chile Challenge, and a lot has changed since then. For those who joined late, the original point of this blog was to give me somewhere to both track my progress whilst I Swam, Rode and Ran 4,270 km across Chile from the comfort of my own county, and also as an outlet to spot the many random thoughts that entered my head during all that long distance training.

The centrepiece was to be the Avenger Triathlon, my first half-iron distance race (110 km in a shade under 8 hours on the hottest day of the year!) as well as a number of other smaller triathlons. Looking back over the photos, even at the time of the Avenger I must have been at least a stone heavier and a lot less fit than I am now, and still have no idea how I reached the finish line on my own and in that heat.

After successfully knocking off the last few kilometres of the challenge in late December, I had to decide what to do next, and with the usual psychology of a long distance amateur (forgetting the 90% of the race where you were in so much pain your limbs wanted to shut down and only remembering the finish line endorphins) I decided to go all out and entered Ironman Staffs.

Ironman was my ‘A Race’ around which the rest of 2015 was planned, and to this day is still the event I am most proud of completing, finishing in just over 7 hours. Although it was not the longest (the bike leg was 3 km shorter than the Avenger) or even the toughest (see the Isoman below), it was definitely the most memorable, and I will never forget lining up against Javier Gomez et al in transition, even if that was as close as I got to them for the rest of the race!

Whilst the rest of the year involved more new triathlons and runs to pad it out, I also began to get into Group Exercise at my gym, starting off with Body Combat and RPM, and stepping up into, well Body Step Body Attack, Body Pump and whatever else Les Mills could come up with, culminating with a weekend at One Live in Manchester involving 6 back to back classes, an indoor Ironman in itself! This more intensive training gave me a new focus on exercise, and helped me shift that spare few kilos as well as meeting some great people and learning that fitness does not necessarily have to be a solitary activity.

So onto the ghost of 2016 past, and what happened over the last 12 months. My main race last summer was the Isoman in Redditch, an Ironman with a twist, with the swim nearly doubling to 5 km (2 hours 20 minutes!), a potentially lethal non-closed road ride around the North Worcestershire countryside, finishing in a rain-soaked run around my regular Park Run venue (actually it was 5 park runs, but starting off already knackered!).

isoman logo.jpg

What else? Well six of the first twelve weeks of last year were spent on the move in various chain hotels around the country, with highlights including early morning runs around Canary Wharf and a new experience of Aqua Cycling, as well as a lot of time on the same old dodgy machinery in the various hotel gyms. Les Mills Live made a return, well two actually, one down in London (pretty good) and the other back in Manchester (a lot better), as did our work football tournaments, where we seized defeat from the jaws of victory at home in April, before recovering to a win in Leicester in October.

After planning to do one for years, last year was also my first ever (proper) obstacle race, organised brilliantly by my wife. Rough Runner saw a team of us yomping around the Cotswolds and navigating a series of Takeshi’s Castle inspired obstacles, giant inflatables and the like, although in the end it was the hills and rabbit holes that proved more deadly for more people than any of the equipment. It also allowed us to achieve  lifetime dream for most kids of the 90’s with a run up a travelator straight out of Gladiators to finish up with!

Away from physical training, I managed to get in some great Scuba last year, including visiting wrecks in Cuba and cave diving in Greece, as well as managing to get my first sports related injury in over a decade when I managed to rupture my ear drum due to pressure changes. Who would have thought after all those challenges it would be the slowest moving one which would catch me out?

The Summer rounded off with my third Birmingham Half Marathon, where I managed to knock another 5 minutes or so off my PB but still could not quite crack that two hour mark: who knows, maybe there will be a chance to do it next year…

The Ghost Christmas Present

muppets

Right, time to live in the now, and cover what has happened since I last wrote at the end of October. Well… actually not that much to write home about (which is basically what this is as I am fairly sure only my parents read this far into my scrawlings). Most of my time (and I mean most – I wonder at what point I can start claiming overtime!) over the last few months of 2016 has been spent at the gym getting in as much training as possible to avoid losing my fitness over winter and piling on those extra Christmas pounds.

crawley-runA fortnight in charming Gatwick was a lovely way to spend early December, although I did manage a great night run around the town of Crawley (proudly showing off my luminous tights), the constant expectation of mugging adding at least a few extra mph to my legs. As for my work Christmas party, does bowling count as exercise (and offset all that drinking)? Well have you seen the Big Lebowski?!

lebowski

After a year involving some pretty exotic travels, I was fortunate enough to end 2016 in the fantastic city of New York, and whilst there was little opportunity for intensive training (particularly in sub-zero temperatures) we did manage a heck of a lot of walking all over town, from Downtown (Wall Street, One World Trade Centre and the Statue of Liberty), Uptown (an incredibly long walk through Central Park to find the Home Alone 2 house!) and all over Midtown (Top of the Rock and Empire State – by lift not steps! – as well as up and down Fifth Avenue and Broadway). In fact the closest I got to physical exercise was probably cheering on the Knicks to victory at Madison Square Gardens, another ambition completed!

