Time After Time….

April 1, 2014

Well, I didn’t get time to write a blog piece from Budapest. Here’s one the day after I got home, while the memories, emotions and the ‘flu bug I seem to have caught are still all fresh.

Reminder, Budapest was the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championships. These happen every other year. I have been to two other Indoor championships and three Outdoors, and I know which I find harder. The Indoors has everything squeezed into just six days. This year, I had to fit into that a schedule like this:

Tuesday: 9am 60 metres heats, 9pm 60 metres semi-finals.
Wednesday: 8am to 9pm photographing action on two tracks.
Thursday: 10am 200 metres heats, 7pm 200 metres semi-finals.
Friday: 9am to 9pm photographing the action again.
Saturday: Another long day behind the lens.
Sunday: 9am to 3pm photographing, then warm up and race in relay team.

The astute readers amongst you will see there’s no mention there of 60 metres or 200 metres finals. Read on.

Happy to say that I got to Budapest fit and well. Possibly in the best shape I’ve been in physically and emotionally since about 2010. However, I do regard my schedule at the Indoor championships as a one week recipe for guaranteed burn-out. This time was no different to Linz in 2006, or Clermont Ferrand in 2008, when I ended up victim to a ‘flu bug that is probably the inevitable consequence of mixing travel through airports with meeting friends and rivals from all over the world. Not going to have immunity to it all!

I moved into the M60 age category in Masters Athletics the day before flying out to Budapest. That was the only advantage I could ever hope for! Nearly all the world’s best in my events were there. It was particularly good to see Tom Dickson from Canada again. He beat me to a bronze medal at the outdoor Worlds in Finland in 2009 by 2/100ths of a second.

The first round of the 60 metres went well. There was no seeding for the first round heats. They were, in effect, time-trials, with the fastest 24 athletes going forward to the semi-finals. Not really an issue in 60 or 200 metres, where you’re flat out all the way anyhow. I was a fraction slow out of the blocks but ran my fastest since 2011. When the qualifying lists for the semis were posted, I was tenth fastest overall of the 45 or so competitors. With eight lanes on the sprint straight, a place in the final was possible, if I got my act together in the semi-final.

I had a great semi-final. I can’t fault anything I did from a technical point of view. There were three semis, with first two from each, plus the two fastest other athletes overall going to the final. I was a close third in my race and thought I’d done enough to get through. The eventual results said not, however. I was ninth fastest overall and I missed my place in the final by just 7/100ths of a second. That’s about 20 centimetres in distance. Something similar happened at the World Indoors in 2008 and European Indoors in 2007, when I’d missed a place in the final by tiny fractions. Maybe even more galling in some ways was that a GB team-mate who qualified for the final pulled out injured at the last moment, but too late for me to be bumped up into the race. Almost a repeat of my experience in the European Championships in 2010 when a Russian did that to me!

After this, I was pretty focussed when the 200 metres heats arrived. The job was clear, if not actually all that easy. I had the outside lane – Lane 6, I had Tom Dickson in my race, and I needed to hit this race hard. I got second place behind Tom, and 8th fastest overall going into the semis. History was repeating itself. I needed to be in the top six from the evening’s semi-finals to get into the final (only 6 lanes in 200 metres). It might just be on!

I rested up in the hotel most of the day, and was in a very determined bubble by the evening. I got a great lane draw, and ran my socks off. It was my fastest 200 metres indoors since 2011, and I was third in the race. Mine was the first semi-final of three. Once again I’d be waiting to see if my time was good enough. The second semi was slower, and my hopes rose. The third race ran, and the scoreboard showed the Slovenian in third place in it to have run a time identical to mine! Someone shouted to me that I’d qualified for the final. Five minutes later, the truth came out: the timekeepers had to resort to looking at the photo-finish times to thousandths of a second, and I had been beaten to a final place by 5/1000ths. About two centimetres in distance.

I got over it. I can take being seventh and ninth in the world in my two events! Mind you, when Sunday came, I was more than ever determined to run a good leg in the 4×200 metres relay. I knew by now I’d got the beginnings of a cold-type bug, and worried that I didn’t have a fast 200 metres left in my legs. The borderline between peak fitness and the onset of illness can be a razor’s edge at time. I was also feeling extremely emotional. The stadium PA played Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, and for some reason, I thought of my mother, who died in 2011, and what she’d have made of her 60 year old son racing in a World Championships. I admit that I had to find a quiet corner for a few moments to compose myself after that.

