The Circle Game

March 31, 2015

I had my best track season ever (so far!) in 2009. I was 5th in the World Masters 100 metres and 4th in the 200 metres final in Lahti, Finland, missing the bronze medal in the latter by just two hundredths of a second, as the athlete next to me tripped and fell forward faster than he was running! A lot of work had gone into getting to those races. My blogs eventually came to admit that it was not all good work, because the expectations I’d placed on myself were huge, and I’d been beating myself up physically, and (particularly) mentally. Later, when the work got harder and the results refused to come in the winter of 2010, my slide into clinical depression was as rapid as it was unexpected.

The world has come to know that depression is an issue in sport, just as it is elsewhere in real life. I don’t recall us acknowledging that quite so much, even as recently as 2009.

Well, I’ve just had my most successful major indoor athletics season since March 2009. Back then, the European Masters Indoors in Ancona, Italy, were a vital part of my build up to the Worlds in Finland that summer. I’m newly back from the 2015 European Masters Indoors in Torun, in Poland. I ran my fastest 60 metres for several years in the heats, made the final, and got 5th place in it, in an even faster time. In the 200 metres heats it all just clicked perfectly into place. I ran my socks off and made the semi-final as second fastest qualifier of 18 top class Masters athletes. My heats time was half a second faster than I’d been running even a few weeks before, despite having had a worrying back problem just before leaving for Poland. Things went even better for me in the semi-final the following morning. Although it was my fourth race in four days, the chiropractic and massage experts of our British Masters Medical Services squad had kept me in great shape.

My semi-final time saw me third fastest qualifier for the final in a time I’d never have dreamed of achieving this winter. It was about 2009/10 that I last raced that fast. (Are you spotting a pattern here?) In Finland in the 2009 Worlds, there were several, myself included, I guess, who had just about placed a bronze medal around my neck before the 200 metres final had even begun. This time? Well, maybe once or twice, but I’d arrived at this point more surprised than anything (and anyone) else. I was just wide-eyed with amazement at what I was doing, and loving every hundredth of a second of it.

The 200 metres final happened in the evening of the same day as the semi-final. I’d had a massage, a meal, a sleep, and largely stayed away from my obligations as a photographer down on the track during the day. I was ready. I had a good lane draw, and the faster guys outside me. From the gun, the chase was on. I felt great until 150 metres of the race, when someone or something covered my thighs in lead. As the finish line loomed, I was in 4th place. On the line, I was pipped by a team-mate by four hundredths of a second. The qualifying rounds had taken their toll, and the times we both ran were well down. There is video of my race at https://t.co/gWYorQgQLi

Fifth place in two European Masters finals a few days apart? I’ll take that. I had no idea at all it was remotely in the offing when I travelled out to Poland. In 2009 there had been pleasure tinged with big, yet suppressed, annoyance, and lots more opportunity to turn on myself for having “failed” to get a medal. That was even despite our gold medal in the sprint relay a couple of days afterwards. This time around, for the me of 2015, there was joy. Apologies to those to whom I spoke in the hours after that race in Torun. I was on the verge of tears of pure pleasure each time. My face hurt from the smiles as much as my legs hurt from the races, by the time I got back to my hotel.

No beating myself up, no raking over the past training schedules for evidence of inadequacies. I’d rediscovered what makes a 61 year old man who has basically been a sprinter all his life carry on doing it. Fun. Pure, unalloyed FUN. I was not ” a better person” for success (such as it was) in Torun, just as I came to learn that “failure” (such as it seemed back then) in Lahti didn’t label me “a bad person”, except in a mind that had made itself literally ill with the unrealistic expectations it had stacked up. The me of July 2009 didn’t understand that. Depression is not about being “a bit sad” etc. It’s an illness that will eat you whole until you confront it and ask for help.

I did, when the alternatives became unthinkable. To those who helped, my delight at what I achieved in Poland last week is for you to share. Some of you will be reading this. You know who you are. Thank you.

Oh, and on the day after that 200 metres final, I led off a 4 x 200 metres relay squad that won a gold medal by a big margin. A number of friends commented that I seemed a bit happy on the presentation rostrum when we got that medal. Perhaps this blog goes some way to explaining.