With everything back to reality now, the last few weeks have been gym, gym, and more gym, seeing progressively more New Year’s Resolutioners appearing in classes, and basically getting back into the normal routine of daily training. So what is planned for 2017?

The Ghost of Chile Challenge’s Future

marley-and-marley

Right, this is most scary ghost in the film, so I will need to keep things brief (and go for Marley and Marley instead – I think I need to end the Muppet theme now). I have already hinted at my main goals for this year in earlier posts, but essentially I am going to be taking some time off from multi-sport racing (i.e. triathlons) to focus on individual events.

First up in the current plan is the Silverstone Half Marathon, a race around the famous racing circuit which is home to the British F1 Grand Prix, where I am hoping a nice flat(ish) circuit will finally help me break the 2 hour barrier so I can stop banging on about it. The event takes place in early March though, which is going to prove tough for someone who is does not usually start training outdoors until the clocks go forward and it warms up a bit, although that is the whole point of starting things early this year.

There is a bit of a gap until my next booked race, which I will look at filling in with something or other soon, but September kicks off the first ever 100 mile Velo bike event in Birmingham, a ride I could not turn down given how beautiful the route looks, going right through Northern Worcestershire & Herefordshire and almost past my front door. With 15,000 riders it will be by far the largest event I have ever taken part in, and being 50% further than I have ever ridden I know it is going to be a killer (although not bookmarking it with a swim and run will help) so it looks like a lot of time in the saddle in late Summer.

It is the last race of the year that looks the biggie though, the new Birmingham Marathon in October, another lifetime ambition to be fulfilled. At this stage it still seems a long way off, but like much of this year, I can imagine it will come about pretty quickly!

Advertisements

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!

Deja Vu

I feel like I have done a lot of things in the last month or so that I could write about here, but the thing is, I have already blogged about much of it in my other 120 or so posts: Hotel based training – Check. Aqua Cycling – Check Check. Outdoor swimming… you get the picture. So I thought today I would focus on a few of my main events from April:

Football

The end of the most interesting UK football season in years and a team of underdogs from the Midlands pulling off a highly unlikely victory… I don’t think anyone would believe me if I tried to say our bi-annual work football tournament (in its stunning car park rooftop location) produced quite such a shocking result, but with teams from Birmingham, Manchester and for the first time ever Leicester, there was a reasonable chance it could have happened.

download

In adding a third team to the format we were able to tear up the rule book somehow for our match, so rather than two teams of five gradually slowing down over the course of an hour, to the point (about 15 minutes in actually) where local kids would look over the fence in curiosity to see what was happening in our ‘veterans’ game as we laid on the floor exhausted / injured – the last match resulted in no less than two hospitalisations and a few other days off work the following day – we could pace ourselves a bit more.

A good thing too as we had not substitutes (in fact we only had 14 players in total), but we managed to have 3x 20 minute matches on a round robin basis, with a final match made up of those still left standing. In the end our own Red Devils from Manchester / Liverpool managed to claim overall victory having won both their matches, but all of the games were a lot closer than usual, averaging 5-4 scorelines.

As usual I had hoped I would have an element of superior fitness, given the fact I go to the gym 5 times a week and have a half-ironman coming up shortly, but there is something about the impact football places on your joints that meant I still ached for days after. Or perhaps it was more down to the body tackles seen from some of our senior management, who knows!

Cuba

As I mentioned, the theme this month is things I have done before, so I thought it was worth a few words to brag talk about the training I did out there, which included some sublime scuba diving in nice warm water (making a change from freezing UK quarries), slightly misguided attempts at tennis, relaxing yoga next to the beach and some aqua aerobics surrounded by Canadians in the sea. I won’t say any more here, just a few photos.

NOVATEK CAMERA

Cuba Tennis 16Cuba YogaCuba Beach Training

Les Mills Launches

Ahh, a new quarter, a new set of Les Mills releases: Body Combat 67, Body Pump 97, Body Attack 92 & RPM 70. This time around we had a bit of a head start as these were tracks we had already tried out at the Live event in London a few months ago, and given we were hitting Launch weekend less than 24 hours after returning from Cuba it was probably for the best!