I ran the first leg of the relay. No tactics, just an eyeballs-out 200 metres. My trademark this week! I ran well. The other three guys in Team GB ran well, but the USA squad ran better, and we took silver. No fun and games with times on this occasion. We were medallists! As you can imagine, it meant a lot to me. Subsequent investigation suggests our relay time was a new British M60 age record, too. IMG_2210

I’m home now, with bronchitis and a silver medal, letting all the events of the last week sink in!

The Waiting (is the hardest part)

March 20, 2014

Yes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers got that right, for sure.

Ten days ago, I won a bronze medal at the British Masters Indoor Championships. This time next week, I’ll be well into the World Masters Indoor Championships. Right now, I’m in limbo, waiting.

I’d sensed I was going ok when I won gold and silver in the South of England Indoor Championships in mid February, at my first indoor races since 2012. Then, off the back of the medal in the British Champs, which was a real surprise, I had great plans. My expectations had been very low. After all, as at the date of the recent British championships, I was 59 years, 11 months and two weeks old, Almost as far up the M55 age group as it’s possible to get. But nevertheless, turns out that in my first indoor events since that foot injury in 2012, I’ve been able to cut over 60 metres. And I’m already much faster over 200 metres indoors than I was outdoors last summer.

My plans were to use the period between the national champs and the Worlds really usefully. I realised that the training gain, in a physical sense, from a couple of weeks hard graft would have been minimal. I also recognised that I’d be walking a tightrope between going well and risking injury. However, the psychological boost might have been good.

Might. I didn’t count on the week after the latest medal being mostly a nasty slide down into a bit of a depressive funk. I think, as I write – and because I’m writing – I’ve begun to come out the other side of that now, but apart from a couple of desultory attempts to do some gym work, I’ve lost a week. That, and the body is saying “rest now”. Rest? I’ve pretty much been sleeping 12 hours a day lately. What do I need to rest for?

A little while ago, I began to recognise that some of the things I’d been experiencing that I’d thought were longer term effects of coming off anti-depressants were in fact pretty well charted symptoms of anxiety. A good few years ago, in different ways, I suffered badly from anxiety. I thought that I’d overcome it, but by a simple bit of mapping my symptoms against events in my diary, I began to see a pattern of sorts. Throughout February, I was mostly fine. I had a good diversionary activity, after all. But that ended at the start of March.

I have no doubts at all that I’ll get through these things. They have at least pushed to the back of my mind a big event that is a couple of days away, as I write this. It’s called “Being 60”.

Yes, my 60th birthday. It happens two days before I go to Budapest for the World Championships and marks a move up to the M60 Masters age group. The whole “being 60” thing probably needs a blog in its own right, so watch this space, because I’ve been musing on how different “being 60” seems to be nowadays, compared to attitudes etc two or three decades ago.

Not really much else to add at this point. Just like hanging about in the call-room before going out on to the track is one of the hardest parts of any big competition, waiting to be 60 and waiting to go off to Budapest are both hard to live with right now. I’m wishing a few days away, it seems, which isn’t like me.

More soon. Maybe even a post from Budapest.

It Never Rains

February 17, 2014

No, I’ve not been living in a desert recently.

Far from it. I live a few minutes walk, but thankfully quite high above, the River Medway, which has done more than its fair share of flooding since Christmas Day. However, I think I can honestly say the awful weather we’ve had round here has not interrupted my winter training at all. That’s probably not everyone’s story.

My training’s not wholly typical, I am certain. When I returned to the track and entered the world of Masters Athletics nearly 14 years ago, I rather tended to pick up my training ideas from where I’d left off before severe injury to my back, about 13 years previously, had cut me down. Big mistake. One I think many returners to Masters make too, I think. As happened with me, I immediately began falling foul of injuries left, right and centre. In my case, as a (then) 46 year old sprinter, these were mostly upper and lower leg problems. I’ve seen it with others, and seen it lead to some very short-lived Masters careers.