IMG_4842

IMG_8206

Hat tip to Joni Michell for the title of this blog. The reason I used it might be obvious, but in addition, you need to know that 200 metres indoors is raced as one lap of the track. As I write, Joni is, sadly, very ill in a Los Angeles hospital.

The Heat Is On

March 11, 2015

I’ve avoided blogging here for the few weeks that have represented my domestic indoor athletics season this year. I really didn’t want to tempt fate. My plan only included six (eventually seven) races spread across three meetings. I couldn’t afford to screw up, or my plans to race in Poland at the end of March at the European Masters Championships might have been derailed. By leaving out the open-graded sprint meets I occasionally do, I was basing my season around three championship events – three in just four weekends.

So?

Well, first a bit of a recap. My damaged wrist screwed any chance of the strength-based autumn I’d planned. My emphasis therefore had to change to favouring aerobic fitness (which is where the Maidstone Parkrun fitted in), over which I hoped to layer some slightly more sprint-related work in the second half of the winter. I miscalculated a bit. That “second half” was quite short, because my scheduled indoor races began in February.

First discovery was that my sprint starting and pick-up phase was good. Certainly better than I’d expected. My regular focus in the gym on building fast leg-speed clearly played a part here. Several times, I’ve been leading a 60 metres race up to 40 metres, only being overhauled at the close, when this winter’s missing ingredient – strength work to help me maintain full speed – began to take its toll. Nevertheless, I’ve come within a mere 5/100ths of a second of the target 60 metres time I’d set myself for this winter. That target was the same as my fastest race last winter. I figured that a year on, a year older, etc, matching it would actually represent a bit of a stretch target, given how my winter’s training had actually panned out.

Racing 200 metres events has been a bit of a different story. Sure, I’m getting up to full speed quickly, and relaxing into top gear quite well. But better aerobic fitness notwithstanding, it begins to go a bit downhill from the point at which there is a fine balance between sprinting hard to the finish and simply preventing lactic acid from slowing you down. Put simply, in these races too, I’m being passed by guys able to hold high speed for longer than me. My conclusion is that much of the aerobic work I did in the winter (Parkrun included) just wasn’t at a sufficient speed to address this. That’s to say, despite the suffering involved, steady 5k runs should have given way to 250 and 300 metre repetitions at a high percentage of race pace rather earlier on.

The watch agrees. I’ve been disappointed with my 200 metres times – even though I have just won a bronze medal at the British Masters Championships.

So?

Now the focus is on Poland. At time of writing, I have two weeks to find some speed endurance. Probably not enough time, because speed endurance work hurts and is tiring, and I don’t want to arrive at the European Championships tired out from training for them. Therefore, I think I’m locked into sharpening up even more on the things that are going well, in the hope that they can provide an even better cushion and camouflage for the weak spots.

I’ll blog again after Poland and let you know. Wish me luck!

Ballad of a Thin Man

January 24, 2015

It’s a Bob Dylan track. You’ll see why I chose that title for this blog. Just read on.

I was reminded of an old cartoon-strip joke about the Victorian explorers who meet a new tribe. “Who are you?” they ask them. “We’re the Fkawi!” Says one explorer to the other “Damn, these people are lost as well.”

Well, it’s almost the end of January, and, as it were, where the …. are we?

In a pretty good place, really. When last we met, I was anticipating running a couple more local Parkruns before getting back into some deep winter, sprint-specific training. The “best laid plans of mice and men”, eh? On my second from last Parkrun I pulled a calf muscle at about 3k and almost failed to walk the rest of the way to the finish. Not an experience that endeared me any more closely to running 5k events. I was told I run like a sprinter, so how do I expect bits to last distances ten times longer than I ever race in anger? The calf recovered well by just before New Year, but although I’ve ventured out since as photographer for my local Parkrun, I’m no longer using it as an element of my training.

Nevertheless, the aerobic fitness boost it gave had been helping me me greatly to get into a good routine for other training. I’ve not sustained four sessions of quality training each week like I am doing at present for a good few years. The emphasis has recently been on agility, strength and the beginnings of speed endurance. I’ve had to keep a careful eye on my calf, which niggles now and again, but otherwise, I feel good, and it feels good to feel good!