To be honest it is such a blur I can’t actually remember what order we did the launches in, nor much about them at the time, other than the theme (there is always a theme on launch weekends) was ‘Pink & Pigtails’, sadly neither of which I owned anything appropriate to wear. Having spent the last month doing these releases I feel I know them a bit better so am able to pass at least a brief judgement as follows:

Combat – Not a million miles away from the last few releases, with some of the more recent themes such as floor work and HIIT training featuring again. Whilst none of the music is quite as cheesy / awesome as the Black Pearl track last time, there is a pretty cool remix of ‘Fight for your Right’ , a proper 90’s classic in ‘Set You Free’ and following on from Firestarter a few years ago, we now have the Prodigy’s ‘Breathe’ as a Muay Thai track.

body combat 67

Pump – After years of cardio training I am starting to like pump more and more, and it is easy to see how people get hooked on the endorphin rush you get from so much lifting. That said, this is a killer release, and I am fairly sure the ‘How Deep is your Love’ leg track has only been put in so instructors can yell ‘How Deep is your Squat’ as your thighs start to buckle after a seemingly never-ending set of reps.Our coach claims Les Mills always do this for Q2 to make sure you can get your ass in shape for the summer! Interestingly I managed to obtain the below chart which someone has agonisingly (metaphorically and probably literally) put together on how the number of reps seem to increase with each Body Pump release, now averaging well over 1000 per class. Ouch…

Body Pump Reps

Attack – Kicking off with the same ‘How Deep is your Love’ as Pump, and some more old school with ‘Rhythm of the Night’, this is another pretty decent release. As with Combat, I am not yet convinced I like the music quite as much as the last release, but still not one to complain about.

RPM – Arriving back I discovered a massive change in my gym’s cycle studio, with a brand new projection screen and sound system. It turns out they are going to be offering virtual cycling sessions in the future, as well as third party classes such as Sufferfest – but more on these in a future blog. As for the new release – taught (for now at least) by a human – things start well, with ‘I Don’t Like It, I Love It’ and finish strongly with a couple of great tracks in ‘Zero Gravity’ & ‘Sparks After the Sunset’ but I am not quite as keen on the middle few which are either a bit too heavy or too ‘jungle’ for me!

I think I could sum up my thoughts on all four releases with the same thing: some good tracks and great moves, but overall I am not quite as keen on the music as for the last set of releases, or maybe that is just early nostalgia.

So there you go, another month, another three activities to write about. For those of you who got the joke in the opening thanks for noticing, and until next time, hasta luego.

 

 

 

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.

A lo Cubano

After some spectacular (if a tad chilly at times) training in Cornwall this year, I was fortunate enough to do my next few sessions somewhere slightly more exotic: the fabulous island of Cuba.

Cuba Sea

Now bearing in mind a decent summer over here sees temperatures in the 20’s (I nearly died in the Avenger last year when we raced in the low 30’s) I had to take a bit of care here as the country was going through a heatwave, so even the locals were having a tough time as we pushed 40 degrees on a daily basis. Clearly the temptation was to sit on the beach in the sun, piña colada in one hand and the most exercise being a dip in sea, but well… this is the Chile Challenge so I felt obliged to make the most of the different training opportunities on offer. So just for you guys:

Cuba Scuba Russian Frigate

First up had to be to try out the local diving. Regular readers may be familiar with my usual exploits – braving freezing temperatures in a disused quarry in the Midlands, hoping for more than a few mitres of visibility and maybe even a couple of fish (if you are lucky!) – this was a bit different! Over the week I managed to get in 5 different dives, the highlight being the brilliant Patrol Boat 383 (thank you Google for the picture above): a Russian Frigate at 27 metres depth, with decent viz, tonnes of marine life, colourful coral and a resident puffer fish in the hold. Other great dives included seeing a nurse shark (yes a shark!) and a much-tougher-than-expected drift dive around a reef which made me glad of all those open water swims. It turns out all that hard work in the ice cold quarries was worth it though, as I could really appreciate the environment more, and was really pleased with my buoyancy skills along the way, particularly alongside most of my lightweight companions who without exception were horrified at the idea of submersing themselves in anything below 25 degrees!

Cuba Tennis 1Cuba Tennis 2

Despite belonging to a gym with tennis courts and spending anything from 5 to 10 hours per week there, I never actually get around to playing the old bat-n-ball, but we decided the hotel’s courts were too tempting and had to try them out. Given the temperature it was a bit mission-impossible, and we had to get there for 7.30 am (easier said than done after a night on the piñas!) to avoid the searing heat, and even then we only managed 45 minutes before nearly passing out. Although it had been years since last picking up a racquet, it turned out the body does not forget, and as you will see from the above pictures, Federer and Sabatini need to watch their steps!

Cuba Hotel TrainingCuba Hotel Training 2

Our plans switched to hitting the air-conditioned gym next door, where having been out of the country for over a week, I had to get my fix of RPM tracks on the bike. I don’t think the other users were used to riders standing up on the pedals and simulating hill climbs, then suddenly dropping into sprints, but I am sure they were just jealous! The beach views were also somewhat improved, although it will take a lot to beat the one from our rooftop gym in Havana a few days earlier (top left).