I’m pleased to say I had support from a great physio, Steve Cluney, in those early days. Steve had known me before my Masters years, and properly understood the issues involved in a return to fast running many years later. Steve exhorted me to search out a training pattern that suited me, made me ache in all the right places, and fitted in with my life. This was wonderfully at odds with the perceived wisdom of doing endless reps at the track several times a week, and a weekly gym session. Moreover the advice suited me perfectly. I live in a bit of an athletics wilderness. It was even worse at the time, with no publicly available track for about 30 miles in any direction. I’d also taken out membership of a very well-equipped gym a few years before, which stood almost exactly on my route as I walked between home and my office. It was the progress I’d made at the gym that had encouraged me to return to the track in the first place. Now it was time to see what I could really get the place to do.

It makes me sad when I hear athletes denigrating gyms. I read a piece not very long ago from someone (a distance runner) who had been exactly twice, had concluded that there was nothing he could gain from the gym concerned, and had promptly set himself up to sound like an expert on how no gym would ever be any help to any athlete. Sad.

I’ll not bore with a run down on what I actually do at the gym. This would take a long time, because what I do now isn’t what I did then, and it’s changed innumerable times since then. As have I. My 59 year old body might look vaguely like my 46 year old one, but it seems to work differently! I’m generally regarded as someone who has “aged well”, though appearances alone can be deceptive. In short, however, I do a broad mix of strength and flexibility training that most gyms are well-equipped to support. I use a variety of gym machines and free weights or other loadings. On top of that, I do a regular, carefully-planned amount of high aerobic or threshold work, on a treadmill or spinning bike mostly. These are hard at times, and the end result is seldom pretty. As a sprinter, I spend a lot of gym time working on hip flexibility – vital for me given my history of back trauma – and leg speed work. No good being blessed with lots of fast twitch fibres if you don’t encourage them.

My lifestyle when in full time work, and just as much now, as a freelancer, has a drawback in that it is almost impossible to commit to training with a group of other people. I therefore train solo. I enjoy the company these days, but it was not always so. Health Warning: Beating myself up in training, with no one to check, control or comment on my performance was, I am sure, a contributor to, or perhaps a consequence of, my slide into severe depression a few years back. Streuth, more than four years now!

And of course, as it has thrown it down with rain this winter – the wettest on record in the UK, and regularly blown a severe gale, I have not missed a single session because of the weather. This has actually been my most consistent winter’s training I can recall. I’ve not even had a head cold, just the odd niggles that, with a bit of expert chiro advice etc, I’ve been able to work through.

And yesterday, I won the 60 metres title and came second in the 200m in my age group at the South of England Masters Indoor Championships. I think I can see a connection between that and my good winter.

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I’ve got the big 6-0 rushing towards me at a rate of one day at a time, and I’ve learned never to count my chickens, but please treat this as an optimistic blog. There have been rather a lot of the other sort.

(Musical reference in the title this time courtesy of Dire Straits)

Dignity

January 5, 2014

It’s likely that by the time you read this, Emiel Pauwels will be dead. He was 95 last month.

I can never claim that I knew him well. Emiel was one of the best-known figures in Belgian, European and World masters athletics. I’d photographed him running or high jumping on at least two dozen occasions, and he’s mentioned in this 2011 blog of mine. Like many others, I guess, I’ve come to regard him as one of the “Ever-presents” of the Masters scene. I have hardly ever attended a major Masters championships at which he wasn’t a competitor.

Emiel spoke just a few words of English, and rather more of German. I have no Flemish, his native tongue. Trackside banter between venerable athlete and irritating photographer was usually in a patois of several languages, depending on who else was around. Not that Emiel ever did get irritated with photographers around him. He was a publicity-magnet, and he knew it. A smile and a triumphant victory salute were never far away when he saw a camera. And his expressions of pleasure were never limited just to events he won. Emiel’s delight was always to finish. For him, it was about participating. And about still being able to participate, whatever the calendar might say.