I don’t know whether the gym I use is going through hard times, in terms of membership, but this year I saw no appreciable increase in usage after New Year. OK, it may be happening in the evenings, and not the late afternoon when I’m mostly there, but usually there’s a burst of enthusiastic “New Year resolution” people. Most of them have faded away by about Easter, if not much sooner. Nevertheless, today, the local Parkrun broke its record for the number of people taking part, and the jogging/road-racing thing seems very back in vogue. Both of these things mean I’ve had some great sessions where I have had acres of gym space to myself. This has been brilliant for plyometric work, drills and stuff. At this time of year, I hate outdoor training for things like that. Being lean, I suffer from the cold. I hate spending a load of time warming up in layer after layer of gear, only to lose all that heat between reps and end up freezing again.

Lean? I don’t struggle with my weight, though time was that I had a stubbornly high body fat percentage that seemed determined to resist whatever so-called “fat burning” element of my training I tried on it. I mentioned in the last blog that while a volunteer for tests at Manchester Met University back in November, I saw an MRI scan “slice” of my thigh, revealing very low intra-muscular and subcutaneous fat. My measured body fat percentage is also very much lower now that I can ever remember it being. Partly age, partly effort. Pity it’s been so cold though!

I’ve got just on three weeks to go before I begin racing indoors. I could have chosen to do some open graded meetings already, but I’ve made a very conscious decision to restrict myself. I’m doing two competitions leading up to the British Masters Indoors in early March, and that’s pretty much going to be it (fingers crossed against injury) before the European Masters in Poland at the end of March.

The late and limited start is because I’ve realised that I could still be racing well into October this year! The World Masters Championships are in Lyon in France at the start of August, and I’ll also be going to the European Masters Games, in Nice, starting on 1 October. There’s plenty of local competition too and I really want to avoid setting myself up for some painful wear and tear. The calendar I’ve got actually makes it hard to spot a good opportunity to back off for a few weeks without the risk of losing form.

So, that’s it for blogs until the gun goes.

Time Is On My Side (?)

December 8, 2014

So, winter drawers on, as the old pun goes. We’ve just had our first sharp frost, the shortest day is here in a fortnight, and spring will be here soon, I’m sure. And what is this older athlete doing at this time of year?

I confessed to you in my last blog that I’d started running in my local weekly Parkrun. Well, several weeks on, and I’m still doing it. I still hate it, every step of the way. Well, except maybe the last, uphill hundred metres, into which I can pour the remainder of whatever energy I have left. A couple of times, that’s been pathetically little. It counts, though. Last time, I gave the hill everything, and broke my Parkrun 5k personal best by three tiny seconds. There are some fast guys in our local run. I was probably more chuffed to come third in my age group. Age groups are important in Masters athletics. They give you a relative benchmark to go with the absolute one supplied by the stopwatch.

Mind you, my Parkrun days are definitely numbered. Once the build up properly begins to the indoor track season, I’ll have no real need of a highly aerobic, but essentially slow, running session like that once a week. I have some faith in what’s called specificity in my training. The Parkrun has been useful as a bit of a shortcut to good aerobic fitness, if I’m honest, but as training for the mad thrash of 60 metres indoors, pretty useless, of course. It may have helped a bit with my sometimes faltering speed endurance – a vital component of every 200 metres race – but specificity in training now demands my attention shifts to speed and power, or power and speed.

My wrist injury (healing steadily now, thanks for asking) occasioned me turning my winter around, and do the aerobic/ endurance stuff before the power work this time, while bone healed. A bit of me can now see an advantage in that, which wasn’t obvious when expediency was the driving factor behind the change. My more usual regime would have allowed only around a month, between Christmas and the indoor track season, to attend to my aerobic fitness. This year, I’ve had the best part of three months, and towards the end of this, been able to taper in some speed and power work, without suffering the panic of knowing my first races are just around the corner. Racing this winter begins for me in February, so time, for a change, feels like it’s on my side. (Hence my choice of music-related blog title. This time from the Rolling Stones)

The plan is one more Saturday Parkrun, followed by a week on holiday, and possibly, just possibly the Christmas Day Parkrun. The latter is for a little mental boost next summer – when I remind myself that few of my rivals will have trained on that particular day in the calendar! If any of them read this, of course, they’ll now all go out and train on 25 December, though, I suppose.