Zumba

Our final fitness activity was none other than dancing. And not just one type, but salsa, Zumba, cha cha cha and who knows what else. Being a typical uncoordinated guy I was a bit terrified at the idea of this sort of thing, but it turned out having all those Les Mills classes in the last 12 months I actually had some moves! Now I am saying I was Michael Jackson, but I was able to keep to time pretty well, and compared to the handful of other blokes who joined a mainly female gang across the half dozen or so classes, I feel I can hold my head up. That said, there was a clear difference between the Europeans there and the local guys, who all seemed to have plenty of natural rhythm and put us to shame with their hip shaking routines… maybe a bit more practice in the next few months and I will be able to tear it up when I visit again next year!

Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?

As I approach the final straight on the Chile Challenge I thought it was about time to talk about one of my favourite things: Gadgets.

Wonderful Toys

As with all gadgets, these range from necessities to nice-to-haves. Some are actual life savers, whereas others are pure convenience (aka pure laziness). The one thing these do have in common is all of these have helped me out in one way or another during the course of this year’s challenge. Queue ‘Whole Lotta Love’ style countdown and cheesy voiceover:

Nespresso

5. Nespresso Machine – First up in the top five is the 21st century equivalent of a rocket fuel tank: perfect for early morning training. Less than 60 seconds for a spot-on caffeine shot to ensure there is no drifting off whilst on the move. I will be honest, I am not one of those 5-cups-a-day-or-I-feel-faint coffee clutchers, in fact as my workmates would attest I pretty much only drink water during the daytime, but I do like a decent coffee once in a while, and you basically cannot go wrong with these. Quick and easy to make even when half asleep, and guaranteed to work every time. Anyone from Nespresso who is reading this, feel free to comp me a machine for the plug…

Start Stop Engine

4. Comfort Access System – A new entry (literally), which as mentioned is probably the height of laziness for me. This is basically an NFC key for my car, so I can unlock the doors and start the engine as long as I have my keys somewhere on me. Yes, I can hear the moaners at the back, it is totally unnecessary, but once you have it you realise how useful it is. After a long gym session I can leave my keys in my massive transition rucksack without having to route around the bottom with still-sweating paws, and just get in the car and move straight off. The same goes for getting into the boot when carrying all my kit back from transition. Yes, it infuriates my wife as I always forget to unlock her side, but as a new discovery this year I now can’t live without it.

Garmin 410 2

3. Garmin Forerunner 410 – Halfway through the list is the gadget I have probably mentioned the most this year. This is a fairly mid-range Garmin which I bought heading into last year’s Birmingham Half Marathon in an effort to motivate myself to train for my first proper foot race. When doing my research to buy this I wanted all the features, such as heart rate monitor, foot pod for treadmill use, wheel sensor for the cycle trainer and so on. 12 months on I barely use any of these (although I like the fact I can if I want to) having realised that it is the core features, which much like Herzberg’s Hygiene Factors are the most important part of a gadget like this: How far have I run, How fast am I running, and How long have I been running for? It might sound basic, but whether training or racing this is the most important data to me, as it helps me pace myself and get the most out of a session. I do also like playing with the data and graphs afterwards, but do not (yet) get that into the quagmire of data it throws out. Maybe one day…

Smartphone

2 – SmartPhone – Narrowly missing out on the top spot, this has been part of almost every session this year, tucked away in my arm holster like some sort of futuristic six shooter. Music, photos, directions, safety, pretty much everything you could need when training for a 4000 km long challenge. 90 percent of the memory on my phone is taken up with music, split into various playlist permutations to cover all types of training. Hill running in the snow? Whack on the Rocky IV soundtrack. Long zoned out cycle rides? A bit of electronica like Madeon or M83  to go in the background. Something to get the blood pumping? A heavy metal playlist ready made for a bit of rage. You get the picture. As for pictures, well almost all of the ones I have put up this year (except the ones ‘borrowed’ from Google Images) were taken on this, as you never know what you will come across on a long run in a new spot (Cadbury Creme Egg Car anyone?). To be honest it is hard to imagine not having this, but who knows how far technology will go.

Suunto Zoop

1. Suunto Zoop Dive Computer – As I hinted above, whilst the other gadgets on this lists are more nice-to-haves, divers will know that a proper computer really is a lifesaver. So it is only right that the top spot goes to my Suunto Zoop. Those who do not dive may wonder what you do with it, but it basically looks after you whilst underwater. Depth, time, air supply, ascent speed, gas mixes, safety limits… the list goes on. Of all the gadgets here this is also the one I have had longest, and (touch wood) it has never let me down, even when going down to close to 40 metres earlier this year. Yes, there are tons of dive computers on the market, ranging from tiny watches to full on touch screen monsters with all the bells and whistles, but this entry level model more than does the job and is always easy enough to actually read and operate underwater, which is kind of a big deal when your life is on the line. Enough said!

 

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!