I saw this very starkly in the European Masters Championships in Hungary in July 2010. It was hot and intensely humid. I was working trackside with the camera and, as I said at the time, “I was on at least three litres of water a day, yet never saw any return on that investment”. The crowds were being delighted, as usual, by the 1500 metres race for the highest Masters age groups. Suddenly a clipboard-wielding green-blazered official strode on to the track in front of Emiel Pauwels, raised his hand and instructed him to stop. He didn’t, of course. With a wave of his thin arms, he side-stepped the official and carried on for a further lap. With less than 400 metres of the race remaining, the official blocked his way again and physically restrained him from continuing.

I’d never seen Emiel angry before. He was furious, and attempted again to continue, before almost seeming to crumple as he accepted he was being disqualified. He’d broken no rules before the official (a “health and safety officer” who had probably never seen athletes of 80 years old and above racing) first tried to stop him on the grounds (as we were later told) that he thought he was running too slowly. That’s right; he tried to stop a man of 90 from running because, in the heat of the afternoon, he thought the competitor was “running too slowly”. When Emiel didn’t stop first time, it was a simple matter for officialdom to disqualify him for failing to obey an official’s instruction.

I was right where this happened. Across the track, people in the stands were booing. I said loudly to the official “I think you have made a bad decision there.” I’d taken the photo in this blog a few moments before Emiel was pulled from the event. Does this look like a man in distress to you?
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Emiel was totally disorientated, but soon whisked away by other Belgian athletes. I later learned that the official had subsequently also tried to have me banned from working as a photographer, for my comment.

Next day, I asked Emiel how he was. It was clear from his reply that he was mainly incensed at not being allowed to finish his race – being told he could not participate any further when he had just 350 metres left of the event.

This story came back to me when a friend sent me the news last weekend that Emiel was terminally ill. Ken Stone of Masterstrack tells the rest with this post.

So, farewell Emiel. You were not the first 90 year old on the track, and you won’t be the last, but you were one who seldom seemed to turn down a chance to run or jump. We’ll not see you again, but we’ll not forget your racing spirit.

(By way of an update, Emiel’s family subsequently posted online this video of his “Farewell” party. Incredibly poignant. News of Emiel’s death next day was picked up in newspapers all over the world.)

“Psychotherapy”

November 19, 2013

By way of explanation, rather than apology, I’ll begin by saying that this is a therapeutic blog for me. I need to put some thoughts down to help me make sense of them. However, I’m going to put it out as a blog, because I know how bad I felt a couple of years ago hiding behind a smiley face when, behind the mask, things were not right.

A good few years ago, when my job seemed constantly to be on the line every few months, I thought I was coping well, until I began to develop what the medics called “an anxiety syndrome evidenced by sporadic irrational panic attacks”. It’s too long ago and too buried inside bad memories to revisit in detail, but I came through it. I wasn’t running very seriously at the time. I still had big commitments to lead parties in the mountains during periods of paid and unpaid leave. You can read something about those days in some of the pieces I’ve written in my other blog, which tells the story behind a few of my favourite photos.

Those days came to an end when the company for whom I worked was taken over and asset-stripped. I found myself with more time for running, and actually pretty competitive, as I came to discover, not only in domestic competition, but at a European and World level too. Those things have been the backbone of this blog for many years now.

Dealing with the anxiety and stress of preparing and waiting for big competitions was a real education. Call-rooms before a major event take many forms, but all leave you pretty much alone with your thoughts, be they rational, or the other sort. It was my extremely well-known friend and frequent race rival Dr Steve Peters who taught me most of the techniques I know to cope with that stuff, both by his own example, and through stuff on some courses that he ran that I attended.

I’ve made an oblique reference to my run-in with depression, and since “coming out” about it, I’ve always felt able to talk about it freely, with friends and on this blog. Depression is an illness. A physical illness. Many people still, sadly, regard it as some kind of irrational psychological affliction, neatly confusing cause and effect. There are many more sports-people living and coping with depression than you’d realise. Some have been high profile in the media. Most of us are not, of course. I have had huge support from athlete friends who “have been there” or are still “there” and, I hope, have done my own bit to help them in turn.

My regular blog reader won’t need reminding that I’ve had a couple of years in which my racing and training has been totally banjaxed (lovely Irish word, that!) by lower leg and foot injury. Thankfully, I seem to be coming out of the end of that at the moment. Training since I came back from the Alps just on a month ago has been good. I think I even felt the benefit of six weeks living at altitude! I’m currently quite focused on racing at the World Masters Indoor Championships in Budapest next March.