There are, I’m sure, some other benefits. Parkruns are really quite sociable events, even when you suffer in them, like the sounds I make convince me that I do. Most of my other training is pretty solitary. I admit a part of that is by choice – I like the space of a relatively empty gym, and not having to queue for weights, etc. Plus, I have always hated group training sessions on the track. Having the luxury of being free these days to train at off-peak times (and prices) means there is little temptation to restrict my activities to the times of day others find suit them best.

Another benefit has been weight loss. Normally by now, I’d be at or around my top winter weight, worrying about Christmas weight gain, and needing to be sure to do enough to shed some before competition. This time, the reverse applies. My weight is the lowest it’s been for years, and I need to put some on, which will come with my power training, I hope. But I’m not just lighter, I think I am a heck of a lot leaner. A couple of weeks back, I did some tests at Manchester Metropolitan University, who are looking long term at some things that might mark Masters out as physically different from “normal”. One aspect of the tests included a full MRI scan of my thigh. Looking at segments of this, the tester pointed out how very lean the meat of my thigh musculature was.

So, by choice, would I reverse my winter regime like this again? A little early to say, as I need to see how the next couple of months go, but I’d give it a cautious maybe. But specifically as a means to an end, you understand. I will never, ever, come to enjoy a 5k run!

Down By The Riverside

October 25, 2014

Regular readers will know I’m a sprinter. I was the kid at primary school who could “run a bit”, and it sort of went on from there. That’s not to say I’ve never dallied with the false gods of distance running, though. I’ve been there and (literally) got the t-shirts.

In my early 30’s I had an accident that badly damaged my lower back. It was far too unstable to allow me to train. Before, I was running 200 and 400 metres back then, and having a little bit of success. I had about 18 months during which time I didn’t/couldn’t run at all, and I began to wave my track career bye-bye.

By coincidence, this was the time that the mass “jogging” boom was taking off. I was never interested on running marathons, but as therapy I ran a bit off off-road stuff. It was a difficult transition even discounting the instability in my back, and the many times it failed me. Physiologically, I learned, I was one mass of “fast twitch” muscle fibres, largely useless for sustained endurance. I persevered however, greatly helped by having a local running partner who was a medical man, and one of the kindest people it’s ever been my fortune to know.

Alan encouraged me to enter a number of 10k road races. They and the training for them became the “new me”. As I recall, I was training almost every day, and certainly trained on Christmas Day on more than one occasion. Just to tick the box, I entered a half-marathon while at my best, and ran just shy of 75 minutes. I now realise that was pretty good, though that particular race was full of great runners and I was well down the field. It’s only nowadays that I’ve come to realise than my 100 metres and half marathon bests make a pair of times not that many other runners will have achieved! However, if I am honest, I think it’s true to say I hated every one of those races.

However, After about six years, my running tailed off a lot. I began to suffer chronic shin soreness, and simply could not do it. I began riding a bike for fitness. That’s maybe a story for another time.

Funny, but part of me simply didn’t miss the running. It wasn’t that I was enjoying not training – I was out on the bike most mornings around dawn from Easter to September. It was mostly that I’d never subjugated those fast twitch fibres. I reckon there were few, if any, able to stay with me in the last 200m of a 10k or half marathon, so I knew they still worked. And in very great part, I really hated hearing myself suffering as I ran.

Fast forward to last month. My sprint season as a 60 year old went reasonably well, thanks for asking. I intentionally passed on going to the European Masters in Turkey at the end of August for a number of reasons, but I had two races booked for September. These were to be followed by a month of “active rest” before winter training. Then, two unconnected things happened. I fell over hard in the garden and damaged the scaphoid bone in my left wrist, and my two end of season competitions both got cancelled. Running and gym-type exercise was almost impossible with the bad wrist, so I decided to make the most of it and take my month off a little earlier than planned, with the pay-off that I could then also start winter training earlier than at first scheduled.

However, by the time most of September had passed, it was clear that older bones heal slowly. Winter training had been going to start with a properly organised regime of weight training and circuit training. Impossible, when you can only grip properly with one hand, and have limited mobility in one wrist as well as no grip. It was then that a former work colleague suggested I reorganised things and included the local Parkrun in my training, while the wrist carried on healing. It was the nudge I needed. Rationally, I can use it to do some aerobic work, as an investment in some more sprint-specific speed-endurance training later in the winter.

At the time of writing this, I’ve run all of three Parkruns. That is to say, my local one, three times. I find the whole concept and organisation of the Parkrun thing really superb. The technical back up that gives you your results and analysis within a couple of hours of finishing puts many much bigger events I know to shame. And although these days I am in no way a morning-person, I do also love the fact that by 10am, training for the day is all done and dusted.

My local event starts close to the River Medway, and is basically a pancake flat, out and back course on the riverside path, save for the ascent and descent of a large, high-level bridge at the mid point, plus a 400 metre steadily uphill finish section. I ran cautiously in my first outing. It was possibly the first time in ten years I’d run more than a couple of consecutive miles. I lived through it, and in week two I ran over two minutes faster. My latest run was a minute faster still.

As a park-runner finishing well down the overall field of 200+ (mostly) happy, smiling faces, I’d like to say I’ve had a great time on each run. I’d like to, but it would be a lie. A lifetime of mostly pandering to the old fast-twitch fibres means I’m suffering. Heart rate is up at levels I seldom see in sprint training these days, and for almost all of the five kilometres run, I hear myself suffering. I comfort myself with the assertion that I’m doing it as a means to a different end to others taking part, and most certainly not for fun!

We’ll see where it leads, eh?

Autumn (more or less)

September 19, 2014

I suppose I ought to start blogging again with the athlete head on, after the diversions of my summer holiday travels, which already seem like an age ago, though I’ve not been home three weeks yet. I say “home”, though that has become a bit of a mobile concept. I’ve spent 24 nights out of the last 40 in hotels or motels, in seven different European countries.

My 2014 track season came to a bit of a sudden end. My club didn’t make it to the Southern Counties League Final this year, pretty much for the first time ever, so my usual season-ending runs out were deprived me, except as photographer. Never mind, I thought, This year the British Masters decathlon and heptathlon weekend had been moved to Birmingham, and an attractive series of open-graded races was arranged to use up some of the down-time on the track over the weekend.

I like events like that. You get to race against opposition chosen on the basis of similar declared times to your own, regardless of age etc. Trouble is, I turned out to be just one of FOUR sprinters in the whole country who entered, and the events were called off with ten days notice. Oh well, I was going to Birmingham in any case, to photograph the decathlon and heptathlon, so at least I didn’t have the chore of cancelling hotel, etc.

I’d struggled to get back into proper training after the big Europe trip in August (see blogs about it, if you missed them), and the week after arriving home showed me how much that journey had actually taken out of me. “not as young as I was…. etc”. I felt sure I could race a couple of late-season sprints largely on muscle memory, anyhow. What’s happened is that September has become an unexpected “rest” month, and I’m beginning to focus on what form early winter training will take this year.

September as a “rest” month isn’t that much of a novelty, I guess, given that in 2011, 2012 and 2013 I was abroad for the whole of the month, and more. Only major difference this time will be that I get to start my winter at the beginning of October, and won’t be weary from the Alps or travelling.

It won’t be so easy to motivate myself this winter, on one level. Turning 60 at the end of the 2013/14 winter was clearly a one-off, and it’s hard to use “turning 61″ in quite the same way. However, I’m still standing, most of the niggling summer-time Injuries appear to have retreated, and I know I’m still as competitive against the regular opposition as ever I have been in the last five or six years. None of them seem to be throwing in the towel, and I have no plans to do so.

I’m tempted to be a bit more serious about weight training this winter, least ways for the first half of the winter. I also realise that, hate it or not, I need to get more track training in than I’ve done for the last few winters. The indoor season will arrive soon enough. Focal point for the winter will be the European Masters Indoors in Torun, in Poland, at the end of March.

So, I’m going to make the most of another two weeks or so of basic idleness, then see what my plans look like after a bit more thought.

“Autumn” is an epic song by The Strawbs, by the way. Got to keep coming up with those music-related titles.

That’s The Way I Like It…(not)

August 29, 2014

My blog titles are mostly musical references. This is a blog about GPS systems, I think. I did toy with the idea of writing one about the brake problems some participants in our European Grinnall Scorpion tour have been having. A good title for that would have been “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”, I suppose.

We’re almost at the end of our Grinnall Tour. What’s left of the main group have left us, and hurried off north today, theoretically via the Nurbürgring, with a ferry tonHull to catch tomorrow. I planned a great line through the Black Forest, from south to north, before an overnight stop on the French/German border. I emphasise “planned”, because for two (occasionally connected) reasons, we were frequently thwarted.