I left full-time work in 2011 when yet another reorganisation revealed an escape tunnel I could use on acceptable terms. I’ve worked much of my time since then as a freelance photographer, done a bit of social media training and some “critical friend” work with some small charities. It’s been particularly rewarding in an intellectual and emotional sense. I came home from the Alps this time with a diary I’d intentionally managed to keep almost completely empty. This was a way to help me get as much as possible out of my time away. It soon began to fill with photographic jobs for great organisations, and I was nearly what you might call “busy” once or twice recently.

One of those jobs (yesterday as I write this) took me back into my old place of employment. I’d only made two fleeting visits previously in over two years. This time I was there for a whole morning. (I’m privileged occasionally to be shooting stuff for the Kent Foundation, who are doing a cracking job.) Before I left the building, I even bumped into a few people I knew from the old days who hadn’t even realised I’d left! Same building, same receptionist, same decor inside, same coffee in the staff restaurant. It was the stuff of time travel.

Now, I need to confess (if that’s the word) that on several occasions since I left, and at random times, though frequently on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve felt very anxious about what felt like the need to get ready and go back to work the next day. Most vivid was one day when driving south on the M25 towards the Dartford Crossing. Nonsense of course, and I’ve often had to give myself a stiff talking to, and remind myself that I don’t do that any more. Never researched it, but I bet it’s common amongst people who’ve retired or been made redundant.

So, is it just coincidence that, out of the blue this morning, I experienced one of the worst panic/anxiety attacks I have ever had? I’ve spent a day lying low, trying to make sense of it. This blog is, as you might have realised by now, an attempt to put the jigsaw puzzle pieces into some kind of order.

More to do, but thanks for indulging me. It’s helped already.

(My reader will also know the effort I go to to find a suitable song title from my music collection to head my blogs. I even managed with this one! “Psychotherapy” is a great tongue-in-cheek song from the pen of Melanie, who for many is just associated with the song “Brand New Key”. She was, and remains, a huge, versatile talent.)

Round and Round We Go

October 24, 2013

I suppose, now that I’m back from what has come to be known around here as “The Big Trip”, I ought to post a blog to mark that fact. Truth be told, I ought to have done that about a fortnight ago. I’ll be honest: for some of that time, my thoughts and reflections on my travels were just too incomplete to write about, and for all of that time, it was possibly just too emotionally painful to put my thoughts into words.

“Painful?” you ask. Yes, several times on my six week journey, I felt physical pain at leaving places and people I love, and the echoes of that pain still linger with me, weeks later, as I think about it. I’m not one of those hopeless romantics, and I don’t think I’m becoming one. I just had the opportunity to immerse myself deeply in some things and places that I have been very close to in an emotional sense for many years. Geographically, most of them are over 800 miles from home, sad to say.

“The Big Trip” hung over the whole of my track season this year. I came into the season injured, as those of you who read this stuff might recall, and I’d committed to being in Cortina d’Ampezzo and Chamonix many months before departing. That meant no British Masters Championships for me this year, and no trip to the World Masters Championships in Brazil. But, “t’was a far, far better thing” that I did.

The vital statistics were 3,250 miles travelled, 3,400 digital photos shot, plus several rolls of film that I’ve not even thought about getting developed yet. The best 100 photos from the Dolomites stage of The Trip are online here, and if you also look at the latest 5 photos on my gallery at 500px, you’ll get a glimpse of the best stuff I shot while in Chamonix. There was quite a lot else before, in between and after, but at present I’ve not really thought about posting it for a wider audience. Quite a lot appeared on Twitter as I went along, as a substitute for a more traditional travelogue.

I ought to have acknowledged the important role Twitter played as a link and a lifeline when I wrote this blog from Chamonix about the loneliness of the long distance traveller [link]. I’m followed on Twitter by a great bunch of people. They say Facebook (which I shun) typically contains stuff from people you met for five minutes and never want to meet again, while Twitter links you to people you’ve mostly never met, but would love to spend five minutes with. I go along with that!