I’ve been a GPS user for many years – what the geeks call an “early adopter”. I’ve seen GPS systems become more sophisticated, and “GPS Jane” has become a permanent member of the entourage on most of my journeys to the further flung places. I’ve also become pretty discerning about what I want from a GPS system – things like good, clear instructions, the minimum of chatter, rapid re-routing, and so on. I use a system on my smartphone these days. One less box of tricks to worry about or plumb in to the car or bike electrics. It also means a bluetooth connection takes care of making the sound audible inside a crash helmet or headset, alongside music.

But my system has become very picky. The system preferences are all set to give me full choice of locations, but Jane has started to decide which routes she regards as impassable. I first noticed this while plotting the route for one of the days on our tour. Jane had apparently taken against the Oberalp Pass in Switzerland. It’s a great mountain road, and I’ve driven it several times, but this year, Jane routed around it. A detour, had we taken it, of about a hundred miles. I put in a waypoint on the road up the pass – the road showed on the mapping – but the best Jane would do was drive up to the waypoint, and insist then on a U turn back to her detour. I put another waypoint on the road down on the other side of the pass. The result was a tortuous route visiting both waypoints, but never going over the mile or so at the top of the pass to connect them.

I’ll concede this was an irritation but not that common a problem….until we got to the Black Forest. There are great roads to ride and drive in the Black Forest, but the best routes are not continuous and need to be pieced together via numerous waypoints. Those were easy to plot. I knew the roads I wanted, and which roads and towns I wanted to avoid. Jane, unfortunately, had other ideas. What ought to have looked like a basically direct south-north line on the map looked more like a Christmas tree, with routes shown up as far as various waypoints, followed by an immediate return back in the opposite direction.

With patience, I added several other waypoints and gradually straightened the route out. We set off, but within five miles, hit a road that was closed owing to road works. It did not offer a deviation route. Unhelpful. We turned around, drove back to the last roundabout and guessed an alternative. This was the cue for Jane’s other foible. Unlike her namesake on some other systems, who eventually get the hint that we’re not going to a particular waypoint after all, our Jane becomes obsessed with trying to get us exactly (and only) to our waypoints, often by prodigious feats of re-routing. The only way to persuade her that things have changed, and that we need to skip a waypoint is to go into the software and delete the now inaccessible waypoints(s).

And, like the plot of a theatrical farce, Jane then re-routed selectively and discontinuously, until we added yet further waypoints manually to force her hand.

Today, sadly, our route encountered about six significant sections affected by closed roads and major roadworks. We got precious little warning of most of them. We’d reach a key junction and find the road we needed was blocked. Several blockages like this suggested no alternative route. We were being driven crazy by what ought to have been a simple re-routing process. And wouldn’t you know it? We then we also met several sections of road Jane deemed completely impassable. She chose her moments badly, and was frequently over-ridden, despite sharp warnings to “Turn around when possible”.

The B500, for example, is a great and deservedly popular road. Parts of it give the best motoring in the Black Forest. It’s a bit discontinuous overall, often becoming the B28 or un-numbered roads. It also has loads of sections with daft slow speed limits, which are no doubt an over-reaction to a past catalogue of road accidents. But it exists, and really can be driven. Over Jane’s dead body, apparently. I need a word with the GPS system creators when (or if) we get home, because otherwise, a beautiful relationship will be ending in tears.

One more Grinnall Euro Tour-related blog to come.

The Long and Winding Road

August 27, 2014

Obvious title for one of my blogs from this big journey we’re on at present, though I was hesitant to use it, because I feel very old, realising that Beatles song is 45 years old now. I remember it like Yesterday, as it were.

Our big trip, which began almost two weeks ago with five Grinnall Scoropions, a Mazda MX2 and a TVR is now down to four Grinnalls, plus the Mazda and TVR. Three Grinnalls have had significant brake or clutch fluid problems and the news came through today that one is having to be trucked home by recovery service, because efforts to repair it have failed, and attempts to locate the necessary replacement parts have been a hugely frustrating catalogue of errors by suppliers large and small. The other broken cars (one with brake issues and one with a clutch problem) are back on the road again after nearly five frustrating days trying to get the right parts, and limped 200 miles to join us at 9pm tonight.

My last blog saw me wet and exhausted, at Kaprun in Austria. We had three nights there, in a very good hotel indeed. We did some touristy things, including a cable car trip up a 3,000 metre peak, which gave great photos, but I spoiled that day by parking my Grinnall for four hours with the lights on, and totally ruining an already desperately weak battery. I’d been hoping it would just about see us home, but it had to be replaced. Happy to report, there was a local BMW dealer in the town, and a new battery was delivered at 7 am on the morning of our departure.

We got to drive and to film the ride over the rather good Glocknerstrasse from Kaprun. I’d been on it a few years ago on my motorbike, but in the Grin it was even more fun. Here’s a three minute clip on YouTube that shows you what it was like.

Our journey home really began when we left Kaprun. Until then, our route had mainly been heading east. The bad weather that has dogged our whole trip once more closed in on us, but we managed a great day from Kaprun to Nauders, a favourite Austrian stopping place of mine, taking in the little-known Stallersattel crossing from Austria to Italy, and the Jaufenpass over to Merano. Sadly, neither gave us any views at all, though the roads were very quiet, and good fun to drive. We’ve moved on since, to the southern part of the Black Forest, where we have two nights in a hotel that was once a youth hostel, and basically still feels like one, in a town full of “adventure activitiy opportunities” when all we want to do is eat, drink and sleep.

I wish I was organised enough to count how many official (numbered) hairpin bends on mountain roads we’ve driven in the last three days, but it is in the region of 300, maybe more. It’s been a hoot, though our enjoyment has been tempered by sympathy for our comrades with broken toys, and the realisation it could have been any of us, at any time.

Bring Me Sunshine….

August 24, 2014

When I used to ride a bike for sport, I used to have trouble with wind. No, not that sort, the sort that blows the wrong way when you really, really don’t need it. Nowadays, I seem to be having problems with rain.

Yes, I know (because so many people tell me) that going on a 2,500 mile jaunt around the Alps in a completely open top sports car is asking for trouble. The “trouble” I was warned of included sunburn and dehydration. Right now, I’d give anything for them! We’re about halfway through the trip, and the 450 miles we’ve covered in the last two days on the road have mostly been in quite abominable rain.

We had a day off while staying high in the hills above the Italian Lakes. It was warm and sunny all day. Yesterday, we were woken at 7am by thunder, and set off just after a deluge. Our route was mostly on remote mountain roads in the superb area south from the Brenta Dolomites. Central to it was the Passo Crocedomini which included about 25 miles of single track road with hardly any passing places. Happily, save for (or because of) steady rain, we had it to ourselves just about. Near Lago d’Idro and on as far as Trento, driving the Grinnall was rather like driving a motorised canoe. We were clearly just following the tail of some very severe rain indeed.

I run a web site about the Great Dolomite Road, which runs from Bolzano to Cortina d’Ampezzo. You can read all about this fascinating route here. Over the years, I have spent many hours on The Road, as I refer to it, but I had never driven it entirely from end to end in one go, until yesterday. I’d always regarded it as too much fun to be rushed like that. I still do, but some re-planning of our trip left me free of the remainder of the party for 36 hours, and able to revise part of the route to Calalzo, south of Cortina, so doing an end-to-end on The Road became a reality.

The clincher was having the chance to video the whole route from the car, which I did, in sections. It had basically stopped raining for much of the time, the roads were wet, and the cloud down pretty low. Stay tuned for those video clips being YouTubed when I get home, and linked to the web site. They came out quite well.

We had a dry night, but just as we were loading the Grinnall for today’s relatively short 180 miler to Kaprun, near the Grossglockner in Austria, the rain began. Half an hour later, it was raining with real menace. When the Grinnall is moving, it’s amazing how dry one stays inside it. A waterproof jacket and trousers are useful, and headgear that will cope with the wet, of course. It’s when you slow down or stop that you suffer worst. Saturday traffic on the Italian/Austrian border meant we did a lot of tediously slow driving. All the while, the weather was getting worse. Much worse. We basically opted to keep going, and battled on through near-flooded main roads.