Very little on The Big Trip was new ground to me. Anticipation, weather, people, and the delight of returning to known ground all helped make it exciting enough. I’m not one of those who believes that “distance lends enchantment”. Anything but, for me. Pretty much what I set out in this blog just before leaving was what happened. Occasionally, I agonised about playing safe like that, especially in my post from Chamonix. However, I even constructed the only missing pieces of the jig-saw (at that point) not long after, by booking a stop-over for several days in Annecy, which has nearly always featured in my journey to or from the big mountains.

With really very little over-sentimentality, I can honestly say that my heart sang as I descended the Falzarego Pass road into Cortina, and later, when I got my first glimpse of the Chamonix Aiguilles on the road in from Switzerland. By the same token, my departures from Fontenazzo, Cortina, Andermatt, Chamonix and Annecy were like a punch in the guts. I always seem to regret the things I didn’t have time to do, more than I rejoice over what I did do and see. I’ve come to terms with that over the years, perhaps because it gives me things to look forward to doing on my next visit.

Whenever that might be, of course. There is a cycle to these trips, I’ve decided. Months and weeks of planning and anticipation at the start. Mid way through, particularly on lonely days, I start wondering whether I’ve “got this sort of thing out of my system”. But by the time I’m home, more often than not, the seeds of the next episode have begun to sprout.

And so it was this time, too.

(Footnote: Once again, The Strawbs provided me with the title for this blog)

Like a Rolling Stone…..

September 30, 2013

If you’re my regular reader, you’ll have noticed all (nearly) my blog headings are music titles. I have a huge, though some would say quite narrow collection of stuff to draw from, and it’s seldom hard to come up with something apposite. Usually, with me, it’s the case that the title is about the last component of a blog – the thoughts and content nearly always come first. Today’s different, though. The song was in my head, and I began to realise how appropriate the words had become.

I’ve tweeted a fair bit about the journey I’m on at present, but only found time, inspiration or wifi connection, to blog here and here. To bring you up to speed, I had almost a month in my beloved Dolomites, and I am now nearer home, stopping over in Chamonix for a week. This was an accident. When doing the planning and original booking, I flipped over two diary pages by mistake. When I came to review the itinerary, after having made some of the accommodation and return travel bookings, I discovered I had a one week “hole” in the trip. That slip-up was rectified when I found that the lovely flat in Chamonix, that I rented for five weeks at this time last year, was available again for exactly that accidental week. Made to be.

That’s where I am now. My wife travelled home over two weeks ago, after our first stint of self catering ended, and I’ve been a solo traveller in three different hotels since then. Now I’m in a flat, self catering, and it’s suddenly a very different world. (This is where the Dylan track comes in, in case you had begun wondering whether I’d lost my own plot.)

“How does it feel, to be on your own?…”

Right now? Very empty. Hotels, other guests, communal breakfast rooms, etc all provide a veneer of companionship when you’re a solo traveller. Self catering, in a nice, but nevertheless anonymous third floor apartment, throws you back on yourself, makes you reflective, and vocalises that inner dialogue. That’s a posh way of saying I talk to myself and to my furry travelling companion, of course.

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There’s a great freedom in not having to get up for a predetermined breakfast time, etc, but the added overhead that, if you want it done, you’re going to have to do it yourself. No one to replace your towels, make your bed each day, etc! On the up side, I can have a cup of tea made with properly boiled water, though. I’d been craving that for a fortnight. Most French supermarkets here have an “Anglais” section (though why no German, Italian, or Japanese one?) and I’ve even been able to buy Tetley teabags!

“A complete unknown…”

Until last year, I hardly knew Chamonix. I’d stayed a few days here and there, and stayed quite nearby. Like it to me, I was a stranger. Visit somewhere often enough and your face gets known. I feel privileged that there are places in the Dolomites where I have become recognised as a regular. Not so in Chamonix. I felt very familiar with the place when it came to going home time last year. There was physical pain in that parting, if I’m honest. That’s why it’s so good to be back, even for a far shorter stay. But to Cham, its people and shopkeepers, I’m still just another nameless white face.