Our route was over the Felbertauernstrasse, which has a (we thought) useful toll tunnel. We hadn’t counted on major roadworks leading to the tunnel, nor on the queues these caused. It is as well that the floor-pan of the Grinnall incorporates two drain holes, though I think that at times, as much standing water on the roads got in through these as drained out. Then came a combination of mountain roads, traffic, thick fog, pouring rain, and steamed up goggles. And, of course, nowhere to shelter. It was very scary, but the GPS was counting down the miles. Water had begun to seep in through the neck of my jacket, and when we stopped briefly under the awning of a closed petrol station, I realised I was shivering. The temperature had fallen to 5 degrees C. On an August Saturday afternoon.

But you know the rest. We made it. There will be more rain, but we’re promised a “not bad” day soon.

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

August 21, 2014

I am not a mechanical person. Any DIY and mechanical stuff I do is self taught. At school, I was made to do Latin rather than woodwork and metalwork. I suspect there are tens of thousands of us ex grammar school boys like that.

It was a bit of a selling point to me to come on this continental adventure with members of the Grinnall Owners Register that most of them do their own servicing, and some had even built their cars from kit. Unlike me. Ironically, then, it has been three of them who have had pretty major “mechanicals” so far in the trip. There is a “black book” being run. Not sure my knackered battery has got me in it yet, but it’s clear I’ll need to find somewhere over the next few days to buy a replacement. After a night in the underground garage to our present hotel, my Grinnall just about started today. Not sure that would have happened after a night outside in the truly epic storm we had yesterday evening.

The other four Grinnalls were out in that, having opted for a different route to the hotel to us. Not sure I’d have wanted to bleed a clutch on one car, and rectify total brake failure in another at the height of that thunderstorm. The hotel garage is full of pieces of car today, or rather, cars in pieces, much to the amusement of other guests. I take my hat off to my companions, who have remained cheerful in conditions that would have had me in total despair.

Latest news is that one car might well have to be recovered back to the UK if a trip to a local garage this afternoon fails to come up with the right brake seals. Seals that were originally for a 1995 Ford Fiesta are not likely to be easy to find in Italy, of course.

image

We have driven to here (Lago d’Iseo, near Brescia and Bergamo) from Central France, via Annecy, Chamonix, and Andermatt, over several big mountain passes and miles and miles of really interesting roads. Weather has been very mixed, with us getting a soaking and a roasting at some point on most days. My biggest regret was crossing the Julier Pass, to St Moritz yesterday and the Bernina Pass just after, in very poor weather indeed.

Mind you, it might have been more serious. It seems I may have done many of the miles between Annecy (last complete check-over of my Grinnall) and here, with no rear lights or brake lights. This morning, I discovered the connector to them was undone. No idea when it came loose, or how. Now very firmly taped up. Happily, that connector didn’t affect the rear indicators, though.

We are in an Italian hill village for two nights, in a very good hotel, which is a plus. The minus is the 10 kilometers of hairpin bends up to the village, on a tiny road which (as we found out on our way up yesterday) is nevertheless a public bus route!

image

Tomorrow, what I’m sporadically tweeting under the #bigtrip hashtag moves on to the Dolomites, my spiritual second home these last 30 years. We’re only passing through really (sadly), and the forecast isn’t good. Total trip mileage since home will pass 1,000 somewhere on tomorrow’s stage.

After that, we’re three nights in Austria, in a hotel with its own car museum and fully-fitted workshop where, it seems likely, some time will again be spent “putting Humpty together again.”

Stay tuned!

Update later on 21 August:

One Grinnall (the trip organiser’s) now declared dead. Needs a part that is being shipped direct from the UK to our Austrian hotel. Another Grinnall needs clutch work, and that hotel has a workshop. Because I am keen to video footage of The Great Dolomite Road for my web site about it, I’m heading to tomorrow’s intended stop near Cortina d’Ampezzo via a slightly altered, but nevertheless long route. The rest of the party are accompanying the dead Grinnall’s recovery truck direct to Austria for an extra night there, and we’ll meet up with them on Saturday night. Means I stay pretty close to original route, and get some video done as we drive my very favourite roads.

There are downsides, such as being away from the rest of the group for 36 hrs and not having their mechanical expertise. We tried and failed today to source a new battery for my Grinnall today, so some starts, particularly in the mornings, will be pushes, but we’re confident that if we can survive two days on the road, and get to our Austrian hotel, we can get a battery somewhere within reach of that.

Dull it isn’t, though the weather might be, sadly.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 677 other followers