“With no direction home…”

Very true. I have a week when I’m finished here, before I’m due on board Le Shuttle. I left the details of that week empty, save for the Channel crossing date, and I was sure that “something” would occur to me in the preceding six weeks with which to fill the days. Well, not yet, it hasn’t. It’s probably down to having too much choice (lucky me). Unfortunately, I’ve been beating myself up about not spending longer in the Dolomites. Too far away now to go back there again before heading home, sadly.

“Like a rolling stone.”

So, I literally don’t know where I will be this time next week. I’m getting close to the boundaries of my travelling comfort zone! This has been a bit of a “consolidating” journey. I’ve not really been anywhere new to me, but have enjoyed finding out why I love some of the places I’ve been. Distance, they say, lends enchantment. True enchantment to me is stuff like walking down the main street in Cortina d’Ampezzo and almost saying out loud “My God, I love this place!” (Which I did, recently.)

I expect something will turn up. Maybe I should insist to myself it be somewhere new?

Stranger In A Strange Land

September 3, 2013

I’ve been interested in First World War history for many years now. I’ve occasionally blogged about it here, too. However, in all that I’ve read about, and of all the WW1 sites I’ve visited in Europe to date, the American experience of that war hasn’t really featured. Until today.

Recent events regarding Syria have reminded me of that all too common joke about the USA being keen to be first into the next World War, to make up for being late for the last two. It was 1917 when the American troops joined the struggle against the Kaiser. What I’d not realised was the extent of the US dead, nor the short time-frame for the annihilation of so many soldiers. Until today.

On my journey through France, the first leg of my trip out to the Dolomites in Italy, I left Reims this morning, without much of a plan in mind, except that I needed to be in Baden-Baden, in Germany, in the evening. My meandering route eventually took me north of the French “war and peace capital” of Verdun, to the area known as the Argonne. This is wonderful, wild, wooded and rolling country of immense beauty. In 1917 it was a key strategic gap in what we now call “The Western Front”. Unless protected, it represented part of the shortest German “bee-line” to Paris. The US “Doughboys” were poured in.

I ended up at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. This would actually quite hard to find if you were looking for it (I wasn’t, to be honest) and it’s still the largest American burial-place in Europe. Bigger than anything from WW2. You can read more here. The size of the place, and its simplicity, was overwhelming. Regardless of colour or status, every soldier here has the same white marble cross (or Star of David) bearing name, rank, home State, and date of death. So, so many had died in October or November 1918. The crosses cover such a large area it’s almost impossible to do them justice with a photo at ground level.

I was there around midday. It was sombre as the cemetery chapel clock struck twelve, but I was completely reduced to tears by what followed. The chapel chimes played “The Star Spangled Banner” and then “John Brown’s Body”, or The Battle Hymn of the Republic, as the tune is properly known. Nothing could be more fitting for this place.

I spent almost two hours wandering amongst the crosses. The names alone were a flavour of America, with Italian, Greek, Slav, Irish surnames, and many more. In one sector, I found a Reagan and a Nixon buried almost side by side. I found a Patton too. Wonder if any were relatives? The names alone brought it home to me, in the way nothing ever has before, that this was a World war. And the world was fighting itself.

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I felt truly chastened as I left. The stereo came on a mile or so down the road, with the CD tracks set to random play. First up was Leon Russell’s inimitable 1971 track “Stranger in a Strange Land”. That’s exactly how the American soldiers must have felt.

I’ll follow the Sun

September 2, 2013

So, we (as in me and my small furry travelling companion) are on our way at last.

The last 36 hours or so have been busy. Yesterday was completely given over to taking part in the Southern Masters League Final at Ashford. It’s the event I rate for quality and competitiveness above all Masters track and field events in the UK save for the BMAF National Championships. My club has qualified for the Final pretty much every year of the competition’s 25+ year history. Basically, the Final brings together in a full-on day of competition the eight top Club Masters Athletics squads in the south of England. When team manager of my mob, I was proud to lead them to win the match twice -last time being in 2012 – and gutted in 2011 when we lost by one single match point. I feel equally gutted for my successor as manager, Les Roberts, because history repeated itself yesterday, and Southampton AC beat us by just one point. For me, it’s had me wondering what might have happened if my dip finish in the 100m had been more effective, or if I’d not nearly fluffed our last relay baton change. Others too, I expect. But that’s sport, and great sport it was too.

Those things aside, on a personal level, the match was good. I ran my fastest 200m of 2013, a forgettably slow 100m, and a fast sprint relay leg (though the less said about baton changing, the better). What was strange was that the 200 was into a headwind, while the 100 had a tailwind. That will perhaps sound unusual to anyone who doesn’t know the track at Ashford! I got through the day without injury or additional niggles, though I’m sore and tired now. Competitive season over for 2013. I guess it went pretty much to the optimistic version of “the plan”. Thank you to all who helped that happen.

At dawn today, we were off down to the Channel Tunnel and over to France by the time civilization was having breakfast, on the first leg of the Big Trip. The first part of the journey was directly into the rising sun, and emblematic of my hopes for the next few weeks! To be honest, it was always going to be a “make it up as you go along” day today, because our destination was only three hours direct drive away, and we had much longer to kill. I’d programmed the GPS with a couple of waypoints. One of these was “Avesnes”. What I’d not checked properly was which “Avesnes” I’d picked, and yes, we were miles into deep rural French countryside before it dawned on me it was the wrong one of, as I found out later, several. Nonetheless, we got to see some fine country, and drive some brilliant, quiet roads, and we turned a 180 mile journey to Reims into one of over 245 miles!

Part of me doesn’t think a big trip like this has properly begun until I’ve tasted the first Pelforth Brune, the signature beer of northern France. Well, I have now, twice, as it happens, so I’ll write any typos and grammatical errors off to “6.5%” and start planning tomorrow.

Summer Song

August 31, 2013

I’m into the final phase of preparation for this year’s “big adventure”. It’s certainly begun to take my mind off how bored I was when I blogged my last piece here.

If you have a browse through some of the stuff on my other blog, “A Blog on a Landscape”, you’ll find out about some of the things I used to do quite often, by way of recreation. The Dolomites of northern Italy featured large in those activities for a good many years. Two years ago, I returned there, after a bit of a break when much of my spare time and all of my energy was given over to running. It was fun seeing the place almost afresh, and doing much of the legwork for my other web project, The Great Dolomite Road. I didn’t visit in 2012, but had a very satisfying time in Chamonix (see the best photos from that trip here) and in most ways it was a bit of a no-brainer for me to decide to go back to the Dolomites this year.

As I’ve done many times before, I’ll be travelling by motorbike. When you see the bike, you’ll realize that’s neither as epic nor adventurous as it might sound, really. However, there’s always the issue for me about which way to travel out and back. I’ve done the quick ways, including coming 800 miles home with just black coffee and one short stop for a few hours of sleep, and my preference now is to take three or four days for the trip.

This time, I plan to tackle an ambition to ride some significant miles through Germany’s Black Forest, before putting my feet up for a day in a small place in Austria I really like. My wife is flying out to join me in the Dolomites for part of the time, and it looks like we might have fallen lucky with renting a decent apartment in the Val di Fassa, in the western part of the area. Then, when she returns home, I plan to head further east, towards Cortina d’Ampezzo, and spend a bit of time in some of my frequent haunts from ten and twenty years ago.

Solo travel with a big, well-loaded motorbike rather limits the opportunities to get up high in the mountains, so I am glad I have plenty of in-filling of web site content to do for the Great Dolomite Road project. I will be grabbing as many chances as possible to seek out the summits, though. One good thing about September is that sunset is at a very amenable time, and the weather out there in the early autumn can be really good. Here’s hoping, anyhow.

Then there’s the return journey, which I’ve planned to turn into a sort of additional holiday. I’ve ridden across the high road passes of Switzerland a few times, and hardly ever had time or good weather to do them sufficient justice. The plan (such as it is) is to change that, and to end up for a week or so in Chamonix, before a quick blat up the French motorways and home some time in October.

Before I go, there’s the small matter of the Southern Masters League Final the day before I set out, when I’m likely to be racing a 100m, 200m and a relay leg. I did something silly to my left hamstring recently, almost falling over coming out of the starting blocks in a local race. It’s responded well to ice, rest and kinesio tape, but I’m making no predictions.

I hope to blog the Big Trip, though I’m not sure I’ll have internet access all of the time.


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